Outlook.com – The Journey Starts Today

Lumia 900 Windows Phone

One of the exciting things about being a real estate agent is you can really integrate technology in a meaningful way on an every day basis. I don’t have all the gizmos and gadgets just to “have” them. I can’t imagine doing business without them.

I recently upgraded to the Lumia 900 which I think was new to AT&T when I got it, but not “new” generally speaking. I liked it so much that I bought matching nail polish and even matching outfits to go with it. ūüôā I do miss the Samsung Focus now and again, but my partner Kim still has it, so I can switch over if needed. So far I think the audio is better on the Focus as is the camera. The audio is a Nokia hardware problem…well, actually it’s as good as the iPhone I had before the Samsung Focus, but the Samsung product is superior to both the iPhone and the Nokia Lumia 900. Still…the Lumia is exciting for a lot of other reasons and I like both of my Windows Phones better than I did the iPhone…and that’s saying a lot.

I have not used Outlook for a long time having switched to gmail. One of the reasons is I deal with very large file attachments often and Outlook just couldn’t handle that well. Yes…maybe it was more secure, but thinking every home flyer or contract was “too large” to go into my inbox was a huge problem for my business. gmail never seems to block any of my emails with large attachments.

I switch back and forth from chrome to IE but generally only use IE when I “have to”, which is for contracts. That I “have to” kind of ticks me off, I have to say.

Well today we have a new “Outlook” experience, and I’m going to give it a whirl. Many of my clients work at Microsoft and I try to test out all the newest things and use them in my business. A fair amount of my clients work at Google as well, so I try both and use the best of each. The only product I have that is neither is my iPad, but I have to say the new Lumia 900 Windows Phone (coupled with some annoying NWMLS snafus in the newest upgrade) has all but made my iPad obsolete. But that’s another story.

Here’s what Microsoft has to say about their new Email Journey:

“An experience with no compromises
Outlook.com is the first step in creating one complete experience for the next generation of communications. Email should be connected to your friends ‚Äď whether they like to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, or a combination. Email should let you get more done, faster ‚Äď with immediate access to your inbox and tools that can automatically categorize, move, or delete messages you don’t want. Email should be deeply integrated with other services ‚Äď for Outlook.com, you’ll find that Office Web Apps, SkyDrive, and, soon, Skype come built right in. And we hope you have already noticed our fast, beautiful user experience.”
I loved Outlook for a very long time and some of the gmail features make it difficult at times, so I will be giving this new email product a try…but I’m far from abandoning my gmail. Will let you know if it ever comes to that.



Low Inventory? Be Pro-Active

Low Inventory continues to be an issue for many. This weekend there were so many people at one of the houses I was showing, buyers with their agents, that it looked like an Open House. A few days before agents and buyers were standing in line out front (different house) waiting to “show”.

This is often the case with new listings this time of year, and just because there is a crowd in the first few days does not mean the house will sell in short order. The first one I mentioned did have 5 offers by late afternoon, but the 2nd is still Active with no offers.

One of the ways to be pro-active about inventory is to identify what you want in advance. If you have seen many houses over the last 6 months to a year and know which neighborhoods you want to live in, you can contact owners to find the one or two who are planning to list their homes in the next several weeks. It could give you a leg up.

I have a client who wants to spend about $400,000 for a house in X area. The best homes at that price are in X neighborhood. Only about 50% of the homes in that neighborhood fall at that price. You should not contact ALL of the owners in that neighborhod. Rather sort by square footage and assessed value.

1) If you know the minimum size of home you want is 2,200 sf, then first eliminate all of the small homes from the list using the tax records.

2) If you know you want to spend no more than $400,000 to $450,000, and all of the recent sales in the neighborhood have been at roughly 1.13 X Assessed Value (which is about the “going rate” right now for good areas and homes) you can next sort by Assessed Value. The lower valued homes you likely already ruled out based on square footage. So in the 2nd sort you are knocking off those that will sell for more than you want to spend. If 30% of the homes are assessed at more than $450,000, you can knock those off the “pro-active” list. Doesn’t mean one might not hit the market as a short sale or REO listing. Just means they are not the “target” for pro-active contact.

Now you have a nice list of 50% of the homes in the neighborhood that should be large enough for you, and should sell at the price you want to spend. Odds are maybe at least one or two of those are thinking about selling this Spring, and will be happy to not have to worry about whether or not it will sell. They may receive your letter and be very happy to have a ready, willing and able buyer without having to list their home.

I am not saying that is the best way for a seller to approach selling their home…but for a buyer who is fed up with the waiting game, only to find 5 offers when a suitable house comes on market, this is not a bad way to jump to the front of the line.

Being Pro-Active vs Reactive also feels like you are doing something to reach your objectives, and can be a very rewarding strategy.

OpenSearch is beyond cool ‚Äď it‚Äôs the new cold

I was reading Redfin’s Developer Blog and the IE blog a few months ago and I got this desire to write my own OpenSearch provider. OpenSearch was originally created by A9.com (an Amazon.com company) and was primarily designed as a way for web developers to publish search results in a standard and accessible format. This turns out to be a good idea because different types of content require different types of search engines. The best search engine for a particular type of content is frequently the search engine written by the people that know the content the best. Google is great at searching unstructured content on the internet, but when it comes to structured search on a single web site there are much better options (Endeca, FAST, Autonomy, Solr, my favorite SQL database, etc). The other benefit of OpenSearch providers is that it shifts the balance of power away from Google and back toward web browser vendors & web site developers.

Both of the major web browsers support the OpenSearch Referrer extension. IE 7+, Firefox 2+ & Chrome allows you to add search engines to your browser without leaving the web page. The best place to get started is from the browsers vendors themselves. You can add search providers from Microsoft’s site or you can add search providers from Firefox’s add-ons site. In the interest of full disclosure, Opera allows you to add search engines manually, and Safari currently does not support this feature in any form (unless you count using vi to edit the Safari executable or changing your OS’s hosts file as support, which I do not recommend).

Anyway, our developer friends at Redfin wrote a blog post about their OpenSearch provider on their dev blog some time ago. Of course, they took the easy way out by not developing an OpenSearch Suggestions extension (slackers). I decided that a search provider without suggestion support is lame, so I took a stab at creating one. I think what inspired me to write an OpenSearch suggestions provider is that the IE 8 team blogged about their new Visual Search feature (which embraces & extends the OpenSearch suggestions work that Firefox pioneered) and I could leverage the work to improve the search experience for both IE 8 & Firefox 2+ users. (And the satisfaction of having a cool feature that Redfin & Estately haven’t implemented yet was probably another factor).

This functionality is typically exposed to users, via the search engine bar, next to the address bar in your web browser. So in your page markup, you’ll add something like this that tells the browser that your web site has a search service.

<link title="RPA Real Estate Search" type="application/opensearchdescription+xml" rel="search" href="http://www.seattlehouses.com/Feeds/OpenSearch.ashx"/>

The above element points to your site OpenSearch Description XML file which describes your search service in a way the browser can understand. When you visit RPA’s site, the browser will read RPA’s OpenSearch Description file located here and unobtrusively let you add the site’s search providers.

Assuming everything is working correctly, the user should be able to visit RPA’s web site, click on the browser’s search bar to add our search provider like so‚Ķ (IE’s screen captures are on the left, Firefox’s are on the right).

I’ve also added a button in RPA’s search bar (see above right) in case site visitors don’t discover our search provider via the browser (I suspect most users would miss it otherwise).

After you’ve registered RPA’s search provider with your web browser, you can select it and just start typing. Since I’ve implemented a suggestions service, it will auto complete cities, school districts & neighborhoods as you type them (Didn’t I say this was cool?). I should note that although IE 7 & Chrome support OpenSearch, only IE 8 and Firefox currently support the suggestions providers. Anyway, if you wanted to look for listings in Bellevue, here’s what it currently looks like.

As you’ll notice, IE 8 & Firefox 3 displays suggestions differently on RPA’s site. This is intentional because IE 8 supports a newer version of the OpenSearch standards (Microsoft calls it Visual Search) and I designed RPA’s search provider to exploit this fact. In Firefox, the browser can only handle plain text suggestions, which can lead to ambiguous searches. For example, let’s say you search for Riverview. Riverview is both a neighborhood in Kent and a school district in Carnation / Duvall, so in Firefox there is no means for the user to tell the web site in which context they meant to search for when they typed in Riverview. I suppose one could create a “Did you mean” results page for cases like this, but I think that somewhat defeats the purpose of having suggestions support.

However, in IE 8, if a term has multiple contexts, the search provider can display them all and the user can select the one they meant. Also in IE 8, the search provider can display thumbnails next to the suggestions, which further helps the user quickly find what they are looking for. Although, I haven’t implemented that feature yet (mostly because I wasn’t sure what picture I should put up there for search terms that return multiple results), other web sites have. For example, if you wanted to buy a movie from Amazon or learn more about our 16th president from Wikipedia, the IE 8 search provider experience looks like this‚Ķ

As the Redfin developers stated, implementing OpenSearch Referrer extensions are surprisingly easy (so I think users will soon request them from all web sites once the word gets out). The OpenSearch Suggestions extensions are more difficult to implement because every single keystroke is essentially a REST web service call. If you aren’t careful, you could bring your web server to its knees real quick. However, given all the AJAX map based tricks today’s real estate web sites perform, this isn’t anything that a professional software engineer can’t handle.

Call me crazy, but I think OpenSearch providers are going to become bigger than RSS feeds over the next year. If IE 8’s forth coming release doesn’t launch them into the mainstream, I think future releases of Firefox & Chrome will improve upon IE 8’s good ideas. Maybe you should think of it as browser favorites on steroids? If search is sticky, then OpenSearch is superglue and duct tape. If Firefox’s suggestions support were the tip of the iceberg, then IE 8’s implementation is cooler than Barrow, Alaska. The future of OpenSearch looks bright, even if it’s cold outside.

Layoffs at Microsoft

 Hat tip Sniglet.  From Reuters and the Wall Street Journal:

Microsoft Corp. is seriously exploring significant work force reductions that could be announced as early as next week, in a sign that the weak economy is prompting tough decisions even at one of the steadiest ships in the technology industry.¬† According to people familiar with its plans, the Redmond, Wash., giant is considering layoffs across its various divisions, a rare occurrence for the world’s largest software company. However, plans for the cutbacks are still in flux and Microsoft could end up finding alternative methods of reining in costs, one of these people said.

Reuters says Microsoft might announce the job cuts when it reports quarterly earnings next week.

Speaking as a Microsoft stockholder I’m pleased to hear the company talk about cutting costs. All signs point to a global recession which means corporations must¬†control expenses.¬† Microsoft has been growing non-stop for years.¬† Many employees have never experienced any kind of staff reductions throughout their Microsoft careers.¬† Layoffs are a good time to get rid of underperforming employees.¬† Layoffs are typically political.¬† The employees that make their supervisor’s job a daily hell will be second on the list.¬†¬†

I’d like to¬†see¬†Microsoft go on a¬†diet.¬† Let’s ramp up employee productivity and get lean and strong. This is what companies do to survive tough times.¬† Long live Microsoft.

Seadragon – Microsoft iPhone App

Microsoft Seadragon iPhone App

Microsoft Seadragon iPhone App

“Seadragon Mobile comes with around 50 sample images that users can play with and Photosynth users will also be able to browse their synths, in 2D at least.”

See more at The Boy Genius…which is a very good site to add to your daily read.

Read more on Seadragon at the Micrsoft Live Labs site.

"It's Microsoft's World, Kid…

I just live in it.”

That was the¬†line in CSI: NY last night, where Microsoft’s Photosynth was used to reconstruct the events prior to and during a crime at a high school prom. They loaded up all of the photos taken on every student’s cell phone ( a big box of them).¬† Then they used Photosynth to timeline the victim and suspects¬†whereabouts in the moments before the Guidance Counselor was slain.¬† One of my clients¬†worked on this program, so I was “tuned in” last night.¬†

Rather than my trying to explain what Microsoft Live Labs¬†Photosynth is, for those who didn’t see the show last night, here’s a¬†video that Robert Scoble put up when Photosynth was the hit of¬†the O‚ÄôReilly Web 2.0 Summit in¬†the Fall of 2006.¬† Here’s another great and even better video called Nasa meets Photosynth.¬†

Another description from Wikipedia: “from Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington that analyzes digital photographs to build a three-dimensional point cloud of a photographed object.[1] Pattern recognition components compare portions of images to create points, which are then compared to convert the image into a model.”

The program last night and the Nasa meets Photosynth video give some great examples of how this technology can be used.¬† In the comments someone noted that he¬†might be able to¬†“watch his child grow up” by using this technolgy, and someone else referenced a marriage of Flickr and Photosynth for multiple purposes.¬†

As a side note, I am one of those people who didn’t like Bill Gates too much, until I saw him “honored” in the eyes of a friend from India.¬† Watching my friend speak from the standpoint of “anything is possible”, ¬†I realized what a huge role model Mr. Gates is for so many young people with dreams. When I see young people striving to¬†become great in their own right, every single day, spurned by the idea that “everyone can be great…just¬†like Bill Gates”, I bless¬†Mr. Gates¬†for¬†his ripple effect.

Someone bought me an Apple computer…I refused to use it for six months and then gave it back.¬† On the other hand, they are going to have to pry my iPhone from my cold dead hands…until Microsoft comes out with a replacement product ūüôā