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Summertime Musings

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Michael E. Duffy
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Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
June, 2008 Issue


    It’s much too nice out to put together a reasoned treatise this month. So take your June issue of NorthBay biz outside, and enjoy reading these three short musings on technology in the cool shade of a tree.

Less is more

    As I wrote in “Mobility, Telephony and Battery” (March 2008), smart companies are creating versions of their websites specifically for mobile users. The example I used was the difference between the regular American Airlines website at www.aa.com and the mobile version at mobile.aa.com. The mobile version is designed to work effectively in the constrained environment (no mouse, limited display resolution) of a mobile device, such as an Apple iPhone or Palm Treo.

    In many cases, as with American Airlines, you can look at the mobile version of the website on your regular computer. Having done that with a few websites, I was struck by this possibly heretical thought: The mobile versions are actually better. They’re tightly focused on what you, as a visitor, want to accomplish. The AA mobile website is basically a categorized, text-only list of things you can do online from your phone.

    In contrast, the regular American Airlines website has a lot going on, largely due to the amount of real estate that’s available on a PC display. For example, the iPhone has a 480 x 320 pixel display, or 153,600 pixels. My widescreen 15.4-inch Toshiba laptop has a display resolution of 1,280 x 800, or 1,024,000 pixels. With almost seven times the space, you can present a lot more information. Unfortunately, unless a lot of care is applied, it’s very easy to overwhelm your audience.

    It’s kind of like reading a 200-page business book and realizing that the author could have done a more effective job in 75 pages. Unfortunately, publishers don’t generally print thin books. So you get a lot of filler, and the quality of the experience is diminished.

    I know you probably won’t do it—and your Web designer would probably faint if you suggested it—but perhaps your home page should have less stuff on it, rather than more. Perhaps only three to five choices for your visitors to make. And make it visually obvious what those choices are. Remember, one choice can always be “I don’t see what I’m looking for,” with a link to another level of detail.

Flash is (sorta) bad

    Friends of ours from Texas came to visit last week and, of course, we had to visit the great wineries here in Sonoma County. While we were out and about, I tried to use my iPhone to get more information about nearby wineries. Unfortunately, some wineries have chosen to use Adobe’s Flash presentation technology to build their website. In the “normal” Web universe, this isn’t a bad thing. Flash is pre-installed on most computers and does a nice job of presenting the content in a uniform (if sometimes non-standard) way.

    But Flash is not (yet) available on the iPhone. This means, for example, you can’t see some YouTube videos (specifically, those encoded with Flash instead of Quicktime); and you can’t see Flash graphics embedded in a regular website; and you certainly can’t use a website that’s built completely in Flash (for example, Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves in Dry Creek Valley, one of our favorite out-of-the-way Zinfandel makers).

    Before you label me a whining yuppie iPhone user (which may be accurate), let me make this point: You need to look and see how your website looks on Web-enabled mobile devices. Why? Because the leading-edge of your market is using them.

    For wineries at least, new customers will be people who have disposable income and like trying new things. Exactly the sort of people who buy iPhones, of which there are now several million. To me, I get all warm and fuzzy about any company that recognizes when I’m using my iPhone to browse its site and acts accordingly. If your target market overlaps with the iPhone demographic, you should be checking to make sure you haven’t shot yourself in the foot with a website that won’t work with an iPhone.

Cooking with gas (and technology)

    Have you ever run out of propane? If you live out in the sticks like I do, you know it’s not a very pleasant experience, particularly if there’s no hot water for bathing or no heat. In a commercial environment, the results can be ruinous (as opposed to merely inconvenient).

    The low-technology approach to propane customer service, used by our previous propane supplier, is this: Start with a full tank, then, based on previous experience with other customers, check back periodically to see if the tank needs refilling. Using this method, our old propane supplier let our 500-gallon propane tank go empty at least twice. As you might expect, we started to look for a new supplier.

    Based on a word-of-mouth recommendation, our supplier for the past couple of years has been Blue Star Gas (www.bluestargas.com). It uses a more high-tech approach to keeping customers happy. A radio-equipped sensor on the tank “talks” to a base station in our house (a distance of perhaps 100 feet). The base station is plugged into a phone jack, and when the tank gets below a certain percentage, it calls Blue Star to come out and fill up the tank—which it does promptly. This technology is called “remote tank monitoring,” but I call it one less thing to worry about.

    If you use propane at your home or business, I highly recommend talking to the nice folks at Blue Star Gas. The larger lesson? If you’re in any sort of business with a regular renewal cycle, think about how you can use technology to reduce or eliminate hassle for your customers.



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