How Much Is That Service in the Window?

About 2 years into grad school I began to realize the importance of paying for the things that you love. So many of the apps and services that I used offered a free tier that I used and abused as much as possible because I was a student with very little extra money to spend. A probably embarrassing amount of time was spent looking for free alternatives to the things I really wanted to use. I preferred Zotero over EndNote, I used R instead of SPSS, and I endlessly waffled between Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive depending on who was offering the most free GBs. But I also found that many of the things I loved disappeared because they didn’t find a way to support themselves. Several online services that I enjoyed, like Turntable.fm, disappeared because they could not create the revenue they needed to continue operation. And as a perpetual mooch, I was a part of the problem. So I resolved that, when I could, I would support the applications that I loved to use, because I want them to stick around.

I recently finished grad school and moved on to a real job at a real university, which means I’ve recently moved from having $0 of discretionary income to having approximately$10 of discretionary income each month. Through my time in grad school I survived off of the “free” tier of so many freemium products it’s not even funny. Evernote, Pocket, LastPass, Spotify, Dropbox, Github, and so many other products have the courtesy to offer me a free tier that allows me to use their services without breaking the bank. As a broke student, I appreciated and fully availed myself of those options. Now that I’m out of school, I feel a bit of an obligation to support those services that supported me so well during those lean times. Now comes the issue of cost, however. Most of these services offer a paid tier that gives a few extra bonus features. The question now comes to how much am I willing to pay. I wish I could afford to support all of the services that I love so much, but in glancing around, it’s just not possible.

The true impetus for this post comes from Pushbullet’s recent announcement of their paid tier, Pushbullet Pro. Pushbullet is one of those services I’ve been using pretty much since its creation. It allows me to push links and text back and forth between my phone and computer, and over the time it’s been around has added text messaging and universal copy-paste to its repertoire. With Pushbullet Pro, they have moved some of the previously free features into a paid tier subscription of $5/month or$40/year. Immediately outrage ensued from Pushbullet’s huge fanbase at reddit.com/r/Android and reddit.com/r/Pushbullet. Many have been crying for an opportunity to support the developers, but when the paid plan came out, most seemed to find it too expensive.

In a world of freemium and subscription services, how can a service know what to charge? Most (if not all) operate on elastic demand curves, so charging too much will lead people to seek alternatives, while charging too little may result in more paid customers, but potentially lower total revenue. I investigated the paid options for some of the services I would like to support, and here’s what I came up with:

Pushbullet 5.00 40 https://www.pushbullet.com/pro |
Focusatwill 11.83 100 https://www.focusatwill.com/15dt-new/ |
Office 10 100 https://products.office.com/en-us/office-365-home |
Feedly na 65 https://feedly.com/i/pro |
Dropbox 10 100 https://www.dropbox.com/pro |
Github 7 na https://github.com/pricing |
Crashplan 6 60 https://store.code42.com/store/ |
Audible 15 na http://www.audible.com/pap |

And this is nowhere near a comprehensive list. If I were to pay for all of the services I would like to pay for, I’d be broke. And I would love to pay to support a lot of these services. However, how much I pay for each of these services and how much value each provides for me are extremely important.

This brings me to the question: how much should you charge for your service? Keeping in mind that your customers likely have a huge number of awesome sites and services with great paid options, how do you decide what price your service is worth to your customers? Here is where I believe Pushbullet made some crucial mistakes. Pushbullet hit a huge wall with their extremely loyal fanbase. Where did they go wrong? I believe Pushbullet made two big mistakes with the Pro service:

1. Removing previously free features to begin charging for them
2. Charging too much

Crippling the app

The first mistake was crippling the free version of the app in order to charge for it. Some may argue that this is necessary. Pushbullet as it existed prior to the introduction of Pro was really an amazing app that provided virtually everything its users wanted. How else would they get people to upgrade to a paid service than move certain features behind a paywall? This hit a nerve with a lot of fans.

Pushbullet isn’t the first service to begin charging for things that were once free. The New York Times has fought to find a way to charge users to read the news, on an Internet where information wants to be free. But Pushbullet hit hard because not only were they charging for something that was free, they were charging what seemed an exorbitant price for it.

Charging too much

As I mentioned before, pricing any service is difficult, especially in a space where you are really the only actor. Nobody else was providing cross-platform link-pushing, clipboard-sharing, and notification sharing the way Pushbullet does. These services were something users found valuable. But just how valuable was the issue.

When it comes to paying for services online, I believe there are two tiers: (1) the full-fledged application, and (2) the auxiliary service. Evernote, Spotify, and others like it fall into the full-fledged application category. $5-10 per month is a great price, because you use these services daily, and they perform in multiple parts of your life, or take the place of other things. Spotify takes the place of purchasing music, so paying$10/month feels like a great deal, because that’s less than the cost of buying 1 album per month. Evernote can take the place of several other premium note taking apps such as OneNote, and provides additional functionality by allowing clipping web pages and other things. So a $5/month (less, really, since you pay annually) is a fairly good price. Other things, though, fall into more of an add-on service category. These are applications that add some functionality to things I already do. LastPass is a great example. Web browsers allow me to sync passwords already. LastPass makes that a bit more secure, and decouples it from a particular browser. Allowing me to take it mobile costs$1/month. It’s an add-on. Pocket is a service that I’m not willing to pay the premium price for. I can save pages to read later with bookmarks. I don’t need Pocket to read webpages; it just makes it more convenient. So paying \$5/month is not worth it to me. PushBullet is in the same category.

I don’t need Pushbullet. I can text on my phone, or I can use Google Voice to text from my computer. I don’t need Pushbullet to share links between my phone and computer. I can use Google Keep to save a link, and it’s instantly available on any device. I don’t need Pushbullet to respond to notifications on my phone. I can open my phone for that. In short, all of Pushbullet’s functionality can be replicated with just a bit more work. So it falls into the category of an add-on or auxiliary service rather than a full-fledged application providing unique options.

In the end, pricing online services is tricky. It’s never easy to get people to pay for something that was previously free. But you have to take into consideration where your service fits into people’s lives. And how much value you are actually adding.

Back in Action

Man, it’s been a while. With the craziness of first trying to finish a dissertation in time, then trying to defend that dissertation, then packing and moving half-way across the country, then staring a new job, teaching a class (I’ve taught it before, but I’m trying to make it more awesome), and all that those entail, I haven’t even had time to think about the blog. Add to that the complication that I ended up removing my Linux server VM from my computer when I screwed something up horribly and had to reinstall. That broke my Octopress deployment process, so for a while there I didn’t even know how to update my blog, even if I’d had time to do it.

But here I am. I’ve got the blog deployment back up and running, and I can maybe see myself making time to write up some tutorials about things I run across. I’m working on creating a set of networking labs using Vagrant and Virtualbox, so maybe I’ll talk about some of the things I’ve learned from that. I’m sure I’ll also talk about the experience of moving from grad school to professorhood, but that’s still pretty new, so I’ll let things settle down a bit before I try to distill my thoughts.

Anyway, I’m back. I’m still alive. And moving sucks and I never want to do it again.

LaTeX vs Word (Again)

A recently published article in PLoS ONE, entitled “An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development” (link here) lit the world on fire. Okay, not really. In fact, most people, including researchers and even LaTeX enthusiasts have probably not read it. And that’s fine. Because it’s not very good. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The article focuses on the differences in “efficiency” of LaTeX and Word when writing academic research articles. Authors Knauff and Nejasmic apparently have some sort of bone to pick with LaTeX users, because the entire article, but most especially the conclusions, have a very clear pro-Word bias. To add my voice to the article linked above, I wanted to express my frustration with a few aspects of the article that I found particularly poor.

The researchers used a set of 30 minute document duplication tasks to measure efficiency between Word and LaTeX users. Experienced and novice users of LaTeX and Word were given a single page of a research article to reproduce in their preferred method, and were given 30 minutes to do so. Efficiency was measured in words typed, typographical errors, and formatting and other errors produced. The three types of task were (1) a plain text article, including a page header, (2) a shorter article with a table, and (3) a one-page article with several mathematical formulas. On both (1) and (2), Word users “outperformed” LaTeX users, while on the formula-filled page, LaTeX users redeemed themselves.

My immediate thought on reading about the task was to question how many hours of research are spent duplicating an existing document. Sure, I’ll freely admit that LaTeX is not as easy as Word when it comes to matching formatting rules. I spent several hours last spring creating a LaTeX template for the ICIS conference (here), and it was at times frustrating. Quickly and easily matching arbitrary formatting requirements is not where LaTeX shines.

But it’s also not what research is about. Matching formatting requirements for a journal is at times frustrating and time consuming, but it’s hardly what most of us think of when we think of writing a paper. Document organization, references, statistics, collaboration, version control (at least when collaborating, but even if not), and who knows what else are all much more important when creating a research paper. These (yes, even statistics with knitr) are where LaTeX and its magic shine through. I’ve written multiple times about the learning curve of LaTeX, but throughout it all I will continue to sing its praises, though maybe it’s just cognitive dissonance (more on that in a bit).

LaTeX’s big draw, and it’s main selling point to me, is that it separates the formatting of the document and the content of the document in a decent, logical way. About a year ago I was collaborating with a colleague preparing an article for submission to a conference. I’d bullied and badgered him into using LaTeX, and it was going really well. We were able to create the entire document and review it in a nice, double-spaced format. When it came time for submission, we found the conference’s LaTeX style, applied it to the document, and in about 15 seconds our entire document was reformatted to meet the requirements. We’d saved at least an hour, probably more, of battling with Word to reformat everything.

If a journal or conference provides both a LaTeX and Word template, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that adapting an existing article to the formatting requirements would be easier in LaTeX than in Word. The benefit of the separation of content and formatting is that changing the formatting can be done independent of the content of the document.

So, in summary, the task was basically rigged (either intentionally or not) to favor Word. And it’s barely related to what writing a paper looks like.

Discussion and Conclusions

Woo-wee did the authors overreach with their conclusions. After seeing that Word users outperformed LaTeX users on the 30 minute sprint tasks, they took extensive creative liberty in extrapolating their findings. Here are the highlights:

• Because Word users outperformed LaTeX on all but the equation text, only journals that use equations should accept LaTeX formatted documents.
• LaTeX users were more satisfied about their experience creating a document, but only because they have cognitive dissonance and essentially lie to themselves about enjoying it to justify the time they have spent learning and using it.
• Tax dollars are spent supporting research, and some of those dollars pay to create LaTeX documents, and so are wasted because people aren’t using a more efficient document preparation system (i.e., Word) instead.
• Therefore, leading journals should ban LaTeX submissions in order to save researchers from themselves, and to save tax money.

Pretty strong claims for a single experiment with 40 participants. I guess the validity of their conclusions really hinges on the validity of their task as a proxy for research. I have made my opinion pretty clear: I think the experimental task stinks, is a Word-friendly, but LaTeX-nonfriendly task, and that it’s not a valid proxy for what doing research and writing a paper looks like. Given that, their conclusions are an even bigger stretch.

Suggestions for improvement

I understand that doing experiments is difficult, time consuming, and often frustrating. No experiment will perfectly mirror the real world environment it is attempting to represent. However, this paper has a few major shortcomings that prevent my recommending it for publication. The following are my suggestions for the authors:

• Find a new task. One that more closely mirrors actual research. Add in a few LaTeX-friendly items like a bibliography with a couple dozen citations. Or dealing with figures, tables, and cross-references when those things move around.
• Compare the ease of adapting an existing text to new requirements. That’s what research looks like when, say, a paper is rejected from one journal and must be submitted to a new one.
• Compare the different LaTeX tools. You mention in the article that the different tools are vastly different in capability. To quote: “Another characteristic of our study is that it is practically impossible to evaluate LaTeX without also evaluating the used editors.” You said it yourself. Do it.
• Please please please tone down your discussion section. I know it is tempting to extrapolate your findings to saving billions of dollars in wasted research time due to LaTeX, but the limitations of your current design simply don’t allow you to make those claims.

Just because, in this one task Word performs better does not mean that you can throw LaTeX out with the bath water.

LaTeX for Researchers, Part 3: Figures

If you’re just joining us, it’s probably best to start out with my first two posts:

Now that we’ve covered how to do create a document and how to add citations, the next major items we need to be able to put in a research manuscript are figures. First we’ll talk about differences between LaTeX and Word in how they handle figures. Then we’ll dig into how to include figures in our document.

LaTeX for Researchers, Part 2: Citations

Review

In Part 1 we covered the very basics of creating a document. With that you have basically everything you need to start writing your paper. Here’s a quick review of the basic commands:

1. \documentclass{article} is the first thing in your document, and it tells LaTeX you want to use the “article” style.
2. \title and \author give LaTeX the basic information about your paper to put in the Title area.
3. \begin{document} and \end{document} are the beginning and ending of the content of your paper. Anything before the \begin is part of the preamble.
4. \section, \subsection and \subsubsection are the commands to create section headers. That’s imporant for styling your document.

A quick reminder here: the beauty of LaTeX comes from not worrying about the formatting while you write your document. I used to think this was weird, since I have to think about it when I put in the \section or whatever other tags. But I was wrong. When you use a section tag, you are simply telling LaTeX what it is, not how it should look. The template, in this case article, takes care of the looks for you. It also makes changing the formatting of a document a much more consistent process than if you instead said “I want these 3 words to be 24pt font, bold, and with a 2 line break after.” Simply saying \section means you can change all section headers at the same time.

Citations

One of the big issues when writing a research paper is citation management. For this reason, about 150 tools exist to help researchers get through it. You can use EndNote, Mendeley, Qiqqa, Zotero, Word’s built-in (blech!), or a gajillion other citation management packages to take care of it for you. Some of them work better than others, but I have yet to find one that doesn’t break for sometimes silly reasons. Sometimes the bibliography isn’t right, sometimes citations aren’t quite right, and I have never found one that works well when collaborating with a bunch of people.

So, why not use LaTeX? As with all things LaTeX, it’s going to take a bit of work to learn, but in the long run, the payoff in terms of reduced headaches, panic attacks, and nights spent crying wondering why you can’t change the title of this article to Title Case will make it all worthwhile. So let’s get started.

LaTeX for Researchers, Part 1: Setting Up

So, I’ve already tried to make it clear that I really hate Word for creating academic documents. The biggest reason is that it frequently screws things up. So I use LaTeX, and I think you should too. Admittedly, it’s not always possible. Some journals, conferences, or other venues require submission in Word. Sometimes you have collaborators who absolutely will not go through the effort of learning LaTeX. But if you have the opportunity, I absolutely recommend that you use LaTeX.

Here are just a couple of the advantages of LaTeX:

1. Plain text source files. If something breaks, you only have to look through the plain text files to find and fix it. If something breaks in a Word document, you pretty much have to find an old version and then redo all your work.
2. Version control. Version control is commonly thought of for source code. Programmers use it to keep track of changes, so that if things break they have a working version to fall back on. The same thing goes for LaTeX documents. You can create versions of your document as you go along, which allows you to keep old versions around without having 65 copies of the draft in your working directory.

LaTeX ICIS Template

As most everyone who works with me knows, I’m a huge advocate of LaTeX. If not for LaTeX, at least a huge opponent of Word. Word is sometimes okay if you’re doing a simple document without a lot of formatting, but once I start dealing with formatting a large document according to some specification, things always seem to go downhill. I’ll press enter in the wrong place and all of a sudden my entire paragraph is formatted as a section header. Or a number list will decide to continue from previously, or not continue, depending on Word’s temperament that day.

That is why I love LaTeX. It has a pretty steep startup cost (in terms of time), but the benefits in longer documents or with fancier formatting are huge. I love the way a LaTeX document looks, and most importantly I love that if something is screwed up in my document, I can fix it. If something isn’t behaving how I want, I go back to the document and figure out what’s going on. I’m no longer at the mercy of Word’s formatter.

I’m currently preparing a few documents for submission to the International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS). The good folks at ICIS have allowed PDF submissions, which is unfortunately not true for some others. Unfortunately, they only provide the document specifications in a Word template. So I took this as an opportunity to expand my skills and achieve LaTeX ninja-hood. Rather than deal with Word’s template and its formatting issues, I decided to create a special document class for ICIS this year.

Currently it’s a work in progress, but it’s nearly complete. The only remaining task is to get bibtex to properly format citations. ICIS has elected to use the MISQ citation style rather than a standard style like Chicago or APA, so I’ll get to dig into the depths of bibtex to get those formatted correctly.

In the meantime, it’s a fully functioning template. Download it from Github at the link below, take it for a spin, and let me know if you run into any problems. Any bugs would just be further opportunity to learn about the details of LaTeX.

LaTeX ICIS template on Github

UPDATE: The MISQ citation format has been added. It has handled books, articles, proceedings, and collections that I’ve thrown at it. Please let me know if you find anything that breaks.

Using Git and Bitbucket for Collaborative Research

I have been trying for a few years to get my coworkers to work on projects together using Git repositories for version control, and usually to varying levels of success. I finally took the time to hammer out a beginner’s guide to collaborating with git, using Github for Windows as the software interface and Bitbucket as the online repo host.

I chose Github for Windows because it’s easy to use and it’s pretty. Also, it works just as well with Bitbucket repositories as it does with Github repos. I use Bitbucket mostly because it lets me have as many private repos as I need for free. That way if I have information or stats that I don’t feel like sharing with the world just yet, I can keep them private.

As a newbie to Git myself, it was good for me to write these things down so I can understand what’s going on a little better. Also, I have never quite found a guide that explained how to actually collaborate in a way that made sense to me. Hopefully this will do the trick.

So here’s the guide. Feel free to use this for your own projects, or to introduce the git workflow to colleagues. I’ll probably add to this as I learn more and better understand common problems.

Why I Left Qiqqa for Mendeley

I love software that makes my life easier. As an academic, I do a lot of reading. I read a lot (I mean a lot) of PDF articles on a huge variety of topics. I have a virtual stack of papers that would probably reach half-way to Phoenix and cost a forest if I printed them all out. Of course I’ll never get to read them all, but just in case.

So as a new student of academia, I started looking for a good way to organize my files. Surely there must be a better system than storing random PDFs in whatever nonsensical names their publishers give them in a million places on my hard drive. That’s when I first discovered Mendeley. It was a dream come true.

I Have Nothing to Say

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way sometimes. I just sat down at the computer to write a blog post, and within seconds my mind had gone completely blank. I stared at the “Your Post Title” block at the top of the page, and the two giant white block for writing, and absolutely nothing came to mind. Absolutely nothing.

So I started writing anyway. During my freshman year at BYU I had a strikingly similar experience as part of the writing class all students are required to take. We were assigned to write a narrative about some experience in our lives. With no more guidance than that, I sat a computer for a long time coming to the realization that nothing terribly interesting had ever happened to me.

So as I sat looking at the white page Word gave me, I just started writing about the assignment. I wrote about the story I started writing before realizing it was too boring. I wrote about the time I spent staring at the blank screen. I wrote about the inspiration to start writing about writing. And slowly but surely I filled the pages. That paper was the best grade I got in that class. I have my doubts that this will be the best blog post I ever write. I really hope not.

I learned something about myself that day. I learned that I really can’t stand a blank page. I’ve found the same over and over again with writing conference papers. Starting from scratch sucks. Getting those first few paragraphs written down is important for me, as it makes the whole experience seem less daunting.

Considering I restarted this blogging effort 3 days ago and I’m already struggling, I know this is going to be hard. But I also know it will be worth it.