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ISBS Review: The Apple iPhone

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

So one of my colleagues at work went out and bought an iPhone, allowing me to spend a solid block of time with it in fully functional mode (as opposed to a store demo, which limits what you can try). For those who are interested, here are some of my thoughts:

First, this is a rock-solid device. Many of the “chic” cell phones out there look cool, but feel really flimsy, like if you pressed on them really hard, they’d bend or break. The iPhone feels solid in your hands. It feels like it’s made of metal, not plastic. And while I didn’t try to scratch the surface of my colleagues device, all of the reviews I’ve read put that down as super-durable as well, and I saw nothing to contradict that claim.

On to the functionality. First, I have to say that every new computer I’ve ever bought has filled me with a level of excitement, and that excitement tends to wane quickly as I start to use it. It may be shiny and new, but in the end, it’s just a computer and it does basically what your old computer did, just faster and cooler. The iPhone was the same way. I was very excited to pick it up and play with it, but within fifteen minutes, I realized that it’s still a cellphone. It does what most cellphones do, just faster and cooler.

The “pinch/spread” functionality for pictures and webpages lived up to its expectations. I suspect that as two-touch displays become commonplace, these movements will become a second nature as pointing and clicking. My only complaint was that the graphics grew/shrunk a little too quickly for my taste, making it difficult to achieve the size you want without making a few correcting movements. I’m guessing this is adjustable (much as a mouse’s sensitivity is adjustable), but I didn’t go looking for how to do it.

The asynchronous voicemail is another landmark change that will shortly become the de facto standard. My only comment on this is that as voicemail becomes more like e-mail, the habits around maintaining it will change as well. For instance, my colleague had 15-20 voicemails sitting in her voicemail box. With a typical phone, people tend to empty their voicemail box, or at least pare it down to the messages they need to keep. If they didn’t, they’d have to punch in “next, next, next, next” to get through all the garbage before getting to the one they wanted. Now, with random access, there’s little to no harm in leaving voicemails hanging around (just like e-mail).

In other news, the web browser was also very impressive. By far the best web browser I’ve ever seen on a handheld device. At just about any size, the text on the pages was readable, and the images were clear. When you resize a webpage, it employs the old “fuzzy and then gradually clear” technique that used to be the mainstay of web graphics in the dial-up days. Again, just one complaint: the preferred view for reading a webpage is “zoomed out,” but the preferred view for interacting with it (e.g., clicking on buttons or links) is “zoomed in.” So, in navigating to a few pages, I found myself zooming in to click on something, then zooming back out to view/read the page. After a while, even the super-cool “pinch/spread” thing started to wear thin. I’m not sure how I’d have solved this, but there it is…

The iPod functionality is basically the same. The only new thing is the “flippable album cover” view that appears when you turn the device sideways while in iPod mode. This view, to be honest, was disappointing. It looks very cool, but the album covers flow too freely from left to right, making landing on the album you want very difficult. Both of us tried to pick a specific album cover, and while we eventually got it, we both had to try more than once to get there. If I owned one of these devices, I think I’d always use it in good, old-fashioned portrait mode.

Oh, and speaking about the gyroscope functionality, here are some interesting points. First, it only works in a couple of instances (web browsing, iPod mode, and maybe e-mail – I didn’t get a chance to try). Other places where you’d expect it, such as your picture library or some of your on screen widgets (e.g., YouTube), it is absent. Not a major complaint, but I throw it out there for your consumption.

Another interesting fact about the gyroscope: my natural position when holding the device is to hold it on about a forty-five degree angle to my body. If you do this and then rotate it into landscape mode, the image does not adjust. You need to stand it up closer to vertical (relevant to the ground), rotate it, and then tilt it back again to read. I’m sure I’d get used to its sensitivities in a day or so, but I did notice it the first time around.

Finally, the only thing I truly disliked about the iPhone: the on-screen keyboard. I’ve read reviews that say it’s not so bad, but I have to strongly disagree. Typing on it, I missed roughly one of every two characters I tried to type. My (female) colleague, instinctively types with her fingernail, so she doesn’t miss keys. At one point, she actually took the headphones out of the jack and typed with the headphone connector so she could move along more quickly. Again, maybe practice makes perfect, but I think they can definitely do better on this point.

So there are my thoughts. My cell phone is provided to me through my work and integrated with my work e-mail, so I’m limited to one of two RIM Blackberry devices. Unless I wanted a separate, personal cell phone, that puts me out of the market for an iPhone (that, plus the $1,200 it would cost in the first year). That said, I think the device will do well. Maybe not as well as everyone expects, but well enough that version 2.0, with several of the enhancements described above, will be an even bigger seller than this one.

Me thinks Apple is in the cell phone market to stay…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

ISBS Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

When Christopher Columbus directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he said this:

[Screenwriter] Steve Kloves, David Heyman … and myself are really [such] truly obsessive fans about the book that we wanted to protect it for the fans. We wanted all the people who love the books to feel like they were experiencing [the book] … as much as you can give [that to] them in a film. Obviously … I would have preferred to do all seven hours, but I know that that’s [not possible].

My, how far we’ve come.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is an excellent movie. It is fast-paced, action-packed, and holds your attention from the very first frame until the end (which occurs more than two hours later). The acting is by far the best of the series and the special effects are fantastic. All of that said, though, the film’s defining characteristic is going to be the extent to which it defies everybody’s expectations. To wit:

Despite it’s PG-13 rating, a lot of people will expect this to be a kid’s movie. It is most definitely not. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was PG-13 also, but this movie is vastly different. The fighting scenes are truly violent now (although with one exception, there is still no visible bloodshed). And the scenes were the characters get angry are often downright vicious. The interactions among Harry, Ron and Hermione, especially in the beginning of the film, were truly uncomfortable to watch. This stands as a compliment to the rapidly developing acting chops of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, but the fact remains that kids seeing the film expect these three to be best friends, and the film takes them through a range of emotions that includes true frustration and sometimes even hatred. Having read the book twice now, I did not come away from it with this feeling at all. In the book, arguments between friends come off much more like bickering. This is much more serious.

And speaking of the book, those who have read it are in for several surprises regarding the plot. Unlike Columbus’ obsessive need to be true to the text, this film strays quite far from what J.K. Rowling wrote. I’d go as far as to call it the first Harry Potter movie that’s based on the book, rather than being a film adaptation of the book.

(NOTE: I will now attempt to give examples without providing spoilers.
You have been warned).

All of the major plot points in the movie occurred in the book as well (i.e., it starts and ends the same way). However, many major subplots in the book are either missing from the film entirely or have been significantly rewritten. There is, for example, no Quidditch in the film at all. The Department of Mysteries has only one door, so all of the action that took place in the book behind the other doors is simply missing from the film. The High Inquisitor’s classroom inspections are done as a montage, and contain zero dialog between her and the teachers. The Divination teacher goes through her trials and travails as she did in the book, but a second Divination teacher does not appear or even get mentioned. None of the hospital scenes are included, so the rather major plot point about Neville Longbottom’s parents needs to be significantly rewritten in order to explain Neville’s actions later in the story.

The Order of the Phoenix itself, in fact, is merely mentioned and then wholly ignored throughout the film. There are no meetings at headquarters, no house cleaning, and no scenes with Kreacher the house elf (he makes a couple of cameos, but is completely unrelated to the plot, despite the rather major role he plays in the book).

All of this made it feel to me like the film makers were rushing through the plot in order to fit it all into two hours and eighteen minutes. I, for one, would have gladly sat through another forty-five minutes in order to get more of the exposition and dialogue that J.K. Rowling wrote for her wonderful array of characters.

And I guess that’s the bottom line: this is a long film, but I walked away wanting more. The source material for these stories is so rich and so strong, that one cannot help but be entertained by it.

I’m told David Yates will direct the next film as well, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half Blood
Prince, strikes a better balance between dark times and teenage fun and frivolity. This will give Yates a wider range of emotions to play with, and will likely result in a film that is even more entertaining than this one.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 3 Comments »

ISBS Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

There have been two movies in my lifetime that people kept insisting I must see. The first was Schindler’s List, which Spielberg expertly released right before the Jewish High Holidays, so that every rabbi in America would entitle his sermon, “You must see this movie.” Pretty powerful marketing strategy. As it turned out, I didn’t see it until years later, half out of defiance (I’ll see or not see whatever movie I damn well please, thank you very much…) and half out of the fact that I’ve really seen enough Holocaust movies to understand how awful it was, and really didn’t need another. They eventually put it on network TV, uncut and with no commercials, so I saw it then.

The second “must see” movie was An Inconvenient Truth. This one also waited about a year. Again, half out of defiance, but now half out of the fact that if my wife and I get a babysitter on a Saturday night, we’re going to see something more entertaining than Al Gore. Yes, even if it means destroying the planet. If you have young kids, you understand. This week, though, brought a business trip and a stop at Blockbuster (not in that order). So I watched the movie while sitting in a plane which flew up near the atmosphere and spit nasty, harmful chemicals at it. Take that, you green-niks!

I’m just kidding. In fact, the movie pleasantly surprised me. See, here’s the thing: Gore is working very, very hard to prove something that has already been proven true. And as anyone with any public speaking experience knows, when you’re backed up by the truth, you can speak for hours and make many compelling arguments in favor of your point of view. The result is a presentation that convinces everyone in the audience of something they already believed when they walked into the room. And as silly as that sounds, the communal “YES!” that comes along with it is very powerful.

What surprised me about the movie was how, well, moderate it was. Gore’s only point is that the earth is getting warmer, and that this is being caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and that this is being caused by the presence and activities of billions of additional humans, who generate carbon dioxide while doing everything from breathing to driving their cars. Gore does not advocate shutting down the airline industry, outlawing gasoline, or limiting the amount of toilet paper available per…um…sitting. (Note to Sheryl Crow: Yes, I know it was a joke. If you’re going around the country to clarify an issue that has been intentionally muddled by political opponents, how about you lay off the jokes, ‘kay?) All Gore wants us to do is understand that the problem exists, and do basic things to mitigate it. Things like conserve energy, use less gas, learn how to work your thermostat, etc.

Based on that message and that message alone, I think an objective view of the facts would suggest that he’s succeeding. Hybrid cars are appearing everywhere, major cities and large corporations alike are “going green,” and being personally enviro-friendly is becoming as chic as being anti-aerosol or anti-apartheid used to be. But an entire industry has developed around the cause, and the stakes have increased. In the movie, Gore quotes Upton Sinclair as saying, “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Given the current state of the Global Warming debate (and, by the way, Gore refers to it exclusively as “Global Warming.” He never utters the term “Global Climate Change”), I think we can also agree that this is true: “It is difficult to make a man believe that a problem has been solved when his salary depends on him working to solve it.”

If I had any problem with the film, it was Gore’s pathological need to be more than just right. He needs to be dramatic as well, even to the point of twisting the facts to do it. This, I believe, is what ultimately sunk him in his 2000 election bid, and it’s presence here is palpable. First, there are the truly inexplicable asides about the hardships he has endured in his life. We cover the near death of his son at the age of six, his controversial loss in the 2000 election (Yes, he lost. Please spare me the snark), 9/11, and the death of his sister, daughter of a tobacco farmer, due to lung cancer. All of these things, he says, made him dedicate his life to solving the global warming crisis. Of course, these things happened over a period of 30-40 years, during which time he was consistently advocating for global warming anyway, so we can only conclude that these scenes are in the movie purely to tug at our heartstrings. They are sad, yes, but I found them distracting. Also, I had to laugh at the various scenes of Al Gore “studying” global warming data on his laptop. A closer look at the machine clearly shows that he’s working in whatever the Mac’s equivalent of PowerPoint is, and he’s editing slides, not studying data. Setting aside the fact that he says he’s given this slide show over 1,000 times, so the slides are probably already set, I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money on the fact that Gore didn’t create any of these slides himself. Once again – dramatic effect over substance (or even honesty).

Turning more toward content, I noted the order in which he presented his data. First, the carbon dioxide levels, then the temperature, then the polar ice caps, drying river beds and horrific floods, and then the population explosion (for those who haven’t seen the movie, he points out that it took thousands of generations for the earth’s population to reach 2 billion, but in only three or four generations, it will go from 2 billion to 9 billion). It occurs to me that if he had shown this slide first, the entire argument changes dramatically. Everything else becomes a function of how many of us there are, and since no one is advocating for killing off 7 billion people, we almost have to look at ways to adapt to this new reality, rather than ways to stop/reverse it.

Also on the questionable content side was the much-previewed simulations of the highly populated areas going under water if nothing is done. Two examples caught my eye: Holland and the World Trade Center memorial site (note that it’s not Manhattan that goes under water, it’s the WTC memorial site – much more dramatic that way). These are ironic because both sites are currently below sea level, and both have been protected by technology that was invented decades ago. Holland has a much heralded system of levees that protects its sub-sealevel cities, and the World Trade Center was built inside a concrete “bathtub” that kept the water from rushing in. In fact, the land excavated to build the WTC was appended to Manhattan island and now supports the World Financial Center, all despite the fact that the water level around the WTC site is higher than the ground.

There are other, smaller things too (his citation of escalating insured damage in storms, which depends as much upon the value of the property in the storms’ path as it does on the strength of the storms, his criticism about our rejection of the Kyoto treaty, despite the fact that the economic impact on the US was so severe that the Senate rejected it by a vote of 99-0, and his criticism of an economic impact slide which he claimed weighed the desirability of gold bars against the entire planet, when clearly the graphic was meant to discuss economic impact vs. environmental impact – a legitimate topic no matter what side of the issue you’re on).

But again, these are minor criticisms, and speak more to Gore’s affinity for hyperbole than his overall point, which is that global warming exists, and we need to react to it. On that point, he was very convincing to just about everyone who watched the movie, except perhaps those who adamantly didn’t believe it going in, and who likely walked away unconvinced.

What’s important now that the movie is out there, is how we respond. The current strategy seems to be purely political – disparaging everyone who disagrees with anything Gore says, rather than discussing reasonable alternatives (or even, heaven forbid, market opportunities) for how to deal with the issue.

I’ve compared global warming to Y2K before, and I remain convinced they are similar. In the coming years, steps will be taken to address the issue. These steps will prevent the predicted calamities from occurring. And fifty years from now, someone will look back at the movie and call Gore an alarmist who predicted massive flooding, population displacement and death that never came. And like the thousands who worked so hard to address Y2K, he will have provided an invaluable public service that will go largely un-thanked.

Such is the way of things, I guess…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

ISBS Tech Guide: The ISBS Review of Windows Vista

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

By now, you’ve probably read several dozen reviews of Windows Vista. When I first started using it, I was tempted to join in as well, but I decided I should spend some time with it first and then offer my opinion. So here you go – a review of Windows Vista that’s based on what it’s like to use the OS on a day-to-day basis, not on the results of some laboratory diagnostic test:

It’s Good.

It’s not a buggy piece of crapware, and it’s certainly not awesome, spectacular, or life-changing (anyone who describes an OS that way is either trying to sell you something, or is such an irrational fan of Steve Jobs that he/she would use the same words to describe the iBrick). Ironically, Microsoft’s advertising campaign goes about as far as I would take it: “Wow.” And even then, only “Wow” to a couple of things. In every other aspect, Vista basically does it’s job and does it well.

The first “Wow” is the Windows Aero design. The edges of the windows are translucent, so when you drag one on top of the other, you can see a blurry image of the back window around the edges of the front window. To be sure, this is more cool looking than it is useful, but I must admit, it is extremely cool looking. If the WinXP windows looked like index cards scattered across the desktop, then these look like Shrinky Dinks, or, to use an even geekier reference, like Tom Cruise’s Minority Report computers.

The second, and much more useful, “Wow” is the Flip 3D and Live Icon features. Flip 3D is that three-dimensional rolodex interface that you’ve seen in the advertisements. Rather than using Alt-Tab to cycle through the icons of open applications, Vista lets you use Start Key-Tab (that’s the key with the flag on it – situated right near the Alt key on most keyboards) to see a 3D rolodex of the live content on each open window (including animation, video, moving status bars, etc.). When you recognize the one you want, you just release both keys and that window animates to the front.

All of the other icons in Vista are also improved. When you Alt-Tab, Vista shows you thumbnail versions of the live content, rather than those old, static app icons. If you mouse over the minimized applications on the task bar, you also see these live content thumbnails. IE7′s Quick Tabs feature shows you the open web pages in live content thumbnails. And inside the windows themselves, the icons for unopened files reflect the first page of the document, a thumbnail of the picture, or the first frame of the video, depending on the file type.

I know this sounds like pure “Wow,” but I found it a huge productivity boost in two ways. First, it’s much, much easier to recognize a window’s content than it’s icon/title, which is all you had to go on in Windows XP, so choosing/switching applications is simpler and faster. Second, you can check the status of a long running process (e.g., a DVD burn, a backup, a large download) without having to switch applications and interrupt your train of thought. It’s also noteworthy that these features only run on machines with high-powered graphics cards and fast CPU’s. At lower resolution or slower speeds, these “preview” features would look chintzy and add almost no value, and so Vista disables them automatically.

Another very useful (although much less “Wow”) feature is the breadcrumb functionality in each window’s address bar. Rather than the traditional “tree” structure taking up real estate on the left side of the window, Vista shows you each node in the current path, and provides a navigation arrow for each one. So if you’re currently in the Documents/Excel/Finance/2007/Budgets folder and you want to switch to the Documents/Word/Reports/ folder, all you have to do is click the arrow next to Documents in the address bar and select Word, then select Reports in the newly opened view.

Back on the “Wow” side of the spectrum is the Windows Sidebar. Current OS X users will find it a patent violation familiar, while long-time Windows users will enjoy the slick user interface and the wide array of available “Gadgets.” Microsoft’s Windows Live Gallery will let you browse a few thousand of them, and then download them directly into your Gadget inventory, ready for use. I also downloaded an application called Amnesty Generator, which allows me to convert (most) Google gadgets (intended for the Google Desktop) to Vista gadgets. Between these two libraries, you could easily fill up the sidebar on a portrait-shaped 24″ monitor (more on that in a future Tech Guide post!)

I’m leaving out a bunch of things, of course, and I’m sure there are more surprises tucked away for me to eventually find. Two things in particular, Vista’s search capabilities and its new security strategy, fall so squarely into the “Wow” + “useful” category that they warrant their own Tech Guide entries, so you’ll have to come back to hear about those as well.

Bottom line: if you’re in the market for a new PC, buy it with Vista pre-installed. Everything interesting that happens to Windows (and Windows software) in the coming decade will happen to Vista. If you buy something else now, you’ll kick yourself later. If you’re happy with your current PC, though, then wait a while. It’ll be around when you’re ready to upgrade. If you need some “Wow” before then, go rent Minority Report.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | No Comments »

ISBS Review: The New Blogger

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Like many Blogger users, I’ve been wary about switching to the new Blogger tool, primarily because the old tool did just about everything I wanted it to do. But I also read this Instapundit post which pointed to a string of problems Ann Althouse was having with the new Blogger, which in turn pointed to some problems reported by her commenters. Now granted, it’s not a random sample (complaints always seem to draw other complaints), but given the lack of a burning platform, a couple of bad reviews was enough to keep me from switching.

Then, last weekend, I was doing some blog maintenance on a friend’s computer. I went to Blogger.com and got the usual “Click here to switch” message. Except this time, the option to proceed with the Old Blogger tool wasn’t there anymore, so I was forced to switch immediately.

This was a little disconcerting, since I was in the middle of a nice weekend with friends, and really didn’t have a lot of time to mess around with Blogger if things didn’t work well. I understand the desire to move everyone to the new platform and all, but a warning would have been nice. You know, something along the lines of
WARNING: After February XX, the Old Blogger tool will no longer be available.” Then I’d have been able to switch on my own terms.

At any rate, I’m happy to report that my switch went flawlessly. The fact that my blog only has ~350 entries (as opposed to Ann Althouse’s 7,000) might have had something to do with it, as might the fact that I waited until the big bugs were flushed out. Either way, (potential) disaster avoided, so that’s a good thing.

So, what do I think of the new tool? Not bad, but no great shakes.

The ability to categorize posts is nice, and the interface for updating categories on old posts seems very straightforward. I could probably categorize all ~350 of my posts in under an hour, assuming it took less than that long to figure out what categories I wanted to use. The thing is, in my years of reading blogs, I’ve never once clicked on a category link to view only a portion of the entries, so I’m not particularly motivated to categorize mine. Maybe if I had thousands of entries and thousands of new readers every day, it would make sense to organize the data that way, but at my current pace and readership, it’s probably a waste of time.

(NOTE: If anyone disagrees strongly, let me know.
I’m happy to bow to popular demand if such a thing exists).

Other improvements:

The main page allows you to go directly to the post management, settings management, or template management pages. Nice touch, but it only really saves me one click.

The Manage Posts page, in addition to adding categorizing features, now provides links to comments for each post, so I can scan the list to find the posts with comments. This is only useful if I’m perusing the blog at work, and don’t have access to my home e-mail, which notifies me whenever a comment comes in. Again – nice touch, but not revolutionary.

The post editor has a “View Rich Text” feature that may or may not have been there before (I’m honestly not sure). Either way, it’s pretty useful when you’re dealing with a lot of HTML (example: the first paragraph of this post – the one with all the links – was much easier to edit in Rich Text mode than in HTML mode).

There’s supposedly an ability to have multiple authors post to the same blog, but I haven’t seen evidence of that yet, nor have I looked real hard. Again, I don’t need the feature, so it’s a low priority investigation for me.

I’m also told that publishing has been streamlined, although this is the first post I’ve done in the new tool, so I’m about to find out. Hold on a sec…

OK, I’m back. The process is different, but I can’t say it’s noticeably faster. It used to show you a % Complete meter, and then give you a Your Post Has Been
Successfully Published message. Now, you get a spinning icon (no more percent meter), but then you get a report that details exactly what files were FTP’ed to your server (in my case: the blog post itself, the RSS feed, the Atom.xml file, the blog’s main page, and the current monthly index). As above, a small and rather insignificant change.

In summary: They’ve added a few new features, but nothing miraculous. I’d have been happy to stay with the old tool, and I’m still a little miffed about being forced to switch without warning, but I’m just as happy using this new tool as I was before. So no harm, no foul.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | No Comments »

ISBS Review: “All My Life” by Billy Joel

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Billy Joel’s new single was released today on People.com of all places. The site allows you to send it someone as a Valentine’s Day card.

So much to say here. First, let’s start with a review:

This is a classic ballad. And by classic, I mean straight out of the 1940′s. The artist that came to mind immediately was Tony Bennett. If you like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” you’ll love “All My Life.” Joel’s voice sounds incredible – a truly amazing tone, given his age and his recent health problems. The lyrics are a little sappy in places, but I don’t think that will matter. In the end, it’s going to be a hit on the soft rock charts, and probably on the pop charts too, but only because it’s Billy Joel and he hasn’t released anything in more than 13 years. One thing’s for certain – it’s going to be one of the most popular “first dance at our wedding” songs in a lot of years. It has exactly the right feel for that sort of thing.

In the end, my fervent hope is that it brings him tremendous success, and that the success gives him the “bug” to get back into the studio and record more popular music. It’s been too long since we’ve heard anything new from Billy Joel, and this song made me realize I’ve missed that. So come on, Billy, how about an entire album? Whaddaya say?!?

One other thought: this one on the geekier, more technical side:

The People.com link is the entire song, not just a clip. And it provides functionality to send it to someone else. That means I’m about 6 clicks away from making a perfect digital copy of the song & dropping it on my iPod for free.

That said, two weeks from now, the song will be available for sale on iTunes Music Store, assumedly for 99 cents. Unless I find myself inspired and with some free time on my hands in the next two weeks, I’ll probably just kick in the 99 cents and buy it on the 20th.

My, how far we’ve come. If this song sells well on iTunes, or at Amazon, or wherever else they’re planning on offering it, I think it will be conclusive proof that the horror stories the RIAA has been telling us about music pirating are officially bullshit. This is a new recording from one of the most successful artists of all time, available for free to anyone who wants it, and yet people are poised to pay money for it for the convenience of not having to deal with audio-ripping software. How far we’ve come, indeed…

UPDATE: For those looking for the lyrics to the song, they’re here.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk, Words about Music | 1 Comment »

ISBS Review: Google Analytics

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

To quote the late, great Peter Boyle, “Holy Crap!” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a word, “Wow.” In another word, “Awesome.” And then there’s “Cool” and “Slick” and, well, you get the idea. Google Analytics is a service provided by Google to track statistics about your website. It’s easy to use and the results are user-friendly, visually pleasing, and extremely informative.

While I still don’t have full access to my server logs, I do have a level of data analysis that approximates what some of the server-side aggregation tools provide. And, as is Google’s style, it’s very easy to use, easy to setup, and oh yes, lest I forget: free.

Read the full review (including screen shots) over in the Ramblings section.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | No Comments »

ISBS Review – MacWorld 2007 Keynote Address

Friday, January 12th, 2007

No, I wasn’t there. But I did read engadget’s liveblog, and have some thoughts on what Steve Jobs had to say:

1) Microsoft Bashing
Saith Jobs:

Our retail stores are selling half their Macs to people who’ve never owned a Mac before. Switchers. More than half the Macs sold in the US are to switchers.

OK, I know he’s speaking to a very biased audience, but I’m surprised no one in the press called him out on this. He’s suggesting that people who’ve never owned a Mac before are “switchers” (people switching from a Mac to a PC). But what about people who have never owned a computer before? Like, for instance, high school or college students buying their first machine. I don’t have stats readily available, but I’m guessing Mac’s market share among this crowd is 3-5 times its overall market share. Which makes his claim about switchers not only wrong, but very wrong.

On a related note, we have this:

We had a new competitor this holiday season, Microsoft’s Zune. How’d they do? They garnered 2% market share in November 2006… We don’t have data for December. No matter how you try and spin this, what can you say?

This was apparently followed by a video of a Zune bursting into flames. Here’s my question: what do you think Microsoft’s target penetration was for Year 1 of Zune? I’d be surprised if it was much more than 2%, given the iPod’s 60-80% dominance in the space. Heck, later in his talk, Jobs boldly predicted that the iPhone would take 1% of the cellphone market in Year 1, and that market doesn’t have a dominant leader like iPod. I guarantee someone at Microsoft has already created the internet commercial showing an iPhone bursting into flames after obtaining 1% of the market…

2) Apple TV
Like all Apple products, the physical device looks super cool. I’m also a huge fan of the onscreen menu, designed to look just like the iPod’s. It might not have been the best interface for television in a greenfield, but since it’s so ubiquitous now, it’s instantly understandable by millions (particularly their target audience). So nice job there.

I think they’re going to sell eleventeen billion of these suckers right out of the gate. But I think they’re going to be surprised about how people use them. To wit: you can download content directly off the internet, you can synch content with your computer, and you can stream (but not synch) content from 4 other computers. So, question: why, except in rare cases, would you store videos locally on your AppleTV, as opposed to storing them somewhere on the internet? Or, if privacy’s your thing, why not just store it on your computer & then stream it to the AppleTV when you need it? Basically, I’m predicting that the 40GB of storage is a bit of a waste. Also, the stream-but-don’t-synch rule is the most half-hearted attempt at DRM I’ve ever seen. Most folks that buy this device will have wireless internet connections, right? So if I want to watch a video on my friend’s AppleTV, I can stream it. But if I want to give him the video, I simply have to upload it to a web server, and then have him pull it down off the web with the AppleTV and store it locally. No extra hardware or software needed, and only a little bit of tech expertise.

3) The iPhone (soon to be called the ApplePhone)
Again, this device looks extremely cool. Thin, high-resolution, fully-featured, and with that “just works” quality that Apple is famous for. They’ll sell five times as many of these as they do AppleTV’s. But I’ll never buy one.

Why not? Because they didn’t solve my deal-breaker problem: I don’t want to listen to music for a few hours, get where I’m going, and find out my phone is out of batteries because of all the music I’ve been listening to. Also, as a Blackberry user, I’ve learned very quickly that different applications use the battery at different speeds. With the Blackberry, I’d probably get five hours of talk time if that’s all I did. But if I’m surfing the web, I can drain the thing in around two hours. When the battery gets low, I have to curtail my web usage so I still have a phone in case I need one. It’s the worst of all combo-unit problems, and someone needs to solve it soon.

Ironically, Jeff Porten predicted what sounds like a perfect solution – two batteries. One for the phone, one for everything else. So one of two things is happening here: either Steve Jobs isn’t reading The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy (and really, who’s doesn’t?), or someone decided it was more important for the device to be paper thin than to have two batteries.

Second point: I’m very, very curious to see what kind of coating the surface of this thing has. They’re telling people to touch it all day long, drag their fingers around on it (including all manner of poorly manicured fingernails, dirt, sweat, etc.) AND they’re telling them to put it up to their faces, complete with scratchy 5 o’clock shadow beards, more dirt, more sweat, etc. And this is the next generation of a device I wouldn’t even breathe on unless it was inside it’s clear plastic, protective case! Hopefully, at least one of their 200 patents was for scratch-proof surfaces…

Other things: Cingular as the sole provider. Jeff outlined some problems with this, although as I said in his comments, it doesn’t surprise me, since this is how most cellular devices work these days. When iPhone is a huge success, I’m sure you’ll eventually see a T-mobile compatible version. Then, we’ll first start discussing “exclusive” content & features. That’ll be fun.

Oh, and the pricing: $499 isn’t so much, given what it does. But this logic about buying a $199 Nano and a $299 phone, combined into one device at “no premium” is pure spin. This thing costs them less to make than two separate devices. They’re charging that much because they think people will pay. Plain & simple…

So, to summarize: Great product. Lots of potential pitfalls. Version 2 (or 3, or 4) will probably feature more memory, longer battery life, improved scratch-resistance, etc. and is probably the right move for the money-conscious customer. That said, lots of folks are going to “have to have it” right now, so look for killer success once again…

4) Corporate Strategy
To me, this was the most interesting thing in the keynote address:

So, today we’ve added to the Mac and the iPod, we’ve added Apple TV, and now iPhone. And you know, the Mac is the only one you really think of as a computer, and we’ve thought about this and we thought, you know, maybe our name should reflect this better than it does. From this day forward we’re going to be known as Apple, Inc. We’ve dropped the computer from our name.

I think this is HUGE news. Why? Because it signifies two things:

First, that Apple is finally entering the fray as a world-class technology company. It’s computers have always been niche products, hovering below the 10% market share threshold, even though their technology is typically superior to the competition. It’s iPods, though, are category leaders, and they target the entire market: Mac & PC. The new products they introduced this year, AppleTV and iPhone, both target the iPod community much more than the Mac community (as a Windows user, I can use all the features & functionality of both devices). That means they’re attacking the mass market, and that means the future is very, very bright indeed for Apple. In fact, I can now see the day where Apple gets out of the desktop/laptop business altogether (likely by splitting it off into a separate company & selling it to Dell or HP). Apple can continue to produce OS X and license it to the hardware guys (like Microsoft did with MS-DOS), and then focus on the mass-market, high revenue markets of music players, streaming TV devices and phones. Very, very cool.

Second, it means that Steve Jobs has found a very clever way out of the box the Mac Zealots had put him in. They winced at Intel chips, and mocked Windows on a Mac. But no one complained about the Windows version of iTunes, and no one is even mentioning the non-exclusivity of the iPod, the AppleTV, or the iPhone. Jeff and I have debated many times the reputational disaster that would occur if Apple tried to leave it’s niche behind and go mass-market with its computers. We’ve talked about rebranding new products, sheltering the coveted Apple name, playing up to the zealots while pitching to the Windows crowd (like Disney did with Touchstone, etc.). Jobs has done a truly masterful job of achieving the same thing without changing brands. His new products have been so “Mac-like” in appearance and so undeniably successful, that the mass-market availability of them flew under the zealot radar and is now gone forever.

A couple years back, Apple sold more iPods than Macs for the first time. I’m sure that margin has grown since. And these new devices will expand it even further. In 3-5 years, when people talk about Apple’s product line, the Mac will hardly be worth mentioning. And despite the zealot cry, that’s a very good thing…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

ISBS Review: Internet Explorer 7

Friday, November 24th, 2006

That automatic updating feature of Windows XP kicked in the other day with an “update ready to be installed.” As has been my policy since buying this PC, I said yes.

Side note: I’ve noticed over the years that the people who complain the loudest about Windows crashing all the time are precisely the people who frequently install third party hacks, mess with the registry, or ignore recommended patches/fixes/upgrades, all because they “know what they’re doing.” The version of Windows running on my machine has been handled exactly as Microsoft has recommended I handle it, and it’s fit as a fiddle. I’m not saying OS’s shouldn’t be able to handle these kinds of people, just that Windows performs much better when you’re a “good user.” Now, back to our story)

This particular update was an upgrade for Internet Explorer to the newly released IE 7.0. I had read about the new features and always figured I’d get around to downloading it, but never really had the time. It seems my OS took it upon itself to download it for me while I was sleeping/working, so what the heck – one click and I was on my way. If Firefox or Safari could offer this feature, I’d have all three on my desktop for sure. As it stands, we’re witnessing the true power of the Microsoft monopoly at work here, and quite frankly, I’m fine with it. All it means is that competitors have to make me care more than the incumbent does, which is basically how every other product in the world works.

Anyway, I haven’t played around a lot with all the features of IE 7.0, but here are my first impressions:

1) Tabs are cool
And yes, I know they’ve been around a while and Microsoft is only stealing the good ideas of others & taking all the credit, but I’m glad they’re here. The Quick Tabs tab is pretty cool as well – it gives you a thumbnail of each of the open tabs, from which you can click to go to that tab, or click the “X” to close it. I just know that’s going to come in useful as time goes on. Also useful and vastly under-reported: Outlook is very well integrated into tabbed browsing. If you’re reading an e-mail with multiple links in it, and you click on each one, they don’t open in separate browsers, or even “overwrite” themselves in the same tab. They open in multiple tabs of a new browser session, so that all of your related web pages are available in close proximity. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice touch.

2) ClearType is also cool
I think this has been around for a while, but it automatically installed with IE7. Basically, it improves the readability of the Windows fonts, especially when they’re bold, italics, etc. It’s still not as smooth looking as the Mac experience, but it’s a whole lot closer than it used to be. My only small complaint here is that in order to have my web pages “ClearTyped,” I have to have my Windows desktop the same way. The background image I have on my desktop (a picture my kids drew for me a while back), makes the filenames on the desktop show up in a white-on-white scenario, and ClearType makes that harder to read. It’s a small complaint, and one caused predominantly by me & fairly easy to fix, but heck – it’s my review, so I get to complain, OK?

3) Finally, an integrated RSS reader
I know, I know – another idea stolen from other, superior browsers. Fine, whatever. It’s kind of cool here. I tried a standalone RSS browser once, but gave up right away because a) who wants to run a separate app, and b) I don’t always check my blogs from the same machine (sometimes from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from the laptop). My RSS reader of choice since then has been my “My Yahoo!” page, which has a very cool interface and is accessible from any machine. My only complaint with it was that the feeds update on some weird schedule that I haven’t been able to figure out yet, so I can’t trust them when they say there have been no updates, which means I have to click into each blog separately anyway. Once I’m doing that, what’s the point of the RSS reader? IE7′s RSS feed has a “Refresh All” command, that bolds the names of the feeds that have new content, and allows me to see how many new entries there are with a rollover. It’s a nice, compact UI that does exactly what I need. Good job, folks…

4) Security seems better
The tabs turn colors based on security risk (grey for “OK”, yellow for “suspect”, red for “phishing site”, etc.). I honestly haven’t played with this too much, because I don’t need to visit invasive sites just to test out the browser, but the approach seems sound. My complaint in this area is on the handling of files on the hard drive. My homepage has been a file on my hard drive for years (basically a bookmark file on steroids – a page with lots of links). IE7′s default is to apply the highest form of security to these files, on the assumption that if an evil-doer gets a file onto your hard drive, they’ll be able to stop it from doing any damage. Kind of a “last line of defense” thing. As a result, each time I went to my homepage, I got a warning which said “This page is not allowed to run scripts or ActiveX objects.” I could ignore the warning if I weren’t so obsessive-compulsive about these things, so I found myself right-clicking on the warning and choosing “Allow Blocked Content” each & every time I went to my homepage. Finally, I changed the setting to allow the scripts & objects to run off the hard drive, and the problem went away. What I really want is for the browser to be smart enough to know that the hard drive file contains no scripts or ActiveX, and not display the message. That way, I’d be perfectly happy leaving the security at its highest setting.

5) Search is no big deal
A lot of noise was made before the product was released about how Google search is defaulted on the toolbar in the upper right corner of the app. In response, Microsoft put a dropdown arrow on the search button, which gives you two additional options: “Find more providers” and “Change Search Defaults.” This seems to have placated the monopoly gods for now. My opinion? Meh. I have the Google toolbar installed right below it, and I suspect that if I were a rabid Yahoo or MSN fan, I’d download their toolbar the same way, so I’d happily shut off the search box entirely if I could find an easy way to do it. Either way, it’s not getting in my way or pushing a particular provider on me in any meaningful way.

6) They need to fix the focus changing method
The browser is divided into sections (menus, toolbars, tabs, and web pages). I know this because when you click in each section, the first click puts that section in focus, and the second click takes the action you want. So, if I’m browsing a web page, and want to click my “Home” button, the first click “lights up” the toolbar, and I have to click again to actually get Home. I’m sure I’ll get used to this very quickly, but I shouldn’t have to. It’s a simple fix, and I’m sure enough people will complain that they’ll get around to fixing it soon enough.

7) Browsing is faster, but loading the browser is slower.
Each of the above mentioned sections seem to start up one at a time. When I open the browser, I first get a web page view with only the back/forward buttons and the address box. Then, the tabs appear, followed by the toolbars, and finally, the menu. All of this happens in rapid succession, but it’s still obvious that it’s running some routine each time it loads to check my settings & configure my UI appropriately. That kind of thing should be figured out before the window opens, and then the whole thing should “POP” together. Again, a minor complaint, but enough that I noticed it right away.

8 ) My mouse’s scrollwheel doesn’t seem to work right
When I scroll with the mouse’s scrollwheel, the page keeps scrolling long after I stop. And if scroll in two directions (e.g., up and then down), the page does a rather entertaining little dance before it finally calms down and gives me back control. I tried futzing with the Control Panel “Mouse” section, but nothing I do seems to work. I have a Logitech MouseMan Wheel mouse (model #M-CW47). Any chance anyone out there has a solution to this? I know, I have to spend some time with Google…

9) The placement of the Windows menus are annoying
The toolbars in IE7 are configurable, just like any other Microsoft app. But the back/forward buttons and the address bar, along with Refresh, Stop, and Search, are pegged to the top line. That means the menus (File, Edit, View, etc.) can only go as high as second line, with the various toolbars and tabs below that. Having the menus in the middle doesn’t look/feel right. Again, I’ll get used to it, but I shouldn’t have to. Menus should be on the top, just below the window’s title. And golf balls, dishes and underwear should all be white. Yes, I’m an old-fashioned codger. So shoot me, why dontcha?

That’s about all right now from the top of my head. I still want to play around a bit. There are lots of new features (particularly around the tabs: the ability to bookmark a set of tabs and then open them all with one click, the ability to close groups of tabs with one click, the ability to set a link to default to a new tab, etc.) that I have just started discovering, or have read about but haven’t found yet. So I’m sure, like any new toy, there will be pleasant & unpleasant surprises. I’ll let you know if any are of note.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | 8 Comments »

ISBS TV Review: Studio 60

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

Studio 60, the latest Aaron Sorkin drama, debuted last night on NBC. The premise is a backstage look at the people who produce a live sketch comedy show (read: Saturday Night Live) on the NBS (read: NBC) network. There’s even an announcer with a distinctive voice (read: Don Pardo) and a snappy combo band (read: G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band). The show’s executive producer (read: Lorne Michaels) gets fed up with the Standards & Practices board during the taping of a live episode, and goes out on stage and rips the network to shreds. He’s immediately fired and replaced by two former Studio 60 writers, one of whom just ended a romantic relationship with one of the show’s stars, and the other of whom has just lost a movie deal over a failed drug test. Not only that, but the woman who hired them has just assumed the role of Network President, and her brand new boss (the Network Chairman) fired them some time earlier over creative differences.

My expectations were high, given how much I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work on The West Wing and given the presence of a few West Wing Alumni – Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield and Matthew Perry, as well as Tommy Schlamme and Chris Misiano (directors). Suffice to say, the pilot exceeded all of those high expectations.

The writing is sharp, brisk, and contains that under-current of wit that made The West Wing so good. Sorkin doesn’t just throw in a joke here and there, he adds funny lines in the middle of serious drama (example: Jordan McDeere, brand new network president, who says to her boss in a tense meeting, “Let’s talk about this in my office!”, stomps out into the hall, and then confesses to him that she doesn’t know where her office is). He also creates some genuinely funny sitcom-like scenes, without overshadowing the dramatic tone of the show (example: Perry’s character wins a writing award while he’s talking about his break-up with the Studio 60 star. Whitford hugs him (for winning the award), and Perry thanks him for being such a good friend at this, his time of need). That kind of “mis-understanding gag” is straight out of Three’s Company, but it’s subtle enough that it works in the drama.

And there’s plenty of drama. All of this subtle humor serves as highlights to some deliciously complex ironies that are weaved into ongoing story lines. For example, see if you can follow this: Perry’s character is hired because the previous producer lost a fight with the standards board, but we find out that he broke up with the show’s star because she offended his morality while promoting her album of religious Christian music, given that she’s a religious Christian and he’s not, and that he wrote the sketch the standards board found offensive, and that she sided with Perry on the sketch and has defended it to the press, even though it was called “Those Crazy Christians.” Insiders may also relish in the fact that the religious Christian who records Christian music is loosely based on another West Wing alumna, Kristin Chenowith, who Adam Sorkin dated at one time.

This kind of backstory gives the writers a great deal of meat to chew on as the show progresses. It also makes the characters very interesting very quickly. I found myself caring about these characters within minutes of meeting them, which is the bottom line when it comes to a good TV drama.

And this is a very, very good TV drama.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Primetime TV | No Comments »

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