Blog

'Nothing to do with Apple'

John Gruber in All the Mashed Potatoes:

I’m not arguing that Apple is not also a ruthless and greedy competitor. In fact, my piece yesterday had nothing to do with Apple — only Google. (I should have left Android and the iPhone out of it, as that was the only oblique reference to Apple.)

John Gruber can't write anything, ever, without it being about Apple. For better or worse, he's been typecast as the Internet's leading Apple commentator and everything he writes about will be seen through that lens. This isn't a bad thing, just the way it is. Trying to explain that he wasn't talking about Apple seals the deal.

Speaking of 'Conventional Wisdom'

Speaking of conventional wisdom, Frasier Spiers has a smart post on where iOS has been and where it should go from here.

There are other achievements I could list, but the point is that iOS broke through a lot of conventional wisdom about how computers should appear and operate.

He breaks down a few of iOS's disruptive highlights including removing the hierarchical filesystem as a user interface, easy installation of third-party software and eliminating the threat of viruses. If you’re interested in iOS and mobile operating systems, read his post.

iOS is a great example of how challenging conventional wisdom resulted in a huge new market and unparalleled business success. As with good editing and design, it’s not about what you add, but what you take away.

I think I'm going to start a linked post series pointing to great writing about challenging the status quo...

New code, new customer

I’ve considered buying a Nest thermostat since they were first released on October 25, 2011. While Nest certainly appealed to my geek side (controlling my home’s temperature from my iPhone? Come on!), I couldn’t justify the cost to replace something that didn’t really do that much more than my cheap digital programmable thermostat.

Our house was built in 2004 and as such, is well insulated and sealed. So much so in fact that we’ve had some challenges with humidity. Nothing too concerning, but things like excess (in my opinion) window condensation at times. Many newer homes come with a Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) system that exchanges air in the house while retaining heat. This indoor/outdoor air exchange is key to controlling humidity. We could install an HRV, but they can be expensive and challenging to install, especially if the required ducting wasn’t pre-installed in the home. Instead of an HRV, our HVAC system has a fresh air intake that draws outside air into the house while the furnace fan is running, so I was constantly turning the fan on and off manually to move air and control humidity.

Soon after the Nest was released, I contacted Nest Labs to ask if it was capable of automatically cycling the fan on and off, but the feature wasn’t available.

Last week, Nest tweeted that they had released a software update that included advanced fan control (along with a number of other interesting features). It was at this moment that I realized the incredible influence that software has on product sales.

From Nest’s blog post on the software release:

If we’ve learned one thing about our customers in the last year, it’s this: they really like fans. And for good reason: circulating the air keeps homes from getting stuffy, maintains an even temperature throughout the house, and can sometimes save energy. With Advanced Fan Control, you can now schedule the fan to run all night and turn off in the morning, run for a few minutes every hour, or just turn on at 6pm when you get home from work.

Exactly what I was looking for. The moment I read that, I had already decided to purchase. All because some programmers had typed on keyboards and tested code for a few months. No changes in manufacturing, no new physical hardware, just new ones and zeros. Pretty amazing stuff.

Welcome to the future. Sometimes it doesn't take a new product to bring in a new customer, it only takes a bit of work and innovation to change the value proposition. What can you change in your business to appeal to new customers?

The Geek Secret

Ask most “computer experts” (that is, the people that you turn to when you have a problem) what their secret is and I’ll bet that all of them say one thing.

“Google.”

The moment that I don’t have an answer for someone asking me a computer/smartphone/technology question, I just google the problem and see what comes up. It’s not that I have some magic talents (or modesty apparently) but rather that I have experience – modest though it may be – and a fearless curiousity to learn more. The other piece is that I know that there is always someone else who has the same issue previously and have talked about it somewhere online.

It’s hard, if you don’t already have a strong search habit formed, to really comprehend how powerful Google really is. I feel like the average computer user is afraid being too specific when searching, almost like the “old days” at the library doing research for a school assignment. Then, you needed to use general subject keywords to start your search and then hope that one of the books you came across had some of the information you were looking for.

Now, you can type full sentence length queries into Google (or other search engine, but let’s be honest here) and get very detailed, specific links in return. In fact, Google’s suggestive query engine is so amazing that it can even help you craft and refine your queury. It can take you from a general search term, to a detailed query in a few keystrokes.

Don't know what to ask? Let Google help...

Don't know what to ask? Let Google help...

It’s not that I think the people who ask me questions are afraid of computers, but they don’t feel like they always understsand what is happening and won’t stray too far from the worn path for fear of running into a problem. That’s one of the fantastic things about the rise of things like iOS: so many of the potential pitfalls have been removed. The walled garden of iOS prevents viruses and malware. The lack of file-system access means that it’s impossible to accidentally delete an important system file. Things like Siri make “googling” even easier, because the user can just ask a question out loud. Actually, Google voice (not to be confused with Google Voice) search is even better than Siri when it comes to retreving exactly what you’re looking for.

Go deeper than Google (or search engines in general) and you’ll find things like Stack Exchange and Quora – among many others. Stack Exchange really a network of sites mostly focused on technology problems, and Quora covers an incredibly broad range of topics. These are true problem solving sites with the magic word of the Internet mixed in: “social”. People post questions and others post answers. There are social incentives (rankings etc.) to encourage the best answers to questions. Long discussions around extremely specific, minute problems ensue and in many cases, the problem solver may walk away with an entirely new perspective that might even bypass their original problem completely. Sites like these demonstrate the true power of open information.

Search may no longer be sexy, but it’s still the most important part of using the web. It’s continued to be critical even as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have "taken over". Search literacy can make all the difference when it comes to being proficient in using computers, technology and the Internet.

I Actually 'Like' Facebook

A lot of people, geeks especially, seem to have a deep seated hatred of Facebook. Often, when various tech writers rail against the scourge of Zuckerberg, I nodded my head in agreement. Lately though, something has occurred to me. If I hate Facebook so much, why am I still using it so much?

The only answer I can come up with is that it adds value. 

I don't spend all day on Facebook like some do, but usually check in two or three times per day, mostly to see if I have any messages or notifications and to take a quick scroll through my timeline. It's pretty much an 'ambient awareness' type of thing. It's where a lot of the people that I care about share what's happening with them.

Facebook has actually done a pretty good job of giving users control over what kind of updates and content they see. If one of my friends keeps posting stupid stuff, or inviting me to Farmville, I can block those types of posts easily. I generally feel in control of what I'm spending my time and attention on. Now, with Facebook integration into iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion, it has become even more useful, mostly for sharing.

I also find that Facebook is an incredibly useful tool at work, for engaging Fanshawe College's alumni community. Obviously, it's not for everyone but the content we post there gets shared and talked about quite a bit. Facebook advertising actually works really, really well and it doesn't cost that much.

Anyways, just like any platform/distraction, Facebook is only as useful or as harmful as we allow it to be. Instead of complaining about it, I've given it a carefully controlled spot within my attention spectrum.

Filco Majestouch 2 Keyboard Initial Thoughts

My Filco Majestouch 2 keyboard arrived today and I've spent most of the day typing on it. I wanted to give my initial impressions. This is by no means a comprehensive review and my opinions are subject to change. Sorry about the low-quality photos, I took them quickly with an iPhone 4.

First Impression

The first thing I noticed while pulling it out of the box was how hefty it felt. Right away, you can tell this is a solidly built, quality keyboard. It's not light and 'plasticky' feeling like many OEM keyboards. It's got large rubber feet and it stays firmly in place when typing. The body doesn't flex or creak at all when under any kind of pressure.

It has a windows key...

The key design and character screening are good overall. The letters are screened on and are a subtle cream colour, not stark white. I think it's attractive looking. The only downside in my book is the windows key, but nothing to be done about that.

It's a great size. Without the keypad, it doesn't look like a giant black monster sitting on the desk and it means the mouse is always nearby.

Remapping the keys to work with OS X was no problem at all. The Windows key becomes the Option key and the ALT key is the Command key.

Typing Feel

Since it's a keyboard, clearly the way it feels when typing is the most important consideration. After a day of moderate to heavy use, I'm very pleased with how it feels. The keys are springy, with quick action. It doesn't take much force at all for a keypress to register, so your fingers can move from key to key quickly. 

I've used both the stock Apple keyboard and the Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 quite a bit. Switching back to the Microsoft keyboard briefly, its keys felt squishy and unresponsive after the Filco. I still like the feel of the Apple keyboard, but I find I'm faster and more accurate with the Filco.

I have had some minor RSI problems in my wrist. Lately it hasn't been bad (typing on the Apple keyboard). So far (today), I don't notice any change after using the FIlco. I think it will take longer to be able to state whether or not this keyboard is better or worse for that.

The Sound

As with any 'clicky' keyboard (I went with the Cherry Brown switches), the keyboard makes quite a bit more noise than other types. After using it for most of the day, my co-workers didn't comment on the sound until I asked them about it. They said it didn't bother them and that they hadn't noticed until after I mentioned it. I haven't used a keyboard with any other colour of MX switch (red or blue), so I can't compare. 

I really like the noise it makes when typing. It may be kind of silly, but it really reminds me that I'm getting something done. I feel like I have a lot more momentum when typing and I pause less, thus reducing the number of times I might distract myself. This may be because it's new, but we'll see how it goes.

Final Thoughts

After one day of use, I'm really happy with it. The only thing I'd change is to add a couple of USB ports, but that's not a deal breaker for me.

Recommended.

Update:  I can report that the keyboard works with the iPad using the USB camera connection kit. It was a bit finicky at first, but it works fine. 

The Root of Piracy and Copyright Battles

MG Siegler sums it up nicely:

Why would VEVO pirate content? Because it was easier than getting it legally. This is the actual root cause of piracy online. It’s not shady, masked individuals at swanky events commandeering computers to pirate for the hell of it. It’s VEVO employees. It’s everyone. 

Much of the argument around copyright legislation focuses on the aforementioned shady thiefs lurking in the underbelly of the Internet. No question those people exist and are important contributors to piracy. But without average, slightly geeky people to actually download pirated content there wouldn't be a market for it.

Creators deserve to be fairly paid for their work. Full stop. When pirating an album, movie or book is easier than buying it and suffering onerous DRM and restrictions, which path will be more worn? The problem is with business models and it can't be solved with legislation. The Internet continues to lay waste to industry after industry. Those who don't see it coming and cling to old models will be left behind.

DRM, digital locks and Internet blocking are short-term solutions to a long-term problem. History has shown that every lock will eventually be picked. Piracy will never go away completely but when there is an easy option that actually adds value to the content, people will pay for it

Instead of arguing about censoring the Internet to stop piracy, lets talk about how we can pay creators directly for their work and stop paying middlmen who want a piece of each sale. 

What a Dying Platform Looks Like

This post isn't a financial analysis a la Horace Dediu or a comparison of units sold. This is what it looks like from the ground as a platform dies.

Walking through the mall in Sault Ste. Marie one evening, I came across a Wireless Wave kiosk that had at least ten 8.5x11 sheets of paper advertising a "free blackberry promotion" and "Playbook $199".

My first thought (cynical as it may have been) was that this is was RIM's new marketing and promotion strategy. Following their latest earnings disappointment, the co-CEOs reported that they would solve their problems with a new marketing plan:


Both Mr. Lazaridis and co-CEO Jim Balsillie said they were disappointed with the BlackBerry's precipitous drop in popularity in the United States, the company's most important market, and blamed much of the failure on marketing and advertising – which they promised to overhaul with a “comprehensive” blitz to drive sales of its latest batch of BlackBerrys.

Breaking out the letter sized signs is pretty darn "comprehensive".

Obviously what I saw was just a Wireless Wave kiosk trying to sell devices, but seeing this alongside some of RIM's new advertising[^1] makes me think about what the end of RIM really looks.

Clearly they're in trouble and marketing campaigns can't save them. RIM must get their new platform (what's it called now?) out the door and it had better be amazing. Otherwise I fear it's too little, too late. Free Playbook anyone?

[^1]: Who is "Diplo" and what is a music innovator exactly?

Post-PC Is Here

Yesterday, I helped my wife’s grandfather (Tony) print out web pages comparing pricing across different hotels in the city. He owns one of them and was trying to get an idea of where his pricing fit within the market.

Tony was using an iPad which my in-laws got him to replace his aging Toshiba laptop. It’s been great watching him learn how to use it to accomplish the things that he relies on a “computer” for. Most of the time he is checking stock prices, video chatting with family members and doing basic web browsing.

For Tony, paper is still the only option when it comes to real work so printing the pages he was interested in was important.

Tony happened to receive an HP AirPrint compatible printer for Christmas, so we set it up and were immediately able to print from the iPad. No setup, no drivers and no hassle.

Following our success, myself and two family members tried printing photos directly from our iPhones to the printer. The printer knew we were printing photos and switched to printing on 4x6 photo paper automatically.

I was a bit annoyed by the lack of options when printing, but it seems that most of that comes from Apple’s “you don’t need to change settings, do you?” attitude. iOS could easily add some basic options (black only, quality, paper size etc).

It’s really interesting to watch the PC become further and further removed from all the functions that we used to rely on it for.

"Bunch of little data collecting balls"

Louis CK answering questions on Reddit regarding his new live show:

Professionally, I’m learning right this minute, a HUGE amount with this web experiment. this live at the beacon thing (available at http://www.louisck.com for 5 bucks) is like that thing in the movie “Twisiter” [sic] where they send a bunch of little data collecting balls up into a tornado and just download the lovely results. The whole things has been like that. From the moment it went online and i saw the result of every decision i made. the last question the web guys asked me before we posted was if I wanted the mail list button defaulted to “opt in” or “opt out” and i said start it at opt out. It’s such a tiny thing but I keep hearing about it from people. So so interesting to watch this grow.

Remember those data collecting balls that Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton were trying to release into the funnel cloud in Twister? I love the idea of them as applied to the Internet. Every new project, website or app becomes another experiment that clarifies exactly what the hell the Internet is doing to everything it touches.

Lots of people say lots of things about this disruption, but it’s rare that we actually get one of the experiments in front of a giant f5 twister, so to speak. We don’t often get to see the data from those little sensors.

Louis' project along with others from bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are the leading edge of true disintermediation. Sorry to use a douche word, but it’s true. We are watching the future of media, culture and economics happen right in front of our eyes and we’ve got damn good seats.