Systems

Welcome, iPod Touch

iPod TouchLast week I added a new iPod to the family - the iPod Touch. This is not just an iPod in the sense of music, but an iPod in the sense of a truly portable network device with a sexy interface to boot. The iPod is no longer the music player that it was when it was originally released, with music now just playing a much smaller part of the product.

When planning my purchase I was torn between the iPod Touch and the iPhone, the only differentiating factors being the camera and the phone capabilities (and therefore its ubiquitous data connection). At basically the same initial price for both, it didn't make sense for me to go for a mobile phone with an 18 month contract that had a below par camera when I could also go for a free Nokia N95 and its embedded 5 megapixel camera while paying around the same amount of money on a contract. Thanks to my employer I already had a chance to try out Nokia's internet enabled camera and loved its quality and ability to post photos directly to the internet and am looking forward to being able to do that again in the near future.

There's quite a bit of overlap between the iPod Touch and the N95, but the Touch has an interface that's just so much nicer to use than the N95, for mail and web browsing especially. Talking of overlap, at eight gigabytes the device isn't big enough to hold my entire iTunes collection, so I don't think I'll be ditching my 80 gigabyte iPod Classic any time soon.

Despite being very pleased overall with the Touch, there are a few things that I'd really love to see added to the device:

  • Media streaming from other iTunes libraries on the network
  • Wireless syncing with host computer
  • Jabber chat client
  • Video plugins for Safari to allow viewing of RealPlayer content (e.g. from the BBC)
  • Email search in the Mail app (server-side)

Without a cellular data connection, the wifi on the device is very important for those times you want to access the internet when out and about. There are a number of UK companies and organisations starting to provide free wifi in their premises (e.g. Wetherspoons pubs, McDonalds, local libraries and other places) and in public spaces which is great, and the Cloud has dropped their monthly fees for iPod Touch owners to a price that mirrors what you'd pay for a single hour at most wireless hotspots.

It's also amazing how many other venues have wifi available in them thanks to some unknown third party provider. This is a grey area when it comes to the law though, with wifi theft already being punished under the Communications Act 2003 in a number of cases. I say it's a grey area because there is often no easy way of telling if an open wifi hotspot has been intentionally provided free of charge either by a venue or by someone else actively sharing their connection for passers-by.

The simplicity of installing software on Linux

I love the simplicity of installing open source software on a Linux box.

I had barely touched Linux (or a *nix command line) before I started in my current job, ignoring a few months with a little use of the Terminal on my iBook. Since being here though, I have picked up quite a bit as I've gone along. It took a little while to get used to at first, but it's sort of a second nature now - when it comes to some things, at least - to move over to the command line and do what I need to do there. It's very handy when developing software and working with revision control systems just to be able to do what you want by typing a few commands instead of doing it with the mouse through the graphical interface.

Installing new software is a breeze on Kubuntu (as it is on other Linux distributions) - simply type sudo apt-get install [name of software] and it'll do all the work for you. No need to go to a website, download it, unzip it and double click to install.

I needed to start drawing a diagram, so I asked my colleagues for a recommendation. They suggested Dia, so I went off and installed it and had the first cut of the diagram ready to go within half an hour.

London Oyster card craziness

I had been meaning to blog about this a month ago but never did, though a post by Jo Walsh has just reminded me about it.

Jo writes about being frustrated by the transport system in London and especially the changes introduced by the Oyster card - the touch in-touch out replacement for paper tickets.

I don't mind the Oyster so much: it does add a certain level of convenience, and the prices go up less quickly than the non-Oyster equivalents. It does have it's problems though and Jo summarises some of the major ones, mostly social, but below is one of the first-hand negative experiences I've had with the technological side of the system (I'll ignore times in the past when I've tried to get onto a bus, lacked credit, jumped off, topped up the card, chased alongside the bus to the next stop and then got on that same bus, noticing the Cheshire-cat grin on the driver's face) added as a comment to Jo's post:

Last time I was travelling through London, just before Christmas in the midst of the fog chaos, I managed to leave my jacket in the loos at Heathrow. Realising I'd forgotten something, I got off the tube at Hatton Cross and jumped back onto the next train going back to Heathrow. Leaving the gates, I spotted a 0.20 on the display and thought, that's a good deal for a short journey! Luckily I found my jacket again, and went back to the tube.

This time, the gates wouldn't let me through, giving me only a cryptic number for the reason. The guy at the open barrier wasn't much more helpful, especially after I told him I knew I had almost 8 quid on there. He told me I had no credit and I should see the guy at the ticket desk.

At the ticket desk I was told the same thing, that I didn't have any money on there. I kicked up a fuss, knowing that I had money on there, and thinking that the last journey had cost me 20p. I explained the situation about 5 times, and he seemed confused. There was no record of me going into the system (I'd touched in, and the gate had opened), but then I'd come out, back to where I'd started. To them, after I'd told them what had happened, that was me going in without touching in, going one stop down the line, starting another journey without first touching out and then in again, and touching out for the first time. (Although why I got charged a double fine automatically, without them knowing that I'd touched in at the same place, I have no idea).

I didn't leave the desk until he'd re-credited the fine (minus a fee for a single journey, if necessary). Thankfully, he did just that. I was very grateful because he didn't have to, but as someone who was f*cked over by the system, I would have been very angry if I wasn't reimbursed.

The London Underground guy told me that the Oyster cards had caused more trouble for the staff behind the desks than the perceived benefits, and wished they were never introduced.

As you say, the queues may be shorter, but they take longer because the queries are hellishly complex.

Why do systems not talk to each other?

In the world of networks you can barely move without being subjected to a computer network in one form or another. They're everywhere and affect all parts of our lives, so why do we trust them implicitly when they can't even talk to each other?

Traveling back to the Isle of Man today for an Easter break, I came across this problem of systems not communicating with each other. Because two systems weren't talking to one another it created confusion amongst passengers. The passenger information display system at Luton airport was showing my flight in a slot ten minutes earlier than the scheduled one and with a different airline code. After checking the screen and not seeing my flight I instantly checked my ticket to see if I'd arrived on the right day.

After a little checking I noticed the flight and headed to the check-in desk which had the same, different, details. They gave me a boarding card with the original details and pointed me to the boarding gate which showed the wrong ones. The tannoy announcements came out with the original details.

Which am I meant to believe? What if there had been a major difference? Why was there a difference in the first place?

Admittedly this seems to have been a bit of a rant about Luton airport but how often do you come across systems which could communicate more effectively with each other than they currently do? How much could those improvements improve customer satisfaction? The simple answer is 'often', and 'very much' respectively.

Transport for London recently improved their experience for travellers in London by capping the amount one person spends daily on their public transport usage as long as they use their Oyster card. By collating all of the data collected across their vast network of entry gates and other card readers they work out how much each user has spent. This stage they have to do anyway to enable a centralised charging system, but they have gone a step further and introduced the cost-savings benefit to the system as well.

I suppose at any one time the ticket machine you are using may not know what has happened earlier in the day - especially in the case of busses, where there is no physical link to the rest of the network - but by the end of the day the central system will know what transactions have been made on each card and apply the benefits after that. As long as money isn't debited from the card instantly (or there is flexibility in the process) the user knows that they can travel as frequently as they like across London's transport network within one day whilst holding just enough credit for a day travelcard.

Mental note to self: post things earlier in the day so my brain isn't only half awake and not fully able to explain things!

Subscribe to RSS - Systems