Mobile Life Without Corporate Systems

Lately I have been looking around at ways to separate myself from work specific systems but keep all the wonderful services. You know, all of those neat little things like email, calendar, contacts, file storage. Some of these things are painfully simple to replace but others are just painful if you don’t know where to look. But thanks to lots of surf time and reading unholy amounts of Lifehacker, I have managed to put together a near dream team of services that I daresay actually exceed most corporate offerings. Here’s what I use:

Email – Gmail is the way to go. They have some really great features from Labels to truly effective spam filtering. Add to that almost 7GB of storage and it’s comletely free…

Calendar – Google Calendar does a nice job of filling this role and it integrates with Gmail. There’s your web based Outlook/Exchange replacement. Oh, and you can have appointment reminders sent via SMS to your phone. Try doing that with a simple click in Outlook.

Contacts – I use Gmail’s contact list for this. It works great. Of course you can always use built in systems like Windows Address Book or Address Book.app on your Mac. Heck, you could just use your phone if you really wanted to but I find that the information kept in Gmail is more than sufficient.

File Storage – Dropbox is the winner hands down. Why? Because I like a system with a client that will automagically sync without any work on my part after initial configuration. Dropbox does that. Just set up your account and install the client. From that point on, just put the files into the Dropbox folder to have it sync in the background to their service and to every other computer you have linked to your account. Schweetness.

Notes – Evernote has a wonderful service. With clients that sync your notes to your Mac/PC/WinMo/etc system and OCR run on every image you send to them, Evernote stands above the rest for services rendered for the almighty price of free.

It takes a little time to get used to using these different tools if you are accustomed to the usual Microsoft systems and indeed you can integrate a number of these into Outlook if you really want to use it. But for the full use of all the features available, using the native clients is the way to go. And yes iPhone users, you can use all of these from the comfort of your mobile device save Dropbox.

Mississippi Apple Store Opens

Apple’s first store in Mississippi opens today at 10:00am Central time. I’m going to be there updating this post from my iPhone as I can as things progress.

Edit: I moved the images to the bottom of the post and created thumbnails to speed load times.

Update 9:02 – I just arrived and there’s already a crowd.

Update 9:17 – Only one person in this crowd is here for an iPhone. Apparently Apple has a large userbase in Jackson, MS.

Update 9:28 – The line has stretched around the corner farther than I can see through the store windows. Also, we have two of Ridgeland’s finest supporting mall security at the entrance.

Update 9:39 – We’ve got a group in line singing “My Girl”.

Update 9:43 – The staff just came running up and cheering. They’re really getting the crowd energized.

Update 9:47 – The staff is now in the store and chanting. I can’t make out what they are saying so I’ll ask when I get in the store.

Update 9:58 – They just had the countdown and we’re headed in. And I’m the first one stopped…

Update 10:28 – They let me in with only a minor wait and I’ve been busy shopping. The service is great, which is what you expect from Apple stores. Photos will be added to this post when I get home.

Update 10:41 – The line still stretches out of sight from in the store. Apple, you have a winner.

Update 11:13 – Looks like the line finally went away and you can just stroll inside.

And there you have it. The first Apple Store in Mississippi is now officially open for business. I want to personally thank Jessica and Sara for all of the wonderful help they gave me while I was busily trying to spend my entire paycheck. Oh, WLBT, you so lose. Why on earth would you even bother showing up at all if you weren’t going to get there until an hour after the doors opened? You missed the best part of the opening.

And One More Thing…

I haven’t written in a while. Blame it on my getting ready to take a new job. There’s a lot of work involved in making sure every last little thing is documented and the new guy is trained on all the quirks of the company while worrying over the changes in insurance and child support. Since I’m still working on the transition preparations, this post might ramble a little bit but I have a couple of things to cover and I don’t really want to make several posts this evening to hit them all. Okay, preamble over…let’s get to it.

Apple is finally opening the first store in Mississippi. It is in the Renaissance Mall in Ridgeland. The store opens Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 10:00am according to Apple’s website. I am going to try to be there early and keep tabs on the happenings via Twitter on my brand spankin’ new iPhone. I’m excited that it’s opening just as we’re getting strong rumors that Apple is about to refresh everything from the Mac Mini to the iPod Touch, Cinema Displays, and MacBooks. All rumors currently point to September 9th as the starting point for the updates. I’m really hoping for a Mac Mini refresh. They need it.

That’s the second little thing I wanted to mention. I broke down and bought an iPhone last Friday. So far I love the everything about it except the battery life. In an attempt to get it to last from the time I leave home until I go to bed, I have turned off WiFi and 3G. I did notice a marked improvement going to the 2.0.2 firmware a couple of days ago but it still doesn’t hold a candle to the life of the Tilt. I can live with that, though, because I intend to keep a cable attached to the PC at work for the purpose of charging it during the day. I will have a more in-depth review of my iPhone experience and the highs and lows of the apps I’ve tried some time next week.

Lastly in this little update I wanted to mention that Comcast has finally done the right thing and clarified what its bandwidth caps will be starting October of this year. I first caught whiff of this little tidbit via Twitter from ComcastCares (Frank). I find that following his feed is a nice way to keep on top of all things Mafia Comcast. The article states that the new limit will be 250GB a month which is nearly 10GB a day. I don’t know about the rest of you but I watch a LOT of streaming video and I can promise you it isn’t anywhere near 10GB a day. Heck, at an average of 2GB a movie it would take over 100 movies in a month being downloaded to get you even close to the limit. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I believe they have set a reasonable cap that most all users will be able to stay under easily. If you just can’t manage with a mere 250GB limit, get a business account. Those aren’t capped like this according to the announcement.

That’s about it for the quickie. Now get off my lawn.

Geek Plague – Fanboyism

In the world of geeks we have a problem. A serious epidemic that threatens our peaceful natures. This plague must be stopped before needless violence rips from us the very thing that binds us together: our overwhelming passion for tech/sci-fi/fantasy stuffs. This plague is the mutation of a mild mannered geek into a frothing-at-the-mouth fanboy. Fanboyism really isn’t a new phenomenon. As long as there have been geeks, there have been the radical right-wing zealots that evolved into full blown fanboys. It isn’t restricted to a specific genre of geekdom either. For today’s purposes, though, we will look at the OS Fanboys.

Probably the most famous group of fanboys in current times is the Apple Fanboy. Oh sure, there have been Apple Fanboys since the birth of the computer company in an unsuspecting garage. Since the advent of the iPod, however, the Apple Fanboy has been propelled into the Spotlight (see what I did there?). These are the guys that swear by everything Apple and condemn everything Microsoft. They are touted to have an unwavering belief in Jobs, their “messiah”. But they are not alone.

Microsoft Fanboys are always ready to return a volley of scathing remarks about Apple’s “toy” computers. They all but worship the corporate empire that Gates built and believe that the only reason people resent the object of their near-worship is its unparalleled business success. They resent the idea that any software or hardware offering could dare to think it can compete with their Titan Champion. They stand resolute and declare that all other systems are either just as vulnerable or more vulnerable than theirs. They proudly preach that the only reason their beloved OS is unfairly targeted more than any other is because it is so awesome. It doesn’t stop here, however.

The third leg of this unholy trinity is the Linux Fanboy. He lives by the mantra that all software should be free and open to everyone. He denounces Microsoft and Apple for their evil and secretive ways and blames any faults discovered in their systems on this closed environment. In the eyes of the Linux Fanboy, only the almighty Linus understands the truth in how to get the most out of a computer. Only open-source can save the geek world according to this steaming waste of carbon-based life form. Okay, that was unfair…all fanboys are steaming wastes of carbon-based lifeforms.

I’ve been accused of being each of these over the years. I find that funny. While it’s true that I do not like them all equally, the levels at which I do like them changes with time. I have a tendency to ramble on about one more than the others at any given moment. It has to do with which one I’m learning new things about or spending the most time on. See, I keep saying this in many different places: Each systems has its strengths and weaknesses. Each OS has tasks it performs a bit better than the others. The best thing to do is know them all and use the right system for the job. I really don’t see what is so hard about that idea.

Do I agree with Microsoft’s marketing practices? Not really. Do I believe that open-source is the silver bullet (ugh, I just used a buzzword) for cracking the computer world into an ecosystem that dwarfs what we have now? Not a bit. Do I think that Apple’s idea of totally locking down everything is the solution to the world’s computer problems? Not even close. But each of these groups does have important things to offer. The hard part is navigating the Fanboy Minefield to find real information. I think Dwight Silverman found this out with his article on Mac pricing. I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting a three way war to break out in the comments like it did. Unfortunately, that’s life on the intarwebs.

So to all Fanboys: Until you can stop frothing at the mouth and open your minds a little…shut up. Learn to recognize that other systems…other opinions…can have merit. I’ll be glad to calmly debate the merits of any system over any other. Is that too hard for you?

Supreme Victory!

Back in the 90’s fighting games were all the rage. Everybody had a favorite whether it be Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, or any of the other versions that flooded the market. Personally, I like Killer Instinct. I was in love with the combo system that Rare created. I liked that you could break the combos. I like that the combos looked neat and didn’t require inhuman timing and 32 fingers to pull off. And yes, I thought B. Orchid was well rendered. I had KI Gold for my N64. I spent untold hundreds of quarters on the arcade machines. I always used the trick of holding right and all three punch buttons on both controllers at the VS screen on the arcade machines to get the hyper speed. I was addicted.

One of the saddest days of my gaming life was when I found my N64 cartridge had decided to give up this life and never again let me enjoy the world of Orchid and Jago and Kim Wu. I have never managed to get my hands on a replacement. That game and Goldeneye are the only reasons I still have my N64. I mourned the loss and actually still do. That may change before too much longer, however.

Rumors have been around for years that Rare was secretly assembling a third KI game somewhere in the bowels of the company. They have repeatedly denied doing so…with very careful wording. Here’s a denial from about a year ago:

purely out of contractual obligation, no, we’re not working on KI3

Purely out of contractual obligation? So if it wasn’t for that, you would be? See what I mean about the statement. It’s fairly ambiguous. As a matter of fact,EGM’s rumormonger Quartermann is now saying that Rare is now working on the third installment and it will be an Xbox360 exclusive. There are a lot of people our there that I am sure are wondering why this matters at all since there are so many better fighting games already out there. The simple answer is that KI has a reasonably largefanbase that has been ignored for years. I am part of that group. I am happy that we may finally get a new game with our favorite characters because really, are any fighting games unique anymore? Not really. It all boils down to opinion and mine is that KI3 could be a good thing.

Of course, so would KI and KI2 on Live Arcade or KI Gold on the Wii’s Virtual Console. I’m not holding my breath for any of these to happen but I can always dream. I can dream of a world where we get all of the originals to tide us over until Street Fighter IV comes out and that KI3 hits the market just as we get bored with SFIV. That would be totally awesome dude.

Access Your Everything Anywhere

Like most people, I have a lot of data that I don’t want to lose. I also need that data in a lot of different places that aren’t always on my normal daily computers. With today’s intarwebs, this is a fairly easy problem to solve. One just has to snag an online service for storing data. But which services do what jobs well? Nobody can give you a definitive answer because everyone has different aspects that will be important to them. However, I can offer my opinions on some free services that do several jobs really nicely…and free is good.

Email/Calendar – No surprises here. Gmail and Google Calendar are really nice. Gmail offers powerful search and tagging on emails and has a pretty good spam filter. But you already knew that, right? Google Calendar can do pretty much anything an Outlook calendar can do and it doesn’t require a really expensive and bloated program on your computer. To make things even better if you use Firefox to get to Gmail and Google Calendar, I suggest grabbing Lifehacker’s Better extensions (here and here). Lifehacker has Better extensions for a myriad of web services so you may want to look around and see if any of the others can help you out.

Files/Folders – There are several places you can do this. If you have a Live ID or Hotmail/MSN account, you have a Skydrive with 5GB of free storage. So far there aren’t any desktop clients out there so you’re stuck with the web client and you can only upload a few 5 files at a time. Not the greatest choice but it is free and functional. You’d be better off, for ease of use, with Dropbox. During the beta you get 2GB of free storage, choice of many clients that offer really nice automatic sync, and web based access to the folders. You can share folders or keep them private at your discretion. I use this on my iMac and it’s great. Just drop the files into the Dropbox folder and it autmatically syncs in the background. Now if I lose my system, I just have to reinstall the app and sync my important stuff back down.

Mobile Features – So you have a Windows Mobile phone like the AT&T Tilt and you don’t want to move away from that Exchange system because you need that calendar sync? No problem. You can just get an account with GooSync to keep your WM calendar and Google Calendar on the same page. The free version of the service only does calendar sync and is manual only. There is a premium account for £19.95/yr. This version gives you automatic sync, Google Contacts sync, multiple calendar support, and a lot more. Still, even the free service works really nicely and only takes a couple of button presses to do.

Note Taking – There are a lot of places out there like Remember the Milk to help you keep track of GTD lists. Personally I like Jott. Why? Because I’m always on the go and Jott lets me call a toll-free number, speak my note, and their service translates it to text and posts it to GCal, Twitter, my Jott list, whatever for me. Talk about convenient. Best of all…it’s free. As for taking notes that aren’t GTD related, I like Evernote. Their service is fairly unique in that you can put any type of media in a note and if it is an image, they use OCR to find any and all text in the image and make it searchable. They have desktop clients for Windows and Mac which can even take a snapshot of a section of the desktop (i.e. webclip) to add to a note. Yes, it’s free as well.

There really isn’t a single application out there that does everything. But then, if there was it would probably be terrible. A thoughtful combination of applications each designed to be very effective at a specific task usually works the best. It may take a little while to find the combination that works best for you, but when you do you will probably see a huge change in how quickly you can Get Things Done.

Mac Media Center – Quick Note

I was at Best Buy today and noticed that SimpleTech has apparently reworked their external drive offerings. As a result, the old model of the 1TB external USB drive that was $259.99 is now on clearance for…get this…$92.99! The online store still lists the full price so I suggest that if you are in the market for a huge external drive for pocket change, stop into the store and see if they’ve got it marked down. It’ll be the silver drive with the sloped front (the enclosure, not the box it’s in).

Also remember that if you use a Mac then you will have to format it because it comes as NTFS which will only give you read access. If you aren’t sure how that works, just fire up Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder) and select the drive. From there select the Partition tab and click on Options. You have to make it a GUID partition table or else the format will fail. After doing that you can format the drive using Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Give it whatever name you want and click Apply. In moments you will have a fresh drive ready for mass quantities of digital goodness. (Important note: There is a backup utility on the drive that you will need to copy off first if you plan on using it. I prefer to just use Time Machine so I didn’t bother.)

Personally I made two partitions so I can have one for Time Machine (200GB) and one for my movies (731GB, you lose some in formatting). I’m still waiting on Time Machine to finish the initial backup and then I’m going to copy the movies I’ve already ripped via Handbrake over and see how it works with the Xbox. When I get it all up and going I will update the Mac Media Center page with the details. Oh, and if you are worried that USB 2.0 won’t be fast enough, let’s just say I’m getting better than 1GB/min transfer and since the movies are about 1GB per hour…there should be nothing to worry about.

Edit: I fixed the reduced price. I incorrectly reported it as $96.99.

Comcast in the Kiddie Pool

Comcast gets a lot of press and most of it is bad. I still, despite my glowing praises for the Digital Media Outreach, agree with most of what’s said. The service is flaky. The content is mediocre. The price is outrageous. The hardware just plain sucks. But there are even more frustrating problems. Finally, though, I can take one of them off my list.

It seems they have decided to stick a toe into the kiddie pool of the intarweebs. You can at last get an email notification that your bill is ready. I am amazed that one of the largest communication providers in these United States has had the audacity to buck the trend of convenience by not doing what even little mom and pop shops have been doing since 1996. Any third grader with a keyboard can hammer out a quick and dirty script to send a little SMTP message to a specified email address on a specific day of the month.

I won’t get into it too deeply this time since I ranted about this in an earlier post. The long and short of it is this: Comcast has finally started coming out from under its rock and is beginning to offer some of the basic convenience services to its customers that other web enabled companies have offered for no less than 10 years. So if you have Comcast cable or internet service, you can now log into the website and sign up for email notifications for billing.

Sheesh guys, I know corporations move like slugs, but this is downright embarrasing.

I Suppose Reality Computing is Next

I’m browsing the headlines today and the question finally comes to mind: Who comes up with IT industry buzzwords? I mean really…cloud computing? Clouds are nothing more than large swaths of moisture suspended in the atmosphere. That isn’t exactly the most appropriate environment for electronics. Besides, what would clouds want to do on a computer anyway? I suppose playing solitaire is better than floating around the sky all day with nothing to do, but I really don’t think I want laptops hovering at ten thousand feet above my head. What if the cloud gets mad and throws it down…at me?

Then there’s the whole new economy. I know the “old” economy is having a rough time of it right now, but we should be serious. It’s all the same economy. It just has a fancy new parking garage. Don’t try to argue that it’s new because it uses the internet. It’s still just mail order and that’s been around for ages. Don’t try to argue that it’s new because it’s global. We get too many goods from other countries. Heck, I’ve heard it suggested that if Wal-Mart ever folded, China’s economy would collapse because of the amount of business they do. It’s all the same. Quit trying to be special.

Dot-bombs sound more like some kind of IED or spy gadget. It’s bad enough that we get this overload of buzzwords, but do you have to mix them with bad slang as well? They’re just failed businesses. It happens all the time. Why do you people insist on this obnoxious demarcation line between that which is internet and that which is not internet. Haven’t we been trying to converge everything with the internet? It seems like a self defeating purpose. How about trying something different.

And just so you don’t think I’m griping to the tech industry in general, I have one generic buzzword peeve for you. Offline. I do not think it means what you think it means. Offline means not online. It means you are working with some sort of software or device that normally functions with an internet connection but for some reason is not doing so right now. It does not mean that you want to talk to me away from the meeting. Offline and in private are not interchangeable. Ever. Stop it.

I have a few others that kind of grate on my ears when I hear them but I think the point has been made. Buzzwords are silly and unnecessary. It is just a way for the clueless to try and sound like they have a clue. And unfortunately it is contagious enough that those with a clue end up using them, too.

Does Social Media Blend?

Dwight Silverman posted an interesting Tweet on the day of the iPhone release. He said:

I wish we could report more breaking stories the way we did the iPhone today, blending blogs, twitter, reporters, links. Soon, very soon…

…which brings up some interesting ideas. We have news aggregation sites like Digg and Slashdot. We have services like FriendFeed that aggregate information from multiple social media services. We have mashups like iGoogle. But has anyone yet put together a way to blend all of these wonderful things into a useful, intuitive interface for the creation and trafficking of breaking news stories?

Now I replied to that Tweet that we in the social media world are just getting through taking our baby steps. We haven’t quite got up to walking but we are getting there. The next phase is to make it truly mainstream. Many news sources already leverage services like Twitter to post links to new articles that appear on their site. But this is merely a scratch of the surface. Offerings like Twitter could easily be used to create “live” news articles.

Think about this: You have a new website with a system that will take an article’s owner (reporter) and allow this owner to let others expand their article with posts from Twitter/Pownce/Whatever in certain sections of the story. The article becomes a truly interactive experience that gives the reporter’s view and expands his or her words with the observations of others within the article itself. Now obviously you wouldn’t let just anyone put anything in there or you end up with John Gabriel’s GIFT(nsfw).

To avoid this you could have a system like OpenID and then the owner grants what level of access people have. Heck, this could be expanded to allow almost roundtable-like discussions. The point of this being that the next evolution of social media is the blending of more traditional news reporting with blogs and other social media services. The iPhone release could have had a parent article that featured the pic taken of Robert Scoble getting his phone with the side story from a blog about how he was allowed to cut in line (say…sent via Twitter DM to the article account) and the Twitter posts from the first guy stopped as the initial group went in to get their new shiny toys. Additional images from Flickr showcasing lines from stores in different areas could be linked in as well. This goes much further than simple comments at the end of an article. I speak of groups of web connected individuals actually building and expanding breaking news stories as they happen.

This is just one idea of what I’m sure is many that will make their way to the web soon. I’m also certain that there are far more qualified and imaginative people putting together new technologies and ideas. Some will fail but inevitably one or two of these new tools will gain some success in the next phase of the media evolution. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m looking forward to the next stage…so hurry up already and build us some tools to use.

UPDATE: It’s almost like Rule 34. I posted about it and find that STLToday.com already somewhat includes this. An example is this article about he InBev buyout of Anheuser-Busch. The first Related Link is a blog and Twitter feed basically of related stories. Found it because my little post on the deal got in there. Now we just need more articles to include this feature and more news sites to do it.