Testing Beta’s

TechCrunch today published an interesting article giving tips for tech companies, particularly those involved in the latest online developments on how to make the best of their beta programmes. Whilst in the past most people would never see beta releases unless they were signed up to specific beta programmes, but now, with the ease of distribution offered by the internet, companies such as Microsoft and Google offer beta releases of upcoming products on free download. The article also makes interesting points about the kind of people who will participate in such beta programmes will be, and what technology they will tend to be using, and the importance of blogs and bloggers to the whole equation.

That reminded me that I was planning on posting another update on how my experiences with Shozu had been going, as although the possibility of actually using it had come to an end thanks to issues with my phone, as I mentioned at the weekend, I’ve carried on chatting over e-mail with Andy Tiller since then. Certainly I’m not alone with other bloggers commenting on how open Cognima are about their product, and Andy popping up to answer questions. We’ve actually had a good discussion about how I was looking to use Shozu in relation to how it works, and it is certainly a good example of how to run a beta programme.

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Following on from my posting on why Shozu wasn’t working, Andy was curious as to why on exactly the same phone, I wasn’t having problems with Opera Mini. My conclusion was that this was primarily because Opera wasn’t checking on the Java permissions. When I fire up Opera thanks to my lack of certificates I get a message from the operating system of the phone saying that Opera is attempting to access the internet, and giving me the option to allow this or block it. If I allow it then Opera has access to the internet for the duration of the time I am using the browser. If I subsequently exit the browser and go back in, I then have to reauthorise Opera. The difference with Shozu is that in order to provide specific features, such as the automatic resumption of transfers if the GPRS signal is lost, the application needs full access – as the loss of the connection and resumption would result in an annoying series of dialogs repeatedly asking for permission to connect. As a result, Shozu checks it’s level of permission and if it doesn’t have what it requires, forces you to exit. The argument I offered Andy on the subject was that Shozu doesn’t actually need this level of access, and could work at the reduced level I have available on my phone, so it would be better to offer a warning that the reduced level of permissions could adversely affect the user experience in Shozu but let the user use the application anyway. I also highlighted that if Shozu were an application on a PC I’d usually be careful about handing it full control of a connection until I was happy it wasn’t going to connect without my permission and clock up a vast bill, and as such giving Shozu users the option to use the phone operating system to restrict Shozu was helpful.
It is worth mentioning at this point that I don’t think I convinced Andy of my point of view, but at the same time I certainly felt that he was open to discussing other ways of doing things. This again makes a refreshing change, as sometimes you get the feeling that software developers (and I’m sure I give the impression at times too) take anything that seems like criticism of their product pretty personally, when in actual fact the users are only trying to be constructive.

It also kicked off a discussion at work, over some of the occasions when despite a whole series of requirements documents, user workshops, and even sitting watching users work it transpires that the users are actually using your application in a totally different way from how you originally envisioned it. Sometimes this could be as a result of a bug, or that having been given a new application they realise that they can use it to do more than they originally thought. However there are a number of occasions we’ve had some incident reports that appear really obscure until you work out what the users are doing. Equally some feature that seemed massively important, and that we spent ages developing, for some reason is now totally ignored and the users are doing the same thing in a totally different way (usually involving an Excel spreadsheet).

Certainly when I get a phone that is capable, or the guys at Cognima produce a version that doesn’t insist on specific permissions, I’ll take a look again. With the other options being the frustration of trying to get MMS to work reliably, or e-mail, that increases the size of any picture transfer by about 40% (the overhead on Shozu is only about 4%) it certainly seems a great way to send pictures on the move. Also, if you want to see a good example of the kind of mobile photo-blogging that Shozu aims to support just take a look at some of the more than 13,000 Flickr pictures tagged with Shozu! (And you can even see pictures of the guys who work at Cognima in amongst them too!)

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