Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why I love Having a Decent Camera Phone

Without my camera phone (Droid Incredible), I would not have captured any of these images.

Thing1 enjoying her second day of school, playing with a mirror, and occasionally sleeping:

maya at school maya and mirror maya sleeps

Thing1 and Thing2 being awesome (typical) and getting along (rare):

kids at mall kids at mall kids dancing or something

A neat toaster and cool window at the airport in Philidelpha or Albany (can't remember which):

sweeet toaster

neat window

A Blues Bros. staging area:

police cars

A Mexican restaurant that has a nearly identical menu to El Campesino in NE Ohio (hmmmm):

menu cover

menu inside

A furniture store catering only to a certain, specific clientele (and more):

odd furniture store name

Some probably bad advice from my rental car:

bad advice

Some random discoveries at the drug store:

tastey drink yum chewy popcorn

awesome idea

And of course, my super sweet and very missed family:

the fam

Anatomy of a Typical Sensationalist News Story

In our highly charged media, it’s exceedingly common (and frustrating) to see a ridiculous news headline which is not supported by the story within. Here’s what I mean; level of alarm is on the y-axis and piece of the story is on the x-axis:

Yikes! Things start out pretty serious. After keeping our attention with a few random facts, the story is finally killed by its own lame ties to reality.

Here’s an actual, far less dramatic example from an article I read this morning:

Headline:

Judge who overturned Proposition 8 to retire

Ohhh Prop 8—that sounds serious; tell me more!

Vaughn R. Walker, the federal judge who ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, will leave the bench at the end of the year for the private sector, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco announced Wednesday.

Right there in the first sentence the headline is contradicted. Is he retiring or going into the private sector? Maybe he’s retiring to the private sector? I’m intrigued. Pray continue:

Walker presided over an unprecedented federal trial earlier this year that examined a wide array of questions about gays and lesbians, including whether sexual orientation can be changed and whether same-sex unions differ much from opposite-sex unions.

Oh, right, that’s why this guy is famous. Random facts, please!

Walker, 66, a Republican appointee considered a conservative with a libertarian bent, has served as a federal district judge for nearly 21 years and as chief judge of the San Francisco-based court since 2004.

Don’t forget to add a slight twist:

District chief judges are selected based on age, seniority and experience and may serve for a maximum of seven years.

OK…relevance?

Walker's term would have expired next August. The court said District Judge James Ware will become chief judge in January.

What, what? So he was out of there next year anyway? When he leaves, he’ll have served about 90% of his term, which is just the final chapter of more than 20 years of service.

There’s no story here. Why was this on the front page?!

By the way, the Google Image results for [Vaughn R. Walker]—the judge—are pretty hilarious:

Assuming he’s the old guy in a suit, hitting slots 1-3 is pretty good. After that it falls apart, though.

In Defense of StackExchange / Trust the Experts / Roy Osherove is Wrong

Something I’ve learned over the years wearing many hats—engineer, salesman, husband, father—is that people don’t really know what they want. That’s why we have specialists and experts. I recently read The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less wherein the author makes a solid case that we suck at making decisions, and the more decisions we make the less happy we are. This is very counterintuitive but as any indecisive person can probably relate, true. I’ll come back to this later.

I was disappointed to read Roy Osherove’s rant against Stack Exchange—he’s far off base. He uses a credibility-tarnishing tone to build the following position: Stack Exchange will fail.

As an avid Stack Exchange supporter I think he’s wrong. If it does fail, it won’t be for the reasons he outlined. To help soften the quotes, I’ll add a baby with the expression I imagine was on Roy’s face as he typed.

First, he was bothered by the wiki nature of the site:

Execuse my french – but what the fuck are all these “enlightened” people doing editing my answers? If I wanted people editing my words, looking down at me, and deciding to change stuff, I’d start a wiki. as is, my answers are my own, and they reflect my mood, and my typos. and if they want me ot fix them they should ask me.

The site makes no secret that it’s really just a giant wiki. It’s nothing new, either; it was founded with this as a core feature. Further, all new visitors see this when they first hit any page on the site:

image
It’s a flashy, animated, cannot-be-missed banner that pretty much begs for you to give a quick look-see. And if you do, there’s a great—though a little long—explanation of how the site works, including this nice tidbit:

Other people can edit my stuff?!

Like Wikipedia, this site is collaboratively edited, and all edits are tracked. If you are not comfortable with the idea of your questions and answers being edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you.

There’s also a slightly less obvious “about” link just under the yellow bar which offers this excellent graphic on the first screen:

Venn diagram: Wiki, Digg/Reddit, Blog, Forum

Sure, I don’t expect people to read the directions. But, if you don’t read the directions, it’s not really fair to cry fowl about the others that did. And in any case, the edits he’s probably all in a tizzy about are good, positive edits.

Next, Roy complains that the Stack Exchange overlords wield their iron fist of power abusively and inconsistently as they cherry pick good proposals to support, kill or merge. Or in his rambling words:

so control freaks as they are – they made a great platform and started selling it to create mini sites for questions. But they didn’t like it – they decided that “for the good of the community” it will be better if people couldn’t “buy” their own stack overflow sites, but instead the community would have to vote on them – controlfreak move #1 – WE decide for YOU that OTHERS will decide for YOU if your idea is good or not.

First, there was clear evidence that the original for-hire model of StackExchange was a failure. They were very open about that and in retrospect it seems obvious why it failed: most sites lacked community. They figured out that the special sauce was to launch the site with a huge group of committed people. And so, they produced a very impressive mechanism for building up a community for any arbitrary topic before launching a site—Area 51. And it seems to be working pretty well.

Roy continues:

so up goes a suggestion for a unit testing site (dev testing) [to area51]. It’s supposed to go through all the confirmation channels, get a specific number of supporters to get to being “live” and then joel and jeff will make it into a real site.

right. only the controlfreak nature won’t let go. the unit testing site is ALMOST up to being a legit site, with people from all over the community wanting to be part of it. after following all the rules that joel and jeff put up themselves, they suddenly drop this bomb - “hey – why don’t we merge this unit testing thing with another site – it will make more sense that way!”

The system is not perfect, but I think it’s reasonable that they step in from time to time and tweak things. This works especially well when they do so transparently and with community feedback, as they did.

They are never shy about these things. They killed off an underperforming site already, and described their reasoning behind merging of sites very openly in the past. Joel went so far as to post 1500 words on the topic of merging proposals. My point is that they (Jeff, Joel, etc.) have been extremely open about the entire process and while their decisions are not always popular, they are very consistent, well documented, and reasonable.

As a user of several Stack Exchange sites, I am glad the platform is being actively managed to keep questions on-topic (another very controversial subject), drop floundering sites, and encourage a good balance of factionalism between sites and tags. There have been plenty of decisions I have disagreed with over the last two years, sure. Most of the time, I come around when I see that I merely lacked the vision or big picture view of what was happening, and sometimes I don’t. In all cases, though, I share the community-focused goals of the site creators and respect their decisions (they’ve earned it). I for one, breathe a sigh of relief that I don’t need to make these choices.

The reason I mentioned the stuff about decision making in the beginning is this: Jeff-Joel-and-Co are the closest we have to online community building experts. This is the crew that likely stresses over these decisions with what I’m sure are lengthy discussions and heated arguments. I can guarantee that they have spent more energy thinking about these issues, are more qualified to make the decisions than we are, and have better information about how all these sites fit together than we do. That’s why I trust them—they’re the experts.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Things Android Could Do Better

androidschmidt.jpg (620×465)

I recently covered the things I love about Android so it only seems fair to touch on its weaknesses (only a small portion of the part outside the "awesomeness" bubble on the previous post). I’d like to remind the audience that I’m not an Android or iPhone zealot—I think they are both fantastic devices and have recommended each. If anything, I'd say I'm a usability zealot but that's for another post.

11970859362137157163crazyterabyte_low_battery_icon_3svghi.png (600×550)Battery and Charging

The biggest problem for me is poor battery life. This will certainly vary from phone to phone as it strikes me as mostly a hardware issue. I’ve heard that the iPhone 4 gets good battery life, at least for a smartphone so that’s something to aspire to. My Droid Incredible can just make it a full day if I hardly use it. However, if I surf at lunch, use the GPS, or mess around with it much, it’s at 20% left by end of business.

It also seems to charge slowly. I don’t really have any empirical evidence for this, it’s just a feeling. My old iPod Touch would recharge to 80% in about an hour (or it seemed like it). My Droid takes three hours to get there, and four to five to reach 100%.

Missing Hardware Configuration Standards

One hallmark difference between the Android platform and iPhone is the obvious fact that Android can run on numerous devices, each with different hardware. I have no problem with this. I like that people who prefer physical keyboards or optical joysticks, or whatever can get them. What I don’t like is that there’s seemingly no standard for button ordering or placement. For example, here’s the Motorola Droid 2, the Motorola Droid X, The HTC G1/Dream, and HTC Droid:

Notice the button arrangements, read from left to right:

Moto Droid 2   Back Menu Home Search
Moto Droid X   Menu Home Back Search
HTC G1/Dream Call Home Menu* Back End
HTC Droid Incredible   Home Menu Back Search

This is crazy—the four standard buttons should always be in the same order. This is a pretty basic UI guideline that I am surprised wasn’t mandated in the Android licensing. There may very well be other combinations out there, too—these are just the first four phones I thought of. This comes

I’m not using this as an argument against buttons—just against different orderings. I like the four that I have and prefer this to the iPhone’s very adequate and acceptable single button.

Strangely, I’m actually OK with the custom UIs that Motorola and HTC have been developing. I think they are fostering some good ideas and I hope that in a year or two, vanilla Android will be polished enough that the vendor UIs will be absorbed and dissolved—but we’re not there yet.

Waiting for Updates

Android is a rapidly evolving platform—Google’s released four significant updates since it was first launched about a year and a half ago. With an update every four to six months, I’ve become accustomed to (and enjoy) regular improvements.

The problem is that the updates hit only Google's Nexus One initially. Everyone else has to wait for the vendor to pick it up, merge it into their customized version of Android, and route it through the carrier. This process seems to take two to three months.

Admittedly, this complaint is hardly fair--it's really a case of mismanaging expectations. The vendors and the carriers have historically done a very poor job of communicating when the updates will arrive and it's the not knowing that drives me crazy. By ignoring the issue, the rumor mill spins out of control.

This was one of the top reasons I rooted my phone--I wanted to have more control over installing updates.

It's Slow and Unintuitive

Just kidding--it's crazy fast and chock-full of intuitive awesomeness.

Things I Love About Android

A few months ago I got an HTC Droid Incredible on Verizon. It. Is. Awesome.

It is far and away the closest you can get to an iPhone-level device. Speaking of which, I think the iPhone and Droid have completely buried everything else:

image

In fact, I think about 75% of each device is definitely in the awesome region, and most of that is overlapping. What’s not awesome is either pretty good, or could be improved (they share weaknesses, too).

This post serves as a brief survey of some of my favorite parts of Android.

DropBox shares files between devices (phones, computers, etc.) so easily it’s like stealing candy from a baby. That, however, is a completely untrue expression. If you factor in the emotional and audible toll of stealing anything from a baby, it’s not easy. But DropBox is. I used it to get all these screenshots onto my laptop, as a matter of fact. That screenshot also captures the fact that you can run multiple apps.

Home screens let you arrange your favorite apps and widgets however you like. We also have the app tray which is more like what iPhoners might be familiar with—it just lists all the apps. Widgets are pretty sweet, I gotta admit, like that candy you stole, creep.

Google’s News and Weather App is pretty slick. I particularly like the trend of temperature (yellow) and chance of precipitation (blue) over the next 24ish hours.

  

TweetDeck is far better than any of the other Twitter or Facebook apps I’ve used. It does the single inbox thing by mixing all the social stuff together, which is nice. With this app I rarely actually visit Facebook.com anymore. It supports multiple columns and simultaneous posts, just like the desktop client.

  

The ability to share pretty much anything with applications that support it is awesome, too. In this first pic, I’ve chosen a picture to share and Android is asking how. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to share a screenshot. I just got it working on my device which is how I was able to take all these shots. This is something that iPhone has killed on, hands-down. Interestingly, Pandora doesn’t support sharing, which is too bad. I listen to Pandora easily 20 hours a week through my phone and sometimes I’d like a convenient way to share what I’m listening to. Pandora tip: if you have unlimited data, turn on high quality mode in the settings—it’s much better.

  

I don’t play too many games but we’ve got a couple of nice ones. I very excited for the final release of Angry Birds. I’m told this is among iPhone’s highest grossing games of all time, and after finishing the beta/demo, I can see why.

 

Another easy favorite is WordFeud. My friend Matt turned me onto this but for some reason refuses to play anymore. Sarah loves it, though, so this is probably the most played game in our house. As a turn based, notification based game, the usual Scrabble pressure is absent (the worst part of real Scrabble) because you aren’t expected to play an entire game through in one sitting. Games typically last for a week as players occasionally make a move. It sounds strange but it’s great.

 

I’d been thinking about Kindles ever since they broke the $200 barrier. I like to read but for these reasons, traditional books don’t work that well with me: they are clunky and burdensome to carry around, I like to read multiple books at the same time, and I’m also all that smart with words so I have to look things up all the time. Kindle goes a long way toward solving all of those issues. Kindle for Android makes it about 80% of the way there, picking up big points on portability.

 

This thing also has the best GPS Navigation I’ve ever seen—it’s much better than our Garmin. Being tied to the internet, it’s maps are always up-to-date (with traffic, street view, and satellite view), as are the searchable businesses. It’s simply beautiful and incredibly effective—much more so in motion as everything is wonderfully animated and intuitive.

It’s no coincidence that these are mostly just apps. That’s the real magic—the Android Market and the iPhone App Store are the real killer apps of these devices.

Have a favorite app or trick to share? Please do!