New toy: Asus-Google Nexus 7 Tablet

I once vowed that the original iPad I purchased in the spring of 2009 would be my last Apple tablet, and a couple weeks ago that indeed was proven true when I bought Google’s 7″ tablet, the Nexus 7, running Android’s Jellybean operating system. Sure I was tempted by the subsequent releases of Apple’s groundbreaking tablet, but … in the end, I object to it on the basis of cost, and most importantly, the “velvet cage” feeling I have whenever I try to live in the Apple world of iTunes, iCloud, and disabled commerce functions by any app that dares to circumvent Apple’s deathgrip (Kindle, Amazon music, etc.)

I went with the 16 GB version for $250 and in the week I’ve been using it I can declare it to be the most ergonomically lovable device I’ve ever owned.  The difference between a seven-inch device and a ten-inch one is significant given that the former can be clamped in one hand and the other is a constant juggling act. There’s a reason Amazon stuck to the dimensions of trade-paperback with the Kindle, and the Nexus followed, avoiding the big pane of glass that Apple and the early Android tablet makers favored. Yes, Apple is likely to introduce a smaller tablet soon — probably a bit over 7 inches, and it remains to be seen if such a pocket-sized tablet will be priced anywhere down below $300, where Amazon is obviously subsidizing the cost of its Fire, and Google with the Nexus.

Jobs apparently “detested” the smaller form factor, but I have to disagree with the maestro on this one. As a “tweener” device between a smart phone and full screen tablet or laptop, the Nexus 7 is definitely a “Goldilocks device” that feels just right.

Asus manufactures the device and does a surprisingly good job for a Taiwanese brand I used to associate with cheap products with poor fit and finish. What advantage Asus has in being Google’s manufacturer of choice remains to be see. It certainly helped HTC when the first Google phone was released, but hasn’t done much for the Chromebook manufacturers.

The Jellybean experience is far and away smoother and more functional than any preceding Android build. The user interface is optimized for the larger screen and indeed, as I installed my preferred apps, I saw most have been updated to take advantage of Jellybean’s look and feel.

This thing goes with me everywhere. Literally in the side pocket of my suit coat. I tether it to my Galaxy S III’s hotspot when I need a data connection, use it as a bluetooth music remote driving a set of Jawbone speakers, and am tempted to dash mount it in the car.

Bluefin: interesting media analytics

Show me the word “analytics” in an ad and I instantly grow cynical for word feels like the refuge of the desperate trying to sell the great white whale of ROI to the tight-fisted.

Dan Lyons calls out a very very interesting technology coming out of the MIT Media Lab for correlating social chatter and user utterances with television programming. This company, Bluefin Labs, strikes a strong chord given my past interest into the role of the “back channel” among fans during televised real-time events: Red Sox games, State of the Union Addresses, the Academy Awards.

This TedTalk from 2011, by Bluefin’s founder Deb Roy, is interesting on several levels. First, it exhibits an amazing demo of data collection and analysis — in this case video footage and audio clips shot throughout his home and then processed to track the progress of his baby learning how to speak the word “water,” mapped against the context of where and when the word was learned (bathroom, near the kitchen sink, etc.). This capture model has amazing implications in terms of building an amazing “life record” and brought to mind the efforts of people like Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project at Microsoft and Stephen Wolfram’s personal analytics analysis of his email history. I freak out when I see an old Super 8 movie of myself waddling around in sagging diaper circa 1959 at Cotuit Rope’s Beach. Imagine being able to see myself take my first steps, say “water”, etc.?

The interesting kicker to Roy’s personal experiment is the commercial application and the ability to map the Twitterverse and Social Graph to mass media events. If I was a media planner or TV stats wonk, I’d be freaking over this stuff from Bluefin.


Beware of Phone Makers Bearing Updates

So I have a new phone. The sleek Samsung Galaxy IIIS. It is a nice phone. It runs the latest public version of Google’s Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich. The phone is fast, very functional, and a joy to use after my prior junkware laden HTC Evo.

The mobile carrier is Sprint. I like Sprint for the most part. The attraction was their unlimited data plan, but that’s another discussion for another day. I did a jailbreak on the Evo to get rid of Sprint’s asshatted Nascar app and other memory hogging, undeletable pieces of junk inflicted by the marketing morons, and from then on was on my own with Cyanogen. I was happy to see the new Sprint install was basically unjunked and as close to pure ICS as one could get.

Yesterday my Google News page had a link to a story that Sprint was sending out a software update to Galaxy IIIS owners which would disable the “universal search” functionality delivered through the Google search widget on the home screen. This means a search doesn’t hit just the Web, but also looks locally on the phone at contacts, documents, etc. I like this feature very much.  It spare me from going to two functions to perform searches and makes things a lot more convenient.

So why is Sprint disabling the function? Because Apple is suing Samsung and Google for patent infringement, claiming the universal search function on a phone is its idea and its alone. While the parties duke it out in court, Google or Samsung or Sprint — who knows and who cares — decided to remove the function, which means if I accept and install the pending “software update” sitting on my phone, I’ll basically make it less of a phone.

What pisses me off is the complete lack of communication from Sprint, Samsung or Google that they are going to croak a function on my phone. There’s no email. There’s no warning or explanation. Instead I get this bullshit, mislabeled as a “fix” which does nothing to reveal the surprise inside. Indeed, according to a story at the Android Authority, which refers to the disabling code as an “easter egg”, the software update is being sent out to unsuspecting Galaxy owners at Samsung’s request. The “fix” comes with absolutely no description of what it purports to fix.

My feelings about Apple? Jobs did vowed to kill Android so the Samsung lawsuit is a big one. This latest move is what I expect from Apple, along with, high prices, DRM, irrational fans, discrimination against Persians, design porn, multiple failures in the cloud …..

Placing a pre-order bet: Samsung Galaxy S III on Sprint

Two years ago, when freed from the corporate tyranny of a mandatory Blackberry, I rushed to Best Buy and put my money down on the then-sexy HTC 4G EVO, Sprint’s flagship phone and the first Android smartphone to build any sort of geek-cred.

Last fall, sick and tired of the Sprint and HTC combined crapware, I jailbroke the phone and remade it in my own image with CyanogenMod. After a week or so of fiddling to restore the GPS and hotspot functions, I’ve been more than happy with the hardware as my primary mobile device, pushing its limits with many gigabytes of Amazon music stored locally on the 32 gb microSD, and loving its multi-functions on the dashboard of my car.

But two years are up and it’s time to upgrade to a new phone. iPhones are not an option. The screens are too small for my aging eyes (So go buy a Cricket you may say), and I continue to harbor a genetic allergy to Apple products, or rather, Apple operating systems and Apple prices and Apple attitudes towards DRM.

Android has been very good to me, so off I went looking for the hot new phone that would be most faithful to Google’s reference platform while at the same time giving me access to Ice Cream Sandwich, the ability to tether other devices to its WiFi hub, and unlimited data.

That of course meant continuing on with Sprint, even if they boned me to the tune of a $500 surcharge in March 2011 for daring to use it in Canada.  Sprint’s old claims of “4G” speeds was a quaint fiction predicated on finding a WiMax signal depending on whether or not ClearWire had rigged one up. As for 4G on Cape Cod — I’ll get it about as soon as I get fiber to the old house — but I do spend enough time in midtown Manhattan to expect a fast signal should I need one.

The phone I pre-ordered this week was the Samsung Galaxy S III — a well-reviewed phone that looks fresh enough to carry me another two years without any regrets. It should arrive before July (if Apple’s attempt at an injunction fails) and will doubtlessly take a little while to set up just the way I want it.

Suckers are born every decade but I’m out of here

I wanted to keep this to myself –if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — but here is my contribution to the pile of B.S. spreading today on the occasion of Facebook going public.

Facebook is over, about to topple over under the weight of a spectacular overvaluation, mass indifference to financial fundamentals, and most importantly my sense of the growing indifference of the generation it was supposed to serve — college students.  Facebook was famously founded as a digital replacement to the printed freshman directories of the Ivy League but has become obese with the inane status updates and vacation bragging of those same students’ parents. My generation. The one’s who pored over the original class directories in the 1970s and “posted updates” on whiteboards glued to our dorm room doors.

Wall Street is selling scale today when the trigger is pulled on Facebook at 11 AM EST — that’s hyperbole for “lots of traffic” — and while your local investment club may be all atwitter with the prospect of buying some shares, and it’s fun to count the herd of new Facebook gazillionaires now shopping for new Colnagos and bespoke skinny jeans — the smart money has been cashing out for a long time in the private market and will continue cashing out quickly at the top.  This is not Microsoft in 1984 nor Amazon in 1996. This is not a long term bet on a significant new way of doing business or even communicating. This is an investment in the 2012 edition of CompuServe and MySpace: yet another walled garden ripe to get creatively destroyed by the next big technical thing lurking over that hill known as the future.

Future performance of Facebook’s stock depends on the company delivering profitable revenue and like Google, Facebook gets all of its money from advertising. Google builds semi-useful stuff and search is everything. Facebook advertising does not work. I managed Facebook campaigns for a Fortune Global 100 company and have first hand experience that … Facebook …. Advertising …. Does….. Not ….. Work.

General Motors figured this out, and picking the week of the IPO to announce Facebook ads aren’t working was simply perfect. Of course the counter argument from the social media douche bags is that “Facebook is all about authentic relationships and transparent conversations between brands and customers.” Consider the source, given that the SMDB’s make their bones selling their Facebook Unique Customer Karma and Emerging Digital services (you can figure out the forced acronym) to breathless CMOs who want audience, damn it, and the bigger the better.  And consider that the public relations/digital agency world is always first on any shiny object bandwagon (can you say SecondLife) and their current solemn obsession is reporting “Social ROI” as the rest of the faddish get obsessed with big data and analytics. (If you want to watch some fun navel gazing, play pissed-off CEO and ask a Digital PR person “How much is a Facebook Fan worth?”)

Companies, aka “brands,” obsess and fret about how many fans and likes they have; spend money on third-party tools like BuddyMedia to manage their presence, and set aside a slice of their digital advertising budget to buy good old display ads to run alongside the torrent of notifications and shared links that make up Facebook’s river of content. As I read elsewhere this morning, quoting Seth Godin (whom I never quote), “The Internet wasn’t invented for advertisers.”

Neither was Facebook.

Yet, in lieu of subscriptions or some twist on Warren Buffett’s theory of a toll booth on the only bridge over the river, where is Facebook’s money going to come from to sustain a valuation in the thin, thin air of $100+ billion ? If you know, then buy some stock. Me, I’m deactivating my Facebook account in honor of the TimeWarner-AOL/Prodigy/CompuServe/Groupon/ of 2012.

Two weeks ago I began dinging every over-sharer on my timeline or wall or whatever the Zuckerborg called it this month. Goodbye pictures of glasses of beer, notifications that Ed was at LAX, weird R-rated bikini videos from people in Turkey and India I have never met and will never meet. Goodbye SocialCam. Goodbye Tweets. Goodbye to All That. Now …..

Goodbye Facebook and hello to less noise in my life.


Big data visualization beauty

I marvel at the art of visually representing quantitative data. There have been some excellent examples over the time. I used to be particularly obsessed with Smartmoney’s heat map of the stock market which blew a lot of minds in the late 1990s, and went out of my way to try to recruit the genius who came up with it into (with no success). Today it seems so static and Web 1.0, but still, cavemen used to be freaked out by fire, imagine what they would do with a Bic lighter?

Uncle Fester, the collector of all that is interesting, sent me a link to a very cool wind map.  Meteorological maps are generally fairly dull and impenetrable, with their own symbolic language of isobars, beaufort scales, and occluded fronts. Indeed, weather has long been considered one of the greatest data challenges. Consider that for decades the standard was something like this:

 Not very friendly to the layman, more the sort of thing a pilot or professional could read and derive some sense of the future from. Wind is personally the single most interesting element of a weather forecast. As a former sailboat racer, I’d obsess over the probability of a wind shift occurring during a race, or, plan ahead on whether or not to take a crew to help hold the boat down if the breeze increased in velocity. Too much weight and I’d lose. Too little weight and I’d be screwed trying to keep the boat flat in the gusts.

Here’s what wind maps used to look like:

And here is what they look like today. This is beautiful and very addictive to play with. I highly recommend clicking through to see this in all of its animated glory.







And sorry, but I can’t forget this classic:

Talking to myself

Voice recognition software has been around for at least 20 years. I first played with the technology in the 1980s but was very unimpressed by its abilities, horrible set up a process, and general applicability as a technology of last resort for the handicapped were truly keyboard allergic.

I’ve tried to use the technology transcribe dictation made during long car commutes, but that never worked either. A combination of too much background noise, a lack of discipline on my part to stick with the process of correcting and training the software to recognize my voice and my peculiar way of dictation, and voice-recognition software joined they heap of otherwise optimistic stuff that science fiction promised would be useful but practice proved otherwise.

This post is being dictated with Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 11 running on a ThinkPad T410s and using a phone headset as a microphone. Since my arm surgery on Tuesday, I’ve dictated about 2000 words and so far am pretty impressed.

Dictation is a foreign mode of writing for me. I’ve used a keyboard in one form or another since I was about 10 years old and my atrocious handwriting condemned me to a typewriter. I never learned how to touch type, but over the years got up to what about 100 words per minute using a frantic index finger/thumb method that over the years as developed a sort of muscle memory of the keyboard which permits me to type without looking at the keys. When word processing technology first emerged in the late 1970s, some writers complained that the electronic ease of deletion, cut and paste, and general speed of composition reduced the value of the word put on the page, and led to a certain compositional laziness that had been moderated by the penalties of working with paper, white out, carbon paper, and the other manual vestiges of writing in the early 20th century. One can writers said the same thing about the typewriter in the 19th century, claiming it made writing “too easy” compared to pen and ink on paper.

Voice technology has come a long way in recent years, especially on android phones where Google’s voice-recognition technology in its maps and search tools are excellent. In the pre-android era, if I wanted to set a destination on the cars GPS, I needed to tediously punch in numbers, cities and states before I could put the car in motion. Attempting to set an address while underway was a recipe for a head-on collision. Now, if I want to get to my office, I simply press the microphone icon and say “go to W. 39th St., New York, NY” and Google does the rest. Voice-recognition is a lifesaver, literally, when I need to respond to a text message while driving, yet my son is fond of a pending the word “bitch” to my dictation.

My biggest complaint with voice-recognition is it forces me to enunciate and be choppy and my diction, where as when typing, I am able to pound away with relatively fluid ease and no concern over misunderstandings and goofy transcriptions. That said, I am a terrible typist and spend a huge amount of time on the backspace key correcting typos and mess ups. Another drawback of dictation is lack of privacy. I hate it when someone looks over my shoulder while I’m writing, and now my voice bellows through the house making me very self-conscious of whether or not I could be overheard by my wife or son. If I were in a cubicle in a typical office I would literally be dumbstruck.

I have no choice but to continue dictating for the foreseeable future, until my doctor gives me the all clear to start typing again.

But at least I can blog and work on memos and have some productivity that otherwise would be completely lost due to surgery.

(This entire post was dictated straight through with nothing corrected)

Up Yours Sprint

Minimalism at last

I’ve got about six months to go on my HTC EVO, a Sprint “4G” Android phone that was quite advanced back in the summer of 2010 when I chucked my Blackberry and Lotus Notes shackles and went off on my own.

It’s a nice phone, has a battery life on a par with the life span of some hyperkinetic gnat that hatches, mates and dies before lunch, a big screen, and the occasional ability in the right city to get some fast connectivity via Clearwire’s WiMax technology. I can tether my iPad and Thinkpad to it, thereby sticking it to the paid-WiFi thugs at the hotel and airport, and I can get rid of my digital camera, dashboard GPS, and assorted other electronic bricks in my bag.

The biggest bitch I had with the phone wasn’t with the hardware as much as Sprint’s ass-hatted insistence that I would have their stupid NASCAR app whether I liked it or not. The amount of bloatware junk that was burnt into the phone was staggering, and sure enough, after a couple months, the phone started bleating that it was out of storage space, forcing me to pick away and delete photos, videos, and assorted apps, all the while being unable to kill NASCAR, the NFL, and Blockbuster (aren’t they dead and gone?) from the phone all because Sprint’s CMO paid a big check to sponsor the Redneck Eternal Left Turn known as stock car racing.

So I rooted the sucker. Jailbreak. Got medieval on its ass and followed the handy instructions on how to capture the phone for me and only me (while voiding the warranty). In the process I realized that playing around with Android phones at the command line/super user level is just like those wonderful days of exploration in the early 198os when I got my hands on my first IBM-PC and a copy of Norton Utilities.

I followed the magic step-by-step instructions, mindful that I could “brick” or toast the phone if I messed up. A weird volume-button-power-button-rubber-chicken reboot and I had Root, that exalted state of hack bliss where the hardware and me are one, and not kept apart by the evil carrier.

I installed Cyanogen, the aftermarket Android ROM based on Honeycomb, then overlaid that with ADW Ex, a launcher that let me mess with my icons and other GUI goodness. The result, combined with a minimalist icon set, is a wide open phone that is a lot slicker than the factory model, has tons of room, and still has all the functionality it used to.

Sure, there were moments of debugging — the GPS wouldn’t work until I patched it — but there’s something about getting intimate with one’s hardware to restore my faith in the technical world. Don’t be afraid. Stick it to the man.

The Story that Started Tech Journalism

After reading John McCarthy’s obituary this morning (by John Markoff), I was prompted to re-read Stewart Brand’s legendary tale of early computer scientists and hackers that was published in Rolling Stone in 1972.

Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.

I highly recommend it. The photo of Alan Kay and the Dynabook is priceless. Keep in mind this is a glimpse of the state of the art in Silicon Valley from 40 years ago. Pre-personal computer. Pre-Steve Jobs. Then take those four decades that intervene and add in the microprocessor, bountiful memory, graphics, the Internet, wireless, cell phones, smartphones, tablets …… No one, not even the most stoned futurist, could have predicted the technical bounty we take for granted today. Brand’s story puts it all in perspective for me. We stand on the shoulders of giants.