Sunday, December 28, 2008

Can computers *really* predict the music I will like?

In my neverending quest to find great music on the internet, I ended up moving beyond the simple streaming services. Not that I have anything against the staple of internet radio. In fact, as I've said before, I'm an avid listener of stations like smoothbeats.com and beatbasement.com. But sometimes I want to hear music that fits my mood. A playlist that goes beyond embracing a certain genre, and maybe goes two or three sub-genres deep. Usually that would mean firing up my own music collection. That is, until I discovered a site called Last.fm a few years ago. Their famed audioscrobbler is actually a computer algorithm that gathers info on the music you like, and matches it up with music it "thinks" you should like. I was addicted for a while until I figured out that the scrobbling game had some competition around town. I'll break a few of the major players down for you.

Last.fm
Ah, the apple of my eye. Last.fm was my *first* music recommendation site, and I still have a soft spot for it. Last.fm re-introduced me to underground hip-hop and started my love affair with internet radio. Their recommendation system was AWESOME to my novice ears. Basically, you allow Last.fm to "listen" to the music in your personal library, and then it can make recommendations based on similar artists. So I played some MF Doom (Mouse & The Mask) for them, and in response I heard a cut from what I would now describe as the greatest underground hip-hop album of all time: The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. And I was in a FEVER for more! Their catalog of music was LIMITLESS, unlimited streaming subscriptions were CHEAP (like $6 for 90 days), and you could build your own playlist of music!!! But, alas, the years (and a corporate acquisition by CBS) were not kind to the O.G. of audioscrobbling. Their decline began in early 2008 as they started losing the rights to TONS of music. Playlists became worthless, and their music was repetitive. Today, I can still recommend it in good conscience. But the serious music fan will quickly outgrow it. Here are the highlights:
  • MULTIPLE listening clients for Windows, Mac and Linux. As Last.fm uses open source software, there are literally dozens of programs that support streaming including 3rd party clients as well as the official release. You can even stream tunes through their website using flash!
  • Playlist support. Even though licensing issues have watered down this feature, it's still killer. Hear something you like? Save it to your playlist for later listening...
  • Multiple streaming stations. Want to hear your just songs that you "love"? Or maybe just recommendations? Last.fm's got you covered.
  • Did I mention the social networking? Stream your neighbors' radio stations and connect with others of similar interests. For a while, this was my favorite feature. Unfortunately, there's only so much social networking that people are willing to indulge in within a week. The Facebook juggernaught is assimilating all others. Soon, I think sites like Last.fm will exclusively pipeline their social netowkring feature through Facebook. It's inevitable.
Slacker
Man, I like this site purely for the name. It's a little different from Last.fm. It can't listen to your music collection for clues, but as you listen, you can gives songs the thumbs up or down. This is definitely the hard way to do things (similar to Yahoo Music and AOL), but it works if you're patient. What puts Slacker ahead of the curve is its mobile lifestyle aspirations. Slacker takes the recommendation model one step further and offers a portable radio player with wifi. It syncs new music across the internet to the player, and voila! You got new tunes! In addition, they are deploying the player software into mobile phones on Sprint's network, so expect some big things from this rookie player. I don't use them for my everyday listening, but when they start supporting my mobile phone, I'm all over them!

Pandora
I saved my favorite for last. Pandora is quite simply the most ingenious music recommendation system ever invented. And it's a CRYING SHAME that they have not invaded the mobile space like Slacker!!! Do you hear me Pandora??? GET ON WINDOWS MOBILE AND BLACKBERRY! WE NEED YOU!!! Whew. Sorry. Got a little out of control there. But I REALLY like Pandora. The secret, my friends, is in the sauce. Here's what I wrote about them a few weeks ago:
"You're greeted by the site asking you for an artist you like. That's when the magic starts. Even obscure artists seem to have had their music BROKEN DOWN and defined for Pandora's recommendation engine. It literally knows what basic ELEMENTS (beat pacing, rhyme style, musical genre) define each artist, and matches those elements to other artists. This is FUNDAMENTALLY different from Last.fm's audioscrobbler which simply matches similar artists. It was so accurate that I listened my first night for HOURS! I am in music-love all over again! Pandora's my new home for underground beats."
Did I mention that I receive NO monetary compensation from Pandora. At all. My only issue is that the available streaming clients are a bit....... heavy. Other than their website stream, Pandora offers an Adobe Air client that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. You get music, recommendations, history, and advertisements. Might as well fire up the web browser with all that crap. That said, I would STILL recommend Pandora over all others. Seriously, their recommendation engine is *that* good!

Give me some feedback, folks. I know there are other services out there. Which ones do *you guys* use. Do you have a preference for any of the ones I mentioned here? Next time, I'll be talking about internet TV and the HULU invasion. Until then, Happy New Year, people!!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I am a techno-pimp

I just bought a bluetooth speaker with a built-in FM transmitter. Now, I can take mobile phone calls in my car and hear the other person through my car speakers. But more importantly, I can stream LIVE internet radio through my car speakers from my mobile phone. And there's NOT A SINGLE WIRE to get in the way! WhooHaaa!!! (GI Joe-style - see below)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What are YOU watching?

The last seven or eight years have sort of been a renaissance for genre television, especially when I reflect back on my formative years in the late 80's when Star Trek: The Next Generation was *the* only sci-fi on the tube. And even more recently, some of the greatest television EVER has been sci-fi themed, occasionally escaping the confines of its genre niche. I think......and don't quote me on this.....but I think it all started with Buffy. There was a year, perhaps '02 or '03 where EVERYBODY was either quoting or talking about the Slayer. It had crossed over, however briefly, into the mainstream, and Joss Whedon had achieved television god-hood status.

Today, genre television has an embarrassment of riches (haven't heard that phrase for years, and I was dying to use it). And in a way, those shows owe their existence and acceptance to Buffy. Whedon created "the formula" for a genre television show that could attract men AND women of all ages. And more than occasionally he was able to capture the non-geek audience. JJ Abrams took that formula and created a new TV bible with shows like Alias, Lost, and now Fringe. And ironically, while Abrams (the Igor in this Frankenstein drama) is enjoying fame and fortune on the small AND the big screen, Whedon (the mad Doctor) has been booted from the hallowed halls of the academy after his failed Serenity, and is slumming it with Fox and the "doomed before it even airs" Dollhouse series. Talk about a twist of fate! I remember when Whedon was UNTOUCHABLE, but now he's paired back up with the "other" second-rate Slayer, on the network where genre shows go to die, the infamous Fox. How the mighty have fallen...

Whoa, I have seriously gone off-topic. Today, I just wanted to touch on some of the genre shows currently airing that I believe are exceptional, as well as booing a few that I think should be put down like a thoroughbred with a broken leg. And MOST of these are available on Hulu for on-demand viewing, in keeping with the tech focus of this blog.

The Good

1. First up is Battlestar Galactica! While modern network genre TV owes its roots to Buffy, everything on cable is six-degrees of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Galactica's creator, Ron Moore, is only one of Trek's former writers who went on to create excellent cable shows. If you ever watched Dead Zone, 4400 or Carnivale, give a little credit to Trek as their birth mother. Galactica comes to an end this spring. The first of 12 final episodes will begin airing in late January or February. Seriously, the writing on this show is so good, it has made other TV shows with average writing unwatchable for me.



2. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Summer Glau is the best Terminator to ever play the role. And that's a serious statement, as she's measured against Arnold. But, man she's intense. In fact, the entire show is intense. And that, plus the fact that it's on Fox, may be it's undoing. I just hope they get a chance to wrap up the story before it goes away. In any case, the cast and writers on this project have given us some of genre television's best moments.

3. Lost - This show gets better every year. And even though my faith was shaken during Season 2, that Desmond and Penny episode in Season 4 was absolutely, positively the BEST EPISODE OF TELEVISION EVER WRITTEN, genre or no. There, I said it.

4. Fringe - Hmmmm. This one barely makes my "Good" list. But it took a couple of years for the X-Files to get really good, so I'm willing to cut Fringe some slack. It's worth a look. Even though it's on Fox and will probably get cancelled.

4. Stargate SG-1 - Ever since Ben Browder of Farscape fame took up the mantle in Season 9, this unprecedented TEN (10) season series has reached a sort of legendary status. And even though the show has ended, they are still cranking out direct-to-DVD movies once per year. When Trek died, this is the show that carried the torch.

5. Knight Rider - PURE and utter trash, but it's a guilty pleasure. Just like the original.

6. Torchwood - After a shaky first season, Torchwood delivered a PHENOMENAL sophomore effort, bringing in heavyweights like Buffy's James Marsters for a few episodes. This is British sci-fi at it's finest.

7. True Blood - Soooo conflicted about this series. I was ready to throw in the towel after the first three episodes. I love explicit sex and gratuitous violence as much as the next guy, but I was wondering about the plot until episode five or so. The characters and side plots eventually grew on me, and I ended up addicted after the hippy vampire-killer chick turns up. But, can I tell you what's lame? The shapeshifter guy can turn into anything, but when the chips are down and our hero Sookie needs to be rescued, he turns into a little dog?! Wow...

The Bad

1. Doctor Who - No, I'm not bashing the good doctor. In fact, some of the best episodes in the history of the show were last season. But MAN, there were some stinkers! That season finale WAS A CROCK!!! However, with the prospect of a new female doctor, perhaps there's hope for this series.

2. Stargate Atlantis - Zzzzzzzzz. Is this show still on?

3. Smallville - Someone PLEASE put this show out of it's misery! Lex was the only thing interesting about last season, but recently, even Rosenbaum seemed to be phoning it in. Without him or James Marsters as Brainiac, this show is worthless.

The Ugly

1. Heroes - I sooooooo want to love this show. Season 1, although occasionally flawed, was a masterpiece. Season 2 was broken, but watchable and certainly had it's moments. But the current Season 3 is a crime against all genre television. After five episodes, I wanted to choke the writers. After another five, I was reinspired that perhaps there was hope for the show. And then, episode 12, "Our Father" did something that made me want to kick the writers in their collective nuts or ovaries, as the case may be. Hiro teleports to the past, gets his mother to heal his damaged memories, and has one of the best dramatic moments of the series as he tells her how much he missed her growing up, and vows to protect the "catalyst" that she has given him as he has become a real hero now. Then FIVE FRICKIN MINUTES LATER, Daddy Petrelli shows up, bitch-slaps Hiro, steals the catalyst AND Hiro's time/space powers, and drops him off the side of a building. And this is the true failure of the series: INCONSISTENCY! Characters change course every episode. No one BELIEVES in anything. The heroes are all accidental! Powers work one way in one episode, and another way in a different episode. The Haitian (why he doesn't have a name after three years is a mystery to me) can suppress everyone's powers within a 500 yard radius without even NOTICING, much less breaking a sweat earlier in the series. But in "Our Father" he yells, "Your father is too powerful, Peter. I can't hold him back much longer!" QUE?! I call bullsh*t. Remember when I mentioned the lame horse that needed to be put down? Heroes is that horse. Somebody shoot it. Please.

Sooo, what are *you* watching these days? Any good sci-fi that I missed?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

And you don't stop!

So, I went back and forth on this latest entry for my Urban Thought Collective blog, Check The Tech-Nique. First I was going to review some netbooks (Asus EeePC, Acer One, HP Mini-1000, etc). But a few days later, fresh from setting up my Home Theater PC, I was all set to talk about Boxee and the new online TV options that are cropping up (Hulu, et al). And in the end, my focus for the next few entries *will* be online media, but I have decided to start with music rather than TV or movies. My reasons are primarily selfish. :-) I tend to blog about the tech issues that are having the most impact on my life at the time. And right now, I am spending four days a week driving and living out of hotels. With so much windshield and hotel downtime, my music has gone from an important part of my life, to CRITICAL to my sanity. So, today, I am going to talk about the online music options that are available, some of the differences between them, and which ones are the best of breed regardless of your particular tastes.

DISCLAIMERS:
  • I am a die-hard, unapologetic underground hip-hop fan.
  • I have not listened to the AM/FM radio in five years.
  • I don't buy CD's, only MP3's
  • I don't own, nor will I *ever* own, an iPod. I *do* own an MP3 player.
  • I listen to more sheer hours of music per day than any other person I know
  • I LOVE music. Passionately.
Now that you know where I'm coming from, are we good? Awesome. So, for the online music novice, the playing field is divided into a couple of different categories. The first is your basic streaming radio station. The second is what's called a music recommendation service. Today, I'll be discussing the first. A streaming internet radio station is similar in concept to a traditional radio station, with some notable exceptions. AM/FM radio stations broadcast music or talk that focuses on a particular genre (i.e., sports, R&B, oldies, etc). Internet radio is similar in that respect. However, the key difference is in the loyalty to that genre. Internet radio has a MUCH tighter genre focus. If you want salsa, there is an internet radio station somewhere out there streaming all salsa, all the time. The really cool thing about the genre loyalty is that lots of artists that get zero airplay on traditional radio, end up with a ton of exposure on internet radio. For example, any serious underground hip-hop fan could tell you that Aesop Rock is one of the most gifted lyricists to ever pick up a microphone. Or that MURS is quite possibly the savior of modern hip-hop. Neither artist has ever been played on Power 106, Kiss FM, or Hot 97, but internet hip-hop stations can't get enough of them! The other key difference is commercials. Even though almost all internet radio is free of charge, most stations don't even play commercials. Or if they do, it's like one commercial an hour. Did I mention that most internet radio is also uncensored? So far, so good, right? Tight genre focus, no commercials, uncensored, and free. What's the downside? Well, unless you are ready to shell out some serious $$$ for an exotic specialty product, internet radio is tied to your computer, and you need a broadband internet connection. Don't get me wrong, products like the Squeezebox are slowly bringing internet radio to the unwashed masses, but it's still a niche market right now. Your best bet is to hook up some speakers to your laptop and call it a day. Internet radio in your car is still a geek's solution. So, if you're still ready, I'm going to run down a few internet radio index sites that will let you search for different individual stations. I will also recommend a few stations that I listen to on a daily basis.

Index Sites
  • Shoutcast - This is the granddaddy of all internet radio. Started by AOL almost 10 years ago, Shoutcast is the one-stop-shop for most net music surfers. It's easy to navigate, generates reliable results, and your music is only a click away.
  • 000Audio - A relative newcomer to the scene, but they've got a lot of stations hooked up. The stations are all medium sound-quality, though. As opposed to Shoutcast which lists a range of sound-quality from CD down to AM radio.
  • Live365 - Another oldie from the 90's. They use an ad/subscription-based model. You can pay to listen to music ad-free, but if you don't, you end up subjected to the same Trojan condom commercial every 20 minutes. Seriously guys, at least rotate commercials. I understand that your sponsors are limited, but maybe record a *few* different ads instead of that same one with the pig squealing about the condoms (yes, it's true). I still give Live365 an honorable mention because one of their stations includes the most awesome beatbasement, one of the few quality underground stations out there.
  • 1Club.FM - Another newcomer. They've got a bazillion stations listed, and they are free, but you do need to signup for their newsletter.
Streaming Stations
  • Smoothbeats - There can only be one. This is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best underground hip-hop station on the internet. I've been listening for six years and counting. They broadcast in CD-quality 24/7 for free with zero ads (unless you include a few station sweepers an hour). They even do some live DJ shows. PLEASE listen to them.
  • Beatbasement - Even broadcasting in AM radio quality, I will STILL listen to them. Hell, I used to listen to 1580 KDAY when I was a kid, and I didn't even know the difference!
  • Club 977 - The 80's - I include this only for my wife who is a die-hard 80's rock fan. If you need a fix of Phil Collins or Robert Palmer, this is your station.
  • Rhapsody - Yes, I know they are a commercial company. But their service is actually really cool. For a $15/month subscription, you can stream any song in their library ON-DEMAND! And they have a HUGE library.
In two weeks, I will review the most popular music recommendation sites and tell you which ones are worth your time and your hard earned cash.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Boxeeeeeeee!

I was going to review netbooks for my next Urban Thought Collective blog, but screw that! I just installed Boxee on my HTPC, and although it's got a few bugs, I am FEELIN IT!

Boxee is an internet startup that continues to get millions in venture capital, even *with* the current economic downturn. (That should tell you something.) The software is a quick download that, once installed, turns your PC into a TV that streams programming (youtube, hulu, Apple movie trailers, etc.) from the internet, your harddrive, your home network, or whatever. Sound like Apple TV? Well it is, except you BYOH (bring your own hardware). There are a few other competitors in this space, but even as alpha-level software, Boxee STILL outclasses them all! At least it does for me, in the 15 minutes that I've played with it. We'll see how I feel in 24 hours...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

STEP OFF!!!

And I mean YOU, all you Blackberry Storm haters! No it is NOT the iPhone, so quit talking about how it's NOT LIKE the iPhone. Yes, some crappy review phones were released into the wilderness. That does suck. But I have used ACTUAL consumer units and I have not experienced the much talked about lag. I LOVE the click when you type or intentionally open an app. How tough is that concept to understand??? Touching highlights or selects, clicking opens or executes. And after using both the iPhone and the Storm, I have to tell you that my typing was 1000% more accurate on the Storm!

The iPhone is a toy that some people are trying to convince themselves is a business productivity tool. The Storm is a business phone with some eye candy on top. Feature comparisons are stupid as the target audiences for each phone are different.

And for the record, I think the Storm is WAY cool. (Couldn't you tell from my tone?)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ABC is showing it's true (Apple) colors

"No, I don't have television." That's when I get the really weird looks. The response is usually, "Seriously? How can you not have a TV?" Well of course I have a TV (a 42" LCD, to be exact), but I don't get television. No cable, satellite or rabbit ears. My LCD is hooked up to a home theater PC. And my TV content comes from various sources, including bittorrent, usenet, and increasingly from a website called Hulu. You name it, Hulu has got it. My favorite TV shows are mostly available on-demand, with minimal enough commercial interruption as to still be watchable. I said mostly.

ABC doesn't seem to want to join the party. If you want to watch Lost or Pushing Daisies (the only good shows on ABC), you'll find a Hulu link pointing to ABC's own site. And while Hulu shows are watcheable on all versions of Windows, Mac and Linux computers, ABC's TV viewer ONLY works on Windows XP or Vista PC's. What's worse is that the user interface SUCKS! On Hulu, I click and go. On ABC, I click, wait, search, click again, wait, get locked into a commercial that doesn't seem to continue on to the show, close the windows, click again, and then finally watch my program. Yes, video quality is good. And the commercials are way more interesting than the ones on Hulu. But I'm not sure it's worth the hassle. Reminds me of how Apple ties the iPhone and iPod exclusively to it's iTunes music store. Hmmmm, there's another way ABC and Apple are similar? Let me think. Don't tell me. Oh that's right! ABC is owned by Disney, and Steve Jobs sits on Disney's Board of Directors! If it wasn't for Pixar movies, I would call Steve Jobs a witch and recommend burning him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pandora's basement

As many of you know, I am a big fan of last.fm. My fascination with the site began a couple of years ago. During my quest for new and interesting music, I stumbled upon last.fm. It billed itself as a music recommendation service, so I decided to give it a listen for a while. I was not initially impressed. It played some random but bearable music based on an artist I suggested (Prince, I think), but then quickly lapsed into heavy metal and then country, after which I promptly turned it off. Days later, I read that there were two ways for the audio scrobbler that powers last.fm to recommend music that I would like. Either I could listen to it's recommendations based on an artist, giving each song I heard a thumbs up or down, or I could let the scrobbler "listen" to my music collection. Basically, if I wanted to speed things up, I needed to play *my* music in my audio player of choice, along with a plugin that would feed that information to last.fm. After last.fm had collected enough data, it could play some stuff I would like. So, figuring that I would be a smart-ass, I decided to point my audio player at my ENTIRE music collection located on my home server, consisting of several *thousand* songs. I hit play, and went to work for 10 hours. And I continued to let it play after I went to bed that night. The next morning, I shut everything down and fired up last.fm. Suddenly, my formerly empty homepage was populated with all of the artists and titles from my basement collection. But I was still skeptical about the scrobbler's recommendation abilities. Until I launched the last.fm player. What I heard over the next few hours fundamentally changed my entire musical perspective and listening experience. No, I'm not kidding. I was re-introduced to the thriving world of underground hip-hop.

Until then, I thought underground had died with Jurassic 5 back in 1999. As a disciple of the underground scene during my teenage years in South L.A. at places like The Good Life, I had mourned the loss of good rap music.


Check this snippet of my buddy Ava's documentary of The Good Life

But I was wrong. Underground was alive and kicking! Many would say it was THRIVING! Internet radio had helped to breath new life into it's fan base! No longer did I have to be subjected to repetitive "ridin' dirty" lyrics and mumbling, droning hooks. Now I got to listen to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, Murs, Atmosphere, Cannibal Ox, El P, Slow Suicide Stimulus, MF Doom, Smash Bros., and host of others. And then a really weird thing happened. I started BUYING music again. LEGALLY! From Amazon and Emusic. Musically speaking, I was fat and happy. That is, until a few months ago.

Over the summer, I began to notice some changes at last.fm. As a paying subscriber, I was able to create playlists out of my favorite tracks. It was an awesome feature when I wanted to hear a good mix of high quality tracks. At some point, this feature was crippled. Suddenly about half of my 150 song playlist was reduced to 30-second previews. And the last.fm radio seemed to be getting seriously repetitive, playing the same tracks from the same albums. User chatter on their forums seemed to point to some licensing agreements that had fallen through. But what really pisses me off is the fact that the powers-that-be at last.fm, to this day, haven't said a WORD to their PAYING users about what the hell is going on! Seriously, if I'm going to give you any of my hard-earned dollar, you can at least tell me that my listening experience is about to change. In the end, after two years, I have decided to let my membership with last.fm lapse. And I am giving the competition a little spin.




Pandora
, for the uninitiated, is visually much simpler than last.fm. But that same spartan layout concerned me. Since there was no scrobbler to listen to my music library, I wondered how it would figure out my tastes. So, I went to pandora.com and here's what happened:



Hmmm, that guy could be a little less excited. Trust me, it's awesome. You're greeted by the site asking you for an artist you like. That's when the magic starts. Even obscure artists seem to have had their music broken down and defined for Pandora's recommendation engine. It literally knows what basic ELEMENTS define each artist, and matches those elements to other artists. It was so accurate that I listened my first night for HOURS! I am in music-love all over again! Pandora's my new home for underground beats. Give it a spin, and let me know what you think. Did I make a hasty decision with last.fm, or are you a Pandora groupie?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Blackberry Strikes Back!

So there I was, standing at the very center of the Obama celebratory hurricane at a club called Sugar Hill in Atlanta's Underground. A couple of friends and I were crowded around a table, drinking cold light beer, talking about the electoral math, and watching Wolf Blitzer on a 300ft projection screen, along with about 150 other people. As the moment approached, you could feel the electricity in the air. When CNN would break for commercial, Earth Wind and Fire would crank through the speakers around us. Everyone was talking at once, sharing their personal stories about the significance of this election with complete strangers. It was awe-inspiring and beautiful. And as I tried to live-blog the event on my Palm Centro's TEENY TINY KEYBOARD, all I could think was, "I'm going to choke the life out of that Sprint rep for not getting me my demo Blackberry!!!" Needless to say, my blog entry was limited to a few emotional phrases, tersely typed using my frickin' pinkies.

Twenty-four hours after one of the most important events of a lifetime, I contemplated several personal resolutions.
I WILL volunteer my time to community-based initiatives that are important to me.
I WILL discuss politics more openly with those around me. Political discourse is what keeps democracy healthy.
I WILL use my abundance of technology to capture and immortalize more of the moments that are happening around me every day. Cameras, camcorders, laptops, and yes, my mobile phone.

The Centro failed me when I needed it most. It's camera is crappy quality and doesn't have a flash. And the keyboard.... Don't get me started again.



Look at those tiny, squashed-together keys! I thought I could overlook the keyboard when I first got it, but no more. I was mistyping every other word between live-blogging the Obama event and responding to my wife's instant messages. Now, I am *sure* that I need something different. Although I have recently blogged about the iPhone and Google's G1, these are still "leisure" phones, in my opinion. They are an attempt by non-traditional mobile phone companies to seize a certain "early-adopter" segment of the market. Their applications aren't always well-supported, and their respective manufacturers don't seem to mind releasing phones that are seriously buggy. What I need is a proven and reliable platform built to support a business customer, but enhanced with some of the niceties that create a satisfying leisure experience. I *think* I need a Blackberry.

Unlike Apple and Google, Research in Motion (RIM) just makes smart phones. It's literally ALL they do. And to their credit, they've been doing it well for the better part of a decade. Today, the Blackberry Curve and it's slimmer cousin, the Pearl are the workhorses of the smartphone industry. They are standard equipment at almost any company where employees require regular "on-the-run" access to email. RIM's strategy over the years has been pretty straightforward. Produce reliable smartphones, and dominate the business market. However, in reaction to Apple's recent encroachment on RIM's corporate busines, RIM has decided to play a strong offense and go after Apple's core iPhone market. And they think that their more stable and reliable platform, with all of the eyecandy on top, will be a recipe for success. I'm sure you're thinking, "Yeah right. A Blackberry that compares to the iPhone? Not likely." That's what I said, until I saw this:



Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Blackberry Storm, available soon from Verizon. All the strengths of the iPhone, and none of the weaknesses. Plus, it's still a Blackberry, so all of your corporate applications are still at your fingertips. And if that's too rich for your blood, or you need instant gratification, take a gander at the Curve's successor, the freshly released Blackberry Bold.



Even as the other handset manufacturers like Motorola, Nokia and Samsung are clamoring to produce Google-powered phones, RIM is continuing to directly challenge Apple while allying itself with no one. The real fighting should begin in earnest this spring. The mid-range Google phones, as well as the mighty G2, will begin to hit the market around May. But I'm sure *you're* not losing sleep over this. The smartphone wars don't scare you! Now that you've read my blog, surely you've figured out which phone is for you!

Or not. :-)

If I've left you all with anything, I hope it's the understanding that a certain design and marketing philosophy goes into each company's final product. This philosophy DRIVES the end-user experience to a far greater degree than a simple set of features like a touchscreen or a QWERTY keyboard. In six months, most smartphones will have the same features anyway, so these features are increasing irrelevant to your purchasing decision. The question you have to ask yourself is, based on the company's philosophy, what kind of an end-user experience will you get. If you're an early adopter who likes eye-candy, and a very consistent (albeit locked-down) experience, go for the iPhone. Early adopters who prefer to live closer to the edge and experiment with their phone should check out the G1 and soon to be released Google brethren. Or maybe you're like me. Not an early adopter at all. You want something that works reliably, is well supported, and has a proven track-record (as well as the eye-candy). Then you're firmly in Blackberry territory. Don't let a confusing market keep you on the tech sidelines. Sooner or later, you'll need a smartphone. So make sure you get one that fits YOUR needs, not necessarily one that your friends are currently raving about.

I hope this series was informative and interesting to everyone who read it!
Next time, I'll be talking about the new netbooks that will be hitting stores just before Christmas!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Joost: A Eulogy


I know, I know. I swore I would never mention Joost again. But they made some rather radical changes, which I thought merited a *new* final blog. Joost launched a year and change ago, promising to revolutionize television over the internet for ALL computer users (read: Windows, Mac and Linux). Unfortunately, their freshman effort produced a Windows-only client that was a disappointment even for it's target audience. The program, which utilized P2P technology similar to Skype, was plagued by stuttering video and audio, frequent crashes, and sometimes you couldn't even connect! All the meanwhile, Mac and Linux users waited patiently for a promised beta-version of the client, so we could have..... something. Multiple broken promises and disappointments later, Joost has returned to the internet TV game with a flash-driven browser client. This time, Mac and Linux users can join the party. But there are still problems...

First off, Joost still sucks. I click on 30 Days of Night-Episode 1, and Episode 2 plays instead. Also, the same lame shampoo commercial plays the SECOND you click on ANYTHING! And finally, they don't actually have any mainstream TV or movie content. Everything is either 20 years old, or ridiculously obscure. The user-interface also leaves something to be desired.

Second, Joost is a day late and a dollar short. While they were trying to put the wheels back on their Windows client and designing a Windows webbrowser plugin (which also failed), Hulu was amassing a HUGE user-base by bringing users EXACTLY what we were asking for. Easy-to-access and decent quality TV over the internet. Hulu's flash-based service works for Windows, Mac and Linux, it's reliable, the ads are less frequent than TV (although somewhat repetitive), and there are even some social networking features that are being worked in. Best of all, it has CONTENT! Heroes, Burn Notice, Terminator, Family Guy, The Office, you name it. And if you want older shows, look no further. While Joost has a bunch of old crap like Starhunter that no one watched when it first aired, Hulu has got stuff like Miami Vice. I just watched half of Season 2! On a sidenote, that was a STARK reminder that fashion has changed A LOT since the 80's. Whew!

Final word: Joost should pack it in. They made critical errors and seem not to have learned anything from the experience. They broke promises to the early adopter community. They oversold the capabilities of their Windows client. And in the end, they took too long to course correct. In the words of my little sister when she was 8-years-old, "too bad, so sad." Vive le Hulu!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On a roll tonight

I had to post this.  It's too funny!



More internet radio choices

Caution: There's some geek-speak ahead.  Skip ahead if you're a noob.  I'm too tired to translate right now...

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Man, sometimes I wonder how Windows users tolerate the lack of good media players for their operating system.  I mean, seriously, you've got Windows Media Player which is a complete pile.  Then you've got Winamp, which only marginally sucks.  After that you're on to iTunes, which is only useful if you pledge allegiance to the Cult of Jobs.  Your only truly good media player is VLC, but that's only good for videos.  I have yet to find a really robust audio/music solution for Windows.  Thankfully, Linux has some really good choices.  Banshee and Exaile are absolutely top-notch for Gnome users and they are both installed on my laptop.  Depends on my mood as to which one I'll use.  But for my KDE desktop, AmaroK has clearly distinguished itself as the best of breed.  It's polished, intuitive, fast, and executes it's feature-set WELL!  Last.fm support, internet radio plugins, you name it.  Which brings me to the point of this post...

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End of geek-speak...

Internet radio has got something for everyone.  Sometimes, I want to discover new stuff, so I listen to Last.fm.  Other times, I want a reliable mix of underground and I end up on Smoothbeats.com.  But today I got the itch for some quality old-school.  It was probably because I just watched that VH1 "100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time."  VH1's hip-hop retrospectives are so tight, they sometimes brings a tear to my eye.  Anyways, I had this old-school itch, so I did some channel-surfing with AmaroK, and ended up at 1club.fm - old school.  Hmm, let's try that again:

1Club.FM - Old School

There's the occasional commercial, but the stream is high-quality, and zero interruptions over the nine or so hours I've been listening.  Give it a try.  Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

World's finest airport

As an avid traveler, I am disappointed in our nation's airports, from a tech-head perspective. LAX is tore up from the floor up. Ohare and Midway are in the same state of perpetual construction. Milwaukee rolls up after 7pm. Cinci and Nashville are overpriced and under-equipped. My current faves are Las Vegas and Atlanta. But today, they were unseated by the mighty Charlotte. With rocking chairs, a great restaurant selection, cheap drinks, wi-fi, strong mobile phone reception, and friendly staff, a tech-head can't go wrong.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Do you...... Hulu?

Man, who says that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. The recording industry was torpedoed around the turn of the millennium because it CHOSE not to deliver what its consumers were asking for. Consumers asked for a cheap and easy way to download music. When the recording industry turned up its nose, the market delivered a solution: Napster. When a legal solution was finally made popular by Apple years later, the genie was already out of the bottle. The music industry is now in free-fall having missed its opportunity to course-correct.

Over the last couple of years, Hollywood has been feeling some of the same market pressures. As mobile devices have become more popular and laptop prices have fallen, consumers have increasingly demanded a cheap and easy way to watch TV online, and on-demand. Until now, broadcatching via usenet or bittorrent has been the only option. An illegal option, I might add. But one that has become increasingly easy using programs like Vuze and T.E.D.

But just when it looked like Hollywood was about to be Napsterized, along came Hulu. If you've never visited, take a peek today. It's a service that streams current TV shows (as well as a surprisingly wide selection of movies!) in full-screen 480p resolution, with only 1/3 of the ads that you would see on television. It's as easy as finding the show you want to watch, clicking on it, and reclining...

Today, I discovered something unprecedented. Hulu has the live, streaming presidential debate. Yes, I said live. By the way, I don't care who you support, but you should educate yourself about the issues. Apathy is the greatest destructive force of a democracy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The gPhone Cometh!

Well, folks, the other shoe has finally dropped. Google has entered the mobile phone space. And the iPhone has it's first serious competitor. Allow me to introduce you to the HTC G1.


What's that you say? You haven't seen or heard anything about it? Not surprising, as Google is easing into this market. If the iPhone was the shot heard 'round the world, the G1 release was the equivalent of a BB-Gun. First of all, they launched with T-Mobile, the bastard red-headed adopted and later abandoned step-child of the mobile phone industry. Second, they partnered with handset manufacturer HTC, which is not exactly a household name these days. And finally, Google itself is not really promoting the phone. If there is such a thing as under-hyping a product, that's what Google is doing.

Critical error or clever tactic? To understand Google's angle, we first need to look at what Google has invested. Unlike Apple, who branded their entire phone as an Apple product, Google is clearly okay with T-Mobile and HTC having branding rights. And in reality, Google didn't have the kind of creative influence over the G1 that Apple had over the iPhone. That's not Google's game. The search giant doesn't want it's own phone. What it really wants is to *be* on EVERY phone. That's why it bought the Android operating system in the first place.

Hmmm, I guess some background is in order for those non-geeks among us. The operating system of a phone is essentially its brain. It controls the all-important user-interface. You know, that menu structure and application list that you either hate or are in-love with? That's the operating system, or O/S in geek-speak. Google, in it's neverending quest for new strategic directions, decided to pursue ad-revenue via mobile phones. And to that end, it figured the most efficient course of action was to own an operating system that could be deployed on ANY mobile phone. Thus, a couple of years ago it purchased Android, a small company with a slick mobile phone O/S. And in the meantime while the O/S was marinating, Google perfected a suite of mobile applications that can be accessed from ANY mobile phone. Seriously. Any mobile phone. Point your mobile browser at http://m.google.com. Go there right now. I can wait. No, really, go right now. You'll thank me later. Cool, right? Search, Maps, Gmail, Calendar, Docs, News, Photos, etc. All tailor-made for mobile phones. It turns any phone with a data connection into a smart-phone. Yes, even that $14.99 Pay-Go phone from AT&T. Google's throwing a party and EVERYONE'S invited, not just those who can afford $300 for an iPhone and a $100/month phone bill. (You can see where this is going, right? I struggle with concealing my bias.)

So, even though the HTC G1 seems like a half-hearted release into a space that Apple is dominating, it is only a first step for Google. Soon there will be an army of phones running Google's Android O/S. And the true beauty of Android is that, unlike the iPhone, it is an open platform. Anyone can develop an application without paying the Apple tax. So, while you can still shop on the Android marketplace for vetted, proven apps, it will only be a matter of time until FREE (ad-driven, ironically) or cheap application stores open and begin to spread. Google's plan is that you'll either have a Google phone, or you'll have a phone that can run Google apps. Market dominance built on top of an open platform. Can it really happen? We'll see. Google is running a marathon, not a sprint. So it could easily be another year until we see a critical mass of gPhones. At the same time, Apple's a one trick pony. It's the iPhone or nothing...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's still the G1 that T-Mobile just released. Is is it worth your dollar? With a touchscreen and a full QWERTY keyboard, it had me at hello. Those on-screen keyboards (ala iPhone, Instinct, Dare, et al) all SUCK! But, alas, the G1 is still on T-Mobile's network. In all seriousness, I have a soft spot in my geek heart for T-Mobile. They are the "Little Engine That Could" of the mobile industry. But they need some more freakin cell towers, plain and simple. Until then, much like the Lakers, all the G1 will do is get you excited, and then disappoint you when you give it your full attention. Don't get me wrong, it is a geek's wet dream:



But, regular folks should wait till next year. By early summer 2009, the mobile phone game will have changed. Permanently. A Storm is coming. A Blackberry Storm.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The bandwagon I'm NOT on, but that's okay...

So, it looks like Google went out and wrote themselves a web browser. Chrome is the official name, and like all things Google, it was rushed to market with bugs, flaws, and no support for Linux or Mac. As I am a self-professed Google-groupie, I can forgive these things. I know that soon, Chrome will support all platforms, and the bugs will be ironed out. I actually like the fact that Google pushes out beta-class stuff. Plenty of software toys for a geek like me to tinker around with is a good thing.

But will I use Chrome? Probably not. Yes, you heard me right. As a Linux user, I have about a dozen web browsers to fool around with including Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, Konqeror, Epiphany, Flock, K-Meleon, Amaya, and even Internet Explorer (yes, you can run IE on Linux). Firefox is clearly the best of breed for a few reasons:

  • Marketshare - With 25% of the market, 99% of all websites FINALLY support Firefox! So, it's a rare day that you run across a website that demands Internet Exploder. Although, every once in a while, it happens. AT&T, it's time to step up your game...
  • Customization - Through extensions and skins, you can turn Firefox into a little slice of home. My essentials? DownloadHelper, Google Notebook, and Google Toolbar. Somebody stop me!
  • Development Cycle - "Active" is one way to describe Firefox's development cylce. "Insane" would be more accurate. Firefox was born in early 2001 during the aftermath of Browser Wars I, when IE delivered a resounding defeat to Netscape. During that time period, the Firefox developers understood the most important lesson of Browser Wars I: INNOVATE OR DIE! Thus Firefox later sparked the Browser Wars II by simply out-innovating Microsoft's IE every few months.
  • Multi-platform support - Windows, Linux, Mac? Firefox loves you all the same...
  • Polished end-user experience - Firefox doesn't feel like a beta, like a lot of other open source software. It looks and feels like a finished product. Personally, this doesn't mean a lot to *me*, but for normal folk like my wife, it means everything.
Thus, as much as I am fascinated by the Chrome, it will be a flash in the pan for me. The bigger question is, WHY did Google choose to create a browser? The answer is "control". As my old college chum Mike Arrington explains over at TechCrunch, Google is not going after the browser market with Chrome. It's got Windows itself in the crosshairs. With all of Google's online offerings (Documents, Calendar, Youtube, Messaging, News, Search, Shopping, etc.) within a browser that Google produces and controls, Windows becomes irrelevant. I may not end up using it, but picture this:

A $200 laptop "netbook" weighing in at two pounds, booting up in 10 seconds via a tiny, embedded version of Linux that really does nothing other than provide essential functionality with the hardware and an internet connection. Then you launch Google's Chrome to connect to all your online applications. THAT'S what Google is after. All they're doing right now is rattling the spurs...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Nashville airport sux!!!

Nashville airport sux!!!

No cell phone reception, so the aircard won't connect. Their wi-fi is through Boingo for $4.95 an hour, and Boingo can't even seem to take my frickin money! And they are making me install some ridiculous Boingo connection manager. And my connection stength is VERY LOW! Give me a freakin break! Did I mention that there are only two restaurants in my gate area and both are jam packed?

So, I am typing this blog from my phone that's got a half bar of signal strength, just so I can rant and let Nashvillians know that they should not accept this crap! This is worse than LAX and that place is a pit! Out...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Online streaming music continues to grow!

I am well aware of the fact that Satellite Radio is the current media darling. In fact, after six weeks of traveling across the country for my new gig, I have fallen passionately in love with Sirius Radio Channel 43 - BackSpin. All oldschool hip-hop, all the time. Driving out of Atlanta airport in my rental car a couple of weeks ago, I tuned in randomly to BackSpin only to hear the almighty Kurtis Blow introduce the next track: Public Enemy - Night of the Living Baseheads. He had me at hello. Now I can't live without it. Great DJ's, no commecials, and no edits!!! Seriously, life doesn't get any better.

Or does it? After being suitably impressed by my alternative music options in the car, what's a guy to do when he's sitting on the tarmac for an hour on a delayed flight to Baltimore? Streaming internet radio on my trusty Palm Centro, that's what! I didn't even know the Centro *did* internet radio! As a consummate underground hip-hop fan, I was more than gratified to see Smoothbeats.com listed under the station list. But there was also a newcomer: Live365's Hip-hop Lounge. Between these two stations, I have been in music bliss during my airport downtime. The DJ's at these stations clearly have a true passion for their chosen genre. They transition effortlessly from Diggable Planets to Gangstarr, Jurrasic 5 to Pete Rock, Murs to Common. Please, please, please give them a listen. Support something, ANYTHING other than big radio. I assure you, great music is still out there!

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to return to this Goodie Mob track...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The two faces of Apple

I would like to extend a heartfelt "thank you" to all of my new readers from Urban Thought Collective! I am sincerely proud and humbled to be a part of this community. Now, on to the tech!

Last week, I gave you an overview of the major players in the coming mobile-phone slugfest that's about to hit the market. Apple vs. Google vs. the handset manufacturers (Motorola, Samsung, et al). If I were to portray this market conflict in terms of a boxing analogy, I would invite you to recall the Tyson vs. Spinks fight circa 1988. I was all of 14-years-old and I vividly recall watching the pay-per-view event at a friends' house. We were glued to the screen as my buddy's mother got up to fix herself a drink in the kitchen about 30 seconds into Round 1. When she returned ONE MINUTE later, the fight was OVER!!! Iron Mike had knocked Michael Spinks into dreamland at 1:30 in the first round. I remember seeing Spinks' eyes roll up into his head and thinking, " Damn Tyson hits hard!" while listening to my buddy's mother say, "You're KIDDING me! The fight is OVER??? And I missed it???"

In this case, Apple is Mike Tyson, and the rest of the industry is Spinks. When the iPhone hit the market in June of 2007, it literally knocked the industry on it's collective ass. It had an intuitive touchscreen that would respond to finger touches as opposed to random other knocks and jostles. The applications included a shockingly cool webbrowser! (check it)



For the first time, a phone could display regular (as opposed to mobile-formatted) websites, either portrait or landscape, and with touch-driven zoom options! And that was just the tip of the iceberg. ITunes was seamlessly integrated making this a truly multimedia phone. There was GPS, wi-fi, instant messaging, video, and more all driven through a miniature version of Mac's much-lauded operating system. There were even select 3rd party applications you could buy (more on this later).

But even as the early-adopter segment cleaned AT&T and Apple stores out of their inventory, there was a growing discontent among some of the fanboi's. To give you some perspective on the origins of this anti-Apple angst, I invite you to take a trip with me back to the year 2001. Steve Jobs was in the 4th year of his second go-round as CEO at Apple, Pixar Studios (Jobs' baby) was still riding high on Toy Story, and a new digital audio player called the iPod had just debuted to the general public. The iPod, although slow to pick up steam, proved to be a gadget juggernaut and within three years it was a pop-cultural darling. Uber-trendy Apple was revered for creating a device that "just worked" for the average consumer. The iPod was simple and intuitive; a stark contrast to Microsoft and the Windows gauntlet. However, the blissful Apple experience came with a hefty price tag: thirty percent more $$ on average than it's competitors. And then there was the dreaded vendor lock-in.

(SIGH) This is where things get complicated. Although Apple's iPod was revolutionary in the digital music player market, many a consumer had no idea that upon purchasing it, the music they purchased via the iTunes music store was largely playable ONLY on the iPod. The actual songs were copy-protected and encoded in a format NOT playable by other MP3 players! Many consumers were shocked to find out that they could not share their iTunes music with a friend, or even back it up to another computer. Apple kept tight control over every aspect of purchasing and playback, all in the name of "stability and usability" for the consumer. It was like buying a car that comes with a driver. But that driver will only take you to destinations he deems appropriate or safe.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the iPhone is attracting the same criticism as it's iPod brethren. Only this time, the lockdown is positively stifling. Although consumers have the power of a portable computer in the palm of their hands, only "Apple approved" applications can be sold via the iPhone application store.
Hackers ultimately produced a "jailbreak" application to open the iPhone so that consumers could use features the way *they* wanted, not necessarily the way Apple wanted. Observe. So easy, a caveman can do it:



In under 60 seconds, a plethora of non-Apple approved applications became available to iPhone owners. Thus began the war between Apple and the Hackers. You see, the one constant about Apple, Inc. is that they *MUST* be in control at all times. Hackers jailbreak the iPod, Apple updates and overrrides the jailbreak, Hackers patch the override, and so on ad nauseum. It is a never-ending war to either keep the iPhone locked down or open it for all.

And that is the real decision that potential iPhone consumers must ultimately make. Do you want Apple to drive? Or would you like to be in the driver's seat, constantly vigilant for Apple updates or killswitches that will replace you at the helm? Do you trust Apple to always accept the "best of breed" applications into their store? Or would you rather "roll the dice" and figure out what works for you while dodging sniper shots from Apple?

Next time, I'll be discussing Google's new Android operating systems and the first phones running on that platform. There is so much COOL innovation happening with cell phones right now, I can't stand it!!!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The coming Mobile Phone Wars!

Sounds ominous, right? Well, it should. Most tech shootouts do more harm than good to the consumer. Anybody remember Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD? Lasting for over two years, this Hi-Def DVD format face-off split the entertainment content community and left consumers standing on the sidelines scratching their heads. And Blu-ray's eventual victory earlier this year surely tasted of ashes. They were left with either angry customers who had spent hundreds on HD-DVD boxes and its respective media, or hopelessly confused customers who still didn't know that simply owning a Play Station 3 had put them in the winners' circle.

What does that mean for the looming Mobile Phone slug-fest? More of the same consumer confusion. Perhaps I should explain. Recently, in a test market, smart-phone owners were asked about the capabilities of their phones and how they used them. It was determined that, although the smart-phone owners confidently claimed to use 100% of their phones' features such as texting and pictures, on average the group was *really* only using 40% of their phone's true capabilities. Advanced features like email, web-browsing, calendaring, instant messaging and mp3's were largely unused. In fact, some of these consumers carried multiple devices to accomplish the other tasks, completely oblivious to the fact that their phones could do all of these things and more!

So, what's the big deal? Who cares if you've got a Blackberry Curve that you only use for texting??? Well, I contend that YOU should care. Really good convergent devices do a couple of things to improve your life. If you live a mobile lifestyle (real estate agent, pharma sales, home office, small business, etc.) the smart-phone allows you to turn downtime into productive time, ultimately making you more efficient. It also allows you to (if you're smart) get closer to that holy grail that we all call work/life balance. Picture this: While you were standing in line at the bathroom for the Brewer game for 10 minutes, you could have read and responded to four emails, updated a meeting in your calendar, edited that staffing spreadsheet, streamed a youtube video of the Sausage Race you missed while you were waiting in line, and sent an IM to your wife telling her you're running late because your boss told you to finish those TPS reports TONIGHT! By the time you get home, your work is done, and family time is REALLY family time.

That should be enough to whet any gadget-consumer's appetite. But what about this war? Even if you're on-board to squeeze more stuff out of your smart-phone, the market is about to change soooooo dramatically, that you'll need a ringside announcer just to keep up.

In one corner, we've got the iPhone. Pretty, sleek, thin, intuitive, and feature rich. In a market run by the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, et al), this was the first major push to market by a handset manufacturer (Apple) where THEY actually dictated the terms to a carrier. Apple *pwned* AT&T for every penny, charging full price for the phone as well as demanding kickbacks from every 2-year contract. AT&T was left to salvage scraps from the table. Although Apple is widely criticized for their restrictive design and barriers to 3rd party developers, everyone can clearly agree that the iPhone is an 11 on a usability scale of 1-10. In fact, one can say that Apple has set a new bar for smart-phone usability.

On the other side of phone design is Google. Yes, the same Google that is a search engine. As software developers and handset manufacturers look to push the carriers firmly into the backseat, non-traditional companies like Google are looking for a piece of the action. They envision an "open" phone where everyone is free to develop applications, and online content is ad-supported. The problem is that as far as anyone can tell, only a few prototypes exist. Check the video below. If you can get past the ridiculous level of excitement (you'll see) from the narrators, there are some really cool phone demos.



The final player is represented by the handset manufacturers themselves. Motorola, Samsung, and a few others got together one day and called themselves a foundation. The LiMo Foundation, to be exact. Similar to Google, their goal is to create an industry-standard open phone design, so that application developers can "write once, and run anywhere," as opposed to supporting many different versions of the same program. Unlike Google, LiMo's got some product in the market. Not much in the way of smart-phones yet, but it's still a good start.

Over my next few blog entries, I'll be doing an in-depth review of each of the three major players in this market. This will include a comparison of some of their handsets, as well as their market strategies and what it means to us as consumers. For those who are new to my blog, these won't be traditional reviews. Want a teaser? Watch this iPhone usability video...


Man, I love this video. Something about a puree'd iPhone that makes my toes tingle...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Where we're headed...

My company is launching an entirely new business venture, and one of the test markets just happens to be.... you guessed it. Hotlanta! And I just found out that I get to be on the team!!! It worked out really well, as my wife just accepted a post-doctoral fellowship to the CDC. So, we've both got brand new adventures ahead of us! Cool, hey? (Ugh, I still sound like a Cheesehead. I wonder what I will sound like after a year in the ATL?)

Here's where we're going, courtesy of Google Maps.



Click on the image to blow it up. Have I fessed up to being a Google-groupie??? Man, Google apps are like crack. You can't stop using them! Maps, Calendar, Email, Blogger, Documents, etc. And they've got a mobile version of EVERYTHING! And they support open source and linux. And they are launching an open cell phone O/S in the very near future. Wait, was this blog about me and Atlanta or Google? I forget. In any case, I'll be in the ATL in t-minus 30 days. In honor of Hotlanta, I present this fine Outkast video, Bombs over Baghdad:


Hmmm, I suppose a disclaimer is in order. Although I fully believe that Outkast is the greatest hip-hop group ever, and B.O.B. is one of their best tracks, this video ultimately disappoints. I'm not sure how hot chicks in maple-leaf pasties dancing on poles is relevant to the lyrics. Not that I have an issue with hot chicks, maple-leaves, pasties, or pole-dancing. It's just that I expected something a little more..... substantive. Ah, maybe it's an Atlanta thing...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On to warmer climes

Well Cheeseheads, it's been real. Yeah, REAL COLD!!! (At least from November to May, that is, 'cause right now it's 90 degrees outside and I'm roasting like a pig on a spit.) I'm headed south to....... the South. Yeah, as a sidenote, I'm re-thinking this whole "anonymity" thing. I was paranoid about my employers finding out about my blog and raining wrath down upon me, but then I found out that they really embrace the whole social networking thing, as long as I don't really talk about them. So, I guess I really don't care anymore. I don't even use uncensored expletives in my blog, so I don't think I have much to worry about.

But, I waaaaay digress. Circumstances have changed in a really good way, and the wife and I are departing Milwaukee in the near future, bound for the ever-growing Atlanta megalopolis. Hmmmm, cheap property, more money, good public transportation, mild winters, and I get to live in a big city again. Not a tough decision, right? Actually it really was a difficult decision. We'll be hundreds of miles from our best friends Richmond, Wxman, and their wonderful kids, which will seriously suck. But our hand has been dealt and we've gotta play our cards. See ya, Wisconsin. You were a cold, bitter b*tch half of the time, but I really liked you the rest of the time. Peace out.

Needless to say, my blog updates will be pretty irregular for the next 90 days or so. But who knows? I have a laptop, and an aircard, and a new smartphone. I don't seriously think I have any excuses for not updating the blog, so keep watching this space. ATL, here we come!!!

Loving the Centro

Well folks, I have finally decided on a new smartphone. But first, I'll expand a little on my quest. It began with the En-V, LG's Frankenstein monster of a cellphone. Candybar scheme on the outside, flippy full-keyboard and widescreen goodness on the inside. And for a few bucks more, I got the GPS add-on. Life was good for a while, but over time I began to discover what I really *wanted* out of a cellphone. Surprisingly, the voice/phone part was really a small part of it. I wanted a full qwerty keyboard for texting and IM, a decent camera, a good picture viewer, and a decent web browser so I could connect with Google mobile and view things like my calendar and email. Most of all, I needed a more robust platform so I could later add on programs depending on how my needs changed. What I needed was a smartphone.

As replacing the En-V was not an emergency, I took my time shopping around. Even though I was with Verizon, I was willing to break the deal and jump to another carrier if the phone was right. I looked at the Blackberry Curve, the iPhone, the Instinct, the Voyager, the Blackjack, and all the other usual suspects. Let me first say that the iPhone is a hot little number. The new 3G has integrated fixes for many of the complaints that people had about the Gen 1, and it is really a pleasure to play with. The functionality and intuitive nature of the UI is second to none. But a couple of things killed it for me. $200 and two years in bed with AT&T?! Yeah, right. But more importantly for me, it is Apple's outright hostility towards the hacker community that is a deal-breaker. I'll rant more about this later. Anyways, the other phones like the Voyager and Instinct were just iPhone knockoffs in my opinion. Poorly implemented touch screens, varying levels of unresponsiveness, yadda yadda. The only two that held my attention based on my needs, were the Blackberry and the Centro. Part of me wanted to just wait for the FreeRunner or the first phone with Google's Android platform, but all at once my phone situation suddenly became urgent. I had dropped and severely damaged my En-V.

So, I drove to my local Big Box and test drove the Centro for a bit.


Oooooo, it was a cool, refreshing blast of pure Palm. It has an excellent touchscreen, proven and reliable apps for things like pdf's or Word documents, and a really slick Google Maps application! Who cares that it's ultimately a legacy device? When Palm decides not to support it anymore, the Centro's not going to vanish in a puff of smoke. And the software developers might well continue to update their wares, with or without Palm's blessing. However, my gut tells me that the recent breakout success of the Centro just might be making Palm rethink their long-term plans for the O/S. In short, the Blackberry never had a chance. Centro had me at hello.

After 48 hours of playing with it, I'm a pretty happy consumer. I did a dead-easy hotsync with my contacts backed up from my En-V on my linux desktop. Then I installed the newest Google Maps (complete with the new "my location" feature), a PDF reader, Facebook, and Solitaire. I can easily access my Google Calendar from the built-in web browser (which also renders other mobile pages very well including Youtube). And a surprise bonus is that I can retrieve my corporate email using Palm's Versamail application. My only complaint at this point is the battery-life. I almost didn't make it through a full day. But I'm sure I can cure that problem with a high capacity battery.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Getting the Flock out of here

Sadly, after a couple of weeks using Flock, I have to say I'm not too impressed. Sure it's nice to have a media bar at the top with your chosen Picasa or Flickr pics. And yes, it's cool to see Facebook updates in realtime on a sidebar. But when it comes to anything akin to real browsing, Flock fails. It's based on Firefox, but the experience only leaves you wanting for the real thing. In fact, I think it's overkill to design an entire browser to do some things that a few Firefox extensions could probably take care of. Too bad, as I thought it sounded like a cool idea. But over the course of two weeks, all I did was fire it up, watch the Facebook updates load, say, "Cool" and then load up Firefox to get my real browsing done.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ugh.

I just found out I'm the same age as Mark Shuttleworth, the creator of Ubuntu. He's also worth north of $500 million. I'm not. Damn.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Flock of what?

So, I'm experimenting with different web browsers these days.  Not that I'm unhappy with my default Firefox 3.  On the contrary, Firefox 3 is the BEST I've ever used (despite the occasional crashiness on Flash 10 sites).  No, the decision to experiment came when I saw an article on alternative browsers and how they have matured.   Opera, Epiphany, and the like.  Ho hum.  But then I saw Flock, the browser expressly designed for social networking.  Hmmm, as my life has recently become CONSUMED with the social network sites, I figured this must be a "good thing", so I decided to give it a spin.  And it's based on Firefox, so how bad could it be?

In fact, I'm blogging from within it right now.  And I have sidebars with Facebook, Picasa, and GMail updates.  It takes a little getting used to as the UI is quite a departure from Firefox, but it certainly enhances the "immediate gratification" effect.  It converts a "pull system", whereby I go to a website like Facebook and seek updates on what my friends are doing, to a "push" system that displays updates from those sites immediately after opening my browser.  Many would call this information overload, but we'll see.  I'll spend a week using it, and then report back.

UPDATE:
Hmmm, the spellcheck doesn't seem to work properly.  That could be a problem in light of my tendancy to blog while intoxicated.  Apologies in advance if the above text is a bit...... mangled.  :-)
Blogged with the Flock Browser

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Who knew Kid Rock was funny?

Or that he "gets it" with regard to downloading and the music biz. Most blockbuster artists (cough) Prince and Madonna (cough) are content to label their fans as thieves and distribute their content according to how the RIAA sees fit. They do a few public service announcements about how downloading is stealing, and stealing is wrong, and as far as they are concerned, the discussion is over.

However, for the majority of NON-blockbuster artists (aka, the musicians who have a small but passionate following), mp3 distribution has allowed them to reach an audience far wider than they would have been able to reach without it. Thus the industry is seeing the rise of tiny local groups to more mainstream visibility.

Kid Rock recently took the argument one step further. He's boycotting iTunes, the #1 online music retailer, because of the DRM'd chokehold they have on the industry, and how it's simply a replay of the old system where the rich artists get richer, and the poor ones get nowhere.

"Now, in 2008, Kid Rock is boycotting iTunes because he says that artists are not getting their fair share of the revenue generated by the Apple store. He is annoyed at this ‘old system’ “where iTunes takes the money, the record company takes the money, and they don’t give it to the artists”. Kid Rock crucially talks about how the Internet should’ve been a “great opportunity for everyone to be treated fairly, for the consumer to get a fair price, for the artist to be paid fairly, for the record companies to make some money.”"

He wraps up the interview with this tongue-in-cheek rant. If you're an illegal mp3 downloader, don't stop at music. STEAL EVERYTHING!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The new Firefox is THA BOMB!

I started using Linux back in 2002. In those days, a good web browser for my O/S of choice was tough to come by. Linux browers were in a sort of "wilderness" phase. We had Mozilla (the open source version of Netscape), which had just reached version 1.0. But it was HUGE, slowed my system to a crawl, and rendered some web pages poorly. There were no plugins for flash or video, and overall the experience was crappy compared to IE on Windows or Mac. There were a couple of alternative browsers around like Opera and Konqueror, but the experience was similar.

But something happened a few months after that Mozilla milestone release. It spawned an experimental fork, codenamed Phoenix. The goal was to create a fast, lightweight but extensible, cross-platform browser that would render pages at least as well as IE. Six years, three name changes, and three milestone releases later, Firefox 3.0 has achieved that goal. And in a world where Windows is on 98% of ALL PC's and IE comes preinstalled on each and every one of them, Firefox has clawed it's way to a 20% browser market share!

A few of my favorite features:

  • It's so lightweight! It uses so little memory every with tabs open that my laptop barely registers a performance hit! 200% better than version 2.0!
  • Opens tabs from your previous session.
  • New bookmark system let's you tag bookmarks, so you can type something like "email" and it will display all bookmarks tagged as email so you don't have to go rifling around for it!
  • New address bar is SMART! Based on your browsing history you can type in the name of a site you've visited and it will just take you there!
  • Undo close tab!!!!!
  • Crazy new anti-phishing feature. It can be a bit aggressive, though.
  • New cool download manager.
  • Still as customizable as ever!
Get it, and let me know what you think!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Windows or Linux, which is easier?

I am a participant in an on-going debate with a colleague of mine. He's a Windows loyalist who happens to believe that Windows is a far superior O/S than Linux or Mac. He knows I'm a Linux user, so he takes a few digs every time he sees me. Usually, I just smile and joke back with him. Until a few days ago. That's when he crossed the line.

J: Dude, Linux is so much more complicated than Windows. How can you stand it?

Me: ??? More complicated? Noooo. Did you just seriously say that? You only THINK Windows is easier because the whole world's been using it for 20 years.

J: No, man. It's way harder to use.

Me: You're on crack. I'll tell you what's hard. Windows wireless networking. How in the HELL do you tolerate it?

J: Networking? What are you talking about? Windows is soooo easy to get networked wirelessly.

Me: Let me paint you a picture. I turn on my wife's Vista laptop, and I am greeted by the network card's sh*t wireless applet competing with Vista's sh*t networking program to be the first to tell me, after five minutes, that I have wireless networks available. No sh*t, Sherlock. Then when I try to connect, they wrestle with each other for another five minutes until one crashes and the other connects with "very low" signal strength. Very low??? I have a Mimo router that is broadcasting a signal that knocks my neighbor's cordless phone offline from a HALF BLOCK AWAY! My Linux laptop connects instantly at boot-time with a "strong" signal from the back-frickin-yard. And I have no IDEA why her's doesn't work!
AND OUR LAPTOPS ARE IDENTICAL!!!

J: Um, well. I'm not talking about Vista. It was way easier in XP...

__________________________________

As to which O/S is *better*, I will not engage in such a debate. But easier? Bring it on. If Linux had become the dominant platform, the masses of fanbois would be gushing about how much easier *it* was than ANY of it's competitors. That's just market forces at work. And Linux is faaaar from perfect. I decided to use WPA security on that new Mimo router, and after 20 minutes of cajoling and cursing at my Gnome NetworkManager, I was ready to pull my hair out! Instead, I pulled the NetworkManager out. All of it. And I installed Wicd, a slick, lightweight alternative. And I was conected and surfing in just under 60 seconds.

But I can't really do that in Windows, can I. I have to use the crap they serve up to me. And the soup de jour is Windows Vista. Check please?

I LOVE the geek girls!

I guess that's why I married a sci-fi loving geneticist, right? Well, that and she brought a couple of other assets to the table.

{ahem}

But, I digress. Apparently, I was an "early adopter" of the geek-girl worship trend way back in the 90's, because the mainstream media is only now figuring out that scientist chicks can be both smart AND hot. Newsweek wrote this article, and there are some follow-up blogs.
Pictured above, the "Nerd Girls" of Tufts University. Engineers. Yeah. THIS is why the cheerleaders never caught my attention...


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm baaaack and I'm MINTY fresh!

Whew! Vacation, illness, and a hectic work schedule have kept me away, but no more. Today, I want to introduce everyone to a good friend of mine. Her name is Elyssa. And she's the BEST!

The best OPERATING SYSTEM, that is! Now, I know most of you suckas out there are using Windows XP or Vista, and I am certainly not here to evangelize to those of you who are happy Microsofties. But if any of you are feeling adventurous, there are some O/S alternatives out there that you should seriously consider. Yes, I am talking about Linux.



It's core written in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has been a geek's wet dream for the better part of 15 years. Linux comes in MANY different flavors (called distros), all presenting competition to a market that was monopolized for too many years by Microsoft Windows. However, it's only been in the last two or so years that a few distros have made Linux accessible to the unwashed masses. Novell's Suse Linux, Mandriva Linux, Fedora, and Ubuntu. All are popular alternatives to Windows, but Ubuntu's runaway success across the globe is particularly fascinating. Ubuntu, roughly translated as "humanity towards others", was the brainchild of South African millionaire businessman Mark Shuttlesworth. It is a hip, usable, well-marketed, and fun to use operating system. And like any other popular open-source system, it has itself spawned variants. One of those Ubuntu variants is Linux Mint.



Okay, I'm sure I lost a few people. Let's start again. There's Linux, which is an operating system like Windows. And Linux has these different distros such as Ubuntu, but they're all still Linux. And then those distros have variants. And the Ubuntu variant that I use is Linux Mint. For the last year, I have been a loyal Mint user, using it exclusively on my laptop and desktop. Why Mint and not Ubuntu? A few reasons. Mint comes read-to-use with a lot of the little niceities and courtesies that Ubuntu left out. Things like browser plugins (flash, java, etc.), a customized menu, a DEAD EASY software install system, a desktop customizer, and media codecs for easy DVD playback. In short, it creates a more polished and elegant desktop experience.

And a few days ago, Linux Mint reached new heights. The latest release, code-named Elyssa, was unleashed among the rabid linux fanboys. And from my own personal experience, as well as what I've heard and seen from other users. it has been a HUGE success. Linux Mint Elyssa is nothing short of bliss on my laptop. Here are a few of the routine tasks I accomplish weekly with Elyssa:

1. Convert videos with iriverter so that I can watch them on my mp3 player while I work out.

2. Download mp3's from Amazon and Emusic with customized Linux download software.

3. Edit videos from my digital camera with avidemux.

4. Rip DVD's with dvdrip.

5. Keep up with podcasts with gpodder.

6. Listen to streaming music from last.fm with the neat program last-exit.

7. Watch streaming movies, TV and listen to music via tunapie.

8. Watch DVD's with VideoLanClient (VLC).

9. Download my phones pics to my desktop with bitpim.

10. Read PDF's with Adobe.

11. Um, I use Google Earth. For what? Who knows...

12. Surf the internet and check out my favorite sites like Facebook with the mighty Firefox web browser.

13. Use my aircard to connect to the internet when I'm out and about using ppptray.

14. Edit photos from my digital camera with Picasa, Gimp, Phatch, and/or gThumb.

All of this with only an occasional crash or hiccup, which happens far less frequently than in the Windows days, and without any viruses, spyware or malware. My operating sytem, my way. Check out the website at least... Tell me what you think!