Moving to the “Cloud”

I recently wrote a post about my favorite programs for the Mac (here).  While writing it, I realized how outdated it sounded.

The reason: a very large percentage of the programs that I now use live in the “Cloud.”  The “Cloud” as described by Walt Mossberg in today’s Wall Street Journal (here), is a combination of nebulous server farms around the world that store your information and run your programs.  The programs that I run which do not live in the cloud, either could or soon will.

When using my personal computer, I spend 95% of my time on the internet and in the “Cloud.”  That means I am running everything via a browser (in my case, I prefer Firefox).  The “programs” I run via the “Cloud” include Gmail, Gtalk/AIM, Google Reader, GoogleMaps, Bing shopping, WordPress, NYTimes, WashingtonPost, Techmeme, and Pandora.  “Programs” is in quotes because these are not really programs as much as they are websites that run programs and provide relevant information.  When I am at work, I may spend ~30% of my time in the “Cloud” because I spending the rest of it using Microsoft Office.  However, my company could easily choose Google Apps and/or Zoho Office to replace Microsoft Office.  Except for Excel, I have found Google Apps to be as good as MS Office.  When it comes to collaboration and email, Google easily beats Microsoft.  For the price (i.e. free for personal use and $50/yr for enterprises), Google Apps is a no-brainer.

Microsoft is slowly and grudgingly moving in this direction.  They are in no rush as this could destroy their business model but competition is forcing their hand.

For a company (and personal use) the metrics/ROI for moving to the “Cloud” are too hard to pass up.  The programs are just as good.  They are more robust (due to automatic updates).  They are available anywhere in the world with an internet connection (and even offline).  They are priced right — 1. cost of use is negligible (i.e. free), 2. computing resources are minimal (i.e. only a computer that can run a browser), which lowers hardware expenditures, and 3. IT costs are minimized.  A personal example of the ease of the “Cloud” is when I coaxed my mother to move to Yahoo Mail (I had my reasons but it was a mistake but that is another story).  She used to have major issues with her email.  Now, no issues and no phone calls to me. The same goes for IT Help Desks in a company. The PC, as a truly personal computer, is slowly withering away (see Forbe article here).

With 2010 only a few hours away, here are a few predictions of what the “Cloud” means for the future of computing: 1. Everything becomes easier but slightly less secure, 2. computer prices will continue to drop because you will not need to buy a powerful new computer.  One of the most power-hungry applications, gaming, is heading to the “Cloud.”  In 12 months, so long as you have a fast broadband connection, you will be able to play even the most hardcore games via the “Cloud.”  3. Content rental/streaming continues its fast growth.  Netflix streaming, movie rental via Amazon and others is quickly becoming a major force.  Its growth will only continue.  Why buy a movie for $15 when you can rent it for $3.  You can watch it again every few months for another $3.  If you watch a DVD fewer than 5 times, then renting is the way to go.  You can also watch it on anything with a screen (who will continue to need a DVD player built into their computer?).  4. Music streaming overtakes music buying.  I have many gigs worth of music in my iTunes folder.  How often do I listen to it?  Maybe once a month.  How often do I listen to Pandora/AOL Music?  Daily.  How much do I pay?  Zero.  Louise Gray had an interesting article on this topic here.  5. Mobile — this is the biggie that stands over all of the other predictions (and is not so much a prediction as a statement of fact). See below…

Mobile is one of the main driving forces / enablers of the “Cloud” (plus, of course, cheap fiber/broadband, massive and low-cost server farms).  Why is mobile a driver?  Your phone is not powerful enough to truly be smart (even if it is a “smartphone”).  However, when plugged into the Internet, a cellphone/smartphone becomes nearly as powerful as my laptop.  On my phone, I can do 99% of the things I can do on my computer such as send, receive, and write emails or documents.  I can view just about any website, read books, and listen to streaming music.  My phone is my GPS device (even though my current, terrible BlackBerry 8800 has its GPS disabled by Verizon but triangulation thanks to Google works well enough).  I can make restaurant reservations via Opentable and so forth.  My next computer purchase may only be for a screen and a keyboard with a USB cable plug for my phone.  With everything in the “Cloud,” the phone becomes just another device to connect.  It enables the “Cloud.”

I am excited for the future…welcome to 2010!

Red Rings of Death

A few weeks ago, after a little over three years, my Xbox 360 received the notorious (and well documented) three red rings of death.

Microsoft has put in place an expensive but necessary program with a three year warranty for all Xboxes with the three red rings of death problem.  For those unaware, the problem stems for an undiagnosed issue with the hardware and relates somehow to overheating.  Newer xboxes do not have the problem.  However, my Xbox was purchased within the first year of the machine being on the market.  For a long time, I worried about the issue but nothing occurred.  My friends had multiple Xboxes die on them.  I never did.  And then, in the middle of a level, boom, machine was done.

I called up Microsoft on ~December 12 and they said that my three year warranty expired on November 26, 2009.  I missed the deadline by only a few weeks.

However, to Microsoft’s credit, I asked to speak with a supervisor who promptly said that he could approve a repair despite the end of the warranty period.  The supervisor sent me a pre-paid box and my fixed Xbox returned to me a few weeks later.

Microsoft, thank you!  I was thoroughly impressed with your service.  Obviously, I would have preferred to avoid this issue but you did the right thing and kept me as a happy customer.  The customer service was top notch.

Slow internet and the culprit – Entourage

Brief summary – entourage slowed down my internet and I could not find a post about this anywhere online.  I hope this helps.  If you don’t want to read the story, scroll to the bottom.

Over the past week, for a reason unbeknownst to me, my internet slowed to a crawl.  By slowed to a crawl, I meant that speedtest.net was showing 999 ping and approximately 200kbps up and 20kbps down — i.e. my Internet was nearly unusable.

I should note that this occurred just after I lectured my parents on the slowly dying need for any specific OS such as Windows Vista or Mac OSX.  I told them that the OS of the future was a web browser and all one would need was access to the an internet connection.  Then my internet…broke.

My first reaction — blame Comcast (my internet provider).  I recently moved and the place where I was using internet has notoriously terrible service.  At my old place, my internet (also from Comcast) was extremely fast and worked without major issues.  My new place — terrible.  I called Comcast cust support and the rep did a few checks and said that I was achieiving 75% data packet loss.  He sounded impressed and admitted that this was “unacceptable.”  I couldn’t agree more.  A technician is on the way.

I now realize that my knee-jerk “blame it on comcast” reaction might have been just that — knee jerk.  I am now at my parent’s place for the holidays.  I started up my computer here and after about 30 seconds, the internet speed dropped from acceptable but not great 1.5Mbps speeds  with 299 ping to 999 ping and the same slow speeds I had at home.  My parent’s confirmed that their internet usually worked well and this new “speed” was not common.

Could my computer somehow be corrupting an internet connection?  Personally, I have never heard of such a thing occurring.  Unless a person was using ungodly amounts of down and upstream data, they should never experience dramatic drops in speed. However, I was experiencing just that epidemic and my computer was clearly somehow at fault (the moment I shut down my computer was the same moment that my parent’s internet sped right back up).   Whoa…stop the presses.  What was going on?

I did a few searches and decided that I had one of three problems: 1. major spyware, 2. my computer was part of a botnet, 3. my computer was doing something that it should not.  Since I have a Mac and keep everything password protected, I felt fairly confident that number 1 was not too realistic.    I dont know much about #2  but thought that it could be possible (although the Mac thing made me wary).  #3 was the most likely.

Unfortunately, I consider myself fairly tech savvy.  I keep my computer clean.  I maintain it (and everyone else’s computers & technological gadgets).  What could be the culprit?

Like any sleuth, I set out to find the problem.  I ran Applejack to clean up everything (caches, etc).  I went through every process in the activity monitor to make sure I knew what it did.  Unfortunately, the problem persisted.

Next step, trial and error with my programs.  Which two do I use most often?  1. Firefox, 2. Entourage.  They usually run all the time, at the same time.  I turned on FF.  Speed was good.  I turned off FF and turned on Entourage.  Speed dropped — FAST.

Success [sort of] — problem identified.  Somehow and for some reason, Entourage was slow my internet to a snail’s pace.  My internet was slow.

Fix — my Entourage has two email accounts — 1. gmail, 2. hotmail.  Gmail was storing thousands of my messages on my hard drive.  I liked my set up even though it took up a lot of disk space.  I was also desperate to fix the problem.  I didnt need those messages on my hard drive.  I did need fast (i.e. usable) internet.

For those who have yet to do this — IN ENTOURAGE, LOCK YOUR SETTINGS TO SAVE ALL THE EMAILS IN THE GMAIL FOLDERS AND NOT LOCALLY.  To do this, go to entourage, account settings, choose gmail, go to the advanced tab, for all of the special folders, choose the [Gmail] folder.  Do the same for the deleted items folder.

My internet is now fast[er] and usable.  My hard drive has a lot more space.  Problem, thankfully, solved.

Why Dell, HP and the other PC manufacturers are scared

In the past week, there have been a slew of articles discussing the huge growth in Apple’s share of the overall computer market.  One article discussed how nearly 8% of computers now in use are Apples, which is a nearly 32% jump in a year and another article here.  Apple’s notebook sales jumped 61% in a year.  Another article discussed how 14% of all new computers sold are Apple (cant find the link).

To add to this growth, a number of articles have discussed the iPhone halo effect (similar to the iPod halo effect).  The big difference this time around — the iPhone does much more and is a more important part of people’s live than any iPod ever was.  If you use and iPhone and love it, buying a Mac running on similar software makes sense.  Check out some discussions/articles, here, and here.  Apple has seen a dramatic rise in sales of Macs but the interest in the iPhone far dwarfs that of Macs.   Add the halo effect plus an unprecedented level of interest in the iPhone and you have huge potential Mac growth.

Of course none of this would be possible without the help of Microsoft.  Vista’s growth is huge but it started from zeo and is in the range of 250% growth year or year.  However, that growth happens because people are not nearly as willing to switch to a new computer OS as they are to make the move from a regular cell phone to a smartphone.  A computer is already an integral part of people’s lives and they are rightfully scared of making any big changes (especially when most folks fear computers and any minor computer change).  Making the move to a smartphone is less frightening than moving to a new computer system.

Vista, as anyone who has tried it knows, is not the revolution that Microsoft promised.  It is, at best, adequate.  Whenever I turn on parallels or bootcamp, I cringe in fear of something freezing.  Components still do not work and drivers are not out.  Vista forced me to return to Apple after a near 10 year separation and anecdotal evidence shows that it is making many people do the same.

However, to return to the title of this post, Dell, HP and the other PC manufacturers are scared.  Apple sales are growing and, with the iPhone effect + Vista, they are likely to continue to grow for the foreseeable future (Windows 7.0 might change this but it is too far away to discuss here).

Why are they scared?  Apple has one thing that those PC manufacturers do not and that they can never reproduce — Apple’s OS Leopard.  Dell, HP and the others can build the best computers in the world but Apple will not allow them to run Leopard on those machines.  Those machines are stuck with Vista (or XP).  As the iPhone, Leopard & Vista have shown, people are drawn to stable software on quality hardware.  Apple has both of these things while Dell and the others only have one.  Apple’s growth can continue unabated while Dell and the other PC guys will decline and they do nothing to stop it. With an enterprise based iPhone coming down the pipe, a less virus prone & crash prone OS, and with consumers snapping up Apple’s for their homes, company’s are going to start to make the switch (as they already have).  When this switch begins to happen in full, Apple will begin to hit at the jugular of PC/Vista sales.

The PC manufacturers are tied to a now sinking (or at least leaking) ship of Vista.  If I were them, I would be scared…

Microsoft Office 2007 for Windows versus Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac

I have a copy of MS Office 2007 for Windows and a copy of MS Office 2008 for Mac. I have used both. One is clearly superior to the other.

The winner: MS Office 2007 for Windows. Despite a release date over a year after Office 2007 launched, Office 2008 for the Mac barely compares. Office 2007 was a radical, new, and useful version of Office. The ribbon throughout is very nice.  Word is especially different. Outlook had a wonderful new feature — drag emails directly into your calendar. For a detailed review, go to here.

Office 2008 for Mac foregos many of the radical changes found in Office 2007. Word seems barely changed. Entourage is a pale comparison of Outlook and I can’t drag my emails into calendar events. Powerpoint has improved. The only major benefit of 2008 is that it is faster than Office 2004 for Mac because now it is native to the Intel platform. Underwhelming. For a detailed review, go here.

I wonder why MS did not simply convert MS Office 2007 for Windows into a Mac version. It probably would have saved them some work since it would just be code conversion to work on a new OS. Instead, by creating MS Office 2008 for Mac, MS now has two totally separate Office programs that need separate support functions. Why?

My guess is that MS is scared of the resurgence in the Mac platform. If business people saw that they could have the exact same Office platform on Mac as they could on Windows, it would make switching an easier decision. Now, that switch becomes more difficult to make. A business person who has put a lot of time into learning Office for Windows programs is going to have a learning curve when switching to the Mac editions. These editions also seem slightly less functional. Why spend the effort? Maybe they will just stick with Windows, instead.

Xbox Live – Microsoft’s Facebook?

I wrote this as a Fbook message to Robert Scoble around the same time as Microsoft invested in Fbook.  He never replied — Robert, you were quick to respond to my friend request.  What happened?  I feel shunned but I guess with 5,000 friends, you probably receive an overload of messages.  No hard feelings.  Your non-response helped push me towards creating my own blog.

The Fbook message is posted below:

Since it became known that MS was thinking about spending millions to purchase a portion of Facebook, I have ruminated on a subject — why doesn’t MS spend those millions to build out their own nascent social site? The answer of course is simple — starting from scratch, it is likely an expensive, futile effort. But what if MS already had a social site with a loyal user base?

Right now, everyone thinks that Facebook/Myspace is the next generation of the web and everyone from MS to Google is trying to find a way in. If you can’t build it, try to buy it. [UPDATE: With a purchase of Facebook failing, Google is trying to build it, in a way, with Open Social].

MS obviously does not think they can build it so they are trying to buy it. That investment may be smart but they already hold the key to a nascent social site. The site is wholly owned by MS and has the seeds of an active, and, most important to gain any sort of traction, unique user base with a hard-to-copy twist. If these seeds are allowed to germinate, then MS might have a viable social site on their hands. The site — Xbox Live.

I have not seen you post much (if anything?) about Xbox Live so I assume you either do not have an Xbox or don’t play much. I am sure you know the general details but this is what MS seems to miss — they have a hugely loyal user base that while likely captured by Facebook/Myspace probably spends more time on Xbox Live than any other social service. The service is better than any offering from Nintendo or Sony but pales in comparison to Facebook/Myspace. If MS reframes the idea of what Xbox Live can be, then the universe of competitors expands and new opportunities arise.

Xbox Live has nascent social features. You can add a friend, checkout a friend’s profile, send them a message, live “free” voice chat, voice messages, game pictures, etc. You can do this through your Xbox (i.e. while sitting on your couch) or through your computer (although note, few of my friends know you can play with your Live profile through the computer). However, the current tools are crude and are at best, serviceable. There is room for huge improvement and tool expansion. Xbox Live is tied to an actual service that does more than simply connect people — you compete with and against these people, join them in teams, and play games. The server-side hardware is much more powerful and offers a multitude of chat functions, a real Marketplace (with cheap, fun, games, movies, TV shows, demos, and more). Facebook offers nothing as sticky or a framework as strong.

What made me think, “Xbox live is similar to Facebook?” The answer is simple — I found myself doing the same things I do on Facebook on Xbox Live.  Those things included searching for friends (and finding the search function lacking), wanting to chat with friends, learn about what they are doing (and in this case, games they are playing) and so forth.

A huge number of my Facebook friends are people that I do not speak with regularly or do not even know personally. I found them because they were friends with my other friends, they were part of groups that I had joined as well (such as my high school group), and so forth. Connections were made and friendships were re-established. I want to play on Xbox Live with those friends but do not have an easy way to know whether they are Xbox Live subscribers. I wish I could find them. My Xbox Live friend group would expand, my use of Xbox Live would grow, and, in the end, both MS and I would win.

MS knows Xbox Live is a powerful tool in fighting Nintendo and Sony (albeit one that can be far more powerful). Do they know that it is also a powerful tool in fighting Facebook/Myspace and even Google? Expand the tools, expand the forums (i.e. make PC usage as powerful as Xbox usage), and create a viable social network.

Dear Microsoft

Dear Microsoft,

I hate you. I hate you because you should have had me. I should have been one of your customers. I wanted to be one of your customers. If you are confused, let me explain.

Ten years ago, I bought a brand new Power Computing Mac clone. It was a nice computer. Apple was the way to go for a wannabe techie kid in ’94 whose parents wouldn’t spring for an actual Mac. The computer worked well but I ended up hating it. The main reason was that I enjoy playing around with programs and the Mac platform didn’t have many. Plus, all the best games came out for the PC first and then, if I was lucky, for Mac. I swore I would never own another Mac. It was not compatible with my lifestyle.

When I went to college, I bought a nice Sony Vaio. It served me well for four years. It broke on its way to law school. After a long arduous search for a new computer that met my qualifications (i.e. medium weight with a high-end graphics card — not an easy combination to find), I bought an ABS. That stands for Always Better Service if you did not know. While their service was terrible, I didn’t buy the computer for the service since I believed, whether a Dell, Sony, Gateway or ABS, the hardware guts of my computer were the same. Plus, I know what to do with messed up computers and did not really need the ABS.

My ABS served me very well until January. In January, as I am sure you know, you launched Windows Vista. Generously, you provided it free to my graduate University. Being the excited techie that I was, I installed Vista immediately. Unlike most people with three year old computers, my computer easily met Vista’s specs. I received a 3.5 score and Aero ran without a glitch. I was in heaven — until I fell far, fast, and hard.

Why did I fall? Vista took up too many resources and that ran okay under XP barely ran in Vista. Drivers for a most of my internal hardware components were missing. To my internet addicted horror, that included the drivers to turn on my wireless card. Did you really expect ABS to provide all those drivers? Please…

I spent hours finding drivers for similar components from the big manufacturers that might make my hardware work (thanks, especially to Toshiba — my internet would not have worked without you!). I excused this lapse as the growing pains of a cool new OS and the laziness of my cheap PC manufacturer.

But then other issues began to surface. The most annoying was that my computer never wanted to return from sleep mode (by either opening the laptop screen or pressing keys or both when necessary). It sometimes took over five minutes for it to wake. It might have been tired. It might have been hitting its own snooze button. this might make sense, however, because it usually took a number of tries to make the computer sleep. Using the software to go into sleep mode didn’t always work. Closing the screen didn’t work half the time either. Even if it did sleep, it was apt to turn itself on while I was sleeping and light up my whole room. Whatever the reasons, I was annoyed. Whenever starting the computer, which occurred each morning due to the aforementioned sleep problems, the computer turned off the screen after passing the DOS info. Therefore, to turn the screen back on, I had to press the power key and put the computer into sleep mode and then hit the power key again to unsleep it again. This took time and battery power.

I was able to live with these problems and even lay some of the blame on the shoulders of ABS. However, ABS was not responsible for the software creep that slowly crippled my computer. As the months passed, my computer became slower and slower. I was not doing anything abnormal. I just wanted to check go online, write a document or two and edit some photos. Yet by the end, my computer’s processor ran non-stop. The fan blew as loud as an airplane (ok, that is part ABS’ fault and the age of my comp). This happened even though, from what on my screen, just the basic programs were running (note, obviously, a lot was happening in the background despite all of my best semi-techie efforts to shut off every single program unless I told it to start).

Everything was slow and my computer became unusable. I needed a new computer.

What to buy?

For the first time since laptops were produced, my ideal laptop hardware began production this summer. The Dell M1330 is it. It is small, light, and can handle all the highest end components I could [maybe not] afford. But the M1330 runs Windows Vista. Yes, it is new and it is from Dell and I know you think that should just about guarantee that all my drivers will work and that problems shouldnt occur. I know you think this and want me to think this. But with Vista you lost credibility. Minus the driver issues, Vista ran pretty well at the beginning on my creaky old ABS after a clean install. But software creep occurred. Would it happen to my new Dell? In a year, would I find myself wishing I hadn’t purchased the computer because it had become creaky and relatively slow with all the junkware that was attaching itself to my computer?

I couldn’t take the risk. The Dell M1330 was my ideal hardware setup. No other manufacturer comes particularly close (Sony has a competitor but I swore off Sony after my Vaio in college). Even Vaunted Apple lacks a piece of hardware that met my needs to precisely.

Yet, thanks to Vista, I bought a Macbook Pro. I couldn’t take the risk of Vista creep.

So my dear Microsoft, you had me and I hate you for forcing me to buy a laptop that was not what I really wanted. Damn you.

Rooting that the next MS OS will be better,

Adam