Star Trek Vocals

image In June 2004, I blogged about a company I’d visited in California, Vocera.  It was early days for them back then but I gather they’ve now shipped over 100,000 units.  I pitched the idea of using them to a few places – I was very impressed by the product – figuring that UK hospitals would seem them in action and reach for their checkbooks.  It wasn’t so and I haven’t seen them in the UK – although their website notes that a hospital in Belfast is using them.

Today, loitering by the wine bar at Whole Foods Market, I saw that many of the staff there have a Vocera “badge” dangling round their neck.  I talked to one of the guys about it.  He told me that they loved them – they could call anyone with a single button push and voice recognition, find the nearest, say, “wine expert” that could help them or check the location of a fellow member of staff.   You see this stuff working and you think “wow!”

It’s a lot like when I first saw the staff in Wagamama using ipaqs with wireless cards to take orders – the right order straight to the kitchen and delivered back to you a few minutes later. No bits of paper, no scribbles on notebooks, no misunderstandings.

Having spent a little too much time in hospitals recently, I see a big hole waiting to be filled by wireless technology.  I even wonder if police radios could take advantage of the same technology – with private wireless networks put in tube stations so that they could maintain contact and still locate each other, avoiding the need for complicated proprietary technology that is incompatible between forces and doesn’t work underground.  If they needed to set up an operations centre, they could just put a wireless node in the middle of where they were and get working.  When WiMax shows up properly, it will be even easier to cover a wider area.

For now, if you want to talk to Vocera about their stuff, you’ll need to get in touch with BT or IBM.

So which do you suffer from …

iphoria or iphobia?

The web is resounding with talk on the iphone:

Walt Mossberg: “a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer”

Newsweek: “a significant leap � a superbly engineered, cleverly designed and imaginatively implemented approach”

USA Today: “a prodigy � a slender fashion phone, a slick iPod and an Internet experience unlike any before it”

New York Times: “the most sophisticated, outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years”

So that’s 4 iphoriacs and no iphobians

But, rely on engadget for a more balanced view.  Some of the things that you can’t do with the iphone are really quite stunning:

image – No MMS (so no sending photos by text? good job the camera is pretty average)

– No video recording (huh?)

– No voice dialing (Voice dialing isn’t something I’ve ever got excited about though)

  • – Battery life of 300-400 charges before needing to be sent away to be replaced (at a cost!).  I guess this means “full charges”, but I wonder what their life expectation in years based on charging every day or every other day?

– The OS takes 700mb of available memory (make sure you buy the bigger version)

– New wifi networks are announced every time they’re encountered (most people will, I imagine, turn off wifi unless they need it, that’s how I do it on the phone I have now)

– No ringtones from MP3 (wait for the downloadable ringtones you’ll have to pay for)

– No support for Flash (so no youtube?)

– No cut/copy/paste of text (maybe the multi-touch movement for “cut” looked too odd?)

And … no stereo bluetooth … so you’ll have to stick to the white wire headphones (maybe they should have used a different colour for the phone so that people would know it was an iphone and not just an ipod?)

Still want one? Of course you do. They’re going to sell millions and millions purely on the back of those pullout quotes above. I know I still want one. But I think it’s safe to short the stock …

British Scheduling

Only we Brits could ensure that the Wimbledon finals, the British Grand Prix, Live Earth, Henley Regatta, the 3rd one day cricket match with the West Indies and the start of the Tour de France all take place on the same weekend, 7th/8th July 2007.

Alternatively, this could be the biggest test of UK logistics ever seen, getting us into practice for the 2012 Olympics.  With 200,000 expected to go to Silverstone, 70,000 to Live Earth, a million or more lining the streets of London for the TdF and then a few thousand more at Henley, Wimbledon and so on, you couldn’t ask for a better test.  It’s putting an awful lot of eggs in a basket with 5 years to go; but, if you’re going to do that, then what better date to pick than the 2nd anniversary of the bombings.  London proves, as always, that it can rebound.

I hope it’s a sunny weekend.

Things To Think About – Five Years On – For Suppliers

On July 3rd, 2002 I gave a presentation to a team from BT StepChange – a unit that was created to work on e-government (and, presumably, to make a large change, upwards I imagine).   Their web address, found through google at, shows only a 404 error so maybe they’re done gone with their changes.

I’d already worked with a lot of suppliers, inside and outside of government, by then and was more than a little jaded.  Every time there was a new project, a bid team would pitch up staffed with some of the brightest people you’d ever met, they’d have references galore for all the great work that they’d done.  You’d poke around and find that the team in front of you had:

(a) never worked together before

(b) hadn’t actually worked with the clients that were referenced and, when you took up the references informally, things weren’t as great as they’d been painted

(c) wouldn’t actually be available for all of the work after the bid, if they won because, of course, they’d have to go on to the next bid.

Maybe I was naive in thinking that such things would and could change.

BT had worked with OeE on the ukonline project which had resulted in UK government’s second consolidated web portal (the first was which, whilst loved by many, was despised by just as many – those who loved it were, inevitably, much louder than those who didn’t).

If I remember correctly, BT were also running the Small Business Service’s or were perhaps still pitching for it during an open procurement.

My jaded self wanted to deliver a few messages about the potential for e-government in the UK and how we shouldn’t mess it up …

BT Stepchange slides - 03.07.2002 - 4 things to do for a supplier 

Some other frustrations were espoused in a slide with these two bullets:

1.The number of technology solutions implemented by departments for identical problems quadruples every 12 months

2.80% of the money on e-government solutions to date was spent on things that the customer never sees

I wanted suppliers to step up, to make step changes perhaps, by bringing new partners to the table who could work together to exploit new technologies and new routes to market – to counter the traditional big supplier tries to do it all and moves like a constipated dinosaur.

I also wanted suppliers to recognise that there was no need to keep building things that had already been built.  Indeed, only today, I read how another department is creating yet another internal staff directory for the intranet.  That will be about the 800th, maybe the 1000th, possibly the 95,000th (globally) that has been created so far.  They’re available on the web for $99 and under.  Buy one get one free.

Of course, the jadedness also arose from the fact that all was not well in the world of government IT as it hadn’t been for some time – and suppliers were definitely part of the problem (but, of course, not all of it). Some press snippings I collected at the same time (April/May/June 2002):

BT Stepchange slides - 03.07.2002 - slide 1

A full five years on, I’m not sure that the headlines are any better.  There are exceptions, but if you look at the slide above, you’d be hard pressed to say that any of them were completely false – although I’d say that Self Assessment has long since gone out of the headlines, except for reporting once a year how many million tax forms were processes.   That said, I do think much progress has been made:

– Government routinely insists on a “key personnel” schedule in the final contract.  Those who were on the bid team are often held accountable through this contractual device (it doesn’t stop them leaving the company of course).  It’s a toss up, of course, whether all of those people are the right people to deliver, but it’s better to have a team start on day one than have an empty organisation chart to fill.  Suppliers often have to hedge their bets on whether they will win the bid (or any others) and will fill several bids with the same people – their winning more than one bid in the space of a couple of months can really hurt your attempts to establish a solid key personnel schedule

– A full implementation plan is usually insisted on before contract signature is reached, with a very detailed plan for the immediate aftermath of signature (at least giving the delivery team the chance to hit the ground running)

– Detailed risks and issues with the plan are asked for, usually with cost consequences and owners against each so that the government department can figure out (a) how good the supplier is at thinking about alternative scenarios and (b) can see if there’s sufficient contingency in the appropriate budget. That doesn’t mean that the list is comprehensive or that anyone does anything about them, but before contract signature is a better time to find out what the risks are than afterwards

– Default contracts include templated liabilities, liquidated damages, parent company guarantee and other clauses that help ensure that the risk is borne in the right place.

The Ten Commandments

1 … Thou shalt not carve thy departmental name in stone

IMAG0002 (WinCE)

Naturally, I don’t profess to have any knowledge of “machinery of government” changes that the new Prime Minister might or might not make this week

Touching Phone

htc-touch This week I’ve been playing with the HTC Touch phone, retiring (perhaps temporarily my Samsung SGH-i600).  The Touch, as it’s name might suggest, is a lot like an iphone, but one that runs Windows Mobile 6.  After a few minutes use it’s clear that it is, in fact, nothing like an iphone but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good phone.  I’ve lamented how poor recent phone releases have been and how they lack important, nay essential features resulting in much frustration.

First thoughts on holding the Touch relate to its slimness and the good size of the screen, despite the device being very small.  There are 4 buttons in total (answer call, hang up call, power on/off and a volume rocker – that also allows you to switch it to silent/vibrate).  The power button wakes it from sleep and shows you the home screen – the famous one with the weather icons (showing 16C and rainy in London, which would have been pretty accurate for nearly all of May and most of June).  The proper “touch” interface comes alive if you sweep your finger from bottom to top and then from left to right (or vice versa).  It’s nice, but not great.  You get access to your most frequent contacts and most frequent functions (mail, text, tasks etc) and then music/photo/videos.

I searched far and wide on the web before I got hold of the phone to see how it handled text/SMS entry.  There are 101 video demos of the touch screen interface but none of day to day text entry.  It turns out that the standard Windows interface is used – you can stab at a tiny onscreen keyboard using a tiny stylus  (that brings back terrible memories of the iPaq), poke at the screen to make scribbles (in palmOS or Sony 800 style) or use that strange Transcriber tool (which actually works pretty well but is slow; and, for it to be effective, you have to write pretty much a whole sentence and then let it transcribe that).  I tried downloading a couple of “softkeyboards to use instead – hoping to find something that would work with two thumbs, blackberry style.  There are a few that attempt this, but none are much good.  One even lets you rotate the screen to landscape with a full keyboard (unlike the iphone), but even that isn’t much help.  Without tangible feedback and the ability to locate your fingers over keys with raised ridges, it just doesn’t feel right and any speed increase is quickly cancelled out by increased mistakes.

I also downloaded a threaded text application, Textr, on trial for the next 3 weeks.  It looks to work the same way as the Treo’s but seems much, much slower, despite an apparently zippy processor in the Touch.  That might go the way of the dodo in 3 weeks if I can’t find a way to make it go quicker.  I’m intrigued why Palm’s threaded text application seems to perform so much faster than those written by 3rd parties.  Someone even hacked the one off the Treo 750 and made it available for other Windows phones, but that looks to have been squashed now.

Overall though, there’s much to like about the Touch.  Windows Mobile on a full screen with touch input is better than WM on a smaller screen with no touch.  Battery life is good – 3 days standby seems reasonable, with maybe a day and half if you make a couple of hours calls a day.  It’s slim and elegant and does all the things you need it to do.  It suffers, in fact, few of the flaws that I’ve ranted about recently – and it even charges (and uses headphones) via a mini-USB.  It’s not, however, a 3g phone so web browsing is average, but there is WiFi if you really need to browse.  The Vodafone Business Email client doesn’t work on WM6 so there’s no using that yet.

So wither the iphone?  This phone is a good glance at what the iphone will be like when it launches in a few days.  And my instincts say that it’s not going to be what everyone wants it to be.  Much as I want one, mostly for the “best ipod ever” functionality (and the sooner Apple release an ipod without the phone, the better), it doesn’t look like I’ll be rushing to get one, preferring to wait until the end of the year when they come here in native UK version.  I’m hoping that by then, Apple will have implemented a landscape keyboard with wider spaced keys to help improve text entry.  In the meantime, I’m thinking that the best way of paying for one may well be to short the stock on the day the iphone comes out – there’s no way that the hype can be justified on release and once “normal” people have them in their hands and see that whilst the ads weren’t dishonest, they weren’t quite telling the truth about, say, browsing speeds or ease of searching for contacts, we’ll see a bit of a backlash that should whack the stock for a short while.  Until Apple updates the software and fixes the things that people don’t like and then drops Leopard into the sales channel, sometime in October.

e-Government Do Lists and Lessons Learned

I found out earlier today that Powerpoint is 20.  Microsoft’s version of it is a year younger, as they bought the developer in 1988.  Over the 7 years that I’ve worked in, around and for government, I’ve done a few hundred presentations, often on e-government, sometimes on project delivery and occasionally on other topics such as cultural change, organisational blockers and such like.  I thought I’d start digging into some of those to see what I said and whether it’s still relevant.

From late 2001, I ended most of my slide decks either with a “do list” or with a “lessons learned” – the former was for UK government presentations, the latter often either for supplier presentations or for foreign governments (I reckon we averaged 2 visits a month to our offices during the time of the Office of the e-Envoy).

The first do list I put up, at the “electronic government” conference was on 21st November 2001:

Electronic Government 21.11.2001 - first time list of 9 things to do

Fittingly perhaps, it started with an admonition to narrow down existing do lists – I could already see people building complex sets of inter-related actions to deliver their own visions of e-government.  Experience inside and outside of government taught me that we needed some of the basics first:  XML schema definitions (I’d already worked, very indirectly, on Self Assessment and PAYE whilst at the Inland Revenue who I think were ahead of the game in seizing the XML opportunity), authentication standards (T-scheme was already looking like the wrong horse to back I think), and shared infrastructure (there was no way to implemented joined up online government if everyone had their own systems).

Perhaps the big topic was the buyer/provider point – a re-wording of JY’s wholesale/retail model.  Departments needed to understand who they were retailing to and who they were wholesaling to and establish different strategies for each.  I think this point is still outstanding in much of what has been done in global e-government.  Too much is assumed to be essentially retail (i.e. provided at all stages of the process by government) and too little is wholesale (i.e mass market input mechanisms offered to 3rd parties who can wrap their own products and services around them).

I have dozens more of these and they make for cheap blogs, so expect a few more to surface over the coming weeks.  I’m also using a new blog tool that I’ve found easier than the standard web pages.  It’s Microsoft’s own Windows Live Writer. I stumbled across it quite by accident yesterday. It’s easy to set up, provided you understand your domain name web hierarchy and passwords (I had to look them up of course) and, so far at least, works quickly and effectively.