The Chromebook Dulls…

Back in June I wrote a post about my plunge into the world of Chromebooks. I thought it would be a good idea to provide an update on that experience and highlight the reasons why I am putting it on the shelve, or more precisely handing it over to my son…

First the good, which is that it really is a viable alternative to Mac and Windows. Almost everything we use these days is browser based so running a sub-compact laptop that relies exclusively on a browser for applications is workable. It is inexpensive, the battery life is fantastic and it does the job for most tasks.

Here’s what I didn’t like:

  1. The Samsung is slooooooow and the display is actually rather weak, rising to the “good enough” level on the best of days. Admittedly these issues can be resolved with a more capable alternative like the Google Pixel but why would I spend $1,300 on a laptop that has other significant shortcomings? 
  2. Google Print and remote desktop both rely on the host being available (no surprise, right?) but in the case of print this is particularly debilitating. We have no fixed computers in our house, everything is either laptop or tablet and when it comes to printing, which is still a required capability, the Chromebook became a problem because it was looking for one specific laptop that I had sourced with the Google Print capability. It was not always available and this resulted in frustrating moments when I really needed to print something and could not. Google needs to sort out this print feature set to enable direct-to-printer interfacing, even if with a generic driver.
  3. Can’t run installed Java therefore Gotomeeting, Webex, etc. are not possible… this was a major problem for me. There is a way to do this with remote desktop but then we come back to the issue above, if the remote desktop is not available you are out of luck.
  4. Could not connect USB devices I wanted to connect, like my camera. This surprised me, I just assumed that any device connected with USB would be treated as external storage… not the case. #fail.
  5. The last issue is a strange one and it is only when you use the laptop for a while that you notice how annoying it is. There are odd caching behaviors that result in pages being reloaded way too often… for example, if you shift focus away from your Gmail tab for more than a few minutes and then return to the tab it will reload Gmail. This is massively frustrating if you are like me and are in and out of Gmail literally hundreds of times per day. Add up all those 10-15 second intervals over the course of a day and it adds up to a good chunk of wasted time.

On balance I am still happy to have the Chromebook, and for my son it will work really well, but the fact remains that with the significant shortcomings this device is not adequate for business use.

Google+ Turns 2: How Hangouts Completely Changed My Work Routines

Google+ turned two this week and by all accounts Google has won over critics with a compelling social network experience. I have been a fan from day 1 and perhaps what I admire most about Google is that they ignore the pundits while playing a very long game of their own making… so while my initial reaction that Twitter and Tumblr would be the biggest losers, which obviously was not the case, there are other factors that are worth looking at.

Simply put, Hangouts have been enormously impactful on me and how I work. Here is something they nailed and it is so profound that I didn’t even realize it until just this week, Hangouts are built around the notion that a video experience is YOU first, and then whatever you are sharing second.

Think about how Gotomeeting and Webex handle video, it is something that is added to the act of presenting something and despite a significant push to feature video, I have encountered few instances where someone says “hey share the camera!”. Contrast that to Hangouts where video is a primary experience… Google just figured this out while Webex and Gotomeeting are still locked into their traditional mode, which also limits their ability to have an instant video conference in the absence of a persistent conference room.

We have a very distributed company and on any given day I will have between 3-6 planned video Hangouts and a bunch of ad hoc ones. This has become such a fundamental mode of communication for me that I invested in SteelSeries gamer headsets to provide the best audio quality while also improving the comfort factor.

The integration with Google Calendar is another winner, where adding a video conference to a meeting is as simple as clicking the link. No scheduling service, passwords, dialin numbers. and so on… it just works.

Another experiences I had recently that drove this home was at HP with one of their sophisticated teleconference systems. Yes, it was remarkable but I kept thinking that I could do something a lot easier with Hangouts… instead of getting a bunch of people in dedicated rooms just to talk to each other, we could have each run a separate video in Hangouts and the result would have been the same in terms of what we accomplished… and for free.

The integration of Talk with Hangouts is a mixed bag and I hope that Google restores the ability to place voice calls from the Hangouts add-on in Gmail. Google has an interesting integration challenge that is a result of an embarrassment of riches with a robust chat product that built on XMPP, Google Voice, and Hangouts. A big change they announced last month was the abandonment of XMPP, which has a lot of features as well as a big developer community, and the replacement of Talk with Hangouts. I like the user experience and having my chats pop up in Hangouts in addition to Gmail, but the degradation of features is disappointing, most significantly the inability to place voice phone calls right from Hangouts.

I don’t know where they are going with this but the result for me is that I now use Skype more frequently for voice calls instead of hitting the phone icon in Talk and placing a call.

Lastly, the mobile experience is completely seamless, and that extends to video as well. On my Samsung S4 the mobile video conferencing is surprisingly good and glitch free… how far we have come from commercial video phones that started showing up in the 1980’s that used super expensive hardware and puts POTS through an extreme gymnastics routine.

Microsoft Office 2013, Google Users Not Apply

Like a lot of people I depend on Office to do my job. I have tried a range of personal productivity applications and nothing comes close to Office in terms of depth of features and overall completeness of the product. It is nothing short of a stunning achievement that changed the way we work.

When I switched to a Mac a decade ago I continued to use Office with one exception, Outlook on the Mac is okay but not great. I used Outlook for Exchange at work and Gmail web for everything else, later when I started working with companies that used Google apps (Gmail and calendar) dropped Outlook altogether. Powerpoint, Word, and Excel maintained mainstays in my toolbox.

With Office 2013 coming out I was actually pretty excited because with the new year I decided to become a Windows user again and with it picked up Outlook again. Having suffered for 9 years with the Gmail web interface I was pretty much done, it simply isn’t productive. in fact it is so deficient in high volume work environments that it becomes a drag on productivity.

Fortunately Google does offer a product called Google Apps Sync takes advantage of a protocol that Microsoft developed called Exchange ActiveSync. The entire purpose of this product is to plug into Outlook and sync Google Gmail, calendar and contacts with the respective counterparts in Outlook.

It works great and over the course of January I not only became a fan of Windows again but I also managed to work through 4k unread emails in my work inbox, organize my folders, and blow out about another 10k emails that were bits-and-pieces not worth saving. I was, in a word, stoked. for the first time in years I really feel on top of my email and not a single message goes unread and/or unattended at the end of my day. The reminders and flags are incredibly useful and plugins like GotoMeeting greatly simplify ordinary tasks like scheduling a conference call.

When I found the Office 2013 Preview release I jumped on it. The interface was slick in man ways but incremental in nature, the integration with cloud services was impressive, and that is pretty much where I was left with the question: It took how long to do this?

At the risk of criminally oversimplifying a complex development process, it really seems like what they delivered could have been done a lot sooner. I am sure that there are hundreds of improvements but isn’t that the problem in many ways? Maybe we are beyond the notion of suite-based applications, instead plugging together what we need when we need it.

This where Microsoft could have raised the bar for cloud services because for the first time in modern tech history the ability to connect cloud applications together reliably and without great pain and cost is upon us. Okay, whatever. I guess I can live with the big bang theory Office subscribes to, even though the subscription pricing model they are putting front and center is more than a little punitive.

Yes you can get boxed and subscription pricing options but it’s pretty clear that Microsoft is putting a preference on subscription pricing and over time this can add up to a pretty penny.

The deal killer for me, however, was the completely screwed up way that Microsoft and Google have behaved toward each other to the detriment of users. Google dropped EAS support unless you are on a premium GApps account, which we are, but the Google Sync product does not work in Office 2013. Google preferred solution is CalDAV and CardDAV protocols for calendars and contacts respectively, and IMAP for email.

Microsoft, for it’s part, has committed to CalDAV and CardDAV for Windows Phone but no schedule has been announced for Windows desktop. To add insult to injury, the IMAP interface in the Office 2013 Preview Release was completely wonky and didn’t work against Gmail.

Seriously. it’s not like Google and Microsoft operate in a vacuum completely unaware that they have customer constituencies that depend on the other guy’s products as much as their own.

As much as I would like to upgrade to the new version I simply cannot without effective integration with Google gmail, calendar and contact syncing.

What am I missing here?

Self-Driving Cars and Unwritten Rules

I had a funny experience on my way home from work last week. I was on i280 and spotted a Google self-driving car  ahead of me in the adjacent lane. As I drove up and then past it I noticed that it was maintaining a safe distance from the cars in front of it and falling farther and farther behind the passing cars.

Anyone who drives in moderately to heavy traffic commute traffic knows that there is a distance you can maintain behind the cars in front of you that is not by-the-book safe but prevents the phenomena where the gap is large enough to allow car after car to slip in front of you… it’s kind of like a traffic bullwhip effect. You drive just far enough behind that you can panic stop based on what is going on in front of the car you are following but not far enough back that you keep getting passed.

This particular Google self-driving car was, apparently, not coded with that rule and the result was rather comical. As a new car slipped in front of the self-driving car it dutifully dropped back to create a safe space which then became a new space for a different driver to slip in to, and so on and so on, the result being that the Google car dropped back at a predictable rate while car after car whisked by.

This is the challenge for all next generation technology to overcome, which is the requirement to adapt to situations that develop based on activities and patterns that are emerging in realtime. It’s not just a matter of more sensors and faster reaction times but a fundamentally different way of looking at software frameworks, and truth be told I have no insight to what the Google car is built on but one thing is clear, being able to parallel park or get from point A to B without incident is the least of their challenges.

Lastly, I am really excited about the prospect of self-driving vehicles. As much as I enjoy driving there is no doubt I would equally appreciate flipping into self-driving mode so I can take a call or read something or simply check out on my way home. On the commercial side, self-driving vehicle technology can remake logistics networks and shift commercial traffic patterns to have less impact on commute periods or reroute dynamically based on events that are happening. It’s exciting stuff, I think Google deserves credit for launching this experiment but the major auto manufacturers should also be recognized because they have been working on this longer than Google, despite getting far less attention.

Life With Android, 1 Year Later

A little over a year ago I turned off my iPhone 3 and fired up a new HTC Evo Android handset, the initial experience I wrote about here. I recently upgraded my handset from the Evo to the just released Samsung Epic Touch and wanted to share some thoughts about Android after having lived with it for a full year.

As you might surmise given that I just upgraded my handset, I’m pretty happy with Android but first let’s get some of the negative comments out of the way. Power management is a huge issue with all of these handsets, especially the ones with 4.3″ displays and lot’s of network options. Apple has done a remarkably good job of reconciling hardware and software power issues, Google needs to do better on power management in the platform and providing reference material to hardware providers in order to maximize the consumer experience in this area.

The Android UI is one which only an engineer can truly love… lot’s of icons, buttons, menus, and gestures. I know that this has been an area of focus for the Android team and they have brought on board some significant talent to lead the way to a new and improved user experience. While the current UX is not bad or in any way impairs my usage, improvements can’t come fast enough.

The Android marketplace is very noisy, a function of the explosion of applications that have become available but also a result of an interaction model that favors the carrier’s desire to feature apps of their choosing. It’s time to revamp the Android market(s) by moving away from the category navigation model to a strong search function where someone can use the search facility to find apps by stacking up metadata strings (e.g. category, keyword, rating, free/paid, etc.).

That’s really the sum total of complaints and shortcomings I would point out. Android is, today, a remarkably mature mobile platform and ecosystem and benefits greatly from hardware innovation and a highly extensible core operating system. The HTC Evo I had was one of the best phones I have ever owned and the Samsung Epic Touch is quickly proving itself as one of the best handsets on the market.

Despite being really large the handset is also very thin and light, which is probably a function of the highly evolved AMOLED display which fuses the glass and the display components together in a compact package. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is manufactured by Samsung so they clearly benefit from having a degree of verticalization in their design and manufacturing operations, something few other hardware manufacturers could boast of.

Battery life on the Epic Touch is far better than the Evo, even when the bluetooth, GPS, and wifi networks are spun up. This is a large battery at 1800 mAh, which gives a reported 10 hours of talk time, but time will tell because new batteries always perform admirably… it’s when you have been using it for 6 months that a true representation of battery life emerges.

The display quality is nothing short of fantastic, and when coupled with a very crisp 8 megapixel camera makes for pleasing experiences while taking images and video. I also noticed that the camera is very speedy in terms of reducing latency and lag, a welcome addition.

I could go on about the hardware but this isn’t intended to be a hardware review so let me close by simply saying that the Epic Touch is a significant achievement in hardware design. One of the reasons why I went with Android in the first place is that I didn’t want to be limited exclusively to what Apple decided I should have for hardware and software… Google has done a commendable job of recruiting great hardware partners and the array of handsets that are available meet a wide range of consumer requirements.

On the software side the portfolio of Android apps is deep and broad, the only application that I would like to have which is not available is Instagram. I like the ability to have additional items in my share menu, which was always a pain point for me on the iPhone and the integration of Google Apps is rich, as would be expected.

All things considered, I am glad I switched over to Android and look forward to getting a tablet later in the year when new devices are expected.

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Google Going All In on Mobile

The tech media, and general media as well, is all a flutter about Google acquiring Motorola Mobility (note that this is one part of Motorola, the other being their Solutions group which is 2x the size of Mobility in terms of revenue).

Henry Blodgett thinks it will end as a disaster for Google and my good friend Larry Dignan provides 6 reasons why it makes sense.

I’m with Larry… this is about IP and what Google is doing is acquiring a massive IP war chest that they can use as currency for access to other people’s IP as well as protect their hardware partners with. If I’m HTC and Samsung this will ultimately be a good thing because the IP equivalent of the Allied Powers has just been formed.

Sure the hardware business is very different than software but Microsoft has proven they can co-exist so why can’t Google pull it off? Channel conflict will exist and the onus is on Google to demonstrate to key partners that they are not favoring Motorola but at the end of the day it’s not like these companies were competing on the basis of access to Android features, their competitive position is solely a function of their hardware and integration innovations.

In the end, I like this acquisition for Google and now all attention shifts to Microsoft and RIM.

 

Google Voice Gets a Global Spam Filter

I seem to have missed the news last month that Google added a global spam filter to Google Voice but thanks to the well placed reminders in the app I discovered it today.

GVoice has had a spam capability for some time now and the way it works is really straightforward… you can mark any call or SMS message as spam and future calls or texts will go in your spam filter. You can also go hardcore and block a number, in which case the caller hears a “not in service” message.

The new global spam capability goes a step further by taking the calls and txts marked as spam and collecting them in a global database, which the Voice service then uses as it’s own form of a Do Not Call list. Google is crowdsourcing their list through the everyday activity that their users are already doing.

In effect Google has done what the government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars doing ineffectively with the Do Not Call list…

G+, Twitter and Tumblr are Biggest Losers

Like a lot of my peers I have been immersed in Google Plus for the last week and I have to give credit to Google for really getting this one right. The sharing mechanism is very accessible, Circles offer welcome segmentation of your social graph, and most importantly, it’s fun to use.

Much of the commentary has centered on what a successful Google + means for Facebook but I disagree that this is represents a severe near or medium term threat to Facebook. What it does harken is a form of arms race between the two companies that is ultimately good for users.

There are two major losers worth highlighting, Twitter and Tumblr. We won’t see the effects of G+ on either service for some time but I forecast that as G+ mainstreams that Twitter and Tumblr activity will plummet.

Twitter’s defining feature is both it’s strength and it’s limiting factor, 140 characters. Tumblr use over time has grown as Twitter itself grew, and I think a major factor in their growth is the mainstream acceptance of short form sharing. Like a lot of people I started to use my Tumblr blog to share links with short text snippets that provided context, and I enjoyed the photo and video sharing which embeds the media blob rather than link to it.

I wrote about my shift to Tumblr here, saying last year that:

Twitter and Facebook will continue to be important channels to push content through but rather than creating content in those networks I will, whenever possible, post through Tumblr. I will continue to “talk” with people through social networks and Facebook has some unique capabilities that I will take advantage of.

G+ is essentially a better Twitter+Tumblr for me than combining the two services could ever be. I get the realtime effects of an activity stream on top of easy content sharing tools, and I get the ability to provide a high degree of context in both what is shared and in the interaction because there is a threading model for replies.

Lastly a word about Circles. Google is providing a good starting point with Circles but it’s not the end game because being successful with Circles is entirely a function of your discipline in maintaining Circles, it’s like email folders in this respect.

We really need to get to a point where dynamic Circles can respond to a person’s interest graph as well as their social graph. In this model content would be shared not on the sole basis of who I targeted with it but as a response to what people are actually interested in.

I am making an effort to maintain my Circles but I don’t enjoy it nor do I believe that it is a model that the mass market will adopt, even though the notion of segmenting a person’s social graph is entirely reasonable and highly practical.

Facebook Questions

Facebook launched a really interesting Questions product a few days ago and after trying it out I have a couple of thoughts on it that I would like to share. Simply put, this service builds on a well documented user behavior exhibited by millions of Facebook users who on a daily basis poll their “friends” using status updates that are questions.

Facebook Questions enables individual Facebook users to ask questions that are then displayed in the public news feed. Replies to the question are threaded under the originating question and the whole feature area is exposed to Facebook’s search function. Anyone viewing the question and the threaded answers can click on buttons to indicate whether or not the question was “helpful” or “not helpful”.

The integration of the feature (service?) is in the sidebar, the news feed, profile area, and a new Questions feature area devoted exclusively to Questions content. BTW, I really don’t know the vocabulary that Facebook uses in reference to their user experience, any online links that lay it out would be appreciated.

Question is not something that companies can readily take advantage of because Questions is not integrated with Community Pages. Each question that is launched also exists exclusively within in full public view, meaning questions cannot be directed exclusively at the follower community for a particular profile.

More significantly, Questions focuses on questions with light, short-form answers, and what that means is that Questions is not applicable for use cases like customer support and social commerce and while there is a “helpful” and “not helpful” button on each reply the fact remains that this is not outcome oriented and no “official answer” capacity exists. In other words, there is no capacity for a customer service rep for a company, in the case of a service and support use case, to act as a moderator for content concerning their products.

While the above is all true I don’t think it really matters to Facebook because they clearly have not conceived this service to be a company-to-person communication tool but rather a person-to-person one. They are committing that Questions will be available in community pages and have an API, but that is a future deliverable and if history is any guide… subject to change.

Facebook has two very distinct competitive targets with Questions, the first is obviously Google. A significant percentage of the searches performed on Google and other search engines are short form questions, as in “what the best taco truck in the Mission?” and “who is the guy in the Dos Equis commercials?”. By excluding Questions from search indexes Facebook is clearly indicating that they want that search traffic to occur inside Facebook rather than in a search engine that brings a Facebook user in.

Facebook’s product roadmap is an all out assault on search engines and by establishing a primary objective of diminishing search engine importance in connecting people with Facebook content. They very clearly has stated that they want people to dwell inside of Facebook longer and use Facebook’s search capability to find content, Questions is a powerful weapon in their arsenal.

This product also represents a symbolic defeat for Microsoft with their very highly regarded Bing search service… it was Bing who first went all out with an ad campaign highlighting the weakness of search as a “decision engine”, which is another way of highlighting the importance of the Q&A search behavior. If anyone should have launched a large scale Q&A service around a search engine it should have been Microsoft… once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The second category of competitor is the dedicated Q&A site, of which Quora and Hunch figure prominently as well as Google’s Aardvark and Yahoo’s relaunched Questions service. it’s not unexpected that the Q&A sites have articulated a spectrum of reasons why what Facebook is doing is not competitive with them but I really don’t think they believe that because it very clearly is competitive.

I really like Quora because they have a kick ass user experience and some remarkably good algorithms for suggesting people I should follow as well as building my own follow community. However the thing about Quora that wins hands down is the quality of the content, which is no doubt a reflection on the quality of the user community that they have attracted. Over time this is harder to sustain while at the same time Facebook’s Questions corpus will feature higher quality providing they work on the mechanisms for enabling efficient surfacing of good content.

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I like Facebook Questions a lot but am also pragmatic enough to recognize that it has some pretty big limitations when it comes to anything but person-to-person Q&A interactions, and their strategy of excluding external search from the content is also a risk because even the most die-hard Facebook users have ingrained behaviors that involve external search for finding content. Facebook’s search is good but it’s not the one I reach for first when looking for something.

Google… The Worm Turns?

Google has been a remarkable company to watch over the years, operating as a pure product company that reflected Microsoft in it’s prime, which is just to say when Microsoft could make or break a new market by simply introducing a new product. Google also adopted Microsoft’s strategy for empowering product managers with great and absolute authority over products.

Over time Microsoft was defanged by endless interventions by government into their product process, the result of which is that Microsoft is no longer feared by startups and investors even though they still enjoy immense power in the marketplace.

Like Microsoft, Google has made mistakes with products in the past and come under regulator scrutiny for their M&A and product privacy issues. However, unlike Microsoft the attention focused on Google has not been debilitating and Google today is a force unlike any other company, even eclipsing Apple in this regard.

With Google Buzz the heat being applied to Google has become uncomfortable, causing the company to quickly recognize that the blunder was more serious than previous over-reaches. We have seen Google respond very quickly with product fixes and an executive level communication campaign but I wonder if what we are seeing with Google Buzz is the dawn of a new era where Google products are vetted much more comprehensively than in years past in order to avoid issues that product managers are not accustomed to putting front and center, like the reactions of international governments.

Privacy officials from 10 countries Monday sent Google Inc. a letter demanding that the Internet giant build more privacy protections into its services, the latest sign of increasingly international anxiety over Google’s power.

[From Ten Countries Criticize Google in Letter for Privacy Abuses – WSJ.com]