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Tag Archives: Personal Tech

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!

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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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.  


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