Whom Do You Trust?

When I began this blog, I wrote mostly about technology. It didn’t take long to learn that I had little to say, and what I did say, wasn’t interesting. Then Engadget and Gizmodo burst onto the scene and killed the category.

Yet, as much as I enjoy keeping up on the latest gadgets, large sites like these have little influence in what I purchase. I’m far more likely to make a purchase after Dave Winer blogs favorably about a netbook, or when Aaron Massey tells me how his children use his iPad.

Whenever Ben Talbert or Keli Dean share a song, I’ll immediately add it to my playlist. If Mike Henneke mentions a new blog he’s following, I’ll add it to Google Reader. If Louis Gray posts a link to an article on Twitter, I’ll add it to Instapaper.

Each of these individuals have earned my trust, and I value their opinions.

Google can clutter the web with ads and companies can seed product reviews at Amazon. And that ad disguised as a travelogue of Disney World is just another mommy or daddy blogger who didn’t want to get left out of the action. I can’t tell whose pockets are being lined with free products anymore.

That’s why I turn to my friends when I’m researching a product. With that in mind, I want to share two products I love. (I purchased both products and I don’t use affiliate links.)

The first product is geeky and takes some work to install, but the payoff is nothing short of a stunning speed increase of my Windows 7 box: Corsair Force 115 GB SSD.

I replaced an aging SATA drive tonight with the Corsair. It took the good part of my evening to drop an image of my Windows partition onto the SSD, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. My system is so quiet and boots in under 30 seconds. And, oh the speed!

For about $160, it feels like one of those Maximum PC geeks got hold of my PC and overclocked the crap out of every component. The speed in intoxicating. Why did I take so long to make the move? SSDs have come down I price, but are still expensive per gigabyte. They also work best when paired with newer motherboards. But no way am I ever going back to SATA.

The other product I recommend is for iPhone and iPad owners: Reeder.

I use Reeder more than any other app on my iPhone and iPad. What is it? Well, Reeder is an RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader. This is the most elegant app I’ve used. So simple on the surface, but incredibly powerful without shoving feature after feature in your face. Reeder reveals itself slowly, but you’ll come to appreciate the dozens of small touches that make it a joy to use.

This is the app that, more than any other, keeps me on iOS. Flipboard gets all the press and it’s well-deserved. But it’s Reeder I’m use more than any other app.

The iPhone version is $2.99 while the iPad version is $4.99. If you read even a handful of blogs, you’ll love it.

Have you found any great products lately?

Beware The Roach Motel

It’s easy to see why millions of people have turned to Facebook and Twitter as their preferred repository of content. More people are storing pictures on Facebook than any other service including Flickr. That’s millions of photos, links, status updates, even blog posts each day hosted for free by a service which is heading towards a billion users.

Everyone is doing it so it must be OK, right?roach motel

Twitter is no different, growing by leaps and bounds and right into the public conscience. Since joining Twitter in December of 2006, I’ve added 30,326 tweets to the system.

Facebook doesn’t provide an easy way to see how much content I’ve put into their system, but it’s a lot.

Should I be worried?

Both Facebook and Twitter are free. At least today they are. Maybe they will always remain so, but I’ve been conditioned to consider what I’m giving up in return for using a free service.

As best I can tell, I’m giving up my personal information to Facebook to be sold to advertisers whose ads show up on my Wall. But I’m not entirely certain. I could be giving up more or less.

I’ve locked down my privacy settings as tight as I can. But I’m skeptical because every so often, Facebook tends to forget them and begins blasting me with email every time someone posts to a group I belong to.

On Twitter, I have no idea what I’m giving up. Occasionally I’ll see a promoted tweet which leads me to believe someone is paying Twitter for placement in my twitter stream. But I don’t know for certain.

And that’s the problem.

When I pay Bluehost about $100 each year to host my blog, I know exactly what I’m giving up in order to use their service. The rules are clear and agreed upon by both parties. There shouldn’t be any surprises.

But using free online services like Facebook and Twitter leaves me with an uneasy feeling that the rules can change anytime without my knowledge. What if Facebook decided to index what products I like and display them friends in a manner that looks as if I’m endorsing them? Oh wait, they did that.

What if Twitter allowed companies to index all my tweets and then offer products and services based those I mention right there in my tweet stream? Or maybe Twitter could one day decide to promote some users over others? Whoops, they did that.

I’ve made a large commitment to these services based on the amount of content they are freely hosting on my behalf. What if their business models don’t pan out and they disappear overnight? All that content of mine could be flushed down the virtual toilet. It was probably never mine to begin with.

That’s why my blog has become more valuable in the era of status updates and tweets. Unlike free services, I own the content I post to my blog. I can decide to run ads or not. I don’t have to worry about upsetting the admins and having my account suspended. I other words, I have control over my content.

With a few clicks, I’m able to easily backup each of the nearly 2000 posts in minutes. Try backing up all your content on Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll see it’s not easy to do. Why is that?

Because neither Facebook or Twitter want to make it easy for you to migrate your content to a competing service. Maybe Facebook and Twitter don’t face stiff competition today, but who knows in a few years from now. Didn’t MySpace once look unstoppable? That wasn’t long ago either.

Think about where you place your most valuable content. And ask yourself what you’re giving up by using that hip new free service everyone is talking about. Consider posting content to your blog and using Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic back to the place you have some control.

Beware the roach motel.

First Week With iPad

I wish it would charge over USB.

One week into iPad ownership and that’s the only negative I can come up with. It only charges when plugged into an outlet using the provided USB cable and power adapter.

And our computers running Windows slide further into oblivion. It’s easy to see why Microsoft stock has been comatose for over 10 years while Apple has been on a tear, releasing hit after hit.

 stock10year

Products like the iPhone, Android and now the iPad have made Windows feel old and cumbersome. Move your computing to one of these devices and you begin looking for web services that don’t require updates, patches and configuration. Services like Google Docs, Rdio, and Gmail have each replaced Microsoft products that required babysitting.

The apps on the iPad are a joy to use. Flipboard is a work of art that makes browsing news enjoyable and natural. No doubt, the iPad shines at consuming content through apps or the slick web browser experience. Creating content takes patience, but typing a few paragraphs into Gmail is a cinch.

I’m still figuring out how the iPad fits into our family. The kids love playing games like Dungeon Hunter 2 or challenging each other at Boggle. Kim is able to access her email from anywhere in the house and jump on the web to read the latest gossip or search for new recipes. That it boots up immediately makes it a better choice to take on client calls compared to the netbook I’ve been using.

It’s like having a simple but elegant computer screen in every room of our home. I picture a day where we have one desktop computer in the home, and each person has an iPad. Data is backed up to the cloud, and the notion of having a room dedicated to the family computers goes away.

Microsoft should be worried. We are spending less time sitting in front of our desktop PCs. But that’s just one part of the equation. Last year we spent less than $100 on Microsoft software. We’ve spend several times that on apps for the iPhone/iPad, and the divide will continue to grow.

And I just read that the iPad does charge over USB. The only catch? The machine must be a newer model from Apple.

It won’t be long before that problem is solved.

A Windows User Installs Ubuntu Linux

An older model laptop showed up at our home this summer; the HP Pavilion DV6000 to be exact. Kim has mentioned how convenient it would be to have a laptop she could keep upstairs while working in the kitchen or to take the beach during the summer. Or maybe it was her subtle way of asking for an iPad. I’ll never know.

Although this HP was a few years old, I figured it should fill in nicely as a kitchen computer.

One week into ownership, Kai managed to pry off a dozen keys. We tried to line up the tiny springs and keys, but that only resulted in frustration. My father-in-law suggested I search for a keyboard on eBay when I was about to toss the laptop on the scrap heap. For about twenty bucks, I was able to replace the keyboard and assumed we were back in business. We were for a while.

But Windows XP began giving us problems. It would send the laptop into death mode (sleep mode) and never recover. Only a hard boot would return the machine to Windows, but only temporarily. I assumed Windows 7 would fix the problem. So I spent an evening installing Windows 7 Home Premium.  The installation took less than forty minutes but downloading and installing the dozens of patches and driver updates took a few hours. This isn’t uncommon on such an older machine.

Windows 7 worked great for a few weeks. A fresh Windows 7 install seemed to fix the dreaded sleep mode issue. But its performance was still incredibly sluggish. Boot times took minutes. Programs wouldn’t launch quickly. Or when they did, they crashed under minimal use. I began to wonder if underlying problems with the hardware were the real culprits. I ran Windows update and installed drivers from the HP website. I’ve experienced the havoc a corrupted driver can cause, but Device Manager told me everything looked fine.

As I considered my options, (tossing the laptop into my neighbors yard was on the list as was taking a baseball bat to it) I tweeted my dilemma. I’ve installed Windows 7 on several older systems, and each time, they came to life and performed at a much higher level than when they had XP or Vista installed. Windows 7 powers our three workstations at home, and we’ve had no major issues. Say what you will about Vista, but Microsoft came through in a big way with a solid product in 7. I could not figure why I could not get this laptop running smoothly.

Several of my followers on Twitter suggested installing Ubuntu Linux. My first thought was they must be drunk or incredibly geeky. Given that Kim is the primary user of the laptop, installing any version of Linux sounded like a recipe for marital problems. Kim is very tech savvy, but installing Linux on her laptop might just might push her into the Apple store. I’ve run various distributions of Linux for many years, but not on the desktop. I manage several blogs that run on Linux so my experience is on the server side of the house. Kim has been a life-long Windows user. I must be crazy. But I had nothing to lose. Even if Ubuntu didn’t work out, I’ve heard good things about and have wanted to try it out for a while. At the very least, maybe I’ll learn something.

install

So I decided to check out the Ubuntu website. I’ve heard that Ubuntu is user friendly. But compared to what? FreeBSD? The price was right (free) and the screenshots looked promising so I decided to give it a shot. I downloaded the desktop version and burned an ISO to a USB stick. From there, I installed Ubuntu in about 40 minutes. Like Windows, it has a built in software/drive update feature that worked incredibly well. It found my video card and my wireless adapter on the first pass. Impressive.

When the installation finished, Ubuntu suggested I reboot. I turned back to my computer for what seemed like 15 seconds and was absolutely shocked at how fast the laptop returned to the login screen. I didn’t believe it. So I held the power button down for a few seconds to force a cold reboot. Again, the login screen popped up in about 15 seconds. Stunning. I’ve never seen this type of performance on this old HP.

 boot

The speed! The speed! That’s been the theme from the first full day living with Linux on the laptop. I am keeping my fingers crossed it lasts. I installed Google Chrome for Linux, and it felt faster than the version of Firefox that installed with Ubuntu. Kim primarily needs access to a web browser for email, Facebook, and browsing. This resurrected HP handles those tasks with aplomb. I didn’t have time to show Kim around the UI this morning. But when I came home, she already had a number of Chrome tabs open while searching for recipes. Off to a good start.

If you’ve never seen the Ubuntu user interface, I think you’ll be surprised at how user friendly and polished it is. Even life-long Windows users should feel right at home. Yes, it’s different. But it’s certainly not difficult. I even found it fun to use while I discovered new ways of looking at an operating system.

desktop

Let’s hope it continues. Maybe I’ll look back and wonder why I didn’t try Ubuntu sooner. So far, it appears to be a great solution for older computers.

What Do You Do Well?

Earlier in my career I worked for a company that had, over a number of years, built a thriving service business. We took esoteric software and created demos that sales people used to sell their products.

We kept the company lean and only hired when the client work exceeded our staff. We’d found our niche, and everyone we added to payroll had to contribute to our mission of creating killer demos. We charged a premium for our services, and our clients were willing to pay for quality work and attention to detail.

The company was humming along nicely. 

And then one day, our CEO decided that we needed to go into the software business. But providing a service is very different than building a complex piece of software. Different skill sets are required. We’d never created software before but how hard could it be? To many, it seemed like a natural extension of our current business. Few CEOs understand what it takes to create even the simplest piece of software. It’s a lot more difficult than tossing money and a spec at a developer. It all seems like magic to them.

But it wasn’t.

Payroll swelled as programmers, testers, and program managers were hired. A few people were hired because they were considered “super stars”. One “super star” earning six figures spent his time creating an online accounting system. We didn’t want to lose out on hiring this guy, but we hadn’t given much thought to what he’d be doing day to day. I worked with him for a year and, to this day, have no idea what he was hired to do.

Our culture slowly changed. No longer were we a close-knit group who knew what each other worked on. The new software project quickly became the cute new girl in school that everyone wants to date. Employees working on our stable services business were pulled over to work on new software. The focus of our company changed from a solid if somewhat less flashy business to one with untold potential. Never mind that we’d yet to sell a single software license. But the potential for sales was staggering. At least, what’s what we were told.

I began to wonder out loud if any company, let alone one with 30 employees, can run a successful service business and product business.

We knew we were great at creating demos, but got distracted by the margins and sexiness of creating software. Our CEO got bored of selling merely a service and decided to jump into the software business with little experience or plan.

In less than two year our small company was a shell of itself. The software project ultimately crippled the services business. Potential failed to pay the bills.

How does your company go about growing the business? Do they stick to what they do well and try to expand on that? Or do they blindly jump into new markets?

The lesson I learned was to pick something I’m good at and go after that with as much passion and grit I can muster. It’s easy to get distracted by what competitors are doing. It’s easy to be blinded by the shiny new technology. But doing so will ultimately pull you away from what you do well.

Which begs the question: What do you do well?

Technology Requires Patience

The problem with the first MP3 player I owned wasn’t the fact that it only held about eight songs. Or the poor display or sketchy ID tag support.

No, the real problem with the Diamond Rio 300 was that I spent more time getting mp3 files onto the device than I did actually listening to them. The same scenario was played out with another half dozen players until the iPod came along.

My iRiver H-120 had a number of features not found on the iPod. But what features the iPod had, it did well. Apple made it easy to get music on the iPod. Isn’t that what’s it’s all about? Actually listening to your music!

My more geeky friends talk about how their Zune has an FM radio or their Creative or Archos devices support more video formats. But those products are stuck in niche markets because they are difficult for non-geeks to use. Both my parents own iPods and never once have they called me for technical support. Apple make sure the important features work and avoid complexity. Even if it means cutting a few features.

I recently had dinner with friends about my age. Both are smart, well-educated people who work outside the field of technology. It was fascinating to hear them talk about technology in regards to computers and mobile phones. They want new phones but don’t want the hassle of relearning a new model. And how do they move all those contact and numbers over to the new phone?

And their kids know more about the computer than the parents. This brought back memories of every high school computer course I took. By the third week, the students were doing the teaching.

Maybe I should be happy that technology is still difficult to use since my job relies on non-geeks paying people like me to help them wade through their options. If we ever get to the point where technology is easy to use, I will be looking at a career change.

But technology is still much too difficult to use. Computer and phones are still a mess. Occasionally I come across a product that works as advertised like the Flip Mino, but they are rare.

I don’t know if the iPhone is the best gadget ever or if my judgment is clouded by the fact I wanted to throw my Windows Mobile phone against the wall every day. Does Windows 7 feel good because Vista was so bad? Now iTunes wants to update itself and trick me into installing the Safari browser. Where did that toolbar come from?

Can we trust anyone?

No wonder my friends decided to stick with their old phones and computer when companies promise improvements but only if we’ll hand over our wallets.

I’m baffled by what we’re willing to put up with. It’s time we begin demanding products that work as advertised. 

Brain Freeze

I closed the door to my apartment, took a few steps towards the sidewalk and started to shiver. Only a two block walk to meet the bus. Felt like two miles. Each breath felt like a pin prick to the lungs.

By the time I arrived at the bus stop by toes were numb. I curled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves to keep them from the same condition. I told myself I could keep my body from shivering. But that came at the expense of my clenched jaw muscles.

And then I waited. In the dark just off Orchard Drive for the bus to arrive and transport me to the University of Utah. If the snow was packed tightly to the road I would stand still in wait. But if even the smallest patch of slush was on the road, I had to duck and dodge whatever dredge passing cars would toss my direction.

When I look back on these years I’m surprised I didn’t drop out of college. Or, at the very least, find a school far away from Utah’s cold long winters.

Yet, I was reminded why I stuck it out as I interviewed a recent college graduate this afternoon. I could see it in his eyes. That unbridled excitement. I could also sense his fear and uncertainty on a day the DOW dropped 733 points. There’s  no way he could predict our current economic crisis when he enrolled four years ago. Yet why now? Did he waste four years of his life?

I don’t think so. He related his reasons for going to college. It wasn’t to get a job. It wasn’t a springboard to another degree. Nope. It was to be challenged. To make himself a better person. To study subjects that challenged his beliefs. To grow up outside the safe confines of home.

And now he sat in front of me asking for a chance. Almost begging for an opportunity that may kick start his career. “I don’t know everything. I wasn’t a straight A student. But give me a chance and I won’t let you down.”

That could have been me begging for a break into the computer field nearly 14 years ago. I interviewed for a job at a local ISP and convinced the interviewer that I could learn Windows 95 although it wasn’t on the market yet. “I really want this job. I won’t let you down. Just give me a chance to prove myself.”

I laugh when I look back on those days. I loved the work so much I would have done it for half the salary. Remember Milton from Office Space who shows up to work each day long after they stopped his paychecks? That’s me minus the red stapler. 

What I learned at that first job was far more valuable than any check I took home.

Part of me misses those frigid cold mornings waiting in the dark for the bus. And the professors who challenged my beliefs. And feeding quarters to the Addams Family pinball machine between classes. And cramming all afternoon and into the evening until Seinfeld flickered across my old Magnavox.

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