What Should I Write About?

Barton FinkSometimes being a tech writer is hard work.

Oh, the actual writing part isn’t too bad, that’s sort of fun. The really hard part is the idea stuff. Like, what should I write about this week?

It’s not like there’s a dearth of subject matter out there.

I mean, Facebook is in court this week, accused of being a stolen concept. Born of halcyon nights at Harvard, the über-popular site was originally a concept that CEO Mark Zuckerburg was contracted to develop. Or so the story goes.

Social-web losers Divya Narendra, and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, claim they hired Zuckerburg in 2004 to build  ConnectU, a now-defunct web site that was very similar to Facebook. They say he ran away with their idea.

Whatever, guys.

Narenda and the Winklevoss Bros. were either incompetent enough to let a punk scoop their killer concept, or they’re just jealous gold seekers bummed that they lost the contest.

Get over it.

Of course, I could have picked a lame Facebook topic to write about, like the CBC did. According to their web site, Toronto’s defeat by London, England, as the top regional network on Facebook was newsworthy.

I guess it’s been pretty slow at Canada’s national broadcaster lately.

Then there’s Apple, a company that’s on a tear. They just posted their biggest quarter ever, with $818 million in profit. That’s on sales of a record-breaking 1.7 million Macs, 9.8 million iPods, and 270,000 iPhones (in the last 30 hours of the quarter).

And, while I’m waxing iPhone, I did consider writing about its flaw that lets hackers in easy.

It pretty much exposes all the data on an iPhone to anyone who knows how to code up a web site just-right.

But I’m sick of writing about Apple considering they’re not into greasing my palm like some other tech companies are.

Of course, another subject could have been earth-friendly cars.

Both GM and Toyota have been talking up plug-in hybrids lately.

With gas prices hitting record highs (but still too low, in this scribe’s opinion, if people are willing to leave them idle in a summertime parking lot just for a bit of AC), it seems automakers figure the time is nigh for full-on electric vehicles.

Just ignore that diesel-burning power generator on the outskirts of town, ladies and gentlemen.

C’mon, guys. Electricity isn’t an alternative energy source.

It’s just a salve for assuaging the guilt of a power-hungry age.

Then there’s there’s the ongoing saga of Google, a company that seems to be hell-bent on manufacturing an ad-supported world.

They recently indicated that they’d like to blow $4.6 billion on wireless airwaves in the States if they can use them for high speed internet services.

The company wants to hawk the “Google Phone” and let consumers have more choice about how they use their mobile phones and what they put on them (and they want to make sure they have yet another venue for Google Ads).

This runs counter to the absolute control that all mobile service providers currently exert on the devices they sell. So, as you can imagine, Google is seriously stirring the pot with this earth-shattering idea.

But it’s not so fresh a concept, really. When you buy a computer, are you stuck to one internet provider? Or when you buy a television, are you forced to subscribe to satellite over cable?

Then there’s the $1.1 billion hit Microsoft took when they recently admitted the XBox 360 is really a piece of crap hardware in need of some solid repair and perhaps even redesign.

After pissing off its users for over a year by charging to repair defective consoles, the company extended all owners’ warranties and offered reimbursements. Nice move, Microsoft, but… ouch. Somebody’s head had to roll on that one.

So I also could have written that Microsoft, er, released their top XBox executive, Peter Moore, to video game maker Entertainment Arts. They quickly replaced him with Canadian industry veteran Don Mattrick.

Between the XBox hardware problems and the Nintendo Wii, I’d hate to be in his shoes.

Of course, I also could have written about the free wireless internet service that the City of Regina introduced a couple of weeks back.

˙But I don’t think it would have any effect on my own local council’s 20th Century mindset.

Whew, as you can see, I have a pretty tough job.

These are the things I could have written about this week. How to choose?

Let’s hope I don’t waffle so much before my deadline next week and I actually write about something interesting.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 27, 2007.

Share, Children! Forcing Mac and Windows to Be Friends

MetrosexualEarlier this year I evolved to become a metrogeek. A long-time Mac user, I’ve managed to get in touch with my PC side.

I now have a Windows laptop on my desk right beside my beloved Mac. Surprisingly, the two have managed to co-exist quite peacefully. Prudently, I maintain a buffer zone.

Despite their begrudging respect for one another, they’re like toddlers at a day care. The egoist Mac and prideful Windows have sharing issues. Their favourite phrase seems to be: “mine!”

So, like any good day care worker, I’ve set to work on reconciling these juvenile creatures’ differences.

Of course, I’m not nearly so forbearing as the admirable folks who take care of my own kid every day.

So, screw time-outs.

Instead, I’ve recruited some thugs to twist the PC’s arm and leg-lock the Mac to force their appreciation of the virtues of co-operation.

First on my list of behavioural issues to resolve was the primary fundamental: sharing files and folders.

I didn’t want to have to set up yet another machine as a file server.

I certainly didn’t want to have to manually manage files between my Mac and Windows environments.

I just wanted each machine to have the same set of files at the same time all the time.

This might sound like a crackpot concept to some people, but I’m surprisingly not the only crackpot in the world because a brilliant solution exists.

It’s called FolderShare and it’s designed to maintain a perfect state of file synchronicity between two or more Macs and PCs.

The interface is simple and elegant.

The service is dead-easy to set up and completely dependable.

Now owned by Microsoft, this web-based solution simply watches the files on each computer.

As soon as it senses a difference in anything, it immediately and automatically initiates the synchronization process between machines.

It’s quite amazing, and completely fulfills my need.

On both of my machines I always have the exact same set of files.

The best part? Foldershare is a free service. Thanks, Microsoft!

Perhaps even more important than files and folders are contacts and calendars. Simply put: whether I’m using my Mac or my PC, I want an up-to-date record of my schedule and the people I know.

I tried out a free service called Plaxo that claimed to offer cross-platform synchronicity.

Unfortunately, it was dreadfully awful.

Plaxo just kept screwing up my contacts’ addresses.

And seemed to take some sick joy in changing the dates of my appointments.

After a few days I decided “free” wasn’t worth that.

I gave Microsoft Exchange a spin, but unlike Foldershare, it didn’t support the Mac environment very well.

On a whim, I tried an open source product called Zimbra, which is designed to provide an alternative to Exchange.

Like Exchange, Zimbra is “enterprise” software designed to offer a collaborative workgroup environment.

You’d typically have to install it on a server.

Luckily, there are internet-based “hosted” versions available that offer per-account services.

The best of these is OnDeckTech, an American service provider with a keen eye for service quality and customer care. I signed up with them for a Zimbra account and never looked back.

Surprisingly, setting up my PC with Zimbra was much easier than setting it up with Microsoft’s own Exchange server.

And Zimbra perfectly maintains contact and calendar synchronicity between my Mac and PC environments.

It’s quite magical, actually. Within moments of changing a phone number in my Outlook address book, it’s updated on my Mac. The same with calendar events: the synchronizing process happens instantly.

What’s more, Zimbra offers a brilliant web interface for accessing all of this information plus my email from anywhere.

Possibly the most important collection of information anyone has in this day and age is their web browser bookmark collection.

I have years of research stored there.

My collection used to be spread across multiple browsers on my Mac.

Finding that one bookmark I needed used to be a pain.

When I bought a PC, the lack of sync across platforms became unbearable.

For the near-ultimate solution to this problem we have Google to thank.

Their free Browser Sync service is, quite simply, heaven sent.

Not only does it maintain perfect synchronicity between bookmark collections on multiple computers, it also keeps track of your browser history and your browser session state.

So as you move between computers, Google Browser Sync will actually keep track of what sites you had open in tabs and windows, plus it generates a common browsing history of all your web activities.

A major drawback to Google’s service is that it’s only available for Firefox.

So the problem of co-ordinating bookmarks amongst multiple different browsers remains.

Fortunately, a small Mac developer called Everyday Software offers a killer solution here.

They publish a simple utility called Bookit that manages synchronicity across all of the browsers on my Mac (which are numerous: Safari, Firefox, OmniWeb, Flock, Camino, and Shiira).

I haven’t yet identified a similar solution for my PC.

Over there, Firefox and Internet Explorer blissfully maintain a common ignorance of one another. (If any reader has a solution, please post it to the comments.)

I may not be able to herd a flock of kids across the street. And I can barely manage to get my one son up to the pool for a swim, never mind four or five kids more.

But, hey, I brutally enforced an attitude of sharing and co-operation on two formerly incompatible computers.

That’s gotta count for something, doesn’t it?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 20, 2007.

Of Rum and Rodents: Is Google a Viable Alternative to Microsoft? (CORRECTION)

Big Gorn and Kirk 3It’s no secret that Google, the (supposedly) friendly giant of the web, wants to pummel Microsoft into oblivion.

With this goal in mind the company has recently engaged in a drunken sailor’s spending spree of epic proportions, purchasing all sorts of web-based software start-ups in an effort to top-up their stable of products.

Just last week, for example, they blew an undisclosed sum on the 6-month-old web-based PowerPoint aspirant, Zenter.

The stated business goal of Zenter’s founders, Wayne Crosby and Robby Walker, was to affect that purchase precisely. (While that may seem like a cutting-edge business strategy, there are in fact scores of products that target the inebriated. [See correction note at end of posting.]

Google’s own strategy seems to centre around building a suite of web-based software tools worthy of doing battle with Microsoft’s desktop offerings.

And they want to undercut the traditional software publisher’s business by giving it all away for free (at least for now).

For example, the Google Docs application is a barebones answer to Microsoft’s stalwart Word and Excel products.

I’ve spent that past couple of months testing Google’s web-based suite of tools with some of my work. While the experience didn’t put me out of pocket at all, I’ve learned that “free” is a rather subjective term.

In fact, the price tag for using Google’s web applications is not measured in dollars and cents, but in more ephemeral things like in frustration, anger, unhappiness, and grief.

In terms of usefulness and dependability, Google has a very long way to go before they can match the quality of Microsoft’s products.

In fact, they have a long way to go before I would recommend anyone depend on them for anything more than just goofing around.

There’s a very good reason that pretty much all of Google’s online software offerings sport the term, “beta.”

With this tag, they’re publicly admitting that their products are not quite up to the standards that we normally associate with products we use and trust every day.

They’re also poking some fun at their users, who they obviously view as a large farm of guinea pigs.

Google’s actually making money off this obedient rodent population who are subjected to an endless barrage of the eponymous Google Ad.

If it respected its user base, Google would finally publish non-beta versions of its most popular products, like Gmail, and offer proper support and service guarantees.

As it stands, you’re on your own if anything goes wrong.

The web is littered with tales of people who have lost their entire email database to Gmail, only to have Google innocently shrug and hide behind the “beta” tag.

Over the course of my time using Google I’ve been stymied by all sorts of problems with the environment.

I’ve lost data: two word processing documents, three spreadsheets, and over a dozen emails at last count.

I’ve spent hours tutoring colleagues on the most basic points of the Google interfaces which are less than intuitive. Older users in particular seem to be stymied by Google’s geek-driven look and feel.

I’ve had to constantly battle issues of incompatibility.

One Geek Love column I delivered directly from Google Docs arrived as gobbledegook at the News’ Inbox.

Google Calendar has proven completely incompetent at importing calendar events from other, open-standard calendaring environments.

Meanwhile, commercial products like Apple iCal and Microsoft Outlook handled the same events flawlessly.

And I’ve grown immeasurably frustrated by the simple fact that I must access Google’s tools in a web browser.

This frustration is intensified by Google’s lack of support for my favourite web browser, Apple Safari.

Google’s gotta get off the bottle and start tending to the beta-suffering rodent population if they ever want their software tools to be taken seriously.

In other words, come home from your shopping spree, Google, and improve your levels of quality and service.

Upgrade your existing products to a mission-critical level of quality.

Provide proper service level guarantees, particularly for data. Put some effort into making your software more comprehensible and easier to use.

And wipe that beta-smirk off your face. It’s so Web 2.0. We’re in a new era now.

The end result of my time with Google’s online tools is this: I don’t trust them. They failed me enough times that’s it’s unlikely I would ever consider using them again for anything important.

For the time being, Microsoft’s position at the top of the software food chain is assured.

However, Gates and Co. can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

The software giant needs to pull its head out of the 90s and realize that affordable, distributed internet-based productivity tools such as those Google provides are in demand.

Because once Google puts away the rum, gets a good night’s sleep, and deals with its rodent problem, it will be a software force to be reckoned with.

[Note: this blog entry was updated to remove comments regarding Zenter’s business goals, which were sourced from a third party. Zenter’s Robby Walker says that, “We did not design our business to be acquired by Google or anyone else. We designed our business to build great online presentation software.” Thanks for the opportunity to set that straight, Robby.]

On the Tablet PC

Yabba Dabba DoDespite having reached the ripe, old age of 5, very few people are aware of the Tablet PC. This surprises me, because I think it’s the very best form factor for mobile computing.

However, thanks to Microsoft’s new Windows Vista, the Tablet PC may yet receive its due.

The Tablet PC is, basically, a laptop computer. However, in the spirit of the Transformers, the tablet must perform some mechanical gymnastics to achieve its namesake. Continue reading

Toshiba’s Vista Laptop: All Fashion, No Fun

Toshiba Portégé R400 Tablet PCManufacturers of Windows hardware seemed to have finally caught on to what makes Macs popular: sex appeal. Many companies, including HP and Dell, are producing attractive desktop and laptop computers that stray from the formulaic boxy PC designs of yore.

I recently got to play with one of the most notable new releases from Toshiba.

The Portégé R400 is a light, slender, and sleek Windows notebook computer. Its screen can be swivelled around for use as a stylus-driven Tablet PC. The case is an elegant combination of shiny black and white surfaces that compliment Vista’s look and feel perfectly.

Co-designed by Microsoft to feature some of the advanced capabilities of the new Windows, the Portégé R400 is pretty much the only PC portable I’ve ever admired from a design perspective. That may be due to the fact that this high-end computer takes most of its hardware cues from the more pedestrian, but visually distinguished, Apple MacBook.

Many of Apple’s products walk a fine line between looks and usefulness. The perfect example of this is probably the original iMac’s nigh-unusable hockey-puck mouse. Many people argue that the popular iPod is pretty much impossible to operate (personally, I have no problem with it).

The curent-model MacBook is definitely one of Apple’s triumphs, striking a very good balance between visual appeal and functional experience.

If you read my column last week, you’re aware of how important I consider that second quality – experience – when using technology. Any gizmo can look cool and promise functionality beyond all comprehension, but if it’s no fun to use, then what’s the point?

This is where the Portégé R400 comes in. Toshiba and Microsoft outdid themselves in designing a feature-rich, eye-catching laptop computer. Unfortunately, this technical beauty is also a bundle of never-ending frustration in practical use.

The first indication of trouble comes when you try to open the unit. Like Apple’s MacBook, the Portégé R400 doesn’t have a physical latch for holding the lid down. Instead, magnets and a spring-controlled hinge work together to keep the laptop closed.

In using the R400, to break the magnetic connection and overcome the tenacity of the lid’s hinge spring requires two hands and a considerable amount of force. This can be very frustrating if you’re talking on the phone and only have one hand available.

In comparison, the MacBook’s lid can easily be opened using just one hand.

Closing the lid of the R400 can be quite alarming, too. It literally slams shut. A couple of times I thought I may have actually cracked its screen.

Another major flaw in the Portégé R400 is its fan, which is incredibly loud and seems to run constantly. After each use, it literally left a ringing in my ear. The MacBook’s fan is also noisy, but it comes on very rarely.

Probably the biggest problem with the R400 is its keyboard.  Toshiba’s engineers seem to have tripped over their own ambitions in seeking to out-funk the MacBook here.

Apple’s twist on the laptop keyboard was simple: provide a bit of space between each key. The gap provides the keyboard with an unusual appearance that’s also, I was surprised to discover, very functional. My touch-typing is more accurate on the MacBook keyboard. My fingertips seem to be able to distinguish each key more precisely.

Toshiba, on the other hand, just seems to think it’s cool to make the über-important “Shift” and “Enter” keys as small as possible and place them in slightly unusual positions. I found the R400 absolutely impossible to type on.

Then there’s the R400’s much-ballyhooed “edge” display, a small panel that sits on the front edge of the laptop. This clever feature is supposed to be able to present information about email and appointments even when the lid is closed and the computer’s asleep.

Despite two hours of troubleshooting, I couldn’t get it to give me anything more than the time of day.

These are just a few points that identify the functional failings in what could have been a technical triumph for Toshiba and Microsoft (my list actually goes on).

The many foibles of the Portégé R400 amass over time to sour the entire experience of using the unit. When I first pulled this computer out of its box, I was in love. After two weeks of using it I despised it more than the yappy little dog next door (and that’s a lot).

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case then, from a design perspective, Toshiba’s sexy new built-for-Vista tablet PC is more of an homage to Apple’s popular MacBook than Microsoft’s new Windows operating system.

Despite Toshiba’s best intentions, the Portégé R400 is little more than a lesson in how fashion can all too easily defeat function.

Let it be a lesson to us all that we carry into our next computer-shopping expedition.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 6, 2007.