Friday, 30 March 2012

Got your ears on?

I just updated my audio editing/mixing software. As part of my ongoing tidying and rationalisation I found a fair number of old audio tapes and so I've been slowly digitising them ... and this got me thinking about podcasts. The range of material available, basically as an MP3 audio file which you listen to on your computer or mobile device, is staggering. Even we got in on the act since there are a few project management interviews available on our web site.

I'm not a big consumer of podcasts, I must admit; but when I listen I listen on headphones. One thing they tell you when you work in audio is that you should never do critical work on headphones, so things do sound different that way: different from speakers that is. One thing you'll notice is that everything seems to be inside your head. Now this might not bother you, but for some people it's a big source of fatigue, and one reason why you're unlikely to be completely comfortable listening on headphones for several hours at a stretch.

This can be alleviated by adding some 'space' into the sound. Stereo helps (our podcasts have some stereo music although the voice is mono) but still doesn't replicate what we would hear if we were actually there. For that, the enthusiasts say, you need true binaural recording. In this, microphones are placed at the end of (real or synthetic) ear canals ... just where the headphones would go. This is known as dummy head recording and it is possible to buy special dummy heads for this purpose ... at a price. The reasoning behind this is all down to how we determine where a sound is, which is the result of a combination of relative volume and time delay (phase) between our two ears. The physical structure of our ears affects this as sound bounces around our outer ear's shape as it makes its way into the ear canal and hence to the rest of our auditory apparatus.

To be honest, you can improve the headphone-listening experience a lot without going to the extremes of a dummy head. You can record the voice with a stereo pair of microphones so that the sound of the voice is heard with ambient sounds and reverberation around it. (If you do this then you should still record close to the person speaking since it's very easy to get too much ambience around the voice.) For two people chatting you could position them a few feet apart (sitting next to each other on a sofa is good) and have each hold a mic. It's extraordinary how realistic what I'd call the sound field sounds on headphones when the mics are a little way apart.

Which leaves you asking why the voices on our podcasts are mono. Good question. In this case it is because the recorder I used was a little more hissy than I would have liked, and making the sound mono reduced the hiss. The background hiss wouldn't have been a problem when listening on speakers, but on headphones it was more obtrusive.

There's more in the chapter on audio asset production in the third edition of our book. This is a few years old now, but the basics still apply.

Friday, 23 March 2012

iMedia support and maintenance

Web support has grown into an industry segment of its own since the early days of the Internet. There are dedicated companies offering support and maintenance contracts with promises of monthly contracts, inexpensive support packages and fantastic customer service. How do your offerings match up? Support and maintenance used to be seen as the dog-end of the business. It didn't offer the creative incentives of new development, the bringing together of different disciplines and their diverse needs, or the cache of meeting and working with new high-profile brands.

However, support and maintenance are the backbone of the industry. They give the solidity of income in the longer term to an erratic, creative, dynamic business. Sneer at them at your peril, particularly in these leaner business times.

The businesses that have got the balance right between developing new business and then keeping the clients satisfied with ongoing support and maintenance are the survivors today. But the competition from dedicated support businesses is growing. Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your packages for support and maintenance so that your clients see more benefits. Often, you don't need to do so much to make big differences to them: clearer, transparent, regularised billing, faster guaranteed response rates and so on. There is still a balance for you though so don't promise what you can't deliver. Do you have the right staff on hand for the weighting of the type of work you get? Do you invest as much in training up the support staff as your other employees? Do you demonstrate that you value the work they are doing?

Clients needs do grow and change. Often it is the support employees who recognise that the clients' needs have shifted because they are asking for more serious maintenance/changes to their iMedia applications. Have the estimated hours of support and maintenance changed significantly for some of your clients? Could you use this information to have a valuable conversation with them?

Often support employees feel unable to approach the management levels to flag up what could be a potential re-work/re-vamp rather than maintenance. That could mean business opportunities lost! Are the processes in place for your support team to flag such opportunities? Where is the line for your company between re-work and support and maintenance? Are you very clear about this? Are your clients?

We all get complacent, but this is precisely when our competitors notice a weakness before we do. Worse, our clients notice their costs for maintenance have spiralled and they only want to blame someone else rather than see they have asked for more and more. They might use it as an excuse to move companies. It won't take a lot of time and effort on your part to take stock of your support and maintenance contracts and the feelings of your staff but it might well save you lost contracts.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Data Protection – Europe versus Rest of World?

Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the EEA unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.
Article 8 of the EU Data Protection Directive

We've warned in the past about checking whether any data you transfer to non-European countries conforms to European legislation on data protection. Data Protection practices vary throughout the world and we have to make any data gathering conform to European legislation and check that any other countries that we deal with interactively will agree to conform to European practices. This has usually been done using the safe harbor principle where clients or suppliers in countries such as in the US have agreed to hold the data in a protected or safe mode that will conform to European legislation. You need to take care of this in any contractual agreement you enter into where data gathering will be part of the process.

However, in the last month things have been stirred up by Norway suddenly deciding that Google Apps, in terms of their data protection, may not be legal in Norway or by implication Europe as a result of the US Patriot Act. See: Use of Google Docs or Google Cloud Services is illegal in Norway, Shaun Ellerton (18th February 2012). Of course it won't just be Google who might present a problem as a result of the act.

The use of cloud services generally may also pit the principles of safe harbor against the Patriot Act. That allows law enforcement agencies access to personal data: but the US is not alone here. See Clouds and Law Enforcement Access, Andrew Cormack (9th March 2012). This blog gives useful insight into progress with the proposed EC Data Protection Regulation that was announced in January 2012 and will take a couple of years to be made law.

Of course Google are no strangers to privacy controversy at the moment and it appears that their privacy policies may themselves be in breach of the safe harbor principles, which arguably demonstrates just how difficult these things are. Hawktalk (5th March 2012) states 5 areas of concern over these issues, and interestingly uses the Leveson Inquiry's data protection example as a parallel case.

The present position of what practices the EC follow for data protection are summarised by James Lappin in his G-cloud update (18th February 2012), where he outlines safe harbour, model contract clauses and binding corporate rules as examples of the legislation in action.

Well, it seems that data protection is truly back on the agenda after a lull. We need to keep an eye on developments as none of us want to be found in breach since the consequences can be mega!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Web accessibility and legal requirements update

Accessibility has always been a consideration for websites because if your users can't access the information the website isn't doing its job. But not all users can relate to a website in the same way, perhaps because of physical or educational disability. It used to be that website developers could just try to adhere to the Web Accessibility Initiative embodied in the W3C guidelines, but things have got more complicated.

The DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) has been replaced by The Equality Act 2010 according to the RNIB who are currently suing BMI Baby over poor accessibility of its site.

If you are developing government sites then you might be interested in work done for Broxtowe Council by the Shaw Trust, who employ disabled people and were used to test the council's web site over 60 hours. Broxtowe's site has just won the Shaw Trust Plus Accessibility award.

If you have educational establishments as part of your portfolio, they have extra accessibility issues since they have to consider The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (2001). Durham University's web page gives some pointers for this area.

If you are developing pharmaceutical sites then you might be interested in the article by Nick Austen and Ben Deebie-Rogers, Legal Issues for Pharmacy Websites, as pharmacists have their own code of practice along with the e-commerce directives for selling online, the distance selling regulations and security data protection issues.

For more general info about legal requirements see The COI (Central Office of Information – but it will close on 31st March). And be aware that ethical requirements as well as legal requirements are beginning to find favour.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Windows pi and a new pad

Lots of interesting things on the horizon, ranging from new versions of old 'friends' to a bit of deja vu all over again.

Both Apple and Microsoft have announced new versions of their operating systems. Apple have found a new beast in Mountain Lion, otherwise known as iOS X Mountain Lion ... inspired by the iPad, they say. The shift away from a friendly front end to a heavy-lifting Unix-type OS (as some see it) towards ultimate user-friendlyness continues and is generating some controversy. (MacinTouch, as always, is a good place to check such things out). Are Apple moving away from the professional market with a consumer-oriented OS? Given where they make their money these days it wouldn't be that surprising, but the flak against the current OS, Lion, is enough to give me pause. Have your designers taken the plunge? What is your experience?

You might have thought that Microsoft would have provided a haven of professionalism (as IT support might put it), but perhaps they have also been bitten by the tablet bug. Windows 8 is available to preview, and it also slides and swipes its way around the screen.

What The Register lovingly calls the fondleslab may be due for some updates soon as well. The image on an invitation to an Apple event next week has us anticipating an iPad3 and possibly an announcement of a smaller version of the iPad. Several of our clients have incorporated the iPad into their workflow, with one making good use of it as an inventory tool when roaming their giant 'zoo' of test equipment.

But for me, the delight of the week is the Raspberry Pi, which looks set to bring the 1980s fun of computing back to a classroom near you. Shades of the BBC Micro for those of us old enough to remember it (and I was quite adept at programming it in machine code!) it even has a Model A and a Model B and uses an ARM processor that is a direct descendant of the Beeb micro. At £22 it went on sale yesterday morning and sold out in nanoseconds. More on the way.

I'm excited by the Pi's possibilities as an educational tool but it should also have application as an embedded processor and general gizmo. I can't wait to see what people do with it. As Yogi Berra also said: "You can observe a lot by watching".