One thing I have not seen much of in discussions of the ongoing tablet/phone wars if the issue of branding.

In some ways, even with their open platform, Android is like Microsoft. I do not say this lightly, but from the standpoint of the consumer experience in shopping for phones. Most of the clients I run into, when looking for phone are either looking for an iPhone, or they’re looking for an ‘Android’ – and want to know which make and model is the best.

Sure, some want, specifically, a “droid” or “htc” – but for the most part, even those who are aware of them due to the many commercials care less about a specific phone maker than whether or not the phone runs Android, and what features are available on any specific handset.

This is at first blush analogous to the situation with PC’s in the late 90’s where, outside of the Mac camp, everything ran windows, and manufacturers had to really struggle to differentiate themselves from a cheap white-box computer bought at the local computer shop. The manufacturers can’t compete much on features, some models do try to compete on build, but mostly the handset makers try to compete by what “useful” changes they can make to the UI.

The carriers, of course, are still trying to dictate what people can and cannot do on their networks.

I’m not sure if they are succeeding. Because of several key differences in the phone market, the gradual erosion of the handset makers, but more importantly, the phone carriers ability to dictate what features will be available, is a good thing for consumers. And we are already seeing signs that, between the iPhone and the Android, the wireless carriers are losing their ability to dictate terms to the handset makers.

Interesting times, as the phone companies struggle to stay relevant as more than just a commodity connection to the world, and the handset makers struggle to stay relevant in a world where Blackberry is waning, and most of the mindshare belongs to Apple and Google.

OSX 10.7 “Lion” – Not Quite Linux on the Desktop. Yet…..

Courtesy of the guys at Minimal Mac, I took a look at the new information available on OSX 10.7, aka “Lion.”

There are three features that interest me here that I’ll discuss, outside of the “mission control” revamp to finding your open windows. All three features, at first glance, appear to be opaque to non-geeks, yet, like Time Machine, I see them at least two of them becoming nearly indispensable, with the third a huge boost to smaller businesses. 

The first is “Auto Save.” If I understand the verbiage here, Lion will get automated saving of open documents without you ever having to remember to do it yourself. Say goodbye to working on something for 30 minutes or an hour, and losing it all in a software crash, because the computer will take care of it for everything you have open, not just the few programs that explicitly go to the trouble of auto-saving. It’s unclear if this is a feature that software will have to deliberately allow use of, or if any and all programs inherit this ability.

The second is “Versions.” Sortof like Time machine for individual documents, the OS will now keep all previous iterations of a document that you can flip back to.

The last is the fact that there will no longer be a separate “Server” version of the OS. It’s unclear at this time if the license will be unlimited, but from now on, the server administration panels will just be a more advanced set of options for every Mac running OSX 10.7.

The overall impact of this is as follows. Apple is making sure that at a system level, just like Time Machine made backups transparent for the standard home user, that the computer will also act to protect the integrity of your work no matter where you are doing it. 

They are also expanding on the concept they started with the Mac Mini “servers” pre-loaded with OSX server. Even before that plenty of companies (like Delicious Monster, the makers of the Delicious Library book/media inventory app) had already settled on using several cheap Mac Minis as servers because you could lose one or two and still end up ahead compared to the cost of a full XServe. Now, any mac can be set up with as many, or few, server features that you need without paying a premium for a separate OS.

In some ways, this reminds me of the ongoing quetion on when Linux will be popular on the mainstream desktop. One highlight of the free-to-install Linux OS’s has always been the ability to install any feature from basic user programs to the most complex web and network software without having to obtain a separate version for the more advanced features. You just install and setup the features you want. 

Now, that’s going to be true of the Mac. From iPhoto to office user administration, and everything in between.

I do wish they had some form of rack-mount hardware in place, but that’s not a necessity for the typical home or small office user.

Interesting times.


Aside from my work, and studying that I’m doing, I try to set a little time aside each day to simply read, for pleasure’s sake. Even if only for a few minutes. Right now, I’m at the beginning of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

Neal is an incredibly geeky and clever writer, and I can almost feel the delight at the wordplay he employs.

Bluntly, he is one of the very, very few authors who I appreciate as much for their ability to turn prose into poetry as I do for their ability to tell a story. Dan Simmons, Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy are the others.

I don’t read empty style, so you won’t see me recommend someone with no substance just because they put a lot of effort into style.


Priorities – Being Personally “Busy”

Hand in hand with my other post on priorities is the inherent waffling in telling yourself you’re too busy. 

What you choose to do, moment to moment, inherently defines what your priorities are. Period. If you don’t have time or money to do everything that needs to be done within a given time frame or budget, then you need to figure out which of those you’re going to drop or push off until later.

You can tell yourself all you want that you wish to learn to play an instrument, but if you watch TV or read instead of making 15-30 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week, minimum, available to practice, you will never gain proficiency.

You can tell yourself that you wish to be more fit, but if you sit around all day in front of a TV or monitor and don’t do something every day that makes you use your body’s strength and balance, then build up to do more and more, then your muscles will be just as flabby as they were the entire time you’ve been sitting on your butt beforehand.

You can say you want to lose weight, but if your choice every meal, or even every day is to down a bowl of ice cream, a cake, or a few cookies, instead of making them an occasional treat, or you constantly load up on empty calories, then you will gain weight.

You can “want” to learn to program, or write, or draw, or whatever, but if you go play darts at the bar and don’t take the time to practice writing, drawing, etc., how badly can you really, really say you want to do learn those skills?

There’s nothing wrong with watching movies or TV. I love to read, and it’s a valuable life skill as well as a form of entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, playing darts, drinking beer, or having a huge dessert every once in a while. Just be honest with yourself.

If you look back at the week, and see that you haven’t spent some time every night working on the things you supposedly want to do, because you decided to do something else at every “what to do” decision point for the next half hour, then it’s obvious what your priorities were, eh?

Priorities – Being “busy” to Other People

These days, I try to never tell people I’m busy.

It just feels more honest that way. When someone asks you to do something, and you reply “I’m busy,” what you are really saying is “I am doing something else that I consider to be a higher priority right now.” This is true by dint of the simple fact that if taking more time to talk to them or to do what you are being asked was a higher priority, you’d stop doing what you are doing as long as you felt necessary.

If it’s your priority to wrap up the thought you are writing, or the page you are reading, or the lap you are running, tell them that. “Let me finish this up in just a second/minute.” If you have a scheduling conflict, tell them you have a prior commitment you can’t move. 

Sometimes, though, you just have to say “no.” It may be physically impossible – “Sorry sir, but I can’t get Jupiter moved closer by tomorrow night…”. It may be something that you have no interest in – “Sorry Bob, I’m not going to set aside a week to go to the snail darter convention.” Of course there’s the obvious caveat that just because you’re not interested, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.

Some people will dislike it, but compared to a vague “I’m busy” – letting people know when you are and aren’t available gives them a concrete idea of what your boundaries are, and a better idea of when they can actually expect something done. It also gives them an idea of how to get you interested. You see, going hand in hand with this is a little bit of tact. Being polite with anyone you are turning down is just good common sense unless you have a reason to be actively rude. I also try to not tell my clients “no” if I can avoid it. Unavoidable “no’s” include “You can’t install that desktop drive in this laptop case,” but many of them, even if it’s not your core business, are avoidable.

So how do I deal with “avoidable” no’s? Through “Yes, but.”

You know what your priorities are. Factor in what would make taking on a project worth your while like time spent researching, and opportunity costs. “I really was looking forward to the beach vacation, finishing that book, and on top of that I’d have to bump two clients a few days to get this done.” I’ve even factored in whether or not a client is particularly needy or requests more than average rework by reflecting the additional time it would take up on the estimate. For business, these are often relayed in dollar amounts or working conditions. 

Either way, this puts the ball in the other person’s court. They now know what it will take to make something enough of a priority for you to tackle it, and they now have to decide yes, or no.

Learning by Doing, part Three

I’ve discussed before my friend Mike, and his quest to learn new things by mastering them, by taking the time to do them the painful, hard, and slow way so that he could get a nearly intuitive feel of what was involved. 

Again, the goal here wasn’t to knock out as many tomahawks./bows/etc. of a good quality in as short a time as possible – in which case he would have had no problems with modern power tools like dremels, etc., but to learn the skills required at a deeper level.

That depth takes time.

We’ve seen the books. “Learn php in Seven Days!” 

Let’s try the reality: Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

In the article, Peter Norvig, researcher at Google, utterly skewers the attitude that you can “learn to program in ‘x’ in seven days.”

Again, it takes time. It takes practice. It takes repetition and challenging yourself to build new constructs and try new things so you don’t just understand the basic theory, but you have a near-intuitive grasp of how they fit together. You have a model in your head of what actually works, and what doesn’t.

The key is persistence. 


State of the SmartPhone (and Tablet)

In the last few months, the smartphone market has been substantially shaken up –  culminating most recently in Nokia’s CEO announcing a “change of direction”. This new direction is one that many smart people, especially Eric Raymond who’s consistently predicted how things will go when naysayers and business analysts have said otherwise,  are referring to as the beginning of a “death spiral,” or a “suicide note.”

So – which way are things going overall?

Barring some sort of dramatic refocusing that it’s apparent Nokia’s CEO is not doing, Nokia is no longer relevant. It’s still possible that Pheonix-like, they will find a new vision and become relevant again, but they missed the boat on how to make smart phones that normal people can use without reading the manual. While Apple brought itself back from the brink of death, they did so by finding a vision, jettisoning a confusing product lineup, and completely reinventing itself, and what people expect from a computer. People in the tech industry snickered at the iMacs, the lack of floppy drives, the first iPod, and the first iPhone – and yet this focus on vision, on experience as an integral part of the design and not just a sprayed-on patina, this attention to little details, and the constant reinventing of itself is how it’s regained relevance, and is so far keeping it.

Creating two different divisions, focusing on two product lines at cross-purposes to each other is not the way to rebuild yourself. Worse, they’re tying themselves to the new Windows mobile. Tying yourself to a product line that, despite initial love and admiration from the tech crowd, has dismally failed in the marketplace is also not a winning proposition. I thought it would be pretty competitive myself, but the sales figures are damning.

Confusion of mission and scope is especially a “bad thing” in a world where people, courtesy of their experience of the iPhone, iPad, and Android, expect simplicity. Focussed, effortless simplicity is indeed simple, but it’s hard. It takes work. It takes a ruthless attitude towards “how do people use this” and “which of these features do I really, really, really need.”

RIM has similarly made many missteps, and is also finding itself drowning in a sea of iOS devices and Androids.

So what’s left?

In the phone space, I see Android as dominant, market-share wise, and Apple still hanging on. This market share dominance is why I’m exploring programming for Android on top of taking time to learn programming for the iPhone. Unlike some, I’m not discounting the survival of Apple in this space. They’ve too consistently reinvented themselves – they almost have a fetish for replacing product lines with something new even as they’re still selling well, and have survived decades of doomsaying. Android will have the variety of features, while the iOS devices will be streamlined to do a number of things most people want very well in a very polished manner that Google still barely approaches even when some features are better implemented.

Android will probably keep and retain the bleeding edge, but remember, Apple’s rarely been first to do anything: windowed OS’s, MP3 players, online music stores, smartphones, even tablets – they’ve just been the first to do them in a way that makes them insanely popular outside of the geeksphere (guilty!) or niche, vertical markets. It’s telling that the Android OS we see today has almost no resemblance ot the Android previews before the iPhone came out. As long as Apple keeps that culture (and with Jobs’ hand-picked execs in there that should be another couple years after he gives up running the company), Apple will do well, sales-wise, and stay relevant. While the actual intro-day sales on Verizon this last week were slower than expected, I can’t discount the number of Verizon users I personally know who hate AT&T and were incredibly excited to have an iPhone available on Verizon. And bought one.

It’s also important to note that Apple is the first phone maker that has managed to mostly divorce the features of the phone from the carrier, though some limitations do exist (look at how long it took AT&T to allow tethering long after it was available for the iPhone). Google is still getting there, as there is fragmentation in not only the add-ons that various manufacturers provide, but the various carriers also restrict what features and software are available. Add to that the fact that Android updates are relatively complex for consumers – after Google updates the OS, each manufacturer needs to modify that update to work with thr changes made for its handsets – and many don’t bother to. Nevertheless, the obvious trend for Android is to be more and more independent of the carriers and the manufacturers.

Tablets are trickier. Here, Apple has less of a lead, and the Galaxy Tab, as well as the demos of Android 3.0 for tablets shows that there are some things that can be done differently (for god’s sake, Apple, fix your notification system already!!). You also have HP joining the game with their WebOS-based tablets by mid-year, though there’s no announcement on price.

I predict roughly the same for Android vs. Apple. Yes – Apple’s lead is smaller, but using modern tablets is a much more tactile experience than a mobile phone screen – and build quality here matters. As a result, the Samsung based-tablets are no cheaper for the features than the equivalent iPad. One advantage the Android platform tablets have is that they are already incorporating faster processors that make up for some of the jerky responsiveness on the Android phones that breaks the tactile illusion that the iOS devices maintain.

WebOS is a wildcard – we’ll have to see what HP can make of it from a developer and App perspective, but the product itself seems solid.

No matter how you add it up – interesting times, and the presence of several players will keep Android and Apple honest. 


Learning by Doing, part Deux.

You can study the diagrams for a valve, or motor, or computer. You can read the manuals, often written with input from people who designed the hardware in question, and trace out the concepts of what goes where, and which piece does what.

But it’s not until you disassemble the valve, the transaxle, the pump casing, the computer case, or the vacuum cleaner, fix it, and put it back together, that you will know the system as well as you think you do. You can read several books on programming, but it’s not until you actually start writing code, and slamming your head up against the wall of “now why in the hell does it do THAT??!” that you really learn to program.

Writing is one of the few areas where the act of studying – reading – helps prepare you by not only giving you the knowledge base of words and ideas, but helps lay out the paths in your mind in turn with which to write. 

And yet, even writing well is, as I recently noted, a skill that needs to be practiced to be brought to mastery. By writing.

So what is the hands on for learning academic knowledge?


No, not pretty posters, though the research involved in building dioramas and such, combined with the focus of working on them can help. I’m talking about how you process the information you are receiving to memorize it as efficiently as possible.

The Navy likes to tell you in training that they will a) tell you what they are about to tell you (the objectives and goals), b) Tell you what they’re telling you, and c) tell you what they just told you. They also make a habit of repeating information – by speaking it, by putting it up on the board so you can see it, and by expecting you to write it down.

Note taking. That awful, dreaded, old-fashioned way to learn.

Aside from the sheer repetition, the focus required to write, especially by hand, what you are hearing or reading, seems to be very efficient at helping ingrain information that you wish to remember because it engages multiple senses at once – including the tactile – while holding your focus on the subject you are writing about.

Even when I’m not in a class, teaching myself, I will go through the information and (if possible) highlight anything that looks relevant. Then I will take a second pass through the data, notebook in hand, writing out every bit of relevant data. When truly dedicated I will go back through and retype my handwritten notes.

Pixelmator (and Acorn)

At some point, you want to get started doing photo editing, composition, or even original digital art – definitely more than you can do in Picasa or iPhoto – but you don’t want to shell out $600 or more on a current or recent version of Photoshop (the acknowledged standard for professionals). Fortunately there are options. Pixelmator and Acorn.

Both of these programs are fast, effective, powerful enough for anything short of a “pro” workflow, and most of all, because they don’t have all of the pro features, cheap. Both also use automator scripting to do repetitive or batch processing. 

Pixelmator looks and feels more like photoshop, with floating palettes for tools, color selection, etc.. Acorn tries to get it all done in one tools window with options that change based on the current tool in use. Acorn also lets you do some very basic editing with a restricted feature set after the trial is over.

The choice is more a matter of personal style, but both are solid products I can highly recommend.