Jun 13

What’s the deal with Facebook advertising?

For a site that has been tracking my life for years, Facebook’s advertising is horrible. Not just weak, not just bad, but horrible. During the last presidential campaign, I started to realize how bad Facebook’s advertising was, when (as a pretty outspoken liberal) it offered me a Mitt Romney ad every single time I logged on.

But take a look below. You really couldn’t get more broken in terms of targeted advertising:

Where to begin? Let’s just look at each:

  1. I have a Yammer basic subscription – using the same email address of mine as Facebook already has.
  2. I have two cats, but don’t have a dog. I haven’t had one since I was a kid.
  3. I haven’t subscribed to cable since 2010.
  4. I don’t take photos with a camera anymore. Heck, my only digital camera and camcorder both gather dust while I use my iPhone for most photography and video.
  5. I hardly ever play games. I have an original Xbox that gathers dust, and a Wii that the kids sometimes use, but even it is rarely used vs. the iOS devices in the house.
  6. I have one watch. I wear it when I fly, so I know when the flight took off and what time it will land. Otherwise, I never wear a watch.
  7. As noted, I don’t play games. I’m also pretty outspoken about not being a fan of Walmart.
Bad Facebook ads

So here Facebook had 7 opportunities to knock it out of the park based on all of the personal information of mine they have. Yet they got 100% wrong. Way to go, Facebook!

Jun 13

Content, not the chrome. Apps, not the phone.

Ahead of WWDC 2013, many people were still expecting Apple to add live tiles, and possibly widgets to iOS 7. I didn’t expect either, and as a result wasn’t terribly disappointed to see them not included (that might be an understatement on my part).

At first glance, live tiles may seem like a no-brainer in any operating system. Tiles that provide you information from within an app… How could this go wrong?

Here’s the problems that I have with live tiles in Windows 8, and why I think they wouldn’t make sense on iOS (either):

  1. They’re overused.
  2. Often, they aren’t that useful.
  3. They are distracting.
  4. They’re hardly ever in view.

Let me explain each a bit.

They’re overused. Why do I say this? Because Microsoft has focused on live tiles in their messaging for app developers as if apps that don’t feature a live tile should be shamed. Not the case. I believe live tiles should only be used when there is something actionable to present to the user (ex: new mail) and that actionable item can succinctly be presented though the live tile (ex: subject of the mail). Unfortunately, even just the built-in applications from Microsoft abuse the live tile concept. Too many feature live tiles, and too many of those live tiles are of very limited utility or are too repetitive. Having one or two live tiles is fine, especially if they’re useful -like Mail and Weather, and perhaps Calendar.

But if you add too many live tiles, Windows 8 stops looking like this:

Windows Start screen

And instead starts looking like this:

Times Square

What I’m saying is that there is a point where the utility of live tiles starts to become a problem, not a benefit, if you’re shoving too much dynamic information in the user’s face while providing very little value.

Often, they aren’t that useful. Much like a well-designed app, the utility of a live tile is only as useful as the content it is set to display. iOS has featured notification badges (the red overlay on Mail that constantly indicates you’re not at inbox zero) for many years. Many people bash the badges as being stupid or useless, but they serve as an action indicator where often, not much more is needed, and even more often, not much more can be done. A notification (or live tile) on a badge should instantly provide an indicator of status if that’s all it is to do (ex: You have new mail), and a deeper summary if that is possible (your iOS line-of-business app that tracks new tasks for your helpdesk has 32 new tasks). In iOS, the icon for Calendar has, in effect, always been a live tile. The date you see on the icon is the actual date. Though of limited utility (given that there is already a clock at the top of the screen in the iOS shell, and the icon is tiny), the icon for the clock app in iOS 7 is now a live tile in the same sense – it features the correct time, including a sweeping second hand.

But I don’t believe a live tile should always be live, and even when it is, if it isn’t actionable, it’s no better than After Dark. It ceases to have utility, it’s just there for entertainment value. Applications that do have a concrete reason for offering a live tile absolutely should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. Don’t provide one just because “you’re supposed to”.

They are distracting. As I noted above, if you’re looking at the Start screen to find a particular application, and you have very many live tiles, it starts to become distracting, and not helpful, that they application is trying to provide you more information than you actually need at that moment. The start screen isn’t an app, it’s a shell. The primary reason for it to exist is to run applications. Rotating pictures of people, or of your own collection of photos (both of which repeat) are novel and cute for a bit, but rapidly become tiring to me.

It’s like going into Best Buy to look around, and getting inundated with salespeople. You know what you’re looking for, and otherwise it’s just a distraction.

They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?

This gets us full circle back to why I don’t think it’s a big deal that iOS doesn’t have live tiles, or even widgets. I’ve mentioned before that Microsoft employees seem to like using the expression “(just) a sea of icons” to describe the iOS app launcher. Well, yeah. That’s kind of the point? It’s a brutally simplified shell that gets you in to the apps. The iPhone (or any iOS device) isn’t about the platform, and it isn’t about the shell. It’s about the apps. Mobile devices exist to be view portals into the functionality provided by applications – including those built-in to the device.

When using a mobile device, users don’t sit there staring longingly at the shell, waiting for it to do something. They’re in apps, responding to notifications from other apps through the shell, and jumping between apps using the sharing verbs available between apps (monikers or direct APIs). On stage when first revealing Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky highlighted the focus of Windows 8 on (with a not-so-subtle jab at the browser of the same name), “content, not the chrome”. To that I add, “It’s the apps, not the phone”. Yes, shells need to evolve and grow. But rarely should they be the center of attention – as that’s rarely where the user actually spends most of their time.

Jun 13

Thomas Jefferson on lawyers in Congress

“I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves. If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send 150. lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, talk by the hour?”

Excerpt From The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1.

Jun 13

Twitter zombies and content theft

A few days ago, I noticed a new follower that didn’t look quite right. Check it out for yourself (@KoriWilbur).

I’ve never been a fan of people who use Twitter just to spray links – especially if they all lead back to the same site. There’s very little value in such a Twitter account. But when an account like this shows up, and all of the tweets have something in them that looks like a pattern (here the “$ ” preceding the actual content of the tweet, it looks even more strange. What’s funnier though, is Twitter on iOS provides a list of three accounts that are “Similar to …” and links to them. So when KoriWilbur started following and the account stood out, I happened to notice the similar accounts that Twitter said were similar. Man, was Twitter spot on.

Twitter recommended @CorettaBerk, @LuannJohn, @HilmaErvin, @LilliMoffett, and @MieshaTuttle, among many others. The more I refreshed, the more accounts it provided that were eerily similar. There were dozens and dozens of accounts using this same MO.

The person building out these accounts did a really exceptional job of trying to bury their “undeadness”. They always seem to have a unique profile picture and usernames that match full names (always female, as Twitter grifters like to do), some actual pictures/videos that the profile has posted, which tends to lend authenticity to a zo semi-unique bio, and the URL in their bio is always self referencing (back to their own Twitter profile). A key difference was that different accounts used a different tweet suffix than the “$ ” that my original follower did, such as “! “, “@ “, or “# ” (note that it often, but not always seemed to be a shift+numkey value – another example was “\\ “). Also, it appears that they try to often use different URL shorteners across the accounts, even when linking to the same topic.

Speaking of links – the links always go to mobilephoneadvise.com, which I had never heard of before this. Now I know why. They just plagiarize content.

Take a look at this post on mobilephoneadvise.com. Now take a look at this post on TechCrunch. They’ve blatantly lifted content off of TechCrunch (which seems to be the favorite site for mobilephoneadvice.com to steal from) and posted it on their own site. Intermingled amongst the pilfered content are links to games. Not even game reviews, mind you, just the same approach to games as content. See this game site, and then the post about the game on mobilephoneadvise.com. The entire overview paragraph is lifted from the developer’s site. At a quick glance, at least one the samples I downloaded even appeared to be malware.

In short, there’s nothing good going on at that site, and they’re another example of individuals gaming Twitter for personal gain – and in this case stealing content and possibly infecting devices to do so.

Jun 13

Thomas Jefferson on Congress and unity

“As to those matters which are referred to Congress, we are not so many states, we are one large state. We lay aside our individuality, whenever we come here.” – Thomas Jefferson

May 13

Twitter zombies? My favorite.

Within the last few weeks, a very annoying trend on Twitter began to pique my curiosity. I saw random accounts that don’t follow me marking some of my tweets as favorites. What was weird though was the tweets that were getting marked weren’t, frankly, my best work. But I started noticing more about these accounts.

First of all, as I said, the accounts that seemed odd were generally marking odd tweets as favorites. Take this tweet for instance, which has three weird accounts that have favorited it (and my friend, who was just being punchy). A few other examples that friends on Twitter noted are here, here and here. While I thought it was interesting that this one of mine was the last tweet of the day for me, it wasn’t in the case of my friends, although the tweets do tend to be marked in the evening.

The second thing I noticed about the accounts marking these was that they always had names that were nonsensical given their username. Take this one for instance. Username is Rossiengkh, name is Rosalina Harrey. The usernames of these accounts seem to consist of a first name and generally 3, 4, or 5 gibberish characters appended. The more I looked, the more often I found that the names on the account were completely unrelated to the username – or pictures that were even of the wrong gender. Pictures of men with female account names, etc.

Next, I noted that all of these accounts had few tweets (generally less than 20) and were created recently (May 3, 2013, in the case of the account above).

Upon examining each of these accounts when they marked a favorite, I found that most of them had quite a few accounts they were following, and quite a few accounts following them. The patterns I noticed with my initial favorite zombie continued through all of the accounts they were following. For example, look at all of the accounts Rossiengkh is following. When it came to their followers, the story was different. All of their earliest followers match the pattern as well (again, see those of Rossiengkh).

It’s here that I’d like to theorize why these bots don’t spam, but rather favorite tweets instead. It’ll make sense in a minute. First, imagine you’re a really new user on Twitter. Suddenly, out of the blue, some user, likely following more people than you, and more followers than you, favorites one of your tweets. You maybe poke at their account a bit, notice their followers/followees, and that they have a few tweets. So you follow them. NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

That’s why these zombies all have nobody they are following that is legitimate, and their accounts all began with a similar stack of zombie followers, to add cred. While some of us who have been on Twitter for a while noticed the funky smell from these accounts, new users aren’t generally aware that there are people gaming Twitter.

What’s most interesting is that many of these zombies are marking tweets as favorites that existed before their account did (the account above, created in early May, has favorites dating back into at least 2012). I didn’t even know you could mark tweets that existed before your account did as favorites, though I guess on some plane it makes sense.

So… Why all this trouble? Why build out a network of accounts following other accounts, following other accounts? Favoriting random things on Twitter? To sell followers, of course!

Follower counts generally aren’t vetted – people don’t go through and scan your followers to see if there are real people following you or not (well, not always). But buying followers, as questionable as it is, appears to be a thing to artificially add credibility to an account. I think it’s pretty sleazy and frankly devalues Twitter.

So let’s talk about one more thing almost all of the zombies have in common. Not all of them, mind you, but most of them. A short URL in their Twitter bio that at first glance appears relatively unique, and uses either bit.ly, tiny.cc, or tinyurl.com (the latter of which has now seemingly killed off the use of their service for this scam). I haven’t tabulated how many unique URLs there are (let alone how many zombies there are), but I can only assume there are quite a few. But more importantly, these URLs are not actually unique underneath.

If you click on the URLs, the final destination that you wind up with is followersdelivery.com (no link because I don’t want them to get SEO). However, they appear to have a layover along the way, at bestgod.info. Followersdelivery.com was registered through GoDaddy on February 24 of this year, with a one year registration. The registrant is an individual in Zagreb, Croatia, with – I believe – a postbox. More interestingly, bestgod.info was registered on March 24 of this year, and was last edited two days ago, on Friday, May 24. Even more interesting? That domain was registered with fake credentials through Wild West Domains, LLC. The Spurger, TX address used to register the domain doesn’t exist, and the phone number is dead.

The initial bestgod.info domain appears to do a client-side redirection to the final destination. I’ve seen this trick done before, and there’s often logic thrown in on the client side (or even before then in the server redirection) that may be defeating Twitter’s ability to detect or block this URL (assuming they’re trying to). I mentioned over a year ago the risks of trying to unwind URL shorteners when it comes to really knowing what site is at the end of the link.

But the funniest part of this exercise has to be reading the followersdelivery.com site. The site advertises (shocker) all of the following for sale in bulk:

  • Twitter followers
  • Facebook likes
  • YouTube views
  • Instagram followers

The price of Twitter followers?

  • $20 – 1,000 followers (within 24 hours)
  • $50 – 5,000 followers (within 24 hours)
  • $80 – 10,000 followers (within 48 hours)
  • $170 – 30,000 followers (within 48 hours)
  • $420 – 100,000 followers (within 3 days)

My favorite part of the followersdelivery.com site, though, has to be the following, on their FAQ page:

Can I trust Followers Delivery? Are you a reputable company?
For many people, our services seem too good to be true, so we get this question asked all the time. Followers Delivery offers very popular social media services, low pricing and excellent customers support. We believe in offering an exceptional service to all of our customers and clients. Read the reviews that our customers have left us, we are sure you’ll be impressed.

And this little gem (underline emphasis mine):

Are these real users? How do you gather the followers?
Absolutely! We guarantee that these Twitter followers are real people and that no bots or proxies will be used in the delivery of your Twitter Followers.We rely purely on proprietary marketing and promotion techniques to get the job done right. We also own and operate a few high traffic Fan pages, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels and website which we use to generate real social media users for our customers.

<SPIT TAKE/> Yes. I’m sure that those are all real people that I’ve called out above. The Twitter undead.

It gets more interesting, though, as Followersdelivery.com was explicitly called out for their role in Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy site investigating Rachel Maddow. Note that even then the site had recently been suspended by the registrar hosting it. I’m not exactly sure who paid for what in that instance either (and frankly, given the low cost of buying followers, I can imagine someone paying to have an opponent’s Twitter presence defamed by “throwing” fake followers at their account). Regardless, I hope that Twitter does something to block this service relatively soon.

May 13

Beware of strangers bearing subscriptions

Stop for a second and think about everything you subscribe to. These are things that you pay monthly or annually for, that if you didn’t pay for, some service would discontinue.

The list probably includes everything from utilities to reading material, and most likely a streaming or media service like Netflix or Hulu, or a subscription to Amazon Prime, Xbox Live or iTunes Match.

I’ve been noticing a tendency for seemingly everything to move towards subscriptions. Frankly, it irritates me and I’m not really excited about the idea.

I understand and accept that natural gas, electricity, waste management, and (ick) even insurance need to be paid for regularly so we can maintain a certain lifestyle. But the tendency to treat software as a utility, while somewhat logical, isn’t necessarily a win for the consumer or the business (it depends on the package being offered, and how often you would upgrade if you weren’t being offered a subscription).

That puzzle, of course, depends on the consumer or business to not bother to do the math and just assume it’s a better deal (or get befuddled trying to decode the comparison), and just subscribing. Consumers, and frankly many businesses, are not great at doing that math. Many subscriptions are also – literally – incomparable with any peer perpetual license. Trying to compare Office 365 and Office 2013 for consumers is actually relatively easy. Even comparing simple business licensing of Office 365 vs. on-premises isn’t that hard. Trying to do it in a large business, where it can intertwine with an Enterprise Agreement (enterprise-wide licensing agreement), is horribly complex and hard to compare.

Most subscriptions are offered in the hope that they will become an evergreen – something that automatically renews on a monthly or annual basis. Most of these are, frankly, awful, in my opinion. Let me explain why.

Recall the label on the outside of many packaged foods in the US. You know the one. Think about the serving size. This is the soda bottle or bag of chips where it says 2.5 servings, though most consumers will drink or eat the whole thing at one sitting. Consumers (and again, many non-IT business decision makers) are not really great about doing the long-term accounting here. A little Hulu here. A little Amazon Prime there. An iTunes Match subscription. Add on Office 365… Eventually, all these little numbers add up to big numbers. But like calorie counting, people often lose track of the sunk costs they’re signing up for. We wonder why America has a debt problem? Because we eat consumer services like there’s no bill at the end of the meal.

You don’t need to count every calorie – but man, you need to be aware before you have a problem.

I’ve become a big fan over the last several years of Willard Cochrane, an economist who spent most of his life analyzing and writing about the American family farm. Cochrane created an eponym, “Cochrane’s Treadmill”, which describes the never-ending treadmill that farmers are forced into. Simplistically, Cochrane’s Treadmill can be described as follows.

Farm A buys a new technology that gives them a higher yield, it forces down the market price of the commodity they produce. Farm B is then forced to buy that new technology in order to improve their yield in order to  even maintain the income they had before farm A bought that technology.

By acquiring the technology, Farm A starts an unwinnable race, where he (economically) is pitted against farmer B in trying to make more money, generally from the same amount of land. Effectively, it is mutually assured destruction. Work harder, pay more, earn less.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently trying to simplify my life. I’ve been working to remove software, hardware, and services that add complexity, rather than simplicity, to my life. As humans, we often buy things on a whim thinking (incorrectly), “this new <thing> will dramatically improve my life”. After all, the commercial told you it would! Often this isn’t the case.

Without getting off on an environmentalist hippie trip here, I’d like to circle back to farming for a second. Agricultural giants like Monsanto have inserted themselves into the farming input cycle in a very aggressive way. If we go back 100 years, farmers didn’t pay an industrial concern every year for pesticides, and they most certainly didn’t pay them an annual license fee for seeds (farmers are forbidden to save licensed genetically modified seeds every year, as they have done for millennia). As a result, farmers are not only creating a genetic monoculture that is likely more susceptible to disease, but they are subscribing to annual licensure of the seed and most likely an ever-increasing dosage of pesticides in order to defend against plants, insects, or other pests that have developed defenses against them. It is Cochrane’s Treadmill defined. Even worse, if a farmer wanted to discontinue use of the licensed seed, it’s unclear to me if they actually could. Monsanto has aggressively gone after farmers who may have even accidentally planted their seeds due to contamination. Can a farmer actually quit using licensed seed and not pay for it next year? I don’t know the answer.

I bring this up because I believe that it exemplifies the risks of subscriptions in general. Rather than a perpetual use right (farmers saving seed every year), farmers are licensing an annual subscription with no escape hatch. Imagine subscribing to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering and never being able to quit it? Whether in the form of carrots – “sweeteners” of sorts added to many subscriptions (such as the much more liberal 5 device use rights of Office 365), or sticks (virtualization or license reassignment rights only available with Microsoft Software Assurance), there are explicit risks of jumping into using almost any piece of software without carefully examining both the short-term use rights and long-term availability rights. It may appear I’m picking on Microsoft here. I’m not doing so intentionally – I’m just intimately, painfully, aware of how they license software. This could apply to Adobe, Oracle, or likely any ISV… and even some IHVs.

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

While I may be an Apple fan, and Apple doesn’t seem to be as bullish on subscriptions, one can point to the hardware upgrade gravy train that they have created and see that it’s really just a hardware subscription. If you want the latest software and services from Apple, you have to buy a new phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop within Apple’s set intervals or be left behind. Businesses that are increasing their use of Apple technology – whether they pay for it or leave it to the employee to pay for – should be careful too. Staying up-to-date, including staying secure, with Apple generally means staying relatively up-to-date with hardware.

In The Development of American Agriculture, Cochrane reasoned that <profits> “will be captured by the business firm in financial control”, and would no longer go to farmers. Where initially the farm ecosystem consisted of supplier (farmer) and consumer, industrial agriculture giants have inserted themselves into the process of commodity creation – more and more industrialists demanding a growing annual cut from the income of (already struggling) American farmers.

Whether we’re talking seeds/pesticides, software, utilities, or any other subscription, there is a risk and a benefit that should be clearly understood. But I believe that even more than “this year”, where the immediate gratification is like consuming the 2.5 servings I mentioned earlier, both consumers and especially businesses need to think long-term; “Where will this service be in 3 years?”, “Will we be paying more and getting less?”, “If we go there, can we get out? How?”

When you subscribe to anything, you’re not taking on a product, you’re taking on a partner. Your ability to take on that partner depends upon your current financial position and your obligations to that partner, both now and in the future. While many businesses can surely find the risk/benefit analysis of a given subscription works out in the subscriber’s benefit (if they are really using the service regularly, and it provides an invaluable function that can’t be built internally or completed by perpetually licensed technology), I believe that companies should be cautious about taking on “subscription weight” without sufficiently examining and understanding 1) how much they really need the services offered by that subscription, 2) what the the short-term benefits and long-term costs of the subscription really are, 3) the risks of subscriptions (cost increase and service volatility among them), and 4) how that subscription compares in terms of use rights, costs, and risks, with any custom developed or perpetually licensed offering that can perform similar tasks.

If it seems like I’m anti-subscription, I guess you could say I am. If you want a cut of my income, earn it. Most evergreen subscriptions aren’t worth it to me. I think too many consumers and businesses fall prey to the fact that “just subscribing” rather than building and owning a solution, or buying a perpetually licensed one, sounds easier, so they go that route – and wind up stuck there.

May 13

You can’t take it with you.

At the end of your life, you take nothing with you. You leave behind everything.

If you’ve spent your life taking, you leave behind a legacy of taking.

If you’ve spent your life giving, you leave behind a legacy of giving.

You decide. Every day.

May 13

The Cloud is the App is the Cloud.

During the last week, I have had an incredible number of conversations about Office 365 with press, customers, and peers. It’s apparent that with version 3.0 of their hosted services, as Microsoft has done many times before at v3.0, this is the one that could put some points on the board, if not take a lead in the game.

But one thing has been painfully clear to me for quite some time, and the last week only serves to reinforce it. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s not only confusion about Microsoft’s on-premises and hosted offerings, but simply confusion about what Office 365 is. The definitions are squishy, and Microsoft isn’t doing a great job of really enunciating what Office 365 brings to the table. Many assume that Office 365 is primarily about the Office client applications (when in fact only the premium business editions of Office 365 even include the desktop suite! Many others assume that Office 365 is only hosted services, and Web-based applications, along the lines of Google Apps for Business.

The truth is, there’s a medley of Office 365 editions among the 4 Office 365 “families” (Small Business, Midsize Business, Enterprise/Academic/Government, and Home Premium). But one thing is true – Office 365 is about hosted services (Exchange Online/Lync Online/SharePoint Online for businesses, or Outlook.com/Skype/SkyDrive for consumers), and – predominantly – the Office desktop application suite.

I bring this up because many people point at native applications and Web applications and say that there is a chasm growing… an unending rift that threatens to tear apart the ecosystem. I disagree. I think it is quite the opposite. Web apps (“cloud apps” if you like) and native apps (“apps”) are colliding at high speed. Even today it isn’t really that easy to tell them apart, and it’s only going to get harder.

When Adobe announced their Cloud Connect service last week, some people said there wasn’t much “cloud” about it. In general, I agree. To that same end, one can point a finger at Office 365 and say, “that’s not cloud either” because to deliver the most full-featured experience, it relies upon a so-called “fat client” locally installed on each endpoint, even though for a business, a huge amount of the value, and a large amount of the cost, is coming from the cloud services that those apps connect to.

To me, this is much ado about nothing. While it’s true that one can’t call Office 365 (or Cloud Connect) a 100% cloud solution, at least in the case of Office, each version of Microsoft’s hosted services has come closer than the one before to delivering much of the value of a cloud service, it continues to rely on these local bits, rather than running the entire application through a Web browser. With Office, this is quite intended. The day Office runs equally well on the Web as it does on Windows is the day that Microsoft announces they’re shutting down the Windows division.

But what’s interesting is that as we discuss/debate whether Microsoft and Adobe’s offerings are indeed “cloudy enough”, as they strive to provide more thick apps as a service, Google is working on the opposite, applications that run in the browser, but exploit more local resources. When we look at the high-speed collision of Android into ChromeOS, as well as Microsoft’s convergence of Web development into the WinRT application framework, this all begins to – as a goal – make sense.

In 1995, as the Web was dawning, it wasn’t about applications. It was about sites. It gradually became about applications and APIs – about getting things done, with the Web, not our new local networks, as the sole communication medium. Conversely, even the iPhone began with a very finite suite of actions that a user could perform. One screen of apps that Apple provided, and extensibility only by pinning Websites to the Home screen. Nothing that actually exploited the native power and functionality of the phone to help users complete tasks more readily. Apple eventually provided the full SDK that enabled native, local applications, which would still often connect out to the Internet to perform their role – when the Internet was available.

Windows has largely always been about “fat client” applications, even going so far as to have the now quite old – but once new and novel – Remote Desktop Protocol to enable fat clients to become light-ish weight, as long as a network connection back to the server (or eventually desktop) running the application was available.

I bring these examples up because the idea  of “cloud applications” or cloud services is, as I noted, becoming squishy and hard to explicitly define, though I have to personally consider whether I really care that deeply about when applications are or are not cloudy (or are partly cloudy?).

Users buy (or use) applications because they have a specific task they need to complete. Users don’t care what framework the application is written in, what languages were used, what operating system any back-end of the application is running on, or what Web server it is connecting to.

What users do care about is getting the task done that led them to that application to begin with. Importantly, they need productivity wherever it can be available. With applications that are cloud-only, when you have a slow, or nonexistent Internet connection, you are… dead. You have no productivity. Flying on a plane but editing a Word document? You need a fat client. Whether it’s Google Apps for Business running on a Chromebook (with caching), QuickOffice on an iPad, or Office 2013 Pro Plus running on a Windows 7 laptop, without some local logic and file caching, you’re SOL at 39,000 feet without an Internet connection.

Conversely, if you are solely using Microsoft Office (or Pages), and you’re editing that important doc at an airport that happens to have WiFi before a flight that does not have WiFi, you might be SOL if you don’t sync the document to the Web if you accidentally leave your laptop on board the flight afterwards, never to be seen again. Once upon a time, productivity meant storing files locally only, or hand-pushing files to the Web. Both Office 2013 and Apple’s iWork (through iCloud) offer great synchronization.

The point is that there is value to having a thicker client:

  • Can take advantage of local hardware, data, and services.
  • Can perform some level of role offline.

But there is value to taking advantage of the Web:

  • Saved state from application can be recovered from any other device with the application and correct credentials.
  • Can hook into other services and APIs available over the Web, pull in additional data sources, and collaborate with additional users inside or outside the organization.

But I believe that the merit of both mean that the future is in applications that are both local and cloudy – across the board. Many people are bullish that Chromebooks are the future. Many people think Chromebooks are bull. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. As desktop productivity evolves, it will have deeper and deeper tentacles out to the Web – for storage and backup, for extensibility, and more. Conversely, as purely Web-based productivity evolves, expect the opposite. It will continue to have greater local storage and more ability to exploit local device capabilities, as we’re seeing Chrome and ChromeOS do.

Office 365 isn’t a cloud-only service in most tiers. Nor do I ever really expect it to be. Frankly, though, Google Apps isn’t really a cloud-only service today – and I don’t expect it to go any direction except towards a more offline capable story as well. Web apps and native apps aren’t a binary switch. We won’t have one or the other in the future. Before too long, most Web apps will have a local component, and most local applications will have a Web component. The best part is that when we reach this point, “cloud” will mean even less than it means today.




May 13

Tools to optimize working on the Mac

A few weeks ago I wrote about gestures on the Mac vs. Windows 8. By and large, I’ve shifted to using my Mac with most apps in full-screen, and really making the most of the gestures included in OS X 10.8. It isn’t always easy, as certain apps (looking at you, Word 2011), don’t optimally use full-screen. Word has Focus mode (its own full-screen model) and now supports OS X’s full-screen mode – but not together. Meaning if you shift to Focus mode, gestures don’t work as well as they could, since Word is on the desktop. More importantly, when working on a project, I often need two or more windows open at once. For this, full-screen doesn’t work, but something like Windows 7 Snap is ideal.

I’ve found quite a few tools over the past few weeks that have made working on the Mac an enjoyable experience. Some of these (Pages, and Office for Mac 2011) I’ve owned for a while. But most are things I’ve purchased since I bought my 13″ Retina MBP. In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

  • BetterSnapTool (US$1.99) – Elegantly snaps windows to a quarter, half, or maximized screen on the desktop (or custom sizes/layouts, using the cursor, keyboard shortcuts, or by overloading OS X’s native window control buttons. This is an incredibly well done app, and I would have paid far more than US$1.99 for it. (BetterSnapTool does not interact with OS X’s full-screen model, unfortunately, but that’s a minor thing.)
  • ForkLift (US$19.99) – Okay, OS X’s Finder kind of stinks. It works fine for the limited needs of most users, and honestly it really seems that Apple is keen to largely kill off the Finder in due time. (Try to get to the root of a Mac’s HDD on Mountain Lion. Just try it.) Regardless, Finder doesn’t flex very far to meet the needs of power users. For this, I’ve turned to ForkLift, which provides a multi-pane file browser. Our workflow has me working with local files, an SMB server, and a hosted SharePoint 2007 server. Though I have found a few small glitches – especially with SharePoint – ForkLift lets me move files through our workflow with little special hoop jumping necessary for any given step.
  • FormatMatch (Free) – One of the most annoying things in Word is its insistence on asking you how you want to paste in text. There was a better way to configure this in earlier versions of Word, but in 2011, the so-called “smart cut and paste” is more annoying than smart. FormatMatch effectively strips out formatting  when you cut so it receives destination formatting when you paste. A configurable shortcut enables you to turn it off when you actually do want formatting to stay applied when you paste. Not perfect, but it was free.
  • Jump Desktop ($US29.99) – In my opinion, the best tool to RDP to a Windows PC or VNC to a Mac (or other system). I’ve used the iOS client for years. Very full-featured client, supports Microsoft’s latest operating systems as well as features like Remote Desktop gateways and folder sharing. Because there is no Visio application for the Mac, and frankly no equivalent (I mean that in both the good and bad sense of it), I use “Physical Desktop Infrastructure”, and RDP to my Samsung Slate in order to edit Visio documents, which I sync using SkyDrive. (Disclaimer: I won a free copy of Jump Desktop – but already owned it for iOS, so I would have surely bought for OS X in time.)
  • Lock Me Now (Free) – Says what it does, does what it says. At Microsoft, you learn to lock your desktop or face the wrath of peers (who send email to management telling them how good you are about locking your desktop!) For this reason, I got in the habit of hitting Windows Key+L as I walked away from my computer, beginning with Windows XP, when it was first added. OS X has no such feature, locking your computer generally requires you to use the mouse, or find some shortcutting tool or script to lock the desktop. With an easily configured shortcut, this app can lock your desktop (I use the logical Cmd+L).
  • Office 2011 (US$219) – I’ll start by saying I’m not a fan of Outlook 2011. I use the mail, contacts, and calendaring features built into the Mac, and appreciate that they play better with Time Machine, which I use to back up all of my Macs. But as to the rest of the applications, there is no alternative for an organization that has a workflow that revolves around Microsoft Office format documents – there really isn’t. While Office 2011 has some thoughtful features that even Office 2013 and Office 2010 are lacking, at 2 years old, it’s starting to feel a bit dated, as it fails to take advantage of native OS X functionality (or do so optimally, as I noted). I expect an update to Office for Mac in 2014, so we’ll see how far that goes to catch up to where OS X (well into 10.9 by then) takes us. I’m a bit concerned, but not surprised, that the new crop of business intelligence features (both those built into Excel 2013 today and those in preview for it) are Windows only, and there only on the enterprise licensed/Office 365 variants of the suite). I don’t expect that to change – but there again is another reason why Jump Desktop is worth so much to me.
  • Pages (US$19.99) – Yeah, go ahead, say it. I bought Pages for one reason (I own both the iOS and OS X versions of all iWork apps, FWIW, but primarily use Pages). That reason? The ability to easily write in Pages and export to ePub in a reliable way. I’ve also recently decided that the value I got out of Evernote (I rarely used the search functionality, but was paying for a note synchronization service with search) was surpassed by the better UI offered by Pages, which syncs between OS X and iOS devices. I can create groups of files that are visible to all devices through iCloud. It just works. If I had a PC I used regularly, or I needed search, it wouldn’t work, and Evernote would be the more logical choice. But that isn’t the case. A follower on Twitter asked why I don’t use OneNote instead – this is pretty easy to answer. OneNote is overpowered on Windows, underpowered on every Apple platform it is available on, and not available on the Mac. So it doesn’t fit my workflow at all.
  • Pomodoro (US$2.99) – Gimmicky user interface that really should be cleaned up and simplified, but does what it infers – it’s a Pomodoro timer that tracks work sessions and breaks. 
  • Scribe (US$12.99) – I love this tool. Way overpriced for what it does, but I couldn’t find a tool that did what I wanted any better than this. I have found a few nits that cause it to crash, but overall, the simplest, most pleasant outliner I’ve found. Great for brainstorming and organizing thoughts. You might be looking at this and my earlier mention of Visio and wondering why I don’t buy the OmniGroup’s tools for outlining and mind mapping. Because I think they’re tragically overpriced and overrated for what they provide.
  • SkyDrive (Free) – Use it to sync a queue of Office documents I’ve got in progress between my Macs, Windows 8 Samsung Slate, and my iOS devices. I can’t tell you how much I love having everything synchronized and being able to open docs in the Office Web Apps when I need to.
  • Streambox (US$4.99) – Exceptional Pandora client for OS X that runs in the main Menu of your Mac, and provides configurable shortcuts for interacting with the service.
  • VirtualBox (Free) – I was a fan of VMware for years. I used Workstation at Microsoft, Winternals, and CoreTrace extensively, and was a beta tester of VMware Fusion from the very beginning. But the product has gotten so expensive, and required almost annual upgrades that seemed to diminish in value to me over time. I no longer use virtualization as a key component of my workflow, but do need to fire up a virtual machine once in a while. So VirtualBox meets my needs perfectly. It’s not the prettiest virtualization solution for the Mac, but it is the cheapest, and it works fine for what I need.
  • Voila (US$29.99) – I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this tool that does an amazing job with screenshots, screen captures, audio, and more. It’s already proven quite useful for a few personal and work projects, though. Need to spend more time with it, but really like what I’ve seen so far.