Dropping the Tech Giants

There was a nice simple interactive article published in the New York Times last week titled Which Tech Giant Would You Drop? It links to a much more in depth piece on how our lives are increasingly dominated by five tech giants – Alphabet (Google), Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.

It then poses one simple question – if you were forced to, in what order would you give up these companies?

Here is my answer:

  1. Facebook – This is simple because I’ve already done it. I’ve never used Instagram, didn’t find Whatsapp useful and deleted my Facebook account earlier this year. I don’t miss it at all.
  2. Amazon – Although this global market place is convenient, it doesn’t offer me anything that I can’t get elsewhere. I wouldn’t miss the shopping side too much and I definitely wouldn’t miss Amazon Video (what they offer is of little interest to me). That said, I would miss my Kindle.
  3. Alphabet/Google – I don’t use as many Google services as I used to, but some are just that much better than their competitors that they are hard to give up. No other mapping service comes close to Google Maps  for accuracy, and although I prefer Vimeo, I find more useful content on YouTube. My default search engine is Duck Duck Go, but  some times I still need to use Google to get more relevant results.
  4. Microsoft – The giant from Redmond would be hard to do without. I continue to use some software that only runs on Windows. I also use Office every single working day, because it is the tool that all of my clients use.
  5. Apple – I’ve used Apple products for more than a decade and although I’ve been less impressed with them more recently than I used to be, their products are so embedded in my work and personal life that they would be incredibly difficult to replace.  Although I could replace all of the Apple products and services I use (and I have considered this), the almost seamless integration between everything is just too useful.  There are also some Mac and iOS apps that have no alternatives of equal quality on other platforms. I’m thinking of apps like Ulysses, Alfred and DevonThink.

This was an interesting exercise that made me realise a few things. Although I’d been on Facebook for nearly ten years, leaving was incredibly easy and I haven’t missed it once. I’ve used services from Amazon and Google pretty much by default, and have only recently taken the time to think about the value that I get from them and the cost of that.

 

I have also been less satisfied with Apple now than I was a few years ago, and I have looked for alternatives. This exercise made me think carefully about how I actually use these products and services and whether I would be better served going elsewhere. I’m now sure that I wouldn’t.

I think we should all be more conscious of the technology that we use, and regularly review our choices.

Micro Learning Tools #cipdldshow

On 11th May, along with my colleague Clive Shepherd I presented on the subject of microlearning at the CIPD L&D Show. One topic of considerable interest was the tools that you could use to create content. Here, as promised to those who attended is a non-definitive list of tools. If you have any tools you’d like to suggest, please add them in the comments.

How-to-videos

Adobe Premiere

Final Cut Pro

Quik

Screencasts

Screencast-o-matic

Snag-it

Camtasia

Adobe Captivate

uPerform

Infographics

PowerPoint

Piktochart

Canva

Visme

Venngage

Adobe Illustrator

Affinity Designer

Scribus

Inkscape

Explainer videos

PowerPoint

Prezi

Powtoon

GoAnimate

VideoScribe

Adobe After Effects

Quizzes and games

Qzzr

H5P

Moodle quizzes

Articulate Quizmaker

Web articles

Any web editor e.g.

WordPress

Drupal

Sharepoint

Sway

Interactive lessons

PowerPoint

H5P

Articulate 360

Adobe Captivate

Elucidat

Welcome back Opera

Back in the early 2000s I used to use the Opera web browser. Then, as now, it was eclipsed by its rivals and never really got the adoption it deserved. I liked it it partly because it was a really good browser, but mostly because it was the underdog competing with the heavyweights at Microsoft and Netscape.

Ultimately I left it for Firefox and since the  have been a regular user of pretty much every browser you’ve heard of – and some you probably haven’t (Midori anyone?).

Happily I’m now back using Opera as my daily browser. Why?

  • It’s based on Blink – the engine that powers Google Chrome – with all the speed and other benefits that brings
  • It supports Chrome plugins
  • It’s not a Google product and doesn’t track me
  • I use Windows, Mac, iOS and Android and Opera gives the best cross platform experience

I can recommend Opera as an alternative to any of the mainstream browsers.

Specialization, Polymaths And The Pareto Principle

Reading this article on Techcrunch I was struck by two things:

Deep expertise is less and less useful

If you consider just two things – the pace at which we increase our understanding of how human beings learn and the pace at which the technological environment around us is changing – its seems obvious that L&D should be a fast moving field.

The reality is usually different, with people who work in L&D investing their time and effort in developing deep expertise in very narrow topics. Often tied to qualifications that are rooted in the past.

As an industry we would surely benefit from us all having a more diverse skill set. To use the terminology from the article, we need more Journeyman than Masters.

It isn’t just the tech industry that needs more polymaths

The most exciting and impactful projects that I work on are those driven by cross disciplinary teams that work together throughout the project.

They work because at least some of the people in those teams have knowledge and skills that crosses multiple domains, not just the one attached to their job title. They play a key role in helping people communicate and share ideas.

Being experts in learning is not enough, nor is just ‘talking the language of business’. We need people with diverse skills that are relevant to the organisations in which they work.

 

On the long slow death of Twitter

I came across this great cartoon in The Guardian over the weekend. It sums up much of what I think about Twitter – except for the final frame.

The cartoon uses the analogy of Twitter being a bar and concludes by wondering if “maybe it’s time to find another bar.” For me, Twitter feels more like that bar you went to at a certain time in your life, but now you have other things to do. You look back at it with good memories, but you don’t need to replace it.

Learning analytics is too important for L&D to own

I’m clearly not the only one to recognise that L&D lacks the skills needed for the kind of learning analytics enabled by advances such as xAPI.

Mark Aberdour has written a very thoughtful post about the challenges we face and makes this suggestion:

Clearly some of these items require close interaction with the L&D team, but in summary there is a real need to bring experienced data scientists into corporate learning and development, not just to set up analytics programmes but to continually monitor, review and refine the results.

via Building a learning analytics platform | Open Thoughts.

I agree that organisations need people who can interpret this data and make it actionable, but I don’t believe they should sit within L&D. If ownership for learning data remains within L&D we risk continuing the current situation where all we do is measure the most basic elements of our performance (inputs and outputs) rather than the impact of learning on workplace performance.

For learning data to have strategic value it needs to be considered at a higher level, in combination with data from other parts of the organisation. To be objective, ownership for this needs to sit outside any department with a vested interest in the results.

Learn xAPI MOOC – Week 1 Reflections

Last week I made a start with the Learn xAPI MOOC, which is being run in Curatr and organised by the tried and trusted team of Ben Betts, Martin Couzins and Sam Burrough. This is the first MOOC that I’ve started which I can actually picture myself completing.

For me, the format is spot on – short, focussed pieces of content delivered by people that really understand the topic (who appear to have a real passion for it) with lots of opportunities to share and interact. They’ve also recognised that not everyone has the same kind of interest in this as a subject and so have separated out the content into two tracks – strategy and technical.

A bit of background

I’ve been aware of the Experience API (xAPI) for a long time, and I understand the basics of what it is intended to do:

The xAPI enables tracking of learning experiences, including traditional records, such as scores or completion. It also stores records of learners’ actions, like reading an article or watching a training video.

That description is sourced from this page on the ADL website and if you want a purely functional description of what xAPI is, it’s a good starting point.

I also understand as much as I currently need and want to about the technical aspects of how it is implemented. What I don’t understand is why we should use it and in what context. I have therefore chosen to go through the strategy track.

Week 1

I’ve come away from the first week with more questions than answers – and that’s great. The MOOC has got me thinking about xAPI in much more detail than before. Here are the things that I’m currently pondering:

  • I get that xAPI allows us to track more things than SCORM, in more ways and with much richer data. What I currently don’t get is why we would track them at all.
  • Is knowing that someone has attended a conference, watched a video or read an article somehow more valuable than knowing that they have completed a piece of elearning?
  • xAPI has the potential to produce a lot of data. Other than storing it in a Learning Record Store (LRS) what do you do with it all? Organisations are generally pretty poor at using the data they have now – will they be able to do a better job with even more of it?
  • For it to have value, data needs to be meaningful and actionable. As far as I can tell the xAPI standard makes no attempt to address this – which makes sense. While it may be possible to standardise the mechanisms for structuring, recording and storing the data, the meaning of that data will be unique.
  • There is much talk about using xAPI to record performance data (which is terrific) – but in that case why is the data kept in a Learning Record Store? That name needs to change if it is to be taken seriously by anyone other than L&D.
  • While I’m thinking about it – I’m not yet sure that an LRS records learning any more than an LMS manages it.
  • Who benefits from the xAPI?
    • I’m pretty sure that so far all of the potential benefits I’ve seen broadly relate to the organisation, L&D or the individual learning designer.
    • I can see that there are benefits to the learner, simply because if the organisation wanted to track activity in a SCORM world, it had to be SCORM content, whereas xAPI seems to be able to track pretty much anything. Whether the learner benefits from that tracking is another question entirely.

I’ve really enjoyed the first week. I certainly know more about xAPI and even if I don’t have the answers yet, I’m getting a better handle on the questions I need to answer.

Goodbye Surface Pro 3

After I’d been using the Surface Pro 3 for two weeks I wrote a brief but positive post about the experience – so am I as positive now that I’ve been using it for two months?

Quite simply, no. Why I feel that way is perhaps less simple.

I do like the Surface Pro 3 as a device, and I really like the hybrid form factor and the pen (I’ve been a Mac user since 2006 and when the iPad was launched I was disappointed that it was an iOS tablet not a Mac one). When Microsoft launched the original Surface it seemed like the ideal form factor, but it was far from perfect and the big problem for me was that it was running Windows.

However, with the Surface Pro 3 Microsoft seemed to have ironed out most of the issues and it was a much more appealing option.

So what’s wrong with it? Well for me there are four things:

1. Windows being Windows

In one of the earlier posts I expressed a concern that the friction of moving from one operating system to another would be a distraction that I was too busy to deal with. In fact that didn’t really happen – although I’m willing to concede that there may have been some confirmation bias going on here.

Unfortunately, that lack of friction didn’t last. Twice in the space of a week I went to switch on the Surface only to be faced with the ‘Windows is applying updates’ screen. The first time it happened it was quite annoying, because (a) I was busy and (b) once the update had finished it then rebooted and started applying further updates.

The second time was very annoying, because I had a client on the phone and I was trying to find some information she needed urgently.

The final straw was a horrible flashback to ten years ago, and my original decision to quit Windows and move to the Mac. Back in 2005 I had been working on a document for most of the day, and when I was done I dragged the file from one folder to another only for it to leave the source folder and never appear in the destination folder. I wasted a further half a day trying to recover it before giving up.

Last week I had the same experience with a disappearing file. This time it wasn’t such a big deal – the file was less important, and it was backed up anyway – but the experience was enough to undermine my trust.

2. The software sucks

If I think about this objectively – was I able to do everything I usually do with the Mac without additional effort? – the answer would be yes, pretty much. Certainly, in the past two months I haven’t come across anything that I couldn’t do.

If I think about it subjectively – was the experience of doing everything as good on the Surface as it is on the Mac? – then the answer is no.

This is less about Windows vs OS X as operating systems and more about the software that is developed for them. Some software, particularly the large software suites, is good on either platform. Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps are pretty much indistinguishable between Mac and Windows, and Microsoft Office (unsurprisingly) is better on Windows than on the Mac.

What’s missing from Windows is the vibrant third party developer community and the really great apps they produce. I found myself missing the kind of really great apps that Mac developers produce.

For example, if you consider Sketch, Omnifocus, Ulysses and Alfred then sure you can find apps on Windows that do the same job but the user experience just isn’t as good.

3. The general niggles

Although I have said I like the device and that it improves on previous versions, it still isn’t perfect. There were some things that I forgave at first, but which really niggled me after a while.

One of the device’s best features is a beautiful high definition screen. Unfortunately it’s marred by the number of apps that haven’t been optimised for higher resolutions and which look fuzzy. Although Apple devices suffered similar problems when they first introduced retina displays, I can’t remember the last time I saw an app that hadn’t been suitably optimised.

A related problem is the inability of the Surface to handle multiple resolutions. I have a MacBook Pro with a retina screen, and if I plug it into an external monitor it has no problem using a different resolution on each screen. On the Surface you can only have one resolution at a time, so either the external monitor or the Surface’s own screen will run at a less than optimal resolution.

Even when you are using one screen, the experience still isn’t great. If I plug the Surface into my external display (which isn’t high definition) it will recognise this and scale icons, text and other screen elements accordingly. The trouble is that if I then unplug it from the external display and just use the built in screen the Surface doesn’t adjust the scaling, leaving some elements too small to use and others large and odd looking. The only solution is to sign out of Windows and back in again.

If you only occasionally swap from docked to an external display to using the internal screen, you may not find this annoying – but then why are you using a hybrid device? I chose a hybrid device because in theory it could replace the MacBook/iPad combination that I had previously been using. Which leads me to…

4. The form factor doesn’t work (for me)

For a long time I was sure that this hybrid form factor was what I needed, but in practice it didn’t work so well for me.

Way back at the end of 2011, Jon Gruber suggested that the key distinction between Microsoft and Apple with regard to UI was that Apple had embraced compromise, whereas Microsoft were clear that there should be no compromise – your desktop and tablet operating systems should be one and the same.

That idea of a universal operating system (which Microsoft are pursuing even more strongly with Windows 10) still appeals to me. I just think it’s incredibly difficult to do well, not least because you need to engage your developer community to produce apps that work well in all formats.

Conclusion

Over the past few weeks a few people have asked me if they should buy one. With the caveat that perhaps they should wait until the Surface Pro 4 is announced, my answer has been yes.

Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think it is a great device in the right circumstances. If you are a Windows user and happy to remain one, it’s a good choice of device.

I think it could work well as the sole device in a non-techie household, where it would be as at home in tablet mode on the sofa as it would in laptop mode when needed. I think it’s those situations where you only want one device and you’re only occasionally swapping between those modes where the hybrid format can work well. Where you are regularly shifting from one to the other it works less well.

For me, it just doesn’t work well enough and I’m back to my MacBook Pro and iPad combination. Although carrying two devices is in itself a compromise, it’s one that gives me the best laptop experience and the best tablet experience.

Surface Pro 3 – For Keeps?

Following on from my earlier post, the 14 day return window is nearly up and my decision is made – the Surface Pro 3 is definitely not going back. When I placed the order I figured that there was a 50/50 chance that I’d return it. That wasn’t because I had concerns about the quality and capabilities of the device itself, but more that after nine years of using Macs there would just be too much friction trying to use an unfamiliar operating system – and I’m too busy for those kinds of distractions. But that didn’t happen.

On the evening of the day it arrived I installed the key apps that I needed, signed in to Office (I have an Office 365 account) and left it overnight to sync Dropbox, OneDrive and Evernote – I have a lot of data and a slow broadband connection.

The next morning I started using it, expecting that within hours I would be so frustrated that I would reach for my familiar and trusty MacBook Pro. It didn’t happen that day, or the next, or any day since. In fact, after spending a week sat on my desk unused, the Mac is now shut away in a cupboard.

The purpose of this two-week experiment was to see not just if I could use the Surface Pro to replace the MacBook/iPad Air combo that I’ve been using, but if I would actually want to. The answer to both is a resounding yes!

The Surface Has Landed

I’ve been interested in the Microsoft Surface since it was first introduced, but the first and second versions didn’t quite seem good enough. When the Surface Pro 3 was launched last year it looked like the device had matured into something really nice. However, as a long time Mac user I’m heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem and at the time had doubts about whether it was the right device for me.

Fast forward to now and I decided that the only way to find out was to try it for myself. After trying one out in store, getting some advice online (thanks @craigtaylor74 and @davefoord) and helped by the fact there was a sale on I ordered a Surface Pro 3 i5 with 256gb of drive space and 8gb RAM.

I bought it from the Microsoft Store because that way I’m covered by a 14 day no questions asked return option if I don’t like it. It actually arrived at the end of last week, and I’ve given myself until this coming Friday to decide if it’s staying or going back. Either way, I’ll be posting the decision here.