July 31

Why You Should Delete All Facebook Mobile Apps Right Now

fblogoIt’s nice that Facebook is so generous and they give us their service and apps for free. One should never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Well, if the gift horse is stomping through my bedroom and texting all of my friends while I’m not looking, I think it bears my attention.  And yours. So tell me why Facebook needs these permissions on my Android phone:

  • read calendar events plus confidential information
  • add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without owners’ knowledge
  • read your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • directly call phone numbers
  • create accounts and set passwords
  • change network connectivity
  • connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi

This is a cut and pasted subset of the list, which you can peruse at the Facebook app page on Google Play. Just scroll down to the “Additional Information” section and click the “View Details” link under the “Permissions” header. Consider:

  • Many of these are invitations for identify theft.  Facebook can place phone calls, send emails, and schedule appointments without your advance knowledge or explicit permission.
  • With full internet access and the ability to create accounts and set passwords, Facebook could theoretically lock you out of your device and set up an account for someone else.

Now, I’m not paranoid — I don’t think that the Facebook app is doing a lot of these things.  But I have no idea why it requires the permissions to do all of this, and the idea that an app might communicate with my contacts without my explicit okay causes me great concern. Sure, I want to be able to set up events on my tablet.  But I want a box to pop up saying that the app will now send the invites to Joe, Mary and Grace; and then ask “Is that okay?” before it actually does it.  I maintain some sensitive business relationships in my contacts.  I don’t think it’s a reasonable thing for Facebook to have the ability to manage them for me.

This is all the more reason to be worried about Facebook’s plan to remove the messaging features from the Facebook app and insist that we all install Facebook Messenger if we want to share mobile pictures or chat with our friends.  Because this means well have two apps with outrageous permissions if we want to use Facebook on the go.

I’ve always considered Facebook’s proposition to be a bit insidious. My family and friends are all on there.  I could announce that I’m moving over to Google Plus, but most of them would not follow me there.  That is the sole reason that I continue to use Facebook.

But it’s clear to me that Facebook is building it’s profit model on sharing a lot of what makes me a unique individual.  I share my thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes, and relationships on their platform. They, in turn, let their advertisers know that they have far more insight into who I am, what I’ll buy, and what my friends will buy than the average website.  Google’s proposition is quite similar, but Google seems to be more upfront and respectful about it, and the lure I get from Google is “we’ll give you very useful tools in return”.  Google respects me enough to show some constraint: the Google+ app on Play requires none of the permissions listed above. So I don’t consider Facebook to be a company that has much respect for me in the first place.  And that’s all the more reason to not trust  them with my entire reputation on my devices.

Do you agree? Use the hashtag #CloseTheBook to share this message online.

May 31

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

Image: Vince LambImage: Vince Lamb

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

September 4

Get Your IT In Order — I Can Help

While I look for that new job (see below), I’m available for IT consulting gigs.

Not every NPO has a full-time IT Director, and outsourced services can provide some guidance, but many of them aren’t focused on the particular needs of nonprofits.  I’ve had considerable experience running IT Departments, consulting and advising NPOs, and developing strategies for maximizing the impact of technology in resource-constrained environments. This gives me a unique skill set for providing mission-focused guidance on these types of questions:

  • What should IT look like in my organization? In-house or outsourced, or a mix? Where should It report in? How much staff and budget is required in order to get the desired outcomes?
  • What type of technology do we need? In-house or cloud-based? How well does what we have serve our mission, and how would we replace it?
  • We’re embarking on a new systems or database project (fundraising/CRM, HR/finance, e-commerce, outcomes measurement/ client tracking, virtualization, VOIP phones – you name it). How can we insure that the project will be technologically sound and sustainable, while meeting our strategic needs?

The services and deliverables that I can offer include:

  • Assessments
  • Strategic plans
  • Staffing plans
  • Immediate consulting and/or project management on current projects
  • Acting CIO/Director status to help put things in order

If you want some tactical guidance in these areas, please get in touch.

 

July 21

One Size Fits

Here’s a rant aimed at Apple and Microsoft.

Mac OSX Lion came out today, and it sports a lot of new features cribbed from IOS, the iPhone/iPad operating system. Steve Jobs has pretty much decided that the days of the PC are waning, and we want a mobile OS everywhere we go. He said that a year ago, and Microsoft was listening. Reports are that Windows 8 will be one operating system (that looks a lot like the boxy new Windows Mobile 7) for all platforms. I imagine that I’ll be running to Linux soon…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of convergence. I like watching TV on my laptop and I appreciate the ability to do email on my phone. I anticipate that, within a year, I’ll be commuting with a tablet (I’m waiting for the Android technology to mature a bit). But what’s wrong with letting the tools go with their strengths?

This is almost the reverse error that Microsoft made with the first Windows mobile, an OS for phones that had a start button, Programs folder and dropdown task list. And zero usability. Microsoft thought the same thing they’re thinking today: one size fits all; our users want standardization, and are willing to sacrifice usability in order to get the same interface on every device. WRONG. Users want tools that are good at getting jobs done. Neutering the PC, or making the phone too obtuse to navigate, in order to standardize the interface is more like servicing your branding needs at your customers expense.

Of course, what concerns me more about these moves are the fundamental differences between the sophisticated computer OSes (Windows 7, Snow Leopard) and the mobile OSes. Mobile OSes are, somewhat justifiably, rigid. You can’t offer the same level of customization on a low-powered, small screen device that you can on a powerful PC or laptop. Apple, of course, has taken this a step further by tightly controlling the flow of content via iTunes. And taking the additional, controversial step of censoring the content available via iTunes and the app store. While most of us (I think) aren’t upset by a vendor-imposed restriction on pornography, Apple has also censored Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonists, adaptations of classic literature, and magazines about competing products. We now have an app store for MacOS and one for Windows under development, and Microsoft has looked, once again, like an Apple-wannabee with their recent product moves.

So are we moving into an era where our major computing tools providers have graduated to content managers and censors? It sure looks that way. There’s a lot of easy money to be made — as Apple’s string of record-breaking profit quarters will attest — in taking the computing out of computing, and turning convergence into simply entertainment-delivery, while user content creation tools and environments get the back seat at the drive-in. I’m not happy with the trend.

Category: android, mobile, software, techcafeteria, tools | Comments Off
April 22

Putting The Tech Back In Nonprofit Technology

We’re all back from the Nonprofit Technology Conference, where nine of the ten Idealware bloggers congregated, along with some 1,440 of our peers in the nptech community. What a gas! NTC, as we call the conference, is what high school would have been like if everyone had been a member of the popular clique. The combination of peer education and celebration of our common interest in saving the world with heart and technology make for an exuberant occasion. And I can’t say enough about the awe and appreciation I have for Holly, Anna, Annaliese, Brett, Sarah and Karl, and the amazing event that they recreate year after year for us.

But, enough gushing. One of my (many) rants regards my concern that, although the biggest group of people that we call “nptechies” are the ones who support technology in their organizations, our biggest nptech conferences focus heavily on social media and the web (NTC, Netsquared, and now SXSW). It is true that the advent of social media and the interactive web is spawning a revolution in the way that we do advocacy and fundraising. But there is no less of a revolution in our server rooms, where virtualization, cloud computing and wireless devices are changing the entire way that we manage and deliver applications.

Our System Administrators, Support Specialists and Accidental Techies need to share in the peer support that can inform their efforts and help them feel more connected, both to their missions and the broader community. This year, in deference to a throat getting hoarse from ranting, I took a first stab at addressing this gap.

The Tech Track

The tech track was conceived as a six session “mini” track; five of the proposed sessions made the cut. The topics went from the basics to the broad overview:

  • Tech Track 1: Working Without a Wire (But With a Net): Dealing with Wireless Networks, Laptops, and Cell Phones
  • Tech Track 2: Proper Plumbing: Virtualization and Networking Technologies
  • Tech Track 3: Earth to Cloud: When, Why and How to Outsource Applications
  • Tech Track 4: Budget vs Benefits: Providing Top Class Technology in Constrained Resource Environments
  • Tech Track 5: Articulating Tech: How to Win Friends and Influence Luddites.

Joining me in these sessions were fellow blogger Johanna Bates of OpenIssue, Matt Eshleman of CITIDC, Tracy Kronzak of Applied Research Center, John Merritt of the San Diego YMCA, Michelle Murrain of OpenIssue, Michael Sola of National Wildlife Federation and Thomas Taylor of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Subject Matter

Instead of doing the usual Powerpoint presentations and talking to the crowd, we pulled the chairs into circles for these sessions and put the session agenda up for grabs, asking each group what issues, related to the session topic, were foremost in their minds. The conversation was rich, and served as a healthy catalogue of the challenges facing nonprofit technology practitioners. Some highlights:

  • Supporting remote laptop use in a western state with very little wireless bandwidth available
  • Securing our networks while making network data accessible on mobile devices
  • Supporting use of and crafting fair policies to address the boom in mobile devices
  • Understanding the risks and benefits of virtualizing servers and desktops
  • Knowing how and when to virtualize, and how Storage Area Networks fit in the big picture
  • Weighing the risk of cloud computing, which also entails weighing the risks of our non-cloud networks
  • Knowing what to ask a cloud provider to insure that data is safe, even in the case of the provider going out of business
  • Assessing the cost of owned vs service-provided applications
  • Assessing the readiness of Cloud Computing, and moving large, complex server rooms to the cloud
  • Chickens and eggs: what to do when IT is asked to budget, but is not part of the planning process prior?
  • What strategies can be applied to provide good technology with limited budgets?
  • What tools and resources are available to help with the budgeting process?
  • How can we engage our users when we roll out new technology?
  • How do we get them to attend training?

Next week, I’ll follow this up with some of the answers we came up with for these questions.

April 22

Hearts and Mobiles

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Are Microsoft and Apple using the mobile web to dictate how we use technology? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

Last week, John Herlihy, Google’s Chief of Sales, made a bold prediction:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant.”

Herlihy’s argument was based on research indicating that, in Japan, more people now use smartphones for internet entertainment and research than desktops. It’s hard to dispute that the long predicted “year of the smartphone” has arrived in the U.S., with iPhones, Blackberries and Android devices hitting record sales figures, and Apple’s “magical” iPad leading a slue of mini-computing devices out of the gate.

We’ve noted Apple’s belligerence in allowing applications on their mobile platform that don’t pass a fairly restrictive and controversial screening process. It’s disturbing that big corporations like Playboy get a pass from a broad “no nudity” policy on iPhone apps that a swimwear store doesn’t. But it’s more disturbing that competing technology providers, like Google and Opera, can’t get their call routing and web browsing applications approved either. It’s Apple’s world, and iPhone owners have to live in it (or play dodgeball with each upgrade on their jailbroken devices). And now Microsoft has announced their intention to play the same game. Windows Mobile 7, their “from the ground up” rewrite of their mobile OS, will have an app store, and you will not be able to install applications from anywhere else.

iPhone adherents tell me that the consistency and stability of Apple’s tightly-controlled platform is better than the potentially messy open platforms. You might get a virus. Or you might see nudity. And your experience will vary dramatically from phone to phone, as the telcos modify the user interface and sub in their own applications for the standard ones. There are plenty of industry experts defending Apple’s policies.

What they don’t crow about is the fact that, using the Apple and Microsoft devices, you are largely locked into DRM-only options for multimedia at their stores for buying digital content. They will make most of their smartphone profits on the media that they sell you (music, movies, ebooks), and they tightly control the the information and data flow, as well as the devices you play their content on. How comfortable are you with letting the major software manufacturers control not only what software you can install on your systems, but what kind of media is available to them, as well?

The latest reports on the iPad are that, in addition to not supporting Adobe’s popular Flash format, Google’s Picasa image management software won’t work as well. If you keep your photos with Google, you’d better quickly get them to an Apple-friendly storage service like Apple’s MobileMe or Flickr, and get ready to use iPhoto to manage them.

If your organization, has invested heavily in a vendor or product that Apple and/or Microsoft are crossing off their list, you face a dilemma. Can you just ignore the people using their popular products? Should you immediately redesign your Flash-heavy website with something that you hope Apple will continue to support? If your cause is controversial, are you going to be locked out of a strategic mobile market for advocacy and development because the nature of your work can’t get past the company censors?

I’m nervous to see a major computing trend like mobile computing arise with such disregard for the open nature of the internet that the companies releasing these devices pioneered and grew up in. And I’m concerned that there will be repercussions to moving to a model where single vendors are competing to be one stop hardware, software and content providers. It’s not likely that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or anyone else is really qualified to determine what each of us want and don’t want to read, watch and listen to. And it’s frightening to think that the future of our media consumption might be tied to their idiosyncratic and/or profit-driven choices.

Category: android, idealware, mobile, nptech, techcafeteria | Comments Off
April 22

The Buzz Factor

buzz.png
buzz.png

Long time readers of my ramblings here are aware that I drink the Google kool-aid. And they also know that I’ve been caught tweeting, on occasion. And, despite my disappointment in Google’s last big thing (Wave), I am so appreciative of other work of theirs — GMail, Android, Picasa — that I couldn’t pass up a go with their answer to Facebook and Twitter, Buzz.

Google, perhaps because their revenue model is based on giving people ad-displaying products, as opposed to selling applications, takes more design risks than their software-developing competitors. Freed of legacy design concepts like “the computer is a file cabinet” or “A phone needs a “start” menu“, they often come up with superior information management and communication tools.

What is Buzz?

Buzz, like Twitter and Facebook, and very much like the lesser used Friendfeed, lets you tell people what you’re up to; share links, photos and other content; and respond to other people’s posts and comments. Like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter (if you use a third party service like Twitterfeed), you can import streams from other services, like Google Reader, Flicker, and Twitter itself, into your Buzz timeline.

Unlike Twitter, there is no character limit on your posts. And the comment threading works more like Facebook, so it’s easy to keep track of conversations.

How is Buzz Different?

The big distinguishing factor is that Buzz is not an independent service, but an adjunct of GMail. You don’t need a GMail account to use it, but, if you have one, Buzz shows up right below your inbox in the folder list, and, when a comment is posted on a Buzz that you either started or contributed to, the entire Buzz shows up in your inbox with the reply text box included, so that continuing the conversation is almost exactly like replying to an email.

The Gmail integration also feeds into your network on Buzz. Instead of actively seeking out people to follow, Buzz loads you up from day one with people who you communicate regularly with via GMail.

Privacy Concerns

Buzz’s release on Tuesday spawned a Facebook-like privacy invasion meme the day that it was released — valid concerns were raised about the list of these contacts showing up on Buzz-enabled Google Profile pages. A good “get rid of Buzz” tutorial is linked here. To Google’s credit, they responded quickly, with security updates being rolled out two days later. I’m giving Google more of a pass on this than some of my associates, because, while it was a little sloppy, I don’t think it compares to the Facebook “Beacon” scandal. Google didn’t think through the consequences, or the likely reaction to what looked like a worse privacy violation than it actually was (contact lists were only public on your profiles if you had marked your profile “public”, and there was a link to turn the lists off, it just wasn’t prominently placed or obvious that it was necessary). Beacon, in comparison, started telling the world about every purchase you made (whether it was a surprise gift for your significant other or a naughty magazine) and there was no option for the user to turn it off. And it took Facebook two years to start saying “mea culpa”, not two days.

Social Media Interactions for Grownups

Twitter’s “gimmick” — the 140 character limit — defines its personality, and those of us who enjoy Twitter also enjoy the challenge of making that meaningful comment, with links, hashtags, and @ replies, in small, 140 character bursts. It’s understood now that continuing a tweet is cheating.

Facebook doesn’t have such stringent limits, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that to glance at it. It hasn’t shaken it’s dorm room roots; it’s still burdened by all of the childish quizzes and applications; and, maybe more to the point, cursed by a superficiality imposed by everyone having an audience composed of high school buds that they haven’t seen for a decade or two, and who might now be on the other side of the political fence.

But Buzz can sustain a real conversation — I’ve seen this in my day and a half of use. Partially because it doesn’t have Twitters self-imposed limit or Facebooks playful distractions; and largely because you reply in your email, a milieu where actual conversation is the norm. This is significant for NPOs that want to know what’s being said about them in public on the web. I noted from a Twitter post this week that the Tactical Philosophy blog had a few entries discussing the pros and cons of Idealistshandling of a funding crisis. But Twitter wasn’t a good vehicle for a nuanced conversation on that, and I can’t see that type of dialogue setting in on Facebook. Buzz would be ideal for it.

The Best is Yet to Come

This week, Google rolled out Buzz to GMail. Down the road, they’ll add it to Google Apps for Domains. The day that happens, we’ll see something even more powerful. Enterprise microblogging isn’t a new idea — apps like Yammer and Socialcast have had a lot of success with it. I’m actually a big fan of Socialcast, which has a lot in common with Buzz, but I was stumped as to how I could introduce a new application at my workplace that I believe would be insanely useful, but most of the staff can’t envision a need for at all. What would have sold it, I have no doubt, is the level of email integration that Buzz sports. By making social conversations so seamlessly entwined with the direct communication, Google sells the concept. How many of you are trying hard to explain to your co-workers that Twitter isn’t a meaningless fad, and that there’s business value in casual communication? Buzz will put it in their faces, and, daunting as it might be at first, I think it will win them over.

Category: android, email, idealware, mobile, nptech, techcafeteria, tools, Web | Comments Off
February 13

About that Nexus One

Nexus OneTwo weeks ago, I bit an expensive bullet and bought a new Nexus One phone, directly from Google. I’m a T-Mobile customer, and, as long-time readers know, an early adopter of the T-Mobile G1, the first publicly-available Android phone. I went for the unlocked version of the Nexus One (at $529 before taxes) rather than the $279 upgrade. My analysis of what the cost would have been, under the arcane T-Mobile condition that I can’t get a Nexus One and maintain my family plan at that price, was that it would have cost hundreds more over the two year contract term.

Here’s the short review: Fast, fast, fast, fast and shiny!

Here’s the long one:

My critique of the G1 has always been that it is mediocre hardware sporting an awesome operating system. I love Android; I loved it before there were any decent apps available. Maybe it’s because I appreciate a mobile OS that acts like a desktop OS when it makes sense to and doesn’t when it doesn’t, which is about the opposite of Windows Mobile with it’s “start menu” and “Program Manager” metaphors carried over from the PC and the incessant pop-ups interrupting whatever you’re trying to do. Android is like a computer OS in it that it is highly configurable, whereas every other mobile OS is tightly structured.  Android features unobtrusive notifications and a cloud-based approach to managing the phone’s data that makes it far simpler to deal with than something that requires Activesync or iTunes.

The Nexus one erases almost all of my G1 hardware peeves, with one big exception: it has no physical keyboard. That I miss, and I would gladly add an eighth of an inch to the thickness in order to have one. But, that said, the soft keyboard is much better than earlier Android soft keyboards and it’s not stopping me from using the phone. Another saving grace is that the Nexus supports voice input (as well as voice searching and dialing), so I can input an email by speaking into the phone, clean it up a bit, and send, rather than type the whole thing. The voice dictation isn’t perfect, but it’s really not bad.

The battery lasts exactly a day for me. That’s with GPS and Bluetooth turned off unless I have need for them, and average use. It’s about half a day less than I had after I impregnated my G1 with a fat replacement from Seidio. Seidio has one for the Nexus One, too, but I’m not willing to fatten it up for it, as opposed to just keeping a sync cable handy.

So that’s the bad news: no keyboard and a battery that’s as good as the iPhone’s. Everything else is awesome!

The 1Ghz Snapdragon processor — the fastest in any phone on the market today — just pops. The only time I ever see any churning is on occasional loads of the Android Market, and I know that those are on the server’s end. Email, games, maps, and most web pages are so snappy I have to blink and wonder if I’m really on a mobile phone. The snapdragon also features 512MB RAM and 512MB flash storage, which is worlds more than the G1. One of the liberating things is the ability to install and try out apps without having to first scrutinize what I have installed and remove a thing or two, another killer flaw for the G1.

The 3.7″ 480×800 resolution screen is beautiful. Unless you have a Verizon Droid, which is the same size with slightly higher resolution, you’ve never seen a screen this nice. Along with the multi-touch (added to my phone in an update that arrived on the same day that I got the phone), you can really read web pages and view photos. And the camera — 500 megapixel; flash; auto-adjusting. I finally have a better camera phone than my wife, who has the excellent Blackberry Curve 8900.

The phone itself sports two microphones, one that captures voice and background noise, and another that catches only the background noise and filters it out of the broadcast. this makes the Nexus One a very clear phone. This is big for me, because in my cubicle culture workplace, I often duck into the noisy server room in order to have conversations with my wife and kid.

I use all five home screens on the phone, with icons, folders and widgets. A handy included widget let me toggle the wifi, GPS, bluetooth, etc. I may ditch the ubiquitous Google search box widget because one of the four buttons on the phone pops it up. I’ll probably remove the pretty live wallpaper that shows autumn leaves falling behinds the icons in order to preserve a little more battery, but it has too much of a show-off factor right now to disable.

I’m appreciating a couple of apps that I never bothered to try on my stuffed G1. Seesmic’s twitter client is faster, stabler and better than Twidroid. There, I said it. I stood by Twidroid for over a year, but Seesmic includes bit.ly links in it’s free version (there is no paid one yet) and just seems to be more logically laid out. GDocs has replaced my beloved Wikinotes. I’m losing the Wiki, but I now have a notepad that integrates with my Google Docs account, allowing me to sync notes I write to the web and edit them in either place. That’s very cool.

I had MyBackupPro on the G1, and it lived up to it’s claims, restoring all of my Android preferences when I first set up the phone. And Bluetooth File Transfer and PDANet both seem to do what they claim, allowing me to transfer files to and from my Mac when a sync cable isn’t handy; and to use my phone as a 3G modem if I’m stuck without WiFi available for my Mac.

One issue I’m experiencing is that the phone won’t accept subbing in Google Voice as my voicemail carrier, but this might be because I have yet to make it down to T-Mobile and tell them that I’ve made this swap. I anticipate that they’ll tell me that i have to pay $5 more a month for their “Android plan”, which is somehow different from the “G1 plan”, but I also need to drop a monthly $5 equipment insurance fee that I doubt they’ll honor on a phone that they didn’t sell me.

I downloaded the WordPress app as well, but I’m cheating and typing this post on my computer. Next one, I’ll dictate into the phone. :-)

There have been widespread reports of 3G connectivity problems with Nexus Ones. I’m crossing my fingers as I type, but I haven’t seen any of them.

My friends with iPhones still all believe that they’re better off because they have 50 million apps to choose from. And a phone that’s half as fast, with a smaller screen at half the resolution, a lousy camera, an operating system that they can’t customize, AT&T 3G, poor call quality and no ability to multitask. They have full iPods, yes, and I considered that significant for some time, but now that there’s Doubletwist, which can sync your own — or your iTunes — playlists to an Android phone, that’s not so big an advantage.

I’m confidant that the Nexus One is the best smartphone, period — I can’t recommend it enough. Android has come of age.

Category: android, mobile, nptech, tools | Comments Off
June 28

Smartphone Talk

The last few weeks saw some big announcements in the smartphone world:

  • Palm released the phone that they’ve been promising us for years, the Palm Pre, with it’s new WebOS, to reviews that were mostly favorable and summed up as “The iPhone’s baby brother“.
  • Apple stole some of Palm’s thunder by dominating the press two days later with news of their relatively unexciting new phones and 3.0 software.
  • In the weeks prior, news came out that about 18 more Android phones should be out in calendar 2009 and that, by early 2010, all of the major carriers will have them.
  • And Nokia’s E71 hit our shores, an incredibly full-featured phone that you can get for just over $300 unlocked, and use the carrier of your choice. While this isn’t a touchscreen, and is therefore suspect in terms of it’s ease of use, it is an amazingly full-featured product.

Left in the wings were Blackberry, who keep producing phones, including their iPhone competitor, the Storm — to yawns from the press, and Microsoft, who are talking a lot about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 7.0, but seem to have really been decimated by the ugliness of their mobile OS when compared to just about anyone else’s.

What’s clear is that a few things differentiate smartphones these days, and the gap between the ones that get it and the ones that don’t are huge. They are:

Responsive Touchscreen Interfaces. The UI’s of the iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS get around the sticky problem that phones were just to small to support anything but simple functionality without requiring an oppressive amount of taps and clicks. This is why Microsoft has fallen down the smartphone food chain so far and fast — their mobile OS is just like their desktop OS, with no flagship phone that does the touchscreen nearly as well as the new competition.

Desktop-Class Web Browsers. This is where Apple and Google have drawn a huge line, and it looks like Palm might have joined them. All three use browser’s based on Webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari and Chrome. On a 3G phone, this makes for a fast and complete experience that puts the Blackberry, Mobile Internet Explorer and the Treo’s hideous Blazer. Add Google’s voice activation (native on Android and available for iPhone), and their smartphone-optimized results (which don’t work on the non-webkit browsers) and the task of finding a Starbucks or hotel on the road takes seconds, instead of the average ten to 15 minutes on the old, lousy browsers, which simply choke on the graphics.

Push Email. If you connect to Exchange servers, the iPhone and Pre have Activesync built in. If your mail is with Google, you’re connected to it as soon as you tell an Android phone your login and password. And the Android phone app is the best out there, with Apple’s mail running close behind it. What’s ironic is that Microsoft targeted their biggest threat with Activesync — the Blackberry’s kludgy, but, at the time, unparalleled email forwarding — and gave it wings by licensing it to Palm, Apple and others. This is fueling corporate acceptance of the iPhone and Pre, meaning that this Blackberry-beating strategy might have worked, but more likely it did it for Apple and Palm, not Microsoft.

Music. The iPhone is an iPod; everything else isn’t, meaning that, if having a high quality phone and music experience on one device is a priority, you’re not going to go wrong with the iPhone. I love my G1, but I weigh my value of the real keyboard and awesome, open source OS on T-Mobile over the iPhone’s built-in iPod and Activesync on AT&T. As OSes go, Android is only marginally better than Apple, but the Apple hardware is much better than the G1. Newer Android phones are going to show that up.

People make a lot of noise about the apps available for the iPhone (and Windows/Blackberry) as opposed to the newer Android and Pre. I think that’s a defining question for the Pre, but it looks like companies are jumping on board. For Android, it’s quite arguably a wash. All of the important things are available for Android and, given that it’s open source, most of them are free. And with those 18 phones due out by year end on every carrier, the discrepancies will be short-lived.

I have to wonder how long it will take Microsoft to “get” mobile. They have a heavy foot in the market as the commodity OS on the smartphones that can’t get any buzz. But the choice to bring the worst things about the Windows Desktop experience to their mobile OS was unfortunate. Should I really get a pop-up that has to be manually dismissed every time I get an email or encounter a wireless network? Do I have to pull out the stylus and click on Start every time I want to do anything? What’s even more worrisome is that Windows Mobile is a separate OS from Windows, that merely emulates it, as opposed to sharing a code base. Apple’s OS is the same OSX that you get on a MacBook, just stripped down, and Google’s OS is already starting to appear on Netbooks and other devices, and will likely fuel full desktops within a year or two — it is, after all, Linux.

So, the state of the smartphone market is easily broken into the haves and have-nots, meaning that some phones have far more usable and exciting functionality, while most phones don’t. There’s a whole second post dealing with the choice of carriers and their rankings in the race to offer the most customer disservice, and it does play into your smartphone decision, as Verizon might be a very stable network, but their phone selection is miserable, and AT&T might have the best selection but, well, they’re AT&T. I love Android, so, were I looking, I’d hold out until four or five of those new sets are out. But I don’t know anyone with an iPhone who’s unsatisfied (and I know lots of people with iPhones).

Category: android, idealware, mobile, nptech, software, techcafeteria, Web | Comments Off
November 26

About that Google Phone

After my highfalutin post on mobile operating systems, I thought I’d step back and post a quick review of my T-Mobile G1, the first phone running Google’s Android Mobile OS.  Mind you, I’m not posting this from my phone, but I could… :)

Hardware Specs for the G1

In order to discuss this phone, it’s important to separate the phone from the operating system.  Android is open source, based on the Linux kernel with a JAVA software development approach.   The G1 is an HTC mobile phone with Android installed on it.  Android is designed to run on everything from the simplest flip phone to a mini-computer, so how well it works will often depend on the hardware platform choices.

That said, HTC made many good choices and a few flat-out poor choices.  Since it’s impossible to not compare this phone to the iPhone, then it’s obvious that they could have provided a bigger screen or included a standard audio jack (the G1 comes with a mini-USB headset; otherwise, you need an adapter).  The iPhone, of course, is thinner, but that design choice was facilitated by the lack of a hardware keyboard.  No G1 owner is going to complain that it’s modest increase in heft is due to the availability of a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.  That’s one of the clear advantages over Apple’s ubiquitious competition.  Apple makes it’s virtual keyboard somewhat acceptable by offerng auto-suggest and auto-correct as you type, features that Android currently lacks, but should have by early 2009 (per the Android roadmap).  But I find – as do many of my friends – that a physical keyboard is a less error-prone device than the virtual one, particularly without a stylus.  I have some nits about the Android keyboard — the right side is slightly impeded by the stub of the phone, making it hard to type and “o” without also typing “p”, but it’s overall a very functional and responsive keyboard, and I do sometimes blog from my phone, so it was a critical consideration for me.

The hardware has some other limitations as well. It sports a 2MP camera; 3 or 4 would have been preferable.  And they made an interesting choice on the memory, including 2GB on board, with expansion available on MicroSD cards up to 8GB.  This has led to what seem like some of the major potential issues with the phone and OS, discussed below. 

Overall, the design is deceptively unsexy.  While the G1 isn’t as sporty as the iPhone, it is highly functional.  It’s easy to hold; the curved “chin” actually supports talking on the phone in a way that my flat Treos and Wing never did; the Keyboard slides easily and quickly, making it’s use less awkward when you need it in a hurry, and the decision to include a Blackberry-style trackball, which some have criticized as extraneous, was actually sharp – I find it useful to navigate text fields when editing, and as an alternate to finger-scrolling.  My favorite Solitaire game uses a trackball press to deal more cards.  It’s actually handy and intuitive. Unlike other smartphones, I took immediately to the functionality of the buttons; they’re well-designed. Also nice – one handed operation on this phone for basic tasks like making calls, checking email and voicemail is really easy.

A Versatile Desktop

Unlike the iPhone and Windows Mobile, a big emphasis has been put on customization.  You can put shortcuts to just about anything on the desktop, and you can create folders there to better organize them.  I keep shortcuts to the dialer, calendar and my twitter client there, along with shortcuts to the people I call most, and folders for apps, games and settings.  You can also set up keyboard shortcuts to applications.  This, again, makes the phone a pleasure to use – the things I want access to are always a few taps away, at most.

It’s a Google Phone

The Android OS is young, but elegant.  The primary thing to know, though, is that this is a Google phone.  If you use GMail and Google Calendar as your primary email and calendaring applications, you’ll love the push email and no-nonsense synchronization.  The pull down menu for notifications, with visual cues in the bar, is awesome; the GMail client is so good that I often use it to label mesasages because that function is simpler than it is in the web client.  But if your primary groupware is Exchange/Outlook, then you might want to stop reading here.  As of this writing, there are a few applications that – under the right circumstances – can sync your Exchange and GMail contacts.  There’s no application that syncs with Outlook on your desktop.  If you run on Windows, Google has a calendar sync.  But your options for non-Google email are either POP or IMAP in the G1’s “other” email application, which is pretty lame, or some scheme that forwards all of your Exchange mail to GMail (my choice, discussed here).  Google search is well-integrated, too, with a widget on the phone’s desktop, a dedicated search key on the keyboard, and a “when in doubt, search” default that pretty much starts a Google search whenever you start typing something in an app that doesn’t expect input.  For example, in the browser, you just type to go to a web site, no need for a URL bar; from the desktop, typing will search contacts for a match to call, but if one isn’t found, it will switch to a Google search. And taht browser is excellent, much like teh iPhone’s, but lacking the multi-touch gestures.  All the same, it;s a pseudo-tabbed browser that renders all but Flash-based web sites as well as the desktop, and puts Palm, Microsoft and RIM’s browser’s to shame.

Multimedia

Multimedia support also pales in comparison to the iPhone, which is no surprise.  there’s a functional media player, and an app that, like iTunes, connects to the Amazon music store.  there’s no support for flash, and the only installed media player is the Youtube app, but you can download other media players. You can store music and movies on an SD card (a 1GB card comes with the phone, but, if you plan to use it for music, you’ll want to purchase a 4, 6 or 8 GB card). All applications are downloaded to the internal drive, which means that there’s a limit on how many apps you can install – most of the 2GB is in use by the OS.  I’m hoping that OS fixes and updates — which are delivered over the air – will address this, as it’s a potentially serious limitation. 

Maps and Apps

Another compelling thing Maps and GPS functionality.  While it doesn’t
do voice directions, the mapping features are powerful and extensible. 
Street View features a compass, so you can see where you are going as
you walk, and there are already a number of apps doing great
integration with maps and multimedia, as you’d expect from a Google phone.

Since Android is so new, and the G1 is the only phone that we’ll see in 2008, it will be a while before the third party market for applications grows up to something competitive with Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Apple.  While I have almost everything I need to do the things I do on a phone (and I’m a power user), those apps are pretty rudimentary in their functionality, and there isn’t a big variety to choose from.  I have no worries that the market won’t grow – it’s already growing quickly.  But another consideration is that Android is still for early adopters who are dying for the Google integration, or, like me, want an iPhone-class web browser, but require a keyboard.

Application Recommendations 

I get all of my applications from the market, accessible via the phone.  A lot of third-party markets are popping up, but they are either offering things that are on the Android Market or selling items (the Android Market only offers free software – this will change in January).  I have yet tos ee something for sale that looked worth paying for, versus teh range of freely available apps.

Apps I’m using include Twitli, a Twitter client.  TwiDroid seems to have better marketing, but Twitli seems faster and stabler, as of this writing, and presents tweets in a larger font, which my old eyes appreciate.

Anycut – this is a must have OS enhancer that broadens the number of things that you can make shortcuts to, including phone contacts, text messages, settings screens and more.  Essential, as having contacts right on the screen is the fastest speed dial feature ever.

Compare Everywhere is an app that reads bar codes and then finds matching product prices online.  How handy is that?  But I think the ability to scan barcodes from the phone, with no add-on attachments, is pretty powerful, and something that the nonprofit industry could make use of (campaign tracking, asset amnagement, inventory).

Connectbot is an SSH client – I once reset a web server in order to get an online donation form working on Christmas Eve from 3000 miles away.  Essential for a geek like me.  :)

OI or AK Notepad – simple notepad apps.  Ridiculously, there isn’t one included with Andriod.

Password Safe – encrypted lockbox.  Splashdata has one, too, but Password Safe is more flexible, as of this writing.

WPtoGo is a handy WordPress Blog publishing app, for those brave enough to post from a phone without spellcheck (I’ll only post to my personal blog with this – I have higher standards for Idealware readers!)

And the Solitaire game up on the Market is very nice.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m loving this phone and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else on the market – even an iPhone, because I live and die by that keyboard.  If it sounds good to you, I’m assuming that you use GMail; you actually write on your smartphone, or would if it had a good keyboard; and that you don’t mind being a bit on the bleeding edge.  Otherwise, keep your eye on Android – this is the first of what will be many smartphones, and it’s all brand new.  For the first iteration, it’s already, at worst, the second best smartphone on the market.  It can only get better.