Why it sucks to be a new programmer (and how you can fix it)

via UnconfessableIdeas.com

About 18 months ago, I had a life-altering conversation with someone who showed me the magic-wand-like powers of Object-Oriented-Programming, and it didn’t take very long for me to fall madly in love with writing code and making things. It was like writing, but then making the words literally dance.

Since then, it’s often been a bit of an uphill battle, requiring all my fortitude to stay on the learner’s path instead of retreating into places where I can feel competent again.

While I now feel like I’ve made it across the most difficult chasm, I think we leave a lot of people behind somewhere along the way, or intimidate them out of starting at all.

I believe this is a cultural problem that is going to start repairing itself as programming becomes more mainstream, but there are things you and I can do right now to help.

From a newbie’s perspective, here are 3 reasons why programming culture is frightening, and some ways to make the culture more welcoming:

1. No one seems to be able to remember the embarrassment of being a newcomer.

It’s not that experienced coders don’t care, it’s that most people either live and breathe code, or they have zero interest in it. I think most programmers and non-programmers assume that if someone has an interest in coding, they started in junior high, and were fully onboarded by a CS program in college.

That’s no longer true, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that many are now cross-training from backgrounds of all kinds, especially those that have a lot of contact with programmers like designers, writers, and entrepreneurs.

Sadly, it’s still somewhat rare for someone to start learning to code out of the blue. So those of us that are new are far enough between that it can be easy to feel like the dumb kid in class, and that it’s best to keep quiet lest we be found out.

When I have asked questions, I’ve often immediately regretted it, feeling like an idiot. I ask the wrong question or in the wrong way, and the experience is deeply embarrassing.

I believe if every experienced programmer dedicated one blog post a month to a “newbie question”, or one evening to seek out someone new and answer their questions, we’d have a profoundly different culture.

Most importantly, when stupid questions are asked, be patient and perhaps share that you were once where they are now. Help them undertand that there really isn’t anything to be embarrassed about, and if asking the wrong question exposes some underlying misunderstanding, take the time to correct it.

2. Newbies can’t understand a word you’re saying.

Programming, more so than almost any other profession, is almost completely opaque to outsiders, due to a high level of insider jargon, even for people who work with computers. A year and a half on, I often run across conversations that make my head spin.

Generally, programmers are looking for something interesting. And many, in looking for new tools, technologies, or boundaries to push, don’t realize how intimidating it is for new programmers to see or hear these conversations whizzing by six or seven levels above them.

I’m convinced that this fortress of jargon is one of the reasons there are few women in programming. It’s great for guys: you suffer the paddlings of stupidity for a while, and then make it into the fraternity of coders.

But this “red rover” mentality doesn’t jibe with the mental models of most women I know, and it requires a very special kind of adventurer to be willing to defy this tradition, like the girls on my high school wrestling team.

This is a tricky one, because speaking in programmer’s jargon is a huge timesaver. But every once in a while, remember that many people don’t know what you’re talking about, and take a moment to explain, include a footnote, or even link to a Wikipedia article about one of the arcane things you’re discussing.

3. The truth is out there (somewhere), but so are a lot of other things.

One of the most frustrating things as a newbie is that it takes an incredibly long time to find answers to simple questions. I wind up using a hodgepodge of various methods found via Google to solve almost every problem.

Often, I’ll get so stuck that I get profoundly discouraged, feeling as if I’ll never catch up and acquire the knowledge to be decent at this. If only there were someone to ask!

Nine times out of ten, I’ll eventually stumble on the correct answer and the victory is that much sweeter. But most of my struggles are small enough to an experienced developer that having someone to ask questions would have accelerated my learning dramatically.

Ultimately, “shut up and code” is a great (and sometimes the only) way to brute-force through problems. But for many, having someone (preferably multiple someones) around to ask can make the difference between giving up and seeing it through.

Be that someone. Be the one to welcome new programmers (and entice non-programmers) to the joys of coding. Join a local Users Group. Jump into online discussions. Put a note on your website that you’re happy to take questions, even if you can’t answer them all.

You’ll enrich the lives of others, because programming, as you know, is an incredibly rewarding creative pursuit, and having more people at the party is good for everyone.

Who knows… maybe that new developer will wander into Hollywood and help make a movie that doesn’t portray programming in a completely ridiculous fashion. And in the end, isn’t that all programmers are asking for?

How Apple will fix the iPhone 4 with software

I posted this to Twitter, but it felt like now was a good time to give the image a better home. Seriously, fixing this issue cannot be done via software.

Like magic, I move my hand just a bit during a conversation, and my phone calls vanish! I must always be on guard against my tendency to try to grip my slippery phone, or buy a bulky, overly expensive, and difficult-to-obtain case.

And a case would not fix the face-dialing issue that has gone completely unrecognized by Apple. It happens to me on 2 out of 3 calls: I’ll dial a number, switch to speakerphone, or just hang up on my call.

Gruber may not believe we exist, but there are those of us that cannot make or receive calls properly. I may hate the clunkiness of Android phones, but (face-dialing aside) the iPhone 4 drops calls with alarming regularity. That’s embarrassing on business calls, and chuck-your-phone-through-a-window maddening when on a dial-in conference call. I’d be sad to downgrade to my (still unsold) 3GS, but it’s honestly tempting.

We’ll see what Friday brings.

Why you’ll never see Apple’s “Kin” moment

Much has been made of the death of the Microsoft Kin, and I think the contrast between the aborted Kin launch and the runaway success of the iPhone 4 is an important lesson for anyone who runs a business.

Engadget posted this extraordinary piece about the politics that killed the Kin. It’s such a damning (and drop-dead-accurate) piece on Microsoft that there’s not much to add but to contrast them with Apple.

The people at Microsoft are scary smart and extremely well funded. So why does the much smaller Apple make launching products look easy?

Apple doesn’t tolerate departmental infighting.

Their structure doesn’t allow it. Have you ever worked for a startup? These companies are too small and tightly woven that any project requires the support and buy-in from the whole team. Every single project is all-in, from the CEO to tech support. Steve Jobs recently said that Apple is the biggest startup in the world, and they’re structured just that way. The top managers meet at length, every week, to make sure there aren’t any inter-departmental snafus, and that everyone is on the same page.

John Gruber can tease Roz Ho for blowing the Danger acquisition, but it was doomed from the start. Microsoft is organizationally incapable of producing a first-class product. While Apple is run like a startup, Microsoft is run like a government.

One department can OK something, and another department can overrule it later. Trying to get approval across the management layers at Microsoft is like trying to send a message via carrier pigeon. This is the number one reason things don’t get done at Microsoft, and it happens more often than not.

Apple doesn’t hammer square pegs into round holes.

Largely due to these communication issues, Microsoft will allow a project to go a long way on its own, and then try to cram existing Windows software in later.

Danger was the first to market with a consumer-focused “smartphone”, and they did a hell of a job with the Hiptop. They actually set the bar that Apple had to exceed with the iPhone. So if you or I were running Microsoft, we’d have tried to integrate their UI, existing software, and brainpower to make the best possible product.

Microsoft doesn’t roll that way. Their vision is Windows running on every electronic device, and I feel sorry for Roz Ho and her team for believing the person that told them they could have any leeway with that policy. (The Xbox is a notable, and uniquely successful, exception).

Setting aside the fact that their “Windows everywhere” strategy is fundamentally flawed, their acquisition strategy is broken. Apple’s style is to acquire “talent and technology”, according to Jobs. Microsoft’s is to jettison both post-acquisition.

Most importantly, Apple isn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board.

“Throw things to the wall and see what sticks” is not a viable corporate strategy. Apple famously says that they’re most proud of the products they don’t release.  They shelved their “Safari Pad” tablet for years so they could focus on the iPhone, and canceled the “Asteroid” hardware GarageBand interface outright (if it ever existed).

Most of us will never see Apple’s shelved products, but even if they leak, one thing is certain: it’s never too late to put the brakes on a lackluster project.

So what the hell was the benefit of Microsoft releasing the Kin while it was half-baked? Why not kill (or at least shelve) the project? I’ve said it before: Microsoft is just a wreck.

The worst of it is that Microsoft’s moneymaking engine has so much momentum that they can’t see that they’re headed for disaster. I don’t know if it’s fixable, but they’ll have to fire Ballmer to even have a chance at a turnaround.

3 reasons Apple won’t repeat its iPod domination

GigaOm posted a great story about Android’s return salvo against the iPhone this week. Will it be enough to stop or even slow Apple’s momentum? Not likely. Does it matter? Also, no.

Apple’s utter domination of the MP3 market was swift, clean, and complete. And the ruthless super geniuses at Apple doubled down on the iPod’s own worst nightmare: a portable touchscreen computer, disguised as a phone, that would cannibalize iPod sales into oblivion.

So is Apple poised to own the mobile handset market? Nope. What about smartphones? Still no. Here are 3 reasons it’s different this time:

1. Why iPod won: Massive quality gap

Source: Amazon.com
Source: Amazon.com

Remember the Archos jukebox? No? Well, I was excited for it. But within a couple of weeks of use, the silver paint on the cheap plastic wore off, buttons came loose, and the hard drive failed. These devices were constructed like dollar-store children’s toys.

And user interface? I think of myself as technically-inclined, but never, ever figured out how to create a playlist on the Archos. Copying music was a hair-pulling mess; loading the device took literally all night.

Then the iPod came along. You plugged it in, and it slurped up all my music, playlists included, from iTunes in just minutes, charging the device off of the same FireWire cable. The scroll wheel took the process of finding a song from 5-10 minutes to 10 seconds.

Competitors plodded along with sloppy (or just plain odd) design, bad UI, and stupid control gimmicks like joysticks or sliders. I’m convinced Apple put out the 3rd-Gen iPod just to send competitors down the blind alley of touch-sensitive controls.

By the time anyone could catch up (and they never did), the war was over.

Why it’s different now: Narrower quality gap.

Android and Palm are both nipping at Apple’s heels on user interface, and absolutely eating Apple’s lunch on features like multitasking and notifications. The Droid’s screen embarrassed the iPhone many months before Apple had a chance to unveil the cleverly-branded “Retina Display”, which to my (apparently) feeble eyes, is not appreciably sharper than its Android competition.

On Android, transitions are wonky, text could look better, and the whole experience could feel a lot more cohesive. Palm’s failings were definitely not on the UI side, but in hardware and marketing. Microsoft is so far behind it’s tough to imagine them catching up at all now, but it’s not hard to imagine Palm-now-HP making a strong showing for this holiday season and giving us an interesting 3-horse race.

2. Why iPod won: Market perception

Source: iLounge.com

The iPod was a fashion accessory almost as much as a music device. It was a way to buy into a club that sat at the intersection of technology and fashion (with apologies to liberal arts).

Apple’s marketing evolved from music (I doubt many remember the Miles Davis images on the first-gen iPods), to a white device clipped to the belts of hipster silhouettes.

As it went more mainstream, the public felt that anyone caught without an iPod was left behind. It was very much a “gotta-have-it” gadget, whether or not consumers were informed about how it actually worked.

Why it’s different now: Wildly different market perception.

An iPod can be a fashion accessory first and a media player second. A phone’s job is to make phone calls first. Yes, it can be fashionable (and the iPhone 4 finally is), but that’s not its sole purpose. Consumers are aware of all the things they can do with the iPhone, and they’re generally aware that they can do many, if not all, of those things with Android.

The deadliest sin Om posts about is the fragmentation of iPod’s competitors, but they were a rag-tag bunch of also-rans. Android has created a perception of itself as a cohesive brand to be reckoned with. Go ahead, ask an average consumer if they think FroYo is fragmenting the Android platform and see what they say. Then ask them whether they’d choose Android and iPhone, and see if you get a bit more than a blank stare. I’d say Android is easily Google’s strongest marketing to date.

3. Why iPod won: No counter-demand

There were a number of options that sat opposite the iPod, but there wasn’t much they could do that the iPod didn’t do better.

After the launch of the iTunes store in ’04, there was a kerfuffle (love that word) over DRM, and hardcore geeks put their support behind the few remaining MP3 makers like Rio and iRiver. But the general public remained uneducated on vendor lock-in for a couple more years, and no average consumer could even feign excitement for any supposed “iPod killer”.

Why it’s different now: Strong counter-demand. Sure, much of this is demand for an iPhone-like smartphone on other carriers. But having waited this long by AT&T’s side has absolutely entrenched Android in the minds of consumers as a comparable product. And a lot of credit is due to better-educated consumers in the age of rapid-fire information from Twitter and tumbleogs.

But most of all, Apple’s made a huge mess for itself by locking down their platform according to their own whims and shrouding the whole process in Willy-Wonka-style secrecy. There’s a huge pent-up demand for a decent alternative, and Android’s done a good job of getting its foot in the door with one word: “open”.

Final thoughts, and a warning to Android

I do have one caution for Android: the lack of polish is hurting them. Sprint’s new campaign priding themselves on being there “first” with 4G and video calls is terrifying. Manufacturers often race to check a “feature” box (wi-fi, 4G, video calls, multitasking) without much concern as to how a user will actually use the feature on the device.

Most people don’t want to have to manually kill tasks in a task manager. Most people won’t sign up for a Qik account and install 3rd party software to make video calls. Most people don’t want to navigate hierarchal folders on a mobile device. And they definitely don’t want to have to sift through app store spam.

So Apple bides their time and drops in these features once they feel that average people are likely to use them. Most people do notice when animated transitions look jerky and chintzy, even if they can’t put their finger on 10 vs. 30 frames per second. This lack of attention to detail is OK for a while, but it’s exactly what makes Apple so deadly as a competitor.

For my part, I hope Google steps it up in the UI and app curation areas. As much as I love Apple, if Google gets their act together I may wind up switching to Android due to Apple’s refusal to play nice with Google Voice.

Dumping AT&T would just be icing on the cake.

Why the pundits are wrong about Google I/O

Google’s personality can be hard to peg. Which might be why pundits and industry analysts are keen to try to affix a label of “the new Microsoft” or “the new Apple”, or other such nonsense to the strange machinations going on at Google.

Yes, Google sprawls like Microsoft. Yes, they are driven by a nearly-religious zeal like Apple.

But this week, they came into their own, and it’s very exciting stuff.

Everyone seems focused on the thought that Google stepped out at I/O as an alternate-universe Apple, with charts of Google’s anti-Apple stable of products. TV! FroYo Android phones! Mobile Ads! Music stores!

But developers saw a different story unfold at I/O.

Even though Steve Jobs is convinced that Google is trying to steal Apple’s lunch money, they’re not even at the same playground. While Apple is busy making technology desirable and friendly, Google is about the work of making that technology smarter.

Google’s I/O conference highlights

Here are a few examples of company-defining developments at Google IO:

Chrome App Store

They’re serious about the browser as OS.

What it means: Google sees operating systems as a dying art. To them, the OS is just a means of connecting together hardware so you can access cloud-based services. Unlike Apple or Microsoft, Google’s betting big on the shrinking footprint of OSX, Windows, and even Android.

If Google gets its way, the OS is going to be as obscure and irrelevant to you in the future as the underlying operating system of your DVR is now.

Google Storage for Developers

Pretty much anyone I’ve met using Amazon’s S3 storage has also used EC2 computing. And it’s a huge pain in the ass. So, although Google Storage for Developers is not too different from S3, its ties to Google’s App Engine are going to change things. Getting an application up and running used to mean setting up a machine with an operating system appropriate for your dev environment, installing database software, getting version control, blah, blah, blah…

Often, this involved hours (or tens of hours) of work before it was feasible to even start coding. Google App Engine is the opposite: Just submit your Java app (for me, JRuby), or Python (hello, Django) and boom, live application. And scalable, unlimited pay-as-you-go storage means that Google can now play the role of IT operations. This concept is not new (Heroku provides a friendly layer between Ruby and Amazon S3), but it’s going to become the basis for thousands and thousands of new applications, since any developer can now afford to turn an idea into reality.

Google Web Font API

Ask any CSS dev/designer about web font standards, and you’ll get a :rolleyes icon (given that you ask over chat, of course). Between variations in user-installed fonts and licensing issues in others, you wind up with about 4 or 5 fonts that are truly safe to use on the Web. That’s insane!

The Web Font API is a no-brainer, but only Google has got the cash and chutzpah to put it out there. Designers get a wider array of safe web fonts without a ton of work. Font designers can get exposure if Google decides to add their work to the library. Users can (potentially) get better-looking websites. This is so desperately needed and immediately useful that my former employer went from “never heard of it” to “essential to our site” in one day.

Prediction API

People are calling this “Skynet v.0.1”, and there may be good reason: it’s basically API access to learning computers. (Aside: this makes me think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “learning computer” and “neural-net processor”.)

It’s so out there that I still don’t know how it works: but as I understand it, it’s this: You feed it “Red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue, red, yellow”, and it’ll come back with “blue”. Or “one, two, three,” and it’ll come back with “four”.

This is scary stuff to me because it seems to represent the first step toward domination by our Cylon overlords, but there are lots of immediate applications. Historically, recommendation engines have been the exclusive territory of deep-pocketed e-commerce sites, but now any developer can have access to the thinking of the human-computer hybrids that are suspended in goo at Google headquarters.

Latitude API

There are other location-based services. And there are APIs to those services. But the Latitude API is so powerful and dead-simple to use that even I can do cool stuff with it, and I’m a neophyte. It’s a REST API that lets me feed in (or ask about) a person’s location, and get back everything from direction to altitude.

Location-aware was already a big deal (Apple, for their part, is doing great location-based API work for developers on the iPhone), but Latitude makes it universal.

What does all this mean for the future?

No one knows yet, since Google has a habit of throwing things to the wall to see what sticks. But you can look at the services above and mash them up with other apps: Using my location info from Latitude & Google Maps, an app checks Yelp for local listings, then references my Foursquare history and runs the results through the Prediction API to see which restaurant I’m most likely to want to eat at, then locates my friends in the area, and uses Twilio to auto-text them to ask them to lunch. If you had the desire and the chops, you could host that on Google App Engine for next to nothing.

With the depth and complexity of what Google churns out from day to day, I bet they have a tough time not looking down their noses at Apple’s work as child’s play. Oh, you have facial recognition in your photos app now? That’s adorable.

And before thinking, “of course Google can do all this stuff, they’re humongous”, think of the kind of rabid passion and laser focus that is required to pull off ideas of this magnitude, no matter the size of the company. Microsoft can’t stop screwing up its own best ideas (Courier, we hardly knew ye) due to infighting among its teeming middle-management ranks.

The biggest mistake Apple could make now would be to try to hunt on Google’s own turf (i.e. heading into the cloud). Google was “born in the briar patch”, so to speak. They and Apple could accomplish so much by cooperating instead of kicking dirt in each others’ eyes, but that’s a topic for another article.

Here’s how I would describe the 3 companies:

Apple is a pyramid, like the Luxor in Vegas, with a large base of people who taper to support one beam of light, one man’s vision. And that’s great (until a successor is needed).

Google is a series of pillars. Their biggest one supports most of the weight, but they are constantly building other pillars. They’re all building in the same direction and with the same purpose, but they’re more loosely federated.

Microsoft is just a mess. That’s all. It’s clear they don’t understand why they were ever successful in the first place, and unlike most who don’t understand their history, they’re doomed to not repeat it.

Incidentally… did you see Google’s “Pac-Man 30th Anniversary” homepage recently? A playable, fully-HTML-graphics, pixel-perfect version of Pac-Man is an astounding technical feat (certainly beyond Namco’s own capability), not to mention a lot of fun. It’s meticulously programmed: Pinky’s trickier, more aggressive personality is intact, and ol’ Pac is slower while chomping on dots than when the lane is clear. Google knew that this icon that shaped so many of us as young geeks deserved no less a tribute. That may be more telling of their corporate personality than anything at I/O.

Discovering your destiny

I had planned to write about some of the major tech events of the day. Palm is saved! Apple buys more stuff to mothball!

But I’ve started a new job this week, and life lessons are cascading on me such that I can’t help but jot them down. So I’ll ask that you indulge me in a thought.

You need to find and fulfill your destiny. If you think that’s crazy, you really should read on. If you already know yours, I hope you’ll find some value in my story.

I don’t necessarily intend this in a cosmic, religious, or metaphysical sense, though it may very well be in that way that you experience your destiny. For my purposes, I’m defining “destiny” as what you want to have achieved before you die, what you want to be remembered for, or just what you want in general. Joseph Campbell would call it your “bliss”.

At my new job today, I was reminded of a story. It’s an uncomfortable one.

My desperate grasp for control

About seven years ago, I worked as a low-level geek at a large local business. I didn’t know what I wanted, just that I wanted to move up in the world. I’d come pretty far, considering that 18 months earlier I’d been delivering lunches for a living. In my year as a computer technician there, a pretty clear path emerged in front of me. If I wanted to move up, I needed to get into management or operations.

Lo and behold, positions opened up in both at once. There was an operations job and a management job for my team. I wasn’t sure what either entailed, only that I felt I deserved one of the two. I applied for one, only to have it scooped up. I threw my hat in the ring for the other, only to have my coworker slide into that position.

Over the next few months, I seethed. I tried a number of ways to fix my feeling of powerlessness: I complained, whined, and even tried to rally my coworkers into open revolt against the obviously political and corrupt organization I found myself trapped in.

One morning, we were gearing up to go on a department-wide ski trip. I had my snowboard loaded up, and as my colleagues clumped into carloads, I was pulled aside by my coworker-now-boss. I was to report to HR. I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, so it was with a bit of nervousness I walked into the HR director’s office to find my boss and my boss’s boss there.

“What am I supposed to tell my wife?”

The next 15 minutes are still a blur. I was being fired. They tried to be gentle, but I was hot with righteous indignation. How dare they patronize me and say “it’s not a fit”? They threw around words like “bad customer service” and “borderline insubordination”. Even now, I’m flushed with embarrassment as I write this.

So I’d been proven right. I was powerless. What was I supposed to tell my wife? I called her, not just crying; heaving as I apologized to her. How was I going to pay the mortgage? After many months of scrambling for a sense of control, it was all taken from me in one moment. I spent about a month feeling sorry for myself, but I was offered another job; a chance to start over.

At my next job, I was shocked to find the situation play out all over again. I watched for 5 years as coworkers were promoted, and I had my position, title, and pay “redefined” downward. I could feel more layers press down on me. Was this my destiny? To fumble as others succeed? I was smart, capable, and I worked damn hard. Why wasn’t that getting through to these people?

Now, it’s obvious that I was doomed to fail because I didn’t own my destiny, while I watched my coworkers claim theirs. I didn’t know, but even though I shared a workplace, lunches, and conversations with my successful coworkers, they were in a different, parallel universe. In their universe, they had direction and control, while I clung desperately to a job I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finding a compass

Just over a year ago, exasperated, I had a long talk with the person whose career had rocketed while mine stagnated in the same company. Ostensibly, it was about learning to program. But really, I was profoundly unhappy and was hoping he could point to any exit.

That talk set off a chain of events that led to more than a career change; it was a chance for me to grab a compass and choose a direction for my life.

In the year that followed, I watched as the workplace tore itself apart in desperation as the company crumbled and sank. It was the worst work environment I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot at this point. But as my personal course became more clear, this became less relevant.

More recently, I spent several months helping start a company from the ground up with a small group of close friends. With no job title, manager, or ambition, my only responsibility was to create something of value. Although my compass has now led me in a new direction, this experience helped solidify my understanding that it’s me who shapes my destiny.

You can cheat to win, but not to succeed

Today, when I hear people grumble about bosses, politics, and promotions, it is with an odd detachment, and I realize: I’m in a different universe now. I’m not at a job to try to win a promotion, a ribbon, a prize, or raise.

Promotions, raises, and awards are simply how the world reacts to good work. My goal is to produce good work, and match myself with the kind of organization that shares my idea of good work. Trying to “game” this system offers a mere illusion of control, and is a fast track to an unhappy life.

I’m at a job to apply my unique and valuable skills to create things of consequence. If that’s not the deal, we could part ways with no hard feelings, and I’d find a place to create things of value. As it stands, it seems to be working out great. Someday, I hope that place will be my own company, and I’ll apply my skills to my own projects full time.

The magic ingredient

As it is, I’m confident that I’ll succeed in my current role. It was my choice to accept it. Every day, it’s my choice whether I give my best.

And although confidence is the magic ingredient that puts you in the “other universe”, it’s simply a byproduct of doing things. You do something, then you know you can do it. That’s confidence.

I repeat: confidence is essential, and it’s a byproduct of doing.

There is a real lesson here, and in case I’ve couched it too deeply, it is this: If you don’t believe you have a destiny, if you think you’re powerless, life and the universe will prove you right in the most exquisite and painful way.

If you’ve found your destiny, your mission is to fulfill it. Seize it.

Here’s a hint: If you don’t know what your destiny is, creating something is probably a good start. Helping people is a great start. Creating something that helps people? Now we’re talking.

Would you pay $10/month for “Hulu Pro”?

First off, I want to say that I’ll probably be one of the first to sign up for a $10 Hulu subscription when it’s available. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that the service won’t be that long-lived. And the reason is closely linked to many, many big startups over the past 10 years.

After seeing some videos from the Startup Lessons Learned conference today (and spending the last 5 years of my life at startups), I’m struggling a bit with the idea of companies that launch with a “go get lots of users, we’ll monetize them later” mentality.

For every Google, there are a hundred MySpaces that get huge with no business model, then don’t stand up in the harsh light of a quarterly report. Hulu, Twitter, and Facebook are all in that perilous transition period where user base isn’t good enough anymore.

Hulu is especially interesting to me, because it represents about 90% of the content that’s piped into my house. Almost a year ago, I shut off our satellite service in favor of streaming over the Web. We have a Mac Mini hooked to our TV, and most of our media consumption is through Hulu Desktop.

I’m convinced Hulu Desktop is the most forward-thinking app in the current crop of media players. It’s more vital than Boxee, VLC, Plex, or even iTunes. These are solutions that are primarily geared toward people who amass and store media locally, while Hulu recognizes that I don’t care to store a huge amount of content… I just want to watch it.

So it’s like the worlds biggest TiVo, and it went ahead and recorded everything on TV for me, with a fantastic interface for browsing the content.

The most important thing Hulu Desktop does is exactly what convinced my wife to watch TV on a computer: you turn it on, and it starts playing. This concept is so much a part of the fabric of set-top devices over the last 30 years that I’m shocked it eludes modern software. Every modern set-top media box seems to want to dump you into a heirarchal menu, requiring you to make a series of complex choices before you can watch TV… even the Apple TV (though I hear that’s due to change soon).

Let me repeat: the most important thing you can do when showing media on TV for the mass market (I.e. “non-techies”) is to just start playing something when the device is turned on. When a show ends, it shows me the next episode, or something similar. It plays the NBC Thursday night comedies in order, and it follows up Stewart with Colbert (at least, it used to). The people behind Hulu get it.

On top of that, they’re handling the subscription model very well… If it adds enough features. A free service suddenly switching to a pay model is usually a kiss of death, but the addition of premium services is the backbone of the “freemium” model that has a fighting chance of success.

Now the bad news: I think Hulu is doomed.

Hulu’s eventual downfall will be due to a slow degradation of service, at the hands of greedy and fearful media conglomerates. And it’s already begun: though the show’s creators wanted all episodes online, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” yanked all but the last 5 episodes in Hulu’s first PR blunder a couple of years back.

More recently, Viacom yanked Jon Stewart and Colbert altogether. All this taught me is that I can live without them. Nice work, Viacom!

So is a $10/month subscription model likely to stem the tide of this gradual degradation? Not likely. Media giants like Rupert Murdoch have already proven to be so short-sighted and afraid of change that I think Hulu will constantly have to fight for its life against the media companies that created it. And it will lose.

I worked for a startup that had a great product that had thousands of loyal customers. But the product could never live up to the billion-dollar expectations that fueled massive overspending in building it. From that point on, the product could never be financially viable: the cost to build it was ten times what the market would bear.

I think Hulu is doomed in a similar way. It’s the media companies trying to collect pennies where they are accustomed to demanding briefcases of money. Yes, these pennies are better than nothing, but no, it’s not going to provide the budget to create another Lost. Hulu, while a great service overall, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the direction of media on the internet: that the money they used to make from TV content through mass advertising will magically come from the interwebs.

Big Old Media is both what makes Hulu so compelling (big-budget content on the web!) and the millstone around its neck (big-budget content… on the web?!?).

Still, I look forward to seeing the features that $10 buys me, until the media companies ruin it. I’d love access to a larger back catalog of episodes, so I can catch up on Fringe. Maybe it’ll even bring back Colbert. But not for too long, I’d wager.

UPDATE: While editing this post, I saw that NBC’s Thursday night lineup is not on Hulu yet, as it has been on every Friday night for the last year. The rules of Hulu are constantly shifting, and always out of favor of the user. I’ll be sad if I have to fire Hulu as my primary media source before they even have a chance to launch the subscription service.

In short, you can’t make your service suck just a little more each week and expect people to flock in instead of out.

Despite all this, am I the only one who’s still signing up?

The iPhone bombshell and the loss of perspective

This lost-and-found iPhone story has kind of made very one associated with it a little insane.

The editors at Gizmodo have absolutely lost my respect, by paying for a “scoop”, when their legal and ethical obligation was to report the missing phone to the police. Engadget simply lost the bidding war and tried their best to capitalize. And for what?

Check out this tweet by Marco Arment. There’s not a dollar amount they can draw from this that would justify the cost, in time, effort, and lawyers, that this is likely to bring. But, driven by the “gotta be first” mentality of tech blogging, they ignored all semblance of journalistic integrity and busted out the checkbook.

Worse, when the shit hit the fan, they detailed the plight of the Apple employee, name, picture, and all, that they themselves caused, then making a disingenuous offer to return the phone.

And again I ask, for what? To steal pageviews FROM YOURSELVES on the day of the inevitable upcoming reveal. I’m sickened by the way this has been handled, but more confused as to why no one seems to have been using their brains. I can only surmise that those involved saw that rarest of beasts, the Apple prototype, and lost their shit.

And then, the New York Times found an analyst who opined that he’d “rather be anyone else in the world” than this Apple employee. Really? The world is a big place full of suffering people, and here we have a guy who has raised Steve Jobs’s ire.

I‘ve sat in a deposition room while being grilled by an Apple lawyer who was sent by an angry Steve Jobs. The lawyer twisted every email, document, and snippet into an insane, madhouse version of the facts, and even insinuated that I had gone to work for Apple as a spy. And hey, I’m still here. And I could even be an Apple employee again someday (not bloody likely, but I could).

My point is that this clumsy guy isn’t going to die of Pissed Off Steve Jobs. He may be fired, and then he’ll have the world’s best cover letter for his next job application. Let’s save some of this worrying for the people who really deserve it.

I don’t know what to do about Gizmodo, though. I would support a boycott if one were proposed, but I lack the influence to put it together myself. John Gruber, I’m looking at you.

Apple’s bringing sexy back.

iPhone 4G? Are we not calling it the iPhone HD yet? That nomenclature is beyond confusing, because, unlike the iPods, whose generations we stopped counting around 5.5, the 3G iPhone is named after the network, and is only a second-gen device. In addition, the “4G iPhone” doesn’t seem to actually function on 4G networks.

That rant aside, it’s been a big day for nerds. Setting aside the douchetacular way this has been handled by the blog networks (until my next post, anyway), the thoroughly unofficial unveiling of the iPhone HD is exciting stuff.

Facts first: this is the new iPhone. No Apple prototype makes it that far into the field without it being a production sample. Seams and all. WYSIWYG.

Apple was keen on showing off how the new iMac’s screen has an “infinity edge”, like a trendy bathtub. Of course, it’s all aesthetic; under the infinite expanse of glass is a bezel as thick as ever. Still, this edge-to-edge glass is a welcome replacement for my endlessly scratchable (and dated-feeling) chrome bezel.

The glass back is stunning. Many are saying it’ll carry a signal upgrade, but someone will have to explain to me how glass or high-gloss ceramic is more radio transparent than plastic.

No. What this represents is Apple realigning function with form, after letting function run the show for two years.

When the iPhone was announced, it wasn’t just a shiny new gadget. It was a tiny, sexy monolith. Aluminum was slippery and impaired the signal, but not the signal it sent to your brain (and your friends): I own a premium device.

The 3G changed that. Much like comparing the 1G iPod with its eventual descendants, you get the sense that the latter devices were meant for mass production and consumption, with all its unsexy signs.

The iPhone 3G seems to accept that its eventual destination is a landfill, from the chintzier chrome buttons to the hollow sound of its thin plastic casing. For me, it’s enough to pine for the original, premium iPhone. For some crazies, it’s enough to custom-fabricate titanium replacement casings.

Some are calling the new iPhone an honorary Dieter-Rams-Era-Braun design, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s elegant, minimal, and every part seems to have been thought through in great detail. I love the simple, glass-aluminum-glass sandwich, the buttons, everything.

I also love that it’s thinner and flat: It can’t hide it’s bulk by tapering at the edges (which even the iPad does). It is what it is.

Some are saying that the battery is now user-replaceable, which makes sense. Apple loves to let third parties set up cottage industries around their products’ shortcomings, only to yank the rug out from under them in one surprise reveal.

Make no mistake: Apple has noticed that the only people not making money on iPhone batteries is Apple. They’d be all too happy to sell you a spare battery or two with your iPhone at $69 a pop.

That means that all those battery-case hybrids are three times irrelevant: they don’t fit, the iPhone needs less protection, and there’s no need for a dock-blocking (heh) battery backpack.

Speaking of case manufacturers, I’m so glad to be rid of invisible shields I could burst. I loathe those things. They cheapen the look and feel of my iPhone, discolor almost immediately, and turn into used Band-Aids in a matter of weeks. But the scratch-prone plastic case makes them an absolute necessity. The worst part is that they add $40 to the cost of every single iPhone I buy. Now, with a glass front and back, they’re toast.

The high-res screen was a gimme. I’m wondering how that’s going to work, though. Sure, existing software will look the same, but will developers need to create 3 versions of apps: 1 for iPhone, 1 for iPhone HD, and 1 for iPad? I’m sure Apple has an answer waiting in the wings as to how this isn’t going to fragment the market and create hell for developers.

For my part, going from using my iPad and my wife’s Droid makes the resolution on my iPhone feel downright woeful. At this point, it’s more of a “fix” than a feature to me.

I hope the front-facing camera does more than video chat. I don’t use it on my computer, And I don’t anticipate using it on my iPhone that often. It’s novel, but it’ll be up to the software to make it useful. And iChat just isn’t all that useful. (Now Skype, on the other hand…)

LED flash: super meh. Those are only useful in the absolutely most dire circumstance. I can’t wait to hear Scott Forstall get all bug-eyed and declare a new gold rush on LED flashlight apps.

The microSIM tells me that Verizon customers shouldn’t get their hopes up for a simultaneous launch with the AT&T version. Maybe someday. Maybe. On the other hand, Apple is punching AT&T in the face repeatedly with the iPad 3G “pay as you go, then stop paying whenever you want, easily” plan. That relationship sounds strained, at best.

I am satisfied enough by the iPad that I’m in no hurry for a higher-res iphone browsing experience, but the device itself. Oh my gosh, so sexy. It’s everything I miss about the original iPhone, stepped up.

June can’t come fast enough.

Is obsolescence becoming obsolete?

Today, Apple announced new MacBooks and MacBooks Pro (that’s right, I said MacBooks Pro). And I couldn’t care less.

I’ve got an 18-month-old Unibody MacBook Pro that I’ve dirtied, scratched, scraped, dropped, dented, and abused. And I honestly think it’ll be my main machine for at least 12 more months. And this is coming from a guy who used to upgrade every 6-8 months. What gives?

For one, I have an iPad. At 1 GHz and with 256MB of RAM, it sounds like it’s a ten-year-old computer, which is why you don’t see Apple bragging about the specs. But nobody really cares. I do nearly half of my computing on this machine now, and don’t find many occasions to open the laptop unless I’m at work.

Second, I bought an SSD. Forget gigahertz, the new standard is MBps. (And that’s even for those of us who care about such measurements.) Most people don’t yet realize that the reason they constantly see spinning beach balls isn’t that their computer is too slow, it’s that they’re relying on slow, inefficient, and increasingly crashy hard disks for storage.

After 2 failed hard disks in 3 months (admittedly, one was because I dropped my laptop), I opted for the Crucial RealSSD C300. It’s arguably the fastest SSD out there right now, and at $700 for 256GB, definitely in “early adopter” territory. Still, I would much, much rather have this upgrade than a new MacBook Pro. In daily life, things that took minutes now take seconds.

And it’s a confluence of these factors is breaking the traditional notion of “obsolete”. The tasks you ask of a computer are often small, like playing YouTube videos or word processing, and these are easily within the grasp of my iPad. But even the most demanding tasks like running Photoshop or editing a video can be done quite effectively on a 3-year-old laptop.

Do you remember a time when you cared about how many colors your monitor could display? It used to be that there was so much we wanted to display on a computer, but our hardware could only render one color, then sixteen, then 256, and then thousands. Then, about 10 years ago, we settled on “millions”, and never thought about it again.

I think that this time is approaching with processor speed. The gap is wider between “benchmarked speed” and “real-world speed” than ever. The Core i7 technology excites my inner geek, and I’d love to convert some video with it. But that’s not what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Intel has made the new processor inside the new MacBooks faster by a factor of two, by many benchmarks. But in the real world, my life would not improve by a factor of two. My “computing quality of life” might increase by 5%. That’s odd, because my solid state disk had a much bigger impact than 5%, and the vastly-less-powerful iPad has improved my computing life by at least a factor of two.

We’re now focused on removing bottlenecks like disk speed (using solid state disks) and RAM (by using 64-bit software to address more than 4GB), or even interface elements (think eliminating the mouse). My computing life is much faster, more efficient, and more fun than it was 18 months ago, and it has nothing to do with there being “Intel inside”.

My first week with the iPad

After spending time with the iPad, I have to admit: it does feel like I’m interacting with the future of computing. Simple, elegant, fun, hassle-free. I don’t think you should have to tether to a computer to get this experience, but it’s a pretty decent start. Here are my “notes from the field” after a week with an iPad:


The first thing I did was to put the precious iPad into its first-party case (more on that below), so it took a few days for me to wrest the iPad from of its case and get a feel for how precise and perfect everything feels. I’ve come to expect that from Ive and the team at Apple, but it’s nice to feel that kind of quality in something this compact. It’s a big jump up from the iPhone 3GS.

Battery life is just astonishing. It is like witchcraft. I am a heavy, heavy user, and I recharge 1 time a day. Yesterday, after using it for a little email and web surfing, I had 97% when I got home from work.


The case is substandard, but that’s to be expected. My experience with Apple is that they lack the kind of passion for their accessories that they have for their hardware/software. If you remember the first iPod case, packed-in with the 3rd-gen iPod: A flat piece of nylon, bent into a U shape, with a piece of elastic sewn in to hold the iPod inside the U (but leaving the top and sides exposed). It was a piece of crap, but it had a belt clip. It would do until the third parties caught on (and catch on they did).

Apple only produces an accessory when they don’t want to wait for accessory makers to take the lead. In this (ahem) case, Apple saw that a thin cover that makes a wedge, covers the screen, and can stand up is of great utility. And it is! It’s just a piece of crap. The edges are heat-fused, sharp and plasticky, it feels cheap, and the material picks up dog hair better than most lint rollers.

Still, the case offers screen protection (a must) and decent utility as a wedge (however, it makes for a pretty wobbly stand when set up to watch movies).

Aside from those, the best thing about the case is that it provides anonymity. Unless you want to be the “iPad Guy (or Girl)”, I thought it was cool to be the “guy with an iPod” all those years ago, but with the iPad, it’s a bit more conspicuous than I care for anymore. Most can’t tell whether you’re rocking a Kindle, iPad, or even a little pad of paper with the case on.

For typing in-lap, the Apple case is a requirement. I’d love to see someone take a stab at a nicer, classier version.

The iPad is so hard to get out of the case that I haven’t even had occasion to use the Dock yet.


I was surprised I didn’t miss a physical keyboard. I still haven’t paired it with the Bluetooth Keyboard, something I’d planned to do on Day 1.

There’s an unexpectedly satisfying drumbeat to the tapping of fingers on the screen that’s vastly superior to the iPhone, and maybe even more fun than clacking away on the real thing.

The keyboard is a cruel taskmaster, though: any resting of fingers, even for a millisecond, is met with a jumble of letters on the screen, a kind of rap across the knuckles from an angry typing teacher. Between the iPad keyboard and the Magic Mouse, it seems Apple is trying to teach people to hover their fingers over touch surfaces, and never to lazily rest your hands on anything. It can get tiring.

Ergonomically dubious though it may be, it really only requires a few hours of retraining muscle memory to get used to the idea. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable with it.

The best tip I heard all week was to hold down the comma key to get an apostrophe, solving one of my biggest gripes.


It’s a huge pain to constantly exit my app, go back to the home screen, click settings, click General, adjust the brightness, return to my app’s screen, and re-open the app. I’m honestly considering giving a coveted Dock spot to Settings, due to its all-too-frequent use. It’d be great to have some more convenient access to brightness control in more apps (or even by some tweak to the Volume switch).

At no point have I missed multitasking. My thinking is that when OS 4.0 comes out, it’ll be exactly the sort of feature I wonder how I ever lived without.

Spell check and its “replace” function was a fantastic surprise, and worked well in everything but text-entry fields in Safari (which seemed odd).

My family loved the Photos app. It makes the iPad the best photo album on the planet right now. Some of your photos may go on the iPhone, but all of them go on the iPad. It just feels like this is where your pictures go. Browseable, shareable, emailable… My sister spent 2 hours looking through old photos and emailing herself photos of interest.

Also interesting is that all photos seem to be sized down to around 3 megapixels before being transferred to iPad. They look great, and photos now email in full-resolution, unlike the automatic resizing that happens when you email a photo on the iPhone (so no need for copy-paste workarounds).

Getting files on & off the iPad is a well-documented nightmare. Hopefully Apple has some plan to move toward cloud-based storage of this stuff. Photos would be a great start.


This is a good news/bad news scenario. The good news: Browsing the web on a tablet seems like the “proper” way to surf. It just feels better than on a computer. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss Flash, especially since inline YouTube plays without issue… lots better than the way iPhone launches a separate app.

Browsing the Web in a portrait orientation feels like I’m seeing movies on a widescreen TV for the first time. Like “oh, that’s how that’s supposed to look.” Amazing stuff.

The bad news: I really, really miss tabbed browsing. You have to hunt down the multi-page button, just like on iPhone, but it pulls up an array of pages to tap, rather than a row to browse through. It’s a pain to hunt down a dedicated button to see which pages are currently open.

Ah, but that’s the trick: they’re not open at all. I usually see one or 2 thumbnails and 6 blank pages. It seems the iPad can only cache one site (two max) at a time, so with 4 or 5 tabs open, it throws up a blank screen, and forces me to reload the entire page.

That’s time-consuming and irritating in itself, but if you have a half-written blog entry, forum post, or email in a browser window, you’d just better finish it up before opening another tab, because once you do, buddy, it’s gone.

All told, there needs to be some polish done on the mechanics of Safari for iPad to bring it closer to its Mac cousin, but I haven’t touched on how fun it is. Browsing the web on a portrait-oriented touch screen just feels like the way the web was meant to be explored.


This is the killer app, period. I find myself checking for changes to the “top 100” and for updates at least twice a day.

Two apps that I missed last time are Twitterific and NetNewsWire. These are used so frequently that I treat them like built-in apps. Email, RSS, Twitter, Web. That’s 75% of my iPad use.

One more piece of app news: Air Video went HD for iPad (at no additional charge!), and transcodes my movies into high-res, iPad-friendly movies and streams them to me like a champ. After iBooks, it’s the app I show people to really show off the fact that the iPad really is the future.


“iPad as gaming platform” is not as ludicrous as it sounded to me at first. As I posted before, I am finding myself drawn to the games on iPad as I rarely do the games on my console systems.

Interestingly, the accelerometer seems friskier and more accurate on the iPad. I don’t know if it’s due to the iPad’s size (and therefore takes longer to move around), but Real Racing seems to be vastly more accurate on the iPad than iPhone. Controls are tight and fun.

I have nearly worn blisters on my thumbs from playing Geometry Wars so much. Seriously, my thumbs hurt. This could become a phenomenon.


I bought a Kindle a year ago. It lasted a month. I bought a Sony Reader afterwards, and it lasted for 2.

I love e-ink. It’s like a miracle, with no discernable pixels, even though the iPad has a higher-res screen than the e-ink crowd (1024×768 vs. 800×600). Text on the iPad is a bit rough around the edges, literally: you can see jaggies, anti-aliasing tricks, and most importantly, the backlight (I’ll get to that in a sec).

And if you’re planning on reading outdoors, well… you may want to budget an extra $260 for a Kindle, or skip the iPad altogether. I don’t care what I’ve read elsewhere, it’s damn-near useless outdoors, even on a somewhat overcast day. I don’t really read outdoors, but the combination of backlit LCD and mirror-reflective screen make it even less tempting.

All that said, what’s the verdict as an e-reader? I choose the iPad as my e-reader, hands down. I was really worried about eyestrain, and was an issue at first, but as I learned to really dial down the screen’s brightness, I’ve found myself using the iPad as my preferred way to read. I actually have a physical book sitting on my dresser, begging for attention, but reading on the iPad is my preferred mode.

GoodReader is a great, powerful little app for organizing, managing, and reading PDF content. It’s got a couple of quirks that I’d like to see resolved (how about using the left/right edges of the screen for page turning, for one?). But for someone learning to program, or anyone with PDF e-books, it’s a godsend.

The biggest surprise to me in the whole iPad experience is how good Kindle for iPad is. I’ve tried to buy 3 books on the iBooks store, with no success. So I jumped over to Kindle, and bang, bang, bang… all there. The reading experience has fewer graphical flourishes, and is generally easier to use than iBooks. It’s obvious they put their best developers on this one.

The side benefit to Kindle is that if I do get a Kindle again as a backup reader, all my books are there via whispersync.

One side note about reading: I was worried that I’d never get anything read on the iPad because I would be too distracted with

other possible uses of this many-purposed device. That’s not true, as the iPad melts into whatever configuration best suits the task at hand. It’s an awesome dedicated e-Reader. Just turn off email notifications. Every time I hear the “Bong!” of a new email, my curiosity gets the better of me and I’ve lost my momentum.

The best thing about it is that it’s easy to be in the middle of however many books you want, in one of the many ebook readers for iPad. Currently, I’ve got bookmarks in no less than 15 different books. Since I’m reading programming books, it can be slow going, so it’s nice to have a place to keep track of my place in my entire library, without resorting to a foot-tall stack on my nightstand (which I actually do currently have).


I was a fanboy from day 1. But what has surprised me is how the iPad has worked its way into my life. I thought I would be playing with Pages and reading e-books, and the Wi-Fi-only model would be perfect.

The trend that’s emerged is that I find myself picking up the iPad when I want to relax. I’ll catch up on RSS, the latest tweets, read some books, surf the web… and I’ll pick up the laptop when it’s time to work.

I suspect that this will lead to a kind of tech “Disneland Dad” mentality, where people love the iPad so much because it does all the fun things while the laptop nags us to get back to work.

In terms of screen size and usability, it’s a lot tougher to go from iPad to iPhone than it is from laptop to iPad. I can’t explain why, it’s just utility is somewhat retained on the iPad, where the iPhone’s tiny screen just obliterates it.

Anyone with an iPhone is going to be disappointed with the Wi-Fi version, because eventually, you’ll wind up somewhere with no (or flaky) Wi-Fi, and you just want to check Twitter or send an email. I am absolutely upgrading when the 3G version comes out, and that was not what I’d expected.

You’ve probably already made up your mind as to whether you have any reason in your life to own an iPad, but I’ve obviously found many, and as more apps pour into the App Store, I suspect the number of people who have a good reason to buy an iPad is going to steadily grow.

12 Killer Apps for iPad

I wasn’t going to write this post on my iPad. It felt like a bit of a cliché, you know? Plus, I thought it would be a bit like fighting with one hand tied behind my back. And it is, to some degree; I type about half as fast as I do on a laptop.

So why go through with it then? Because the iPad is so fun to use, I don’t feel like getting out my laptop.

I have my share of gripes and praises for the iPad, but it’s just 9.7 inches of blank screen without the apps to make it useful. And they do. In fact, “revolutionary” is not going too far.

So, with the aid of the iPad’s WordPress app, here are 12 apps I already can’t live without.

The first thing I want to say is that the iPad is an absolute joy to use. By that I mean that using the iPad elicits actual joy. Everyone was wondering what the killer app for the iPad would be. I think that the killer app might just be the experience of using an iPad, period. But to better answer the question, the answer is twofold:

– Everyone’s going to have their own version of the iPad’s killer app.
– You are going to find at least 10 killer apps within your first 48 hours

Here are 12 of mine.
I bought the iPad primarily as a reading device. It has already delivered on more than its promise. It’s not hard to imagine having an entire page of apps dedicated to the various types of reading I do. My favorites right now:

GoodReader ($1)
Without solid PDF support, I wouldn’t be able to read programming books on the iPad, and that would be a deal breaker (lame PDF support caused me to return both the Kindle and Sony Reader). Although the PDFs don’t render with lightning speed and the page turning mechanic is wonky (honestly, who turns pages from top to bottom?), this is an app that already shows maturity. I threw a 500MB PDF at it, and it cut through it with ease. GoodReader also has a raft of network-aware features, and although they’re a bit more geared toward power users, they handily circumvent Apple’s insane methods of getting files on and off the iPad.

iBooks (free)
iBooks is the app that always elicits the remark, “now they’re just showing off”. Graphical flourishes aside, it’s fast, beautiful, and fun to read books on. I had serious concerns about eyestrain, but those proved to be unfounded after fiddling with the brightness a bit. The included Winnie the Pooh book was a bit of unexpected genius; a sign of things to come as you dig deeper into the iPad experience.

Marvel Comics (free)
This is another app that really shows off what the iPad can do. I’m not a huge comic book fan, but they look so lovely on the iPad’s screen that I may pick one up from time to time.

Air Video ($3)
It’s an iPhone app, but while the team works on their iPad version, they deserve your 3 bucks. With a simple server app, you have access to all the media stored on your home computer anywhere, even over 3G. Media not encoded in iPad-compatible h.264? No sweat. It’ll convert on the fly while it streams your TV shows & movies, and even pixel-doubled, media looks fine.

Dear, departed Simplify Media ($N/A)
This one is a big WTF. Being able to access my music and photos remotely made this easily one of the most useful apps ever. Simplify not only streams your music from anywhere in the world to your iPad, it allows you to share your entire library with friends (and share theirs in turn). It’s the poster child for the idea that your media shouldn’t have to fill local storage to be accessible. But you can’t buy it, can’t download it, and even if you own it like I do, it will stop working in a couple of months. Rumors are swirling that these guys have been bought by Apple, and the mystery surrounding their disappearance is certainly consistent with past Apple acquisitions.

Sketchbook Pro ($8)
Smart controls and pro-caliber features make this the king of the sketch apps. Using it makes me wish I had more talent. I have seen it do amazing things in the hands of greater men than I.

SugarSync (free)
Apple has crippled this genius app. Access to all my documents, synced automatically from my desktop, anywhere… It’s a fantastic promise. On the iPhone, it doesn’t matter that the documents are read-only. But as soon as you need to edit a word document or save a PDF to GoodReader, you’re out of luck until you go through Apple’s convoluted manual sync process, or email it to yourself (and then it’s a crapshoot). Even with its limitations, SugarSync is a great app and helps point out the gaping hole in Apple’s cloud storage offering.

Instapaper (free)
There’s little to say about Instapaper other than that it’s nearly perfect. It’s a simple premise: save longer web articles for later reading. And what better place for all this to wind up than on your iPad? The “nearly” in “nearly perfect” is because Apple doesn’t allow in-app brightness control from third-party apps (though Kindle for iPad seems to have found a clever workaround).

Evernote (free)
Another simple-but-brilliant idea: all your notes, write once, sync everywhere. Clippings, links, anything you’d rather not forget goes into one safe place.

Games were the biggest surprise on the iPad. Aside from the week of my life I lost to fieldrunners, I’m not a big iPhone gamer. But with a larger screen, the games on iPad a compelling enough that I don’t foresee firing up my Xbox or Wii anytime soon.

Geometry Wars ($10)
This was the Xbox 360’s only memorable launch title, and it’s made quite a splash on the iPad. The dual-analog-stick-emulating controls are fantastic, though you need to place your thumbs well inside the bezel to get the best results. It’s quick to pick up, and I feel it pulling at me even now.

Top Gun ($5)
It’s dumb, retro fun. Tilt controls are a great way to experience this game that feels like a cross between Top Gun for NES and After Burner for arcade.

Touch Hockey ($3)
The iPad was made for moments like this. You pull out your tablet, set it on a table, and challenge a friend to a realistic, fast-paced round of air hockey. The highs and lows are just as visceral as the real thing, and it seems like a great way to strike up a conversation with a girl. Try doing that with your Kindle.

The iPad has tremendous potential for graphics capability, and I’m still holding out hope for a beautiful-looking, bumper-grinding arcade racer like Burnout (or an entry in the Burnout series).

Incidentally, the WordPress app for iPad (which I posted this from) is not yet a killer app; it’s a larger version of its iPhone cousin. Give us some HTML formatting help and better image handling, and we’ll talk.

I had to use one other app to make this post: Photogene ($4) to rotate and resize the photo I used in the post. Seems pretty cool, I look forward to using it more.

So there it is: for $30, a great way to start off your iPad experience. $40 if you include Pages, but I haven’t yet found occasion to use it.

I have a lot more to say about the iPad in general, but it can probably wait until I’m at a more comfortable keyboard.

Shut up, Frank Kern.

I fell for it.

I watched some videos 18 months ago. Here’s this surfer dude who claims to work 40 seconds per month and make millions by flipping a switch. He seems like a straight shooter, walks the walk.

4 or 5 obviously artificial “product launches” later, I’m seeing the same emails over and over. “Is this product for everyone? No. Not if you don’t intend to actually use it.”

What does that mean? So if you don’t intend to use this product, it’s not for you?

Great job. “Is this product for you? No, not if you’re lazy. Not if you’re a loser and hate money. Not if you can’t follow through.” Really? Wow, you’ve really run us through some funnels. Only the few, the brave, the well-intentioned, remain.

Trying to create an artificial market segment that includes “everyone” is the coward’s way out. Show some balls and pick out real people who won’t benefit from your product.

Like me.

Popsicle sticks

After working through dinner and quite late into the night, I realized that I should have eaten many hours earlier. When I put myself in that situation, my food judgement tends to revert to that of a six-year-old.

So as soon as I walked into the house, I threw my bag into a chair and cracked open the freezer and fridge simultaneously, for maximum food visibility. And lo, there were crunch-covered ice cream bars, a rare (maybe first ever) sight in our home.

I pulled one out, anticipating a garden of creamy delight, and went to work. It struck me–even in my famished state–that this was not good. Sugary ice-milk with a waxy cocoa shell: pretty typical store-brand fare.

But though I could have walked away after one bite without remorse, I was bound and determined to treat myself, so I continued eating. My mind wandered, possibly from the boredom of this so-so snack, and I started reading the wrapper. Hey, it’s something to do.

On the back, written in an airy font, I found one last hope for this snack to get interesting. I imagined it would say “Midnight is a great time for an ice cream bar–just unwrap quietly,” or some other whimsical musing about the nature of indulgence. I looked closer.

“Units not labeled for individual sale.”

I longed for a popsicle stick with a knock-knock joke, anything to enhance my enjoyment of this ice cream bar.

Is a revelatory, escapist fantasy too much to ask for from a store-brand bulk food item? OK, maybe. But with a few carefully-placed words, I would have had a different story to tell, about how a 67-cent, wax-covered ice-milk bar was my day’s most hedonistic, decadent moment.

Don’t forget to be whimsical! It only takes a small amount of effort to look for places you can add brushstrokes that will turn your customer’s experience from generic to memorable.

The Parable of the Sushi Coupon

First of all, here’s a surefire way to conquer writer’s block; buy an iPhone. I downloaded the WordPress app, and being able to post when a thought strikes is awesome (plus the iPhone keyboard encourages brevity).

On to today’s topic.

My wife and I have been wanting to go out for sushi for many weeks, but due to the time and budget constraints of having a new baby, it’s been difficult to get out.

We’d made up our minds to go tonight, and planned to go to a nearby place that is not amazing, but a known quantity.

In the mail today, we received a flyer for a new sushi place near our house, offering 20% off any order. Two things scared me: 1) messing with an unknown, new restaurant serving raw fish, and 2) that this restaurant’s poorly-designed flyer needed to offer 20% off to draw customers.

So why did we end up at the unknown restaurant?

It wasn’t a sense of adventure. It was the 20% coupon, precisely the thing that turned me off at first. The idea of cheaper sushi compelled us there.

We werent the only ones; the place was more packed than any new restaurant I’ve seen. I doubt this new sushi place anticipated the result they got; as a marketer, I sure wouldn’t have. But in a tough economy, people don’t give up the things they want, they just look to pay less for them.

In this age of social media and “viral marketing”, it’s important to remember not to look down on the less flashy stuff.

There are lots of ways to make money in a down economy, but if you’re asking how you can help people save money on the things they’re already planning on buying, it’s not a bad start.

And the sushi was excellent.

The Age of Lying is Over.

First, watch this unbelievably awesome video.

Today, I had a fantastic, revelatory day on an entirely new scale for me. And legally, I may never be able to disclose exactly how it went down, but suffice it to say I am thinking about the way I choose to work in this age where everyone’s connected. Now that information is contagious, lies no longer have the power to prop up a bad business, at least not for long.

Remember Extenze? Enzyte? Superjuices that are 95% grape juice and 5% bullshit? It’s over. If you were doing those things for a living, I hope you made enough to retire. You can still lie, but they’re uncovered in hours, not years.

Of course we all want to put ourselves in the best light, but being forthright (especially mixed with a dash of humor) lets people know you don’t take yourself too seriously, and are probably trustworthy in other areas.

A few years ago, I told a job interviewer exactly how I had been recently fired, and why I deserved it. I tried to handle it with humor and grace, but on the way home, I got the sick, panicky feeling that I’d over-shared. I got a call back letting me know that everyone was talking about “the fired guy”, and I got the job.

In the case of this amazing video, it took a fan to shine a hilarious and honest light on Trader Joe’s. (Let’s see if Trader Joe’s has the chutzpah to hire this guy to do an entire series.) Let’s be our own fans and look at the experience we provide from the outside in, and share the good with the bad, as long as the bad doesn’t outweigh the good. And if it does, we’ve got problems marketing won’t fix.

(From Boing Boing)

English Is Murdered at 943 Years Old

Why? WHY?

English is dead, murdered, at the blood-stained hands of Corporate America.

As a video game enthusiast, I ran across this article regarding recent Microsoft Layoffs.

“The realignments of headcount are directly intended to strengthen the Xbox 360 platform and align resources with key strategic initiatives, including Xbox LIVE.”

If I were to try to remember how we used to speak, I think the Microsoft spokesperson was trying to say:

“We fired a ton of people, but we tried to not fire the people responsible for the profitable stuff like Xbox Live.”

But I don’t know, it’s been so long since I’ve read English that this Orwellian Newspeak is almost starting to make sense to me.

English will be missed, and is survived by its children, TXT, LOLSpeak, and Jargon.