Twitter, or how I fell out of love

10 03 2009
Is the fail whale jumping the shark?

Is the fail whale jumping the shark?

Twitter. It’s suddenly everywhere. In the tech media, the mainstream press, TV news reports, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, politicians twittering from parliament, Johan Bruyneel twittering from the Astana team car during major cycling races, Steven Fry being trapped in a lift, lost adventurers twittering asking for help… the list goes on.

Twitter is not news to me; I’ve been using it for about two years with varying degrees of commitment as my interest waxed and waned, gradually racking up just over 3,400 updates. I’ve really enjoyed using it, too, and I’ve met some interesting and intelligent people (and some twisted and funny ones). It’s been helpful numerous times as people shared news, links and answers to questions. It’s been useful for keeping in touch with friends since I moved my life halfway around the world, it does provide a sense of involvement in my friends’ lives without having to find a time to arrange a phone call with each of them (an 11-hour time difference is not an easy thing to negotiate). It’s an easy way for me to share links to articles or blog posts I’ve written, interesting stuff I’ve found online, or just for venting my amazement or frustration at some of the idiotic things people sometimes say and do.

When I first started using Twitter, I was just some guy. I wasn’t working in the tech industry, and there was no real point to using it other than having a bit of fun. Nobody had really worked out that Twitter could be more than a curiosity, nobody could see how to make money from it, in fact most people had never even heard of it. Hell, this was true until quite a while after I started working for an analyst firm (first as an editor, now as an analyst). I was explaining Twitter for months! Twitter was unimportant, a bit quirky, and fundamentally useless. I didn’t give a crap about attracting followers, and I didn’t go out of my way to find new people to follow, being more content to just add people who seemed to be having interesting conversations with people I already followed.

When Twitter was unimportant it was much more fun.

Recently, Twitter has exploded in popularity. Part of this is fuelled by media interest and people suddenly wondering what “this Twitter thing” is all about, which is great. But a big part of it is the rise of the “social media expert” and “social marketing”. The realisation that brands and companies could use Twitter to reach an online audience spawned a new category of marketeer, intent on finding ways of connecting brands with audiences. Experts appeared out of the woodwork promising to drive traffic and optimise things. Twitter found a purpose, and it was marketing.

At around the same time as Twitter really started picking up, I became a tech industry analyst, and people started to follow me because of my profession. I don’t write about social networking or the Web, but I do have to know about them and have a personal interest. It still flatters me that people are interested in what I have to say (hey, the newspaper psychologist told me we’re all narcissists on Twitter), and I started using Twitter to promote comments I’d written, highlight press interviews and generally improve my visibility. I am responsible for some of the ways that my Twitter experience has changed.

I now have followers who are only really interested in my professional tweets. This is tricky for an analyst because our business model is based on having insight, but restricting it to paying clients. Giving away my insight to anyone on the web is not a good idea for me or for my employer. I try to walk a line between giving away enough to be interesting and not be thought of as an idiot, and giving away too much. It’s not easy, especially for someone as new to the industry as I am, who is still finding his feet and building contacts and profile. I want to share my best ideas with as many people as possible, but I can’t!

I also can’t post as freely as before, constantly feeling like I should curb my openness and not reveal so much about myself. I don’t like this, because it makes me less interesting to real people. Twitter was not supposed to be stressful, and I’m not convinced I did the right thing turning Twitter semi-pro, but now it’s too late, for better or worse.

Spam, random follows and parasites.

Twitter’s spam problem has become annoying. Now, if I mention that I cycled to work, I get followed by owners of bike shops in Buffalo. If I mention running, it’s someone selling books on how to improve my half-marathon time and find the tao of running. I’ve been followed by anyone, anywhere, most of whom have no chance of ever getting any of my business. Why would I be interested in a local bike shop 10,000km away? It’s a waste of everyone’s time!

I’m also rapidly becoming sick of the dodgy “social media experts”, “web gurus”, “online marketing consultants” and other 2.0tards who add nothing to the Twitter experience beyond inane posting of links to their cookie-cutter blogs about “harnessing the power of the web” and “connecting with audiences”. Too often these are not real people. They are shallow imitations of the thin slice of personality that most people can squeeze onto Twitter. Here’s an example of a follower I collected today:

Bio: chief Sales Evangelist & Lead Generation Expert nothing happens until someone sells something. Certified Marketing Automation Coach.

No shit. He’s a sales evangelist! And a certified marketing automation coach! Fuck knows what that is, but I’d better get me some! I could be generating leads all over the place! Twitter is now swarming with these scammers, hoping that enough people will follow back and click through to their website for some ad clicks, and maybe pay for a seminar on using Twitter to attract attention. It’s EASY to generate clicks on Twitter, if you add every person you see you only need a few naive n00bs who follow back because they think you’re a real person. The numbers stack up real quick! Don’t get me wrong, there are many clever people on Twitter who know a whole lot about social networking, the web and all that. It’s just that there are far too many retarded imitators and no quick way to assess who is selling snake oil.

Twitter is now perilously close to jumping the shark, partly because it is spitting out cheap self-appointed experts and bullshitters 2.0 on a hapless online populace. This is not how Twitter should be used, and it certainly isn’t what being a social media expert should be about (if such a thing truly exists, and I’m not convinced it does). This is not good marketing, it’s spam. It’s not a conversation, and it’s definitely not fun.

I’m on the point of deciding whether Twitter is still worth my time. I love the real people, but I don’t know if the bullshit is worth it. I’m also not sure if it combines the professional and the personal in a way I’m uncomfortable with. In the meantime, I’m off to tweet a link to this post. Hehe.





INQ1 review

9 03 2009
INQ1. I like it.

INQ1. I like it.

In my job we often get sent devices to try out, to understand the products and technology and see how it all works, and hopefully form good impressions. While we obviously write about these products, we’re really not in the business of writing reviews. However, it would seem a shame not to write the odd review of interesting gadgets that come across my path, and so here I have a review of one of the most interesting mobile handsets of the year so far, the INQ1.

The INQ1 is the first handset from INQ, an independent handset company wholly owned by the giant Hutchison Whampoa telecoms corporation. It has created quite a splash already, winning “Best Mobile Handset” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the beginning of February. I’ve been using an INQ1 supplied by the 3 network (which has exclusive rights to the INQ1 in the UK) for several weeks, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I am very impressed by what it can do. It takes a unique approach, bringing popular social networks, messaging and web services to a cheap handset available on a cheap tariff. The whole idea is to attract mass market users to the idea of using their mobiles for Internet and mobile data use, and I think it’s a good idea.

General performance

The INQ1 is a fairly conventional slider handset, but it feels good in the hand. It’s compact and solidly built, but not too heavy. The brushed metal finish gives a sense of durability, and the sliding number pad is satisfying, sliding positively and with big, well-spaced keys that are easy to press. The screen is smaller than I’m used to (but I’ve been spoilt by a succession of high-end handsets).

You can take pictures with the 3.2MP camera and with a couple of button presses upload them straight to your Facebook profile page over the 3G network, and go and write an email while the image uploads in the background, which I really like.

One of the key applications installed on the INQ1 is Skype, and calls work perfectly well, as does the webmail client (it works with all the major services: Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, as well as POP3 mailboxes). The software is reasonably fast, it looks nice and colourful (if a little bright) and is mostly fairly simple to navigate using the application carousel at the bottom of the home screen. Occasionally there are awkward UI incidents, where a button press produces unexpected results, but these are not too jarring.

The web browser works, but it looks a bit dated and doesn’t render all pages properly. But for a phone this cheap and with relatively limited hardware grunt, it’s a good enough effort. It’s unfair to compare the browser with an iPhone, because the hardware is much cheaper and less powerful. The browser-based Facebook application is as good as the Facebook application for Nokia’s S60 handsets (although I don’t think as good as the BlackBerry or iPhone versions). It does have some excellent Facebook integration though, which I will explain shortly.

It has simple widgets on the home screen, displaying weather information, BBC news feeds and a world clock.

You can plug the INQ1 into a Mac or PC using a standard mini-USB cable, and use it as a USB modem for mobile broadband over the 3G network. This worked really easily with my Macbook, as the drivers for the modem are stored on the device itself, requiring nothing more complex than dragging the connection launcher application into the “Applications” folder. Then it was a matter of a couple of clicks, and I was online. The supplied software is simple but effective.

Social web makes the INQ1 special

Now that I’ve done the mechanical review bits for the people with a short attention span, we can get onto a more detailed description of why I think the INQ1 is interesting.

I think it won the MWC award because it was designed from the outset to deliver web content and services to mobile users, and to do this at low cost. The software has been built from scratch with the intention of integrating the most popular social networking and communication applications at a deep level into the handset. What this means in practice is that the INQ1 does Facebook, Skype, email and instant messaging far better than it has any right to do; in fact it does some of these things far better than any other phone on the market, at any price.

The integration of all of these services is focused primarily around the phone’s contacts list. The INQ1 ties all of your various ways of contacting a person together neatly, and integrates them with your Facebook contacts list. When you first activate the handset, you enter your Facebook login details and the phone automatically downloads all of your Facebook friends into the phone’s contact list, displaying their profile picture and current status message. Cool, huh?

Well the next bit is even cooler. You then log in to Skype by selecting the icon on the side-scrolling carousel menu at the bottom of the screen, and your Skype contacts are added to your contacts list. Now email: you click on the mail icon, and the handset lets you choose between a standard POP3 mailbox, Hotmail, Yahoo mail or Googlemail. You enter your login details, the handset activates the account, and you’re away. The same goes for your MSN or AIM accounts.

The next step is to merge your contacts, so that you have a single contact for each person, containing the person’s phone numbers, Facebook profile, Skype ID, email address and IM accounts. This can be fiddly if you have a lot of friends, but when it’s done you’ve got the greatest mobile phone contact list ever!

You can open a contact in the contact list, and from a single menu you have the following options for contacting them:
– Call: voice or video
– Send message (brings up an SMS panel which lets you insert pictures or sounds, making it an MMS)
– Facebook: view profile, poke, message, write on wall
– Windows Live Messenger: initiate a chat
– Skype: voice call or text chat
– Email: from any activated account.

That’s a lot of ways to get in touch with someone! I’ve played with plenty of handsets, but I’ve never seen anything that has this sort of powerful integration out of the box. It’s great!

Things I don’t like

I would really like to be able to easily add new applications to the INQ1, such as a Twitter client or a Flickr uploader. But perhaps this is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve just become too used to using Symbian or BlackBerry phones which specialise in this.

The quality of the camera is disappointing – corners have been cut here – but photos are adequate in broad daylight. There is no LED flash for low light snaps.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a music player application which includes scrobbling to Last.fm, but as the INQ1 commits the cardinal sin of not having a 3.5mm stereo jack I didn’t bother testing it – this phone is not quite ready to be a serious music player.

It would be a killer device if if had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, given how many of its key applications rely on heavy text input. I think INQ is well aware of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next release from the company adds a slide-out QWERTY keypad.

Conclusion

This is not a handset for everyone but it does a lot of things far better than you would expect from a phone at this price point, and I think it shows how much you can achieve on relatively low-end hardware, with some clever software integration. If you want a cheap handset that gives you really good Facebook and email access and lets you make cheap Skype calls, the INQ1 is definitely worth checking out. I’m really looking forward to seeing what INQ comes up with next.