How Frozen is the Frozen North?

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I finally got around to putting the current weather back in the blog.  This was the one major cleanup from when I switched to Drupal almost two years ago.

It isn't especially elegant: at home I have a Mac Mini running Lightsoft Weather Center; this downloads the current weather from my Davis Vantage Pro weather station.  Every 15 minutes, it updates an HTML template and FTPs it as a static file to my web hosting provider.  This static HTML page is included on every page of the site through an iframe.

There are also some history graphs which can be accessed by clicking the "Weather in the Frozen North" link; those are also updated every 15 minutes.

I was forced to abandon the Davis WeatherLink software because the Mac version was simply pathetic--it has not been well maintained, and ran as a Java application which seemed to be very brittle.  Fortunately, there are now several superior alternatives for weather station software on the Mac which have more features, are easier to set up, and produce nicer-looking output.

Facebook, it's not you, it's me

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Facebook, it's not you, it's me.

I tried to make our relationship work, I really did. At first I resisted--I'm not the kind of nerd who falls for every pretty Web 2.0 app--but when it seemed like everyone I knew was talking about you (even my own mother in law), I gave in.

We had fun together, at first. Reconnecting with old friends, seeing who else was hanging out. After a while, though, our relationship began to change. You didn't communicate with me the way you used to: instead of fun little updates, it seemed like all I got was messages about how many sheep someone raised in FarmVille.

I understand that you have needs too, but our relationship can't be a one-way street. If you want to monetize me, that's fine, but our relationship needs to be about more than just that.

For a while I sort of drifted away, but then I started suspecting that you had a darker side when I learned how many of our shared secrets you didn't really keep secret. Whatever trust and respect I had was gone when I learned that those games my friends were playing demanded a price: not just my friends' privacy, but mine too. Suddenly the sheep seemed more than annoying, almost sinister.

So I tried to leave you. For months I didn't log on, but eventually, and against my better judgment, I decided to give you one more try.

This time, I vowed, I would be careful and give you a fair shake. I would block all the useless applications, to protect both my time and my privacy. I would check everyone's updates regularly and comment where appropriate.

It didn't work.

The harsh reality is that I've been spending as much time blocking applications (you don't make it as easy as it should be) as communicating with people I care about. Of all my "friends," only a handful actually post updates, and those who do update post way too often (I care about these people, but not that much).

So in the end, Facebook, this is goodbye. I've invested too much energy in our relationship and gotten too little in return, and I've finally realized that to you I was never more than one more consumer profile to market to. I deleted my account today--though I have my doubts that you'll respect that. Something tells me you don't really believe our relationship is over.

On the Nature of Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field

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Apple did not invent graphical user interface. Nor did it invent the digital music player, smartphone, or tablet computer. Apple did take each of these products, do it better than anyone else, and (for a time at least) own the market.

In each case, a large part of Apple's contribution was not a killer feature or innovation, but taking existing elements and finding a combination of elements uniquely appealing to customers.

In each case, this meant omitting some features which every other product included, and which most observers believed to be must-have.

In each case, competitors and industry pundits mocked Apple's products and predicted failure.

In each case, when customers actually tried the products, the missing features turned out to be less important than the overall experience.

Normally when a company launches a new product into a new market, it makes an effort to include all the key features. Without hitting the "checklist features" it can be difficult to get prospective customers to even try the product, and the product is often doomed before it even gets a chance.

Apple's unique talent, and the true nature of Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field, is in getting prospective customers to give a new product a try, even when it seems to be missing key features.

How Special is the iPhone?

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Apple's products, at least since the return of Steve Jobs, have been an oasis of quality hardware and software in the sea of cheap, ugly, and crash-prone products that is the computing industry. As much as I like Apple and my iPhone, however, I would like the option to buy my next phone from a different company and not feel like I'm settling for second-best.

So far things are not looking good. The Palm Pre had outstanding software, but it never had enough backing from major carriers. As a result, both the Pre and Palm itself, are for all intents and purposes no more.

Android was also promising at first, and it still is promising in the abstract. Unfortunately, nearly all the actual Android phones on the market come with some combination of a lack of software upgradability, crippled features, obnoxious bloatware, and unhelpful user interface overlays. The main exception seems to be Google's own Nexus One, which lacked the marketing support of major carriers and is for all intents and purposes no more. Though it is technically possible to hack your Android phone or buy a new Nexus One, it's not reasonable to expect a typical consumer to go through the effort involved.

And while Android phones in aggregate are outselling iPhones, those sales are spread across hundreds of different devices from dozens of manufacturers. Given the wide variety of hardware, OS versions, and customized software commercial Android phones are sold with, it begs the question of whether Android is even a single platform.

Why is that after over three years since the original iPhone introduction no other manufacturer has been able to match Apple's combination of commercial success and high quality design?

Or, as an acquaintance recently said as he was showing off his beautiful new Droid phone, "It's great but let's face it: we all just want iPhones."

A Three Ring Circus

In order to successfully bring a mobile phone to market, three different elements must come together: the hardware, the software, and the service. That means that up to three different companies are involved in creating the customer experience, though often the hardware and software are from the same company.

Of these, the service is the hardest to differentiate, since consumers generally notice the service only when it fails: when calls drop, when the bill is wrong, etc. When everything is working properly the mobile phone service is like oxygen in the air, invisibly supporting the customer's daily activities.

However, the service provider also owns the customer relationship, since the carrier sells the customer the phone (in most cases), provides customer support, and sends the customer the monthly bill. In most cases that monthly bill is not only paying for the actual cost of delivering mobile phone service, but also most of the cost of the phone itself.

So the mobile phone companies--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others--use their customer control to force handset makers to make handsets the carriers want, which might or might not be the handsets which customers want.

At its most benign, this results in the carriers' logo being featured more prominently than the manufacturer's logo on most mobile phones. More importantly, phones are often shipped with important features (like data tethering) crippled or disabled to help the carriers sell more expensive services, and useless applications and overlays added which the carrier uses to "differentiate" its handsets (for example, Sprint's infamous Nascar App). It's also hard for a handset maker to innovate in ways which require the carrier's cooperation, since the handset company has very little power in the relationship and phone companies (as a rule) don't like changing their networks if they don't have to.

The iPhone, on the other hand, seems to exist entirely outside this world. Every iPhone ships with the same interface and user software (no carrier-specific apps or overlays), carriers have updated their networks specifically to support the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature (Apple did not invent the graphical interface for voicemail, but only Apple convinced a carrier to support it), and Apple doesn't even include the carrier's logo anywhere on the phone. An iPhone from anywhere in the world is essentially the same product, with the same branding, features, applications, and interface. 

[The one exception is data tethering, which is enabled in most markets but costs extra under AT&T. In My Humble Opinion this is obnoxious but at least understandable, given that the usage profiles of a smartphone and a wireless modem--which it what a tethered phone is--are very different.]

Uniquely, in the power relationship between carriers and handset makers, somehow Apple has come out on top where every other mobile device manufacturer has had to kowtow to the phone companies.

A Unique Confluence of Circumstances

I'm starting to believe that the iPhone and its success is due to a set of circumstances which make it unlikely any other company will be able to repeat Apple's feat.

At the time Apple was developing the iPhone and looking for a carrier partner, AT&T was still working through the aftereffects of a series of mergers and rebrandings which had, in the course of only a couple of years, confusingly merged Cingular and AT&T Wireless, killed the AT&T Wireless name, then returned the AT&T name and eliminated the Cingular brand.  Network and customer service integration was also rocky, and the company needed something unique to offer customers.

Apple is notoriously finicky about its products, and other carriers (notably Verizon) wouldn't give Apple the degree of control Apple wanted. But for AT&T, this was exactly what it needed: Apple was (thanks to the iPod) a powerful brand associated with hip, cutting-edge gadgets, and could be counted on to produce something special. AT&T would give up control of the handset and the customer relationship, but in return would get a phone no other carrier (in the U.S.) could offer.

Only Apple could make this deal, since only Apple had the Apple brand. Had Palm, RIMM, Motorola, Nokia, HTC, or any of the other handset companies built a similar product, it never would have gotten the carrier support required to succeed without the branding, crapware, crippling, and overlays which plague those same companies' products today. The fact that Apple is still the only handset maker to succeed without compromising its product to get access to the customer just proves the point.

It took the unique combination of a powerful brand, a groundbreaking product, and a desperate phone company to break through the carriers' reflexive need to be front-and-center with the customer. These circumstances aren't likely to happen again in the near future, and as a result, Apple's position is likely to remain safe for some time to come.

iPad 3G Hands On

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My iPad 3G arrived on Friday, so after watching other people's shiny new toys I finally got to use my own.

The main use we're planning at my company (or excuse, if you prefer) is to use the iPad as a demonstration device when we exhibit at trade shows. Right now we ship a large iMac to set up in our booth in order to show off our web-based reporting tools. The iMac is a good platform for this, since it gives us an attractive, large display which helps draw people into the booth but doesn't detract from what we're trying to show off.

The iMac has it's downsides, though: it costs over $100 to ship and insure (even ground) each way; the padded shipping crate is heavy and unwieldy; and since we only have one, we can only do one demo at a time, meaning that at busy times we have a lot of people crowded around the one scree

The iPad seems like the perfect alternative. It costs nothing to ship since several will fit into a briefcase to carry onto a flight, it's easy to carry on and off a trade show floor, and we can have several in the booth so we can give multiple one-on-one demonstrations at a tim

After receiving the iPad Friday, I loaded it with a variety of productivity software and tools (mainly Apple's iWork suite, Omnigraffle, and OmniGraphSketcher) on the theory that we may want to actually use the iPads when we're not at a trade show to do real work.

First Impressions

Thursday afternoon, before my 3G model arrived, I was at a technology committee meeting for a local school. Since the non-faculty members of the committee are all technophiles like myself, I wasn't surprised when the pre-meeting discussion was about the iPad. Both of the other non-faculty members had brought a few (non-3G) iPads into their organizations to evaluate, and both had essentially the same conclusion: the iPad is more useful as a business and technology tool than they had expected.

After playing with mine for the weekend, I have to agree. The productivity applications on the iPad are necessarily more limited, but for basic tasks they are significantly faster and more natural to use than the desktop equivalent. The small form-factor, touch interface, and instant-on-always-available quality of the iPad allow the machine to get out of the way of whatever task may be at hand. The fact is that 98% of business tasks do not require advanced features, so it becomes natural to just grab for the pad rather than open the laptop.

A case in point is the OmnigGraphSketcher application. I evaluated this on the desktop a while ago as a charting package and came away unimpressed. The concept is that rather than start with numerical data in a table like every other graphing program, you draw the graph you want freehand and the program makes it look pretty. This didn't work (for me) since I've always found drawing freehand with a mouse to be unnatural, clumsy and imprecise, and I couldn't see why you would want to get away from numerical input data.

On the iPad, however, OmniGraphSketcher becomes and entirely different experience. Sketching a chart with a touch screen is about the most natural thing you can do, and the program takes what you draw freehand and makes it look pretty and professional. The experience is like using a magic whiteboard which takes your rough ideas and turns them into something which looks like a professional graphic artist created it.

Drawbacks

There are some surprising glitches and limitations (which I fully expect will be addressed in a future software update). For me at least, the lack of Flash and multitasking are not problems at al

However, long popup menus render in a way which doesn't look scrollable, meaning that items at the top or bottom of a list can get lost. For such a polished user interface, this usability mistake is surprising.

The lack of printing capability and the clumsy mechanisms for sharing and synchronizing files limit the iPad as a serious workhorse. Right now about the only way to move files on and off the iPad for most programs is through e-mail which, while functional for small files, is really not acceptable for big documents.

I also discovered that while most websites work very well on the iPad, some advanced AJAXy things don't work at all. The touch interface has no way to hover the mouse pointer over things, and there is no way (yet) to do drag-and-drop operations on the touch screen (the drag motion of the fingers is interpreted as a scrolling action and doesn't get padded to Javascript).

I'm typing this article entirely on the on screen keyboard (works surprisingly well) but the fancy WYSIWYG text editor I use on this blog does not work on the iPad at all (so after typing this, I will be cleaning up the formatting from my laptop).

Stray taps also seem to be a problem, and when I type too fast I seem to get a little sloppy and occasionally hit the screen outside the keyboard, moving the insertion point in my text and wreaking havoc on what I'm trying to type.

On the whole, these are minor complaints, and I fully expect they will be fixed in months not years. I can definitely see a day when the iPad or it's successor becomes my primary computing device, with the laptop or desktop only hauled out for particularly demanding tasks.

Four Bogus Places

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Last week I scouted four possible building sites for She Who Puts Up With Me's cousin to place a primitive one-room cabin on our property at Bogus Lake. I found some places on the property I didn't know existed, and while none of the spots is perfect, they all have a lot to offer.

Site 1: Beaver Overlook

This site is near the access road and overlooks a massive beaver dam. 15" logs litter the area where beavers cut down large trees but only used the branches.

Pros:

  1. Easy access to the site from the road, only about 200' across level ground.
  2. Beavers already did most of the work clearing the trees.
  3. Guaranteed to see wildlife activity.

Cons:

  1. Could be too close to the beaver pond to meet wetland setback requirements.
  2. Not very secluded--a cabin here will be visible from the road during the winter.

Site 2: High Point

The highest point on our property is at the top of the highest hill for a considerable distance in any direction, though not all the hilltop is on our property. This site has a steep dropoff in one direction, giving a spectacular view without clearing any trees. Were it not for the trees, there would be a 270-degree panorama affording views of Lake Superior, the BWCA, and possibly Bogus Lake as a bonus.

Pros:

  1. Amazing views.
  2. Access is OK, with about 500' of moderate grade from the road.  In other words, you can get here without climbing the cliff.

Cons:

  1. This is a prime location for building a home, so we may want to reserve it for future use.
  2. Anything on this spot will be visible for miles.
  3. The best views require either a taller building or clearing some of the forest.

Site 3: Bogus Overlook

In my hiking I discovered a small knob above Bogus Lake which (according to my GPS) is just 100' inside the property line. A cabin built here would have the feeling of being perched above a small alpine lake, because that's about what it would be.

Pros:

  1. Nice view; not as spectacular as site 2, but with a much more intimate feeling.
  2. Close enough to the lake to get there easily while still feeling perched up in the hill.
  3. The site is too small for anything but a small cabin, making it unlikely we'd want to use it for something else.

Cons:

  1. Access requires climbing a hill too steep for an ATV. Building materials will have to lifted by hand up about a 10' climb.
  2. Could possibly be too close to the property line, since the GPS could easily be 50'-100' off in the estimate of the boundary.

Site 4: Deep Woods

Continuing along the hillside past Site 2, there's a broad expanse of mature (100 years old) sugar maple forest. The ground has just enough slope to keep it dry, and the thin underbrush made for easy hiking. Signs of recent moose activity were everywhere. A cabin here would have the feeling of being isolated deep in the woods.

Pros:

  1. Very secluded.
  2. Easy to find a good spot to build.
  3. Fall colors will be amazing.

Cons:

  1. A long way from the access road--about 1500' or so--but the slope is gentle enough that this could be done by ATV.
  2. No view; however, if there's ever a forest fire, you could see Lake Superior from anywhere on this hillside.
  3. Getting supplies (food, water, etc.) will require hiking 10 minutes to the access road.

A Bogus Journey

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In the Northeastern tip of Minnesota, just a few miles from the Canadian border, there's a lake so small it's Bogus. That's where I have my own piece of the northwoods, a conifer and maple forest overlooking Lake Superior.

At 80 acres, Bogus Lake is certainly small, but it's a lot bigger than some of the drainage ponds they used to call "lakes" when I lived in central Illinois. It's also not the only Bogus Lake in Minnesota--there's another one near Lake Itasca in the central part of the state. There are also Bogus Lakes in Wisconsin, Oregon, and Ontario, among other places.

I bought a parcel of undeveloped land on Bogus Lake in 1991, when the combination of a recession, the collapse of the logging industry in that area, and the fact that Grand Marais hadn't been discovered as a tourist destination conspired to drive land prices to absurdly low levels. I was in college at the time, and scraped together enough money to buy the 158 acre lot. At the time it had been for sale for something like two years with barely any interested buyers.

The land lies at the top of a ridge 1,200 feet above Lake Superior. When the leaves are off the trees you can see the big lake from a number of places around the property. There's a massive beaver pond and stream, and many signs of moose activity.

In my college days, I made a couple of attempts at cabin building with the idea of having a warm place to stay. Unfortunately my ambition ran ahead of my time and abilities--one of the two structures is slowly collapsing, and the other has been in a permanently unfinished state for over 15 years. When I moved out of state for graduate school my visits to Bogus Lake slowed to the barest trickle: first because it was too far, then because I was too busy, and then because it was too hard to camp with the kids.

This year I've been thinking more and more about my place at Bogus Lake. I think this was really sparked by the cousin of She Who Puts Up With Me, who aspires to be the next Thoreau. Over the winter he asked us if he could build a small one-room cabin on our property, and we agreed (it's not like things are getting crowded up there).

The cabin is scheduled to be built starting around the end of May, and this past week I spent three days in Grand Marais hiking all around the property scouting sites. I went further into the property and saw more of it than I ever have in the past, and this has rekindled my enthusiasm for eventually building a vacation (or even retirement) home up there.

I've also hired a surveyor to locate and mark the boundary of the property. Only about 1/3 of the property line has ever been surveyed, so our current understanding of where our land ends is based on taking measurements off topographic maps and punching them into a handheld GPS. This could easily be off by 100 feet or more.

Within the property, there are places where (if it weren't for the trees) you could get stunning 270-degree vistas of Lake Superior and the surrounding hills. There are other places which feel like the shore of a remote alpine lake, and places where the horizon only extends to the first row of trees. When we build a home at Bogus Lake, we will have our pick of places.

In the meanwhile, I've decided that it's high time to start getting up there more often.

Nothing Was Going to Stop Me, Anyway

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When the original iPhone came out, my first reaction was, "Cool, I want one!"

She Who Puts Up With Me was less enthusiastic, viewing it as "an expensive toy and we already have two perfectly good phones so why do we need this?"

Despite these objections, my old phone just happened to fall apart within days of the availability of the iPhone (no, really, it was an old Treo and the screws kept falling out and it was being held together with one screw and a piece of Scotch tape, and besides the web browser was a piece of junk and I couldn't get it to work right with my e-mail anyway). So it came to pass that just a week after they went on sale, I came home with two brand-new iPhones.

For the record, my wife has become a true believer and now plans to upgrade her iPhone (still the first generation one, now starting to lose its battery life) this summer when the next generation comes out.

So it should come as no surprise that when the iPad was announced, my first reaction was, "Cool, I want one!"

She Who Puts Up With Me responded with "it's an expensive toy and we already have five perfectly good computers so why do we need this?"

Let's not fool ourselves. I've basically not grown up past the "give me the shiny new toy!" stage which for most people ends at about three years old. That makes me the perfect target consumer for an iPad--I just needed to find some way to distract the rational side of my brain from the price tag. The mental equivalent of pointing off in the distance and and shouting "Look over there! What in the world can that be?"

My excuse is that the iPad looks like the perfect gizmo for a tradeshow booth where you need to do one-on-one demonstrations of a web-based application. It's very portable (saves shipping), you can have several of them in the booth, prospective customers can hold it up and touch the application (better than huddling around a mouse and screen), and the novelty value alone will bring people into the booth.

It just so happens that my company's reporting system is web-based, and we spend a lot of our time when exhibiting at tradeshows doing one-on-one demos.

So I've ordered an iPad--of course this is to "evaluate its suitability for use in our tradeshow demos," but we all know the truth.

iPad First Reactions

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  1. I've seen lots of commentary along the lines of "It's doomed to fail because it doesn't have X" (where X is a camera, flash support, desktop-style OS, multitasking support, a hardware keyboard, HDMI output, an open app store, or any of a dozen other features various people consider "must have"). This is wrong. No gizmo can do everything--the question is whether this one does enough.
  2. The iPad isn't intended as (or even capable of being) your primary computing device. It will succeed if it's a more convenient laptop for casual web surfing. It will fail if it's an iPhone which doesn't fit in your pocket.
  3. iPad is a clunky name, but so is MacBook. If it succeeds, nobody will care about the name.
  4. Nine years ago, when Bill Gates announced that everyone would be using Tablet PC's, I don't think he meant "made by Apple."
  5. I have no idea if the iPad will be useful, but for the price I may be willing to take a chance. I've certainly spent more than this on gadgets which didn't meet my expectations in the past. The $500 price is critical in this decision--if it had been $1,000, I would look at it more like a new laptop than a potentially useful toy.
  6. Apple clearly intends to upend the accepted practices of user interface design (practices which Apple was instrumental in popularizing). On the whole, this is a Good Thing, since the desktop user interface is (or has become) far to complicated and technical for a large population of users to properly manage.

Optimistic Sign #11: Jobless Recovery

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In the past few months, the Conventional Economic Wisdom (CEW) has swung from a recession of indefinite duration (but always lasting at least 18 months longer) to a jobless recovery. This can only mean one thing: job growth in the United States is about to explode.

This is not based on any particular insight I have, just the observation that job growth is a lagging economic indicator, and the CEW is always looking in the rear-view mirror. The CEW saw continued growth in the first half of 2008 after the recession had already started, hard times as far as the eye could see in the first half of 2009 as the economy bottomed out, and now that growth is returning the CEW insists that it isn't really at least not for most people.

So I will once again stake out my contrarian position and claim that the pessimistic CEW is a leading indicator for imminent job growth.

APPENDIX: My contrarianism has actually served me reasonably well. Looking through my blog archives, I find that at the end of 2005 I wrote that there would probably be a recession starting by the end of 2007 (true, but barely). At the beginning of 2008 I wrote that we were already in a recession (before the CEW acknowledged the fact) but that we were close to the bottom (sadly, too optimistic). Then at the beginning of 2009, as the economy was bottoming but the CEW saw nothing but pessimism, I started looking for signs of hope. This time around I could be completely off-base or way too early, but by golly I'm going to stick to my contrarian optimism until I'm right.