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Yes, you should buy the new MacBook…

It has been awhile since I posted here. I apologize. Moving on… Yesterday Apple held another closely watched launch event (pun intended).  Beyond the anticipated Apple Watch (save that for another post), Apple also announced a new MacBook.  If you’re reading this, you probably already know: It is the sleekest, thinnest, lightest, sexiest laptop Apple has ever made.  It brings retina displays to the laptop world and weighs only 2 pounds.  It.  Is.  Gorgeous. But is it for you? The short answer is: Yep, unless you need the horsepower of something higher end for video processing.

The longer response: You’ll hear controversy around 2 choices Apple made, namely:

  1. Replacing all ports (power, USB, video, etc.) with a new “C” port; and
  2. Using a lower-resolution front-facing camera.

Ignore them. These are great “compromises.” C Ports are the docking station of the future. The new C port is very cool.  It is a fully-reversible, single port that can handle whichever connection type you need.  The tech media’s first reaction to it seems to be negative, though.  D PortAfterall, in order to charge, and use an external display or hard drive, at the same time, you need to buy a separate dongle, and no one likes required add-ons.  The thing is, though, while annoying, you should just think of this dongle as the dock of the future.  Up until now, almost all Windows laptops offered dock connections, and while you COULD plug your monitor, mouse, power, external hard drive, ethernet, etc. all in by hand, if working with an external display was your standard operating procedure, you just bought a dock.  You pop your laptop down and have instant network, screen and power without messing around with wires.  It’s something PC laptop makers have streamlined and was never possible on the Mac.  Until now. From here out, buy a connector for your office and home workstation, leave your external display, power adapter and other devices plugged in to the dongle and when you want to get to work, you only have to find and insert 1 wire into 1 connector.  Sounds great to me!  Plus, if this isn’t how you work, you just saved weight and space for the device you lug around all the time.  It really is a win-win. Worried about forgetting your dongle when you travel?  Sure, but you can expect high end conference rooms to have the required adapters in a couple of years, just like they have mini-displayport adapters now.  Don’t let this derail you. But what about the camera? Apple products have always had great optics.  From the iSight to the cameras built into our iPhones and iPads, not to mention current MacBooks, Apple has always used higher-end cameras and squeezed great image quality out of them. figure1_isight precision_camera-copy With the new MacBook, they’ve taken a step in the wrong direction.  They’ve opted to include a 480p camera, instead of the 720p camera you’d expect.  This means Facetime, Skype, Hangouts and other calls will all be in standard definition (SD).  Worse, the new MacBook has a retina display, so the SD footage will be noticeably less crisp than anything else you do on your device… At the end of the day, there are only a couple of use cases for the camera on your computer, and you don’t REALLY need your coworkers and meeting attendees to see you in crisp HD to make the meeting personal, so it is more for family use that it matters, and for that you have your iPad anyway.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wish Apple hadn’t skimped here, but the quality of the built-in webcam has never been a decision-maker for any of you on what computer to purchase in the past, and I wouldn’t start now. Everything else Beyond those 2 items, this is a no-compromise machine for the masses.  It has great specs, including the screen, the battery life, the new keyboard and force-touch trackpad… it is a great device starting at $1,299, which is a price point you expect to see Apple laptops at.  If you can get away with a $400 chromebook, do it; if you need the horsepower of a MacBook Pro or desktop rig for video editing, do that; for the rest of you, this is the new benchmark for your daily driver.

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Apologies

I’ve taken too much time off from writing here.  I’m sorry.  In large part my lag has been the new baby, the switch to the new job, and the hunt for the house in the suburbs. The other problem is that I haven’t gotten as many personal tech questions lately that require explanation, BUT no excuses.  

I will be back. And when I am, I’ll likely try out shorter post formats to keep the dialog up.  

in the meantime, let me know what’s on your mind.  Use the comments, send me an email or hit me on Twitter (@LCMilstein).  

Thanks,
Lee 

Why HBO should offer HBO GO directly to consumers

english: This is the american HBO brand logo. ...

Image via Wikipedia

De ne neh ne neh ne neh ne neh…  The iconic HBO theme song from the 80s still stirs excitement for me and I’m guessing many of you as well.  Growing up with HBO as the sole premium movie service in our household, and with the local video store and Blockbuster not playing a key role in my life until high school and beyond, I’ve grown loyal and attached to their offerings.

Over the last decade (ok, it has been 14 years, but who’d counting?),  HBO has enhanced its movie offerings with some of the best original content on TV.  Starting with Oz and following up with hit after hit, including Sex and the CityThe SopranosCurb Your EnthusiasmEntourageDeadwoodSix Feet UnderBoardwalk EmpireGame of Thrones, and True Blood, HBO has endeared itself to the public.

But HBO has not merely been an innovator in programming, they have innovated in delivery methods as well.  Starting with various local delivery methods and then becoming the first TV network to continuously deliver via satellite before returning to cable as an add-on for existing subscribers, where it stayed. But, maintaining that tradition, and sensing a need in the market, HBO launched a service last year called HBO Go.  Available for free to existing subscribers, users could watch HBO programming on their computers, iPads and other portable devices, including full back-catalogs of current shows, putting a new degree of freedom in the hands of consumers.

Unfortunately, there was a major catch.  HBO GO was only available to subscribers of certain cable providers (also called a Multiple System Operator, or MSO for short) who had struck deals with HBO to allow the service.  While Comcast and Verizon’s Fios were among the first to make the offering available, at the time of this post, much of the country still lacks access.  Moreover, non-cable subscribers are out of luck:  There is NO way for someone to pay HBO directly for the service.  HBO requires users sign up for HBO via their existing cable provider and authenticate with them. This system arguably preserves existing relationships between the premium network and its direct customers (the cable providers), but it seems oppressive and out of place in today’s app-centric world.

In response to this disappointing reality, MG Siegler, a partner at CrunchFund and Columnist at TechCrunch posted a letter to HBO requesting HBO allow him (a cord-cutter) to subscribe to HBO GO directly.  In a well-thought-out parody post, Jeremy Toeman, a long-time thought-leader in the digital/connected video space, with history at Sling Media, Mediabolic and now with Dijit Media, responded to Siegler explaining why HBO would never make the offering directly to consumers.

WHICH brings me to the point of this post.  While Toeman’s points were likely exactly what HBO would say if it had taken the time to reply itself, and they are rational and understandable, HBO should still dive in and offer HBO GO directly to consumers.  In a guest post on Toeman’s blog, LIVEdigitally, I respond to his letter and make the case once again, that cable would not be hurt and that HBO would grow both subscribers and revenue by making this move.

Please check out my arguments and the full text of the letter at:

Dear Jeremy (d/b/a HBO) [guest post]

And don’t forget to leave comments there, here or via Twitter @LCMilstein to continue the discussion.

HBO, if you’re reading this, thanks for considering it!

How can I watch Internet video on my TV? (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this post, I explained that the question of how to watch “Internet video” on TV means different things depending on who’s asking.  I explained that people can mean:

  1. How can you watch streaming services (primarily Netflix, but see also AOL HD for a bit on what I’ve been up to at work) from your couch? (answered in Part 1);
  2. How can you cut the cord and watch TV from your couch using the Internet? (answered in Part 2); or
  3. How can you watch your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen?
Not surprisingly, for Part 3 of this post, I’ll answer that final question.

The short answer up front (as always):

The answer isn’t what I hoped it would be, but I have to admit, the answer is AppleTV.

The longer answer:

Watching home movies in your living room actually used to be pretty easy.  You took out the projector and stared at a wall or a dedicated screen owned just for this purpose. Even more recently than that, you took the tape out of the video camera and popped it directly (or via an adapter) into your VCR and watched on the family television.  And, then… things changed.

Digital started to catch on with the promise of simplifying the capture process and assuring us no loss in fidelity over time.  Camcorders came with Firewire ports, Flip happened, then clones of the Flip, then phones.  Lots of phones… There were more formats and more complications than ever.  All of a sudden, we realized we were recording a TON of video, but had never watched ANY of it.  YouTube was too public, and Facebook helped us experience our memories on computers, but how were we to watch in the living room (where we have the best setup for video)?

Cutting right to the chase, there are 3 types of ways to bring those experiences back to the TV:

  1. You could plug your device right into the TV.  Much like we used to plug in our VCRs, many phones and digital camcorders now come with HDMI ports to output video right onto your TV;
  2. You could put all of the video content onto a hard drive and plug that into your TV or other device that in turn connects to the TV and is capable of decoding the video and playing it back; or
  3. You could keep your movies neatly organized on your computer and across your home network and access them with a TV (or device that connects to the TV) that is also connected to your home network.

Option 1 isn’t a real option.  Plugging devices directly into TVs is a huge pain, which defeats the purpose (you could just watch on the computer if you were ok with it being annoying).  Its a pain for a lot of reasons.  Not all phones and devices have the ability to output directly to the TV, and even fewer have high definition outputs so you get the best quality.  More importantly, you probably don’t have all of your videos on a single device.  Having to plug and unplug multiple devices means not only knowing which device your video is on, but also keeping the right cables on hand to connect each device, and turning the TV around each time to access the inputs can be an even bigger pain.  Plus, you need to have your device plugged in while you’re watching, which if its your phone (increasingly the device you use most to record video) means you get interrupted if you get a phone call… it just isn’t worth it.

Option 2 is a solution on many new TVs, but isn’t for you.  It eliminates all of the problems of Option 1, but brings a much bigger set of issues.  New TVs *can* read your files off of a harddrive (if you’ve converted them to the right formats), but how are you going to get them onto the harddrive?  The reality is that if this is the route you’re going, it means unplugging the harddrive from the TV and plugging it into your computer everytime you want to transfer videos, then replugging it back into the TV…  This is actually the model DivX employed, and perhaps it makes more sense if you think about putting a file on a thumb drive when you want to watch it, but then you need to go to the computer, copy the file and replicate the process every time you want to watch something.  What if you’re in the middle of watching one home movie and someone says, “hey!  remember that other time… let’s watch that one!” … It just isn’t worth it.*

And so, Option 3.  By keeping your movies on your computers and streaming them across your home network to your TV, you’re actually going to have the most convenient and easiest solution of all.  To do this, you need 2 things:

  1. Computer software to serve the media; and
  2. Hardware in the living room to access the media server.

Believe it or not there is an industry standard, established by the Digital Living Network Alliance (or “DLNA“), intended to make this pairing seamless.  On the computer (or server) side, there are several solutions from dozens of software providers and some that are even built into Microsoft Windows or Media Player that are all designed to serve video any compatible device.  On the device side, there are DLNA or UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) certified products from nearly every major consumer electronics manufacturer that should pair easily with any of the DLNA servers.  I’d explain it all, but it really doesn’t matter; suffice it to say that despite widespread support and a clear objective, DLNA/uPnP hardly works.  Even the server built into Windows, paired with the Sony Playstation 3, the nation’s leading connected device, doesn’t work in my home.  So what is one to do?  You could comb message boards for the latest news on DLNA servers and tips on how to get the configuration just so… (it won’t work); you could try one of the software providers with paired device support like PlayOn or Plex… (it might work, but will require a fair amount of tweaking and isn’t for the masses yet); OR, you could just go with the company that is synonymous with integrated seamless experiences across devices: Apple.

Now, as you know, I’m not an Apple fan-boy.  I carry an Android phone from HTC, I use Windows at work, I live on Google web applications, and I spent 5 years of my life at DivX (arguing against closed ecosystems the whole time), but when it comes to getting video from your PC to your TV, Apple has won me over.  Between AppleTV and the Airplay support it provides to iPhones and iPads, they got it just right.  Let me explain.

Here’s how it will work.  After you record video, back it up to your computer.  Have iTunes import the files (File -> Add to Library, and then select the folder where you store your videos).  iTunes will typically be able to read your file natively, or may automatically convert them for playback; but, if somehow your videos aren’t in a format iTunes understands, you can convert them using some fairly simple software (like DivX, Handbrake, or others, the subject of which is a post unto itself).  Then the server side of your media solution is complete.  Now, buy an AppleTV, plug it into the wall, use an HDMI cable to connect it to your TV and go through the setup process to connect to your local network and pair it to iTunes.  That’s it.  You’re done.  iTunes will see your AppleTV and vice-versa.  After a bit of time, all of your videos will show up in the “Computers” menu of the AppleTV and even though it takes some time to buffer before an actual video starts to play back after you’ve selected it, the quality is good and the experience is painless.  At $99, the price is well worth the lack of headache in getting to function properly.  Plus, if you have video or other media on your iphone or ipad, you’ll be able to stream directly from that device to the AppleTV as well.  It really couldn’t be easier.

Conclusion

I’m not going to pretend the AppleTV is a miracle product that eliminates the need for the solutions outlined in Part 1 of this post.  I’m not even going to pretend you can’t get higher quality results without streaming the file over the network, but I will say it is simple enough to take the hassle out.  And we all know a solution that has hassles is no solution at all.  If home or downloaded videos is a primary use case for you and otherwise all you want to do is watch Netflix and rent or buy a new movie every once in a while, then AppleTV is a no-brainer.

 

*NOTE: The hard drive solution DOES make sense if you are obsessed with video quality.  It is much easier to have  high bitrate/high resolution version of the video being read from a hard drive (or thumb drive) than streaming it over your network.  Experimenting with my own AppleTV yielded fairly decent results, but LONG waits before the video began to play, and some obvious artifacts.  These things are eliminated by plugging the drive in directly.  Still, MOST of you reading this are more interested in watching your home movies (videos of the kids you took with your phones/flips/etc.) than with feature films acquired from the torrent networks or otherwise.  For you, the advice in the post stands without the note.  For those that see this note as insufficient, see upcoming post on choosing your formats for purchasing movies, and feel free to disagree with me in the comments!

A quick note on the death of Steve Jobs (and Michael Jackson)

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Ashton Kutcher summed up what many of us have been feeling in a short tweet this morning:

@aplusk ashton kutcher
I never thought I could be so busted up about the loss of someone I never met. #stevejobs

Now, I consider myself among the lucky ones for at least having met him (after his interview at D8, The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference last summer), and though our interaction was far from a substantive conversation, I still feel busted up.  But, my non-tech/non-media network has been much more balanced in their feelings, and I understand where they’re coming from.  As they’ve been putting it:  They never met the man… they don’t know who he was as a person… he’s been sick for so long…  For those of you wondering why there is such a public display of sadness, you’re not alone.

In fact, I felt similarly to you when Michael Jackson died and people were crying on the news.  I just couldn’t get my head around it.  Sure, I love Smooth Criminal (and Man in the Mirror, and Billy Jean, and Bad, and Beat It, and PYT, and…), but I wasn’t really moved by his death.  So why the disparate reaction?

  • Could it be that Michael Jackson didn’t have as profound an influence over his industry?  He certainly did.  The Kind of Pop spawned a whole new breed of showmanship and talent.  So…

    King of Pop

  • Perhaps it was because so many other musicians have died in our lives?  As a Dead Head at the time, holding tickets to an upcoming show, Jerry Garcia‘s death was upsetting because it meant I couldn’t see him perform anymore, but it wasn’t like this.  And Kurt Cobain… the longer I listen to Nevermind and In Utero, the more I hear in the music and wish he had made more, but still…
  • Maybe it was the shadow that some of Jackson’s actions in life may not have fit our understanding of normal behavior, but our society is too forgiving for that to be the only difference…

And that’s when it hit me.

Jobs is different because he showed us how great we could all be.  He understood what we wanted not just out of products, but out of life.  he isn’t unique in this respect, but he is extremely rare.

Steve Jobs made magic.  Science Fiction is a popular genre in media because dreaming that awesome things that we know just *can’t* really exist could (maybe, some day, if we’re all good and work really hard) become reality, is just a wonderful feeling.  Arthur C. Clarke, in his famous essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” proposed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Jobs lived to make this kind of magic.  In his 2010 keynote address launching the iPad, Jobs referenced this famous quote, and the world realized he was right.  We love and have personal connections to his products because they really are the stuff dreams are made of.  He turned us into cyborgs.  If you didn’t love it because it was so advanced, you loved it just for what it did.  Either way, you were in love.

iPad

Steve Jobs was the underdog.  We love underdogs.  The Apple IIe and its progeny were ubiquitous in classrooms, but absent from board rooms.  The closed ecosystem Apple had created compared to the Wintel open market seemed doomed the way almost all closed systems are.  Apple pushed Jobs out and was on the brink of bankruptcy before it realized it needed him back.  He then brought the company from death’s door to become the most valuable company in the world.  Perhaps summed up best (again on twitter):

jwmoss Jonathan Moss
Steve Jobs was born out of wedlock, put up for adoption at birth, dropped out of college, then changed the world. What’s your excuse?
Steve Jobs made us all feel like leaders.  It wasn’t just that the products were great, nor that he built them from the ground up.  It was that he did it by the force of his will.  By all accounts, Jobs paid attention to every detail, cared passionately about the end users, and told people it was his way or the highway.  We all want to act like that.  We can’t.  We’re not Steve Jobs.  But boy do we want to.  In acting that way, the question shifted.  We weren’t really asking what Apple or Jobs would do next; we started asking, “what do we want next.”
At some point, it will be clear that others can pick up where Jobs left off, but his absence makes us fear that we won’t have someone to show us the way.  We won’t have a magician with such willpower as to shape our very dreams.  And even if we do, what are we missing by losing Jobs at 56?

It was probably pretty clear that once Henry Ford had invented the assembly line, the world (beyond mere automobiles) would be different and that people had learned a new way of thinking, but he lived to the age of 83.  Nothing against octogenarians, but given that this was 1947, an 83-year-old man wasn’t likely to continue to change the world.  With Jobs, it is different.  If he hadn’t been sick, what would have come next?  I’m sure there are a few products in the pipeline (maybe even 20 years’ worth), but at the accelerating rate of innovation, what could Jobs have conceived of 10 years from now that we wouldn’t see in our hands until 2040?  (And yes, maybe his illness drove him and we wouldn’t have all he gave us if he knew he’d live to old age…)

Putting these things together, Jobs didn’t just change the industry, he literally taught us how to think about what was possible.  And he didn’t hide the fact that he was doing it.  He told us to Think different.

In thinking different about consumer electronics and personal computing, Jobs gave us the tools to enjoy experiences more, remember them longer, and share them with friends.  In thinking different about industry, supply chains, leadership, organizational structures, and nearly everything he had to rethink to bring us iPods, iPhones, iPads, Macbook Airs, and the rest, he reminded us never to take no for an answer.  Even those of us who carry Android phones (and tout their superiority) recognize that our phones wouldn’t look or feel the way they do if Jobs hadn’t proven it was possible.  These are all lessons we would have learned without him, but it is rare for one individual to teach these types of profound things to so many that have never met him.  It is even more rare for that person to lead by example so we learn these things rather than simply state them for our consideration.

As someone aspiring to be a dreamer, a leader, an innovator, and user of the coolest gadgets, it is hard to see this generation’s apex of those things taken from us.  Others have been talented, and maybe even more genius at what they did than Jobs.  I take nothing away from them.  But Jobs understood people and what motivated them to a degree that many great talents just miss.  He understood us in a way that made us want to consume his products even while we scoffed at them in theory.  It is how this understanding shaped our daily lives that we are now mourning.  Our teacher is gone.  Did we learn enough?

No, you should not get the iPhone 4S…

… Unless you love Apple and didn’t get the iPhone 4.

Today Apple held their latest iPhone event where everyone expected the announcement of the new iPhone5.  After over 2 hours of following their announcement (most of which we had heard before, when Apple announced the release of their new mobile operating system to developers), Apple failed to deliver.

Still, they did announce a new phone, dubbed the iPhone 4S.

The new phone comes with an impressive new specs, including:

  1. Dual-band radios (GSM & CDMA) making this a “World Phone” for international travel;
  2. Never before implemented set of antennas to improve call quality;
  3. A new dual core A-5 processor, meaning a phone allowing 2x the performance of the iPhone4;
  4. A new graphics processor 7x faster than the one in the iPhone4;
  5. A built-in camera that rivals (or surpasses) the quality and speed of most stan-alone point-and-shoots;
  6. A new humble artificially intelligent assistant named Siri; and
  7. most importantly, 8 hours of talk time and 300 hours of standby battery life (compared to 7 and 200 on the iPhone4)

But is it for you?

The short answer: It’s actually a tough call, but I’d suggest you not get the 4S unless you plan to buy it no matter what I write here.

The longer response:

As with all upgrades, it depends on what phone you have right now.

If you have the iPhone 3G or 3GS

Some of you just *like* Apple products. The hardware is beautiful (made up of materials that aren’t even always available to the competition), the seamless way it works with iTunes (and now your Apple cloud services) is unparalleled with other desktop/phone combinations (though the cloud options may be paralleled), and the apps just work the way they’re supposed to.  If you’re one of these people and are still using the iPhone 3G or 3GS, now is a great time to upgrade, but should it be to the iPhone 4 for $99 or the 4S for much more?

The retina display and build quality on either are worth ditching the 3G or 3GS and making the move, and since you sat out one upgrade cycle, I’d recommend taking the money you saved and applying it to the latest offering.  You’re spending money anyway and likely locking in 12-18 months on this phone, so might as well treat yourself to all the bells and whistles of the latest.  You may not NEED most of what the 4S offers over the 4, but the camera, extra talk time, improved call quality (and maybe even Siri) will keep your phone feeling fresh a year from now, whereas with the iPhone 4, you’ll likely be jonesing for another one sooner.

If you’re on the 3G or 3GS and don’t fit in the Apple fan-boy camp, keep reading.

If you have the iPhone 4

If you already have the iPhone 4, then you’re going to be spending between $199 and $399 to upgrade; is it really worth that? The main benefits touted by Tim Cook today at the event aren’t really meaningful to most users.

A processor that’s 2x as fast and graphics 7x better than the prior model mean developers can build apps that they wouldn’t have attempted on lesser configurations.  But that’s unlikely to impact you right now.  It is going to take some time for Developers to conceive of, and build apps that really take advantage of the new hardware.  If the game console marketplace is a good indicator (and I’d argue it is), it could take a year or 2 before there is a critical mass of applications that max out the new specifications, and even longer before those apps will really suffer if you try to run them on the older models.  Given that you upgrade your phone every 18-months to 2 years, Apple will be on the iPhone 5 or beyond (the 5S?) by then and you can upgrade at that point.

So, for you, the only reasons to make the leap to the 4S are:

  1. You do a lot of travel overseas, but prefer Verizon at home, so getting a World Phone means you don’t have to pay 2 plans or deal with the hassles of switching for trips;
  2. You really need a better camera/video camera on you at all times; or
  3. That 1 extra hour of talk time and longer standby time will get you through the day.

To me, these aren’t compelling enough for the upgrade price.  I’d stick with the iPhone 4 a little longer.

If you’re on any phone other than an iPhone (or are on an iPhone, but you’ve never believed the iPhone was SO great in the first place)

This is where it gets tricky.  The iPhone 4S is the most promising Apple phone ever to be released.  Much of that promise, however, is wrapped up in the 200+ updates to iOS.  The latest operating system for the iPhone, iOS5, is a fantastic update.  The updates have been covered for months on various sites, including a great write-up by Gizmodo and one from my friends at Engadget, but to name a few:

  • A new notifications bar that eliminates the task-halting pop-up window of prior versions;
  • The ability to update and sync your phone to the cloud without requiring a computer or iTunes; and
  • Deep integration of Twitter to help you be more social.

These updates were sorely needed and will make for a much better iPhone experience, BUT they’re going to be available on the iPhone4 and 3GS as well, so is it worth spending the coin on the 4S?

Without devolving this post into a big debate between iPhone and the chief competition, phones that run Google‘s phone operating system, Android, I will point out that there are a lot of great Android phones out there.  If you’re already on a latest-generation Android Phone, there’s little or no reason to switch to Apple.

The Android Community blog put together a nice comparison yesterday showcasing the latest Android offerings and how they stack up.  Check it out on their site. And see their chart below:

iPhone 4S versus the Android competition

In both specifications and pricing, the Android phones are truly competitive and in many ways superior.  By using universal ports, like micro-USB for charging (the same one your new Blackberry and most other phones use) and HDMI for porting video out to your TV, these Droid phones save you money on accessories.  Android phones are also highly customizable.  The iPhone works right out of the box and largely without any crashes or tech support needs, while the Android is for tinkerers.

 Apple takes a heavily monitored approach to what it allows in the app-store, including denying products for too closely replicating the functionality of existing offerings; Android on the other hand thrives because of a nuance in one developer’s version of software that makes the difference between loving the functionality and hating it.  By way of example only, I keep my phone on vibrate.  With the iPhone (prior to Apple adding custom vibrations in iOS5), I was stuck with very limited options for alerts; on Android, I could find hundreds of programs forcing the phone to stay on vibrate, customizing the duration and intensity of alerts, and more.  This degree of customization won’t matter to most of you, but it is a real selling point for many.  The flexibility extends beyond what is allowed in the app store, with Android phones offering alternate keyboards, automation, widgets to put information right on the home screens (the phone version of your desktop), and even completely custom builds of the operating system being run (known as ROMS).  Lifehacker explains it well.

But, perhaps the most compelling feature of Android over Apple for those of us that live the mobile life is the case itself.  Apple’s case is locked down to end users.  The insides stay there.  By contrast, all current Android phones have removable backs and add-on slots.  What this means is that Android phone batteries can be swapped for a fully-charged backup at a moment’s notice ( I highly recommend keeping a spare battery in your bag), and large micro-SD cards can be purchased to add storage for songs, photos and other media.  While Apple’s battery life may be superior to most (or even all Android) phone batteries, it certainly doesn’t beat TWO batteries (or more even).  And, while you’ll pay a $100 premium to get 32GB and $200 for 64GB over the base of 16GB, a 32GB add-on Micro-SD card can be had for as little as $45.

And don’t forget that Adobe’s Flash is still a dominant format for web video and interactivity, and supported by Android, but not iPhone

Still, if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of Android, I’m not going to spend the entire post getting you there (perhaps a topic for some other time).  You want to know if you should spend the money on the 4S, go for retina display and cheaper price tag on the 4, or if you’re on AT&T, just get the 3GS for free.  If that’s you and you haven’t fallen into one of the buckets of people above, then there are likely only two remaining possibilities:

You’re on an earlier iPhone, your contract is up, but you’ve never believed iPhone was THE ultimate phone.

For you, did you read what I just wrote about Android?  The answer is Android, but if you’re still not convinced, sure.  Go for it.  Why not?

You’re a hold out using a Feature Phone

If you’ve been on what’s known as a “feature phone,” or a low-end phone that likely doesn’t have the ability to download the latest applications (Jave & BREW apps don’t count) nor utilize a touch screen, etc., then you have been waiting for the right moment to join the modern era.  It is time.  Accessing your email, the web, and all of the available applications makes you more productive and gives you access to your music, movies, books and more while on the go.  You wouldn’t be reading my post if you had no interest in these things anyway, so you’re ready to make the switch.

If money is not a real object, go for the 4S.  You’ll find yourself playing with all of the cool features and you might as well have the version with the latest bells and whistles.  Learn today’s tools, not yesterday’s.  Plus, you’re not the kind of person that has to upgrade every new release, so you’ll likely have this phone for a while and in 2+ years, the older models will feel dated.

If you’ve stayed on a feature phone because of price concerns, be ware:  the monthly cost of a data plan is not insignificant.  Most plans are at least $15 per month and ramp up from there.  If you’re going to spend an extra $180 per year on your phone, perhaps it makes sense to get the 3GS for free and still have the latest OS with all of its great features?

Conclusion

Ultimately, the 4S is a solid phone with some really well-thought-out features that help it stand apart from its ancestors.  It isn’t surprising that Apple was willing to put this out there on its own.  Even though people are disappointed that there isn’t a new hardware design accompanying an iPhone 5 versioning update, people will buy the 4S and you will be in good company.  But, to me, it isn’t really worth the price right now.  I prefer Android or one of the cheaper, earlier iPhones.  Go with your gut and don’t look back.

Is iTunes Match Worth It or should you use another Streaming Music Service?

For those who haven’t heard, tomorrow marks the next big announcement from Apple about the iPhone.  There are many expectations for what we will see.  It is almost certain the iPhone 5 will be shown and possibly a new iPhone 4S, though reports on that are conflicting.  What is also widely suspected is that tomorrow will be the official launch of iTunes Match, the new Apple service that will store your entire music collection (whether you bought the songs from iTunes or not) and give you access across all your computers and devices for $24.99 per year.

iTunes scans your music and matches it with the 20 million songs in the iTunes Store -- and automatically stores it in your iCloud Library.

 

That’s a pretty big deal.  Not only does that give you legitimate copies of songs you may have obtained from Napster, BitTorrent, a friend, what-have-you, but it also means you don’t have to shell out big bucks for the largest hard drive inside of the device just to access songs you rarely listen to anyway. Coming from the biggest retailer of music, that’s a really big deal.  In fact, some might say it is a game-changer… But is it?

Yes.  Any time a company that makes consuming media as easy as Apple does makes an offering like this, it sets the standard.  People will hear about it.  They will understand it.  They will use it.

So, the question is, “Should you?”

The short answer (as I always promise to get to right away): No, iTunes Match isn’t worth $24.99 per year today; there are too many other services with great features at competitive prices, but stay tuned as that could change.

The longer explanation:

iTunes Match is sure to be a good service, and at roughly $2.00 a month, you can’t go wrong, but there are other, better services that offer you more that are worth using instead.  Principally, if you use an Android phone, you’re going to want a different solution.  The problem is there are so many, it is tough to know where to begin.  I’ll provide the breakdown.

Apple does something I’ve not seen them do before, and actually compares its upcoming offering to those of Amazon and Google, so let’s start there.

Amazon’s Cloud Drive Music Service and Amazon Cloud Player

Amazon’s offering (actually a pairing of Amazon MP3Amazon’s Cloud Drive Music Service and Amazon Cloud Player) has been available for a while. Right now, they are offering unlimited storage under any paid plan or for having taken advantage of some special offers around the launch, and they’re accessible from any computer as well as Android and your iPhone/iPad (via an HTML5 site you access from Safari, rather than a native app, which isn’t a big obstacle).  Also, like iTunes Match, anything you purchase directly from the Amazon store becomes immediately available in your account, and Amazon pricing is often $0.10 less per song and up to a dollar less for an album, so that’s a plus.

At first blush, this is a great option, but that free service is set to expire.  Amazon has already published their pricing plans for when it does, and as Apple points out, it will be more expensive than Match.  Also, while having directly purchased songs available immediately is great, most of us have a large collection already on our computers; Amazon’s MP3 Uploader takes weeks or longer to upload large libraries of files to the Amazon Cloud.  Moreover, you have to initiate the uploads manually, rather than being able to run a system service to monitor your music folders for changes, so it is non-trivial to keep your Cloud organized.  The player experience (especially on Android) is slick, but doesn’t support your old playlists and just generally feels a bit slow.

Given last week’s Kindle announcements, and the likelihood that Amazon could do much more with this service in the near future,  you can’t rule Amazon out, but if you have an iPhone, you’re going to prefer iTunes Match right now.

Google Music

Google also has a service that allows users to upload their entire libraries to the cloud aptly named Google Music.  Unlike iTunes and Amazon, Google doesn’t currently offer a store to purchase new music, but their program is in early beta and they’ve already started making songs available to those who are in the beta program for free with a service they are calling Magnifier.  Unlike Amazon, Google has created a system tray service to monitor your music, which can upload new tracks automatically.  It is called Google Music Manager, and works well, but also takes weeks to process a large local library.  With a 20,000 song cap, you are HIGHLY unlikely to fill up Music Manager, so this comes in at the cheapest solution.  Still, the Android app is minimally functional, with no playlist support and really a terrible UI.  Given that Google owns Android, I expect new versions to improve on the existing product.  Like Amazon, Google has made their web service accessible from Safari on iOS devices, so once again, it allows what iTunes Match doesn’t in promising users with multiple device types ubiquity.  Still, until the application is improved, playlists are added, and a store (or other way of accessing songs you don’t already own) is introduced, iTunes Match will still look very good to most of you.

Others

So, compared to the services Apple calls out for you, iTunes Match still looks like a good option, but what about the rest of the pack?

Well, there are replacements for the radio, including

  • Pandora – With either ad-supported or a subscription product, Pandora gives you access to music everywhere.  They’re on your computer, they have native apps for most every device, and they’re even in some cars, but it is not designed to give you access to YOUR library.  Instead, Pandora tries to provide you with music you’ll love by using computer algorithms to recommend songs based on your express preferences.  As they put it:

With Pandora you can explore this vast trove of music to your heart’s content. Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs, artists or genres into Pandora and let the Music Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings – new and old, well known and completely obscure – to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. Then sit back and enjoy as it creates a listening experience full of current and soon-to-be favorite songs for you.

  • Slacker – Much like Pandora, Slacker is available everywhere and programs listening experiences for you based on your preferences, but they don’t let you listen to your own collection directly.  They differentiate themselves from Pandora by having much more human involvement in programming music experiences (and they do a great job at it).  As they put it:

 Slacker Radio is much more than a playlist creating computer that chooses songs that are similar to each other. Our expert DJs hand-pick songs based on their extensive knowledge combined with your personal preferences. Our music library is larger than our leading competitor’s by millions of songs, so you’ll hear all of your favorites and a ton of new music that we know you’ll love!

  • Shoutcast, iHeartRadio, and SiriusXM – These services actually let you listen to radio (or web radio) stations programmed by others and also have nearly ubiquitous availability.
With ALL of these services, they’re competitiveness with iTunes Match is almost a philosophical one.  If you can listen to great music that you’ll love on any device at any time, is there any reason to OWN a library of music that you need to access directly?  These services would argue no.  I disagree.  I like to call up a specific song or a playlist I’ve built, and even the (really cool) customizations I can make to a Slacker station don’t quite compete with my own list.
So, there are all-you-can-listen services that do:
  • MOG – For $9.99 per month, you can get access to a near limitless collection of the most popular songs ever recorded.  You can stream them on the web or access them from your mobile device.  You don’t have to buy the song because you can access any song you want.  As they put it:
MOG’s all-you-can-eat, on-demand listening service provides access to a deep library of over 12 million songs and a million albums through its mobile apps on iPhone and Android, as well as on the Web and streaming entertainment devices for TV. It surpasses all other music subscription services in its ease-of-use, discovery features and audio quality.
  • Grooveshark – For $9.00 a month ($1 less than MOG), you can get access to a near limitless collection of the most popular songs ever recorded.  You can stream them on the web or access them from your mobile device… the only real differences between MOG and Grooveshark are: (1) Grooveshark gives you the option to take surveys to earn points to pay for the subscription instead of using cash; and (2) MOG was founded with support from the music industry, while Grooveshark has gotten where it is by settling lawsuits and flying under the radar.  Beyond that, MOG boasts 12 million songs to Grooveshark’s 15 million, and MOG has a bit more support from TV and other device manufacturers.
But, for these all-you-can-listen services, the downside is not about lack of control over what you listen to, but there is a catch… if you decide to stop paying the subscription, you have NO ability to listen the songs and playlists you put together with them.  All of the effort that went in to finding what you want to listen to and organizing it, with none of the long-term benefits and VERY high switching costs.  It isn’t for me.
Which leads to the point:  You should want to use a service that:
  1. Gives you unlimited access to the music you like;
  2. Allows you to create playlists and organize your music for consumption;
  3. Lets you keep your music even if you don’t want to spend money that month;
  4. Lets you access your music on any device at any time; and
  5. ensures a high-quality/high-fidelity experience (I haven’t talked about this point as all of these services do a good job on that front once you’re already happy with digital music).
So, who fits that bill?
Spotify and rdio.
Spotify has been the favorite of our friends across the pond for several years now, but they gave all that up to come to the States.  Users can register free accounts that are supported by ads (that can be both frequent and jarring) or pay $9.99 a month for no ads, mobile access and the ability to save playlists for offline listening.  (Note, for Spotify and other services, I’m skipping cheaper plans that don’t include mobile usage).
Rdio only offers a 7-day free trial, after which users must pay the $9.99 a month for access that includes mobile.
Both Spotify and Rdio offer desktop applications to listen to just about any song you can think of (15 million + song catalog in each case), and both match your current songs so you can listen to your own collection outside of your home.  Neither require you to actually upload the music, so it doesn’t take nearly as long as Amazon’s or Google’s services to get either set up.  And, both let you create playlists that you can share (or even collaborate to create) with friends.
Rdio focuses a bit more on social interaction and discovery by following what your friends are listening to.  Rdio is also available on more platforms.
With the ad-supported option to help get users acclimated and the well-thought-out user interfaces, Spotify may just prove to be a better service.  Either way, these services do what iTunes Match can’t.  They give you access to YOUR library from anywhere, and they let you listen to ANY song you can think of without buying everything you might want to listen to.  The extra $7.90 is something you’d likely spend buying extra songs on iTunes you don’t want once you’ve listened a few times.  These are both great services and well worth your time and money.
***
A nod to Turnable
I couldn’t finish a post about streaming music without mentioning one of my absolute favorites: newcomer, Turntable.fm.  Turntable also lets you listen to a ton of music and leverages community to expose you to new music.  On their service, users DJ for rooms of fans.  As of this writing, the top 10 rooms housed almost 1000 people.  And with the recent launch of an iPhone app, you can experience this on the go.  There’s something amazing about listening to someone DJ for you live and doing so in the comfort of your own home where YOU can become the DJ is even better.  But, Turntable is fully a synchronous experience.  If you show up to a room after everyone has left, there’s no music to listen to.  There’s no ability to automatically add all of your own library (you have to search for tracks individually to add them to your playlist) and you wouldn’t necessarily want turntable to replace these other services.  Still, if you’re a fan of music, you should definitely check it out.  It is free and worth your time.

You should use online password managers

Sincere apologies for the long delay in getting this post out, and thanks to @justinlamo for the question: “Are on-line password storage sites safe?”

Per my promise to all of you to get to the point first, the quick answer: Not 100%, but you should use them anyway.

And the longer response:

How many times have you received an email saying, “Please ignore that odd post/email/request, it seems my account was hacked”?  Or worse, how many times have you had to send one yourself?  Hacked accounts are a reality of the modern digital age.

Absent turning into a Luddite, your best protection is a strong password for all of your accounts.  A strong password is long, nonsense, and composed of a variety of different types of characters (including upper and lower case, numbers, and punctuation like #, !, @, &, etc.).  There is a lot written about why you should use a strong password, and you’ve all heard the horror stories, but also check out one man’s explanation as to how easy it is for him to crack your weak passwords.  Hopefully that’s convincing enough so I don’t have to dedicate time to hammering the point home.  To create your own strong passwords, reference this clear, concise article by Eric Wolfram.

Still, even the strongest of passwords can be compromised.  Unsophisticated companies can mess up and store your passwords in plain text, where they can be stolen from the servers; you can expose yourself by falling for a fake site asking for your password (known as a “phishing attack;” or perhaps you simply log in from a public computer and forget to log out.  Having your strong password stolen or hacked for one site can cause enough damage, but if you’ve used the same password for all of your social networks, bank accounts, blogs, email and more, the results could be disastrous.

So, the best practices recommendations for strong password protection is actually to use a DIFFERENT strong password for EVERY site (or at least every category of sites).  But, you ask, how can you keep dozens or hundreds of passwords straight?  The answer, of course, is that you can’t.  That’s where password managers come in.

Password managers in general are pieces of software that store and organize all of your passwords and the associated sites and accounts you use them for.  The most rudimentary are simply protected spreadsheets or databases stored as files on your computer; if you can remember one password (the one to open that file), known as the “Master Password,’ you can look up all the rest of them as you need them.  The trouble with the rudimentary form is that it is a tremendous hassle.  Taking time to log into a site is already a barrier to what you are trying to do and no one wants to make that harder.

So, a new breed of password managers emerged.  These new password managers were also form fillers and often came as browser extensions or add-ons.  In other words, these password managers work in coordination with your web browser, recognize the site you are on and automatically fill in the needed password.  You still need to remember the one master password, but after that, your browsing is much smoother.  But, there are problems with this set of managers as well, chiefly:

  1. If you’re computer crashes or you delete the files, you’ll lose ALL of your passwords; and
  2. If you’re away from home you either need to bring the files with you (on a thumb drive, by using Dropbox, or some other way), which can be hard to remember.

SO…  online password managers were invented.  Like the others in the new breed, the online password managers fill your forms and work with your browsers to save you time, but now, instead of storing all of the information on your own computer, you now keep copies online in ways that are accessible across multiple devices.

The concern with keeping this level of sensitive data online is that it too risks being compromised.  On the one hand, you’re using a password manager so your sites are more secure, but on the other, you’re storing your sensitive data in the cloud so that it risks being stolen.

There was recently a threatened attack on a reputable online password manager, but the threat was largely overblown.  Back in May (when Justin first asked this question), LastPass was attacked, but the CEO has since explained why there was little cause for concern in an article posted by PC World.

The reality is that the risk of your password manager data being stolen, given how securely it is encrypted and the protections the password manager companies have in place is very small.  The tension between privacy and convenience is an ancient one, and convenience always wins.  If one option for convenience is a system with dozens or hundreds of attack points (i.e. ANY of your accounts) and the other is a system with one attack point that is heavily guarded (i.e. your online password manager’s server), I recommend going with the latter.

Thus… yes, you should use online password managers.  I don’t have a recommendation as to which one is the best as I haven’t tried them all, but LastPass does a very good job.  For some other suggestions and help choosing the one that’s right for you, check out the following links:

  1. PC Magazine – Six Great Password Managers
  2. LifeHacker – Five Best Password Managers
  3. TopTenReviews – Password Management Software Review
Regardless of what you choose, you need to keep your passwords safe.  Think about how you do it.

You should NOT buy the Kindle Fire

Yes, an Amazon tablet is a GREAT idea. The MP3 service, the streaming movie service, their app store, BOOKS… But the Kindle Fire isn’t it. As widely publicized, it is HIGHLY likely that this device is a stopgap, and the second generation device will be out in under 6 months. I think the original article on this is a blog post from Ryan Block at gdgt.  He’s has credibility.  Wait for it.

Why Google+ should publish to Twitter & Facebook, and You Should Too

The walled-garden vs. open architecture approach to the web has been raging since the early days of the Internet.  AOL perfected the walled-garden with its keyword search while we were all on dial-up access, but the web (and AOL) have since moved on.  Which is why it was a bit surprising to see Google+ (still in project mode, admittedly) launch without an ability to pull in from, or publish out to, our other existing social networks.

That Google+ is first and foremost an “Identity Service,” according to Eric Schmidt, makes it even more baffling.  Another “Identity Service,” run by my employer, About.me, takes quite the opposite approach.  Even other social networks enable cross-posting.

But, I’m not arguing that Google should do it because others do, my argument is simpler than that.  Cross posting encourages discussion that might otherwise be missed.

This weekend, in a fit of annoyance at having to boot up my laptop after not being able to get information about Irene on my iPad that was hidden behind some Flash coding, I posted the following to Twitter:

LCMilstein Lee Milstein
After a year with the iPad, I can honestly say lack of Flash support is debilitating. I love it so much I don’t want to need a laptop too.
It got no retweets and the only reply was a spam message clearly picking up on “iPad” as a keyword.

But, because of how I have my accounts linked, the same post appeared on my Facebook wall.  24 hours later, there is a 15-comment string discussing the longevity of Flash as a web standard, Apple’s approach to controlling the user experience on its products, and whether next generation Android tablets will be able to compete with Apple’s dominance.
I never intended to engage my Facebook friends.  I thought Twitter was where the tech folks followed me and that I’d see traction there.  I was wrong.  Without this cross-publishing functionality, Twitter would have been unaffected, but Facebook would have lost out on this engaging experience.  As a one-off on my account it is meaningless, but taken to the natural conclusion, this is what makes a social network work.  This is what keeps people coming back.

Google, you may have other things you’re planning to build on Google+, and I am certain I line up to use them (Gmail, Picasa and Android are 3 of my all-time favorite products, so you have credibility with me), but I think you’re making a mistake here.  Who knows what kind of conversation my circles would have engaged in.

EDIT:
[I received feedback from some of you that this post didn’t really fit the blog; that it was industry analysis and not personal recommendation.  You’re right, but only because I ran out of time.  Here’s the last bit.]

For the rest of you, take this into account and take advantage of the linking capabilities built into your social networks.  For me, I have my Twitter publish to Facebook and LinkedIn, and I have my blog and Tumblr page post into Twitter which then pushes out to Facebook and LinkedIn as well.  I recommend you do the same.  And, as if on queue, a tweet from the Twitter team today:
twitter Twitter
#protip Have a Facebook account? Try hooking it up to Twitter for a little multitasking! Here’s how: support.twitter.com/articles/31113… 
So, to learn how to get started and link your Twitter account to Facebook to publish into both locations at once, check out their article, and see how your followers and friends engage.  You just might get more social out of your social networks.
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