Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Features and benefits in the software world

I stumbled across an old article on CNN Money on how small businesses can attract new customers. I wasn’t that interested in the article and glossed over most of the points, but one did catch my attention:

Emphasize your product’s benefits, not just its features. Say you are selling a teapot with a spill-proof spout. Rather than simply mention the spout’s spill-proof shape, focus on the problems it will prevent: burned hands, ruined suits, etc.

This seemed interesting because in the software world features seem to be evangelized over everything else. However, after digging a bit, I realized the issue is a bit more complicated. In general, what I discovered was that when features are enumerated, they’re usually accompanied by or mixed-in with product benefits, and it’s not always clear-cut that favoring one method over the other is the best approach when it comes to attracting users (in general, even for free products, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to replace the term “customers” with “users” for something like this, as the bottom line is still getting people to use your product).

  • Case 1: Firefox (features then elaboration with benefits)
    The firefox features page shows a simple case of what I’m describing. Features are presented as headers and below each is a concise description of how said feature benefits the end-user. e.g.,

    One-Click Bookmarking
    Bookmark, search and organize Web sites quickly and easily.

    Nice and simple, feature (one-click bookmarking) followed by benefit (bookmark, search and organize web sites quickly and easily.)

  • Case 2: Blogger (mishmash of features and benefits)
    The blogger features page is a bit more of a mishmash. Sometimes benefits are listed as headers with an elaboration of features below it, e.g.

    Publishing your voice is easy and free
    …In a matter of minutes you can start posting text, photos, videos, and more to your blog…

    The header details a benefit of using blogger (it’s easy and free) which the description elaborates and lists a few features (ability to post text, photos, videos, etc.).

    In other cases, it’s vice-versa,

    New post notifications
    Your readers can choose to subscribe to your blog’s feeds, so they’re notified whenever you publish a new blog post…

    Like the Firefox feature page, it’s feature (new post notifications) followed by benefit (readers notified when now posts are published).

  • Case 3: Picasa (verb then elaboration of feature and/or benefit)
    Picasa features is interesting in that it’s headers are verbs describing actions you can virtually perform using the software (organize, edit, create, share). Following the header is a very concise description of features (edit: eliminate scratches & blemishes, fix red-eye, crop, … ) or a benefit (organize: manage your photos in one place, and find photos you forgot you had). This is unbelievably simple yet still seems to accomplish its goal of evangelizing the product. However, this is photo management software, so it’s worth noting that the software itself is a fairly simple mechanism.

There’s a lot more feature pages that can be looked at, but I haven’t found anything else too interesting. Apple does the same as what’s described in the Firefox case; features then elaboration with benefits (e.g. feature page for Xsan). Microsoft is a beast and lists features and benefits in a variety of ways for different products and in different ways. Narrowing the focus and just looking at Office, Microsoft seems to have a product overview for each product (e.g. Word 2007 product overview) which describes benefits and features in the same mishmash way described in the blogger case. There’s also a “Top 10 reasons to try” (e.g. Word 2007 Top 10 page) page which seems to be similar to the product overview, but more concise by listing only 10 benefits or features.

One issue with all the cases described is that the target is the new, uninitiated user. Users who are upgrading probably don’t want to read a ton of information about benefits and features they’re already aware of, so a list for upgrading users may be something important as well.

What’s best? worst? I don’t know. Overall, I like the Picasa case for it’s simplicity. Its features/benefits list is very short and uses only a few sentences, but within that space it manages to describe exactly why that piece of software should or might matter to a potential user and why they should use it.

The new blog

I’ve finally made the jump away from blogger and I’m now running a custom themed, wordpress blog on my server. I made the change for a number of reasons, among them the fact that a self-hosted wordpress blog puts all content on my server (as opposed to blogger’s ftp publishing, which leaves comments and profile information on blogger servers), wordpress has the ability to search through posts, and I wanted a new, wider design.

I’m fairly happy with the move, so far my only gripe with wordpress has been it’s auto-paragraphing feature, which screwed up my code boxes (<code>…</code>). I finally just gave up trying to fight with it and installed wpautop, a plugin which disables it. Unfortunately, this also means that I have to manually do the html markup for my posts and I’m not too thrilled about having to do this for all of my old posts.

The design is still a work-in-progress as there are a few rough edges, but I’ll be making these improvements gradually. Overall, I was aiming for a simple, clean but non-generic look, and I’m pretty happy with the results. So, goodbye to blogger and goodbye to the old blog (or it’s template at least, as all the posts are still here).

the old blog

Rtf2Html 1.21

This is a minor update to Rtf2Html (my lightweight rtf to html converter). This version will detect tabs within the RTF text and convert any tab characters to 4 spaces in the HTML output.

Web design project: Universal Construction Corp.

Small website for Universal Construction Corp.,

UCC Web Site

Wasn’t crazy about doing a fixed-height design, but it was by request of the client. Given a fixed-height requirement, a bottom menu seemed like an cool idea; it’s fine if viewing the site at or above the desired resolution (1024×768), but at a lower resolution navigation becomes annoying as your forced to scroll down to get to the menu. If doing another fixed-height site, I’d likely avoid a bottom menu.

Rtf2Html 1.2

I made some updates to the lightweight rtf to html converter I created a while back.

Changes include:

  • Context menu for textboxes, making it easy to select, cut, copy, paste, etc.
  • Ability to view a preview of the output to ensure correct result.
  • String for color hex values are now simplifed, if possible. (e.g. #0000ff = #00f). This, in a small way, conserves space.
  • Support for a few basic special entities, less-than sign, greater-than sign, quotation mark, and ampersand. Also, the copyright symbol is converted into it’s appropriate special entity (this allows compatibility with older browsers and/or content w/ non-unicode character sets)
  • Conversion of newline characters to <br /> elements.
  • The executable now has a cool icon.
These are in addition to the previous formatting options supported: text color, bold, italic, underline, and strike-thru.

Not supported are: font-type, font-size, bulleted lists, paragraph alignment, bold-italic font-style. I’ll probably look into these in the future. They’re not difficult to implement, but, especially when embedding within existing HTML content, it’s beneficial to be able to toggle these options on and off (specifically off, as it may be better for the styles of the parent element to be inherited in certain cases). The work of updating the interface + implementing these additional options is more than I’d care to undertake at this time. Especially as this app is only meant to format source code that I post here.

Images from the Pheonix Mars Mission

As many already know, the Pheonix lander touched down on Mars a few days ago. It’s a great feat of engineering and it’ll be exciting if we find life under the permafrost. However, aside from whatever scientific value they may hold, I’m not really fond of the pictures from the lander or the rovers. While there is something eerily cool about seeing the surface of another planet, Mars is (1) not a very pretty planet and (2) the cameras can only give a very close-to-the-ground shot of the landscape (the flat, rock-covered, brownish-red landscape).

pheonix lander mars surface

That being said, one of the coolest images I’ve ever come across is below; it’s an artificial cloud formed from the gas of the rocket used to launch the pheonix lander.

pheonix rocket clouds

I also love the colors and how they blend together, as well as the “texture” of the clouds. I’m thinking this might be a great texture and color scheme for the design of a web site or GUI widgets or something… I don’t know, it just looks damn cool.

Full resolution images available at the Pheonix Mars Mission site.

Facebook security issue and the voyeurism of the AP

Report from the AP on Facebook security lapse.

“A security lapse made it possible for unwelcome strangers to peruse personal photos posted on Facebook Inc.’s popular online hangout”

ok, these security issues aren’t exactly uncommon on the internet and this one seems mild in it’s effect as: (a) it’s been fixed and (b) despite the assertion of “unwelcome strangers” perusing one’s photos, there’s only confirmation that 2 people exploited the security hole, Byron Ng the one who found it and an unnamed AP reporter (and perhaps a few others).

The extent to which Ng exploited the security lapse is unknown (although, we do know he look up private photos Paris Hilton at the Emmy awards and of her brother Barron Nicholas Hilton drinking a beer with friends – scandalous!) and in any event he should be credited with exposing the exploit (although it seems to be a simple URL edit, and he just raked it a ton of publicity).

The actions of the AP reporter on the other hand,

Using Ng’s template, an AP reporter was able to look up random people on Facebook and see the most recent pictures posted on their personal profiles even if the photos were supposed to be invisible to strangers.

The AP also was able to click through a personal photo album that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg posted in November 2005.

… is a bit unethical. There are other ways to verify a security hole. You could easily create dummy accounts or un-friend a few people to have some test accounts to verify the security issue. Sure, looking up random people (and Zuckerberg) and viewing their photos works too, but you’d think a member of the press would have a bit more integrity.

Finally, CNN’s “Story Highlights” seem to be written by someone who doesn’t like conjunctions, leading to fun implications,

Technician could access private photos of Paris Hilton, site co-founder

The peculiarities of Apple

Interesting article from Wired. Nothing mind-blowing or really unique, but a good overview of Apple and it’s uniqueness compared to other tech companies.

Perhaps, what’s more interesting is some of the comments against the article and author, Leander Kahney. The most scathing of which is probably here, where Kahney is deemed an “irredeemable jackass” by one, John Gruber. Unfortunately, some of the comments seem to be nitpicking and simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Is Apple “evil”, according to Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra? Well, Google doesn’t really have a definition for evil, and as such it’s such a flexible term that one could certainly say that closed platforms, authoritarian control, and less than stellar treatment of employees qualify as evil.

On open platforms, true neither Apple or Google are dogmatic, but the point is that Apple is unusually closed for what’s perceived by many as a very modern, forward-thinking, tech company, and closed-platforms are usually the default. Not initially opening the iPhone and iPod touch to developers (because of I believe security concerns?!), and even now with the very managed licensing process demonstrates this attitude. Google, on the other hand, does release APIs for a lot of their products (Google Desktop, Google Maps, etc.).

The whole contrast with Google isn’t that great, but it seems to be stretched out by Gruber more so than Kahey.

On secrecy, every company keeps a certain degree of secrecy, but the point is that Apple is unusually secretive about their products, as the case against Think Secret demonstrates, a site that most other companies would look at as a fan base hub and free advertising (hell, sony, payed to create a fictional fan-boy blogger evangelizing their product as a form of advertising). The mystery isn’t so much why apple took an adversarial position against Think Secret to protect its secrecy, but why Apple’s secrecy is worth so much, when secrecy seems to be worth far less for most other companies.

Overall, I didn’t find the article attempted to demonize Apple or that the author was trying to sell us his version of an ideal corporate entity. After all, Apple is very successful doing what it does and has positioned itself and one of the most innovative companies around. However, it is the perplexing case of an innovative and successful company, existing within a progressive/egalitarian ecosystem, that excels employing very non-progressive/non-egalitarian constructs.

fragment space launch, firesync 2, and new portfolio

New stuff:

  • fragment space was launched a while back (at the beginning of the new year). It feels great to finally have something up and get rid of the “coming soon” message. Overall, I think the site turned nicely. A fair amount of graphics and a little fade-in/fade-out fx, but I don’t think it overwhelms or distracts from the content. I initially was going to have a drop-down menu for projects, but as there is only 1 definite project that would be available for download (firesync) and everything else was up in the air, I opted instead to just have a tab for firesync and just keep the site simple and leave the other stuff out until more concrete info or a download was available for the other stuff. One addition to the site that I think would be cool would be a commenting system on project pages, but so far I’m still searching for solutions.

  • firesync 2 is done and further info and download links are on the fragment space site.

  • I’ve updated/redesigned my portfolio & resume, both of which are available at I’ll probably be making some minor changes to polish things up and fix a few bugs (e.g. resume does not display correctly in Safari), but overall I really like how it turned out and I think it has a great look and feel: very simple (the layout is 99% text-based, most images are related to content) with an intuitive interface that does a good job of filtering information into digestible units. I think it’s a huge improvement over the previous page, which just spat out a long list of everything and provided navigation controls that simply scrolled you down to a section in the page. Also, the buggy, dynamic XML loading is gone so the site now works in Safari and popups have been eliminated as lightboxes are used to display images.

  • Update/redesign for; what I’m calling the hub page. The design and layout is kinda cool, but I’m not totally happy with how this came out. I don’t think the design really reflects the page’s position as a hub connecting to other sites/pages and doesn’t provide information about these other pages/sites quickly enough to the end-user. A visual preview of these external pages/sites might have also been a good idea. I’ll probably be redoing it soon.

Demo time

Call of Duty 4
I really wasn’t expecting anything special. The previous Call of Duty games, while good, didn’t really impress me – I’m not terribly crazy about military shooters and especially WWII-era ones. As CoD 4 got a lot of good reviews and finally broke away from WWII, I decided to give it a try, and was totally impressed. The level of polish and attention to detail is brilliant, even for the non-game elements (the presentation of the satellite map with the news anchor voice over intertwined with the music is particularly impressive). The gameplay derives from the FPS formula, but the frantic pace of the action and the nail-bitingly tense atmosphere it creates is novel and provides for an amazing experience.

Supreme Commander
This has been on my hard drive for a while and I never got around to it. As it’s the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation and given that I was a big TA fan, I had high expectations. However, I just haven’t been able to get into it. I’ve played a bit of the campaign and 2 or 3 skirmish games but the game is simply not resonating with me. Perhaps it’s a matter of scale; zooming in and out of the battlefield isn’t as impressive as I thought it would be, it is functional for setting up long range attacks, especially with air units, but I still find myself scrolling a lot. Although, this might just be due to habit more than anything else. In addition, the “default” zoom level I usually fall into is usually pretty far out, and the units simply don’t look too impressive at this scale.

Units also seem fragile. The game seems to force you to always attack in large groups, and this would be in line with it’s attempt at epic battles, however, building units is time consuming and considerable micromanagement needs to be done to setup or reinforce squads as even the weakest units are spawned individually. When you execute a strategy and it works, the game is fun, but the setup to that point can be a burden and a failed strategy renews the burden.

From what I’ve seen so far, I also haven’t been impressed with the maps themselves. There are obvious choke points that provide for basic defense setups and seems to avoid rushes but most of the terrain is flat, so at times strategy can boil down to just having the largest, most advanced squads with a good variety of units to counter artillery and aircrafts. A flat terrain also means there’s usually a huge burden for defense placed on you as there is little to no benefit from the terrain.

Overall, it seems like an ok game, but it simply hasn’t impressed me the way other RTS games have. I’ll put it some more time with the demo, but I’m not optimistic about finding anything that’ll win me over.

From time to time I check out GameTunnel and I’m usually disappointed with what I find. This time was different, I stumbled across Aquaria and it’s a wonderful game. The graphics and artwork were the first to strike me, but the music, sound fx, and voice overs are all increadibly well done. The game does take some time to get into, especially early on where you’re likely to be swimming around just trying to figure out where you should go (as you have a large area to swim in at this point, but most of the passages to the other levels are blocked off), but so far it’s been a charming, fun ride.