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Facebook is for Birthdays

[Note, I apologize for the delay in real posts.  They will pick up again, but in the meantime…]

Many of you have been emailing/texting/calling asking about Google+, and you’re not alone.  The web seems to have shifted focus overnight and Google has once again become the darlingof the industry.  The frantic, nightly, “Invites are open!” messages followed by the “aww, sorry, too late” jeers only served to enhance the perception.  At this stage, however, it seems most people who want to get on to the new service have found a way, and commentary is shifting to compare the service to other social networks.

While I don’t intend to argue that you should or shouldn’t use Google+ at this point, I did feel the need to share a couple of observations

  1. No one on Google+ wished me a happy birthday this weekend.  Perhaps this is because the number of users is so limited, and
  2. More interestingly, no one on Twitter wished me a happy birthday either.

Now, I’m not actually big on the whole “it’s my birthday” thing and don’t seek contact for it, but I received a LOT of wall posts, messages and emails wishing me a happy birthday as a result of Facebook making the event prominent on my friends’ pages.  By contrast, I received 0 tweets/DMs and 0 Google+ comments.

This really highlights the difference between the existing social networks.  Facebook is where people with real world connections connect, and Twitter is where information flows between acquaintances.

What’s really interesting about Google+, though, is that it could be both:

Google already maps my real-world connections with gmail, chat, and other services that haven’t been considered a “social network” in the past, and now Google+ makes it easy for me to follow acquaintances.  As I posted to my plus.google.com profile page:

Being able to change your stream just by clicking a circle is a GREAT feature. Works better than lists on Twitter and far surpasses Facebook’s current implementation of Groups. And I love that “Following” is a default circle.

By creating circles and switching the stream of news flowing onto my Google+ page, I can see updates from my friends, influencers, news sources, business colleagues, etc. and not get lost in too many posts.  It is an exciting feature.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when Google starts telling me about my friends’ birthdays.  In the meantime, check out the service and let me know what you think.  Start with my page.

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How can I watch Internet video on my TV? (Part 2)

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.  Among those of you who have asked me the question, what most of you have meant is that you want to take advantage of streaming services (primarily Netflix) so that you can watch from your couch, thus I answered you in Part 1.  For the purposes of Part 2 of this post, I intend to answer those of you who have meant that what you’d like to do is cancel cable to save money, but still watch your shows.  I will also answer those of you who have meant that you want to show your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, but I’ll do that in Part 3 (some new products have led me to postpone this part).  So as not to repeat myself, I’ll presume you’ve already read Part 1 before reading this.  If not, take a look at the “Why you care” section; it helps set the stage for Part 2 as well.

Internet as a replacement for Cable

Now that you’re caught up, I’ll assume you understand that there are a lot of service providers retransmitting cable, broadcast and theatrical release content via the Internet (e.g. Hulu, Netflix, NBC.com, etc.).  The combination of this availability of content and the exorbitant cost of your monthly cable bill has led a lot of you to contemplate canceling cable and going to web services only.  What you often ask when you start looking into this option is “How can I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?”  My challenge to you, though, is to really consider first the question of “Should I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?”

The short answer up front as always: While cord-cutting is attractive for some early adopters, it isn’t for most of you.  Doing it is still too complicated and you can’t replace the highest-value content. For 90+ percent of you, you should stick with cable, and I am going to focus this post on why.

The longer explanation:

Notwithstanding how hard the cable providers try to anger their customers and lag the market on innovation, they actually have created one of the best, stickiest, most reliable, most compelling products available to consumers.  With limited exceptions, you turn on your TV any time of day or night and within seconds you have access to hundreds of channels of highly-produced, professionally curated, diverse video.  It comes through regardless of what else you are doing in your house, what your neighbors are doing, and no matter what TV you’re using to watch it.  It is VERY hard to replicate this kind of seamless experience with web services.

If, despite this explanation you are still intrigued, you first have to understand your current usage.  There are some things that Internet services can’t compete with Cable/Broadcast on today.  And so, to get to the heart of the matter, there are 3 main considerations:

  1. Do you care about live events?
  2. Are you patient with technical glitches?
  3. Does saving $50 a month make a material impact on your life today?

None of the above are dispositive individually; but the way you answered will be telling.  One of four descriptions will describe you and dictate the best solution in your particular case.  Those descriptions are:

You love live programming and hate when things break

Live events are among the most compelling TV there is.  From sports to red carpets to season finales, some people can’t handle waiting for availability.  If you’re one of these people and are not interested in troubleshooting technology (as will be the case for most of you), then regardless of your interest in saving money, or being a “cord-cutter,” I don’t recommend you cancel cable.  The solutions are just too hard.

Everything you watch is from the 80s anyway

The highest-rated programs are always live events, so if you are in the rare group of people that just doesn’t care, you have an option of cutting the cord.  Part 1 of this post outlines the best services and solutions to stream a fair amount of content and you shouldn’t worry about fully replicating the cable experience; just follow my prior post and stop paying for cable.  I find that Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube provide most of what I’d be looking for, and Vudu is another worthy compliment.  Take careful inventory of what you actually watch and get a solution from Part 1 that has the most overlap to offer.  If you do go down this path, please keep in mind that rights expire and change on a regular basis.  If you can’t live without a show, you may find yourself very unhappy when its network pulls it from Hulu.

You love live shows, but you’re a tech geek at heart; having the setup is more fun than watching what’s on it

I’m not sure there’s a single one of you reading this that falls into the hard-core geek category, but this is where I actually answer the question you thought you asked in the first place.   To replicate your current television experience, without the cable bill, your best bet is to connect an actual computer to your TV (also known as a “home-theater PC” or “HTPC”).  You’ll have access to most of the streaming services available through devices outlined in Part 1 of this post and more (both because some streaming is browser-only, and because you won’t encounter the gamesmanship where rightsholders are restricting access from certain devices).  To set up an HTPC, you’ll need a computer, some big hard-drives, some special-purpose hardware, and a means of controlling the system.  Enough great blogs have detailed what you need to build an HTPC, so I won’t replicate their guides.  I will, however, simplify the world you’re about to dive into a bit by explaining that there are Mac-based solutions and the rest:

  • Mac-based solutions require the least technical know-how, offer a fair complement of services and the most multi-purpose hardware, but are limited in their functionality.  I’d recommend a Mac Mini equipped with an EyeTV 250, and an iPhone or iPad (with any one of the apps listed in this write-up or this one) to control the system; you can also use a keyboard and mouse, but that’s not for everyone.
  • The rest of the solutions are either built on top of Windows or Linux, require you to build your system from the case up to have a setup that fits nicely in the living room, and include a number of complicated pieces of software to make everything work together, but provide the flexibility of a truly custom setup with functionality ranging from that of the Mac to a multi-tuner monster able to record from 10 sources at once.
If anything here sounds easy, be warned, it isn’t.  Complications arise at every stage, from getting network connectivity in your living room (often not where your broadband service enters the house) to getting your TV to work as a monitor (every TV is different and some older sets require significant tweaking on the computer settings to look right).  HTPCs break all the time and you’ll find yourself spending countless hours both on setup and ongoing maintenance.  But, if you’re still game, some of the best guides I’ve found are linked below.  Please leave a comment if you’ve found a better guide than these:
  • For the Mac: The Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide (Hardware and Software), but note that the new macs have some hardware updates that aren’t reflected here that make setup even easier (e.g. the new Mac Minis have HDMI ports, so you don’t need a DVI-HDMI or MiniDisplay-HDMI adapter).
  • Non-Mac: AVS Forum’s Guide to Building a Home Theater PC.  These guides are updated monthly, are incredibly detailed and should serve as a test — if you look at this link and aren’t excited to read enough to understand what they’re saying, you probably aren’t ready to build a solution from scratch.
  • To get started: Engadget did a write-up 2 years ago on how to build a home-theater PC for under $1000.  The hardware and software recommended is all outdated, but the logic and basic framework remains the same and they’ve done a very good job of explaining the components and why you need them.  It is worth a read.

There are additional benefits of building an HTPC like those described above.  A fully-functioning PC is useful to listen to music in your living room, share photo albums with friends, check Twitter, order from Seamlessweb, and if your setup is right, can even be used as your main computer.  Once you’ve recorded shows to an HTPC’s hard drive, you’ll also have them free of copy restrictions, so you can burn them to disk or convert them for your iPad or phone and take them with you (more on that in the next part of this post).  If you have the time and inclination, you can eke a lot out of these rigs.

Money is THE motivating factor

Finally, if money is the reason you want to do this, and everything else is flexible, you’re not alone, but your options are limited.  If you start down the road of building an HTPC, as outlined above, you’ll invest at least $500, and often $1000 or more.  Even if you allocate $75 of your cable bill to the actual cable service each month (remember you’ll still have to pay for broadband access), you’re looking at a need to use the HTPC for 6 months to a year before you’re recouped your costs and anytime you need an upgrade, you’re setting yourself back.  It just won’t make enough of an impact on your finances to make it worthwhile.  Instead, you should consider an antenna capable of receiving a digital signal and resigning yourself to watching live events live (i.e. not on DVR) while relying on the services outlined in Part 1 for the rest of your programming.  Unfortunately, if this is the case for you, chances are you live in a major city (like New York) and you won’t be able to get digital reception in your apartment, so this isn’t an option.  For you, I have to punt; there are no good solutions yet.  There may be soon (Apple has been rumored to be offering an a la carte or cheaper service for quite some time, for example), but for today, you’re stuck with cable.

Summary

In sum, you likely want to stick with Cable, but if you’re dead-set on replacing it, a home-theater PC is the only way to get a complete solution.  You’re unlikely to save time or money, but you will get to free yourself from the restrictions of your cable box and have a custom computing solution to go along with it.

Got a solution I missed? Leave a comment below.

In the next installment of this post, I’ll provide at least 3 ways to access your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, so stay tuned.

TV Everywhere? Cable on the Net Isn’t There Yet – TIME

TV Everywhere? Cable on the Net Isn’t There Yet – TIME.

This is a great write-up on the state of TV Everywhere from a consumer perspective, and a good prelude to Part 2 of “How can I watch Internet video on my TV?”

How can I watch Internet video on my TV? (Part 1)

The question of how to watch “Internet video” on TV means different things depending on who’s asking.  To most of you, it means taking advantage of streaming services (like Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, etc.) so you can watch from the couch; to others, it means canceling cable to save money, but still being able to watch your shows; and to others still, it means showing home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen.  In Part 1 of this post, I’ll be addressing the first group of you (and I’ll address these latter 2 groups of you in Part 2).

Why you care

As a precursor, what you should understand is that each of the above use-cases is becoming mainstream, and even if you don’t believe that any applies to you today, the industry players are banking on that changing soon, so there’s a high likelihood you will change your mind.

In the streaming space, premium content is being made available online at an accelerated pace.  In addition to Amazon, Netflix and Vudu, other notables like HBO, Hulu, YouTube and Crackle are helping to bring existing premium content to Internet users.  Beyond this retransmission of shows you know, there are also a number of next-generation studios and producers creating original, high-quality content for the web first.  A lot of these “new-comers” are actually old-timers who have decided to bring their talent and experience in creating hits to the web.  Among the most active are Vuguru (Michael Eisner), Fishbowl Worldwide Media (Bruce Gersh and Vin Di Bona), and Electus (Ben Silverman). Money is also pouring into content for the web.  Netflix recently outbid traditional players for the rights to premier original programming, and other service providers are similarly investing in the video experience (as you may have heard, at AOL, we recently surpassed Yahoo, MSN and Hulu to boast the second highest number of unique video views on the Internet, according to ComScore).  What this means for you is that you are soon going to be as likely to find something you want to watch being delivered by the Internet as you are to find something you want to watch being delivered by Cable or Broadcast television.

This trend is tremendously exciting until you start to think about sitting down in front of your 11 or 13-inch laptop (or even 19-inch desktop monitor) to watch it all.  No doubt some people are willing to do just that, but those of you who fall into the category of asking this post’s eponymous question aren’t among them. You, by contrast, spend hours sitting on the couch watching video on TV, but are not anxious to spend that kind of free time in front of a monitor.  You’re looking to find a better solution.  You want to watch high-quality content, delivered via Internet services, on your TV.

What you should do

Having spent a lot of space here setting the stage, I will keep to my formula and give you the quick answer: There is no “perfect” answer today.  If you have a preference for one solution, go for it; you can’t choose “wrong” in a world with no “right” offerings.  If you’re asking this question, you’re better off taking the plunge and benefitting from these cool services than waiting for a winner to emerge.  You’ll be happy just to watch and play.

That said, I know you come for more practical advice than that, so the more detailed answer is that there are 3 kinds of solutions that could be right for you depending on your own needs, existing setup, and level of technical proficiency.  These solutions are:

  1. A new TV with embedded experiences;
  2. A game console with built-in offerings; or
  3. A new, cheaper device you can connect to your TV.

A new TV

The first key question to figuring out which is the most appropriate solution for you is, “Are you in the market for a new television?”  Having your content offerings built directly into the TV simplifies setup, reduces wiring, and allows you to use 1 remote control.  These are big considerations, and this is the right answer for you if you need a new TV or don’t want to have additional boxes cluttering your living space. If your TV doesn’t support 1080p resolution, is more than 5 years old, or has fewer than 3 HDMI inputs, it might be time to consider purchasing a new one.  Buying advice for a TV generally includes questions of quality, reliability, contrast ratios, upscaling capabilities, etc., making it an entirely different subject for a post (so keep an eye out for that), but once you decide which TVs would meet your needs on the primary functionality (displaying a great image and supporting all of your sources), you should filter your decision based on which streaming services they support.  Every major TV manufacturer delivers a proprietary solution for accessing popular streaming services (LG has Netcast, Panasonic has Viera Cast, Samsung has InternetTV, Sharp has AQUOS Net, Sony has (had?) Bravia Link, Vizio has VIA, etc.), and most have also started offering models powered by 3rd-party platforms (Yahoo! Widgets, GoogleTV, Adobe Open Screen Project, DivXTV/Rovi Connect, etc.).  Almost all of these sets support a baseline group of services, including Netflix, YouTube, Pandora or Napster.  Look for the services you already use and pick a set that supports the most of those services.  In the case of a tie, give weight to platforms that have a history of adding new services without you having to buy a new device.  The 3rd-party platforms theoretically make adding new services via updates easier, but all are at such early stages (even Yahoo!, which has been on the market for years) that the good services are often opting to have support outside of these platforms and the benefits of the development haven’t been realized.  If I had to place a bet in this space today, I’d bet on Google.  Even with that said, however, with rumors flying of Apple also launching a TV that will integrate their services, it may be too soon to place bets.  Again, there’s no silver bullet here, no “right” answer, so go with the set that works for you and enjoy these services as a benefit of the new TV.

A brief note on GoogleTV

Google TV attempts to serve as a new interface for searching, discovering, and accessing video (and other Internet experiences) consolidating what’s being shown on cable channels with what’s available on the web to make it easy to watch what you want regardless of its source.  They’ve created a product that brings full web capabilities to the TV and they plan to launch an android app store for the platform soon.  They have also teamed up with a variety of manufacturers to give you a set-top box that will add Google TV functionality to your existing set.  I believe they are onto something, but there are a few too many drawbacks to the current solution for me to highly recommend it.  First, it relies heavily on a full keyboard and feels too much like connecting a computer to your TV, which isn’t what most of you are looking for.  Second, they’ve found that most networks are blocking GoogleTV’s browsers, so you can’t watch Internet content you’d expect to find, thus reducing the value significantly.  And, third, the interface runs slowly, lacking responsiveness, which hurts the user experience.  I expect Google to address these and other issues in an update this year, so I reserve the right to upgrade these guys soon.

Game consoles

If you are NOT in the market for a new TV, consider buying a current generation gaming console (even if you’re not a gamer).  Sony Playstation 3 (PS3), Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii all offer integrated streaming services.  If you don’t need a new TV and you have a preference for one console over the others from a gaming standpoint, go with it.  Just like the analysis for getting a TV, the offerings are all viable and you can’t make a wrong decision.  If you don’t enjoy gaming, there’s still a good solution for you here: the PS3.  That device is among the best Blu-Ray players on the market, supports Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu+, and gets regular firmware updates that are simple for you to activate.  The downsides to this solution is a lack of YouTube support and a $300-$500 price tag, but it is still a great option for many of you.

Stand-alone devices

Finally, if neither a TV nor a gaming console sounds right, you’ve found yourself in the realm of add-on set-top-box.  Apple, Boxee, Iomega, Popcorn Hour, Roku, Vudu, Western Digital, and others all have solutions.  As mentioned above, Google has also teamed up with a variety of manufacturers to let you add Google TV to your existing screen.  With so many options to choose from, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  Don’t.  The best solutions today are Boxee, Apple and Roku.

  • Boxee

Boxee is the most aggressive solution, providing a highly-customizable interface, with the ability to add content, services and your own library in multiple ways, all built on open source software, with cross platform support.  What that means in more understandable terms is that there are PC, Mac and Linux versions of Boxee enabling you to use their free software to build your own device or even install it on your laptop.  This flexibility lets you to have a uniform experience wherever you want to watch (even from the road).  Unfortunately, the user interface is confusing.  While I find it to be worth my time given the trade-offs, I can really only recommend this to you if you love being an early adopter and want to tinker to get an optimal experience.

  • Apple

Assuming you’d rather trade the openness of the Boxee platform for out-of-the-box ease of use, you should consider Apple and Roku.  Apple TV supports YouTube, Netflix, MLB, and your personal (iTunes) library.  It also embodies Apple’s flare for making a dead-simple product that delivers a high-quality experience, all at a price of under $100.  The only real drawback is that Apple currently supports a fairly limited set of services.  This could change at almost any time if Apple opens up the App Store for this device, and you’ll be thrilled if you buy one and that happens via an update.

  • Roku

In the meantime, if you don’t want to wait for Apple’s release cycle, the final recommendation for this post is the Roku box.  Roku was initially launched as a device dedicated to streaming Netflix, but has been on a quest to add services via an app platform, and they’ve done a pretty decent job.  There are 3 Roku devices.  Go for the middle-of-the-road, Roku XD ($79) unless your TV doesn’t have any available HDMI ports, in which case you should pony-up for the XDS ($99); both of these versions support full 1080p streaming, and that makes them worth the difference in price over the entry-level device which doesn’t.

Conclusions

So, to sum it up: If you want to watch Internet on your TV (and you do), your best bet is to have a TV with streaming services built in (the benefits of having the services built-in to your main device outweigh the benefits of any of the other offerings); if you aren’t in the market for a new TV, a gaming console is the next best alternative, with the PS3 being my console of choice, because you’ll be paying for a great Blu-Ray player and getting this other functionality for free; and finally, if neither is right for you, go with Boxee, Apple or Roku depending on your personality (and keep an eye on what Google does in case that changes things). If this doesn’t answer your question because what you really wanted to know is whether you could cancel cable or how to watch your personal library, stay tuned; Part 2 is coming soon.

How should I share my media with you?

You may not be surprised to hear that, as a former DivX employee, I’ve often gotten the question, “How should I share my photos/videos/files with you?”  What is surprising is that in the fast-paced world of the Internet, my answer has been consistent for more than 4 years.

You should use a combination of free tools: Picasa (client and web albums) and Dropbox.  I recommend these solutions because:

  1. When your goal is to share media with friends, your goal is not to “publish” it and many services confuse these needs;
  2. When you share media, you want to preserve the quality of it for the enjoyment of your friends; and
  3. When you share media, you want to allow your friends to use the media in their preferred environments or workflows.

The distinction between “sharing” and “publishing” is an important one.  If you are “publishing,” then you are disseminating a particular expression/experience (typically to a wide audience).  Sharing, on the other hand, means that you are enabling the joint use of a resource. If what you want to do is “publish” your media, Facebook, YouTube and blogging platforms (like WordPress or tumblr) are great, but they make privacy complicated, don’t give your friends flexibility, and typically reduce the quality of the file you’re sharing.

Picasa and Dropbox resolve all of these problems elegantly, simply enough for the least technical of your friends, and with versatility.

Picasa

Picasa is primarily a photo tool, but also has some video functionality, so while I would classify it as a unitasker, I think it is one worth your time (I think even Alton Brown would agree)  The (free) desktop client (PC and Mac) is best-in-class, and has seamless integration with the web albums. The combination provides a fantastic UI for photo management, photo editing (cropping, red-eye reduction, brightness leveling, etc.), online backup, album sharing, collaboration (designated friends can add photos to your albums), stand-alone slide shows, print ordering, and of course, full-resolution download.  Kodak, Shutterfly, Snapfish and others lock you into their services once you’ve uploaded and expire your account if you haven’t ordered prints recently.  By contrast, Picasa syncs up to dozens of the top photo printing sites and is agnostic as to whether you ever order a physical print.  SmugMug actually does solve a sharing problem more effectively, and allows your friends to download full resolution photos, but this is enabled only 1 photo at a time, which can be grueling for large albums, especially where Picasa makes it easy to download a full album.  Bottom line here, “sharing” on any other service is merely publishing.

Dropbox

For any purpose other than sharing full albums of photos, Dropbox is the way to go. Dropbox is primarily an online backup/cross-device folder synchronization tool.  By installing Dropbox on multiple computers (all associated with one user account), you can automatically synchronize any file you put in your Dropbox.  Thankfully, though, Dropbox doesn’t stop there.  It includes robust sharing features, enabling anything from sharing an auto-synced sub-folder with a friend who also has Dropbox to creating a web link to a file enabling anyone with the link to download the associated file.  Like Picasa, Dropbox includes a (free) desktop app with an integrated web client.  The Dropbox desktop app installs onto your PC/Mac and appears just like any other folder on the system, so if you know how to save a file to a folder on your computer, you know how to sync/share using Dropbox.  There are competitors in this space (chief among them is Box.net), but, in large part because of the fantastic implementation of Dropbox’s native desktop client, it stands out markedly from the pack.  It is worth emphasizing that Dropbox is filetype agnostic (while it handles photos admirably, the lack of photo-specific functions leads me to stick with Picasa for photo albums), so I can recommend it for sharing virtually any media.

A Note on Google Docs

I do want to give an honorable mention to Google Docs.  Google Docs is king when it comes to version control and collaboration, and since it technically does allow download as well as robust privacy settings, it shouldn’t be considered a “publishing tool.”  Still, because it requires conversion from native files and doesn’t integrate with any third-party internet offerings, it can’t be my recommendation for sharing media.

So, please do share your media, especially when you attend events and parties and promise someone they don’t need to use their camera since you’ll “share” the photos that were taken with yours.  Perhaps Color and its progeny will fix all of this, but in the meantime, consider my advice.

Weird Al does Lady Gaga (whether she likes it or not)

Weird Al does Lady Gaga (whether she likes it or not)

UPDATE:  Lady Gaga has apparently approved the release of the song, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding.  If true, that reminds us how quickly things can get carried away; if false…

______________________________________________________________

I have to digress from my stated purpose of answering my friends/colleagues tech purchasing/usage questions to air some stupidity.

As many of you know, I have a special place in my heart ipod reserved for Weird Al.  He has disappointed me many times:

  • I did not actually like UHF;
  • his “live” show at the Del Mar Racetrack last year (the only live show of his I’ve ever been to) included more silence and taped video than actual performance and he never sang a full song all the way through;
  • And he’s had several albums not worth listening to

But for an “artist” to deny a parody of his (which she, in this case, should know is a formality anyway) makes me want to rally behind him once again.  Please join me in denouncing Lady Gaga by listening to the spoof.

While you’re at it, let’s remember some of his greats: Amish Paradise, Yoda, and of course, the entire Even Worse album.

That is all.

Should I Use Group Messaging?

In the wake of the tremendous amount of exposure provided to group messaging platforms during SXSW, including GroupMe, Beluga (now part of Facebook), Fast Society, etc., it is easy to think these platforms have a clear value proposition and a straight shot to broad adoption.

My friends in the “industry” are constantly asking which service I prefer.  I set out to answer the question, but instead found the better question to be, “Should I use any of these group messaging services?”

To stick with my formula of giving you quick answers, regretfully, I have to say, “No.”

In more detail, the answer is: Only if you find it fun to play with these kinds of things, or need to be up on the latest apps for your job (both apply to me), and then you should be playing with all of them.

I actually spent a good amount of time this weekend trying to move a variety of different “groups” to one of these platforms as an experiment.  What I found was that it was too hard to make it worth while.

My main justification is that these apps don’t actually make it easier for your groups to talk.  Not only are the features not materially superior to pre-existing solutions, but the switching cost of convincing people not predisposed to using new modes of communication is not worth the effort.

The important question everyone asks is, “Can’t we just use email?”  The two rebuttal responses don’t hold water:

  1. Some say Email is old-school and chat feels instant:  It really isn’t true in a world of iPhones, Droids and even Blackberrys.  Those of us with smart phones are accustomed to receiving email on our devices.  Email is quick, provides OS/Launcher-level alerting and allows us to interact with any number of customized groups of people.  All of the major mobile OSes have taken great steps towards integrated messaging platforms such that it can be kinda tough to even figure out whether a message was email, txt or IM.  Email is also quickly accessible from the phone and desktop alike, has superior archive and searching functionality built-in, and is free under existing data plans (unlike txt).  No clear win for group messaging here.
  2. Others point out that group messaging, unlike email can be accessed from feature phones:  Feature phones (aka phones without app store support primarily used by Luddites, the elderly and those for whom work will only pay for the data portion of their smart phone) do make email challenging, and the ability to hit up multiple people with txts is theoretically a winning solution. Unfortunately, the practical reality leans the other way.  Those who carry feature phones have several complaints ranging from: “I don’t like fancy new apps,” to “how am I supposed to keep up with (and pay for) dozens of text messages rather than a simply email thread?”  There’s no good response in a world where texting costs $20 a month for an unlimited plan.  These folks would rather get an email and I can’t blame them.  If everyone on the smart-phone side were on board, they might feel left out of the conversation, but (see #1 above) it just doesn’t feel that way today.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool features on these services including: on demand conference calling; the map that allows you to see where your friends are; and the ability to create chat groups without having to share your actual phone number (FastSociety only, I believe, and used for ad-hoc communication with groups you’d rather not keep in touch with), but these features are nice-to-haves right now, not things that make adoption a no-brainer.

Ultimately, as a hack-day solution to a small problem, I think these services are awesome.  There may be times when I would find them invaluable.  But, as an everyday means of communication, the world just isn’t ready yet, and you don’t need to rush in. Maybe Facebook will make this awesome, or perhaps the AOLers out in Palo Alto can help speed things up, but for now, you’re ok sitting on the sidelines.

UPDATE: I have continued playing with these services, and can now recommend Beluga if you do decide to use these services at all.  It works much like BBM in that if you both have the app, no one gets charged for texts and when you look at it as an SMS replacement app *with* group messaging, rather than the reverse, it starts to look attractive… starts.

Advice I wish I could follow

It is not advisable… to venture unsolicited opinions.  You should spare yourself the embarrassing discovery of their exact value to your listener.

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Yes, you should get the iPad2…

… Unless you already have a first gen iPad.

The questions I keep getting are:

  1. Should I get the iPad2 if I already have an iPad?
  2. Should I get the iPad2 or a Kindle?
  3. Should I get the 3G version?
  4. What size should I get?
  5. What about an Android tablet?

The short answer: You should get the iPad2 64GB, WiFi only.

1) You don’t need the iPad2 if you have the original iPad. The size and weight are not different enough to make an impact on your bag or your wrists.  The apps are the same and the speed isn’t being used for anything that impressive yet and probably won’t be for another year.  The cameras are great, but the reality is that you don’t really want to take photos with a tablet and people aren’t using facetime/skype on the road.  Just not different enough to get the new one.

2) Kindle vs. iPad is a false comparison; they are two TOTALLY different products.  A Kindle is a great ebook reader, but that’s all it does.  You can’t read a book on the iPad outdoors, period, the end.  If you like reading on the beach/park/backyard you need a Kindle.  If you want the best mobile internet and reading device for meetings, the couch, the airplane, etc., you need an iPad.

3) The 3G convenience is great, but the pricing on the plans is too high.  Especially if you also travel with a laptop, the better deal is to tether the iPad to a different connected device.  I like using a MiFi or OverDrive card which allows you to connect up to 5 devices, but even your iPhone4/Android device allows tethering and is likely cheaper than getting another plan if you don’t use it that often.  The iPad doesn’t really need connectivity to be a great product.  If the money isn’t an issue, by all means, get the 3G.

4) Once you have an iPad, you will want to put things on it.  The apps are actually quite small, and I find that I don’t listen to a TON of music on the ipad.  What starts to take up space are the videos.  32GB would work for most of you, but for the extra $100, the storage space is a no-brainer. Go with the 64.

5) A lot of OEMs have launched Android-based tablets recently, and many of them are cool, but the iPad is the way to go.  Video is a killer app for tablets.  You can watch back-to-back episodes of TopGear during the entire flight from San Diego to New York on one battery charge… and you want to.  I have several episodes of Sesame Street, a few Blues Clues, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and a bunch of others, plus things for me.  You want the ability to have a ton of choice in your tablet video library too. Right now, Google hasn’t launched a killer video store (soon?) and none of the Android manufacturers can come close to competing with iTunes on choice or user experience.  Until this changes, there’s no Android alternative to the iPad that matters.  

My Approach

So, a bit about my approach to this blog.

I’m going to assume you’re reading TechnicaLee for only 1 of 3 reasons:

  1. You don’t read Tech reviews and figure I have your answers;
  2. You already read Engadget, but need more direct advice from someone who knows you; or
  3. You like me and feel like you’ll offend me if you make a purchase without checking with me.

I appreciate those of you in #3; you would have all saved a lot of money in the past (those of you with an HD-DVD player, or a Sony Vaio laptop know who you are…), but you don’t really seem to have learned your lessons, thus, my approach is to target the 1s and 2s.

I’ll try to get right to my advice and spend less time on the actual reviews. I don’t get preview products for hands-on reviews, I don’t have equipment to do benchmarks and comparisons, and I am happy to write without getting paid, so clearly I can’t replace the pros. If you find this helpful, send me your questions (here, quora, twitter, whatever) and I’ll try to reply.

If you’re looking for something in more depth, I’ve already suggested Engadget, and other sites I like include TomsHardware, Lifehacker, ArsTechnica, and CNET.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for reading.

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