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Some simple ideas
Feb 18, 2006, 6:39p - Technology

Here are some simple, fairly obvious ideas for products/features that should exist but don't (to my knowledge):

* Voicemail to text (email/SMS): Calling in to hear voicemail is a slow, tedious, annoying procedure. Instead, there should be a simple service that converts voicemail to text and sends that text to your phone and makes it available on the web. There are services which do this, but they are either limited and expensive (Spinvox is only available in the UK and costs £5/20 converted VMs; Dictomail costs $50/mo but you're limited to 15 sec for each VM) or don't actually convert the audio to text (some deliver an mp3 into your email, which isn't as convenient as the transcribed text itself). I'm looking into actually building such a service that's scalable and free, but I'm currently stalled on figuring out how to get software on Linux to dial a phone number. Leave a comment if you know of any software that might help.

* Portable Wifi indicator: There should exist a simple device (either as a keychain or as software for a cell phone or Treo) that lets you know if there are any free, open wifi networks available. It's annoying to have to open up a laptop, wake it up, connect to each unencrypted network, and then see if it will let you online for free. I guess some versions of various Palm/Windows Mobile devices probably do this, but my Treo 650 doesn't since it doesn't have Wifi. There are several keychains on the market today that tell you the signal strength of nearby wifi networks and even one that tells you the name of the network and whether it's encrypted or not, but none actually let you know if the network is open and free (i.e. doesn't require you to pay like you have to at Starbucks). I just bought the latter online, so I'll see if it's actually useful to have.

* WYSIWYG Wiki: Wikis are pages on the web that are easily editable right in the web browser. Wikipedia is the premier example of a site built on wiki technology, and we also use wikis at Google for composing, editing, and publishing online documents. Wikis are great, but would benefit from several new features (such as email notification if a document you created or an edit you made has been changed), most significantly WYSIWYG editing. What is WYSIWYG? WYSIWYG = What You See Is What You Get. Microsoft Word is a WYSIWIG editor - if you want something to display bold in print or when exported to a web page, you make it bold directly when you edit it in Word. If you want to insert an image, you just drag it or paste it onto the document. With wikis, however, you have to learn a strange new syntax. For example, if you want to insert a bullet, you need to type "[space][space][space]*". Not only can the syntax be hard to remember, sometimes it's downright bizarre (to create a section heading you need to type "---+++"?!). People are working on rich-text editing that provides the familiar formatting toolbar that we've all grown accustomed to in Word, but I'm advocating is a more integrated user experience. Specifically, I'm advocating that if you want to edit an entry on Wikipedia for example, you shouldn't have to go to a separate page that displays all the text in it's raw, unformatted form. Instead, pressing "edit" would simply cause the formatting toolbar to slide out and enable the user to edit right on the page with no page refresh and no unformatted text field. You would also be able to drag images from your desktop onto the web page and place them anywhere on the page, and the image would be uploaded and the appropriate HTML generated automatically in the background. I would bet that Jotspot will go in that direction, but I guess it's not the answer I'm looking for because the service is complicated to use for other reasons (e.g. it's not obvious how to publish documents on the service). This WYSIWYG functionality should be built into the next version of wiki technology and turned on by default.

* Mobile personalized streaming radio: Pandora is a great service for listening to a personalized streaming radio station on your computer, but what I want is a streaming radio service that I can listen too while I'm commuting. I spend 2-3 hours commuting to work everyday, and it's gotten to the point that I absolutely *hate* nearly every DJ (because they blabber about nonsense I don't care about) and song played on the radio (because they play out every song - dammit stop playing the same old green day songs!). The wimpus team spent some time last year developing a service that would deliver personalized audio content, including music, podcasts, and text converted to speech, to iTunes/iPod or a phone, but we were never able to actually get it off the ground. I think I might just setup a streaming station that I can listen to on my Treo while I drive, and finally get a tape deck installed so I can use my car's speakers. The reason I don't want to just use an iPod is that all the music I have is stale and I don't want to listen to it any more, and I don't want to spend time tracking down new music. The beauty of Pandora is that 90% of what I hear I've never heard before and I don't have to lift a finger to find it.

Read comments (1) - Comment

omar - Feb 19, 2006, 12:45a
nikhil.. you've hit on a lot of big things here. first, i know what you're talking about with the wiki pages. i think things still have a long way to go, but that whole editing bar, and rich text editing, man that has gone so far and beyond what we have had to use in the past. i really like seedwiki, as one example.

the other big problem with wikis, and i really don't know how to explain this to lay people, is the conflict issue. how are you going to generate a good ui for dealing with conflicts? and let me tell you, they happen, all the time! it's a huge challenge, i'd say almost bigger than the wysiwyg stuff, which i think is coming. it's a user interface issue that no one has yet got right.

another thing you hit on is streaming media to my ipod. actually, to be honest with you, i listen to podcasts more than my own music because of the music's staleness. actually, i was listening to music shows via podcast to get some variety too. it's a good intermediate step, but certainly there needs to be something more comprehensive.

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