Saturday, December 11, 2010

Google Chrome Web Store

This week Google announced their new Chrome Web Store. Much like Apple’s AppStore allows iPhone users to download and install Apps meant only for their devices, the Chrome Web Store is intended to allow users to find and install applications that run specifically in the Google Chrome browser.

A lot of people are trying to figure out what the benefit of Web Apps in a browser could possibly be. Indeed many of the Apps are little more than links to Cloud based web applications, causing many to complain that Google has no clue what it is doing. Most people reviewing the Chrome Web Store believe it is a waste if they aren’t all “Real Apps.”

The problem is that many people are thinking about Apps that can link data to their current desktop applications. Because we all have to run native applications on a modern computer operating system right? Google clearly doesn’t understand that if they are offering Apps that are confined to running inside of a browser, right?

On the contrary, Google knows exactly what it is doing and that’s why Apple and Microsoft are starting too look so worried.

To understand why that is you have to watch the entire web announcement from Google from December 7th. You see the Chrome Web Store was only one of three things Google talked about that day. The first item was the Chrome browser itself. In their discussion they talked about how much effort they have put in to making Chrome as fast and secure as possible.

Among other performance features that were discussed Google showed off new  WebGL capabilities of the new browser. WebGL is a direct descendent of OpenGL and a competitor to Microsoft's DirectX API, the engine that runs all of the games on Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360. By combining OpenGL with the browser developers hope to be able to create the same kind of rich content and gaming experience that currently requires an expensive gaming system. By making it part of the browser Google hopes to make this possible on any platform at a very lost cost.

And that’s what the third and biggest part of Google’s presentation was about: their platform, Chrome OS. Google showed off a beta of their OS running on a Laptop computer specifically designed for it. While they stated that the Laptop was no different from most Laptops and could run another OS such as Windows or Linux, it was clear they have something much different in mind. You see the Chrome OS is simply the Chrome browser, running directly on the Hardware without anybody else's OS.

If you think about that for a few minutes you will start to see what Apple and Microsoft might be worrying about. In fact this isn’t really news this week. Back in 1995 when Microsoft founder Bill Gates first saw the or first Netscape browser he immediately saw the threat to his company. Because if you could run a single application (a browser) that allowed you to view, edit and share documents in easily created formats then why would people need Microsoft Office? If you could run that browser on a computer without an underlying Operating System, then why would people need Microsoft Windows?

This was the reason that Gates famously changed the direction of Microsoft and poured millions of dollars into the development of Internet Explorer. If Microsoft could create the best web experience, then they could keep customers buying their other products. They could also dictate the way the Web is used and curtail the threat.

And it has very nearly worked. Fifteen years later Google is the first company to be big enough financially to create a browser that has really threatened Internet Explorer. Google is also big enough to take it to the next scary (for Microsoft) level, making an OS based entirely on a browser and eliminate the need for any Microsoft products at all.

But Google didn’t just come up with this plan recently. They’ve had this in mind for years. Using the billions of dollars they made with advertising sold in their famous search engine they created some of their first web based applications, like Gmail and Google Calendar. The popularity of these apps are partially mostly based on the fact that a person doesn’t have to buy special email or calendar applications for their computer. They just need a browser, any browser.

Since then a flood of Google apps have been released: Google Maps, Google Earth, Picasa, Google Talk, and dozens more. Newer Google Docs and Google Voice have aimed directly at competing with Microsoft for office productivity.

And all you need to use any of these applications is a browser with a connection to the Web. Notice I didn’t say a computer with an Operating System? Believe me, Microsoft notices that.

And now we are getting Chrome OS to round out Microsoft’s perfect storm. A cheap laptop or netbook combined with the Chrome OS and the Chrome Web Store and you have everything you need to work, play and shop without ever buying a computer operating system from Microsoft, or Apple. In 1995 Bill Gates saw the danger the first web browsers posed to his companies business model. Sales of the Windows OS still accounts for the biggest share of Microsoft’s annual revenues.

I suspect in the executive offices at Apple and Microsoft they know exactly why Google made this announcement on December 7th. The great old battleships Windows and Macintosh are in for some rough times.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apple Announcement–It’s The Beatles!

Yesterday Apple put up a very simple message on their website:

I looked at it and said to my wife “iTunes is getting The Beatles finally.” Apple (computer) fans world wide started the usual hyper-rumor-mill-of-speculation. Every writer was saying Apple would announce the product/feature/content that they personally were most hoping for. The iPad forums were sure it was the announcement of iOS 4.2 being released. Music lovers were confident it was the heavily rumored music streaming service. Some even guessed it might be some new hardware announcement just before the holidays.

I won’t bore you with why my own speculation was for The Beatles music library coming to iTunes. The point is, now we know that is what it was all about. And for many people it is a very important day. I think for Apple (Inc.) it is the cap on their dominance in the music marketplace. The Beatles have been the biggest hold out against music downloads. The Beatles are the biggest selling musical group in history. For Steve Jobs this has been the cherry on his perfect sundae.

Of course, there were a number of people who were surprised and some who were disappointed. Kids who couldn’t care less about the history of Rock music, grown ups who stopped listening to music, and everyone who wanted something else from Apple.

Personally I find that while I am very happy that this deal has finally come to fruition, I already owned the collections (stereo and mono) on CD. I still think this is a very important day for those who see digital content being the future. As much as the RIAA and a lot of record labels would like to believe that digital downloads are a fad and we will all go back to buying music on CDs, it just ain’t so.

The Beatles on iTunes is important for some fans of the music. I think it is more important as a symbolic gesture. It is Apple saying to those companies who are holding out against digital music download: “You can’t stop the signal. We have The Beatles and if you don’t change your thinking you are in danger of becoming irrelevant to the industry.”

Congratulations to Apple (Inc. and Corps) for finally getting this together.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Google Instant Search

Today Google announced its new Instant Search functionality. Basically instead of just showing search suggestions in a drop down box below the search text box, Google now displays full search results in the browser window below the text box.Google_Instant_Search

It’s hard to describe exactly how this works unless you try it. Instant Search should be available to all US users today. Two caveats: You must be logged in to Google, and it only works from the main search page at This is not available from igoogle or searches embedded into other websites.

The effect is at first mesmerizing as you see the search results appearing as you type rather than having to hit the return key. To get to your results, you can click directly on a result link or hit the Return key on your keyboard. One of the nice things is that you can find what you are looking for even if you are not sure how to spell a word because the results will start showing up immediately and you can see how you may need to correct the spelling immediately.

In the end this is about enhancing search capabilities and speeds up your searches immensely. Rather than typing in a search phrase and waiting for the results, you start seeing results right away.

Less time equals more productive. At least that is the theory. I suspect some people will find this new search mechanism is too distracting. Fortunately you can turn the feature off with the drop down menu right next to the search box.

Google says it’s all about “Speed, Speed, Speed.”

But there may be another reason to turn off Instant Search. While Google says the new Instant Search is all about speed, there is an obvious downside: To deliver all of those results as you type there must be a continuous stream of data being sent to your browser from Google. That means Instant Search is also about bandwidth. I think there is a more accurate name for Instant Search: Streaming Search. Much like you can stream audio and video from the web to your browser now you get search data streamed.

The problem is that many ISP’s are already cranking down on our bandwidth limitations as more and more content is delivered to the desktop. Comcast has had a long standing bandwidth cap of 250 Gigabytes of data per month. AT&T recently changed their unlimited monthly bandwidth to smart phone users. Now you have the choice of 250 megabytes for $15/month or 2 gigabytes for $25/month. Rates go up as you use more data.

Streaming Search is not going to use nearly as much bandwidth as Streaming Video or Audio, but it all adds up. This is probably why Google and Verizon recently proposed having wired data delivered equally, but wireless data would be prioritized based on the service providers.

All of this is pushing us towards the realization that bandwidth really is not free. Someone has to pay for it and as the average user starts to consume as much data as the so called “bandwidth hogs,” the ISP’s and providers are going to have to come up with new business models. More important, we need better infrastructure. In the very near future there are going to be more people using the Internet to watch TV, listen to sporting events, music, etc. Skype already has millions of VOIP users and those numbers are going up rapidly. Apple TV is going to mean more HD content to more households.

More bandwidth makes consumers happy, but it is a real headache for the providers. I don’t think Google’s Instant Search will be the straw that breaks the camels back, but it is a very real sign of how content providers will find new and unusual ways to use available bandwidth. Prepare for the ISP’s to fight back.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Four Reasons Why Zombie Outbreak Is A Real And Present Danger

After reading the reassuring article 7 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Outbreak Would Fail I like many others was able to sleep peacefully. However, after careful thought, a thorough examination of the 2009 documentary Zombieland, and a fruit drink which may or may not have contained Bacardi Coconut Rum I have come to the conclusion that a Zombie outbreak is not only possible but imminent.

Zombie Apocalypse

While some may scoff, I think that once you see the arguments you too will begin working on improving your cardio health.

1 Sheer numbers

Scientists believe that there are more people alive today than the total number of people from our past. In other words there may be more of the living right now than there are potential undead.

However, instead of reassuring us I believe this should concern us. For one thing if the numbers are changing to favor the living then what better time for the Zombies to strike? Also consider that the largest generation of humans to populate the earth are now passing middle age. Soon many of these will become part of the undead ranks and the numbers will shift rapidly.

For this reason I am quite certain that a Zombie uprising will happen within the next Decade.

2 Accelerated recruitment system

While the authors of the original article were reassured by the number of predatory scavengers who would aid in the defeat of the army of darkness, I think they completely miss the mechanism by which the undead can swell their ranks: create more dead.

Consider that the typical process for creating a new living human takes nine months, on top of that it can be years before you can teach them to fire a shotgun accurately. I calculate that a single Zombie is capable of converting from four to seven humans into undead per hour. There is just no way to keep up with that kind of exponential growth rate advantage.

3 No governing body or centralized command structure

Zombies use an amorphous and anarchistic social structure. Some would see this as a major disadvantage, but I call BS. While the living are forming “A Committee to Evaluate Reports of an Undead Outbreak,” the Zombies are already clawing through your back door and eating poor Fluffy. The undead do not wait for orders. They do not hesitate while deciding to eat the cheerleader or the postal worker. They act immediately and I believe this is their greatest strength.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that big government and hierarchical command structures are in fact the work of minions of the undead. A plausible mechanism to slow our response to their attacks.

Our biggest disadvantage may well be our overwhelming desire for organization.

4 Fearlessness

Humans are afraid of a lot of things. The fear of death is only slightly below the fear of being turned into a mindless brain eating automaton. The site of a single Zombie will send a room full of young people screaming into the night as evidenced in numerous motion pictures.

Zombies, however, have no fear. You can’t threaten the undead with death. Even if they can be stopped via dismemberment, the prospect will not hinder their advance. Bravery, as it turns out, does not come from guts but from mindless dedication to achieving an objective.

Conclusion – Stock up on Twinkies

I can think of no other conclusion than that a Zombie uprising is currently more likely than at any time in history. For this reason I recommend we prepare. Remember that there may be no warning from our government agencies.

  • While the outbreak could come from any direction, if you live near a cemetery or ancient burial ground I suggest you consider relocation.
  • Work out an emergency plan with your family. Plan both primary and secondary rendezvous points where you can meet up when the apocalypse begins.
  • Establish a complex set of signals that would be impossible for any undead to reproduce so you can determine quickly if your loved one has already been converted to the army of undead.
  • And remember - “Double Tap”

Oh, and could someone warn Bill Murray.

Friday, August 6, 2010

More Android Apps you must try

Shortly after getting my first Android phone, the HTC EVO 4G by Sprint, I wrote an article about Android Apps you must try. It’s been a couple of months, and I thought it was a good time to dust off that article with some of the latest Applications for the Android that I have found to make my mobile experience better. Things change so rapidly with smart-phones and with the recent release of Android Operating System 2.2 (Froyo) to the EVO 4G, this seemed like a good time to revisit this topic.

Once again I will provide links to the AppBrain website for all of these apps, unless they are not available from the Android Market yet.

Brightness Profiles – In my first list I had a widget/app called Brightness Toggle Widget. While BTW is a fine widget, I found it didn’t quite have the flexibility I wanted. With Brightness Profiles you can set any number of custom brightness levels which can be changed from a single App shortcut on your home screen. You can also set Auto-brightness or set your brightness manually to any level you like from 0-100% via a slider. Handy, fast and easily customizable, all things I really like.

SwiftKey Keyboard Beta – Last time I extolled the virtues of the Swype keyboard. After using it for several weeks I liked it a lot, but found it was really a headache with longer words and even had trouble with getting the right word for some of the smallest words. Since then I have switched to SwiftKey Beta. This add on keyboard takes the idea of word prediction a step further. Not only does it predict which word you are typing after you start, but it can often predict what the next word you will type is before you press a key! It uses standard English grammar rules for this prediction, and I find it is like having a keyboard that reads my mind. I can type faster than I could with Swype, and with fewer errors to correct. It is a beta product, and will likely cost something when it is finally released. But then again, so is Swype. SwiftKey is also available in multiple languages.

Grocery IQ – My wife actually found this one back on her iPod Touch. It provides a sophisticated way to create shopping lists with reminders of items you need to pick up the next time you get to the grocery store. Grocery IQ has favorite item lists so you can quickly add anything you buy regularly without having to search through the hundreds of items it the main database. You can also have multiple people sharing an account. So when I remember I am out of Starbucks Frappacino, I can add it on my list and it automatically goes to my wife’s. Having it on our new Android phones means our lists stay in sync no matter where we are now.

LastPass for Premium Customers – LastPass is a password vault that you can access from anywhere on the web and from pretty much every device/browser you can imagine. The Mobile version of the Application is only available for paying customers, but since the subscription is just US$12/year. That’s a buck a month to remember your passwords. If you are not sure about keeping your passwords available like this, consider that LastPass has been recommended by some of the biggest security experts there are. The new wisdom is that it is better to have complex and hard to guess passwords that you can get to when you need to remember them than it is to keep using the same simple password everywhere. Unfortunately LastPass doesn’t have a plug-in to work with the default Android browser, but you can set up bookmarklets which help you get your passwords when you need them. Plus LastPass does have it’s own built in browser on the Android for easier use.

I know there are others, and I am still finding new apps for my Android every day. See you in a couple of months with more recommendations.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Google should profit from Antennagate

So while Steve Jobs promises customers free cases for the iPhone 4 to help with dropped call problems, the true winners are the compeition. During the “summer of the smart-phone” as competition is heating up between Android and iOS4 for the future market share of this fast growing industry, Apple just blinked.

Whether or not the iPhone 4’s problems are a bad design or a few bad phone’s, the competitors sense blood in the water. Nokia, Rim and even Google have issued very clear statements. They are all quick to point out how they do not have the problem of dropped call based on how the customer holds their phone. [Gizmodo,Endgadget,Crackberry]

But for those companies this isn’t about the technology or dropped calls. This is about the biggest high-end smart phone manufacturer showing it’s first sign of weakness. In marketing, perception is reality and a company that appears to have a problem with their number one product is fair game.

With Android phone’s being released at the rate of two or more per week, consumers have never had a year like 2010 for high quality smart phone options. For all of these companies hoping to unseat Apple as the current reigning king of the mountain, any publicity is good publicity, as long as Apple is getting some bad publicity.

The best thing they could hope for is Apple to attempt to sweep the entire issue under the rug. Which is exactly what it sounds like Apple is trying to do. Rather than coming out with hat in hand, an apology, and an open discussion about what the problem with the iPhone 4 might be, Jobs offers a free case to cover up the issue. And he did it with obviously clinched teeth, angry that he was forced to admit his legacy might not be perfect.

Apple is bleeding over the iPhone 4 antenna issues. It may be a small wound, but in an ocean with nothing but sharks that may be all that is needed.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Microsoft’s Mobile Fail

I officially dub this the “Summer of the Smart-Phone.” Google’s Android phones have been releasing at the rate of nearly one per week since May with the new Sprint EVO 4G by HTC and Verizon Droid X by Motorola leading the way. And unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you have undoubtedly heard about the new iPhone 4 from Apple. The competition for high end mobile devices is hotter than Houston in August.

Even Rim, the manufacturers of the Blackberry line of smart-phones, has announced several new high end devices. And while Rim still leads the market in shear numbers of phones sold, they are quickly losing ground to the new kids on the block from Google and Apple.

The Palm Pre has had a dismal year because of hardware problems with the early phones, but the recent purchase of Palm by HP means we will probably be seeing new devices based on the WebOS by years end.

What about that other smart phone company? You know, the guys who make the most popular desktop operating system on the planet? The company that generates more money in a day than Apple and Google make in a week? Microsoft has a new phone coming out later this year. They are calling it Windows Phone 7, although it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Windows. It is definitely not Windows 7 on a phone.

Microsoft has sold a lot of smart-phones over the years, and their market share remains much higher than the Android’s. Yet nobody seems to talk about Microsoft when they are comparing phones. The conversation is always comparing the latest Android phone to the newest iPhone.

Microsoft has never quite “gotten it” when it comes to mobile phones. Look at the recent birth (and subsequent death) of the Microsoft Kin. When this phone came out most experts questioned what market it was for. It wasn’t a smart phone in the classic sense of having an App Store and lots of applications. It didn’t run any of the standard mobile device Operating Systems.

Verizon launched the Kin to much fanfare. Ok, well actually it was very little fanfare, and you may have missed it unless you were in the target audience of people in the 15-19 year old range whose parents don’t want them to have a full featured smart-phone. The phone’s market was so small it appears to have dried up within a month. Verizon and Microsoft have already announced they will stop selling the phones this summer.

To be honest, nobody cared. Just like nobody seems to care about Windows Phone 7. With the possible exception of those people who will be writing books and blogs about the next Microsoft smart-phone operating system. Hopefully they will buy each others books.

So where did Microsoft go wrong? Why has this company who controls the desktop PC market been unable to control the smart-phone market. How is it they allowed both Apple and Google to come in and steal all of their thunder?

Their biggest failing is their number one success: Windows. Fundamentally they have treated every new device they lay their hands on as if it is just another Windows platform. In the early days of Windows CE and Windows Mobile it was clear Microsoft believed what people wanted on a small device was Windows. complete with Word, Excel and Outlook.

What Microsoft didn’t see, and I think could not see, was the fact that people don’t use their phones in the same way they use desktop computers. While the smart-phone can be an information content creation device, to most people they are communications devices. Phone, email, text and even browser applications allow people to connect and communicate in a way that does not strap them to the desktop. This is why Twitter, Facebook and Instant Messing apps have become extremely popular on these phones.

Smart phones today also need an application store with third party apps which allow customers to fully customize their mobile experience. This has become so fundamental it has become one of the foundations of any smart-phone.

While Microsoft has already announced and shown many of these features in the new Windows Phone 7 demos, I can’t help think they are more than a day late and a dollar short. Millions of people are already making their decision about the smart-phone they will be using for the next few years. Right now Apple is leading the way, but Google has firmly staked out it’s claim. Yet Microsoft won’t have a phone ready until the end of this year at the earliest. In my opinion that is just to late. By wasting time, resources and credibility on the doomed Kin phone, Microsoft has essentially forfeited the race.

The “Summer of the Smart-Phone” is in full flower. Any company who is not staking their claim to the future of this market is going to have a lot of work to do in order to catch up. And I suspect it won’t be enough to come out with something better. It will have to have a “wow” factor that leaves Steve Jobs panting.

I suspect Windows Phone 7 will not be that phone. I’ve already heard rumors that the first iteration of the phone will be missing many key features (like cut and paste). Taking a step back to redesign the Windows Phone platform may be a good idea, but will it be one more nail in the coffin for a platform that has been deemed irrelevant by many people for the past several years?

I believe it will.

And there is more at stake than smart-phones. Apple threw down a new gauntlet with the iPad earlier this year. Once again they have given birth to a not entirely new market that Microsoft had thought dead. Android slates are already appearing on the market, with an entire quarry of new product announcements coming out every week. I have little doubt that HP has it’s eye on developing it’s own tablet/slate device based on WebOS.

Apple will face stiff competition in both of the markets it can be said to have established: High end smart-phones and tablet devices that allow the user to take the internet with them. Android has taken up the challenge and the consumers will be the winners.

Several years ago with the launch of Windows XP Microsoft used the tag line “Where do you want to go today?” Today we’re all going there, but it seems Microsoft will not be along for the ride.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Android Apps you must try

I have now had my Sprint EVO 4G for almost three weeks. It is my first Android phone, and I have found a ton of apps that I find make the experience better. In fact I have gotten so used to some of them that I would probably find using the EVO much more difficult without them.

AppBrain -- I'm sending along links to the AppBrain store. If you aren't using AppBrain, I recommend it first. It helps you find apps you might want from your computers web browser and queue them up for installation on the Android when you want to. Go directly to the Android Market on your phone to install it.

Dolphin Browser HD -- The internal browser for Android is pretty good, but this browser adds so much more. Tabbed browsing with up to 8 tabs open at the same time. Gesture controls, which I have never understood until I used gestures on a touch screen. If your phone doesn't have the speed and screen size for this version, get their non-HD browser. My wife was the one who recommended this to me. Credit where credit is due.

Google Maps -- Yes, your phone probably came with Google Maps installed. But did you know there are updates on the App Market that add features and more maps?

BTW, while Google's GPS navigator is still Beta, it is better than the internal GPS navigation on most phones. Because the phone companies GPS needs to download map data as you are driving, if you enter an area with no cell connection you won't get an update even though GPS is working. Google Maps caches the route you are going to take so the maps are there even if there is no Cell tower on the route.

Brightness Toggle Widget -- One way to improve battery life (a big problem on the EVO) is by turning your screen brightness down as much as you can. This widget makes it possible to cycle through the brightness settings without having to find the setting in the Android menus.

No Lock -- Since I work at home, I don't really need the phone to lock every time it goes to sleep. With this widget you can toggle the lock so that when you wake the phone you are on your home page ready to go. No sliding the lock bar to access the phone. Just remember to turn it back on when you are carrying the phone in your pocket.

Google Translate -- Need to translate something on the fly? This app does it amazingly well. You can even speak several languages to the App and it will translate what you say. It can even speak the text back to you in some languages. Kirk and Spock would appreciate this one.

Barcode Scanner -- Who would have thought using your phones camera as a barcode scanner would be useful? But I found you could scan the barcodes on some products around the house, and then find where you can get the best price for that item if you need to buy more. Really handy, but it can be a bit finicky about lighting as it doesn't use the camera's flash LED's.

ASTRO File Manager -- Does what it says, allows you to view your phones file system. You can delete, copy, move, open and even edit most files directly from the SDCard memory. You can even explore the phones root file system, although you need to have root privileges to really cause trouble.

Remember to check out the ASTRO SMB Module which allows you to connect over your WiFi to another computer and copy files to from your Android. Take that iPhone.

Dropbox -- If you are ok with storing data in the cloud, I highly recommend an account on Dropbox. It allows you to have a folder that is shared with any device on the Internet, or you can upload and download files to it via a web browser. This app allows you to access your Dropbox from anywhere on your Android.

Not Call Log -- Ok, this one is a bit hard to explain. If you have HTC Sense when you make a phone call, at the end of the call you are left in the Call Log. There it is easy to accidentally touch a phone number and start another call. With this app installed, whenever a call ends, you will be taken back to the screen of your choice. It saves accidentally dialing people. Dunno if it is the same for MotoBlur devices or Nexus.

TiVoRemote -- Ok, this is convergence of technology. If you have a Series 3 or later TiVo, you can set it up to allow remote control over the network. With this App you can use your Android to remote control your TiVo from anywhere inside the WiFi network. It is the only app here that I recommend that is not free. But at $0.99 I was very happy to have it, although it seems to lag at times.

Swype (Beta) -- Last but not at all least is this great keyboard replacement for the Android soft keyboard. It is nearly impossible to describe how effective Swype is. With it I can type at nearly an order of magnitude faster on my EVO than I could with the normal tap-tap-tap action. With Swype, you literally swipe your finger over the keys for a word and it does the rest. It has to be used to believe it.

I understand Swype is a standard feature of some Droids. The company is offering a limited time beta sign up so I recommend you see about getting it if you can, even if you decide not to use it. They claim that the beta will not end anytime soon. They want people to test the software on a wide range of Android devices. So hopefully that means if the beta ever does end, we will be able to purchase it.

Hope I didn't bore anyone. Let me know what you are using!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Privacy Illusion

There has been a lot of “sound and fury” about Facebook's privacy policies lately. The big issue seems to be that people believe Facebook has moved from being a place where they can communicate with a close circle of friends to being a public forum where everything they say can be seen by anyone.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Faced by competition for the social network space by services like Twitter, Facebook has been searching for ways to give advertisers and marketers better ways to communicate with their customers. This has been an ongoing evolution of the Internet since it was opened up to commercialization back in the 90’s.

But it seems to me that the real problem is not Facebook. It is the public perception that you can have privacy on the Internet. By now it should be clear that anything you do or say on the Web is no more private than something you say in a crowded shopping mall.

Most people don’t realize that even their email isn’t really private. Especially if you use a web mail host like Gmail or Hotmail. Electronic mail is sent from server to server over the internet with little to no security. A dedicated hacker or a malevolent network administrator can learn more about your private life than any marketing manager on Facebook.

Of course, there are tools to help solve this problem. Email encryption tools have been available from the earliest days of the Internet, but they aren’t used by many people because they aren’t aware of them and frankly most of them are complicated to set up. But if people were really interested in protecting their privacy they would install these tools on every email client they use.

The issue is that while people wring their hands about privacy, they rarely do more than complain. The truth is most of us have very little understanding of the real issues. If we did we would use the simplest tool available for privacy: If you don’t want people to know something, don’t say it.

So the best advice is to treat Facebook like you would any other public place. Post whatever you want, as long as you are willing to accept the consequences of lots more people seeing it than your friends list.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The week Google killed Apple

Ok that's hyperbole but if Google ends up supplanting Apple in the mobile market, this will be the week we can say it happened.

During Google IO this week, Google showed developers the new Android 2.2 features, including such things as:

  • Install an App from the web without using the Android Marketplace. In other words, you don't have to wait for an App to go to the App Store to release a patch.
  • Copy all (non-DRM) music directly from your computer to the Android, over the net without plugging it in to your computer.
  • Translate voice to voice (English to French for instance) on the phone. For instance, speak a phrase into the phone in English and hear the translation spoken back in French.
  • Run Apps from the SD card, freeing up more memory for Apps.

Of course Android already has multi-tasking and it’s open source nature allows developers to write and publish software for the Android phones without having to go through the approval process that encumbers all iPhone Apps.

That may or may not be exciting, but during the first Keynote on Wednesday Google gave every developer that attended an Android phone. During the Thursday keynote Google gave every developer that attended an HTC EVO, the new Android phone that will make use of Sprints new 4G speeds.

Has Apple ever done that? No, and they aren’t likely to.

Android phones outsold iPhone for the first time over the last Quarter. Google is making it very clear they are planning on taking over the mobile device market. They also made it clear this week they want the developers to come along and profit from the market opportunity with Google.

Rather than treating developers as problem children that have to be monitored closely, Google is inviting the developers to become partners on their Android platform. The problem is that Apple has already outlined the iPhone 4.0 features and it is well into Beta testing. Google has chosen the perfect moment to strike. I believe in the future when we hear that Android has overtaken iPhone for market share, this will be the week we remember seeing the tides shift.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Star Trek Online, Preview


The open Beta for Cryptics new Star Trek Online (henceforth STO) MMO has finished with a massive Borg Invasion. As an action loving Andorian captain I was looking forward to the final battle. Sadly I was informed by Star Fleet that I would be in charge of the defense of Risa.


However, it gave me the time to collect my thoughts about the new game, and convey them to those of you who might be considering a stint as an officer in the fleet. So I figured I’d give you the run down on how we roll in Star Fleet, with advice that should help you decide if the game is for you.

The Story So Far

The story is set in the canonical Star Trek universe. That means that the events of the recent J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek movie are not in play. Actually the events of the movie have taken place, but in the STO universe Spock and Nero disappeared into the singularity created by the Red Matter and Spock is presumed dead by the Federation.

The setting is 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. The STO website has a number of articles explaining the events which occurred after the death of Praetor Shinzon. In summary:

  • Romulus was destroyed by the Hobus Supernova, billions of Romulans were killed
  • As a result, the Romulans are in a state of disarray
  • The Remans have splintered and formed their own government. More or less as Shinzon had wanted
  • Most of the surviving Romulans have gone into diaspora and a massive fleet was reported heading coreward (towards the center of the galaxy.)
  • The Cardassian homeworld was devastated by the end of the war with the Dominion, and they have been rebuilding with the help of the Federation
  • The Klingon Empire has decided to take advantage of the resulting power shifts and begun absorbing nearby factions.
  • The Gorn, Naussicans and Orion Syndicate are now satellites of the Klingon Empire.
  • Not all Klingons want war with the Federation, but it is unclear how that will play out.

Yes, that is the short version. But hey, it is thirty years.

Picking Sides (But Not Really)

You might expect that the game of Star Trek Online is one of factions between the United Federation of Planets, and the Klingon Empire. In fact that is true, but don’t expect to start playing that way. In fact you cannot create a Klingon character until you have first gotten past fifth level as a Federation player. In other words, you must start a Federation player no matter where your allegiance may lie.

A big reason for this is that the Klingon faction is almost entirely about PvP. From what I hear the Klingon faction is entirely PvP as there is virtually no PvE content for them. There has been a great deal of debate on the wisdom of that decision, but it is how things are in STO.

Picking Your Species

Ok, so you must start as Federation. That means you will have nearly a dozen different alien species to choose from. Including Human, Andorian, Bolian, Trill, Vulcan and Bajoran to name a few. There are some racial bonus’s for each species, but the choice is almost entirely one of taste for the player.

There is also an option to create your own Race, which gives you an enormous number of physical characteristics to choose from. If you’ve played Cryptics City of Heroes/Villains or Champions Online you will be familiar with the almost overwhelming character customization options.

Once you’ve chosen your species and created your character you will get to run through the games tutorial mission which will familiarize you with the mechanics of movement and combat (both on the ground and in space). Unfortunately there is only one Tutorial mission, and the different species all share the same opening to the game. I won’t spoil the story for those who are interested in playing the game.

Your Orders, Captain?

You play a Star Fleet captain, but you start as an Ensign. Note that in the same tradition as most of the world’s navies, the commander of a ship is called “Captain” no matter what his/her rank. The leveling system works by grades and ranks. To start there are ten grades per rank, and five ranks. You start as an Ensign, but in the thick of battle you quickly get your own ship to command and are promoted to Lieutenant grade 1. At Lieutenant Grade 11 you will be promoted to Lieutenant Commander grade 1. And so it goes. Lt., Lt. Commander, Commander, Captain, Admiral for a total of 50 grades or levels.

But STO is a skill based game rather than level based. As such you get Skill points for completing missions, defeating opponents and performing some other tasks. As you gain skills, you can pick attributes to improve. Such as engineering skills to help your ship repairs, or tactical leader for ground combat skills. There are a host of skills to use, and each Rank has new skills that open up.

You cannot be promoted until you spend a certain number of skill points. So gaining Grades comes from getting skill points, but gaining a new Rank comes from actually spending the points. This means you can’t simply horde skill points to use at a later Rank.

Your Ship, Captain!

STO is made up of two distinctly different tactical games: Ground combat/missions and Space combat/missions.

Ground missions are easy to understand. Your character runs around, interacting with NPC’s and occasionally doing battle with ground based NPC’s. Phasers, disruptors, tricorders and various other familiar tools are at your disposal. In addition to yourself, you can form a landing party from members of your Bridge crew and/or other players. This is one of the interesting parts of STO. Over the course of your career you will get to bring on board NPC characters as Bridge Officers (BOs). These come in three varieties: Engineers, Science and Tactical Officers. Each has its own special skills which you can use.

When you form a landing party you may choose up to three other characters to accompany you for a total party of four. Those other three can be your NPC Bridge Officers and/or players from other ships. If you have insufficient officers for a Landing party, you may fill the spots with security personnel (aka, red shirts).

For the most part the NPC’s act independently and will help you appropriately. Science officers can heal party members, or debuff the opponents. Engineers can build phaser turrets, shield generators, etc. Tactical officers can improve your teams offensive capabilities as well as dealing out greater damage. You can also issue direct orders to one, some or all of the NPC’s to get the job done. Unlike pets in other MMOs, Bridge Officers can take and deal out damage just as well as the Player can. They are very effective party members and can make or break missions.

Red Alert! All Hands to Battle Stations!

Space combat is where STO differs from just about any other MMO you may have played. And it is a big part of the game. In space you have to think moderately 3D. While ships cannot perform full 360 degree loops or any kind of Roll maneuver, there is still a lot to think about while taking on opposing fleets. And you are the captain of one ship.

As opposed to ground missions where you can take a landing party you have only one ship to take on any number of opposing ships. Your bridge crew will be available as special powers or skills which can be called upon to reinforce shields, improve torpedo damage or run for cover when you need it. Selecting the right bridge crew members and skills can be an important part of Space combat.

Space combat can get frantic, and victory often goes to the captain who can keep a lot of balls in the air at once. You need to concentrate on applying fire to the enemy where he is weakest. At the same time you need to monitor your own shields to make sure you don’t come up short. And on top of that your weapons each have specific firing arcs, so you need to orient yourself to keep maximum firepower on the opponent. It sounds tougher than it is, as the interface provides plenty of feedback and several easy ways to do everything.

Still, if there is any one part of the game that will weed out the people who like the game from those who don’t, it is space combat. For many people the complexity of 3D combat will prove to be more than they want to take on for entertainment. The good news is that a typical battle can take several minutes, and it is rare that a single mistake will mean defeat.

But This Is The Fleet

On the other hand, you can and will have situations where other players can help you with space combat. Several ships can form a squadron, and some special encounters will require fleets of many ships. STO makes this easy by auto grouping people in some situations to make sure the missions are at least doable. It’s actually pretty seamless and I never felt like I was being forced to play with others even in those situations where that did happen. I spent most of my time soloing, but really appreciated entering a zone and finding others who I was auto-teamed with on the same mission. You can turn off the “auto-teaming” feature, but I recommend giving it a try if you play.

All players start off with a basic frigate for their ship. It is light, moderately fast and deals a fair amount of damage. It has limited crew stations and room for only one rear and two forward firing weapons. After gaining the Lt. Commander rank you can start picking specialized vessels. The first set breaks into three types: Cruisers are essentially tanks dealing less damage but able to take heavy punishment and keep flying. Escorts are smaller and faster ships which can deal lots of damage, but take less themselves. Think of the Escort as the DPS of the trio. Science Vessels are intended as support ships. They can extend their shields to help protect other ships in their party for instance.

Shore Leave

STO is not all combat and missions. There are a number of Spacedocks and some planets at which you can rest, refit and even acquire upgrades to your ship as you level. Many missions start out at Spacedocks, and you can find other players to group up with if you are into that. Some familiar places are available: Earth Spacedock, Deep Space 9, K7 on the Klingon border and the R&R hotspot of Risa.

Some locations are not open for players. Earth being the most notable. There is no way to beam down to the human homeworld. Other locations serve different purposes. The Federation research and development center on Memory Alpha is where players go to barter collectible items found around the galaxy for upgrades and new equipment. Only a portion of this system was available during Beta, and most agreed it is no substitute for crafting systems available in other MMOs.

Beam Me Up

This is a preview, and I wont’ give STO a final grade until I’ve had a chance to play the finished product for awhile. What I did like was the real look feel and sounds of the future universe as imagined by Gene Roddenberry and his faithful followers.

There aren’t any really big “aha” moments in the game, but there are lots of little moments that make you feel like you are in that universe. For instance, the first time you fire a photon torpedo and hear that very recognizable echoing FOOM, you will know where you are. Transporters, phasers, warp nacelles and even Tribbles will make the Trekkies and Trekkers very comfortable.

What is missing is hard to know until the complete game is available. There are some places where you stop and say “Ok, this was contrived to make the game more playable.” However, I am a fan of playability, and while some of those moments may lower the emersion it doesn’t break the fun factor for me. I didn’t participate in any PvP combat, and probably won’t when the game goes live either.

As an avid MMO player who watched the original Star Trek series before they were re-runs I’ve been anticipating this game for a long long time. So I will be playing it.

Oh, and if you decide to join me, no need to ask which server I am on. Like Champions Online, there is only one server. Although each “zone” has many instances (or shards) to ease the load, it is still very easy to get together with friends.

Don’t hesitate to contact me via sub-space communications if you have specific questions. Or just send me an email.