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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Keep Swinging for the Fences

Perhaps it is appropriate to end the year with a more positive tone.  In looking over many of my past posts, I notice a theme evolving of being highly critical of new technologies that somehow fall flat or seem exorbitantly priced for what they are.  I think that many technology successes are over-hyped and like to point out sometimes better and cheaper options that accomplish the same things.

However, I don't want to give the impression that I oppose the ever improving technology marketplace. Despite some privacy concerns, I think generally, technology can make our lives better in many ways.  Part of my negativity probably stems from the many reviews that hype new features that are not particularly useful or refined while ignoring the considerable cost differentials between the latest model and the one that came out last year.

When new disruptive technologies hit the market, they may at first be priced very high or not be as stable and tested as older technologies.  But as they mature, the prices tend to come down using them becomes more stable over time.  This is normal and expected.  But reviewers who are always chasing the newest thing and looking to the future (which is understandable) tend to ignore the many benefits of waiting.

For example, while the original iPod was overpriced and not as good as other MP3 players on the market at the time, it changed the market to make digital music the primary way people listen to music.  Over time, it evolved into a much better product that ended up crushing most of the competition.  Today, the iPod technology, which has been incorporated into the iPhone, is still a great way to listen to music.  Its evolution over time made it a much better product and less expensive for what you were getting.. Many of the user interface features that made it attractive to consumers eventually showed up in products made by the competition as well.

Similarly, the first Kindle was $400, held only 250 MB of internal storage and turned pages very slowly. Today you can buy a much better device for a fraction of the cost.

Three years ago I posted Don't Buy a Tablet Now because they were overpriced and under-powered. But of course, I have purchased several tablets since then as prices fell while power and performance improved.

I guess my view is that these new technologies are great and I appreciate people who subsidize these advancements by paying top dollar when they are first released.  I then benefit from that technology a few years later when it is cheaper and has all the bugs worked out.

It makes sense to wait for most technology, but I appreciate that someone needs to be first.  Also, technology companies have to keep swinging for the fences, even if that means that much of the time, they strike out while trying.

While the prudent consumer may wait a while, we all benefit from these breakthroughs and changes after a few years.  If I sometimes sound too negative about the latest thing, it's not that I will necessary feel that way forever.  I'm just waiting for better and cheaper.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Wireless Charging: Not Worth The Trouble

Several top end cell phones offer wireless charging now, the Samsung Galaxy S6 probably being the most popular.  Surprisingly , iPhone has not yet jumped on that bandwagon, for which I commend them.  You can buy a case that will allow you to charge your iPhone wirelessly, but I say don't bother with any of it.

The notion of wireless charging is an intriguing one.  I would love it if my phone could charge while in my pocket, while I was using it, or even just sitting on a shelf.  But none of that is a reality with current wireless charging.

As currently available, a wireless phone must be placed, back side down, directly onto the charging pad.  It must be touching the pad at all times in order to charge.  The platform is much larger than a typical charger, making it far less convenient to carry around with you.  Charging also takes longer when done through the wireless interface.  Samsung's wireless charger will also cost you $50.  There some cheaper chargers made by third parties, but all are far more expensive than you would pay for a simply USB charger.

So for wireless charging, there seem to be many negatives:
  • I must be very careful how I place my phone on the charging stand.
  • The charger is much larger and inconvenient to carry around with me.
  • The charger is more expensive than a normal charger
  • Charging takes longer
  • I cannot pick up and use the phone while it is charging
On the positive side, well I guess it saves me the 5 seconds it takes me to connect my USB charger.

When wireless charging evolves to the point where one can charge efficiently while carrying around a mobile device, I'll be impressed. The current wireless solution is simply a waste of time and money.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Google Gets It Right: Android Moves To Laptops

Google's Android dominates the phone and tablet market worldwide, with over 80% marketshare. But Google seems to have been loathe to encourage use of the Android OS on a laptop or PC.  I've never really understood this.

Instead, Google has been pushing Chromebooks.  These are typically cheap laptops that require very undemanding hardware specs.  Chromebooks runs on Chrome OS, which is essentially the bootable Chrome browser and little else.  You cannot install much of anything on the laptop locally, which has only a tiny hard drive where not much of anything can be stored.  The idea is that everything is in the cloud and there is no need for local storage.

Despite low prices, Chromebooks have met with only limited success. There are times when people need to work offline or do other things that cannot be done on Chrome.  Therefore the laptop can be of extremely limited use.  If low cost is the issue, one is probably better off with a used ten year old Windows XP laptop than a new Chromebook.  Even an ancient Windows computer can install the Chrome Browser and access your online resources.  In addition, it has the ability to run local programs and store files locally.

Google seems to have been hedging its bets.  It has used Chromebook as a way of trying to drive users to the cloud, making the Chrome browser the gateway to all computer use.  At the same time, the Android OS for phones and tablets used the App based approach.  Most of what you wanted to do was not handled through a browser, but rather through dedicated apps designed for a specific purpose.  Many of these apps would work offline, so a user had some functionality even when away from an Internet connection.

The market seems to have spoken clearly on this one.  Chromebook sales are going to be a little over 7 million this year, while Android is on over 1 billion devices.  Android, which contains a Chrome browser by default, can do pretty much everything a Chromebook can do.  But a Chromebook is not capable of letting users run all the apps available on Android.

Rumors are that Google is looking to phase out Chromebook and adapt Android for better functionality on devices with a larger screen and keyboard, i.e. laptops and possibly even desktop PCs.  This makes sense to me.  I guess I don't understand what Chrome OS offers that Android does not.  Sure, Android is not a full service OS like MS Windows, but neither is Chrome OS.  Both of these products are designed for people who are willing to accept less functionality from an OS but who benefit from its lower hardware demands and the ability to operate faster with less computing power behind it.

By doing away with Chrome OS and making an adapted version of Android that looks better on a larger screen and works well with a traditional keyboard, Google should be able to combine these two separate tracks into one good OS that works well on phones, tablets, and computers - something Microsoft has been trying to do unsuccessfully for years.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Microsoft is No Longer Serious About gaining Market Share in the Cloud..

All companies need to make a profit.  Some companies, however, garner a reputation for screwing customers in an attempt to squeeze a little extra money out of them.

A few months ago, I posted a comparison of Microsoft and Google's online file storage and email services entitled Microsoft is Finally Serious About Its Online Services.  Now, Microsoft has taken a huge step backwards in its attempt to attract customers into its ecosystem.  It reinforces my view that Microsoft is not a company to be trusted.

Until this change, the owner of a free OneDrive account could access online version of MS Office and could enjoy 15 GB of online storage.  Users could get another 15 GB of storage by signing up for photo storage.  Now that many people have come to rely on this service, Microsoft is pulling the rug out from under them.  If you were enjoying your 30 GB of online space, you now have to make due with a mere 5 GB.  This does not just apply to new accounts.  Your existing account will be cut back as well.

If you want to avoid this cuts, you need to pony up cash for a paid account.  Microsoft is also raising the price of its paid plans and doing away with its unlimited plan.

I cannot begin to imagine what the Microsoft execs were thinking when they pulled the rug out from under their customers other than getting a few more paying customers short term while turning off a generation of customers who were just beginning to trust the new Microsoft.  The company has a reputation for changing the rules on its customers for its financial gain.  I thought that a new CEO would change things.  But this move kills that notion.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Bottom line: if Microsoft offers you a good deal on any good or service, don't really on it to continue.  It is no more reliable than a subscription that gives you an initial discount.  Maybe it is worse since an up-front discount at least informs you what the later terms will be.

After this action, users may be concerned about other attempts to squeeze more revenue out of services on which they depend.  There have been rumors that Microsoft may eventually charge a subscription for Windows updates.   Microsoft Office, which has already moved from a pay once to a pay forever subscription model may see price increases as well.  Other free Microsoft services such as Skype may also see cutbacks. Perhaps Microsoft will kill its free Office 365 cloud offerings, or start charging for its Office phone apps. These possibilities make customers wary of growing too dependent on Microsoft and encourage them to look for alternatives.

I had begun to move some of my work from Google Drive to Microsoft in the last few months.   But now I'm running back to Google and staying there.  Even if I like some aspects of Microsoft's online services better, I much prefer the stable terms that Google has maintained for years.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Google's Project Fi

In case you never heard of it, Project Fi is Google's attempt to enter the world of cell phone service. What first caught my eye was its price: $20/month for unlimited talk and text.  Data is not unlimited, but even there the terms are better than most other providers: $10/GB.  The great thing about the data plan its that you only pay for what you use.  If you only use 852 MB for the month, you pay $8.52.  This is done by paying for a 1 GB plan for $10 then getting a $1.48 rebate for unused data.  If you go over your data plan, you till only pay the same.  For example, if you set a plan of 1 GB/mo and use 1.53 GB you pay an extra $5.30 for the 5.3 GB you went over.  If you can keep most of your data usage on WiFi, which is free, Your cell phone costs can plummet.

Even better if you to a lot of international travel. Google allows you to travel to over 120 countries where you still pay the same $10/GB for data use.  International texts are always unlimited and included in your base costs.  Calls while abroad are only 20 cents/minute.

There are a few down sides: first, you have to buy an unsubsidized phone.  Also, that phone has to be one of a very few models: the old Nexus 6 or the new Nexus 5x or 6p.  The cheaper 5x will set you back $379.  The 6p starts at $499 for the base model.  Since we are used to paying subsidized charges of $200 for the very best phones, this may seem like sticker shock.  But if doing so reduces your monthly charges from $60 or $70 per month to $30 or $35 per month,  You will see big savings pretty quickly.  You can also pay off the phone cost over a standard 24 months if you prefer.  Given that the Nexus phones are probably the among best Android Phones on the market, you are not compromising quality.

Coverage may not be the best.  Project Fi allows you to use both the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. So you get better coverage than either one of those carriers alone, but most people demanding of coverage everywhere will find this service a cut below the better coverage of Verizon or even AT&T.

Part of the poor cell coverage is ameliorated by the fact that Google Fi is always on the look out to connect to available secure WiFi, which is used not only for data but also voice and text.  

I could see this plan being very useful for people who mostly use the cell phone for talk and text, and you don't use a great deal of mobile data.  It also makes sense if you to a fair amount of international travel.  Even if you mostly use data when you are connected to Wifi, it is a real convenience to have the mobile when you need it, and not pay a huge base cost every month just to have it in case.

I also like the idea of not being locked into a contract.  For people needing a phone for only a few months, they don't have to worry about a two year contract and can sell their relatively new phone when done with it so as not to take a huge hit on that.  For people who are happy using the same phone for three or four years, you will rack up even more savings than you would under the subsidized phone model.

The plan probably doesn't make sense if you are a heavy data user.  In that case, an unlimited plan from Sprint or T-Mobile is probably better.  Similarly, if you have a family plan with shared data, you may be better off financially going that route.  I'm also not convinced that Project Fi will be viable long term.  If it gets too successful, one of the supporting carriers may bail on it.  You can use your Nexus phones on any network, so you don't have to worry about being left with a brick. Even so, a stable carrier experience is preferred.

It would be nice if there was a completely pay as you go plan that gave a reasonable price for talk minutes and texts as well as data.  I know a great many people who use their cell phone very little and simply want it for rare occasions and emergencies.  There are already pay as you go options out there, but Google could be really competitive in that market.

I would like to see where Google is going with this.  I certainly understand why they want to kill Verizon and AT&T's strangle hold on internet mobility and support those efforts.  I hope the competition may force all carriers to cut prices.  All that remains to be seen.

At present, all I can say is the Google's latest foray into mobility is interesting.  This company has already upended several markets to the benefit of the consumer.  I'll be interested to see how Project Fi grows in the coming years.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Apple has Peaked

Many speculators have gone broke predicting the downfall of Apple, now the largest company in the world.  It seems to hit home run after home run and just keeps growing.  I could be wrong, but I think Apple is finally hitting its peak.  Of course it is not going away.  It will continue to thrive as a successful company.  Its years of amazing growth, however, may be over.

Apple has thrived by putting out new devices every year that amaze and astound.  It has built a large fan base.  But you are only as good as your latest device.  The new iPhone 6s is nice, but not an amazing leap forward.  In a few ways it is a step backwards: slightly thicker than its predecessor and a smaller battery.  But that's not the real problem.

Apple phones have gained market share in recent years.  Apple's decision to make larger screens on the iPhone 6 caused many consumers to turn back to Apple, abandoning the Samsung Galaxy, which as I have commented in an earlier post, seems focused on becoming a mere clone of the iPhone.  But this trend is going to change soon, not because of any problems with the new 6S, which has received relatively good reviews.

Portable devices have been through several years of revolutionary change.  Improvements going forward are likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  As a result, other companies are producing similar devices at lower cost.  Price is going to be Apple's Achilles heal.

Major phone companies are doing away with subsidized phones.  Customers are going to face sticker shock when they have to put out $750 for a new base model iPhone ($850 if you want enough drive space to save pictures on your phone) then start paying for monthly service.  Apple has tried to soften the sticker shock by offering payment plans for new phone purchases.  But will it be enough? Customers did not mind shelling out an extra $200 for a subsidized iPhone, especially when a top Android cost the same.  But Android phones under competition are likely to fall greatly in price, while Apple will try to maintain its high prices.

Over the next few years, iPhones will become more of a premium device for high end users.  It will likely settle into a 20-25% market share for people willing to pay a premium, compared to 43% of the smartphone market today.  Worldwide today, Apple holds only about 13% of the smartphone market. That will likely drop below 10%. Android will continue to dominate the rest of the market.  This gives Android a major benefit over Apple as App makers focus on the larger audience and begin to neglect Apple.  This cycle of fewer users leading to fewer apps leading to still fewer users is hard to break once started.  Eventually Apple will become a small niche player in mobile devices much like it did with its Macs once MS Windows took over the world.

Apple could focus on cutting costs and remaining competitive, but that is not the Apple way.  In fact, it really is not was Apple consumers want.  The Apple 5c was meant to be a lower cost, slightly lower quality Apple phone.  It failed miserably because Apple consumers want the very best.  They do not want compromise.

By contrast, Android comes on hundreds of different devices made by dozens of different companies. By sheer numbers, innovation and advancement is more likely to show up in these devices.  At the same time, effective competition will be able to find the best way to cut costs while maintaining performance in this highly competitive market.

Perhaps if Steve Jobs was still churning out miracle devices, this might be avoided.  But alas Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs.  New Apple presentations, like Apple TV and the Apple Watch have received relatively tepid reviews.  They are not the game-changers Apple might have once hoped.  No, price will have a much larger impact on future sales, and that is not an area where Apple can compete.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Windows 10 - Why Bother?

Microsoft has decided to join Apple and Google in its control of users.  This, for me, is a great disappointment.  I'd like to say I would boycott its products, but I know that is not true.  Despite its reduced importance, Windows is still the only OS for PCs and laptops.  Sure, Macs are an alternative, although Apple gives you even less control over your system.   Much of what I dislike about Windows 10 involves its efforts to become more like the Apple OS.  There is also Linux, but the inability to run many of my applications in Linux makes that a nonstarter for me as well.

For me, Windows reached its peak with XP. This OS, which came out in 2001, was a masterpiece. The world flocked to its adoption because it was far more stable than its predecessors, had a good familiar interface similar to the previous versions we already knew, and ran just about any program ever made.  When Microsoft stopped support for it last year, there was great anguish among users who did not want to let it go.

Microsoft, however, could never stay with a good thing.  XP was replaced by Vista which was an unmitigated disaster   Vista, in turn, was replaced with Windows 7, which was reasonably good, very similar to the XP interface, but still gives me a great many problems with legacy applications.  In particular, many of my favorite old video games regularly crash on 7.  As a result, I have stockpiled at least a half dozen old XP machines (which you can buy for almost nothing today), so I can hopefully continue to use them for the rest of my life.  I don't use them for everything, but if I want to enjoy a game of Quake III or Return to Wolfenstein, nothing after XP will work properly.

After Windows 7, Microsoft jumped off a cliff with Windows 8 and 8.1.  These were complete disasters for the company.  Microsoft essentially tried to build a tablet OS for the PC, where touch screens remain unavailable (and unwanted) and where large graphic icons that move just hog screen space and distract the eye from what you want to do.  Microsoft also hid access to many features making them nearly impossible to find.  I remember my first Windows 8 laptop.  It took me over an hour to figure out how to turn it off.  I did not want to look it up since I thought it was crazy that such a basic feature was not obvious. I wanted to see how long it would take.  It was just that hard to use.  The market agreed with this assessment and rejected Windows 8/8.1 in a big way.

Now, Microsoft has released Windows 10 (formerly called Windows 9 while in development - not sure why they went to 10 for release other than to put as much distance between 8 as possible).  I have not upgraded any of my computers to 10. The first question I ask myself is why should I?  What benefit to I get out of Windows 10 that I don't have on my Windows 7 computer?

There is no "killer app" that I need on Windows 10 that is not available for 7.  In fact, I can't think of a single thing that 10 can do that 7 cannot.  I had hoped that 10 might improve on voice recognition, which is horrible in 7.  Alas, it seems just as bad in 10 as it always was, no improvement there.

Cortana received a great deal of hype on release.  The new search feature allows you to search both your computers and the Internet at the same time for something.  I find this to be mindbogglingly annoying.  When I use Windows search, it is always to find a specific file on my computer.  Showing me gobs of Internet results only wastes my time.  In fact, I often simply want to search a specific drive or folder.  I often want to search by date or some other factor other than content.  This seems impossible now.  I use Internet search all the time, but that is a completely different thing.  When looking for the answer to a question, I don't want to search my computer.  Combining these is beyond useless.  It is a huge step backward.

The new Edge Internet browser has also been touted as a great new advance. Sure, it's probably better than Internet Explorer, but who uses that anymore?  Most of the world lives on Chrome and Firefox, which as far as I can tell still beat Edge.  In fact, I still have a few Java enabled devices that newrer browsers won't even let me access. They don't just warn me. They absolutely forbid access, even though I know the device is safe.  Well, back to an XP machine running IE 6 for that purpose.  New browsers are no good if I can no longer do what I did with the old one.

If you are an Xbox fan, you may find some benefit to the integration of Xbox live feeds in Windows 10.  Since I've never used Xbox live and have no desire to start this holds no interest for me.  It can be a distraction for people who want to keep work on their PC and fun on their Xbox.

The biggest hype is the return of the Start Menu, which went missing in Windows 8.  For those of use who have remained on XP or 7, this return offers nothing new, just a move back to what we already have.  But even here, the new Start menu is not nearly as good as the old one.  The new start menu gives  you a Windows 8 style list of programs with large bulky blocks that waste screen space and distract the eye.  When I open my start menu, I want to see a list of all my programs, several dozen, maybe over 100, in a list that I can scan quickly and easily. Instead, I get bulky entries that waste space, forcing me to scroll through multiple pages to see everything.

So 10 offers nothing new that gives me incentive to upgrade. What am I losing? For starters, Microsoft no longer supports DVD movies.  These codecs have been built into Windows for many generations.  I can get a DVD movie, slap it into my computer at watch it.  That is no longer possible.  Yes, I can get a third party program that will do this, but that for me is a loss.

I am also a big fan of Tivo.  I not only have one attached to all my TVs, but I love that it allows me to download shows to my laptop to take with me on trips.  Unfortunately, my free Tivo Desktop software will not work on any version of Windows after 7.  So this is another feature I need to sacrifice.

There are a number of other old programs that are either not supported at all, or which require me to purchase a newer version. I get that change may require some of this, but since there is no incentive to change based on new must have features, I have no reason to go through the upgrade hassles or give up my favorite legacy apps.

Windows 10, however, does not stop there.  It makes a much greater effort to integrate the user experience into the Internet.  You now have no control over updates.  MS can update Windows whenever it wants with you having no way to stop it.  In its first few months, MS has released several updates that have caused problems for people.  Too bad, you can't uninstall updates.  You simply have to wait to see if MS every decides to issue a fix.

Windows 10 also tries to push you into using Bing search, Outlook.com for email and Office 365.  Using alternatives from other companies becomes much more complicated.  As a heavy user of Google's online services, I find this an unnecessary annoyance.  Windows is also apparently monitoring everything you do on the computer.  I get that Google does the same thing, but at least I know I have to go online to be public.  Microsoft reaches into my home and monitors even things I am doing locally on my computer without using the Internet.

I'm sure I'll eventually be forced to move to Windows 10 as support for 7 ends and there begin to be important new things which XP or 7 cannot do.  But for now, I see no good reason to upgrade anything.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dear Random Business: I'm Just Not that Into You

It seems to me that most online businesses must be run by needy teen-aged girls.  At least they certainly behave the same way.

I can remember a time when I wanted to buy something, I would simply hand over some cash or a credit card, then take my item and go home.  Everyone was happy.  I had my shiny new purchase, and the store had my money.  Today though, buying just about anything online seems to be more like getting into a relationship.

Step 1:  I see something nice on the Internet and am interested.  So far so good. I get to take a look at it and decide I want to buy. If I don't already know the store, I may ask around by checking reviews by third parties or previous customers to learn your reputation.  If most people say you are ok, we can move to the next step.

Step 2: Getting to know you.  Typically, I can't just enter my credit card information and go.  The store wants to know more about me by getting me to set up an account.  How old am I? Where do I live? What are my other interests? Do I have a Facebook page? Can you be friends with me? etc.

Step 3: The purchase. Ok store, now you know all about me and consider me worthy to buy your item.  But before we can complete the transaction, you want show me a little more about yourself.  No, I'm not interested in other items that customers who bought this also bought.  I don't want to reconsider the extended warranty or other things that go with this thing. If I did, I would have added them before trying to make my purchase.  Let's not try to stretch this out or make this into more than what it is.  Just take my money and go.

Step 4: Our friends apparently need to know we are together now.  After our transaction, you want me to tell all my friends about it.  Thanks for asking, but no, I don't want to brag to all my friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Pintrest about buying some thing from you.

Step 5: Communication is fundamental to any relationship. Now that I've completed my purchase, we apparently have a relationship.  As a result, you seem to think it is important to call me, email me, or text me, with whatever you like.  It may be about what you are shipping me, it may be about other stuff you want to sell.  One email is fine. Six, seven, eight just to tell me about my delivery status is getting to be too much.  Emails unrelated to my purchase are simply unacceptable.

Step 6: The need for feedback.  Apparently you think communication needs to be a two way street in our relationship.  You start begging me to tell you what I thought about our transaction.  You want to feel validated and told how wonderful you were about giving me what I wanted in a reasonable time, whether I felt you communicated with me enough during the process (hint- too much, see step 5) or whether anything could be different.  If I don't respond, you think it's fine to badger me repeatedly or get your friends (a third party survey company) to ask me more about it.  If I dare to say you were less than perfect, you whine at me even more to tell you in greater detail why.

Step 7. Leaving your things at my place.  In addition to our communication, you seem to want to move in.  I see that you are leaving cookies on my computer.  Look, I'm glad we could do business, but that does not mean I want you to move in and start leaving your stuff on my hard drive.

I'm sorry to tell this to you store, but I really wasn't looking for a relationship.  I really didn't care that much who sold me the thing. I just wanted the thing.  Now that I've got it, I've moved on.  Please leave me alone and stop contacting me.  I hope you can do the same.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Does Netflix think we are Stupid or just Nearsighted?


When I first started using Netflix years ago, I got a nice list of programs with the title written as in text.  There was a link so that if I clicked on it, I could receive more details about the show.  Perhaps I could read more summary or see various episodes.

But as with all things the site was updated.  Now, instead of easy searchable text, all videos are in a graphic logo with the name written into the logo.  The change meant that we could see fewer titles on the screen without having to scroll.  It also meant we could not easily do a word search for the title we want.

More annoying is the fact that clicking on the graphic simply starts playing an episode.  Which episode plays depends on what Netflix remembers you having watched.  Often, is is a convenience as you can start up where you left off.  But say you want a different episode.  Perhaps you watched a few episodes years ago, but now want to start over at the beginning.  Or perhaps you watched a couple of episodes on another account and want to skip ahead.  That becomes a much more complicated process now.

Even more annoying is when I accidentally let my cursor drift over some point of the screen, which causes it to enlarge and cover over other things.  Do website designers really think I am too lazy to push the click button on whatever I am hovering over?  There is no reason to change the screen unless I click on something.

Today, when I first bring up the Netflix screen, I don't get to see my list of selected movies.  Almost the entire screen is filled with a picture of some suggested movie that Neflix thinks may interest me.  It rarely does, but if something does catch my attention and I begin reading it, the screen spontaneously decides to move on to another video after a few seconds, so that I have to go an flip back to what I was reading before being interrupted.

Below that are rows of pictures of videos.  Sometimes my list appears near the top.  Sometimes a "continue watching" list is at the top, showing me series that I have begun watching,.  Some are series that I have completed watching but which continue to linger there filling up my screen with shows that I have already seen.  Some are series where I watched one episode, hated, and have no desire to see again.  Yet it is still there bothering me to continue watching.  I can dig deep into the settings to remove items from the "continue watching" list, but I find having to do that annoying.  Why can't I just see the list I created and edit to show me what I want?  Then there are many more rows of suggested topics that Netlix thinks I might enjoy.  Most of them are shows I have already watched on TV and have no desire to see again.  Most others are really not anything I ever wanted to see.

Even when I go through the trouble to click on "my list" and get back to a good old text list of shows I have selected, there is still so much junk added to the page.  I usually have about 40 shows on my list at once.  Yet, Neflix cannot seem to squeeze the name of more than about 15 titles on a single page without having to scroll. First, only one title can appear per line, with a good deal of space between lines.  I don't need to see the ratings for shows I have already selected. I don't need to see the category of "TV Shows" for every show on my list.  There is also a column for "notes" which is always blank. I'm not sure if I can add my own notes there or something, but it certainly is not obvious how one would do so.

The other big problem is using "artificial intelligence" or "AI" to choose for me what you think I might like based on prior viewing.  Yes, you may occasionally have a good suggestion, but mostly you are just advertising shows to me that I never want to see.  You are filling the screen with crap rather than allowing me to design my own page of things I may want to see at some point.  In other words, you think you know better than I do what I want to see.  There is no way I can find to click on a movie and tell it to "stop showing me this, I never want to see it."  If you want to show me a small list of suggestions, or better yet have a link to suggestions on another page aside from the home page, that would be fine.  Shoving shows at me that I have no interest in seeing only clutters my page.

I pick on Netflix, but this is really part of a larger trend by many web site makers.  Text has been deemed too difficult for viewers and must be replaced by larger pictures.  One big reason for this is to make the page easier to view on smaller screens, such as a tablet or phone.  But in reality, if you are using a tablet or phone, you are likely not accessing the page through a web browser.  You are using an app that is designed for your device.  So there really is no good excuse for the changes.  You don't need to show me an image that is the size of about 10 Windows icons, filling up my page.

I also appreciate the use of AI to direct me toward information I may find useful.  But the reality is that while the site is making educated guesses about what I want, it is still just guessing.  Give me the option of showing me suggestions, but also make it easy to set up things the way I want them to be.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Terms and Conditions

The Guardian recently ran an article discussing how impossible it is to read the terms and conditions for everything we use.  The reality is that all of us agree to various terms and conditions for online usage or software every day.

I understand that companies want to protect themselves and provide themselves with the maximum advantage under these terms.  The real fault lies with legislators who fail to provide us with appropriate protections, and courts who enforce terms that don't comport with some of the most basic precepts of normal contract law.

When parties agree to a normal contact, a court will ensure that four basic factors are included:

  1. mutual assent (both parties agree to the contract)
  2. consideration (both parties provide something of value)
  3. capacity (both parties have mental ability to understand the contract)
  4. legality (the contract's purpose must not be against the law).
It is hard to see how terms and conditions can meet these four elements.  For the person "agreeing" to the terms there is often very little evidence that they even understand the terms.  Sure, they have to click a button saying they have read the terms, but we already know that almost no one does that.  It seems a terrible fiction for any court to assume the party really understood what was happening.

Typically, it is hard to come up with how the person accepting the terms is providing much in the way of consideration, unless the terms relate to an agreement to view the advertising or something similar.

Capacity is never known until later.  Many web site viewers are under age.  Many terms and conditions bar children under age 13 from using the site, but there is no way to prevent a younger child from llying about his or her age.  Additionally, the law typically does not recognize capacity until age 18.

Legality is typically not an issue as most sites are engage in legal activities.  Those that are not would probably not expect to have their rights upheld in court.

If terms and conditions are to be considered contracts at all, they are Contracts of Adhesion.  A contract of adhesion is one where one party must simply adhere to the contact on a "take it" or "leave it" basis without any ability to negotiate the terms.  According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University: 

"Courts carefully scrutinize adhesion contracts and sometimes void certain provisions because of the possibility of unequal bargaining power, unfairness, and unconscionability. Factoring into such decisions include the nature of the assent, the possibility of unfair surprise, lack of notice, unequal bargaining power, and substantive unfairness. Courts often use the “doctrine of reasonable expectations” as a justification for invalidating parts or all of an adhesion contract: the weaker party will not be held to adhere to contract terms that are beyond what the weaker party would have reasonably expected from the contract, even if what he or she reasonably expected was outside the strict letter of agreement."


In other words, the exact terms of an adhesion contract cannot always be enforced if it is reasonable for the weaker party to expect parts of the terms not to be enforced.

However, when to enforce a clause or not enforce a clause is often left up to the discretion of the judge.  This can make both parties unsure of what rights they will have if terms are truly enforced.  Many terms go even further, requiring parties to use private arbitration rather than courts to resolve any such disputes, meaning a judge may never get to hear the case.  Arbitration also means both parties have to pay for the services, thus making it virtually impossible for many even to afford any sort of challenge.

Software and website owners often go out of their way to make terms and conditions incomprehensible, even if someone is interested in reading them.  Some go on for dozens, even hundreds of pages of small type fine print.  Many of the pages are often completely irrelevant to what you are doing and involve terms for other services you are not using, but combined into a single document.  Other times, the terms may refer to other documents that you need to access and read separately.  So even if you are patient and understand legalese, getting through the documents can be virtually impossible

As a result, most people don't even bother trying.  They click OK and assume that the terms are not unreasonable, won't affect them, or that violations won't get noticed.  They further assume that the web site will not bother to enforce its claims in court and that the worst that will happen is that they get kicked off the site.  For the most part, these assumptions are correct.

So essentially, terms and conditions give software makers or web site owners the right to kick people off their site arbitrarily since almost everyone is in violation of some of the terms.  It essentially gives cover to do whatever they want.  They can violate your privacy, steal any information you may have used in conjunction with their product, sue you for additional licensing fees, avoid liability if your information is lost, destroyed or stolen by hackers.  This PC World article describes some of the real world restrictions you may have unknowingly "accepted."

Sadly, however, many courts are enforcing such terms and conditions as binding contact.  Judges are former lawyers.  They don't mind the complexity and blame the victims for not having had a legal team read every term and condition before proceeding.  They like have a nice set of written terms to parse when making a decision rather than trying to resolve disputes on the vague notion of what is really fair.

But such enforcement raises a great many problems.  Normally businesses have special procedures in place so that only key corporate officers can sign contracts, and only after legal departments have reviewed them.  By contrast, terms and conditions can be "agreed to" by any low level employee or even an independent contractor visiting a site or installing a piece of software that no one has reviewed.  Even if a company goes through the expensive and time consuming process of reviewing and approving terms and conditions, many such terms allow the site owner to change the term at any time without notifying it users other than by posting such changes to the web site.  This means that a company must not only review the terms and conditions once, but continue to review them every day that the site is used by any of its employees. This is, of course, a practical impossibility.  No company could do this, let alone private individuals.

There must, of course, be rules on usage to prevent anarchy.  But the current system of terms in simply unworkable.  Something needs to change.  Holding users hostage to unread and unreasonable terms and conditions in not a viable solution.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Why Flash died

For many years, Flash has been the way to enjoy video on the Internet.  It's low data usage (for video anyway) make it ideal.  One could also create interactive Flash Apps that could be used for games or other functions.

But the fate of the Flash technology was probably sealed back in 2005 when Adobe acquired Macromedia.  Adobe, in my opinion, is one of the greediest and least cooperative companies in the IT world (and that is saying something).  One of the biggest uses of Flash technology came to be intrusive video advertising that would disrupt a web site reader who was simply trying to read an article quietly.  Further, Adobe failed to maintain security and stability standards that created problems for the computer user.

Steve Jobs refused to incorporate flash into IOS, meaning flash could not run on iPhones or iPads.  Apple also stopped bundling Flash with new Macs in 2010, meaning users would have to download it separately.  Apple claimed to be doing this for performance, stability, and security reasons.  You can read Jobs' 2010 memo here.

Technical issues may have been part of the reason, but Jobs had no love for Adobe.  He felt they had screwed him several times in the past.   One was over postscript fonts.  In the 1980's early Apple computers use Adobe's PostScript Fonts.  This gave Apple computers a huge advantage over PCs for anyone who wanted to do desktop publishing.  But Adobe refused to lower licensing fees as the market grew.  This essentially forced it to become a niche product and greatly limited the growth of Apple.

Many years later in the late 1990's Jobs returned to a dying Apple, with a mission to resurrect the company. To do this, he needed to make sure software would be available for all sorts of functions on the new Macs. Jobs believed he had received an assurance from Adobe that it would develop a Mac version of its video editing software.  Then, suddenly, Adobe changed its mind after deciding that the Apple market would never grow big enough.  This greatly upset Jobs who then had to spend a few years developing a decent video editing program in-house.

So by 2010 when Adobe was facing tougher competition and Apple was ascendant again, Jobs was more than happy to find a reason to stick it to Adobe.  Flash made up 75% of all online animation at the time.  People thought Jobs was crazy.  But with HTML5 taking a more prominent role, more animation, video, and interactivity could be done without Flash.  More and more companies have been dumping Flash, as it continues to slump toward irrelevance.  Youtube has stopped using it.  Even the browser Firefox has been trying to eliminate it.

Oddly enough, I will miss Flash.  Don't get me wrong, I have found it quite annoying over the years.  But the big benefit of flash over HTML5 over the past few years was that Flash was a separate plug-in.  That meant that I could choose not to plug it in, or could use a simply flash blocker program to prevent being attacked by flash based ads or other nuisance video.  The move to HTML5 makes it much harder to block these annoying intrusions as they are much more tightly woven into the fabric of the page itself.  As such, I find myself subject to much more annoying ads, videos, and noise when I simply want to read a text article.  I'm sure I will find a way to block this nonsense eventually.  But with the end of Flash, I feel like I am starting my battle against advertisers all over again from scratch.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Samsung Galaxy is Flying off a cliff.

Back in March, I published an earlier post explaining why the Galaxy S6 would be a failure for Samsung.  Three months after the phone's release, it appears that I was right.  Phone sales are down. profits are down.  Some reports are saying Samsung target sales are off by 40%.  Samsung is desperate to push its acceptance and does not seem to understand why it is failing.

Don't get me wrong, the Galaxy S6 is not a bad phone.  It is not bug ridden or defective in any serious way.  But as I wrote in my earlier post, the S6 is essentially trying to be an iPhone clone.  Nothing terribly wrong with trying to be more like the best selling phone on the market.  But if your phone is more expensive than the iPhone, who is going to spend more for an iPhone clone when they can just buy an iPhone?

For many years, the Galaxy line surpassed iPhone because it offered features that the iPhone did not. The most prominent was that the Galaxy offered a much bigger screen.  Apple got the message on that. It came out with a much bigger screen for the iPhone 6 and an even bigger screen with the 6 plus.  As a result, iPhone sales have soared and Galaxy sales plummeted. And no, Samsung cannot respond with an even bigger screen.  At some point, screens get too big.  Both phones seem to be at right about the size most people want.

I recently attended a Samsung event for IT professionals designed to tell us why the Galaxy S6 was a great choice.  They even gave me a free S6 for attending.  That phone has sat on my desk it its box unused.  I have no desire to upgrade from my S5.  In doing so, I will lose my ability to swap out my battery (the S6 battery actually holds a smaller charge than the one that came with the S5).  I lose the ability to add memory using an external chip.  I would also have to upgrade my expensive Mophie Juice Pack cover.

To make the upgrade, what benefit do I get? The most celebrated new feature of the S6 seems to be the metal case over the S5 plastic case.  But I don't care about the case since I put my phone in an external protective case anyway.  I don't even see the Samsung case.  I'm also told the S6 screen has higher quality graphics.  But I haven't had a complaint about graphics on my last three phones.  4k graphics are great on a 100" TV, but no one cares about it on a 5" phone screen. Samsung is improving something that does not need improvement.

Samsung was also pushing special Samsung only features to encourage IT professionals to use Samsung in the enterprise environment.  Device management, encryption, and other security features are all well and good, but I cannot force everyone in my company to use a Galaxy.  There would be a revolt.  We have hard core iPhone users.  We have BYOD policies for people who do not have company provided devices.  Going to an all Galaxy environment is not an option.  That is the kind of thing that Blackberry demanded and it is why it failed.  Security and device management has to be cross platform.  Samsung is just wasting time and money with this.  Unless they plan in the future to offer a way of adding non-Samsung devices to the system almost no one will use these features, ever.

With its "big screen" advantage over the iPhone gone, Samsung needs to find a new must-have benefit.  Some people seem to like the unique benefits of the curved screen Samsung Edge, although I don't really see the appeal.  Finding that unique killer app is admittedly very difficult.  Because Samsung does not control its OS, there are dozens of other phone manufacturers who can copy pretty much anything that Samsung develops.

Absent some new "must have" feature, consumer preference will likely focus on price and performance.  Companies that find a way to reduce price and maintain top performing features will win this competition.  Prices for most premium smart phones are hidden in the monthly fees charged by the cell phone companies.  If I bought an S6 with a two year contract, I would pay only $200, but would be obligated to pay $50-60 per month for two years.  Without a contract, the full retail price of the phone is a whopping $700.  Compare that to my 7" Asus MemoPad tablet which also runs Android and can do all the same basic things but costs only about $80. You cannot tell me that adding 4G and phone capability adds $620 to the cost of a device.

As phone companies move closer to ending the subsidization of phones through monthly charges, phone makers will only feel more price pressure.  People will always pay a premium for the unique iPhone, but not so much for the Samsung Galaxy.  Samsung needs to begin thinking about a lower cost phone.  Making a high priced iPhone clone simply is not sustainable as it is not attractive to consumers.  Samsung cannot beat the iPhone on its own terms.  Samsung must consider changing the terms of the competition before it loses its reputation as an industry leader.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Microsoft is Finally Serious About its Cloud Services


Like many nerds of a certain age, I began my technology world with Microsoft back in the 1980's.  Microsoft so dominated the PC world that Bill Gates even had to buy a bunch of Apple Stock just to keep it alive so it could convince the Government it still had competition.

But for more than a decade, Microsoft has been mostly stagnant.  Perhaps it was like Alexander the Great who cried when he saw he had no more lands to conquer.  Microsoft dominated many areas of technology and could not be too aggressive in others without incurring the wrath of anti-trust regulators.  Microsoft survived just fine on minor updates to its existing cash cows, Windows, Office, Xbox, but was not really considered a cutting edge technology company.  Even worse, it had a reputation for being second only to Apple in its attempt to extract money from its customers.

Meanwhile, companies like Google moved to usher in the Internet Revolution.  Free services like Search, Maps, Drive, and Mail began to take control.  Today, almost everyone does email via an Internet Browser.  Even large companies are beginning to see the futility of running their own mail servers.  Individuals don't want to spend hundreds of dollars for MS Office when they can do the same things, sometimes even more easily, using Google Docs and Google Sheets for free.

Gmail vs. Oulook.com

Microsoft is getting back in the game now.  Having realized they lost the phone and tablet wars, Microsoft is focusing more on getting iPhone and Android users to use Microsoft Apps on those devices.  Outlook.com is the free email available that is in competition with Gmail.  Gmail, once the leader in giving away space for mail, limits you to 15 GB on a free account, and you have to share that space with your Google Drive documents.  Outlook offers "unlimited" space for mail.  I put unlimited in quotes because MS says it is possible to hit a limit if your Outlook grows to quickly.  I think this is to prevent people from dumping massive amounts of files in Outlook.  But if it grows slowly over time, there appears to be no limit.  Outlook.com also supports Activesync (in addition to IMAP and POP3) for your offline readers.  Gmail only supports Activesync for users that pay for business accounts.

Google Drive vs. OneDrive

Online storage is where Microsoft really beats Google though.  With a free OneDrive account, you get 15 GB of online storage.  This quickly doubles to 30 GB if you install an App on your phone to upload photos.  You can get another 5 GB by recommending other users to sign up, at 1/2 GB per user that signs up under your recommendation. With Google, free account users are stuck with a mere 15 GB, and again that limit is shared with Gmail.  To be fair, Google does not count documents created on Google Drive towards that limit.  Your limit only counts to files you upload in other formats.  Also, Google recently announced that you can store unlimited amounts of pictures in Google Pictures which, as long as they are not terribly large.  But if you are looking for space to upload lots of documents, Microsoft has the definite advantage.  Both companies offer occasional time limited deals that give free users a chance to increase their limits.  But you have to act fast and usually jump through some hoops to get the space.

If you are willing to spend a few bucks, the Microsoft advantage grows even more.  With Office 365 Personal, you get a full copy of MS Office on your computer plus a full 1 TB (~1000 GB) of storage space on your hard drive for $70/yr.  With Google, paying $50/yr gets you only up to 30 GB of storage space (again still shared with Gmail) and no extra software.  To get to 1 TB, you have to pay Google a whopping $120/yr - advantage Microsoft.

Another reason I am being drawn over to OneDrive is the ability to map a drive letter on your computer to your OneDrive account.  If you are interested in doing this, follow this link.  I find this to be a great convenience for many programs and utilities that required a drive letter, as opposed to some network connection without a letter.  It makes it easy to use LibreOffice or WordPerfect as well.  There is also a way to add a drive letter to Google Drive, which you can find here, but it really is a little convoluted.  First, you have to have the Google Drive program running on your Windows computer, not just a web link to your drive.  That program cache's a copy of your drive to a temporary folder on your computer.  You can map a drive to that using a DOS command or another third party tool, and then those changes are synched back to your Google Drive.  So, for example, if you have bought a bunch of extra space on your Google Drive to store things, you would need to have an equal or greater amount of space on your computer to cache all those documents.  As I often have near full hard drives, I find this inconvenient.

This Rivalry will benefit users for years

I have been a huge fan of Google for years, and will continue to be.  But the advantages of Microsoft's new cloud services are too good to ignore.  I will start using OneDrive more, and perhaps consider using my Outlook.com email account for some things.  In any event, the competition will likely spur both companies to continue offering better services, and keep many of these benefits available on free accounts.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why Text?

I've had a smart phone for nearly 15 years now.  Before iPhone and Android, I had a Blackberry, and before that a Palm Treo.  In all that time, I've never had much a desire to text.

I guess part of the reason I never saw the point of text messaging was that I've always had my email on my phone.  Since anyone could always get a message to me on my phone via email, the notion of texting seemed pointless.  In fact, worse than pointless since texts are much more limited in size than an email, could not contain attachments, for many years could not contain pictures, and could not be stored in some other location for later reference.  On top of all that, my phone company charged a hefty fee of $20/month on top of my data charges in order to send and receive texts.

Text messaging always seemed inferior to email, so why would anyone want to use to it?  I suppose it caught on because many people did not have smart phones with email for many years, but were able to text.  I can certainly see why it would be attractive to send text message if email was not available on the phone.  But in the near decade since the iPhone was released, virtually everyone has email on their phones.  So why does text messaging still thrive?  Is it really just a matter of habit, from the days when cell phones could not support email?

My phone vendor finally decided to provide free text messaging included in my plan.  I used it for a few weeks, but found there really was no point to it.  In fact, I increasingly find it annoying for many reasons.

For starters, my phone is not my only device.  I use a tablet, as well as several laptops and desktops during the course of the day.  If someone sends me an email, I can get it on any one of those devices. If someone sends me a text, I have to check my phone.  That's just one extra step I need to do all the time.

I was also encouraged by my phone vendor to upgrade to business grade messaging for my work phone.  Why, I asked?  How was this any different?  I was told that because there is no centralized server for personal texts, some texts can get lost if the recipient does not have their phone turned on for a long enough time?  So regular text messaging is therefore untrustworthy for important communications.

Another problem, when I get a new phone, I have to migrate my existing data or I lose all of my texts.  If I switch vendors and phone types, my chances of losing all my old data are much higher.  I did find an app for my Android that lets me back up my texts to a separate file, but that was a pain. By contrast, email is simply stored in my Gmail account, and local copies are easy enough to create, simply by using a mail reader like Outlook or Thunderbird to download all of my messages.

Text messages are limited in how many characters you can send at once.  I suppose there is also some theoretical limit to the length of emails, but I've never had a problem there.  Since emails work find for both short and long messages, why should I adopt a second medium that will only work for short messages?

Text messaging is tied to phone numbers.  If someone gets a new phone number, they won't get my message.  While the same could be said for email addresses, I at least usually get back an error message if I email a non-working address.  With texts there is no such warning.  For the years when I was required to pay for texts, I had text messaging turned off by my vendor.  People would try to text me and get upset when I did not respond, not knowing that I never received their message.  If someone gives me their number, how do I know if I can text to it?  It could be a land line, or someone who simply cannot receive texts.

Email is more universal.  I know that practically everyone has a phone, but my children, for example do not.  They are too young for a phone.  At least that is what I say since I don't want to pay for one.  They do have free email accounts though.  My mother, and much of her generation does not either.  They don't like reading on small screens and don't see the point.  I also know a number of poor people who simply cannot afford $50 or $60 a month for smart phone service, but can easily check their free email accounts at the library.

International messages are another issue.  If I text someone in another country, there is an extra fee for that with many plans.  With email, there is never any charge sent to anyone ever.

People say that text messaging is faster than email.  That may be true if you have a POP3 account or something that only check for mail once a minute or every two minutes.  A minute or two may not seem like a lot, but in texting back and forth with someone, you don't want that delay.  But with my Gmail App or using ActiveSync, my emails come in just as fast as a text message.  There are no delays.

I read all sorts of articles about how email is old technology and is probably on its way out as a means of communication.  I don't think that is the case given how universal it is.  I also cannot think of one way that text messaging is superior to email.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What Google Needs to Defeat Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are now going head to head in cloud based services. Each company has its own strengths.  Microsoft dominates the PC and laptop OS arena.  Android, has a more powerful presence with its Android OS on laptops and phones.  Google also has a powerful lead in free email. 

For this post, I'm ignoring third big competitor in the arena, Apple, since they do not seem to be pushing for dominant control of cloud services beyond users of their own phones, tablets, and laptops.

Google is seeking to expand its presence by pushing Google Drive, a host of applications that allow document creation and collaboration, among other things.  This puts them more and more into competition with Microsoft Office.  Microsoft has been moving its Office Suite to the cloud with MS Office 365.  While you can still download MS Office onto your hard drive, more and more work can be done directly in the cloud.  The subscription model further makes Microsoft look more like a service provider than a software seller.

Microsoft's strategy seems clear.  It wants to use its market dominance in the Office market, to move individuals and businesses into its cloud services.  It makes sense.  Businesses especially are so tied into the MS Office world that it is nearly impossible to collaborate with other businesses without having MS Office yourself.  If they can leverage that, as well as dominance in Outlook to draw users into its cloud storage and online email services, it becomes a major player in that field, and moves away from the collapsing market of selling software to PC users.

Google's strategy similarly reflects its desire to leverage its strengths in search and email to move people into its other cloud services.  Google encourages its Gmail users to use Google Drive, where they can create and share documents, spreadsheets, and other works.

Microsoft's greatest weakness is probably its recent reputation for overpriced buggy bloatware, for falling behind in the race to keep up fast paced technology trends, and for its tendency to gouge customers for maximum short term profit.  The fact that its solution is much more expensive than Google's only contributes to this preconception.

Google's greatest weakness is its lack of any reputation in the enterprise arena.  While businesses use its search services or other online free services such as Google Maps, they have been reluctant to move to Google's enterprise email offerings or use of Drive as the only way to create documents.  At best, businesses use them as a supplement for online collaboration, while still relying on MS Windows computers running MS Office for office work and MS Outlook connected to MS Exchange for email.

Microsoft has every incentive to tie Windows, Office, and Outlook into its cloud services and offer a smooth transition for businesses.  Microsoft has zero incentive to make it easier to access your Google Drive documents from MS Office or to integrate Windows into your Google cloud storage, or improve Outlook interoperability with Gmail.  If history is any guide, you will see MS create deliberate bugs that make interoperabliity with Google a real headache.

This makes Google's fight much harder.  Google will not capture the OS market any time soon.  Google Chrome will not replace Windows in the foreseeable future.  Android does not seem to be able to leap from tablets to laptops.  Therefore, Google has to focus on making its cloud services so much better and less expensive that people will go out of their way to use them.

To do this, Google must come up with a more powerful office suite.  Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides are ok for simple documents.  But they simply do not have the tools that professionals need to create more complex documents.  One great option would be a partnership with an open source Office suite like LibreOffice.  Another option would be to buy a dying competitor like WordPerfect Office.

Either way, Google could integrate the office application into Google.  It could allow subscribers to download the office suite, or make the suite itself cloud based.  Either way, users would have a much more powerful office suite with which to use Google's online document system.

Google has done well with individuals who want convenient free apps.  But if it wants to get the more profitable enterprises to get on board with Google, it needs to have a serious Office suite for business users.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A lesson from QWERTY


The traditional keyboard layout on virtually all computer keyboards today is a direct holdover of the layout on typewriters going back well into the 1800's.  The first practical typewriters were on the market in the 1860's.  By the 1870's almost everyone was using the standard QWERTY keyboard layout that we still use today.

Was there anything particularly wonderful about this layout?  Not really.  In fact, many have complained over the years that its layout is inefficient.  Heavily used letters are not keyed to fingers that can respond most quickly.  People have shown in many instances that a person trained on keyboards with keys optimized for speed can improve typing speeds considerably.  Why then, do we continue with the QWERTY standard?

The reason, of course, is that virtually all typists have trained for years on this standard.  Everyone knows it very well.  Changing the layout would cause great confusion and chaos for all professional typists.  The years of retraining and relearning typing far outweigh the small performance improvement that might eventually be of benefit.

Technology industry leaders seem to have forgotten this concept, or at least decided to ignore it.  Apple has often been a repeat offender, completely changing user interfaces and failing to support legacy applications.  Microsoft seems to have adopted this view with gusto in more recent years as well.  It's complete rewrites of the way the MS Office menus work, and it's disastrous release of Windows 8 with a completely new interface has angered users and scared off many long time customers, who either refuse to upgrade, or figure its time to look at competitors since they have to learn a whole new interface anyway.

In the age of cloud applications, this problem has only gotten worse.  When MS came out with an Office interface that no one wanted, users could stick with the old version for many years until they were eventually forced to get a new computer no longer compatible with the old software.  But with Cloud computing the manufacturer can change the interface on you without notice, forcing you to relearn tasks which you could do just fine yesterday.

Sure, sometimes these changes are arguably for the better (although often not).  Sometimes a new look may get customers to take a second look at your product.  It may also help give the illusion that the company is changing things and therefore remaining new and cutting edge.

But more and more, users are seeing technology as a tool to accomplish tasks, not a great new innovation that need to amaze and astound us every six months.  We want to get things done and we don't want to have to re-teach ourselves something we already knew how to do.  Many of of these changes simply cause a reduction in productivity until users are able to become accustomed to the new arrangement.

Technology leaders would be wise to take a queue from QWERTY.  Once something has become a standard, and most people have adopted it, don't change the setup unless there are very good reasons for doing so.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Galaxy S6 is a major disappointment.

I have been a fan of the Samsung Galaxy since the beginning.  I still have my original Samsung Galaxy S, although it's in a drawer now, having been replaced several times by its subsequent iterations.  I currently enjoy by Galaxy S5.  I am very happy with it.

I am in a fortunate position in that my employer pays for my phones.  I have both a Galaxy S5 and an iPhone 6 as I need to know how to support both inside and out to help company employees with their phones.  Since employees have a choice of either phone, I must be an expert in both.

The iPhone is fine for what it is.  But my preference for every day use it absolutely the Galaxy S5.  I have long been a big fan of the Android OS.  The iPhone is fine for users who are willing to pay through the nose for apps and hardware accessories, and for people who don't care to tinker with their phones and use them in new and creative ways.  But for those of us who see the phone purchase as a starting point for us to come up with new an interesting ways to use it, the iPhone simply does not allow the flexibility we crave.

As someone who is tasked with keeping phones running for many users, I am also focused on the ease of repairing phones or recovering data.  Apple has always been good at presenting a product that looks wonderful out of the box, but if you ever have any problem with it, repair is rarely an option.  Typically, your only solution is to buy a new one.  Most Android phones allow for some repairs or upgrades, which I find attractive in a phone that rarely looks pristine after its planned two year life span.

My next phone will almost certainly run Android OS.  However, it likely will not be a Samsung Galaxy.  Samsung has decided to become an echo of the iPhone 6.  If they continue down this path, they will likely lose their position as the preeminent Android phone.

The S6 has taken away several of the most important features that distinguish it from the iPhone.  The fact that the new model is no longer water proof does not concern me much.  But the loss of two other basic features are the main reason I've decided to end my relationship with Samsung.

I am very disappointed by the fact that, like the iPhone you cannot replace the battery in the S6. Batteries run down over time.  They simply don't hold a charge for as long, no matter how well you treat them.  After a year or two, you need to get a new battery if you want the length of charge to remain high.  You may also want to get a third party battery that can handle a larger capacity, giving you even more time between charges.  Many of us also like to carry a spare battery for those heavy use days when leaving the phone in a charger is not an option.  The S6, however, has decided to make the same mistake as the iPhone, sealing the battery into the body, making it impossible to replace.  This is pure and simple a step backward with no obvious benefit to the user.

An even greater disappointment is the removal of the MicroSD card reader.  This is what allows you to add extra memory to your phone when you need it, so you can keep your media with you at all times.  Samsung again has followed the path of the iPhone in taking away this option.  Instead, you can purchase a phone with more memory built in. If it were just the fact that users had to pay more for the extra memory, as opposed to buying a cheap MicroSD card, I might be able to accept that.  But the removable card offers so much more benefit:

  • First, I have had a number of phones where the USB charging port became damaged.  That made it virtually impossible to extract data from the phone other than by putting the data on a card and transferring it.  That option is now impossible.
  • Second, I have been able to use multiple cards holding different data in the past, such as different movies.  Since I could not possibly store my entire video collection on one drive, the ability to swap cards made transfers easy.  That also is now impossible.
  • Third, I have a genealogy project which I regularly update and like to have on my phone to show people.  The sync tool I use to sync changes requires I sync between two letter drives on my Windows computer.  Because I cannot assign a drive letter to my phone when connected to as USB cable, the easiest way to sync is to remove the card and plug it into my computer.  That option also disappears with the S6.
  • Fourth, there is data I sometimes want to access on my phone, but other times on my tablet.  I MicroSD card means it's just a quick swap of the card.  Again, I lose that ability.
  • Fifth, when I upgrade my phone, moving my media is as easy as popping out the card and into the new phone.  There will be no popping into the S6.
  • Sixth, I don't need to buy extra memory until I need it.  I was great with an 8 GB chip for years.  But when I needed a 32 GB chip a few years ago, it was no problem to upgrade.  Since memory costs fall over time, it was much cheaper to buy the memory when I needed it, not to have to buy it at the time I purchase the phone at a much higher price.  Money aside, I may not even know how much memory I will want or need a year or two from now. With the S6, keeping my options open is, well, no longer an option.

Some of these issues could be addressed by cloud storage or wireless transfers.  But options are more expensive and also much slower.  So while I could find ways to adapt, why must we take a step backward with no obvious countervailing benefit?

Where will I go next?  I remain a die hard Android fan.  I liked the Galaxy line, not only because it was a pretty good phone, but also because it had become a standard.  That made it easy to replace broken screens or buy cases.  Getting a non-standard phone makes getting accessories more difficult and usually more expensive.  So part of my choice will probably be defined by what other phone gives Galaxy a serious challenge for the top spot.

I suspect this will be the HTC One.  It seems to beat the Galaxy in many specs that I like.  It has long had a reputation for a better camera, which is something that has always been a disappointment to me in the Galaxy.  Low light pictures are just not an option with the Galaxy.  The HTC One has been runner up for many years now.  The Samsung's latest stumble, this could be the opportunity for HTC to take the lead.

This stumble is a serious one.  People who want an iPhone-like phone will buy an iPhone.  The only way to compete with the iPhone as an iPhone knock off is to be cheaper than the iPhone.  From what I have read, the S6 without a contract will actually be more expensive than an iPhone.  I just can't see the market for this: people who want an iPhone-like phone, but want to pay extra to get an iPhone knock off rather than the real thing?

Because the Galaxy uses Android, the same OS available to dozens of other phone makers, people can make the switch much more easily.  Moving from a different OS means learning a whole new system and having to repurchase all your apps.  Moving from one Android phone to another, is much easier and relatively seamless.  Many people will make the switch in droves.  Once Galaxy loses its lead in the Android market, it will find it very hard to get back.  For reasons already expressed, people have good reason to go with the industry leader.  Once another company has the lead, it remains their until they stumble.

Getting more manufacturers into the mix will ultimately be a good thing for consumers.  Phones need more competition.  A new phone out of contract will cost me more than my laptop.  It's also more than double what I would pay for a similarly built tablet.  Prices outside the US are considerably lower for smart phones that are almost as good.  Perhaps the Samsung stumble will lead to greater competition and a price war that should benefit us all.