January 2010

Cindy's CatsAnyone who knows me, knows that I adore two things above all:  nonprofit technology and my seven cats.  What you may not know about me is…

“Everything I Need to Know about Nonprofit Technology Management I Learned from My Cats”

  1. Sometimes unexpected things happen, nobody knows why, and nobody claims responsibility.
  2. Flexibility is one of the best traits to have.
  3. Clawing your vendors’ or staff’s eyes out will get you nowhere.
  4. When it’s working well, you won’t notice it’s there.
  5. Servers purr when they are happy.
  6. Regular check-ups can help you avoid larger bills later on.
  7. If the room is too hot, things may flop over on their side and refuse to budge.
  8. Getting it wet is disastrous and you will pay dearly for doing so.
  9. When it makes a loud or weird noise, you should pay attention.
  10. A little bit of care and feeding go a long way.

With all of the hubbub about the Apple iPad, my gut reaction hangs on an “and yet”.  Tablet PCs have never taken off before and may not now, and yet conditions may finally be right.

3 Reasons why the iPad will Fail

Tablets have been coming for so long.  Hearing all the hype about the iPad reminds me of this Microsoft Office ad that aired during the 2004 Super Bowl.

I remember scoffing six years ago not at the (kind of fun) end zone celebration in the office but at the fact that the guy is spinning a tablet.  They seemed not ready for prime time then in 2004, and they have not spread since then.   This may be a lame reason to cite for what’s supposed to be a game-changing technology, but I will posit that the iPad will fail because all prior tablets have failed.

Part of the tablet’s p.r. problem is that people have been touting it for so long.  Famous people.  Bill Gates publicly went gaga over tablets in 2001.  Sales figures are hard to come by, but the highest percentage I’ve seen place tablets at around 2% of the PC market.  Apparently, most of the adoption has been in task-specific places like the healthcare industry.

Keyboards are good input devices.  There is actually something useful about having a physical keyboard to type on.  It frees the user to look at what the typed output (not the keys).  Muscle memory increases speed, and the sense of touch confirms accuracy.  It seems ironic to me that one challenge for tablet PCs has been teaching computers to respond to human touch.  The question remains whether humans can learn to touch a computer as quickly and accurately as they can a keyboard.

A touch computing device that actually took off was the PDA.  Did you ever see someone whip out one of those folding PDA keyboards?  Kind of ridiculous, right?  It’s three times the size of a device whose name starts with the word “portable”.  And yet, the market for them sprang up because stylus input felt clunky and required one to learn a new language (quick, what was the stylus stroke for “k” in graffiti?).

When PDAs evolved into smartphones, what feature did they get?  Keyboards.  Little thumb keyboards that make one’s fingers feel enormous at first, and yet, it’s a raised, hard key keyboard.

The Size/Performance/Flexibility/Price ratios are off.  The iPhone and iPod Touch and the Droid phones succeed because they’re pocket devices; they can go with us anywhere without a second thought.  A tablet is big enough to require a bag of some sort (or perhaps the mainstreaming of map pockets in jackets) and yet most prior tablets have been less powerful than a desktop or laptop available at the same time.  Finally, they’ve carried a price premium.  If new tablets can’t tout a bargain proposition, they won’t make it.

4 Reasons why the iPad will Succeed

Content ubiquity. Maybe Gates made his famous prediction about tablets taking over because he foresaw the expansion of wireless capability coming in the aughts.  Maybe the iPad will succeed because, as smaller devices have shown, when we can get access to data anywhere, we will.  The culture has adjusted to this availability, and now we want access everywhere.  If a user doesn’t have to plan ahead in order to have a book/movie/sound clip on the device in order to enjoy it wherever he is, he’s more likely to use the tablet.

Touch computing has finally matured.  When I watch my 3-year-old take his grandmother’s iPhone and navigate to his favorite game, I must say that the touch interface has the intuitive, second-nature feel that wide adoption requires.  It’s taken a while to get from touch screen kiosks in public places to no-second-thought touchscreens in our pockets, but that moment has arrived.

The iPad aims at infotainment, not work. We have not seen tablets in offices, being spun in end zone celebrations, or being used for work.  We may, however, see them in living rooms, being used for play and in place of print media and as a sometime replacement for television and video.  If success does not mean office workstation replacement, well then the iPad might succeed after all.

Apple’s on a long roll.  Apple hasn’t made many mistakes since the introduction of the iMac.  While Microsoft has bumbled and its PC industry partners have merged and had their warts, Apple has been doing things right.  Presumably, they’ve done their homework on this one and see an actual market for this device now.

Predictions in this realm have proved perilous.  That may be why I’ve hedged with both pro-con predictions.  For now, I’m hiding and watching.

Blog posts that get meta about blogging can be a little yucky, but I hope you’ll allow me to get a little meta.  Having worked with databases for years I have come to appreciate the ability to label people or items more than one way in a database.  Multiple labeling helps me find these items later and know several things about them at a glance.  When blogging and other media sprouted up on the web with a tagging feature, I was intrigued.  It’s especially helpful to watch multiple people contribute to a set of tags and see how different people label the same thing.

Imagine my surprise then, when I came across this paragraph in the (otherwise unreadable) foreword of Roger Schank’s (quite readable) 1990 book, Tell Me a Story; Narrative and Intelligence:

[W]hy do some people resemble an old grandfather who can only tell the same few stories over and over again?  By contrast, why do other people seem to respond with a truly pertinent case?….[W]hat enables such people to respond intelligently? The answer…is that they have previously mulled over their experiences and labeled them in multiple interesting ways.  From a sequence of experiences they have constructed a narrative; they have reflected on this narrative and found a number of ways in which it is significant; and in so doing, their memory has attached several labels to the story, which allow them to recall the story when another narrative suggests similar labels.  Once the earlier story is recalled, these people can reflect on pertinent comparisons with the current situations.  Present wisdom depends on earlier indexing. (emphasis added) (pp. xv-xvi)

In 1990, Schank described the human intelligence that computers try to mimic through systems like tagging and search.  We’re built to index things, and we’re smarter when we do it and when we then employ those indexes.

The next time you’re writing a blog post and want to skip the tags, don’t do it.  Think about what’s relevant or how you’ll want readers to find the information in your post and hit that tag feature.  Be a friend to the hive’s intelligence.  Present wisdom depends on earlier indexing.

My public policy school pr0fessor used to say “bad data is better than no data”.  Of course, I love data, and I have access to data I love through the Bayer Center’s biannual Nonprofit Technology Survey.

But our most recent survey was in the summer of 2008.  So, while waiting for the next round, I am left observing the trends we follow in the survey through anecdotal analysis.  Lately, I’ve been watching the adoption of Microsoft Office 2007.  The uptake in Pittsburgh area nonprofits still looks slow even now.

When the Bayer Center offered a class called Settling in with Office 2007 in August 2008, I thought we’d maybe missed the boat.  I thought organizations would have already adopted 2007 and wouldn’t need our help finding their way around in it.  The class actually nearly sold out.  Then, that summer, our survey data indicated that only 19% of organizations in the region used Office 2007 exclusively.  There were some organizations that ran a few machines with 2007 while many still had XP or 2003.  The largest plurality of survey respondents (36%), however, used only Office 2003 at that point.

Since August 2008, we’ve offered “Settling In” three more times and  canceled it three times.  We’ve done custom training on it with a few organizations, but the catalog classes have not made.

When I look around now, I see that many organizations have still not adopted Office 2007, or have not switched over completely.  The last custom training I did was Excel 2003, and a staffer at that organization was impressed with the “new” features in 2003 because her machine actually has Office 97 on it.  97!

Why are we seeing so little 2007 in 2010?

My first theory is that 2007 adoption has been held back by the fact that it was released around the same time as Windows Vista.  Oh, and right when the economy tanked.  Between decision-makers not wanting to deal with the headaches of enterprise-wide Vista implementation and spending constraints ushered into the already-thrifty nonprofit sector, the pace of hardware upgrades and replacement has slowed.  With slow hardware replacement, inertia keeps workstations in 2003.

My second theory derives from Microsoft’s brilliant decision to break Microsoft Access for 2007.  Sometimes, I imagine internal strategy meetings as MS going this way “OK, Dinesh and Sandy have gone through the list of features that worked really well in the previous version.  If we’re going to make users hate the new version, it’s going to take the whole team to focus on making sure those features don’t work.  Roger has a plan for us…”  If organization have their central database in Access 2003 and they’ve tested 2007, they’ve likely put their heads in their hands and waited out this upgrade.

Any other theories?  Or is my anecdotal data incorrect?