Tag Archives: suntimes

Kindle 2 Review is up! And: Bonus Screenshots

My Kindle 2 review is up on the Sun-Times site for your glorious edification. I thought some of you might also like to see a few screenshots of the K2 in action.

First page of my library. Here be all your books & papers.

First page of my library. Here be all your books & papers.

Basic reading. This is a Fast Company article that Stanza downloaded and converted to Kindle format.

Basic reading. This is a Fast Company article that Stanza downloaded and converted to Kindle format.

Okay, let's go do some web surfin'. Menu...ACTIVATE!

Okay, let's go do some web surfin'. Menu...ACTIVATE!

There's a working, JavaScript-enabled browser in the "Experimental" menu. Send up the kites!!!

It's a perfectly fine browser, but it works best with a site's "Mobile" edition.

Google Reader might justify the cost of the Kindle all by itself. It turns every blog into a Kindle-friendly format, easy as pie.

Google Reader might justify the cost of the Kindle all by itself. It turns every blog into a Kindle-friendly format, easy as pie.

Yes, you can even Twitter with it! The screen really isn't fast enough for long typing, but hey, it works!

Yes, you can even Twitter with it! The screen really isn't fast enough for long typing, but hey, it works!

My Favorite Things of 2008

I have an annual tradition in the Sun-Times: I rip off a terrific idea from Oprah and do a column that’s all about my favorite things from 2008. It’s a neat premise. Throughout the year, I talk about hardware and software that’s interesting, or significant, or marks the arrival of an Important Change, or is sufficiently Awesome or Counter-Awesome as to provoke a thousand words of commentary.

In the Favorite Things column, you find out which of these products and services are so great that I continue to use them on a daily basis. It’s the easiest thing in the world to write. Typically, I just look around at all of the apps open on my desktop and scattered across my desk.

This year’s edition (greatly expanded for the online version) is up on the Sun-Times’ site, for your edification and contemplation.

I’m hoping that this “Favorite Things” tradition does for me what some of Carson’s bits did for Letterman. While the show is still ongoing, it’s a tip of the hat and an homage. But once Oprah goes off the air in a few years…well, slowwwwly but surely the huddled masses will forget where the idea originally came from and I’ll look like a damned genius.

Or, I’ll be sued into a light purple smear on the sidewalk by Oprah’s people.

Or, Oprah will invite me up to the house for pumpkin muffins and a hot cup of chat.

Hard to call at this point.

The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part One

I’ve had the Google Phone (aka the T-Mobile G1, the first phone to ship with Google’s new Android phone OS) for nearly two weeks now. And frustratingly, only today, just some 9 hours before I was allowed to start talking about it, did someone go wide-eyed after spotting me using it in public.

“Is that the new Google Phone?” he said. “How did you get it?!?”

There. Is that too much to ask, o Lord? I’ve adhered strictly to the terms and the intent of the NDA I signed. I haven’t even Twittered about it and I although I did take a couple of cameraphone shots and send them directly to my Flickr account from the G1, I “privatized” them a minute later when I discovered that the photos were tagged with EXIF data identifying the camera as a Google Phone.

(I ask you: who among tech pundits and other sneak-peekers is as rectitudinous as I? Not these people, that’s for sure.)

But, thank you: that’s all I wanted. Just one person who recognized what I was playing with and was duly impressed. Just one. It doesn’t make me Mr. Big Shot. It’s just a tiny little reward for remaining schtumm on the subject for 12 days.

I had promised to keep the phone under embargo until after midnight on Thursday. Time’s up. A more concise review appears in my Chicago Sun-Times column this week. In the interests of both saving trees (all of which are good and kind and pump life-giving oxygen into our atmosphere) and slaying electrons (which rust the bodies of our Camaros and electrocute our golfers) I’m posting the full brain-dump right here in several installments over the next day or two.

So: carb up and let’s proceed.

Overall Hardware Impressions

The G1 is a nice bit of hardware. There’s a lovely solid heft to it and it has none of the things you associate with a cheap-ass, free-with-contract phone. IE, a plasticky feel, misaligned shell components, mushy buttons, or the sour odor of either overheated components or your disappointment at what you’ve has failed to achieve in life thus far.

The entire assembly holds together nicely. The screen snaps open and locks smartly into position when you flick it up to reveal the keyboard.

The keys and mechanical themselves are well-arrayed and have a nice feel…very much on-form for a HTC handset. I do wish that they weren’t quite so flat and flush; I prefer “bumpier” keys. But as an avowed hater of thumscrews (er: “thumbboards”) I found the G1’s keyboard quite roomy and comfortable.

The section of the G1’s face bearing the microtrackball and other buttons central to the Android UI (more on these in Part 2) is canted up slightly. This makes the G1 damned comfortable to hold either in portrait or landscape mode and offers a nice bit of insurance against fumbles and drops.

Good news: the MicroSD card slot can be accessed without having to take anything apart.

Bad news: No headphone jack. If you’re one of those “hip” kids who wears the flared trousers and the long sideburns and wants to give this “listen to music on your phone” deal a try, you’ll need to rely on the cheap earbuds that come with the phone or buy an adapter.

(Advice: Buy seven adapters. That way, you can go ahead and lose six of them straight away, instead of losing them individually over the course of the next 14 months at the most inconvenient of times.)

The screen is the same pixel dimensions as an iPhone screen. But it’s physically smaller and to my eye it doesn’t have the same crisp detail or snappy color of the iPhone’s display. It’s possible that this is just because the Android UI doesn’t exploit its display anywhere near as aggressively as the iPhone OS does (see next section).

Nice touch: the half of the case that pops off for battery and SIM swaps is a very flexible plastic. You’re not likely to snap off a tab or crack a vent otherwise be forced to lie to your friends that you saw this cool limited-edition duct tape-themed G1 skin at ThinkGeek and you just had to have it.

Bad touch: no headphone jack.

Yes, I know I already said that but I’ve read it back and realized that it can’t possibly be right. Let me look at this phone again…

Nope. Indeed, there is no headphone jack. This is an HTC handset, all right.

Speaking of bad touches…the base of the G1 got noticeably warm at some points. Not uncomfortably warm, mind you. Is this like the soothing butt-warmers in a luxury BMW’s leather seats?

Overall Android User-Interface Impressions

This is clearly a 1.0 operating system. This is also clearly an OS built with Google’s design aesthetic.

You may charitably summarize this aesthetic as “Don’t overload the user or the CPU with lots of distracting graphical ticky-tack.” However, you would more accurately describe the philosophy as “Okay, the prototype is feature-complete and functional. F*** it. Let’s just ship the thing as-is.”

Honestly. “Functional” and “Good enough” are words that keep coming to mind; you may freely add the suffix “…I suppose” at will. But you will not “ooh,” nor will you “aah.” You will not stop to activate a function or control a second time just because you were so impressed with how cleverly the UI managed something.

The 1.0 Android UI has problems with both contexts and clutter, which are usually the detritus of several project managers dumping their code into the mix without a single gatekeeper keeping his or her protective eye on the overall experience.

Example: I tap the mechanical “Home” button to bring up the home screen. I then tap the bottom windowshade to “roll up” a panel of application icons. This static windowshade, which overlays the home screen, can scroll (violation of Third Law of Newtonian UI Physics).

app launcher (vert).jpg

I tap the “Menu” button, which always brings up the menu for whatever app I’m in. A second windowshade rolls up to cover the first windowshade (violation of Fourth Law). And the functions I call in this second windowshade don’t affect the windowshade of application icons; it affects the Home screen behind it (violation of Second Law).

And just to be bitchy about it, let’s try this: I notice that my status bar at the top of the screen is completely packed from left to right with meaningless icons (not a violation of any Newtonian law, but still: tacky). This is where Android collects status messages. How to I reveal that list?

Yyyyeah: I pull down a windowshade from the top to cover the two layers of windowshades coming up from the bottom.

Android’s UI is full of these “Huh?” moments. Even that top windowshade doesn’t “broadcast” that you can drag it down with your finger. I hadn’t a clue; there’s no grabber on it, no dimple, nothing to differentiate it from any other static status bar on any other phone.

Cut, copy and paste? Android’s got ’em! I roll up my sleeves and prepare to copy some text out of a webpage so I can paste it into an email later on…okay, hold down the “shift” key and roll over the text to select it, then type MENU-C…


Wait, I’m probably not doing it right…



And then a day later I get a reply to my email and I’m told that you can only copy text out of an editable text field.

Response (a): I select text from webpages all the time on my desktop machine; what in the Android experience communicates that this feature only works under certain circumstances?

Response (b): It’s an improvement over the iPhone’s total lack of cut and paste. But it’s a poke in the eye with a soft stick. Not painful but still bloody annoying.

I have to conclude that all of this is the result of a rush to market and a lack of hands-on usability studies.

I honestly don’t mind when I’m learning a new piece of tech and I have frequent cause to mutter “Andy, you’re an idiot.” The device or the software is smart; I’m dumb; how sad for me, but I’ll learn, I promise.

With Android, you’re not learning an unfamiliar but logical methodology; you’re adapting to its quirks. There’s a difference. FedEx will happily deliver your package anywhere across the country, overnight: you just have to fill out a form according to the procedures they’ve set. By contrast, Android’s UI is often like the FedEx driver who refused to leave a package on your doorstep until you removed the garden gnome with “those mocking, judgmental eyes.”

In the category of “minor UI disappointments,” let’s just say that I had to double-check the hardware specs to remind myself that this thing actually has motion and rotation sensors. As an iPhone user, I kept looking for places where turning the phone or giving it a shake would do something helpful. I doubt a non-iPhone user would even care.

Finally, there are serious interface consistency problems from one app to another. If you learn how to use an iPhone app, you’ve learned 70% (wait…no guts, no glory: let’s call it 90%) of everything you need to know to operate any iPhone app. With an Android app, it feels more like 50%. Does a certain function belong in an onscreen button, a scrolling list, or the application menu? The answer depends on how much sugar or dietary fiber the software developer had when he or she coded the UI.

(Experimental and differential evidence is thready at this early stage; but it appears that too many buttons is a symptom of hypoglycemia, while chronic constipation tends to lead to a crowded app menu.)

But I’m not saying that the UI is wretched, useless, an abomination that its parents should have placed in a wicker basket and allowed to drift away into the sewers of Gotham to emerge years later as the commander of a mutant underground and one of Batman’s most remorseless foes, etc.

The UI is disappointing and it’s uninspired, yes. But I refer you to Paragraph 3. This is a completely functional OS and it’s perfectly adequate for its intended task. I drive a ’95 Oldsmobile instead of an ’08 BMW M5; I fully appreciate that “adequate” is good enough for many.


Not a single crash or freeze or forced-restart since I first charged it up.

… .. ……

…Huh? Sorry, I was just reminiscing for a moment. Remember way back in June of 2008, when you could say the exact same thing about the iPhone?

Ah, nostalgia. Cokes were just $1.25. Moviegoers fell in love with the adorable antics of a robot named “Wall-E” who drove the highways in his 18-wheeler accompanied by his orangutan sidekick, raisin’ hell and takin’ names. Those of you who didn’t sleep under a Faraday tent when the Large Hadron Collider was first switched on won’t remember this, but hamsters were tiny, adorable, harmless household pets instead of immense, remorseless reavers of human flesh; houses had wooden doors and glass windows instead of double layers of steel plating.

It was a simpler, more pleasant time.

Anyway! The G1 was stable and reliable.

The 3G Experience

…is no better or worse than 3G on any other network. The 3G network simply isn’t pervasive enough. If you’re in a metro area, you can anticipate seeing the “3G” indicator in the status bar but you still can’t count on it. If you’re in the burbs or worse, T-Mobile (like AT&T) seems to think that if they bothered to build 3G towers in your county you’d just try to inbreed with them.

But when it does have a 3G connection, will it download and draw webpages as fast as an iPhone?

Oh, don’t even get me started. Besides, I’m saving that screed for Part 3, when I talk about the G1’s built-in browser.

Battery Life

T-Mobile states for the record that the G1’s battery life “is comparable to other HTC devices available from T-Mobile,” citing 5 hours of talk time.

But accurately gauging the battery life on a 3G phone is big voodoo, particularly when you try to compare two phones on different networks. Even if you have both handsets set to the same power profile (3G, WiFi on, bluetooth off, GPS off…) if one phone is happy with its current cell tower but the other is fishing for something stronger and faster, it can unfairly make you think that the former has a much longer battery life.

So the best I can do is report an overall sensation that I could get a full day’s work out of the G1…which is indeed consistent with my experiences with other HTC handsets. This would be vaguely worse than my 3G iPhone, which will let me get away with failing to recharge it overnight, if I’m stingy with it on Day Two.

Am I being dodgy enough for you on that point? No?

I have hard numbers with a wide delta implying that the deviation of the power curve on the G1 is substantially flatter than the corresponding sample band on the iPhone.

Still no?

Okay, screw it. The G1’s battery isn’t heroic, but it’s nothing to complain about. Particularly since you can easily slap in a fully-charged spare whenever you want. And the G1 gives you a full range of power-management tools…such as the option of turning off the 3G and relying on a slower, but less power-hungry, EDGE connection.

Here endeth Part 1 of the Great Brain Dump (a four-part trilogy in five acts).

In Part 2 (to be posted later today), I’ll be talking about the most important thing I’ve learned about the G1 (preview: it’s a mediocre touch-based phone, but a fabulous clickybutton-based one); I’ll cover the agony and the ecstasy of its built-in camera; I’ll reveal why every iPhone user should worry about Android’s relationship with third-party apps; and I’ll probably work in several baffling and annoying references to “Unbeatable Banzuke” and “Ninja Warrior,” two Japanese game shows on the G4 network that I’ve been watching an awful lot of lately.


Sun-Times: “How To Succeed In Online Publishing Without Really Syndicating”

This column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times on April 24, 2008.

These are interesting times for folks in my line of work. By “my line of work” I mean people who write and draw things and publish them…and by “interesting times” I mean that I’ve added weight training to my workout regimen, so that next year I can get a job loading trucks at the UPS depot and maybe start earning a decent living wage for once.

No, no, it’s not that bad. But the business is changing. You’re no longer a writer or an artist. Nowadays, you “produce content.” And oddly enough, if you want to build and hold on to an audience online, the important thing is to give your readers more freedom, not less. It’s like holding on to Jello: the tighter you squeeze, the more you lose.

This was on my mind as I read through a PR pitch about the revamped Dilbert.com site, detailing all of its (“Gutsy!” “Unique!” “Compelling!”) new features. Scott Adams is arguably the most successful cartoonist currently in worldwide syndication. If he’s suffering for readers and revenue, the only tangible sign is that he can only afford one $250,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and will be forced to go into space without putting his feet up on an empty seat next to him.

And yet the reinvention of his site is indeed ambitious. It’s a great example of what an independent, scrappy creator would need to do in order to succeed in online publishing.

First and foremost — and virtually unprecedented in a “big syndicate” strip — the Dilbert strip has a full RSS feed. I don’t need to visit Dilbert.com every morning; I can simply subscribe to the strip via Google Reader or Bloglines or any other content reader on my desktop, notebook, or my phone, and the daily strip is delivered to me automatically via my mechanism of choice.

It also illustrates the need to relinquish control of how your work is read and accessed. This is a particular bugaboo with web strips, which only make money when readers visit the creator’s site, where they can buy merchandise. Very few strips offer Dilbert.com’s hyper-flexibility.

But there’s a serious downside. I love Danielle Corsetto’s “Girls With Slingshots” (daniellecorsetto.com; sometimes not work-safe) but without any sort of feed, I have to remember to visit every day for my strip fix…and that doesn’t always happen. Even Player Versus Player, arguably the best online strip of them all, only offers “partial” RSS feeds. The feed only offers the strip’s title and a link that takes you to the actual strip on PVPOnline.com.

Each creator needs to make that sort of decision for themselves. It’s completely understandable that creators don’t want to give their readers so much freedom that it never occurs to them to send a little cash your way from time to time.

But you must build your audience before you can bilk your audience. And thus it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for people to find, read, and get hooked on your content. Full feeds are the very best answer.

The new Dilbert.com also offers archives of every strip back to 2001, with the goal of ultimately putting the entire archives online. Terrific: never forget that content is king. In traditional publishing, putting material online for free when it’s also in bookstores for $12.95 is a seriously itchy idea. But it helps build an audience and for now — for now — the numbers indicate that web archives just make the printed editions more valuable. It builds and maintains interest in the property.

And once you have a large archive, you need to take advantage of the awesome power of your audience to market your content for you. Which takes us to another thing that the new Dilbert.com is doing right: if a Dilbert reader likes a particular strip, they can MySpace it, Facebook it, Twitter it, and all kinds of other verbs that didn’t exist before Web 2.x came along.

Linking to a favorite strip is the modern equivalent of slapping a clipping on a cubicle wall. If you don’t give your readers the ability link directly to your content, you’re just running on two cylinders.

Dilbert.com has added another feature that’s very buzzword-ey: now, there’s “user-created content.” You can submit your own punchlines for selected strips. This was done first, better, and breathtakingly illegally with “The Dysfunctional Family Circus,” in which visitors to Spinnwebe.com were encouraged to add decidedly less-wholesome captions to “Family Circus” panels.

User-created content is a smart addition. It helps to build communities of users…intensely devoted readers who feel a certain amount of pride in being part of the group. This is a fine compliment for your work. This is also a rather lucrative group of suckers. Pick one up by his or her ankles and shake them until the majority of their cash has clinked to the floor and they’ll be pleased to have been singled out for special hands-on attention.

And once the flywheels of the user-content area of your site are up and spinning, thousands of people are updating your site with fresh content for free while you’re off somewhere getting waffles. Which in itself will expand the popularity of your site. Folks keep coming back if they know that they’ll find new stuff every time they visit.

But user-generated content is less useful for an established property like Dilbert. People are coming to see Scott Adams’ jokes, not mine. And although me pitching in to create content for Dilbert.com is a nice demonstration of the old Dunkirk Spirit, I mean, come on: look at Scott Adams’ car and then look at mine. Who should be doing free work for whom, here?

These are hard lessons for traditional publishers, and the phrase “people just don’t get it” is glib, callous, and overused. But it’s a fact of life: giving readers more power today will absolutely put a creator in a better position to make money and keep publishing tomorrow.

Sun-Times – “Drobo and DroboShare”

This column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times on February 14, 2008.

Drobo and droboshare

Cartoon characters have it so much easier than we do. Laws of cartoon physics say that if you run out of space on your hard drive, you can just jam a funnel into the top, dump in a few more drive mechanisms from a big metal bucket, and then you’re right back in business.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present the Drobo storage system. This $499 USB storage device is made by Data Robotics, Inc. (Drobo.com), but I’m pretty sure that DRI is actually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ACME Corporation.

You pop the front off of the box to reveal four empty drive bays. Each one can hold a SATA-standard hard drive mechanism (which are as cheap and plentiful as greed and avarice). Just buy some and slide them right in. Installing drives in the Drobo is no more complicated than inserting a frozen waffle into a toaster. No screws, no mounting brackets…just push it into the slot until the bay’s retaining clip clicks into it.

You can mix and match capacities, leave some of the drive bays empty…it doesn’t matter. Dump the storage in and close the door. Drobo figures everything out all out on its own. Plug it into your computer and it appears as a standard, single USB storage device ready for formatting.

“Big deal!” you’re sneering, because you didn’t have a decent breakfast and my mention of waffles has made you cranky. “It’s a RAID storage array. What’s different about that?”

What’s different about it is that Drobo isn’t a RAID. Adding capacity to a RAID is a huge production.

I remind you that Drobo is a cartoon device. You need more capacity? Fine. Buy another drive mechanism and slide it into a vacant slot. Presto: your computer now sees the exact same drive with the exact same contents…only it’s larger.

Please note the things you did not need to do:

You didn’t need to reformat anything. Drobo saw a new, unformatted mechanism and automatically prepared it and added it to the pool of available storage.

You didn’t need to back up all of your data first. With a RAID, adding another mechanism means erasing the volume and starting all over again is often a much bigger production, depending on which RAID you bought and how you set it up. With the Drobo, there’s really no need to think in advance or understand how any of this works.

You didn’t even need to unmount the volume. The Drobo and its contents were “live” throughout the whole procedure. If you start a backup of your notebook’s internal hard drive and you suddenly notice that (holy crud!) you’re going to run out of free space on the Drobo, you don’t need to click “Cancel.” You can actually dash to the store, come home with a new mechanism, and slide it in.

Whoops…all four drive bays are already filled. No problem: just yank out that tiny 160 gig mechanism there on the bottom and replace it with the 500 gig one you’ve just bought.

Yes, while the Drobo is up and running.

Yes, while the backup is in progress. Drobo uses cartoon physics, remember?

Incredible, but true. Drobo stores your data redundantly, across all of its mechanisms; in a sense, it acts both as an external hard disk and its own backup. If you have more than one mechanism in there and one of them fails, absolutely nothing happens. The green light next to that drive bay turns red (to encourage you to replace the faulty mechanism before the fire spreads to the rest of the office), but your computer will be blissfully ignorant.

This redundancy does create one drawback: if you load up the Drobo with (for example) two 250 gig mechanisms plus a 500 and a 750, you don’t wind up with 1750 gigs of storage. As a rule of thumb, the capacity of the largest mechanism becomes overhead, so this example volume would be closer to about a thousand gigabytes.

But it’s a terabyte of damned-near bulletproof storage that can be expanded on the fly with zero effort. I insist that it’s more of a quirk than a drawback. To remove all confusion, an optional desktop utility as well as a long bar of blue LEDs on the device itself make it clear how much free space is available.

Drobo’s been out for a few months now, but DroboShare is a brand-new accessory that boosts it from Mega- to Giga-awesome range. It’s a flat base that sits under the Drobo and turns it into an network storage device. If you have the aforementioned desktop utility installed, your Drobo will just magically become available to every Mac or PC in the whole house or office.

But it’s a standard Samba fileserver. The software isn’t required…it just automatically locates and mounts the Drobo for you.

Drobo does to conventional hard drives what the iPod did to portable CD players. It’s a revolution that was desperately needed and it’s such a vast improvement over the old way of doing things that thirty minutes after your first flight, you can’t imagine traveling by foot ever again.

After The Show

Yup, good Lord, this was a column where if I’d been given another 1000 words I would have blown straight through them and then asked for more. Suffice to say that I think Drobo is a really important product.

I would have blown through my word count just by listing all of the advantages of the Drobo approach to storage:

1) The Drobo acts as its own backup against drive failures. See above. If you have all four slots filled, you can lose two mechanisms without losing any data, according to the company. Lose one, and (just as I said) you won’t even know it until you glance over and see that one of its status lights has gone red. Lose two, and Drobo will calmly excuse itself from the room so it can have a good, long cry…but when it comes back online, it comes back with all of your data.

Obvious weakness: with four mechanisms in the same physical location and hooked up to the same bus and power supply, an external problem (like a drop or a power surge) that takes out one drive can take out all of them at once. To say nothing about a fire or a burglary at the house. So there’s still the usual, common-sense need for backups and offsite storage, but that’s still a huge win.

2) You can impulsively and easily add more storage. No kidding: I have a milk crate full of hard drives in my office. The rate of expansion of my data exceeds that of the Universe by a troubling margin. The fact that I have graduated from shooting 5 megapixel JPEGs to shooting 10 megapixels to shooting uncompressed RAW to bracketing damned-near everything has only thrown more gasoline on the fire.

I had actually sort of resigned myself to just buying a new 250 gig pocket drive every now and then and sticking a label on it with a range of dates, just like with a 3.5″ floppy. But the Drobo is very much a permanent solution to the storage problem. This thing is probably the last “big” storage device you’re going to need until the Industry moves from SATA mechanisms to isolinear optical wafers.

3) Expanding storage becomes affordable. Adding more storage is kind of a big deal, because conventionally you wind up buying a mechanism and and enclosure…and there are big markups involved. I’m not sure that I’d exactly be happy about spending $800 for a terabyte or two every year. But hell, even on a bad month I can afford $100 for a 500 gig mechanism.

And by the time I’ve maxed out all of the drive bays, prices on a 750 gig or even a terabyte mechanism will have probably fallen to the sub-Benjamin range. Slowly but surely, the lower-capacity mechanisms in your Drobo keep getting replaced with higher-capacity ones, and always at a rate which you can afford.

(And without filling up that milk crate with now-useless drives.)

4) It makes it easy to provide file services to a whole house. While writing this column I kept toying with a “hot water heater” analogy but it never really worked. The point is that nearly all of your computer gear is making a transition from a distinct entity into a Service that’s made available to the whole house.

There used to be a water pump in the backyard of the house. You could go up to it and get water. Then water became a Service which is simply available to the entire facility.

Microsoft is trying another new thing they’re calling the Home Media Server. It’s sort of a shoebox PC with big storage, set up as a headless server. Drop it on the network and it becomes the place where all the photos, music, movies, etc. are kept. I think that solution is probably overkill — supposedly HP is sending me a server to test out, so we’ll see soon enough — but Drobo is right there. Again I come back to this idea of being able to expand it cheaply and easily, without any disruption to the service itself.

On and on.

Setup was a snap. I was expecting that the mechanisms would have to be installed in sleds or rails, but nope: just slide ’em in. It’s possible to slide them in upside-down, but if you do, the confusion is momentary and you’ll quickly realize why it’s not clicking in the whole way.

Oh, and a bit more about the disconnection between the grand total amount of storage inside the box and the amount that’s actually available to the file system: it’s a bit of a drag, but you get used to it. When you plug it in, the OS will believe it’s a volume of the highest possible capacity (2 terabytes, in my setup) and a Get Info or Properties check is useless.

But that’s more or less OK because you get a couple of tools that allow you to get a real answer very quickly. For example, there’s a menulet here on my MacBook that makes the situation clear:

Drobo Menulet

That’s a good cue to underline a common question: Drobo does ship with a CD, and it is doing some very Wonka-like things inside that housing, but from the USB port outward it’s just a standard USB 2.0 drive. You don’t need to install any special software to use it.

Same deal for Droboshare. If your computer knows what to do with a Samba server, it’ll work with the Droboshare just fine. In fact, I had that pleasant installation experience where I realize that no, the hardware isn’t screwed up; I’m just an idiot. I plugged the Drobo into the Droboshare and put it on the network and went back to the MacBook to mount the volume. I knew that the Drobo utility was willing to locate and mount the network volume automatically but spent a minute or two looking for the button or the menu or whatever and cursing its “bad user interface.”

Then I bothered to look on the left-hand side of a Finder window and noticed that oh, okay…the software had found and mounted it almost immediately. No clicks necessary.

The Drobo and Droboshare are such an immediate hit and such a natural match that I’ll be pretty surprised if the company doesn’t make an all-in-one product before too long. And that’s going to be the way to go.

Drobo is a damned exciting thing. I really do think it’s iPod-like in its nature. Who wants to keep buying USB drives and migrating data when one $500 purchase allows you to just buy a cheap mechanism once a year or so and expand your resources on the fly, with no disruptions?

Added: Commenters have asked plenty of good questions and raised plenty of great points and I wanted to pull some of them up here:

Noise: The Drobo isn’t whisper-quiet — you’ve got four hard drives spinning plus a cooling fan — but it isn’t particularly noisy, either. Like a tower PC, the noise is definitely there but it quickly fades into the background of your home office.

Capacity: Storage via the Drobo isn’t “limitless.” There’s a 2-terabyte-per-volume limit imposed by some file systems. If you’re using Mac OS X or Vista, no problem (though read the comments to learn about how that affects startup times) but if you’ve formatted it for Windows XP, you’re stuck with that.

Speed: Drobo ain’t lightning fast. It certainly isn’t as fast as many conventional RAIDs (which offer Firewire 400 or 800 interfaces) and even many conventional RAID network storage (which don’t have the USB-Ethernet bottleneck of the Droboshare). It’s fine for “storage” but if you’re using it as (say) a swap drive for Photoshop or video editing, you’d be better off with something else.

Data redundancy: Drobo isn’t unique in its ability to keep popping along after losing a drive, or allowing the user to hot-swap an individual volume. What I should have said is that the Drobo is the only such device I’ve ever seen or heard of that makes this sort of thing actually work. You simply don’t need to care what happens to these mechanisms or what you do with them. Drobo will work it all out for you. Other RAIDs require a certain procedure and respect for common sense. Or, they just plain don’t work.

Sun-Times – “The Microsoft/Yahoo! Deal”

This column was originally published in the Sun-Times on February 7, 2008.

For the past couple of years now, everyone here in Geek World has been hearing rumors about about Microsoft’s desire to buy Yahoo!. It’s uncannily like when one of your friends keeps honking on about wanting to get the entire original cast of “The Dukes Of Hazzard” — not even the TV show…the movie — tattooed on his back.

It’s obviously a bad idea and you hope that he doesn’t go through with it. But the more you hear him talk about it, the more you’re convinced that it’s all just talk. To your eternal relief.

Well, as you all know, last week Microsoft had the sketches drawn up and got its back shaved. It’s probably time to stage an intervention or something.

In truth, it’s a logical time for the company to make this move. Yahoo! and Microsoft have both hit some hard times in the past couple of years and their suffering intersects. Yahoo! has been rolling out a solid string of creative successes and smart acquisitions. They happen to be my favorite “destination” for online news (Yahoo!’s presentation and its signal-to-noise ratio are both better than Google’s). They’ve rolled out a mobile portal that makes all of their services attractive and relevant to users of just about every phone on the market, from cheap to pricey. And they hold the pink slip to Flickr, the online photo service that I simply can’t do without.

What they don’t seem to have is a lot of success translating innovation into profit. And despite having lots of talent on the payroll, Microsoft still suffers from a frustrating inability to move fresh, innovative ideas off of the conference-room whiteboard and into the hands of its users.

Microsoft has money, Yahoo! is at a stage where they can be bought out fairly cheap…it wasn’t hard to hear the buzzing of the tattoo needle.

But it’s probably a bad idea. Bad for Microsoft, bad for Yahoo!, bad for users.

When Yahoo! acquired Flickr, for example, the photo service’s users were none the wiser. Yahoo! happily torpedoed its own far-inferior photo portal and the only noticeable change to Flickr (apart from signing in through Yahoo!) was the appearance of a tiny, apologetic Yahoo! logo at the bottom of every Flickr page.

Microsoft probably isn’t interested in Yahoo!’s services, though: only its assets. It just wants Yahoo!’s search technology and its advertising engine, for a start, plus I’m certain that Yahoo!’s mobile portal would be re-branded. Bonus: the acquisition would take Yahoo! Mail, Messenger and Maps off the playing field.

But make no mistakes: a Microsoft purchase would likely cause Yahoo! to cease to exist as a distinct identity, along with many of its best features. When Microsoft walks through your house as a potential buyer and they tell you “That’s a gorgeous oak staircase, and I’m in love with that 130-year-old marble fireplace!” the implied suffix is “I bet if I demolish the upper two floors, a crane could lift that stuff onto a flatbed and get it to my new house’s construction site, no problem.”

The purchase wouldn’t be a good for Microsoft, either. If Microsoft and Yahoo! failed as individuals to make much of a dent in Google’s control of advertising and search, what is its plan to succeed as a team?

Moreover, Microsoft is so hot to make this $44.6B deal happen that they’re willing to go into debt for (I reckon) the first time. In any other company, this would be the onramp to a familiar and terminal downward spiral. In Microsoft, it feels like a story that ten years later, begins with the phrase “in retrospect, it was obviously a mistake…” and is offered as the reason why Microsoft failed to put in the winning bid to provide the communications infrastructure for the new DisneyNode colony in the lunar Fra Mauro lowlands.

Google didn’t waste any time issuing a statement outlining their concerns about the acquisition. When Microsoft acquires another chunk of the Internet, power is consolidated just a bit further and there’s that increased risk that formerly open services will require proprietary technologies and infrastructure.

Good points. But hey, would Coke be happy if Pepsi tried to buy RC Cola?

I do believe that this acquisition wouldn’t do anybody any good. But let’s be fair. I love Google, but they’re the Goliath in nearly any story you care to cast them in. And though I insist that Macs and iPods are hands-down the best answers for my personal needs, if Apple exerted any more control over its users’ options, they’d demand that a heroically-proportioned portrait of Steve Jobs be hung in any room where five or more Mac users gather.

Yes, there’s the fear that a Microsoft’s acquisition of Yahoo! would create “one nation, under Internet Explorer.” But the far scarier fact is that choice and openness were largely illusions to begin with.

Sun-Times: “Logitech Harmony One Remote”

This column was originally published in the Sun-Times on January 31, 2008.

Harmony One remote

I had no idea how badly my home entertainment system here in the living room had gotten out of hand until a recent afternoon when I picked up the requisite basket of remotes and issued the usual sequence of baffling commands. But instead of the big screen showing the opening scenes of last night’s “Survivorman,” it started to display page after page of decrypted attack orders for Nazi submarines.

I checked the huge tangle of cables and commands interconnecting my TV and the cable box and the DVD burner (and…and…). Well, I’ll be damned: over the past four or five years of adding components to my setup, I’d gradually managed to reproduce the complex wiring and programming of “Colossus,” the British computer that broke the infernal codes of the Germans’ top-secret ENIGMA encryption machine.

Surely you have a similar story to tell.

It really doesn’t take very long for things to become a huge, confusing, honkin’ mess. Your TV long-since stopped being a TV. It’s a nexus for a half-dozen audio and video devices. Hence the need for the basket of remotes, and the need to maintain a mental map of which devices need to be switched through what other devices in order to send “American Gladiators” on its stately way from the cable tuner through the DVD recorder and then finally to the big screen.

Yup, you can walk into any store and plunk down eight to thirty dollars for a universal remote. But there comes a time when you’re ready to bring a gun to a knife fight. When that day arrives, there’s Logitech’s Harmony One remote.

Let’s do this quick, like ripping off a band-aid: it’s $249.

(Move on to the next paragraph when you feel as though you’re ready. You’ve had quite a shock; drink some juice or soda to replace the blood sugar you’ve lost.)

It’s a lot of money. But the One actually represents a sensible middle ground. The truly expensive controllers cost three times as much and they’re typically the size of an Etch-A-Sketch. The $30 ones replace a half-dozen remotes, and that’s a terrific space-saver. But they don’t really make your life any simpler…particularly when it comes time to program the remote with all of your device codes.

To set up the Harmony, you just plug it into the USB port of your PC or Mac and hand things off to a nice little app that collects a list of all of the devices you’ve got there in the living room along with their makes and model numbers. The app then connects to Logitech’s servers and retrieves the proper codes for all of ’em. They’ve got codes for hundreds of thousands of devices; the only difficult thing about configuring the One was crawling behind my TV with a flashlight and a pen to get at the model number.

(Though it didn’t have quite the right codes for my Apple TV. The good news was that “teaching” the Harmony was a piece of cake. Even this part of the passion play was guided by the desktop software. Just check off all of the commands you want to record, and the app walks you through the list one by one.)

But once you’ve described all of your gear, send the codes to the remote, and un-dock it, the Harmony will control all of your gear automatically. Commands are automatically grouped into “actions” — sequences of commands — that handle common tasks. The One’s gorgeous color touchscreen doesn’t feature tawdry buttons like “Input Select” or “Closed-Captioning.” You can get to those buttons if you wish, but you’re paying $250 for the big button marked “Listen to Music.” The Harmony understand that when I listen to music, the TV and the Apple TV need to be on, the TV needs to be on Video 4, and all other devices can be shut off to save energy.

The remote itself is no dummy, either. As it happened, I’d given the app the wrong info: I’d told it that my Apple TV was connected to Video 3. When I tapped “Listen to Music” and the TV switched over to the TiVO, I grumbled and pressed the remote’s “Help” button, expecting the remote to do something brilliant like say “Check the manual.”

Instead, it gave me interactive tech support.

“Is the TV on?” it asked.


“Is the Apple TV on?” (yes)

“Is the TV switched to the right input?” (no).

The TV suddenly switched from Video 3 to Video 4.

“Is the TV switched to the right input now?” (yup).

“Did that fix the problem?”

True, it’s no different than dealing with any corporate IT department: someone with curt social skills who clearly thinks you’re a moron asks you a series of condescending questions. But you are, a moron and it did fix the problem and it’s not as though you have to invite it to your big barbecue this weekend or anything.

My only real complaints about the Harmony One are of the “Well, jeez, for $250 you ought to be able to…” variety. For instance, you can build a custom Action, but the individual keypresses available to you are limited to powering up devices and switching inputs. I’d love to be able to set up a one-touch button that says “I want to pipe this video through my DVD recorder and start recording immediately” but no can do, apparently.

Also: it’s an Apple (Freaking) TV. For $250, I shouldn’t have to see it described by the touchscreen as “Media Center PC.”

The other problem is out of the Harmony’s control. It can send commands to your components, but it gets no feedback to confirm that those commands were received and that the component is set the way the remote thinks it is. If your TV has a remote command that switches it directly to Video 2 (your TiVO), you’re good. If it just has a single “Video Input” button that cycles through all of the possible connections, the fuse is lit on a powderkeg of vinegary disappointment. The Harmony has to drive blind, pretty much. As often as not, after tapping one of these fabled Action buttons, I need to select the proper input manually.

The Harmony One’s best feature might actually be its shape. It’s perfectly sculpted for the human hand, which is what I’m equipped with. The size, shape and placement of its physical buttons is cozy and nicely thought out; it’s an uncluttered and welcoming arrangement. Overall, the remote’s shape and button layout makes you want to cancel your gym membership and watch more TV.

This really hits home when you compare the One to the Harmony 550. The 550 is designed much more like a conventional remote (with a clunky shape and cluttered keypad) and it lacks the One’s gorgeous color touchscreen. But it retains the One’s killer feature (you can program it via USB)…and it costs just $90 online.

But come on. Between the plasma screen and the hi-def DVD player and the $700 game console, you’ve already got $4000 tied up in that system. Your opportunity to prove that you value your kids’ college education more than you value a kick-ass rec room sailed away a long, long time ago.

Kindle: It’s About More Than Just Waffles.

An edited version of this column first appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times on November 29, 2007.

So here’s what Amazon went and did. Metaphorically, they invented a humanoid robot capable of autonomous action. Every morning at 4 AM, it gets in your car and drives all over the state, buying fruit, milk, butter, eggs, and other staples straight from the farm. By the time you wake up and trudge into the kitchen, there’s a steaming plate of waffles waiting for you, made from scratch and topped with fresh-picked strawberries and whipped cream.

It’s one of the most awesome consumer products ever. It might even be a landmark moment in technology.

…And Amazon is promoting it as a $399 waffle maker. You can sense my concern.

I mean, yes: the $399 Kindle is indeed a swell electronic book reader, as advertised. I bought David McCullough’s “1776” from Amazon’s Kindle Store and hey, cool, I read it just fine. You can have various periodicals delivered to its internal storage as soon as they’re published. You never even need to connect it to a PC or a Mac if you don’t want to. All content is delivered wirelessly and you can purchase stuff straight from the device.

But really…you couldn’t care less about the waffles. Because:

1) The wireless connection isn’t WiFi. It’s a direct connection to the Internet via Sprint’s high-speed EVDO network. If you’re anywhere within Sprint’s national cellular coverage area, your Kindle can reach the ‘net.

2) The Kindle also includes…a web browser.

3) This browser works great with the mobile editions of Google Reader and Bloglines. You know…those free services that automatically track, organize, and display the freshest content from any blog or website you care to bookmark there.

Deep breath, now:

4) There is absolutely no additional monthly fee of any kind for using the Kindle or the Internet connection.

Wow. All told, the Kindle moves blogs and websites into the real world (the bus ride to work, the table where you eat your lunch every day, the back pew during an exceptionally dull sermon) like no other device can. A laptop’s design isn’t optimized for reading and its mobile Internet connection is usually pretty fussy to activate. And a smartphone is such a cut-down device that honestly, you’re thrilled to be surfing the Web on it at all.

But with the Kindle, reading a blog post is like reading an essay in a magazine. You pick it up and the pages are more or less right there. All of the Flash [ed note: keep capitalization] and froofery of the webpage have been stripped away, leaving just text and the pictures flowing on a full paperback-sized screen. You turn pages with two big fat buttons that are located precisely under your thumb.

You don’t need to be conservative about using it, either. I found that a full charge supported at least 7 hours of Web browsing…roundtrip from Boston to New York on Amtrak, with no gaps in service.

It feels historic. The Kindle is almost certainly the first bona-fide Internet appliance. Buy someone a $399 Kindle and you buy them the Web, wherever they go, for life (well, so long as Amazon never cancels or changes the service).

And give Kindle ten points out of ten for showmanship. It sports built-in search tools for both Wikipedia and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (real humans do a websearch and select the most relevant webpage to send back as an answer, in the form of a new “book”). You can also load your own desktop documents onto the device via an email conduit.

It’s just a shame that the Kindle isn’t a superlative device for reading electronic text. The experience is like a fast-food meal. It’s not great, but you’ll get it down just fine.

I downloaded a free book from the Project Gutenberg site and spent an hour on my sofa reading chapters on the Kindle and then on my iPhone. I can’t say that the Kindle was a superior experience. I preferred the Kindle’s larger display and its page-turning buttons, but I had the usual gripes about the screen’s E-Ink technology. It’s black text on a gray, non-backlit background, so you don’t get the same crisp, black-on-white contrast of the iPhone’s backlit screen. You’re also dealing with the satiny glare from your reading light.

Worst, E-Ink needs to “flash” the screen every time it’s redrawn, which means there’s a huge visual fart every time you turn a page.

But who cares? The Kindle is an incredible product. It’ll be widely compared to the iPod, but that’s a cheap analogy. The Kindle isn’t merely an entertainment device: it’s an information device. A generic, empty book that can be used to read anything on any subject from any source, whether it’s a DRM’ed copyrighted novel, a file from your desktop, or text published on the Internet.

It’s not an iPod. Kindle is the closest we’ve come to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

After The Show

Ach, there was way too much to say about the Kindle, and way too little space to say it all in print.

I think the most efficient and peppiest way to sum up my reaction is that before it arrived, I was serenely confident that the iPhone would be my favorite bit of tech from 2007…but now the sash and tiara are up for grabs.

Okay, so let’s start in with some more verbiage on that iPhone versus Kindle comparison. I’m not saying that the Kindle is a poor reader. It just isn’t better than many alternatives, the iPhone included. It isn’t really a fault of the device. It’s a weakness of the display technology.

I think I’m prepared to say that E-Ink simply isn’t a great display medium. Its advantages (crisp detail, low power) make it an obvious choice for en ebook device but it has its own share of problems. Most of the complaints I have about the Kindle and its user interface come down to “Yes, but with E-Ink, there’s really no way around that problem.”

If the Kindle had a display like the iPhone’s, I’d be a lot happier. And a lot poorer. I don’t even want to guess at how much a Kindle-sized edition of the iPhone display would run.

But I’ll balance that out by telling you about another little head-to-head comparison: the iPhone’s built-in Google Maps app is damned nice but in a (very) casual test it wasn’t all that much better than the Kindle at helping me find a comic book shop in New York City…!

I was on 57th Street and wanted to visit Midtown Comics down on 40th. A pal of mine thought there was a second location that was closer. I’d been telling him all about how nifty Kindle’s NowNow service is and I thought this was a great opportunity for a live-fire exercise.

“Does Midtown Comics have more than one location in NYC?” I typed, and sent off the query. Then I unpocketed my iPhone and sought the same answer via Google Maps.

I got an answer from the Kindle only about a minute after I got it from my iPhone.

Yes, it’s an unfair and unscientific test. It didn’t include the time I spent submitting the question. The iPhone also lost another a minute or so because I’d left the Map app in “route” mode. One of the few terrible design flaws of the iPhone software is that if you’re in “route” mode there’s no obvious way to get back to “Where is this location on a map?” mode.

I’ve had my iPhone since the first day of release. I’ve written a book on the thing. And yet to this very day, I can only switch from one mode to the other via blind luck. That’s bad design.

So let’s make adjustments and say that the Kindle took 5 minutes and the iPhone found the second location in a minute flat. The answers that NowNow returned were way better and more than made up for the time deficit. The iPhone showed me the two Midtown Comics locations on a map, along with phone numbers, addresses, and a URL to the site. When I checked the Kindle and opened the new “book” that contained the answer to my question, it lacked a map but also included subway directions plus driving directions plus store hours. Not bad at all.

In fact, I spent the whole weekend playing with the service. “How does meat become pastrami?” I asked, after ordering a deli sandwich. And a few minutes later, an article from “How Stuff Works” arrived, describing the whole process. I actually got three answers (same info from different sources) by the time my sandwich arrived.

I imagine a feature like that will truly prove its mettle when I need to ask it a question like “A cop has just asked me for permission to search my backpack. Do I have the right to refuse, and if I do, does he have the right to run me in just on general suspicion? Please hurry.”

It’s these little things that make the Kindle such a seductively cool device. It’s nice to have a phone with Internet access but my iPhone (and other smartphones) are jack-of-all-trades devices. Your relationship with the Kindle consists solely of reading information. Any other features it might contain (like NowNow) are just mechanisms for getting more text to land on the screen.

At its core, the Kindle is a light, compact device that (metaphorically) contains the Wikipedia in its entirety; the complete text of every RSS-enabled site that you care to follow through Google Reader or Bloglines…as well as tens of thousands of commercial titles.

The context in which a resource operates has a big influence on how you come to regard that resource. I’ve been using Bloglines and Reader for years. I’ve even been using them in a mobile context (on laptops and smartphones) for years. But the Kindle is the first device that feels like a conventional book which constantly refreshes itself with content published on the Internet.

Truly. I did hear Ford Prefect saying “Don’t worry, the Guide will have something to say about that” as I keyed in my Pastrami question.

Plenty of folks are raising a huge stink about the Kindle Store’s DRM. This is probably just a knee-jerk reaction. Yup, it’d be swell if I could buy any Kindle book in a format that I could use on any device. It’d be even cooler if all of these books were free. And delivered to me personally by Uma Thurman wearing her “Baron Munchausen” costume. You know…the first one.

But look, if you hate the DRM, then just don’t buy any DRM’ed content. I did buy a couple of books and a newspaper through the course of testing, but 99.99992% of all of the time I spent with the Kindle was spent reading free content…either stuff online, or free content that I’d downloaded and installed myself.

My big fear when I first heard about the Kindle was that it’d be one of those sucker’s deals where you give $399 to Amazon and in return, you get the right to keep giving Amazon more money, $10-$15 at a time. Lots of these useless products have shown up on the market over the years.

But that’s certainly not the case here. You can do pretty much whatever you want to do with your Kindle. It’s such a flexible device that it really doesn’t seem expensive…not even at $399.

There will indeed be lots of analogies to the first iPod…which also cost $399 when it was first released. And some of that sticks. I do think in a year or two, Amazon will have a radically different product that’s a whole lot slicker and cheaper and which more people will relate to.

But I actually think it’s more similar to Apple’s Newton MessagePad. It, too, was a transformative, groundbreaking device without an accurate precedent…something likely to be miscategorized and misunderstood by the public. It was a fab machine but it didn’t find its feet by the time the CEO who championed its development left the company. He was replaced by a typical short-sighted bean-counting stooge who wouldn’t know innovation if it bit him in the butt. He immediately canceled the whole Newton division. Moron!

(Oh, wait…it was Steve Jobs.)

That brings up what is probably the Kindle’s biggest advantage over Sony’s ebook reader and every other attempt to bring a device like this onto the market. It’s not the technology or the 80,000-title Kindle Store or even the lifetime of free coast-to-coast high-speed Internet:

It’s the simple fact that Amazon is willing to eat it for a few years until the Kindle becomes a permanent and familiar part of the landscape.

Jeff Bezos is investing billions in building his own private spacefleet, for God’s sake. You don’t think he’s willing to keep Kindle afloat for as many years as it takes?

A few final details that didn’t make the final column:

  • Yup, it’s damned ugly. But it’s ugly in the same way that a Stealth fighter is ugly. All of those weird angles and edges have purpose. In the fighter, the edges are to force incoming radar to bounce off in harmless directions. In the Kindle, they help make it more comfortable to hold. Each edge seems to fit comfortably into a crook of your hand.
  • That said: yeah, the only way you’d ever see a prototype as clumsy as this on the Apple campus would be if it were clenched between the buttcheeks of the engineer who presented it to Steve Jobs. If the guy completes a lap around the entire Apple campus without dropping it, he gets to keep his job. At half-salary.
  • Yup, you can put your own docs on it, and you can install free ebooks available hither and yon. The Kindle uses a proprietary ebook format but if you use the Kindle’s email conduit to install your docs, Amazon will happily convert popular file types (text, HTML, Word, JPEG, etc.) to native .AZW format. The book I mentioned in the column was Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” and it installed just fine.
  • PDF support is “Experimental.” That is to say…they’re still working on it. I was hoping that I could load up .PDF editions of a few comic books, but apparently they were too complicated. A simpler PDF of a set of travel confirmations worked just fine, though.
  • Speaking of “experimental,” the web browser I mentioned is also an Experimental feature. I did ask, nervously, if this meant that these Experimental features might be so designated because Amazon isn’t really committed to keeping them. Nope, the designation is just a warning that the feature might not work flawlessly under every circumstance.
  • Followup: but given that Amazon has a certain amount of control over the device through that steady Internet connection, could Amazon “remove” features for whatever reason? Answer: well, technically, sure, but as a general rule if a feature is on the Kindle you can expect that it’s there to stay.
  • 256 megs of built-in storage. That’s plenty for most purposes; each book is just a meg or two at most. When you connect it to your desktop via USB, it appears as a standard mass-storage device and you can access its internal folders. But the only time you actually “need” to dock the Kindle is when you want to put Audible audiobooks on the thing. There’s also an SD card slot under its back plate for expansion.
  • The Kindle is wrapped around a rich, nougaty center of Linux.
  • It comes with a cover that’s supposed to make the thing look like a hardbound book. I thought it was silly and “precious” and wish they’d included a simple slipcover or even just a plastic snap-on top that protected the screen. In fact, I don’t think I even managed to get that cover on the way it was supposed to go.
  • The page-navigation buttons are great when you’re reading something but a bit of a nuisance otherwise. It’s impossible to pick up the Kindle (to move it from one corner of your desk) without nudging one of these buttons. So unless the Kindle is asleep, picking it up off the sofa and continuing to read where you left off before you answered your phone is a two-step process: picking up the Kindle, and then undoing the page-turn that happened when you nudged one of the buttons.
  • I wish I knew why the Kindle even bothers to sleep itself in the first place…probably to avoid random keypresses during transit, I suppose. After being ignored for a while, it wastes power replacing the text you were reading with a picture of Emily Dickinson or somesuch, and you can’t get back to your text without executing a two-handed buttonpress. The Kindle might therefore be the first electronic device to consume more power via Sleep mode than if it just waited patiently for you to pick it up again. Even if a Sleep mode is important, a two-handed buttonpress isn’t an elegant answer to anything.
  • The blog subscriptions is a pretty pointless exercise. You can get the same content for free via the Web. It’s only of use if you want to carry the blog with you onto a plane or something, where you can’t use the wireless.
  • Good news: you can buy newspapers by monthly subscription but you can also just buy today’s edition. I can see doing that a lot on my way to board a plane. Fifty cents is cheap; you can buy it blindly and be sure that there’ll be something interesting in there.
  • Bad news: the newspapers you buy don’t contain any syndicated content. I bought the San-Jose Mercury News because it has a terrific comics section. Nope, no comics to be seen in the Kindle edition.

What else, what else…well, the answer to the question “Can I use the word ‘fart’ in The Sun-Times?” turns out to be “Sure, just not in the lede paragraph.”

Salvage Techniques for Wet Electronics

An edited version of this column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s all those little bits of good luck that eventually bite you in the butt. You hit nothing but green lights all the way from your house to the post office. The candy machine in the breakroom gives you twice as many Zagnut bars as you paid for. Not ten minutes after you learn of the existence of the awesome vintage California Originals ceramic Chewbacca tankard, you spot a fresh listing for it on eBay for a laughably-low Buy It Now price.

Life is good. Until Karma goes through its receipts and is alarmed by all of this deficit spending. That’s when you find yourself looking down into a toilet bowl and thinking to yourself “That’s really a terrible place for a $400 smartphone to be.”

No sense beating yourself up over it. Really. But if the events of the preceding 30 seconds are any indication, you certainly don’t have any good luck coming to you. So if you want to avoid having to buy a brand new phone (or iPod, or camera, or…), you need to choose your next actions carefully.

Over the years, I’ve come across loads of urban legends about how to rescue wet electronics, but I’ve never come across anyone who’s actually used any of these techniques successfully. So I made a call to the good folks at T-Mobile, who sent over a half-dozen identical new phones. They aren’t iPhones by any stretch, but these Samsung handsets are thoroughly modern devices with color screens and Internet and multimedia features.

And then I proceeded to do awful things to each of them. Starting with loading them up in a pair of cargo shorts and running through the washing machine for a full cycle.

(As an internationally-beloved technology columnist, I’m well-paid. But if I’m going to spend a day working with Toilet Phones, I’m going to have to get Mossberg bucks.)

Before I get into the techniques and how well they worked, there are a few basics. First, you need to get the device out of the wet as soon as possible. Most personal electronics are designed to put up with some moisture and it’s possible that a quick hand will pull your iPod Nano out of that puddle before Murphy’s Law is even aware that it fell out of your arm case.

Secondly: do not, do not, do not power up the device until it’s bone-dry. Pull the battery immediately if you can. As often as not, damage only occurs when the electrons inside your battery are free to choose their own path through the device’s delicate circuitry, instead of sticking to the safe trails that have been laid down by the manufacturer.

You should also disassemble the phone as far as you can: keep the battery cover off, remove the SIM card and all memory cards…you might even choose to remove screws and get your device naked.

Yes, that voids your warranty. But your device has been pretty thoroughly voided as it is. Besides, if it’s a phone, that ship has already sailed: there’s a white paper dot inside the device that turned red upon exposure to moisture. It’s insurance against customers coming back to the store with a phone that reeks of mackerel, and insisting “I dunno…it just stopped working all of a sudden.”

Finally, you want to make sure that moisture is your only problem. If you’ve dropped it in…let’s just say “something other than clean water,” you’ll have to throw caution to the wind and give it a rinse in the clean stuff. Distilled water if possible, bottled or tap water if that’s the only source of hydrogen and oxygen atoms available.

It’s particularly important if your precious has landed in salt water. Salt water is to electronics as holy water is to a vampire. It causes immediate corrosion and you need to address that as soon as possible. After fishing an iPod from the surf I’d think nothing of sloshing it around the leftover water in my ice chest for a minute or two. It’s probably dead already; this way, at least there’s a marginal chance of salvation.

Okay. Enough…let’s abuse some hardware.

First Test: Do nothing.

The first phone was set aside as a control group. I just left it out and let it dry. No muss. No fuss. No success.

Well, all right: it powered back up and the screen worked and you could make and answer calls. But the keypad was messed up and you could only call it a useful phone if you don’t know anybody with a 3, 4, 7 or 9 in their phone numbers or a…look, why don’t you work out which letters of the alphabet you lose when those keys are disabled.

Second Test: Run it through the dishwasher.

And that would certainly seem counter-productive, wouldn’t it? Unless of course you wanted to make sure that you’d truly driven a stake through the heart of your old Treo so that your boss okays the purchase of a new Blackberry or iPhone.

Okay, but what if you just ran the machine on the “dry” cycle? If it can leave my “Space: 1999” Thermos bone-dry, it ought to do the same trick for a phone.

Result: Another mixed bag. The phone lit up, but you couldn’t call it a working thing.

Third Test: Bury it in rice.
The next one was buried in dry white rice and left to contemplate its lot in life for a full 24 hours. The hope here is that the rice will act as a natural desiccant, drawing the moisture out of the device.

Result: Success! The sound was a little muffled, but the phone was 100% functional after I blew the bits of carbohydrates out of it. I’d still be in the market for a new phone, but there wouldn’t be any sense of urgency about it.

One important tip — seal the phone and the rice in an airtight container, like a Ziploc baggie or a Tupperware container. You want the rice to suck the moisture out of the phone. If you leave it in an open container, it’ll be drawing moisture from the entire room, which will limit its effectiveness.

Fourth Test: Bury it in kitty litter.

So we know that burying it in a desiccant works. What if we use stuff that’s specifically designed to trap moisture, as opposed to using a medium that’s designed to accompany a pad thai?

Yes, kitty litter. And not just any kind: the crystal type, made from 100% silica. That’s the same ingredient in those little white desiccant packets (“DO NOT EAT”) that come tucked inside a new coat or an electronic device.

A sack of Fresh Step Crystals was duly purchased and the burial commenced under the same parameters as the rice. And the results were even better: the phone was as good as new without any audio problems.

Fifth Test: Vodka.

And then it was time to move on to hard alcohol. I’m not sure if this urban legend was inspired by “Mythbusters”‘ fascination with various ways to abuse vodka, but the thinking goes like this: if you marinate the device in vodka, all of the water inside the thing will be displaced by alcohol. And alcohol evaporates much more quickly and cleanly than water…so that has to be good, right?

This ranks up there with all kinds of Great Ideas inspired by a 100-proof beverage. Like “if I drive fast enough, it’ll press down on the tires and I’ll totally clear the bottom of the bridge” or “I’ll get these limes cut a million times faster if I just hold them up to the blades on this blender” or “you can’t possibly get pregnant if you time your moves to the bassline of REM’s ‘Shaking Through’.”

I dropped the phone in a cocktail shaker filled with alcohol and agitated for a couple of minutes. Then I left the phone out to air-dry for 24 hours.

Yup: it was dead. Of all the methods I tried, this was the only phone which wouldn’t even power up. Just like your Uncle Lyle, electronic devices do not become more vibrant and personable after being marinated in hard liquor.

Final Test: The Dry & Store.

This last idea was given to me by a friend of mine, who has a deaf child. Hearing aids are complicated electronic devices that routinely get wet with daily wear. So there’s actually a gizmo that’s specifically designed to dry these things out overnight: the Dry & Store (available from www.dryandstore.com).

I got a hold of the “Global” model. It’s about the size of an index-card box (note to readers born after 1990: about half a Wii) and costs $100. It certainly seems like a winner: you drop the device inside this box and a combination of desiccant packs and forced hot air does its magic for eight hours.

Another success. The phone worked perfectly, and the box even managed to eliminate the little beads of moisture trapped between the screen and its protective window. I did have to remove the UV disinfecting bulb from the lid of the device to make the phone fit inside, but otherwise all was skittles and beer.

I’d also hazard a guess that the Dry & Store would do a much better job on a more complex device (like a Treo with its million buttons, or a hard drive-based music player) than the kitty litter. You won’t have to blow crystal chunks out of the device before putting the battery back in, either.

The Dry & Store is the king of underwater salvage. If you’re in a job or a lifestyle where electronics keep getting wet, having one of these $100 devices on hand is a terrific idea. Otherwise, you’ll have to count on being able to find an audiologist in the area who can sell you one before your dripping phone finally gets sick of waiting and goes ahead and dies.

I am informed, however, that audiologists are kind, warm-hearted souls and if Google Maps locates one nearby, they might let your phone take a spin in one of their drying machines overnight.

The most practical solution for a wet phone is the kitty litter or white rice treatment. You want to get the patient into treatment as soon as possible, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll have all the ingredients you need right there at the scene of the crime. Even if you don’t, you can get ’em for less than ten bucks at any all-night drugstore and start the healing process right there in the parking lot.

Actually, your <i>very</i> best solution would be to button your shirt pocket before using the bathroom. But if we as a species were capable of such careful, reasonable thought, we wouldn’t be desperately burying our phones in vodka and kitty litter, would we?

After The Show

I don’t know if “Goodest Of The Good Sports” even parses as English, but that’s the best way to describe T-Mobile. When I ask a company to lend me some hardware for a column or something, there’s always a bit of a back-and-forth about the terms. How long do I need it, do I require one fresh from the factory or can they just send me one from the usual press loaner pool…that sort of thing.

Suffice to say that “I want to destroy $600 worth of your products” isn’t usually part of the conversation. The phrase does pop to mind after I’ve spent a week trying and failing to get a “zero-configuration” network device working, but it’s never expressed explicitly.

This was indeed a lesson in the power of television. I’d tried to do this topic earlier in the year (before I had some good contacts at T-Mobile) but after three major portable music player and two phone makers turned me down, I (regretfully) put the idea aside.

Then I started contributing to the CBS Early Show. The suffix “…and I’ll be doing this on live network television” has an intoxicating effect.

Yes indeed, I demonstrated all of these techniques on CBS. Here’s the segment, via the magic of YouTube:

I do intend to return to this subject sometime next year. After the column and the segment went out, I received a bunch of new home remedies: use a hairdryer, pop it in the toaster oven, give it a ride in a lab-grade vacuum-chamber…suffice to say that when I have another half-dozen winners, I’ll be calling T-Mobile again.That’s their reward for letting me destroy their phones. Clearly I’m using the word “reward” in the same sense as the Vietnam draft system was known as a “lottery.”

Standing Firm

An edited version of this column was first published in The Chicago Sun-Times on October 4, 2007.

How tragic. What was once thought of as America’s sweetheart of the cellphone industry, a fresh, charming piece of technology with a bright and exciting future, is starting to become more famous for making headline-grabbing stumbles and sprawls.

Horrifuingly, iPhone has become the Lindsay Lohan of technology.

I blame the iPhone’s management, of course.

And the latest flap has been the worst one of them all. Apple released a major update to the iPhone’s firmware last week. Firmware 1.1.1 adds an iTunes Store application as well as some security fixes and minor user-interface tweaks. And if you’ve used a tool to unlock your iPhone so you could use it on T-Mobile and other outside phone networks, it will probably render the phone inoperable and maybe even unrecoverable.

Yes, it’s that last thing that’s grabbing the headlines. And not just in the nerd press, either. “Apple disables users’ iPhones,” I heard on the local nightly newscast. “and the company says they won’t fix them!”

As for the nerd press…they’re reacting the way a cat does when it’s taken a nap in your clean laundry and suddenly finds itself tumbling around in the dryer. Suffice to say that they are not calm and measured. Even folks on highly-partisan Mac sites are accusing Apple of intentionally breaking those unlocked phones out of pure spite.

Well, that’s just rubbish. I’m almost willing to dismiss that idea purely on a humanist level but in addition to my basic faith in humanity there’s the fact that unlike other phones, SIM-unlocking an iPhone is a very messy trick. They’re hacks, not consumer solutions, and the risks are severe and unavoidable. It’s not like riding in an airplane…it’s like jumping out of one.

Apple couldn’t have protected these phones without a great deal of time and effort that was better spent improving the iPhone itself. And they did warn the iPhone community about the dangers of SIM-unlocking. They did it when these tools first became available and they even inserted a big warning — in capital letters, no less — in the firmware installer itself. What we have here isn’t a case of Apple being evil: It’s a demonstration of what can happen when hacker tools are sold as consumer solutions.

Folks still have a right to be very upset at Apple, though. The update trashed some phones that hadn’t been modified at all, its users claim. Worse…it removes all unauthorized third-party applications and makes it impossible for them to ever run again.

And this hits me right where it hurts. I count on my iPhone eBook reader to keep info and documents from my desktop at hand. Plus, I’ve finally gotten to the point in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” text adventure where I need to get the Babel Fish.

It’s amazing that the iPhone developer community has come so far without any help whatsoever from Apple. The company released no sample code, no tech docs, no software development kit. But the iPhone is based on a popular OS, and Unix programmers took the ball and ran with it. By September, there was a friendly, consumer-level app that downloaded, installed and ran commercial-quality software.

It was such a rich system that the iPhone was gaining new and wonderful features every week. Sure, these apps technically broke the rules of Apple’s user agreement, but unlike the SIM hack, it broke nothing on the device itself.

With the new firmware installed, it appears that all software must be “signed” by Apple or else it’s a no-go. So if I upgrade my iPhone’s firmware from 1.02 to 1.1.1, I’ll gain an app that lets me buy music directly from the iTunes store, but I’ll lose all the other apps I’ve installed over the past month.

It’s a bad trade. I ain’t updating.

But back to poor Lindsay iPhone. The iPhone — and’s Apple’s — reputations have taken a real hit, even though these issues don’t really affect the average iPhone consumer. As with the real Lindsay, it can all be fixed if Apple just learns how to communicate better.

There are reasons why the firmware update created so much havoc for so many phones, and it mostly isn’t the company’s fault. Why aren’t they explaining this clearly? And while ideally, I want to have full control of my hardware, all I truly need are beautiful, reliable tools that help me get through the day. If the best apps are only available signed, sealed, and delivered from the iTunes Store, fine. But when, kind sirs, will that be happening?

So here’s the public impression that Apple has created via its silence: the iPhone is a $399 phone that can be crippled via a software update and in some cases, if you take it in for warranty service, they won’t fix it. This expensive device can’t run any “real” apps that didn’t come pre-installed, and Apple has announced no plans to give the iPhone the same ability found in every Treo, Blackberry, and Nokia that costs half as much.

Please, Apple. Fix this before the court orders the iPhone to be fitted with an ankle bracelet or something.

After The Show…

I felt sort of an obligation to write this column. My iPhone review was pretty damned enthusiastic and the effects of the firmware update really influenced my thoughts on the device. I didn’t really care so much about what happens to phones that had been SIM-unlocked — like I said in the column, it’s inherently an unsafe hack and you’re foolish to try it if you don’t appreciate the risks — but zorching third-party apps with the new firmware update limits the potential of the iPhone.

The iPhone needs real, third-party apps. That’s really the distinction that separates a plain-Jane contract phone from a true smartphone.

And yes, Apple has opened the iPhone wide for developers of web-based iPhone apps. Seriously, if you can only associate the phrase “web-based app” with images of a JavaScript-based currency converter, then you desperately need to take a look at EditGrid. It’s the most impressive iPhone app I’ve seen. It might even be the most impressive handheld spreadsheet I’ve ever seen on any device:

EditGrid for iPhone

Yup, that’s technically a website you’re looking at. And yet it’s a full-featured spreadsheet app with tables, layers, charts, and everything. I use it all the time, both as a simply way to carry arbitrary desktop data around with me and as something of an outliner and list manager on my iPhone.

Cool. But when I board a plane, that spreadsheet goes bye-bye. Ditto for parking garages, the Amtrak station where I board the train to New York, and most of the state of Vermont, in my experience.

I insist that this is not a good thing.

Compare and contrast this state of affairs with the world that a Treo or Nokia or Blackberry owner knows. They can simply copy files directly onto their handsets. Hell, many models even have a card slot. Just copy files onto a memory card and then stick it in your phone, just like a thumb drive. And a cheap third-party spreadsheet app, word processor, list manager, et cetera ad infinitum will let you read and work with the file no matter where you go.

Yes, you can use it on a train. You can use it on a plane. You can use it here or there…you can use it anywhere.

I really shouldn’t complain. Much of my new book (“iPhone: Fully Loaded”; bless youfor asking) deals with ways of getting around the “thou shalt not put your own damned files on this device” commandment imposed by Apple and iTunes. But statistically-speaking, a serious percentage of iPhone owners aren’t benefiting from book royalties so they’d probably prefer these sort of tasks to be so simple that you don’t need to buy a book at all.

(No matter how pornographically-low the price of said book might be.)

No, I still haven’t updated my iPhone to 1.11. This is what my iPhone’s home screen looks like:

iPhone with lots of apps

…I think you can appreciate that at this time, a firmware update would be a bit of a downgrade. Visit the homepage of AppTapp Installer for instructions on how to do this to your iPhone.

(Or, better yet…buy my book. Please. There’s a hole in the roof and the children need shoes and winter’s coming but screw all of that because I’m sick and tired of not owning an HDTV.)

As I suspected, the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Apple and third party developers is indeed ongoing. The latest round has gone to the mice, with new tools for jailbreaking iPhones and even iPod Touches.

I’ll update my firmware after I’ve had a chance to digest these new techniques and understand how they work. All’s I can say is that one of the most important apps on my iPhone — following only the Big Four at the bottom of the Springboard screen — is indeed a simple book reader app that allows me to view documents I’ve copied into my iPhone’s storage. The phrase “cold dead hand” leaps to mind when asked to comment on my commitment to retaining this app.

But the real point of the column is that Apple has been doing a terrible job of addressing people’s concerns. Apple should have put Greg Joswiak or some other high-ranking, avuncular, and camera-ready employee in front of a sympathetic interviewer, and made the company’s side of the story plain.

And it’s unquestionably time for Apple to make its application strategy plain. Folks like me will be mollified by the knowledge that an SDK is definitely coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, and then for the rest of our lives we can play Joust on our $400 phones (or hell, even have a to-do list).

For now, the question “Should I buy an iPhone?” has become a bit more complicated. I remain an enthusiastic user, but Apple needs to decide whether they’re building a mobile computing platform or an iPod. If it’s a platform, then the users should be able to count on a certain amount of control over the device.

If it’s an iPod, then the users should be warned that it is what it is and if it isn’t already what they want it to be, then they should buy something else.

Jazz Odyssey

Oddly enough, I like it when a computer screws up and the reason turns out to be “Andy Ihnatko is a moron.” Because I’ve been dealing with Andy’s bonehead mistakes for years now and I’m usually pretty good at unraveling them. Fixing a piece of boneheaded hardware or software is the sort of task that makes me yearn for a job that requires me to have a pair of brown shorts and a Class 3 license.

I thought that a piece I put up on the blog on Friday would be automatically posted at 6 AM today. This is a Sun-Times column that appeared in the print and online editions a week ago from Thursday and it represents one of the reasons why I wanted to switch to a meatier blog app than the one I’d already written.

I’ve always thought that there was so much more that I could be doing with the online version.

I wind up cutting lots of stuff to make the thing fit into my maximum word count. There’s always a brilliant (brilliant, I say!) intro that gets cut, and when I’m still 200 words over I have to sigh, select the careful 150-word explanation of why this feature is so revolutionary, tap “delete,” and then type “this feature is revolutionary; trust me” in its place.

Plus, I’ve always wanted a comment system at minimum and maybe even a message board…all kinds of neat stuff. I’ve made these suggestions but there are a couple of roadblocks. Filing two columns (a print and online one) would mean more work for both my editors and the site admins, plus the installation of new infrastructure.

And then there are legal issues, believe it or not. Newspapers worry about libel the same way a touring rock band worries about STD’s. It’s part-and-parcel a hazard of the business. Libel in a newspaper is pretty well-understood and there are mechanisms to ensure that the paper isn’t getting sued three times a day (chief among them: writers and editors adhere to standards of journalistic ethics).

But what happens when Random Q. User posts “Steve Ballmer is a big stinky poopie-head” in a comment to an online article? Legally, does it have the same dismissive quality as a conversation between two people who happened to be standing in the lobby of the Sun-Times building? Or would it be treated like any other piece of content published under the Sun-Times masthead?

Fortunately, I retain copyright to my columns, so with the Sun-Times’ blessing, I intend to re-post each of my columns here. Out of courtesy, I’m putting them on a ten-day delay (a column that the Sun-Times printed and posted on Thursday will appear here a week from the following Monday) so that the paper can benefit from the novelty and newsworthiness of each piece.

It’s really intended as a super-archive and as a way of adding extra value to the stuff I write for the Sun-Times. So bookmark my directory on the Sun-Times to get the freshest stuff. But when the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth goes out of beta, there’ll be a separate page and a separate RSS feed for the “enhanced” column.

Now, let’s get back to the idea of me being an idiot. Yeah, I thought today would be the 16th, not the 15th, and that’s why the first enhanced column didn’t appear today. So you have that to look forward to.

I hope you like it. And don’t email me to ask “You stole ‘After The Show’ from Oprah, didn’t you” because you know damned well I did. My defense is the same as when I started doing an annual holiday “My Favorite Things” column: who are you going to steal ideas from if not the most insanely successful and beloved woman in the world?