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Do’h. Smart.fm is closing down, and taking your content with it (holy crap, I made a lot for them, including a good amount of semi-pro audio, which I paid someone for). Well, they’re only kinda-sorta closing down. The parent company, Cerego is ending the Smart.fm service and rebranding it as “iKnow” (wait… hasn’t this happened before… like twice?) and slapping a monthly fee on there.

Pardon The Opinion-Piece / Rant

So, I’m going to write a bit of an opinion-ish editorial-ish rant-ish piece here. Not sure how else to do it. I feel sort of… betrayed?

It’s not because Smart.fm shouldn’t be a paid service… it probably should be. They should have done this a long time ago. My feeling of betrayal is a long term thing, that started over a year ago. Here’s my own personal timeline with Smart.fm… or should I say, iKnow? Hmm, iDon’tKnow…

I discovered iKnow.co.jp (Smart.fm was originally known as iKnow, which is what they’re turning back into now). It was awesome. Probably one of the coolest knives in the knife drawer, so to speak. I loved the heck out of them. They were great.

I kept liking them, but then they switched to Smart.fm. They were still good though.

Then, they got a new UI designer (or something, I don’t know what happened), and everything became hard to use. Things started breaking/sucking, and nothing worked as well as it used to. For learners and people creating content, things just weren’t as easy as they used to be. Someone ruined it, and I don’t know the details. I just know Smart.fm slowly got harder and harder to use (actually it got even worse than this, but keep reading).

I met with one of the co-founders in San Francisco, when he was visiting / talking with people (possibly for investments?). I won’t tell you which one, because I like the guy. We talked about all kinds of things, but one thing that sticks out was his promise that Smart.fm would always be free. Ads? Definite probability… White labeling? Perhaps… but never a pay-to-use kind of program. Whoops. I guess that wasn’t actually his decision to make. We even met regarding a deal that would give him a lot of free content. Good thing it fell through, otherwise that particular content would have been their free content they could now charge for.

Things kept getting worse with the UI. It got harder to create content. It used to take almost no time to create cards… now it takes forever. Things not only loaded slow, but they added a ton of unnecessary steps in order for me to get something set up, making it hard to get things done. Other people started noticing this. For some reason, I had faith that it would get better, yet it only kept getting worse.

I start hearing from various (secret… ahem) contacts about problems from within Smart.fm – the engineers don’t respect the management. The management don’t really understand how to work with engineers. The engineers just kind of do what they want, there is no direction, and nothing gets done. In the meantime, however, Smart.fm raises a ton of money (because their executives, while not good at managing engineers, do happen to be good at raising a lot of money). I hear more and more about how working at Smart.fm isn’t all that great… and when your engineers aren’t happy and they don’t respect you, that’s never a good sign…

Then, things started breaking. My content (which was awesome, and now is kind of broken) started getting mixed up weirdly. Audio would shift around seemingly at random, pairing the wrong audio with the wrong word (audio that either I recorded or paid someone to record for me). My example sentences were getting switched out with other, somewhat correct but mostly incorrect, sentences. Basically, some algorithm on the back end was making me look like an idiot. I would try to fix things as fast as possible, but new problems appeared as fast as I could fix the old ones. This really sucked. This is when I realized it was time to come up with an alternative for TextFugu, which used Smart.fm a lot (all lists I created).

Then, bam, this news hit. Smart.fm is closing down and is becoming iKnow (again). I’m not upset about this because they decided to go to a paid model. Sure, I was promised this would never happen, but I definitely saw this happening at some point. I’m irritated because of the slow, painful process that took place to get to this point. The lowering of quality… the breakage… the lack of support for all the breakage… it goes on and on.

Sure, I’ll have to switch all my TextFugu flashcard content over to something else (some of it already is, thankfully), but I’m hoping that will be a blessing in disguise. I’ll have more control over my own flashcard content, and that will be nice. Still, I’ve had faith in Smart.fm for way too long, even when others had long given up on them. This, however, is my breaking point.

So, I guess it’s time to put down the Smart.fm torch (it doesn’t exist anymore, anyways) and pick up something else. Anki’s good, you should try that.

So, what do you think about all this mumbo-jumbo of Smart.fm changing to iKnow (again) and switching to a pay model? For me, I think it’s smart they’re going paid. They should have done that from the start. But… for me, Smart.fm’s quality has just gone down way too far, and I’ve stuck with them for way too long. It’s time for me to let go and turn to something else. What about you?

/EndRant

  • http://philfreo.com/ Phil

    You should check out Quizlet again… there’s a lot of new features recently (audio) and you can create content (and search for it) with Kana instead of Kanji/Romaji

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=26304333 Steven Samuel

    I Hate ANKI.

  • Alex

    They want people to create content, since it’s free content they can give to other users. They get no benefit out of someone using the site passively just to study. So the cost model would probably be the other way around.

  • AcousticAshley

    Someone passed this onto me on Smart.FM, try this, it looks good and is free http://quizlet.com/
    I tried the new Iknow service, it really sucks so I will leave it

  • Alex

    Care to share why, so we can improve it?

  • Zhana

    Is there a way to download the Core 2000 series before the site shuts down? I’d really like to use the vocabulary and I only got a little more than halfway through Step 1! :(

  • gorghurt

    well there is an anki plugin to download goals, and there is the whole core 2000 and 6000 in the public decks, so you could use anki, like i do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1635704913 Even Tolo Dybevik

    Wow, I was really looking forward to, and saving, the japanese core ._. It looked so fun so I waited a long time before starting XD And now it’s soon gone :/

  • http://twitter.com/Musouka Musouka

    From Smart.fm: “On the iKnow! service, from February 8th to the beginning of April, all courses created by users will be private and only accessible to the creator. Please see this blog post (http://blog.iknow.jp/en/2011/02/04/on-user-courses-in-iknow/) for more information.”

  • Hb7of9

    Hmmm, not cool, can’t get iknow.jp is so slow that its useless, also not showing English comments.

  • http://twitter.com/nick_merritt nick merritt

    Grrrr…I have been using Smart.fm a lot lately to learn Kanji basics. :(

    It’s a great service, but I don’t see myself paying for it.

  • Sam

    I also took at a look at livemocha.com before deciding to stick with Smart.fm. I’ll probably have to head back there. The interface was (surprisingly) not quite as clean as smart.fm I thought, but there’s still some cool community stuff going on.

  • Jim

    To me, one downside of Anki is that there’s no quiz function. All it does is show you the question then you click to show you the answer and you have to judge for yourself if you grasp the question or not. I wish it quizzes you, where it shows you the question part of the card and you pick the answers from the answer pool from the deck then it schedules the review for you. Kinda like what iknow does.

    Other than that Anki’s pretty good. I just wished I found out about Anki before I graduated from college.

  • Alex

    The problem with multiple choice quizzing is that it trains you to rely on cues which are not available when you have to actually retrieve that knowledge out “in the wild,” in conversation with someone or while reading or watching TV. It’s suboptimal to use deduction to decide which options aren’t likely the answer, when you don’t actually know the correct option. And when you do know the answer, it’s a waste of time to have to locate it among the options.

    I suspect you like this style of quizzing because it’s more familiar to you, having been exposed to it at school and university. It’s also less to think about when using it. But you’re cheating yourself if you’re not doing fully active recall.

    A lot of these popular services like Quizlet and Smart.fm use this style quiz because people think that they want it — it’s not obvious how it’s a substandard study method. So maybe we need to think about how to ease people into the Anki study method, so that it’s not such an unfamiliar experience.

  • Alex Ehlke

    Anki has it now — the same content exported from that set.

  • Franzeska

    I don’t know, Alex… The problem with “optimal” study methods is that all study methods are useless unless you actually use them. Smart.fm is like a brainless game of tetris, so I actually used it and it did help me. Anything that’s more like paper flashcards and that involves more thought is a method I’m unlikely to stick with no matter how good it is.

    If I wanted to practice recal “in the wild”, I’d read some manga.

  • Alex Ehlke

    I for one found smart.fm too irritating to use — why make me type in a word if I know the answer? Why do I need to scan several boxes for the answer if I know it? It feels like wasted effort to me. I understand it’s not this off-putting for many other users, but I still question how sustainable that kind of method is for users — it attracts users easily, but will they find it worthwhile much down the line?

    There may be ways to make active recall study more engaging. Perhaps one way that might help would be to integrate the flashcard system with reading material — so when you add a flashcard from a piece of text, it can pull in the whole sentence or excerpt that the term came from. Then it can generate cloze deletion cards — e.g. “(bread)を食べた” which would be more fun (well, if it wasn’t a stupid example like this).

  • http://hatchjapan.wordpress.com/ ざっちー

    You spelled D’oh wrong.

    …Also, I’ve always used Anki for my Japanesing. I never really got into smart.fm, so I’m not really sure what features it had. I like to have programs on my computer that I don’t have to depend on the internet for just in case. Though Anki does provide ways to internet it up. Pretty solid.

    But, mostly I commented for the D’oh thing. ; ]

  • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

    Earning $23.45 million back will be pretty hard, even with a price of $12 USD per month. And let’s face it, there is nothing special about smart.fm / iKnow anymore. When they started in 2000 the idea of a spaced rep software was still sci-fi and needed a lot of brains, today every small flashcard startup is based on this principle.

    Getting a CEO from MTV is also an interesting decision. We know what happened to MTV, at least “the elder” amongst us ;). The focus is clearly on getting investor money back, quick and at all cost.

    My 2 cents and I have to say I loved the concept of smart.fm, never used it though which is then again a problem in itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BrightBlack Aimee Burgess

    I got started with it right toward the end, I guess. I didn’t really notice it getting worse – it didn’t bother me much because I didn’t know it used to be better. It really makes me mad that it falls in to the same category as everything else that gets my attention and enthusiasm up. As soon as I really start getting in to it- it either shuts down or charges monthly.

    I would happily pay IF I had the money. Unfortunately my ambitions outreach my budget. It’s really hard to learn a second language when you can’t spend money to do so. Everything worthwhile charges money -_- Still trying to save up for my Textfugu but it’s slow going. Until then all I can really do is keep working with free content. (Probably my most useful tool so far is a pictorial dictionary I’ve been making in a blank journal. When I learn a word I draw something that represents it with the Katakana or Hiragana under it. It’s a bit organised and people look at me funny if they look over my shoulder but at least it’s free and reliable)

  • Killernomad84

    Eh. I stopped using “Smart”fm a long time ago. I’ve found that the old fashioned way works just as well (flashcards) :)

  • Nguyen

    Oh no. It’s like 7 Dec 1941 all over again!

  • :(some poor 16 girl

    when i notice what it will be a pay service i felt sad cuz im poor im 16 (i dont work!!!) i used it to improve my level of english to some day start to use textfugu at 100%. (im learning japanese and german too).now im goin to give a try to anki´s but i don´t know if anki´s have something for learn english:(

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  • http://twitter.com/Rukishou Martin E. Bergwall

    I haven’t used Smart.fm a lot since it initially became Smart.fm, but I would make list and use the site to learn more vocabulary back when it was iKnow.co.jp back in, I think it was, 2008. One of my lists even got hundreds of subscribers or users or whatever they were called and became a featured list. I didn’t pay for professional audio for it or anything though.

    Despite this I haven’t even visited the site once in at least a year now, so this change doesn’t really make a difference to me. Still, it’s one less of the already few sites I will be suggesting to friends who want to learn Japanese from now on.

  • Eij

    Where did you move your Kanji Radicals flashcard set to? I was working on that set and took a break for a while only to see this news :( Looking forward to resuming it…

  • http://twitter.com/EpicFailFTW Not Available

    I didn’t like what they did, this site helped me a lot with kanji. I guess it’s time to try Anki then :)

  • VampireRubi89

    It’s great that they are charge to use but they should at list make it affordable for those of us that live in underpaying countrys. I’m starving here.

  • http://mywordsareraw.blogspot.com Sholum

    I am using a mix of quizlet.com and Anki. The only reason I liked smart.fm was because of its quiz feature. I agree that multiple choice can become a crutch, but it helps put information in your head. Also, with quizlet you can use fill in the blank and other question types.
    Basically, I use quizlet to put the info in my head and figure out how well I know it after it is there. I use Anki to cement the info in my head.

    As for smart.fm, I think that they should have switched to freemium instead of pay only. If they had made it free to access user content and pay for everything then they would have more people using the service left, that and if they had made it 400 yen instead of 1000, I have the budget for that. If that isn’t enough money to get the site back to what it used to be then they can place ads.

  • Salahare

    Darn. I thought it was getting harder, but my use of iKnow/Smart.fm was sparse at best so I didn’t notice all of the changes quite so well, thinking it was my own faulty memory that accounted for the harder useage. And my account is OLD, way back when it was iKnow from the start like yourself. Very disappointing to hear the news of the troubles behind the scenes.

  • Annalin

    I got an email from them announcing their change to a paid service just a few days ago. For some “odd” reason, I’d stopped going there frequently… It did get harder and harder to use. For myself, I’m definitely not feeling the urge to pay them money for what I was getting towards the end there. Interesting to hear about the “behind the scenes” stuff. I wonder how long they’ll live as a paid site…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002125971952 Taya Doya

    Dude you should make a learning Japanese sister site to Tofugu, that would be awesome make it like Wikipedia where users can add their own content give it a sweet UI that makes it easy to learn like smart.fm and be even more loved by the world!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    ha, thanks, I’ve thought about something like that, but always run into this
    or that or another thing. Will continue to ponder :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/dlynam Dave Lynam

    I am a developer for WordStash.com (http://wordstash.com) which is a similar flashcard based learning tool but with better games imo. Check it out, let me know what you think.

  • Andy_Megara

    When I first met smart.fm I loved it. It helped me a lot to remember different words. Then, starting this year, I felt kind of betrayed, they were announcing they were going paid. I thought, ok, most of the things cant forever be free, but they just did it so suddenly that my plan of japanese study got totally messed up. I thought it would be the same smart.fm, just with a new “old” name: Iknow. But then I tried Iknow, and it wasnt even half as good the old smart.fm was: No kanji strokes, no clear fonts, and the new colors gave me headache… And another thing I dont like: The payment methods. Why only paypal? why only credit cards? If I have a debit card, why cant I pay?… This sucks a lot. T_T.

  • Petites

    I just went back to smart.fm today and was re-directed to iKnow. From here, they extended warmly the fact that I now have pay for all the content. I was a little saddened and disheartened by this fact, since I was a member, what felt like 2 years ago.

    Same boat brotha’ man ;_;

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  • Samantha

    This article missed the biggest issue users are having with the transition from the free Smart.fm to the paid iKnow.jp:

    The new paid service does not provide all the services featured in the free service. Period.

    Namely:

    * NO CONTENT CREATION TOOLKIT – This hits students the hardest. If you once used Smart.fm to build lists of vocabulary that were being covered in the classroom… well, you are out of luck. With the new paid version called iKnow, you can only study the lists provided by Cerego. Although Cerego claims a new toolkit is coming, the release date continues to get pushed back every month with no explanation as to why.

    * NO REVIEW SYSTEM – That’s right, the vocabulary review system has been removed completely. Formally called BrainSpeed, the old Smart.fm review tools has been removed and the company has no intentions of bringing it back to the service… although being the #1 most user requested feature according to iKnow’s very own feature request system (called UserVoice):
    (link: http://iknowen.uservoice.com/forums/97635)

    * NO SOCIAL NETWORKING – One of the nice things about Smart.fm was the ability to interact and receive advice from other users through the mini-forums that were integrated into each course. These have been removed. Again, Cerego has made no announcement regarding their return in spite of the high volume of user requests submitted through their feature suggestion and bug reporting system (again, UserVoice).

    * POOR SUPPORT – Many user requests filed through the company’s support system (UserVoice) largely go completely ignored. For the case of the #1 Top Ranked user ticket entitled “Bring Back the BrainSpeed” (referring to the vocab review tool), Cerego initially responded that they were “considering alternatives,” but have since left the ticket completely unattended for going on 4 months — despite continued user additions to the ticket begging for attention to be returned to the issue. Meanwhile, other users who report extremely long load times or inability to use the site due to a failure on behalf of iKnow to deliver content reliably also go completely unattended.

    In short, many users were upset with the move from free to paid, but even more users are upset by the horrible degradation in the quality of the service and the deaf ear iKnow directs towards its users.

    The user base that has tried to stick it out with and succumed to paying for access to the service found only a scaled down version of what they once had. What’s worse… it’s being rewritten as people use it… so things are constantly breaking and being fixed.

    In all reality, Cerego migrated to iKnow.jp too early, asking users to pay for an incomplete and inferior version of the Smart.fm product. As a result, iKnow users are upset by the quality of their purchase and are even more upset by the lack of communication with Cerego.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That’s too bad to hear :( I’m hoping to re-review iKnow sometime soon, so
    it’s sad that there’s still so many issues, it sounds like!

  • Rin

    I use to visit smart.fm or iknow or whatever the heck it was called. If I just typed one of those two words in my search bar it worked so it didn’t matter. Now I’m confused; do those two names mean different companies or something? Anyways, I visited that site today and some totally different site pops up. I tried logging in but it said to “Agree to the Terms”, so I was more confused. I felt it was some sort of trap so I left and now I’m reading this. Well this article explains a lot but I still feel like WTF? Yeah…

  • WTF

    Guess I’m using Anki from now on

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  • Fawnet

    Wow, Samantha, you’re right. I stopped by iKnow today, to see how the service had changed and decide if it was worth subscribing to, and it’s a little wasteland. Unless there are more courses hiding somewhere, all that’s available are hiragana lessons, katakana lessons, and Japanese Core 1000 through 6000. Now, that’s more than enough to keep anyone busy, but I really enjoyed the smaller quizzes; family members, months of the year, katakana loan words and so on. They were fun. And the lack of user comments makes the place feel deserted–it’s like I’m the only one there. And to add insult to injury, none of my free sample lessons will even load. Geez. I never thought I’d miss Brainspeed, but I do!

  • Marianna

    I’ve never used smart.fm I checked it out today and I was like..what? you have to pay for it?

    I’ve being using anki for ages, and I really like it: I’m starting buildng up my own flash cards because I started feeling there weren’t enough decks with audio that I’d find useful there.
    To find new audio tracks at my level I thought I’d follow your suggestion and try out smart.fm, but when I checked the web-link it redirected me to iKnow.
    I’m already spending a lot in Uni’s fees… I just want to learn faster with no added cost…
    I hope Anki will stay free forever

  • David

    I think we might have something for all of you in the near future, please leave your email at http://60words.com !

    PS: this is the older welcome screen and it doesn’t show all we are planning to do (esp. mobile access and social features)

    thank you!
    David

  • Buddha

    Turn to me Koichi. I have all you need.

  • Noctis Caelum

    all of this is old o,o

  • maria

    The paid service is slow too! Better quit using it.