28
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.


22
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.


15
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.


14
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.

 

 

 


08
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.

03
May 13

The Internet is Made of People.

Yesterday I read Paul Miller’s piece on The Verge, I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet.

Having decided not nearly as long ago (4 days) to take a break from Twitter and Facebook, I found the piece timely.

I recently decided to take a bit of a timeout from Twitter – and even more from Facebook – because I felt that the energy I put into them, and the negative energy I received from them was more expensive than any reward I received from them. Paul obviously did better than I at staying away.

For me, the value of most social networks is <meh>. LinkedIn serves as little for me other than as an on-line resume for people who want to know who I am. Facebook has turned into a drivel-fest; where it once served as a photo sharing hub for me to friends, but I recently realized I’m not that interested in a lot of the stuff people I follow post on Facebook “<LIKE> if you think this is a funny meme!” and political opinions that collide with my own. So even in just taking a few days off of actively posting to Facebook, I’ve realized that I don’t miss it that much. My plan for Facebook is as LinkedIn is to me now. I won’t destroy my profile, but I’m effectively done contributing to the network.

Twitter, however? Twitter is a different beast. I’m going to open up a bit here… For much of my life, even though I’m a pretty extroverted, gregarious, chatterbox of a person, I’ve been kind of lonely. I don’t have a ton of people I’d describe as true friends, but I do enjoy talking to people – in person, on the phone, or over the Internet. It provides me with a sense of connectedness, and of belonging. I really enjoy the connections I make, and conversations I have, on Twitter.

Many of us seek connectedness throughout our world. It helps us to feel that we belong, and helps us build our own community structure around ourselves that can help us feel stronger about our own emotional well-being. I feel, though, that many of the things we hear from others can make us feel that these connections are either unhealthy, or may portray us as “weak” in their eyes. I think this perception is more dangerous than the desire most of us have to find connections over the Internet.

The world today is comprised of fractured communities. Few families stay in one place for generations any longer. People move when and where their school, career, and professional opportunities require them to, and as a result, we often feel disconnected from the world immediately around us. As a result, many of us (myself included) reach out to the Internet to make us feel like we belong; LinkedIn to stay connected to former co-workers, Facebook to stay connected to friends and family we may no longer be geographically close to. Twitter has become my primary community building and knowledge-sharing tool. I have met so many interesting people who have taught me so much, and often inspired me so much over the last nearly 5 years (I joined Twitter on May 31, 2008), and have met several people who I would consider friends, at least as we define “digital friends” that know you pretty well, even without having met you in person. I do grow tired of Twitter becoming an echo chamber for news, politics, and technology rumors (especially incorrect information in all three categories); for this reason, I’m looking to change how I use Twitter a bit again, as I don’t want to let it consume more time than it really warrants – but I have yet to decide how that plays out. We shall see.

Twitter and other social networks are really just digital communities – networks of like-minded people looking to connect with each other – an Internet of people. As the Internet started by connecting together multiple private networks of computers to create a giant public network for the benefit of all connected to it, the Internet is changing how we communicate, collaborate, and build and maintain communities. Relationships that we would have felt 10 years ago required you to have worked closely with someone for years can exist solely in the digital realm now. As the Internet interconnected disparate systems around the world for their mutual benefit, it does the same for individuals. I believe it is important to not diminish the role that digital networks can play in our own well-being, and not allow ourselves to feel shamed about the fact that social networks can help us feel that we belong, and make us feel connected. The importance in balancing it lies in finding, building, and nurturing our offline relationships with family and friends as well as online. The risk to well-being comes when you aren’t keeping up the offline relationships – or fail to deal with things that are going awry – by burying yourself in online communities, games, etc. Like many things in life, moderation is the key.


23
Apr 13

On peanut butter and chocolate and APIs…

A friend recently posted a link to this blog. It’s an interesting read about where you should focus when building your app; should you have one app for each platform, or an API that goes as high up as possible into each platform?

In particular, he quotes the expression, “the API is the asset, the UI is simply throwaway”.

I get the point he’s trying to say. Platforms come and go – but an API should be designed to be durable. I kind of agree, and I kind of don’t. Let me explain.

When a developer builds an API, it generally exposes rough verbs that relate to user tasks. When a designer or developer builds an application, it should be entirely defined by the tasks that a user needs to complete, and ideally, take advantage of distinct benefits of each platform where the investment to comply with those hooks increases the ease of use of the application.

In a nutshell, you are designing an API to expose a service, and an application to deliver an experience. The goal of a good development team should be to take the API as high up the stack as the application will allow – without exposing the user to the flow of the API directly. Think of an old recliner with the padding crushed down over time. You feel every nuance of the springs or metal bars holding it together. A good application design provides the padding to shield the end user from that pain, without overstuffing it. You want to invest enough in the UI to deliver an experience representative of (your application + that platform). Perhaps the expression quoted isn’t intended to be so harsh towards the UI as to make it seem like a wood veneer appliqué, but that’s how I read it. It’s true – you want to make as much of your code as portable as possible (the API), but invest where you need to in order to provide the best experience (the UI).

The goal of the API is to provide structure, the goal of the user interface is to provide the abstraction between your API and the user experience your application seeks to deliver for that platform. Peanut butter and chocolate.


23
Apr 13

“Bring this country to its knees…”

“It’s increasingly likely that a small group of well-financed people are going to be able to really bring this country to its knees.”

I couldn’t agree more, which is why we shouldn’t let them be re-elected. Anyone willing to grab a pitchfork and stab the rule of law in the name of fear doesn’t deserve to hold office in this country.

 

Fox News: Republican lawmaker defends call to torture

(Linked from USA Today)

 

 

 


22
Apr 13

Learn one weird old trick to reducing your disappointment in life

Stop buying more stuff, believing that buying more stuff will make you happy.

 

Happy Earth Day.


16
Apr 13

Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion – separated at birth?


Alright – shake out the giggles from the title, and let me show you why I said that.

Until recently I had been using Windows 8 every day – and recently switched to a Mac (running 10.8 Mountain Lion) as my primary computing device. The more I have used Mountain Lion – especially with apps in full-screen mode – the more certain things felt subtly similar to Windows 8.

I believe that Mountain Lion is yet another step in Apple’s gradual (some might say slow) rhythm to converge the iOS and OS X platforms, as iOS devices become more capable and OS X becomes more touch friendly, but Apple is doing it in a very cautious way – slowly building a visual and functional perimeter around Mac applications to make them behave much more like iOS applications. I have a thesis around that, which I’ll try to discuss in another post soon. But the main point is that Apple and Microsoft are both shooting for relatively common goals – immersive applications available from an application marketplace that they control for their platforms – with an increasing emphasis on touch – or at least on gestures. I’m not going to say who cloned whom, as many of these are simply examples of multiple discovery, where Apple and Microsoft, largely now chasing common goals, implement similar features in order to achieve them. Let’s take a look at a few similarities.

Pervasive Cloud Storage

From the first time you sign on to Windows 8 or Mountain Lion, the similarities begin. On Windows 8, it tries the hard sell to get you to use a Microsoft Account for your identity – not linking it to a local account as you can do with an Active Directory account, but making your Microsoft Account a local account, and enabling you to synchronize settings (but currently not applications and the Start screen) between two or more computers.

Windows SkyDrive Sync

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t embed iCloud quite as in-your-face, and doesn’t use it to synchronize most settings (or Dock items – unlike its predecessor, MobileMe) but does embed it all over the operating system with several built-in features (such as Safari tab synching across OS X and iOS) Photo Stream, Notes, and Reminders, with applications also able to hook in on their own for storage. Unlike SkyDrive, iCloud (like the file system on iOS) is opaque, and not user navigable – only exposed through applications and operating system features that elect to hook into iCloud. Speaking of hooking into iCloud, some apps like TextEdit ask if you want to save new or existing documents locally or in iCloud (with a dialog that is, honestly, un-Apple-like).

iCloud Sync

Heads-up Application Launcher

Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion provide a “heads-up” approach to launching applications. With Windows 8, this is the Start screen. With OS X, it is Launchpad, first introduced with OS X Lion in 2011. Windows 8’s Start screen (love it or hate it), is a full-screen (usually multi-screen, continuously scrolling) launcher. This launcher can feature notifications and additional information from the applications themselves. Applications can be grouped, and “tiles” can be resized, but not combined into collapsible folders, and are somewhat fussy about placement. Windows does provide interactivity through the Start screen, in the form of Live tiles. See the Weather app below for an example of a Live tile, and Productivity as an example of a group. To my point about fussiness – note the Remote Desktop tile, and the two to its left. Remote Desktop cannot currently be placed underneath CalcTrek in that column – the Start screen always wants columns of a set width (one wide column or two double-width columns), not a single-width column.

Windows Start screen

Since OS X Lion (10.7, almost two years ago), Apple has included Launchpad, which is a feature that presents a (drum-roll, please) full-screen (usually multi-screen, individually paged, as in iOS) application launcher. Unlike the Start screen, Launchpad does not feature any sort of status for applications. They are a static “sea of icons” as Microsoft likes to say about iOS. Instead, notifications now use the Apple Notification Center, which is integrated into the shell. Launchpad application icons don’t ever have notification “badges”, say for reminders or new mail. Instead, notifications are available for applications that are in the OS X Dock or in Notification Center. One or more application icons in Launchpad can be grouped together into a folder, which can be named – just as in iOS. Here is Launchpad:

Launchpad

Intriguingly, OS X Mountain Lion added a much needed feature to Launchpad (which Windows 8 featured from the first day the public saw it), type to search the list of applications. Here is Windows 8 app search, and here is the same feature in OS X.

Application Store

File under “obvious comparison point”. Beginning with OS X Lion in 2011, the Mac App Store offered a limited selection of applications for free download or purchase. In Lion, these were effectively just Mac Apps that were willing to forego 30% of their sales revenue to be in the store (they didn’t have to live within tight constraints). In Mountain Lion, apps were forced to live within the confines of a sandbox, much like applications on iOS – where the damage one app can do to others, the operating system, or user data, is limited. Windows Store applications (WinRT applications) by definition must live within a very strict sandbox – in many ways more strict than the rules required beginning with Mountain Lion.

The Windows Store follows the same design paradigms as other Windows 8 applications. In general, the design of the Windows Store and the App Store on OS X are remarkably similar. A significant difference is that Windows Store applications can be – at the developer’s discretion – provided as trials. No such feature is explicitly available in the App Store, though some developers do achieve a similar goal by providing a free simplified or limited version of the application that is unlocked through an in-app purchase.

Here is the Windows Store:
Windows Store

Here is the App Store on OS X (running windowed, though it can of course run full-screen too):
App Store on OS X

Immersive Applications

Windows Store applications, by definition, are immersive. The full-screen user interface is designed to remove window chrome and let the application itself shine through. Windows Store applications must be either full-screen, snapped, or backgrounded. The next release of Windows is expected to add more window modes for Windows Store applications, but will still not add (back) overlapping windows – in other words, it will still be more like Windows 2.0 than Windows 3.0.

Here is an example of a Windows Store application, the immersive mode of Internet Explorer – which is only capable of being run full-screen or snapped with another app, not in a standalone window:

Modern IE

Here is an example of a full-screen application on OS X Mountain Lion. Note that not all applications can run full-screen. However all applications that can be can also be run windowed. Here is an example of Pages running full-screen on Mountain Lion:

Here is Pages with that same document in a window. The full-screen models of both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 feature hidden menus. The Windows 8 App bar as implemented for Windows Store applications is hidden off the screen to the top or bottom of the application, and can be implemented in wildly varying implementations by developers. The menus for full-screen applications in Mountain Lion are effectively the same Apple Menu-based menu that would normally appear when it was running not in full-screen. The main difference is that the Apple Menu in non Full-screen mode is detached – like Mac applications have always been. In full-screen mode, the menu behaves much more like a Windows application, stuck to the application running full-screen. The menu is hidden until the cursor is hovered over an area a few pixels tall across the top of the screen. Similarly, the Dock is always hidden when applications are running full-screen, until the cursor hovers over a similar bar of space across the bottom of the screen.

What is kind of fascinating to consider here is that Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8 is, in many ways, mirroring the functionality provided by a Lion/Mountain Lion full-screen application. It is one binary, with two modes – Windowed Win32, and full-screen immersive – just as Pages is displaying in the images shown and linked earlier.

Gesture-friendly

In “desktop mode”, both Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion focus more on gestures than previous releases of both. With a touch-screen or trackpad, Windows 8 is very usable (I believe more usable than it is with a mouse), once you have mastered the gestures included. Both have aspects of the shell and many applications that recognize now common gestures such as pull to refresh, pinch to zoom, and rotation with two fingers.

Windows 8 provides a single, single-finger in from the left, gesture to switch applications one at a time, which can be expanded to show a selection of previously run applications to be available, but also includes the desktop. Though I feel Windows 8’s app switching gesture to be limited, it works, and could be expanded in the future to be more powerful. Here you can see Windows 8’s application switcher.

I have used gestures in iOS for the iPad since they first arrived in a preview form that required you to enable them through Xcode. The funny thing about these gestures is, while they aren’t necessary to use on the iPad, they are pretty easy to learn, and can make navigating around the OS much easier. When I started using my rMBP with its built-in trackpad and a Magic Trackpad at my desk, I quickly realized that knowing those gestures immediately translated to OS X. While you don’t need to know them there either, they make getting around much easier. Key gestures are common between iOS on the iPad and on OS X:

  1. 5-finger pinch – iOS: “closes” application and goes to shell application launcher – OS X: Goes to Launchpad
  2. 4 finger-swipe left or right – navigates up or down the application stack of iOS applications/OS X full-screen applications, desktop, & Dashboard (which I disable, as I don’t find it useful).
  3. 4 finger swipe up (or double-press of home button) – on iOS, shows you the list of recent applications from most recent  to least (left to right). Swiping left moves you down the stack. Swiping right moves you up the stack (see 2, above). On OS X, this shows you “Mission Control”, which is effectively the same thing as iOS, just with desktop and full-screen applications included
  4. 3 or 2 finger swipe to the left while on the desktop exposes OS X’s Notification Center.
  5. 2-finger swipe in many OS X applications is used to navigate backwards or forwards, including Safari and the App Store. Regrettably, two-fingered navigation back and forth is not available in the Finder (a weird oversight, but perhaps a sign of the importance Apple feels about the Finder).

Here is OS X’s Mission Control feature, exposing two full-screen applications (iTunes and Pages) and three applications on the desktop (Reminders, Safari, and Mail):

Mission Control

The most fascinating thing here is that, while Windows 8 has been maligned for it’s forced duality of immersive-land and the legacy desktop, the Mac is actually doing the same thing – it just isn’t forcing applications to be full-screen (yet). Legacy applications run on the desktop, and new applications written to the latest APIs run full-screen and support gestures. Quick – was that sentence about Windows 8, or Mountain Lion? It applies equally to both!

I think it’s very interesting to take a step back and see where Apple has very gradually moved forward over the last several instances of OS X, towards a more touch and immersive model, where Microsoft took the plunge with both feet, focusing first on touch, while leaving the Win32 desktop in place – but seemingly as a second-class citizen in priority to WinRT and Windows Store applications.

The next several years will be quite interesting to watch, as I think Apple and Microsoft will wind up at a similar place – just taking very different steps, and very different timeframes, to get there.