Bots explained for non-techies

Recently we’ve been hearing a lot about bots (short for “robot”). In fact, it’s a buzzword found in many technology-oriented articles.

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Those of us who are less technically inclined may be wondering what’s the fuss all about. This is my brief explanation of what’s going on from a non-technical perspective. (Sorry if you think it’s oversimplified, which it intentionally is.)

Bots are most commonly used as front-end automated human assistants (“intelligent agents”). They can be employed to replace humans in customer service roles. For instance, when you go to the website of your mobile carrier or your bank, you will be able to ask the online agent your questions, regardless of your time zone or time of the day. This is so, because your queries will be handled by a bot. And, as we know, bots need neither sleep nor breaks, salaries or social security. Hence the savings for the companies. Hence the rave.

Also, bots can take food orders, call a taxi for you, book a hotel or even offer a diagnosis based on your symptoms (if you’re risky enough). In short, as everything else, bots can be useful, as long as they work right. And not all of them do, obviously, especially if abused.

Tech gurus claim we’ve entered the era of chat bots which comes with the apps decline. Chatbots are easier because they require minimum interaction (remember dozens of menus or tabs you have to navigate through in an app?) and allow voice input.

If you’d like to learn more about what’s hot down the bots’ alley, I’d recommend watching MobileBeat 2016. That’ll give you a good general idea of what it’s all about.

Hope this short post gives you a gist good enough to make sense of all the hype. Of course, that has to do with another buzz, that is A.I., but more on that later.

If you’d like to get a deeper understanding of bots, I recommend reading this series of articles.

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Smartphone as an accounting tool

Bean counting is an important issue for us freelancers. We need to be able to see at a glance where we are financially to make a decision under pressure. (For example, this job is slightly below my usual rates, should I take it? The prospect expects a prompt reply. Am I likely to meet my budget for this month without taking the jobs at sub-par rates?)

Some time ago I researched different solutions. None of them are free (except Mint, presumably, which is a Quicken spin-off.)  I looked at HarvestFreshbooks and Xero. I checked Harpoon and Cushion for forecasting. Maybe it’s just me, but all of them seem either too complicated for my needs or too expensive, or a combination of both. 

So I decided to stick with the simplest things, which are often most effective, all the commercial hype notwithstanding.

I think most people would agree that when a tool is touted as something fit for many functions and purposes, in reality it’s not too good for any of them.

In my case, it works best when I have a single tool for every major task. My two major accounting tasks are invoicing and expense/income tracking.

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Photo by Cosma

For invoicing I use Invoice Express on my PC. It’s a software with no extra frills to sidetrack you and does its job beautifully. It has an Android and iOS version, too. You can generate all kinds of reports to see overdue or outstanding invoices, totals for paid and unpaid, invoices by client, invoices by date, you name it. It is also easy to back up and it’s free as long as you’re using it for a business with less than 5 employees. Neat, eh?

For expense tracking and reports, I prefer Google Sheets. That actually covers all bases. I have a separate sheet for income by month by client plus the totals, a sheet for all my expenses and a sheet with the account balances drawn from the first two. (Why not Excel? Excel is possible when using MS Office Online, but historically I stick with Google.)

What I mean is that you want to be able to check and edit your data on your smartphone, too, right? For instance, when you’re away from your desk and you need to see what the balance on that debit card is before you make your payment at the local supermarket. So, Google Sheets works well for the purpose, if you keep your file on Google Drive. Alternatively, you can keep your Excel file on the SkyDrive to be able to access it on your handheld device via a designated app.

I also maintain a separate Excel file for keeping track and building reports of monthly income by month and year. This way I always have a bird’s view of my finances in front of me.

That’s my simple modus operandi, financially speaking. Perhaps, you could share yours and we’d all learn something new and useful. Feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

Material Design

What I like about our profession is that we constantly learn interesting or fascinating things as we do the research to complete our jobs. My recent discovery has to do with the current Android app interface. It’s most evident representations are Gmail, Google Calendar and the rest of the Google apps. By the way, the interface has a name. It’s called Material Design and is based on the idea of cards. You may have noticed that the screens you navigate to resemble memory cards that change dynamically depending on your tactile input. This input is guided by lines and shadows that prompt you to touch or tick (check) this field or the other. I think that’s based on the brilliant observation how we, humans, interact with devices.

Generally, I must admit that Google, though often criticised, deserves praise for their frequent ingenuity. If you’d like to learn more about Google software design concepts and projects, check this page. Happy browsing!

Material Design

Did you notice? (Subscriptions)

You could buy software before. Really buy it, I mean. Lament the expense (or view it as an investment, or both), pay once and it would be yours. For good.

Enter SaaS. Almost every software seller has switched to this new ingenuous scheme: you get the buyer on your hook and you never let him off. Subscriptions.

Before, it was the word reserved for the stuff in print almost exclusively. Today it’s what you see when you go to any website’s Pricing page.

Oh, and that other thing: ‘Only € 2,99 a month (paid annually)’. The part  in brackets – in fine print. 

They used to charge you once. Now they’re trying to bleed you to death.

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SaaS makes me feel like that. 

Software — Promise and Delivery

failureWhat would set a truly disruptive software apart from an ordinary one? The promise and delivery. It would deliver what is promised under Features without any additional technical training on the user’s part.  Anything truly worth your valuable while would be like that: simple enough for you to use it right away and advanced enough to do all you need it to do. These species of software are very rare. Take my solo entrepreneur’s word.