Archive for October 7, 2011

Zurb’s Axe: A Tablet-Friendly Way To Mark Up (And Scribble On) Your Web Design


Interaction design firm Zurb has just launched a new tool that makes it easy to use your iPad to mark up and add comments about a website’s design. It’s called Axe (the domain is, and no, it has nothing to do with men’s body spray. Note that you can’t use it from your computer, so you’ll have to pull out an iPad to check it out.

The app is pretty straightforward: once you access it from your tablet, you’ll be prompted to enter the URL of the site you’d like to mark up (so, say, The app will then grab an image of the site, which you can immediately start scribbling on (to get rid of the stuff you don’t like) and circling (to highlight the things you do). You can also append text boxes to explain what exactly your scribbles mean. And if you get a little overzealous with your scribbling, you can shake the iPad to erase it.

Zurb marketing lead Dmitry Dragilev says that the service is optimized for the iPad but that it should work on Android tablets as well (albeit more slowly). And it’s free. There is one thing I’d like to see it add, though: at this point Axe is targeted mainly at people who design (or own) websites and are exchanging ideas; I’d like to see an option to let sites embed a consumer-facing button that lets users submit suggestions as well.

In fact, this is only the latest in a suite of free tools that Zurb has released over the years — we’ve previously written about apps like Reel (which lets you get instant feedback on presentations), and Clue, which lets you give users a sort of memory test on what they remember after viewing your site.

Another one of their free tools is Bounce, which is similar to Axe, but is optimized for your PC browser as opposed to the tablet.

Dragilev explains that Zurb sees these tools as a way to raise awareness for their consulting services. They also have a handful of premium tools, like Zurb Verify.

Turning The iPhone Into A 350x Medical Microscope For Under $50


Using the iPhone (or any mobile smartphone or tablet device, really) for medical purposes isn’t a new thing, but it’s nice to see the applications people cook up. Just recently at Disrupt we saw Smartheart, and apps like Skin Scan are decentralizing some simple self-monitoring tasks like melanoma detection.

We’ve also seen lots of physical additions to the iPhone camera. You can get wide-angle lenses, telephotos, and even a 12x microscope lens. But a team of researchers at UC Davis has one-upped the competition by making the iPhone into a 350x microscope for very low cost. Now you’ll be able to send people Instagrams of your blood cells.

It should be said right off the bat that this isn’t something that only the iPhone can do. But it’s the go-to device for proof of concept stuff like this for obvious reasons.

The project is actually quite a simple little hack. They use a 1mm ball lens and attach it to the outside of the iPhone lens array with a rubber sheet and some tape. The little lens technically only offers 5x magnification, but the way it focuses creates a tiny in-focus area that can resolve details down to about 1.5 microns. The field of view is very small and there’s distortion to deal with, but by combining the in-focus areas of several pictures you can get a clear enough image to identify cell types, make counts, or even take spectroscopic readings.

Take a look at these images: the ones on the top were taken with a full-on commercial medical microscope, the ones on the bottom are from the iPhone setup:

There’s obviously a major difference in quality, but the difference in price is even greater, and high-quality microscopes aren’t very mobile.

Essentially it’s one more step towards a tricorder. With a general-purpose CPU, modular inputs, and a versatile imaging unit, the smartphone is useful for far more than calling friends and playing Angry Birds. It may not be a mobile clinic, but in areas where money and electricity are hard to come by, an iPhone could be a valuable diagnostic tool. Extending the “senses” of our devices via cheap components and elbow grease could seriously empower decentralized medical care.

You can read the whole paper here. The study was funded by the NSF.

Is more real-time information a dream or a nightmare?

Thanks to smartphones and wireless networking and SMS and Twitter, we are all swimming in an ocean of real-time information — an ocean that can often seem overwhelming. Are new technologies going to help, or are they going to increase the problem? A presentation at the recent Society for News Design conference included a video called “The Storm Collection,” whose creators imagined a near future in which real-time updates about a news event would be shown in virtual heads-up displays on picture frames, car windshields and even eyeglasses. But would this kind of technology make our information-overload problem better or worse?

In the video (embedded below), the two creators — Matt Thompson, editorial product manager at National Public Radio, and writer/blogger Robin Sloan, who is also part of the media partnerships team at Twitter — talk about some of the technologies we already have for getting live updates about something like a tornado hitting a small town: SMS for text messaging people, mobile media websites with official information, Instagram for sharing photos of damage, and Twitter and Facebook for talking about the event and posting status updates, pictures, videos and so on.

Want to watch a video from an unmanned drone?

What might things look like a few years from now? Among other things, Sloan and Thompson imagine photo frames that include news-related and location-based updates about the person who appears in the picture (“Sarah checked in at Tornado Safety Zone”), televisions and video terminals that show a real-time video feed from unmanned drones flying over the damaged areas, and heads-up displays embedded in car windshields and eyeglasses that give live updates about damage near the user of the device (“Downed power lines in area, please use caution”).

I have no doubt that the things that Sloan and Thompson are describing are close to becoming reality, if they aren’t already. And the benefits of having a photo frame that could update you about the location of the loved one in the picture in case of emergency — by using GPS or a location-based service such as Foursquare, presumably — seem pretty obvious. And if anyone likes a constant stream of real-time news and information about the world, it’s me; I am connected to Twitter almost all the time (as my family will tell you), and I use Instagram and Facebook and plenty of other social services to keep track of what friends and family are doing.

But I wonder whether a world like the one portrayed in “The Storm Collection” would be a positive thing for many people, and particularly those who already feel overwhelmed by the waves of information that they are already subjected to — whether it’s 24-hour TV news programs, or Twitter and Facebook, or all the other real-time sources we are all bombarded by throughout the average day.

The biggest issue is one that media analyst and journalism professor Clay Shirky has described, when he said the problem with the digital age isn’t so much information overload as it is “filter failure.” As Robin Sloan is no doubt aware, Twitter is a great example of this phenomenon in action: it allows you to follow the comments of hundreds of even thousands of people, as I do, but it doesn’t really provide all that many great ways of filtering that content so that it is manageable. Trending topics is one way, and lists are another, but neither of these provides a great solution.

How do we deal with “filter failure?”

Twitter isn’t alone in this; Facebook has implemented “smart lists” and now allows people to “subscribe” to others in the same way Twitter does, but in some ways this actually exaggerates the problem instead of solving it. Google+ has Circles, which allow users to create mini-groups that they can either follow or post their comments to, but many people don’t use them (just as many people don’t use Facebook or Twitter lists, which have been around for a while now). As a result, it’s still easy to become overwhelmed by the “activity stream,” whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Google.

To come back to “The Storm Collection” example, it looks as though Sloan and Thompson see most of the real-time news updates and unmanned-drone videos and so on coming from media outlets (in this case the Fresno Bee, owned by McClatchy). But the filtering problem exists for media companies as well; in fact, in some ways, it’s worse, because they are taking in so many other sources of content in addition to Twitter and SMS and photos. This is complicated by another phenomenon Sloan and Thompson dealt with in a 2004 video project called EPIC 2014: the explosion of “user-generated content” or citizen journalism that blogging and other tools allow.

As a post from a BBC “user-generated content” editor described earlier this year, filtering and making sense of this never-ending stream of information isn’t an easy task: The UGC desk at the British broadcaster has a large staff that try to verify and “curate” news reports from Twitter and Flickr and YouTube about events such as the revolutions in Egypt. Andy Carvin of NPR has turned his personal Twitter stream into a one-man newswire of curated and verified “citizen journalism,” but even his output is so massive in some cases that it needs a second set of curators using tools like Storify to filter what he has already filtered.

In the presentation to the Society of News Design, Sloan said: “If the world is suddenly this new terrain full of all these new screens and all these new ways to get stories out there, [journalists] should be in the business of identifying rich new territory, sending out scouts, and seizing it.” In the end, the problem may not be identifying or seizing these new territories, but coming up with ways to prevent them from becoming just another piece of flotsam in a never-ending sea of real-time content.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Ed Kohler

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There’s A Run On The Steve Jobs Turtleneck

St. Croix site mock Steve Jobs turtleneck

Image: St. Croix

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Minnesota company St. Croix, which makes the mock black turtlenecks that Steve Jobs famously wore, is having a banner sales week.

Sales more than doubled yesterday, the day after Jobs’ death, according to the Minnesota Business Journal, and some stores have run out of them.

The black model is also listed as unavailable on the company’s Web site, although you can order it in plenty of other colors. It costs $175. The company offered to donate $20 to the American Cancer Society for each one sold.

Amazon Adds SQS Queue Administration to AWS Console

This post is part of our ReadWriteCloud channel, which is dedicated to covering virtualization and cloud computing. The channel is sponsored by Intel and VMware. Read the case study about how Intel Xeon processors and VMware deliver unprecedented reliability in the face of RAM errors.

Amazon Web Services.jpgThe XML-based language that the Web uses for sending small transactional messages and chunks of data between hosts is Web Services Description Language (WSDL). Essentially, it’s a system for Web services to communicate almost anything between one another, first by defining the format of what it is they’re communicating – a kind of manifest – and then by enclosing instances of the items defined inside XML tags.

What makes WSDL perfect for cloud services is that the message transport protocol is simple HTTP (thus the “W” for “Web” in its name). So hosts don’t have to be joined together in the same network loop; it’s the Internet that connects them. Cloud-based Web services geared to receive WSDL messages use their own message queues, often using the same MQ systems devised for middleware. For Amazon Web Services, the MQ is Simple Queue Service (SQS). Believe it or not, up until a few days ago, AWS customers could not access their SQS queues through the AWS Management Console.

Indeed, an independent developer named Kresimir Popovic had made his own SQS management tool, and AWS support personnel were suggested that customers download and use it.

This week, Amazon’s AWS team announced on its blog that this little omission has finally been patched. The current version of AWS Management Console, deployed now, includes a complete set of tools for SQS queue management.

111007 AWS SQS 01.jpg

[screenshot courtesy Amazon Web Services]

As is typical for WSDL, messages are limited to 64K maximum size, so SQS is not an appropriate system for exchanging e-mail-sized messages. Instead, say you have an order processing system. Most likely, all the characters needed to represent the customer sign-up data can be compressed into one message. Streams of messages can then be directed to your SQS queue, where they’ll wait for up to four days (more than enough time) for your service to get around to them.

With the new AWS Console features, you can create new queues, grant permissions to them with respect to whether their handlers can send or delete messages therein, send messages to queues manually, adjust the timeout period for waiting messages, and most importantly, look inside your queues to see what’s waiting. “As you can see, this addition to the console provides you with a lot of insight into your SQS message queues, and it also provides you with a lot of control,” writes Amazon’s Jeff Barr.

Amazon Web Services was founded in 2002.

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Tell us about your road to the cloud and win a MacBook Air with an Intel® Core™ 2 Duo Processor. This month’s question:

What was the most compelling reason that you used to win over management to switch to virtual infrastructure?

The XML-based language that the Web uses for sending small transactional messages and chunks of data between hosts is Web Services Description Language (WSDL). Essentially, it’s a system for Web services to communicate almost anything between one another, first by defining the format of what it is they’re communicating – a kind of manifest – and then by enclosing instances of the items defined inside XML tags.nnWhat makes WSDL perfect for cloud services is that the message transport protocol is simple HTTP (thus the “W” for “Web” in its name). So hosts don’t have to be joined together in the same network loop; it’s the Internet that connects them. Cloud-based Web services geared to receive WSDL messages use their own message queues, often using the same MQ systems devised for middleware. For Amazon Web Services, the MQ is Simple Queue Service (SQS). Believe it or not, up until a few days ago, AWS customers could not access their SQS queues through the AWS Management Console.n
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Why Turntable Has The Coolest Product This Year

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What You Missed at Monktoberfest

Attention Conference Planners

I didn’t do a formal survey, but I asked a lot of the Monktoberfest attendees what they thought of the event. Not a single person complained about the event. So what did the Redmonk folks get right? Two things above all else – catering and content.

Obviously, beer was a big focus of Monktoberfest. The evening before the event we met at a fantastic craft beer place in Portland and had a great selection of beers and appetizers. The conversation flowed well, and it was a great ice-breaker for the following day.

The day of the event, the RedMonk folks arranged a really good lunch that was not the standard conference fare. Lobster rolls, chowder, and a few other options that I forget. (But worth noting that there were good vegetarian options as well.) And yes, there were good beers for lunch as well.

I’m sure the catering cost was a bit higher than the average conference on a per-attendee basis, but I’m also sure that was a major contributing factor to attendees’ happiness with the event. Well-fed people are happy people as a rule. Conferences that skimp on the food and drink tend to skimp elsewhere. To be fair, I’ve been at conferences that were well-received that had mediocre food, but that’s usually community run events that don’t charge much (or anything) for attendance. If you’re charging, making with good food is a really effective way to ensure that people go away happy.


The wrap-up dinner was, well, over-the-top. We ate at The Lion’s Pride, a bar/eatery in Brunswick that has an A+ rating on Beeradvocate. The beers were unusual and quite good. The food – starting with appetizers, then several courses and dessert – was abundant and well-done. I’d write more about it, but I think it might be cruel to those who didn’t attend to go into detail.

Lessons Learned at Monktoberfest

While there’s plenty of good things to be said about the food and drink at Monktoberfest, I can find reasonably good food and drink in St. Louis. I wouldn’t have flown cross-country to attend Monktoberfest if it hadn’t promised to be enlightening as well.

I’ve already written about Matt LeMay’s talk about data and Greg Avola’s presentation on Untappd. Those were really top-notch talks.

After lunch we heard from Theo Schlossnagle, who talked about social improvements in monitoring. Schlossnagle had a lot of really good points about what we can learn from monitoring and how to implement process in a business.


Zack Urlocker, now with Zendesk, gave a really good presentation on social and distributed development. Urlocker, formerly with MySQL, has a lot of tips here that he gathered from his time at MySQL and by reaching out to other folks who manage or work on distributed teams.

One thing Urlocker said that really resonated with me was when he talked about team leaders who didn’t make an effort to go where the developers were. Instead of one person traveling to the team, they’d require the entire team to travel to them. That’s simply broken, for a lot of reasons. It’s more costly, and it’s lousy for morale.

Urlocker also stressed the importance of not putting all the burden of time zones on one team or person. For instance, if you have employees all over the world, meetings shouldn’t always revolve around one time zone. Nobody appreciates having to always be the one waking up early or staying up late to attend virtual meetings.

On Difficult Developers

The last presentation, “Assholes are Killing Your Project,” was also lively. Donnie Berkholz, of the Gentoo project, has been giving this presentation for a while but it’s still relevant. Berkholz largely talks about open source projects, but it also applies to companies with volatile and difficult employees.

One of the points Berkholz made is that we seem to think that a lack of social skills is consistent with being a good developer. Many talented software engineers tend to be, well, difficult. He noted that some of the more contentious and damaging people in Gentoo (that inspired the talk) were also extremely productive and probably “better” than many of their peers. But they weren’t worth the damage that they caused.

Berkholz showed a graph of involvement with Gentoo, and overlaid lines on the graph that corresponded with the rise in assholishness and decline in community participation. A key thing, says Berkholz, is to have metrics – have a way to display the impact on the project that comes with dealing with the difficult contributors.

That might be difficult in some situations, but Berkholz recommends pulling contribution statistics and mailing list traffic stats to demonstrate a correlation between bad behavior and a drop-off in contributions.

After Berkholz’s talk, James Governor took a few minutes to wrap up the conference. Monktoberfest, says Governor in part, is about the fact that “people matter, and we have to care about them.” Software development is not just about making money, it’s about people.

Where to Improve?

Really, there’s only one thing I’d ding the conference for, and one suggestion that I’ve made for the next event. (Yes, there will be another event.)


If you look over the agenda you might notice a pattern. A smashing line-up of speakers, no doubt, but not very diverse. Monktoberfest had no women speaking at all, and not too many women in attendance. I did talk to O’Grady and Governor about the testosterone-heavy speakers list, and they let me know they had approached women to speak at the event but the scheduling didn’t work for the women that they asked. They also made clear that they were going to make an effort to ensure that they have women on the list next time around.

The suggestion I have is that they should consider a second day with an un-conference format. The audience that attended Monktoberfest had a lot to offer, and I think that some of the talks might have spun off great discussions with more time. Plus, as fantastic as the event was, it’s a lot of travel for a one-day event.

But the RedMonk gang knocked it out of the part for a first-time event. It was well worth the trip, and I’m looking forward to round two in London.

Why the iPhone’s screen is 3.5″ and will most likely never be bigger than 4″

Apple’s design is deliberate and iterative. This is counter to the feeling that many have about the designs of the iPhone, iPad and Mac because they feel so organic and inspired.

The designs of these products stand out as different and unique, making it seem likely that they were the creation of a flash of genius or spurt of design inspiration. While that may be true of some of the concepts used or details involved, the majority of what Apple does is procedural.

Any device that is offered for sale from Apple has undergone hundreds, if not thousands, of tweaks and changes over the course of its development. Every element has been carefully considered and most likely been chosen from a dozen different variations on a theme.

The screen of the iPhone is no different and I’ve long been a preacher of the belief that it is in fact the exact correct size. Designer Dustin Curtis also sees it this way and has posted a nice piece on his blog that lays out what he sees to be the primary reason for this:

Touching the upper right corner of the screen on the Galaxy S II using one hand, with its 4.27-inch screen, while you’re walking down the street looking at Google Maps, is extremely difficult and frustrating. I pulled out my iPhone 4 to do a quick test, and it turns out that when you hold the iPhone in your left hand and articulate your thumb, you can reach almost exactly to the other side of the screen. This means it’s easy to touch any area of the screen while holding the phone in one hand, with your thumb. It is almost impossible to do this on the Galaxy S II.

He created this graphic which illustrates the ‘average’ reach of your thumb across the screen:

fourinches 520x577 Why the iPhones screen is 3.5 and will most likely never be bigger than 4

The Galaxy S II isn’t the only device that suffers from this thumb hyperextension issue either. Almost any device over 4″ feels too big to comfortably use the entire screen with just one hand. My hand span is a little over 9″, which I understand to be fairly average if not a little big. For people with smaller hands, the issue is even worse.

The Infuse 4G, with its massive 4.5″ screen size, was one of the first phones that I noticed the issue with, remarking in my review how difficult it was to reach icons on the right side of the screen while holding it with my left hand.

The Droid Bionic (pictured middle), at a slightly smaller 4.3″, is still far too large to be comfortable one-handed. Even if I try to use it specifically with one hand, I still find myself unconsciously reaching over to tap it with my right. It seems like the .3″ shouldn’t make a difference, but it does.

The iPhone’s screen, at 3.5″, turns out to be nearly the peak of what is comfortable being used with one hand. Now, my opinion differs from Curtis’ in that I think a 4″ screen would actually work just fine…as long as it was no larger.

An iPhone 5 with a 4″ screen would be a nice bump in size and I don’t think that it would affect usability as much as one even a quarter of an inch bigger. But you can bet that Apple will be building and testing it—hundreds of times if necessary—before we ever see it.

CHART OF THE DAY: How Much Revenue Can Twitter Eventually Generate?

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If you compare Twitter to other display ad based businesses, it appears the company will not be generating gobs of revenue in the future.

Pascal Emmanuel Gobry at our own Business Insider Research took a look at the amount of revenue that comes from a unique visitor to display ad based business to get an idea about Twitter’s potential.

As you can see, it varies. He thinks logged out Twitter users would generate an amount similar to Demand Media, and logged in users would generate something just shy of what Facebook gets.

Using those numbers, he puts the per user revenue number at $2. With 400 million users, that puts the Twitter opportunity at $800 million annually, right now. As Twitter grows, so should its revenue.

But, somewhat surprisingly, Gobry notes that even if Twitter doubles in size to 800 million users — a huge number — its revenue would still come in at just $2 billion annually. 

The bottom line for Twitter: If it wants to be a huge business, it’s going to have to figure out a creative  model that does more than just display ads.

Read the full analysis here →

chart of the day, advertising revenue per user, per day, october 2011

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Microsoft merges Zune and Xbox account preferences

We’ve been discussing the end of Zune for so long now that if Microsoft simply killed the service it would actually be a relief. Well, not quite. Still, we have heard that Zune will be folded into Xbox, or Windows Live, depending on who you talk to.

No one is completely sure. However, news today indicates that Xbox is the chosen home for Zune, if its individual brand identity is later axed. WinExtra uncovered a plan today involves the merging of the preference systems of a user’s Xbox and Zune accounts. This is the note that went out:

2011 10 07 1600 520x623 Microsoft merges Zune and Xbox account preferencesWe could hem and hack at this all day, but we are going to save you several hundred words. This is what appears is happening: Microsoft is moving Windows Live to be a user’s Windows profile, with gaming and music and apps and other content attached to their Xbox tag. It appears to be a two account future. That works well enough, but we are still worried about the Windows Live integration with Windows 8.

For more on Zune, and its future in Xbox, head here. We have a request for comment in with Microsoft and will update this post when we hear back.

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