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!