Monday, December 26, 2011

My Ice Cream Sandwich is Quickly Melting

You know you're a tech/gadget geek when you decide to perform a major OS upgrade while on vacation...and in Sin City of all places.  But that's exactly what I did while I was in Vegas week before last.  I caught wind of the fact that the latest version of Android, 4.0 (aka "Ice Cream Sandwich") was slowly being released over-the-air for the Nexus S.  Of course, being my impatient self I couldn't wait for that and instead found a download link off of Google's servers and manually upgraded myself.  In typical Android fashion the upgrade process was very straightforward and in less than an hour I was up and running with the latest and greatest from Google.  So how's my Ice Cream Sandwich experience been since then?

Well, let me start out by saying that if you are current Nexus S owner and have not yet upgraded....please don't!  Google pulled the plug on the upgrade shortly after it was released due to a number of issues that were reported by early adopters.  In some cases the upgrade never completed and essentially bricked the phone, in other cases certain functions stopped working post upgrade (e.g. WiFi), and in a lot of cases, myself included, battery consumption has simply been atrocious since the upgrade.  Right now I'm lucky to get half a day of normal use out of my battery before it dies.  Some people say that turning off WiFi or disabling the Google+ app helps, but I've done both and it doesn't seem to matter.  I'm crossing my fingers that Google does something about this soon, and it's been such a royal pain in the ass that I'm even thinking of switching to Verizon and buying a Galaxy Nexus just so that I don't have to deal with it anymore.  And in addition to the power issue there are a couple of other major annoyances with ICS. Text rendering in Gmail and the browser seem to take forever sometimes, and some of my apps just appear to be more sluggish in general.

But despite all these issues there are some really nice enhancements with ICS.  The Gmail app is a lot more refined and intuitive, and some of the more commonly used functions (e.g. labels, mark as unread) have dedicated icons now instead of your having to pull up the options menu.  The notifications pulldown has also been enhanced to allow you to remove individual notifications by swiping them to the left.  This new swiping gesture has been applied to a number of other places within ICS as well.  Within Gmail you can swipe to go to the next/previous message, and within the "running apps" list you can kill specific apps by swiping them away - very nice.  There's also a really cool new feature which allows you to send one of five preconfigured (and customizable) text messages to a caller during an incoming call when you can't pick up the phone.   Ice Cream sandwich also seems to have addressed a couple of major issues that I often encountered with the Gingerbread OS.  Sometimes when I press on the "home" button it would take at least 15 seconds for the icons to appear, and even worse, sometimes the home screen itself would become totally unresponsive and I would have to power cycle the device to fix it.  Fortunately ICS addressed both of these issues.

Please Google, fix the damn battery issue and allow me to enjoy my Ice Cream Sandwich.

Friday, November 18, 2011

New Kindle is good but not quite on Fire

First off, in answer to the most obvious question...No, I really don't need yet another device to supplement my Macbook Pro, iPad and Nexus S smartphone.  But for $200 I really couldn't resist - compare that price to the price of the original Kindle.   Plus, as an Amazon Prime subscriber I felt if I got the Fire I would be more inclined to use the free services available to Prime subscribers, most notably the movies and TV shows that are available for free as part of my subscription.

My Kindle Fire arrived a day earlier than expected, which was a nice surprise.  Setup was a total breeze - When I turned the device on I went through a short setup process and was up and running in less than 5 minutes.  In fact, I didn't even have to enter my Amazon credentials since it assumed I was purchasing the device for myself and preauthorized my device...hmm, I wonder if that would be a problem if I were to buy one as a gift for somebody.  Anyway, once the setup was completed it instantly made available all of my digital Amazon content - books, videos, music, etc.  And it also made available all of the Amazon Appstore apps that I had previously purchased/installed on my Nexus S.  So far so good.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the form factor of the device itself, as most of the reviews I had read had bashed it.  At this point it's too early to say if a 7-inch screen is preferable to the 10 inches provided by the iPad and other devices, but it does make the device nearly pocketable and also more conducive to one-handed operations.  I also appreciate the rubberized backing and sides of the device, is it makes the device easy to hold for long periods of time.  This is something I don't like at all about the iPad 2, as its tapered edges make it very uncomfortable to hold for extended periods.

In terms of functionality, most of the built-in functions seem to work pretty well.  As others have pointed out, even though the Fire is Android-based you would hardly know that Android is being run under the covers due to the heavy customization made by the Amazon developers.  Video streaming, e-books, and music all worked without a hitch...nice job Amazon.  Some of the apps, however, were less than stellar.  The built-in mail app is really basic, and though it automatically configured my Gmail account it wouldn't detect my work email as also being Google-based and forced me to manually configure the IMAP settings...PITA.  And it seems like the vast majority of 3rd-party apps are still not optimized for tablet devices, so all you get is a bigger version of the phone app.  There are a few notable exceptions, however, like Evernote...those guys can do nothing wrong in my opinion!

By far the biggest disappointment is the performance of the much ballyhooed Silk browser.  In theory Silk was supposed to render pages more quickly than any mobile browser due to the fact that Amazon was using its own EC2 to serve and/or pre-cache a lot of your web content...resulting in fewer HTTP connections and speedier rendering.  But in reality the Silk browser is probably the slowest mobile browser I've used.  Perhaps Amazon hasn't enabled all of its fancy algorithms yet to optimize the Silk browsing experience, or maybe it needs to "learn" my browsing habits first.  I sure hope they address this, as Silk was one of the biggest reasons for my getting the device in the first place.

Am I going to keep the Fire?  Hard to say right now.  On the one hand it's a great content consumption device, particularly for Prime subscribers.  And for $200 you're getting great value for the dollar.  But it certainly won't replace my iPad, and apart from the integration with Amazon's own services it doesn't do anything that the iPad doesn't already do...and in most cases doesn't do them nearly as well.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

As the Saying Goes, Once you Go Mac.....

Let me start out by just cutting to the chase...I'll never go back to Windows again!

Those that know me know that I've been weaning myself slowly off of Microsoft-based technologies.  It started off with moving off of MS Exchange, then Outlook, then Office...the last holdout being Windows itself.  But after my recent job switch I decided I needed to finally bite the I was envious of seeing all the "cool and hip" people toting their Macbooks around from place to place while I was still lugging my uncool and unhip Thinkpad.  I was told by several friends that the switch from Windows to Mac was going to be initially painful - one buddy of mine told me that "you will hate the damn thing for the first two weeks".  Plus, every time I would walk into an Apple store and start playing around with a Mac it would last less than 5 minutes, as I would get so frustrated not being able to right-click,  not figuring out how to resize a window, looking for the "file" menu, etc.  The other complication is the fact that for the life of me I could never get used to touchpad-style pointing devices - I was a firm believer of the Trackpoint and even preferred it over a regular mouse.    Anyway, I definitely had my work cut out for me.

However, I was very pleasantly surprised by the fact that I was only completely frustrated on the first day, and after the second day I already knew I had made the right decision and knew that I would never go back to a PC again.  I think there were a few reasons why the transition was not as painful as I had anticipated.  First off, the fact that I've owned an iPad for awhile has conditioned me to "think like a Mac user"...if that makes any sense. There are a number of similarities between Mac OS and iOS, and with the recent Lion release the two operating systems are even more alike than ever.  Secondly, I don't use a ton of keyboard macros, and the ones I do use are all the basic ones and so it's simply a matter of remembering to use the "command" key instead of "ctrl" I had a much easier time of it when compared to the MS Office super-user types who get thrown off by all the keyboard macro differences between PC and Mac.  And lastly, though I still miss the Trackpoint I've come to appreciate some of the benefits of the touchpad, particularly some of the multi-touch gestures that Mac OS provides.

Compared to Windows, Mac OS does seem to be a lot more stable and efficient in its use of system resources, and I've rarely run into issues that have caused me to reboot the machine, let alone encounter a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) equivalent.  With Windows I would periodically need to do a "therapeutic reboot" in order to free up system resources, or Windows itself would do that for me by blue-screening on me every once in awhile. And the hardware design of the Macbook Pro is so well thought out and the build quality is second to none.  I can't even hear my hard disk spinning unless I press my ear against its surface - you would think there was an SSD inside of the machine.  And all the little touches, such as the magnetically attached AC adapter and the little clips attached to the adapter that you wrap the cord around.  It's no wonder Apple has won all those awards for design excellence.

But despite all of the improvements, far and away the best thing about my Mac is the fact that I now have suspend/resume that actually works!  With Windows this has always been a crapshoot.  I've had so many occasions in the past where I shut the lid on my laptop, commute home or to the office, get there and discover my laptop is still burning hot because it never went into suspend mode.  Equally frustrating are the frequent occasions where you open the lid and wait for 10-15 minutes until you finally see the screen, all the while your hard disk is spinning away like crazy.  I remember at one of my startups when we were fundraising and seeing VC's on a regular basis.  We would go through this routine where we would open the lid on one of our laptops while parking the car,  and carry it with the lid still open while walking into the VC reception area.  We must have looked a bit silly, but we wanted to ensure our presentation/demo went without a hitch and didn't want to take a chance on the laptop screen staying blank.  It's so comforting now to be able to just shut/open the lid freely anytime I need to and know that my machine will just work.

Is the Mac perfect?  Heck no...there are a number of little things that still annoy me today.  Why Steve Jobs doesn't allow you to cut-and-paste files is beyond me.  And the fact that you can only see the "file" menu for the foreground app is a real pain in the butt. But overall it's been a great move for me, one that's been a long time coming.  I'm also relieved that my multi-year quest to divorce myself of all things Microsoft has finally come to end...well, at least until the Skype acquisition is complete.  I guess I still have a few months of freedom before needing to tackle this again!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Amazon Cloud Player vs. Google Music Beta

Last week Apple gave us a previous of iCloud and iOS 5 at its annual WWDC conference. What they showed was pretty impressive, but most of it is still beta and won't be generally available until the Fall.  Of particular interest to me are their plans around moving iTunes to the cloud and finally relieving us of the painful and outdated method of cabled sync in order to move content to mobile devices.  But if you're like me you don't live in a world where Steve Jobs has complete control over your mobile existence, there are a couple of Android-based alternatives available right now that you might want to look at;  Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta.

Amazon Cloud Player has been around for the past two months or so, and I've been using it off and on since then with generally good success.  They give everyone 5GB of storage for free, but as I mentioned in a prior blog post you can get an upgrade to 20GB by purchasing any album, including a bunch for just 99 cents.  Google Music Beta came out shortly after Amazon and gives you storage for up to 20,000 songs; plenty more than most people will require. I finally received an invite to the beta a couple of weeks ago and so I installed it right away and had a chance to compare it with Amazon.  Here's how the two offerings compare:

Installation: Both products download and install very easily, and both use a Flash-based component for scanning music on your local machine and uploading it to the cloud.  But they greatly differ in their approaches to this.  The Amazon uploader must be manually initiated, and once it kicks off it spends a few minutes analyzing your iTunes library, compares it to what's already been stored in the cloud, and then presents you a screen where you can either automatically upload all the music it finds that's not already in the cloud or selectively upload the playlists, albums, artists, etc. that you'd like to be synced.  It also provides a comprehensive report of content that it finds that it is unable to sync, e.g. DRM'd content.  By contrast, Google's default mode is to always run in the background and automatically upload new iTunes music to the cloud, without the user having to take action.  In theory this seems like a better and more elegant solution.  However, in my case the Google software consumed nearly all of the CPU on my machine while scanning/uploading my iTunes content, and to add to my frustration the upload process itself took an incredibly long time - roughly a couple of days to upload just 3500 songs.  In fact, the CPU consumption was so bad that I had to go into Task Manager and lower the priority of the Google music manager process.
Advantage: Amazon

Web Music Player: To be honest, I didn't spend much time using either player - after all, I've got iTunes running on my laptop!  But they both seemed to do the job, and Google's player has a few extra features such as thumbs up/thumbs down and keeping track of the play count.  But I do like the look of the Amazon player a little more, plus it has the advantage of being able to play music purchased from the Amazon MP3 store.
Advantage: Neither - it's a tie.

Mobile App: Both mobile apps did the job and generally worked well over Wi-Fi or when wireless coverage wasn't in issue.  But on several occasions the Google app would just stop midway through a song for no explainable reason.   I like the UI better on Amazon, and I like the fact that it lets you easily switch between music in the cloud vs. music sitting on your device.  Google lets you do this as well, but you have to go into one of the options settings in order to switch back and forth...a bit of a pain.   I've also used both applications during long bike rides that went through areas of spotty to low coverage, and I have to say that both applications had their share of issues when dealing with bad coverage and both frequently just stop working and never recover even when reception improves - maybe they should reverse engineer the Pandora app and figure out how they are so good at dealing with this. Google would also randomly skip both forwards and backwards within a song when experiencing reception issues...very strange.  Amazon performed a bit better, and I suspect it "reads ahead" within a playlist and stores upcoming songs within its local cache.  I'm sure Google does some of this too, but perhaps its cache is smaller.  One very annoying problem with Amazon is that it sometimes caches garbage for a song, and once it does then each time you play that song you'll hit that garbage and it just stops least until the cache is cleared.
Advantage: Amazon

iOS Support: Well, as you would expect neither offering has native iOS support, although both claim to be usable from Mobile Safari.  I was able to verify this myself using my iPad.
Advantage: Neither - it's a tie.

In summary, I have to give a slight edge to Amazon, although not by much.  And both companies need to spend time on their Android apps and improve their handling and recovery of reception issues.

Oh, and it looks like Spotify is close to launching here in the U.S....I can't wait.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Always be Networking

This posting is a slight departure from my usual fare...

For the second time during the past year I found myself having to look for work.   I was fortunate enough to receive two offers recently, and I ended up taking a position running a venture called  In a nutshell, Outbid is an online, virtual auction platform with built-in gaming mechanics.  Now, for those of you that know me well you're probably wondering how this is so different from what I did at Wigix.  Well, there are certainly some elements that are similar, but the main differentiators are the game mechanics themselves and the fact that we are simulating the live auction experience...what we are doing will truly be a game changer in this space.

But I'm not here to plug Outbid so much as I am to share a little story about how my gig came to be.  As it turns out, I was specifically recruited by somebody that I worked with many years ago and who happens to work for Outbid's parent company.  Though we haven't seen or spoken to each other in at least a dozen years, we happen to be connected via Facebook and LinkedIn...and through these connections we happened to stay on top of each other's whereabouts and had a good sense of each other's careers during that span of time.  So, when this opportunity came up he immediately thought of me because of my work at Wigix and other startups, and the fact that my IT background could also be leveraged.  Anyway, after a couple of phone calls I came into their office one afternoon to meet with both he and his boss (parent company CEO), and before I left the offer was presented...and here I am!

The moral of my story is this...For as long as you need to be part of the labor market you should always spend a portion of your free time building/maintaining your professional network.  I've been fortunate for most of my career to not have to leverage my network to any great degree, but with all that's happened with me during the past year or so it's really brought to light just how important this is and how it should be an ongoing activity, both during good times and bad.  And with social media being so easily accessible there really is no excuse for not doing so.  I occasionally come across someone that has not jumped onto the Facebook or LinkedIn bandwagon...these are people typically of my generation (i.e. old) and when asked why this is the case they usually cite issues around their privacy.  I say to these people:  "Get over it".  If you're not willing to accept and participate in this ongoing trend of increased transparency then you are going to be left behind and become dinosaurs, both literally and figuratively.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Favorite Cloud-Based Services

As part of my effort to move away from all things Microsoft and desktop software in general, I've been using a number of cloud-based services with regularity and am amazed at how far along they've come over the past year or two.  In fact, I find their convenience and ease-of-use so compelling that I rarely find myself creating new content locally on my hard drive anymore.  Plus, the fact that I can easily access these services from my PC, iPad or Android phone means that my data is always accessible no matter where I happen to be.  And best of all, these services are all free!  So...without further ado, here's a list of some of my favorites:

Google Docs
Not the newest kid on the block, but Google Docs has made numerous improvements since it was launched a few years ago and I can safely say now that I'll never create another Microsoft Office document again.  And if you're like me you only use about 10% of the functionality of MS Office anyway, so why keep all that bloatware on your PC?  Docs is also accessible from both iOS and Android devices, though editing capabilities are somewhat limited on those platforms.  And Google has made it pretty easy to share documents with specific individuals or across an entire workgroup; in fact, it's kind of cool working on a shared spreadsheet and being able to see other members of your team updating cells in real-time.  And for those of you who have shied away from Docs thinking that it just couldn't be powerful enough to replace MS Office, have a look at this presentation.

I started to use Evernote when I decided to dump Outlook and needed another place to store all the little notes that I take - my grocery list, names of interesting restaurants I happen to spot, meeting notes, etc.  Evernote does all this and then some.  Among other things I can assign tags to my notes so that I can dynamically categorize them,  with the Evernote browser extension I can push one button to clip a webpage and save it off as a note, I can have my Evernote content displayed within Google search results, and I can create a note instantly using a photo I just shot on my smartphone.  The optional Evernote application is available on all the usual platforms, though on my PC I rarely use it because I find that their web interface to be more than sufficient.  But their iPad app is a must have, as it's simply a thing of beauty.

Why would anyone go through the hassle of setting up a shared public drive in their office when they could be using Dropbox instead?  Dropbox makes it dead simple to upload and store any type of file to its service, and optionally share files and/or folders with selected parties.  It even keeps track of older versions of files and allows you to review their revision history.  If you install the optional desktop application your Dropbox folder will even show up as a local PC or Mac folder, and you can operate against that folder just as you would with a file sitting on your hard drive.  You also receive desktop notifications whenever a shared file is updated, and your local copy is automatically synced with the cloud.  One word of caution, however...If you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls that must login to a Windows domain, then by default your local Dropbox folder will be created within your roaming profile.  To avoid any potential syncing issues when running in disconnected mode you should go into the Dropbox application settings and change the location of this folder to somewhere within your local hard drive.

I just started using LucidChart about a month ago and simply love it.  If you ever have the need to quickly create a diagram or flowchart but don't want to hassle with something like Visio, then this is for you.  Or, if you're like me and don't have an artistic bone in your body but occasionally need to produce a wire-frame in order to conceptualize an idea and share it with others then this is a must have.  LucidChart is a functional replacement for Visio, and its wire-framing and "demo" capabilities are indispensable during the earlier stages of web design.  And the entire application is written in HTML 5 and really showcases its power.  One of its coolest features is the ability to search though Google Images for something you're looking for, and then once you locate it you can just drag-and-drop that image straight into your diagram.

Amazon Cloud Drive
Available just within the past two weeks, Amazon Cloud Drive is what iTunes should aspire to be - a cloud-base service that allow you to stream and/or download your media content over the internet.  As you would expect from Amazon the service is very robust and the UI is excellent.  The optional Cloud Player app just takes a few short minutes to scan your entire iTunes library and creates a listing of all the artists, albums, playlists, etc. that can be uploaded to Cloud Drive.  And for the ones that cannot be uploaded (e.g. unsupported format, DRM-protected, etc.) it displays a list of those files along with the specific reason why.  Amazon gives everyone 5 GB of Cloud storage for free, and between now and the end of the year if you make just one MP3 purchase (I bought a 99-cent album) you'll get upgraded to 20 GB, enough for most people to store all of their music.  I've moved my entire music library onto it and couldn't be happier...I can access my playlists from anywhere now and not have to worry about syncing.  Unfortunately, for you iOS fanboys I'm afraid to say that currently you cannot access Cloud Drive content from an iPhone or iPad - perhaps you'll have to wait for Apple to get their act together and bring iTunes out of the stone ages in order to gain this capability.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bloatware No More, aka Goodbye Microsoft Outlook

I've used Microsoft Outlook as my preferred email client literally from the day the first beta was released back in the late 90's - I think the initial version was called Outlook 97.  To me it was a breath of fresh air, as I could do all of my email and calendaring from the same window.  My company was in the process of rolling out MS Exchange across the enterprise, and so Outlook was a huge improvement over having to use the kludgey combination of the MS Exchange client along with Schedule Plus - anyone but me remember that one?

Over the dozen plus years since then I've used each and every version of Outlook. Functionality-wise it keeps getting better and better, especially when you've got an Exchange server on the back-end.  However, at the same time its footprint seems to get bigger and bigger with each release...sometimes I go into Task Manager and see that it consumes half a gig of RAM...WTF does it need half a gig for?  And the time it take to load the software on my machine seems to increase the more I use the product...somehow all these plug-ins get installed on my behalf and I'm forced to stare at the Outlook splash screen waiting for each of these to load - a real exercise in patience. And finding out how to disable these plug-ins is no easy chore, and also can only be done within Outlook itself.   This ended up being a major headache for me a couple of months ago when my Outlook was hanging every time I launched it and the culprit was this antivirus plug-in that had been recently updated.  Suffice it to say that it was quite the challenge to finally fix this problem - it took multiple attempts before I could disable the plug-in within the short time window between launching Outlook and having it start hanging again.

I've written in the past about how I've reduced my dependency on Microsoft over time, and now I'm pleased to report that I've finally ridden myself of this overly engineered, bloated piece of software called Outlook.  I've been using Gmail and/or Google Apps mail for the most part anyway these past few years, and the native web versions have also gotten a lot better over time.  Offline viewing has been available for the past couple of years; a few months back they finally allowed you to disable "conversation view", which for the life of me I could never get used to; and they even implemented a few new features such as notification pop-ups that you'd normally only find in traditional desktop applications.  And I've also come to appreciate the way Gmail uses labels as an alternative to folders - it's actually a much more elegant solution than having to manage a folder hierarchy.  Since I've made the switch I've never found a need to go back, and my laptop thanks me for it!

As far as the other functions of Gmail/Google Apps go, I think it handles my calendaring and contact management needs just fine.  A weak point in my opinion has always been its task management.  There have been some recent improvements here as well, but features I've grown accustomed to in Outlook such as the ability to create recurring tasks are still not supported - not a show stopper, however.  Getting rid of Outlook has also made it easier for me to synchronize data to my mobile devices.  Since I've been using Android for awhile it's great never have to think about synchronizing my mail, calendar and contacts to my Nexus S, and there are some great 3rd-party solutions for  syncing other types of data such as tasks and notes.

So goodbye Outlook, my old and dear friend....I don't think I'll be missing you.  But despite all the frustrations I've had to endure, I guess it could have been worse.