Android Smartphones: Cool, but still nerdy

The Android phones have been in the news of late for their rapid increase in sales. The web is replete with speculation of a replay of the Mac vs PC like battle in the mobile space between the iPhone and Android phones.  Its hard to argue with this comparison because there are great similarities. The iPhone is closely guarded by Apple while the Android platform is more “open” though largely Google centric. As someone who has used the iPod touch and the Android here are my personal experiences/views.

Gmail, Google Apps, Sync-ing etc.

It appears as though life becomes easier on the Android platform if you have a Gmail address. This is understandable given that its ultimately Google’s mobile platform.  It is possible that there is a way around it (i.e., not having a Gmail account), but it is likely to come with its associated baggage. (remember the time when Paypal required a paypal account?) I have a Gmail address but was pretty disappointed to find that the integration with Google Apps was far from smooth.  If you have a Gmail account and a Google Apps account and chose to keep these independent, getting your Google Apps calendar, contacts etc.  on to your phone is a challenge in itself. Certainly do-able as a found out later, but a challenge nevertheless that requires you to draw upon your nerdy instincts!

Dreadful Battery Life

The downside of a high powered Android smartphone phone is that its a an “incredible” battery hog. There are scores of techniques to reduce the battery usage. But the very fact that you as the end user have to “muck” with these is annoying to say the least. It is clearly a reflection of the fact that the platform as whole is still maturing. If you plan to use your phone extensively especially for browsing, email etc. be prepared to charge it a minimum of once a day and possibly more often.

Beware of Data Roaming Charges

This is one feature that is going to really hurt Android users if you travel overseas. So beware! By default, the Android phones connect to the net unless you specifically turn off Internet access.  This means that when you are traveling (outside of the US for instance, assuming that you have a US data plan), you are going to be quickly hit by a hefty bill without your knowledge. The phone does not bother to flag you that you are going to be incurring data roaming charges. To make matters worse the rates are ridiculously high  — something like $20 per MB! (depending on which country you are traveling in). When you hit $100, Verizon sends you a text message. Thank God for small mercies! If you happen to check that text message, good for you, else be prepared for a nasty surprise when your monthly statement arrives.

Android Phones are still very nerdy

After having used the HTC Incredible for a couple of months and the iPod Touch for close to eight months, my personal view is that the Android phone in its present incarnation clearly falls in the nerd camp. If you are not a nerd or don’t even possess the odd nerd streak my recommendation would be to stay away from Android phones for now. The platform on the whole is extremely powerful and there are plenty of really cool features provided you are good at figuring things out for yourself.

Based on my experience with the iPod touch I suspect that iPhones are far more easy to setup, navigate and use (though the upgrade to iOS 4.0 wasn’t exactly smooth). Unfortunately, iPhones imply AT &T service and what good is a user-friendly phone without a reliable service provider?

Final Thoughts

From an end-user perspective the Android platform is still evolving and is far from “idiot proof”. Having said that I really think that its only a matter of time before it improves and becomes relatively easy to use because the overall difference in user experience isn’t as stark as the Mac vs the PC.  In fact, there are a number of likable UI features on the Android phones. Besides, the market dynamics of an open platform (backed by Google) appears to be in its favor.

Bottom line, if you are in the market for a smartphone your choices are between a battery hogging, nerds-delite or a cool, user-friendly phone with an unreliable service (assuming for now that Blackberries are too boring and too corporate).

Unknowingly, I have managed to strike a decent balance. I use my iPod for most things as long as I have access to a wi-fi network. I use my smartphone firstly for making calls (!!) and avail of the data features on an as needed basis when I can’t use my iPod. Its kind of sad because my guarded use of the data facility defeats the purpose of a smartphone. Unfortunately, I can’t risk using my phone for Internet access (and other pursuits) only to see it run out of battery when I need to make/take an important call.

Most international airports around the world offer free wi-fi unlike most airports in the US. Most coffee shops offer wi-fi too. So this balance seems to work for me. The downside is that I am armed with two devices most of the time and I don’t see that changing until AT&T improves its reliability or the Android platform its battery life.

VOIP and The Promise of Free Calls

Over the last several years I have been an active user of internet based phone services. Skype, Google Voice, Voice chat through Yahoo IM etc.  are the ones I have been using most frequently. There is no doubt that the ability to make calls over the Internet (free or at a low cost) has far reaching, powerful implications but these services (like most new technologies) have their share of challenges.  Here are some of my experiences with these services over the years.

The Good News

These services are great simply because they are free. They give you an opportunity to talk to people who you normally don’t speak to as often. They give you a chance to make and receive calls in places where regular phone calls can be very expensive. With increase in Internet access and computers around the globe these services serve as a terrific means of communication and will undoubtedly play a significant role in communication in the years to come. The learning curve in using these technologies is minimal. A five minute demo is sufficient even for the most novice users.

The Bad News

The free or low cost services can be unreliable. If you make a call using one of these services be prepared for random changes in voice quality, sudden dropped lines etc. If you are considering these services for business use, think again.  Its great to be able to make a phone call from your computer without having to change your headset etc. but its embarrassing to explain that its the phone connection and not the “wind” that the person at the other end is hearing. (Once I was forced to quip, “I hope its not President Obama’s plane!”) While it might be ok to be interrupted during a personal call to friends and family, the same is not true for business calls.

Paid VOIP services like Lingo, Vonage etc. are definitely far more reliable. The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true for these services. These services do come with their share of headaches. Lingo for instance recommends that the cable modem (at home) feeds into the Lingo box. If you use a router this means that the Lingo box feeds into the Router rather than the other way around. The big downside to this is that if Lingo goes down for some reason, your internet access will go down as well. Its possible to set up the network such that the cable modem feeds into the router as opposed to the Lingo box. But this is no simple task even for the reasonably tech savvy.

What’s the best free service?

All the free services are equally good/bad in the sense they have their strengths and weaknesses. Skype has been around the longest and so one would imagine that it has probably ironed out many of the technology and service challenges. On the flip side it probably has more traffic to deal with than the other providers. Calls to India on Skype from the US in the mornings are almost always of poor quality. On the other hand, the calls at night are very reliable.

Google Voice is very, very high on the “coolness” factor. It has some very powerful features. If you like the Gmail interface you’ll love Google Voice. Where it falls flat is the idea of having a new number to act as a clearing house for all your calls. It might sound great in theory but in practice it doesn’t exactly work well because most people don’t want to change their phone number as far as possible. Besides, explaining to people (about a new number!) who ask you for your cell phone number is an arduous task in itself!

I find myself using Skype more often simply because it is always accessible on my desktop. Besides, Skype was the first to introduce Skype number and the ability to forward calls from Skype to other phone numbers. The ability to forward calls from Skype to a cell phone number is a handy feature especially when you are traveling. Among these services Skype is the only service (other than probably Google Voice) that I am aware off that works on Linux. If you are used to working on different operating systems, Skype becomes an automatic choice.

Google Voice requires no local install (which is great!) but it requires you to login to Google Voice when making calls from the computer. Google Voice loses out because of this extra step. Yahoo on the other hand loses out because I mostly use Meebo for IM. I don’t think there is way to call from within Meebo using Yahoo! voice (or maybe there is and I haven’t figured it out as yet).  In short, its hard to say which one is the best. It depends on a host of factors ranging from personal preference to OS to familiarity to UI etc.

p.s: There is a service dedicated to free conference calls (Sabsebolo.com or “Talk to Everyone”) that is also available for those who might be interested. The above mentioned services also support conference calls though I have only used the conference call facility in Skype.

Google Chrome: Cool, But By No Means Compelling

The first time I read the news about Google’s new browser I was quite surprised. Does the world need another browser? Isn’t Google backing Firefox in a BIG way? Then, I read this and came away rather impressed at how technology can be explained so “nicely.”

So, I decided to give Chrome a test drive.

Quick Summary

  • The first noticeable feature is the speed. It installs very quickly, is light-weight and launches rather fast. Very impressive indeed.
  • The pop-up blocker is the best I have seen. Even the annoying pop-ups at the TOI site were blocked successfully.
  • The UI is uncluttered. Gone are the RSS feeds (which I miss!) and the custom toolbars (good riddance!).
  • The URL field and the search fields are merged into one and the tabs have been moved to that top of the screen. This takes some getting used to, especially if you thrive on tabs.
  • Each tab operates independently, so if one of the tabs are hung you can kill it and use the rest without having to restart the entire browser. This is probably the most attractive feature after the speed of the browser.
  • If you are more technically inclined the browser lets you see the memory usage of each tab.
  • Chrome is search engine neutral.
  • The current version of Chrome works only on Windows.

Desktop Icons

The various web apps (Google Apps, Gmail etc.) can be saved as desktop icons and can subsequently be opened like a regular, normal application as apposed to being opened through the browser like a web application. Kinda cool.

Would Google Chrome eat up market share from other browsers?

Probably, to a certain extent. Personally, I can’t see myself abandoning Firefox and IE 6, at least not for now. Like many, I use multiple computers. One of them has Google Chrome installed, more out of curiosity rather than a pressing need. As far as I can tell, there is no compelling reason to move to Chrome (unless you are tech junkie), at least not yet.

What is the future of Chrome?

It will be interesting to see where Google goes with this product in the future, particularly because there is no compelling need to move to Chrome in its current form. I suspect there is more exciting technology in the pipeline (on the web apps front) and the present-day Chrome is only scratching the surface of what is possible with the new approach to the browser.

The fact that it is completely open source is certainly in sync with Google’s “do no evil” motto and might spurn some innovation from the Open Source community.

Given that Google has a war chest of cash, its engineers can endlessly amuse themselves with cool new technologies (good for them!). But it remains to be seen if there is a revenue model (either direct or in-direct) of some sort lurking somewhere in the distant future. Or is Google simply trying to steal some of Microsoft’s IE 8.0 thunder?

Like many Google products, the Chrome is one more product that is high on the “coolness” factor.

Web application developers have one more headache to deal with — Testing for one more browser and its various flavors!

p.s: Btw, I used Google Chrome to download IE 8.0. My first impression was that it still feels a lot like IE 7.0. So I promptly unistalled it given that I hardly got to like IE 7.0. When I first tried to uninstall IE 7.0 (and return to IE 6.) it was a complete nightmare. So maybe IE 8.0 is not bad, after all 🙂

Avvo: Welcome Service Despite Dotcom Ghosts

Avvo

Pick a vertical, sign up a top VC investor, create some buzz, generate traffic, and eventually cash out (hopefully) by selling to one of the larger more established companies. Is this just me or have the dot com days returned? Are the days of the first mover advantage back? Revenues don’t matter anymore? Monetizing eyeballs is a challenge for the future? Registered users are more important than business models? This was the formula in the dotcom days. It sure sounds like we are back in that kinda game again. Web 2.0’s poster child Mark Zuckerberg exemplified this mindset when he said recently (when asked about revenue generation), “We’ll figure that out later.” (Yikes! Maybe its time to read Net Gain again? ) Top VC firms appear to be backing this model once again inspired by the sale of Youtube, Flickr, Skype, Writely, Jotspot, Blogger (to name a few), all of which had no revenue model so to speak.

Avvo a community site for lawyers and those in search of legal services is one more company that expects to make money from ads. And of course, the rest “they’ll figure it out later”.

All of this being said, I love the idea behind Avvo.

The legal industry in the US is one vertical that has long been ignored and is desperately overdue for some disruptive changes – technological or otherwise. To some level legal outsourcing has started to happen but the actual use of the internet/technology to reduce legal costs hasn’t really materialized on a large scale. In a highly litigious country like the US where there is always a huge demand for legal services one would expect the cost of legal services to at least drop over time. Unfortunately, I have found this has never to be the case. Every year big law firm routinely sends out annual rate increase letters like doling out New Year cards. Top of the line corporate lawyers charge over $700 per hour! These rates are outright ridiculous especially when the tasks involved most often are no rocket science. The bulk of the legal work especially for startups, are very routine, mundane paper work. Unfortunately, these services are billed by the hour and prior effort estimates seldom work in the legal industry. (Because there are no yes or no answers, it is always “It depends”). Moreover, the time spent on email, phone calls, even photo-copying — every second is technically charged to client. How insane is that?

So without a doubt Avvo’s service is valuable. Its free (so far). You can search the database for answers to your queries, you can find lawyers, their ratings, you can post questions and get them answered by lawyers, etc. At a minimum this service will get some lawyers to respond to some queries for free in the hope of boosting their ratings and their business! Could you post your queries on LinkedIn and get a response? You certainly can. But the odds in Avvo are supposedly higher because it is a dedicated community unlike LinkedIn, Plaxo, Yahoo Answers etc.

Avvo seems to have a great PR engine going for it (NY Times, Techcrunch, Venturebeat etc have all covered the company at various times) like most dotcom companies. It seems to have also picked up investments from top VCs. It remains to be seen if Avvo can sustain the buzz, grow its traffic and ultimately park itself with one of the “biggies” for some mega bucks.

From a purely business standpoint, Avvo’s approach is not new. In theory, the same idea can apply to doctors, dentists, accountants, teachers, tutors, schools, you name it. Put all these verticals together and you have a Web 2.0 version of “Vertical Net” (or one of the many ghosts of the dot com days. “Exchange” was the buzzword in those days). The problem is that lawyers, accountants, doctors, etc. are usually picked with an eye towards a long term relationship. This also means that most people are strongly influenced and rely almost entirely on personal recommendations from those closely known to them. For the one-off services in the legal field, the legalzooms of the world perform a perfectly acceptable service and good value for money. So its a mystery as to where Avvo fits in to this spectrum and what secret sauce if any it has cooking. At the moment for all its value and good intentions Avvo is firmly in the Zuckerberg school of revenue generation. Given all the buzz behind Facebook, one can’t exactly fault them for it. Can you?

Disclaimer: I have nothing against lawyers. In fact, most lawyers I have met and/or have been fortunate to interact with are very very smart people. If they made a little less money, they might spur some innovations as startups will have more $ to work with! 🙂

Linuxworld 2008: Where are the crowds?

I attended Linuxworld this week for the first time. I wandered around the expo floor and also took a peak at a session or two. In fact, it was my first ever visit to a Linux conference. I must admit I was underwhelmed by the response. Frankly, I expected a better turn out and more enthusiasm. Instead I found it to be pretty low key.

The big wigs like IBM, Oracle and others were present probably to reinforce their commitment to open source . The were others like Haiku (the ghost of BeOS), VMware, OpenSuSE, One laptop per child (the struggling education project), Joomla, and Drupal (open source CMS) Zmanda for automated backups (they were using a Windows PC in the booth – sacrilege!), Opsview and Groundwork for Monitoring, among others. Here are a few others that stood out for me among the many exhibitors.

GoGrid for Cloud computing

This is an interesting company going head on against Amazon’s EC2. Check out a comparison table against EC2. The good news is that this company is dedicated to this business (starting with its parent company Servepath) unlike Amazon which treats EC2 as a side activity. (If you have ever tried reaching EC2 support you’ll know exactly what I mean).

KickApps (interesting social media)

This is an interesting web 2.0 social media product. If you are looking to build out your own community (say for your blog, company website etc.) with the ability to have groups, video upload, photos and the works, this could be a nice extension to what you already have in place. While the final output does look great and is loaded with functionality, one can’t help but wonder where this fits in along with the scores of other “community type” products. They have free and a usage based fee versions.

gOS (a slick, really really, pretty Linux on the desktop)

The gOS is a desktop Liunx (based on Ubuntu Linux) whose UI looks really pretty. On tiny PCs they look really cute to say the least. This OS was on the Everex gPC which was apparently sold out at Wal-Mart for $199. Essentially if you want use the PC for browsing, email etc. and can live with Open Office, this could do the job. Here is another one that is similar but offers you some cool premium features of a true WebOS.

Open Voting Initiative (Linux based voting machines)

There were voting machines based on Open Source technologies on display. Considering that the US is headed for another possibly close Presidential race maybe Open Source is the answer to the counting woes of Florida and the like.

It is a simple display where you click through a list of choices to cast your vote and at the end of it you get print out listing your vote all bult on standard PC architecture running Ubuntu Linux. For more information check out — Open Voting Consortium

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

I had read so much about the One laptop per child initiative and its troubles. For the first time I got a chance to see the machine. I must say I was disappointed to say the least. It feels like a cheap Chinese imported toy. I could still live with that if it was genuinely easy to use. But unfortunately I found most adults (including myself) struggling to use it. Maybe this is designed for kids and they can figure it out, or maybe its just me. Despite the most noble intentions behind this project and with all due respect, I can’t see this being widely used by kids.

Summary

I am not sure where this conference lies in the “pecking order” of Linux conferences but the attendance was far from impressive. (As per reports Linuxworld 2003 had 19,000 attendees!). If crowds are a metric to go by one can’t help but sense that the excitement about Linux (at least as far as conferences are concerned) has started to wear out though there could be a number of factors like over dose of Linux conferences, the downturn, etc. affecting the turn out. In any case, before you beat me down with your comments please read my disclaimer at the end of this post).

p.s: The Linux Journal magazine had a balanced and interesting article (registration required) by an educator who switched his school to Linux from Microsoft back in 2002.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against Linux. In fact, I have recently become a regular active user of Linux Mint. This post is an attempt to capture my impressions of the conference from a brief visit. Any errors in this post are probably a reflection of my personal limitations rather than those of Linuxworld or those of Linux lovers around the globe.

Searching for Google Killers: Cuil, Yandex, Guruji…

There is little doubt that Google has a virtual monopoly over search and search based advertising. Even the mighty Microsoft is running helter-skelter trying to mount at least a challenge to Google.

The WSJ reported today about a bay area startup – Cuil, Inc.

Cuil said it won’t collect personal information about its users, such as the addresses of their computers and their individual search histories — although it does track the terms people search for overall. While all major search engines have taken steps to cut back on the time they store data related to individual searchers and to make the data more anonymous, Ms. Patterson said Cuil can stop collecting information about individuals’ behavior altogether because its algorithms rely more heavily on analyzing the content of a particular Web page than on the popularity of the page.

This is a refreshing change from the privacy concerns that hound Google from time to time.  One can finally search without being watched! Secondly, there is something really nice about the way Cuil displays its results. There are no ads, plus the display is a welcome change from the long boring list the Google and other conventional search engines offer.

There was a report in the Businessweek a few weeks back about a Russian search engine named Yandex ,  that was giving Google a run for its money in Russia.

Yandex handles 55% of local language search queries in Russia. Its closest rival is Rambler , another Russian company, with a 17% share, followed by Google with 15%, according to research site LiveInternet.ru.

Surely, there has to be some inherent advantages for search engines that factor local, cultural and other behavioral aspects to develop custom search engines targeted for specific countries around the world (especially non-English speaking).

Another search engine based out of India, named, Guruji recently announced music specific search . In a country like India where films and music are a huge industry this makes a lot of sense.

In general, its great to see more activity in the search space. Whether its Microsoft at the high end with the deep pockets or start-ups, its about time Google had some credible competitors at least at the local level if not on a global scale.