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Archive for April, 2013

Create your own Music App with Echo Nest

Courtesy Marc George, NETMagazine

Build an OpenEMI music app with Echo Nest

The Echo Nest offers a great API for creating apps using content licensed via the OpenEMI initiative. Marc George explains how to use it to build an app to play Gorillaz tracks

This article first appeared in issue 233 of .net magazine – the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Last November, EMI Music teamed up with music intelligence platform The Echo Nest to provide developers with access to an incredible collection of music-related assets. Including material from high profile and well-loved artists such as Gorillaz, Pet Shop Boys, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and many others. This collaboration represents the most extensive collection of licensed music, video and images to ever be made available in this way.
The Echo Nest provides a fantastic developer API that will not only serve up the assets but can also analyse audio tracks and provide detailed metadata about them. If you’re into music, The Echo Nest API has some amazing tools to build mashups and apps with.

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The designer’s guide to Google Analytics

Courtesy Luke Clum, CreativeBoq.com

Your web designs may be beautiful, but are they popular? Monitor their appeal with our quick guide to Google’s free analytics tools.

All too often, designers are guilty of designing beautiful websites without consistently monitoring their performance. Of course it would be easier to just design a site and let it be, but monitoring your sites and improving problem areas are key if you want to attract and maintain visitors (which is kind of the whole point of your website…right?). Analytics are vital to understanding your audience and your website’s performance. AndGoogle Analytics is a great provider, especially since it’s free.

Learning to use this free tool may seem a bit overwhelming as there is so much data, but this Analytics guide is a great resource for beginners, so give that a read first if you’re a total newbie. Once you’re digested that – or if you’re already up to speed – read on for our three quick tips for using Google Analytics to monitor the health of your designs…

  • You’ll find all our web design-related features here
01. Pick the right statistics

A high bounce rate means that the design is failing to engage your visitors

Looking at the right metrics will go a long way in examining web design and understanding customer behaviour in regards to your site. If you’re not looking at the right metrics, it doesn’t matter if you have analytics set up, because you aren’t getting the right information.

The metrics below are a great help in keeping your design on track and focused on how users are interacting with your site:

  • Bounce Rate: The ultimate indicator of first impressions, a high bounce rate means that the design is failing to engage your visitors. Inspect the bounce rate on all of the important pages to figure out which ones need adjustments and monitor the changes.
  • Content Overview – Top Pages: This report shows you the content your visitors are most interested in. What pages are performing the best? Examine those and create more of that! Providing more of what your visitors are looking for will keep engagement high and encourage sharing with friends.
  • Landing pages: Watching user behavior is important on landing pages, because the whole point of a landing page is to get users to take action or venture deeper into your site. If users aren’t completing the action you want them to take, then it might be an indication the information you deliver doesn’t match what searchers are looking for. Is there a high bounce rate? It could mean there isn’t a clear navigation path. Make sure your landing pages are relevant and focused.
  • Visits: What days does your site have the highest traffic? Publish articles, events and announce promotions on those days to capture the most attention. On low traffic days, do site maintenance and upgrades to minimize impact.
02. Analyse visitor engagement

The average time visitors spent on a site in 2011 was four minutes and 50 seconds

There’s no one metric that will tell you the visitor engagement of your site – it’s something you have to analyze over time. While it takes a little legwork to discover, knowing how engaged your visitors are overall can tell you the general health of your web design.

Look at the following metrics to get a better idea of user engagement:

  • Average time on site: Of course there will be users who came to your site hoping to find something else, and thus leave quickly. However, overall you want old and new visitors alike to spend at least four minutes on your site (the average time visitors spent on a site in 2011 was four minutes and 50 seconds). If your visitors are quickly leaving your site, you need to assess your navigational system and content. If your navigation is hard to follow with confusing options, you need to redesign that element to be more user friendly (hint: users like breadcrumb navigation). You also need to make sure the content on your site is interesting and useful enough that viewers are sticking around to read or watch it.
  • Average pages per visit: Again, you want visitors to venture deeper into your site, and if they aren’t visiting many pages, that could be an indication that your overall design isn’t intuitive, your content is lacking, or your navigational elements are confusing. The average pages per visit in 2011 was 4.5, so you should aim for that or higher.
  • Conversion rate: The whole point of a website is to convert viewers. A conversion doesn’t have to be a purchase; it’s simply when a visitor completes the goal for that page, and a goal can be anything from a newsletter sign up to an eBook download. If your conversion rate is low (average conversion rates vary greatly by industry), then you need to examine the design strength of your landing and conversion pages.

Make sure your design includes the following:

  • Noticeable calls to action that are above the fold
  • A colour scheme that brings attention to important elements
  • A clear explanation of what the business/service does
  • A clear path to conversion (i.e. the download button or sign up form is highly noticeable)
03. Monitor site speed

Speeding up your site can result in a 7% to 15% increase in conversions

How quickly your page loads has major repercussions for your design, especially since 75% of users will not return to a website if it does not load within four seconds. Research has found that simply speeding up your site can result in a 7% to 15% increase in conversions.

There are many tools that can evaluate the performance of your site and offer insights to improve the structure. We recommend starting with a simple site speed test, which can give you an idea of where your site’s current speed stands and how it compares to your competitors. Don’t forget to check your mobile site as well, since most users expect an experience comparable to their desktop.

If your site is running slowly, you need to think about the following:

  • Group images into CSS Sprites, and CSS and JavaScript files into masters, to reduce on the number of files that need to be loaded.
  • Go for a sleek, minimal look; fewer effects means a faster site (and the clean, minimal look will also please your viewers).

Of course, monitoring the complete health of your website requires more than just these three quick tips, so make sure you become well acquainted with Google Analytics, as well as important red flags to watch out for.

Luke Clum is a designer and web developer from Seattle. Follow him on Twitter @lukeclum

Use your Body’s Electrical Field to Authenticate

Courtesy Mike Riley, Dr Dobbs Bloggers

As the world continues to convert objects into digital identifiers and expand the Internet of Things, electronics manufacturers are expanding their product offerings to take on this exciting transformative opportunity. Arizona-based Microchip Technology has recently developed a system that uses a person’s own electrical field to transfer and communicate information. Their system, called BodyCom, has numerous applications, ranging from authentication and pairing, to safety and automation scenarios.

While passive RFID technologies can be employed for some of this kind of activity, they don’t offer the level of security or extensible programmability that BodyCom has to offer. Plus, BodyCom’s claim to fame is that it must be within a small radius near a living human body to work.

BodyCom Concept
Figure 1: The BodyCom concept.

BodyCom works via capacitive coupling and allows for bidirectional communication with a controller. In other words, your body becomes the electrical conduit that the BodyCom system uses to communicate. As such, the system uses the body as a means of authentication. It also prevents relay attacks due to its proximity and conformity with the body it is using as its conduit. And because the system also supports AES-128 and other encryption approaches, it can be used with far more confidence than a traditional RFID key-lock system.

Developing a BodyCom Application

Microchip offers the BodyCom Development Kit for $149, which can be directly ordered from their website. The development kit consists of a programmable base station board and two generic keyfob-enclosed mobile units. The base station uses a PIC16LF1829 20-pin Flash MCU with XLP technology that can be programmed and powered via the included mini-USB to USB 5V cable connected to a computer running Microsoft Windows. The board can also be powered via a standard 9V power supply. The main development board also hosts a 16×2 character LCD with backlight and controller for basic information display. There are also several push buttons, LED’s, prototyping pins, jumpers, and two coupling board pads for easy prototyping.

BodyCom Development Kit
Figure 2: The BodyCom development kit.

The mobile units use a PIC16LF1827 18-pin Flash MCU, two LED’s, and several other components to help minimize power consumption because they need to be actively powered by a 3V battery to work. Both the base and mobile units feature on-chip programmable Flash memory and EEPROM storage for custom development.

It took me about ten minutes to get oriented with the board, and even less time to connect it to my computer and run the demonstration program included in the development kit software.

Unfortunately, the SDK is Windows-only at this time, with no Mac or Linux version in sight. Fortunately, the board and mobile units come preloaded with a demonstration program that can be operated using the four push buttons and the LCD via a simple navigational menu to check for BodyCom Eval Touch, Eval Proximity, Debug Menu, and View Mobile ID. These provide a quick way to verify that the hardware is working correctly.

The development software running on a Windows PC offers basic boot and application loading, as well as serial monitoring of the board’s activity. The user interface isn’t exciting and could use some polish, but it is functional. After studying the demo code that accompanies the SDK, I was able to create a very simple detection program that validated the specific mobile unit I used. I would like to further extend the idea to home automation and use the BodyCom system for a door lock scenario, similar to the one I wrote about in my book, Programming Your Home.

However, until Microchip Technology offers an easy way to hook in events from the main board with a serial library example application that lives within a COM object or .NET library I can repurpose for my own programs, this will have to wait for a rainy day when I have the time to code up a custom approach instead.


The BodyCom System Development Kit offers a unique way to use the human body as a conduit for authentication and security. There is enough electronics on the main board to mock up prototypes for a variety of applications. As Microchip Technology continues to iterate on this idea, there’s no doubt that the components (especially the mobile units) will become smaller and less expensive over time. Eventually, it’s possible that we will see BodyCom-enabled devices in consumer electronics, ATM’s, company entrances, vehicles, and more. Get ready for the Internet of Things where man meets machine.

For more information about BodyCom, visit Microchip Technology’s Web page.

How Microsoft is using Yammer inside the company

Courtesy Mary Jo Foley for All About Microsoft, ZDNet Blog

Microsoft officials have discussed publicly the company’s planned timeline for integrating its Yammer enterprise social-networking technology with products like SharePoint.


Now they’re also starting to talk about how Microsoft employees themselves are using Yammer inside the company.

Several recent blog posts on Microsoft’s Enterprise site are highlighting Microsoft’s "Next Generation Intranet" project, in which Yammer now seems to be playing a starring role.

Here’s the back story: Microsoft’s IT department realized the company’s Intranet was more of a one-way communication vehicle (broadcasting from management to the masses) than a true, two-way one, company officials said. They also found the self-provisioning of SharePoint sites inside the company was leading to duplication of effort and a costly duplication of services, like search, social, video, etc. To give a sense of scale, Microsoft has more than 170,000 full-time employees plus contractors; 360,000 distribution lists and more than 200,000 SharePoint sites with about 30 terabytes of content distributed among three data centers, according to a post on the Microsoft Enterprise blog.

A make-over was needed. The plan took on an admittedly lofty working name of "Next-generation Intranet." Microsoft made some tweaks around the SharePoint My Sites to accommodate aggregated social feeds, profiles, search and recommendations as part of internal dogfooding of SharePoint 2013.

And then Microsoft bought enterprise social-networking vendor Yammer in June 2012.

The Microsoft IT team looked at how Yammer employees were collaborating and "compared notes with the product teams and others in the industry." The team identified four ways Yammer brought value to collaboration and engagement scenarios. And it came up with some guidance as to when it makes sense to use SharePoint with/vs. Yammer.

From a guest post on the "Office of the CIO" blog by Chris Slemp, principal solutions manager and Certified Yammer Administrator, in Microsoft IT:

"What we’re providing with a combination of SharePoint Online and Yammer is a set of options that vary a little in complexity, depending on their needs. If they’re working largely on their own deliverable and just need to share it with just a few individuals or broadly, we’ve encouraged employees to think of ‘share as the new save’ and to store their docs in SkyDrive Pro, a new feature of SharePoint 2013. Since broad availability in October 2012, we’ve seen growth in SkyDrive Pro usage to 95,000 personal sites.

"Employees that need to collaborate now have two options: a SharePoint Online site (which already number 18,000 and growing) or a Yammer group. Teams that rely primarily on document management features favor SharePoint sites, and those teams that are more focused on the conversations lean toward Yammer groups. Increasingly, we are providing options of embedding Yammer feeds into SharePoint sites for people that want a mixture of the two."

Microsoft is in the midst of making Yammer the news feed inside SharePoint for Office 365/SharePoint customers, not just its own employees, as officials have acknowledged. That integration is happening this summer, Microsoft officials have said, and is likely to be part of aJune/July Office 365 update.

Microsoft’s IT department came up with some other internal guidance, too. The IT team is "encouraging mobile employees to use the Yammer application for Windows Phone 8 so they can check their main feed, then just swipe over to view and interact with their groups." It also is enabling Yammer external networks, so that Microsoft employees can collaborate with people outside the Microsoft Yammer network. (Some of these networks are sponsored by Microsoft for use in collaborating with customers and partners). The team also is planning to enable external sharing via SharePoint Online, primarily for project teams with heavy document management needs, according to the blog post.

"Our goal is to balance collaboration and IT control, which SharePoint Online does for us. It helps reduce the risk of employees posting high-business impact and medium-business impact materials on consumer online services like SkyDrive and DropBox," the post noted.

Microsoft used Yammer internally to keep its employees connected (and from Tweeting or Facebooking externally) information around its most recent company meeting. During the course of that meeting, "we saw more than 9,000 posts by 2,700 unique individuals during the 6-hour event," said Slemp.

The latest internal count: There are 94,000 Yammer accounts inside Microsoft, with 17,000 "engaged" users and about 25,000 messages posted per week.

Skype account hijack technique may affect all users

Courtesy Violet Blue for Zero Day, ZDNet Blog


According to security researcher @TibitXimer (A.K.A. Dylan) his Skype account was stolen six times, and now claims all Skype user accounts are vulnerable to the same fate due to Skype’s flimsy account recovery practices – which are especially thin, as he discovered the hard way, when contacting customer service.

When he contacted Skype support, reps didn’t appear to acknowledge that the issue was immediate… and repeating.

Perhaps that is because his account had been hijacked through basic social engineering techniques and not hacked – as then he learned that the problem was with contacting customer service itself.

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Look Out Google Fiber, $35-A-Month Gigabit Internet Comes to Vermont

Courtesy Shalini Ramachandran, WSJ

Heads up Google GOOG -0.95% Fiber: A rural Vermont telephone company might just have your $70 gigabit Internet offer beat.

Vermont Telephone Co. (VTel), whose footprint covers 17,500 homes in the Green Mountain State, has begun to offer gigabit Internet speeds for $35 a month, using a brand new fiber network. So far about 600 Vermont homes have subscribed.

VTel’s Chief Executive Michel Guite says he’s made it a personal mission to upgrade the company’s legacy phone network, which dates back to 1890, with fiber for the broadband age. The company was able to afford the upgrades largely by winning federal stimulus awards set aside for broadband. Using $94 million in stimulus money, VTel has invested in stringing 1,200 miles of fiber across a number of rural Vermont counties over the past year. Mr. Guite says the gigabit service should be available across VTel’s footprint in coming months.

VTel joins an increasing number of rural telephone companies who, having lost DSL share to cable Internet over the years, are reinvesting in fiber-to-the-home networks.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that more than 700 rural telephone companies have made this switch, according to the Fiber to the Home Council, a trade group, and Calix Inc.CALX +5.13%, a company that sells broadband equipment to cable and fiber operators. That comes as Google’s Fiber project, which began in Kansas City and is now extending to cities in Utah and Texas, has raised the profile of gigabit broadband and has captured the fancy of many city governments around the country.

“Google has really given us more encouragement,” Mr. Guite said. Mr. Guite said he was denied federal money for his upgrades the first time he applied, but won it the second time around–after Google had announced plans to build out Fiber.

Incumbent cable operators have largely downplayed the relevance of Google’s project, saying that it’s little more than a publicity stunt. They have also questioned whether residential customers even have a need for such speeds.

Mr. Guite says it remains to be seen whether what VTel is doing is a “sustainable model.” He admits that it’s going to be hard work ahead of VTel to educate customers about the uses of gigabit speeds. Much like Google Fiber in Kansas City, VTel has been holding public meetings in libraries and even one-on-one meetings with elderly folks to help them understand what gigabit Internet means, Mr. Guite said.

The Express Bus to Hell

Courtesy Sean Gallagher, ArsTechnica

People complain about businesses online all the time. But one bus company’s campaign to shut down its Internet haters has expanded into an array of lawsuits and, most recently, threats against a reddit forum moderator.

Suburban Express is a bus line that caters to students, providing weekend lifts into the Chicago area from colleges in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. The company has developed a bad reputation online, withreviewers on Yelp and commenters on reddit sharing stories of what they claim are the company’s cutthroat business practices. For example, the company’s ticket policy includes a "ticket fraud" clause that hits riders who hand the wrong ticket to a driver with a $100 fine, charged to the credit card used to purchase their ticket. "In the event that ticket is used to obtain transportation on another day or at another time," the company’s policy statement reads, "or to or from a Chicago area stop other than printed on your ticket, you will be charged full fare for the trip you actually rode PLUS $100 penalty. You will also be permanently banned." The company also has a history of suing passengers for violating its terms and conditions—it has filed 125 tort and contract damage lawsuits against passengers this year alone, according to a report from a student newspaper.

The terms of service don’t include not speaking ill of the company online, but apparently they might as well. Some commenters have accused the company’s owner, Dennis Toeppen, of hunting down negative reviewers and banning them from the company’s buses.

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