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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Customer Satisfaction is one thing. Customer Delight is a different level altogether!

Folks at Cleartrip.com have pleasantly surprised and even delighted me recently with the user experience on their site and their innovative features. After quite a while in my personal experience have I come across an application of technology which I would have been proud to call ‘My Creation’ as a software engineer!

I first took notice of Cleartrip when they launched Train Reservations recently. I was so fed up of the IRCTC’s painfully unusable site (you really have to use it to feel the pain!) that I was sure cleartrip would be better – that was expected. However, cleartrip exceeded my expectations with its simple, clean, clutter-free and fast interface. Here are just some of the things I liked about the interface:-

  • As already mentioned, it’s Clean, Simple, Clutter-Free and Fast
  • You don’t need to register to be able to book a ticket (unlike irctc)
  • Even if you decide to register, registration is simple requiring you to provide only a valid email-id to start with. All the other profile details are optional and you can fill them up later, out of band
  • The ‘All Stations’ option in the station selection drop down (wish they added “All Classes” as well)
  • Availaibility Calendar for train bookings is cool
  • Air Fare Calendar for flights

Then, a few days ago, they bowled me over again with the Cleartrip Chat-Bot for train bookings. I immediately invited the bot to gtalk and played with a few commands and queries and voila! It was simple, fast and fun!

I also discovered that they exposed web api’s for Flights and Hotels. I guess they are probably the first Indian travel services company to do so.

Frankly, I did not expect such sophisticated and innovative application of technology from what I thought was, primarily, a travel services company. (And was I wrong! How could I forget Amazon!)

Kudos Cleartrip! Keep it up!

P.S.

Even as I was typing this, cleartrip came out with Dynamic Fares. Haven’t tested this yet but sounds like another cool feature.

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Ever since my phone decided to go quiet and I became dependent on my earphones, I end up being frustrated every single time I have to attend or make a call!

No matter what I do, however neatly I fold the wires, every time I take the earphones out from my pocket, they are horribly messed up, with the wires entangled into such complicated knots, that untangling them is, I’d say, at least as challenging as, if not more than, solving a complex mathematical puzzle.

I wonder how these knots form!

One plausible explanation that I can think of is Entropy. My line of reasoning is similar to the one generally adopted to explain why things tend to break: There is only one way for the earphones to remain untangled but an infinite number of ways for the wires to be entangled.

I find it a bit strange, and funny, and yet awe inspiring!
Think of it, as if it’s God – the ultimate developer – proclaiming that all the chaos in the universe is ‘By Design’. Imagine if the developers at Microsoft (used here as a placeholder … it could have been Google or Adobe or Yahoo… 😛 ) could say something similar. Something like, “All the chaos in the software is by design, and it will only increase over time!” (Some people may argue that it is, in fact, already true, but I am discounting those protests here 😛 ).

If everyone realized that ‘chaos’ was unavoidable, the ultimate truth, God’s doctrine; we could perhaps save trillions of rupees, dollars, euros etc which are being wasted on futile efforts to overcome chaos like forming governments, putting in place ‘Law and Order’ systems, recruiting (and this includes the medal winners at the Olympics from Haryana!), transferring and dismissing policemen….
These funds could then be put to more meaningful uses like feeding the hungry and designing and manufacturing better earphones which don’t get entangled easily.

Coming back to my original problem, while it gives me some comfort to know that it is not a targeted attack to frustrate me but just another manifestation of a universal phenomenon, I wouldn’t mind somebody gifting me a pair of retractable earphones or a bluetooth headset. It is at the top of my wishlist as of now!

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I have my foot in my mouth (again 🙂 ).

Here I was, going about bashing the recently announced ‘Live Mesh’ every time a discussion around Microsoft’s online story came up, without actually having used the service! (Yes, I know I work at Microsoft but then, being “Self-Critical” is a company value around here 😉 ). Now that I have actually used it, I stand corrected! I actually like it (though the UI could be better), and am finding it pretty useful (especially the folder synchronization part).

For the uninitiated, Live Mesh is being positioned as Microsoft’s platform for enabling ‘Anywhere Access’ to users’ data and applications. The philosophy is that the user owns the data (and the software applications). He should be able to access it seamlessly, irrespective of the device and / or place. A user can add the devices and /or applications he owns to his “Mesh”. The “Mesh” abstracts the fragmentation of user’s data stored in isolated devices (or even the cloud) so that, for the user, his/her data is now accessible from any device connected to the mesh. For example, you start preparing a presentation for a meeting on your office desktop, go home, start your PC, continue from where you left off in the office and complete the presentation, go straight to the meeting the next day and project the slides from your smart phone!

But this is already possible, right? You could as well have emailed the slide deck to yourself and accessed it, isn’t it? Well, yes, it is doable that way. In fact this was exactly the argument I used to make in support of my stand above. But you really have to try out the folder sync feature to be able to appreciate the experience it provides. (Which means, you have to wait 🙂 Live Mesh is currently in limited tech-preview).
Using email for doing this once in a while is probably Ok, but what if you had to do this day-in and day-out? It’s at least an order of magnitude simpler to have all your devices automatically synced, based on the rules you specify, but without being bothered every time and without you having to consciously attach and send mails.

In it’s first avatar, Live Mesh will offer two services: Folder Synchronization (which enables scenarios like the one illustrated above) and Remote Desktop. If things go well, we may see a number of existing applications becoming “mesh-enabled” and perhaps a sizeable number of new applications built on the platform.

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This is getting creepy. Almost all the time Linked-In is suggesting names of people that I actually do know but I have no idea how they can figure it out. These people are not in my immediate or even second degree network. I have not uploaded my contacts from gmail or any other address book. How do they know then?

A lot of people seem to be asking the same question on blogs and forums but so far I haven’t seen anyone from Linked-In dropping even a hint of how they do it. Some really smart data-mining and AI? I’ll be glad if it’s that (and in that case Linked-In will go right at the top of my ‘The places to work for’ list). But what if they are somehow accessing some data which they shouldn’t be.. at least not without asking me?

I’ll try to dig deeper into this.

[P.S. Manas, just suggested that these people might actually have uploaded their address books. Very possible. At least I didn’t think of this possibility (I’m dumber than I think :P). I’ll try to cross check.]

 

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Indic transliteration is another product (after search and gmail) from Google which has all the characteristics (you can argue about my choice of criteria but then this is my blog 😉 ) of brilliant software – No frills, doesn’t attempt to do a lot of things but does what it is supposed to do really well.

One, it’s fast. It doesn’t make you realize that it’s running in the cloud and not on your box. More importantly however, I was amazed by the accuracy of transliteration. Don’t believe me when I say it’s really really good, try it! (At least the Hindi transliteration works super, I can’t comment on other languages)

I tried being smart by throwing different ‘potential’ english representations of the words but it recognized almost all of them without any pains. Comparing it to some other transliteration softwares I have used in the past, I would rate this way above any of them.

Kudos and thanks to Google for this 🙂

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Atom Life

I have a new Atom Life (WM 6 version).

It was kind of a spot decision – I had been thinking of a Touch Dual for weeks and I actually walked up to the WM stall at TechReady (more coming on TechReady and Office Dev-Con soon) last week hoping to buy one but after comparing the specs, I decided to settle for Atom Life instead. Though, admittedly, the Touch series is prettier and I had to give up on the ‘Touch-Flo’ interface, here’s what helped nail my decision in favor of Atom Life:-

  • Touch Dual doesn’t have Wi-Fi
  • This one has a faster processor (At 624 Mhz, it’s actually faster than my first PC, a 500 Mhz PIII!)
  • Dual was costlier by almost $150
  • It has a separate headphone socket (unfortunately it’s 2.5mm – still better than a single ‘multipurpose’ socket like on the Touch series or on my old W700i)

As for the cons, there are a few. Most importantly, the buttons for volume control are inconveniently located and I almost always have to make a conscious effort to press them. Infact, the tactile control/feedback for most of the buttons is not very great. Also, the overall WM experience is not as intuitive as that for a Windows PC. However, given the challenge that the small screen form factor is, it’s not bad at all and I guess, will improve over time.

 Overall, I am more than happy with the device so far. It looks pretty (that is, if you don’t keep it side be side with a Touch 🙂 ). Music is at par with my W700i (which I anyway rate as ‘at par with or better than’ an i-pod). But what really took me by surprise and has had me hooked is the handwriting recognition in Windows Mobile. It just works! Amazingly neat.

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Open XML is Clever!

When I started using Office 2007, it was a nice surprise to find that when I saved my docs as .docx, it actually occupied less space than a corresponding .doc. I expected it to be the other way round since the old formats were binary whereas the new formats are xml based.

I finally figured out why. A docx (or xlsx or any other office file) is actually a zip file. You can go change the extension to .zip and look at the contents. Pretty clever! Not only because it saves space but it enables a number of other scenarios.

Here’s a good read on it:-

http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa338205.aspx#office2007aboutnewfileformat_introduction

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