Products I like and wish I actually used

Sometimes you see something that looks so cool that you want to use it, but quickly realise you don’t have any actual compelling need or interest.  I’ve raved a few times about products I’m using at the moment and really enjoying but wanted to mention a few deserving products that I wish I used more often but for whatever reason don’t.

Posterous
Posterous is named as such because they make it preposterously simple to blog.  It’s very easy to use and a great product — I’ve even heard people on the T to work raving about how much they love it.  I think their landing page, with its three steps of use, says it all:

Posterous landing page

I’d really like to enjoy that simplicity myself — I love the site, the implementation, and the look of posterous blogs, but with my comfy custom WordPress installation, I can’t see myself using it anytime soon.  Bummer.

Balsamiq

Balsamiq is what I spent years wanting to have.  It’s a very simple-to-use but powerful creator for wireframes.  Instead of doing the smart thing and inventing my own version of it, I languished in Visio, PowerPoint and Photoshop.  Balsamiq provides a great toolkit for quickly creating digital sketches of UIs and is a joy to use.  While it’s been very useful for my own personal projects on occasion, unfortunately it doesn’t fit in with my current work flow at TripAdvisor where we’re doing a pretty decent job with Photoshop and paper sketches.  I would’ve loved having a tool like this at Trovix though.  Oh, and a hearty congratulations to the Balsamiq team for what sounds like a very successful 2009.

Amazon Kindle

I got to borrow one of these from Google over Thanksgiving and I loved using it.  It meant I had plenty to read while on vacation (where I get the bulk of my book-length reading done), without the bulk of the books.  I bought Under The Dome by Stephen King recently, and wow, there’s a book that shows the utility of the Kindle (1074 pages).

Unfortunately the clunky update speed and grayscale screen doesn’t do it for me.  The lure of the mythical Apple tablet is proving too strong and I can’t pull the trigger on one just yet.  More than happy to keep borrowing one of Google’s though.

Google Voice

I managed to snag a GrandCentral account a while back, but the inertia of my existing phone number meant it was more of a technical toy than a serious phone replacement.  I do love the idea of a unified phone system, and with realtime voicemail and transcription, call recording, conference calls and a slew of other great features, it seems like an amazing product… but only if you can get around the limitations of having to change your number, and to call the Google Voice service to take advantage of said features.  I think the rejected-by-AT&T iPhone app would’ve gone a long way to helping me switch.

RadRails

RadRails is one of the few products where I’m not sure if it’s me at fault or them for not using it.  As someone who got very comfortable in Eclipse and is a little lazy, I’d like to continue my Rails hacking in a familiar IDE.  Unfortunately I just can’t seem to get RadRails to play nice with the latest releases of Ruby and RoR.  When I get more time I’ll take another crack at it.

In theory though, it’s a great environment for us ex-Eclipse users.  I’m not sure about other users, but I spent a fair bit of time in Eclipse using J2EE/Spring as a framework, and RadRails feels like home.

Edit: updated to add…

Google Website Optimizer

This is an amazing free product that allows for A/B and bucket testing.  Happily we have some very nice pool testing at TripAdvisor already, but perhaps I’ll get to use it on a future side project.

Products I’m really loving right now

I realised tonight that there are quite a variety of tools and products I’ve been using lately that I’ve been really enjoying, including:

Zipcar

I live in Beacon Hill, where owning a car is both expensive and difficult.  As such, I have two RFID cards in my wallet – my monthly MBTA pass and my Zipcard.   Zipcar finally released their iPhone application, which although not as exciting as made out to be (no initial unlocking of the car from your phone, but I do enjoy surreptitiously honking the horn while my wife is driving), does provide a very convenient way of getting a car when you need it last minute.  Their website is actually very nice too, and makes finding and booking a car surprisingly easy — I particularly like how they’ve implemented the calendaring.  The car sharing itself is also great.  $6.13/hour, all-inclusive, for a Prius just 2 blocks from my apartment is very compelling.  The insurance setup is less than ideal (only state minimums), and it depends on the goodness of others to keep the car in decent condition, but I’ve had no serious problems as yet.

Zipcar iPhone app Zipcar iPhone app

Yelp iPhone App

While I wait for TripAdvisor’s updated mobile offerings, I continue to enjoy using Yelp’s nifty local review app.  I’ve used it to find things to do when in NYC, somewhere to grab a quick bite, bars I didn’t know about and even write reviews while still at a restaurant.  The augmented reality is a nice toy, but a little gimmicky.  I recently used Yelp when visiting Michigan, and used it to find local favourites like Bates burgers and Bode’s Corned Beef House.

Yelp iPhone app

Adioso.com

This is a pretty amazing flight search tool, replacing calendar widgets with a Googlesque search box. Not officially launched yet, but looks like it will be pretty awesome when it does.  Try searching for things like “Brisbane to snow in early December”.

Adioso

Flightcaster.com

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who hates waiting around an airport with no idea what’s going on with my flight.  Flightcaster will tell you the chances of a delay well before the airlines will.  So far I’ve been very impressed with both the prediction system and the UI, which is very intuitive and pretty.  I had a pretty amazing experience with Flightcaster last week when flying to San Francisco from Boston.  Before I left, the flight was listed as on-time, while Flightcaster predicted it was “probably delayed”.  I arrived at the airport, and the flight was delayed by two hours, due to weather at SFO.  While waiting, I checked Flightcaster again and it predicted we would be leaving shortly, and within minutes an announcement came through that the two hour delay had been shortened to a 20 minute delay.  Nifty.

Flightcaster

iPhone 3GS

I know the iPhone 3GS has been out for a while, and it’s hardly groundbreaking to proclaim how great iPhones are, but since upgrading from my 2G to the 3GS, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at what a difference it makes.  It’s now fast enough that I’m able to work remotely, it’s great having a longer battery life, and the difference the speed makes to the user experience cannot be understated.  I particularly like the improved camera and finally having GPS and a compass, great for when I exit a T stop in a bewildered fashion.

iPhone 3GS

Skype iPhone App

A while back I wrote an article about using an iPhone as a home phone using Fring.  Sadly, it was a little too buggy for everyday use, and I continue to use my dedicated Netgear phone.  Happily Skype released an official iPhone app, which does everything I’ve always wanted in a dedicated Skype phone (unlike the disastrous Belkin Skype wifi phone).  While it doesn’t work in the background, or over 3G (yet), it does give me access to IM and voicemail at all times, and I can use Skype-To-Go to make calls over AT&T.  It also makes a great second landline at home while my wife is using our Netgear.

Skype iPhone app

I love data – part 3

I noticed tonight that the GPS error on my running watch means that when I look at the data in aggregate, it creates quite a nice heat map of my favourite runs.

I might try and figure out a way to show this over time.  The Palo Alto/Mountain View runs build up during winter, and then during Summer I do far more runs by the bay (when I don’t need street lights to run after work).

I love data – part 2

Recently I took my Garmin Forerunner GPS watch with me and left it switched on while I had a helicopter ride with Sundance Helicopters to visit the Grand Canyon.  Exporting the data to Google Earth allows me to recreate in excruciating detail  the flight we took for family and friends.

Here’s the trip as a whole:

The entire helicopter trip

This is the airport we left from:

Las Vegas Airport

Flying down the strip was pretty cool:

Las Vegas strip

The landing site (top down view here) and picnic area:

Sundance Helicopter tours landing site

I was pretty amazed by the terrain data in Google Earth.  It’s been a while since I had a good explore through it (I also noticed a lot more 3D buildings too, kudos Google for all the great recent updates).

iRobot and lessons for design

It’s funny how something can be a great design, and yet with a few tweaks, it becomes completely awful.

Witness the Roomba.  I love my Roomba – I bought it in October 2006 when I moved in to my cottage and realised I needed a vacuum cleaner.  I bought the bottom of the line model, no accessories, and as of August 2008, with some minor maintenance it still runs great.  Even its battery, while definitely not as great as it once was, still has enough charge to clean the whole room.  It’s easy to use, cleaning it is very simple, and maintenance is also very user friendly.  And of course, it does a great job of cleaning the whole cottage (although I am lucky to have Roomba friendly floors and furniture).

With so much love for the Roomba, it was a natural choice to buy a Scooba as well.  I don’t mop and I could see grime building up.  Scooba was only $99 on Woot, so I bought one straight away.  I noticed immediately that it’s a lot bigger and heavier than Roomba, making it more difficult to move around and to manipulate while cleaning.  It doesn’t fit as nicely in our cupboard, and its increased height means the light sensor keeps getting caught under cupboard doors.  It leaks water when being moved from room to room, and will often insist to check the tank for no discernable reason.  There are a lot more parts to clean, and maintenance is a lot more complex.  Emptying it becomes a gross chore (instead of tapping a box into the bin, I usually manage to cop a bit of spray back when pouring out the dirty water).  When I lift it up, the tank often separates from the body.  I am struggling to get it to clean a single room at the moment with its myriad of problems, and it’s only 6 months old.  iRobot won’t support it because it’s refurbished.

Long story short, I’d never recommend the Scooba to anyone.  But I’d recommend Roomba in a heartbeat.

So how did they go so wrong?  There were several key areas:

  1. They identified an alternative niche and went for it at all costs.  I suspect their other products like the Looj will do better.  It seems like at no point someone wondered “will having <problem x> in addition to all the other problems mean people will just give up?”
  2. It’s overcomplicated to the point it can no longer complete its original purpose.  Mopping by definition is more complex than vacuuming because it is a 2 phase process.  However I can’t help but wonder if it would be more successful if they sacrificed some of the cleaning capabilities for simplicity.
  3. Too many choke points in the design.  The beauty of Roomba is it keeps working if some parts of it aren’t.  Scooba will fail if the tank connection gets clogged, if the hand-mixed formula is not done right, or if it detects a problem with its pipes.  One of these three things happens to me every time I try to deploy it.
  4. They forgot the Roomba design ideals.  It’s clunky, hard to use, makes a mess and has inherent design faults (such as a battery that fails after just a few months).  It was like they started from scratch without taking on-board any of the Roomba lessons.

I love domestic robots, but unless you’re really desperate, do not buy a Scooba.

Real World Ubiquitous Computing – Skype Video Calls

There are few people who would count Skype as ubiquitous computing.  However I’ve found it is not the technology that defines ubiquitous computing, but how it is applied.

Since I moved to the US I’ve really enjoyed having a Skype phone as my main phone at home.  It has been incredibly cheap, and obviated any of the hassles involved with a regular land line (such as installation and the fact you can only make/receive calls in one place!).  However lately I’ve been enjoying Skype video calls.  The last few weeks I have combined Skype with streaming video to watch the game played in heaven, rugby union, with my friends back home.

First I used my Dell M1330 which has a built-in microphone and webcam.  I picked up this laptop for a measly $530 from Dell on sale which was an amazing deal.  Next I used my Mac Mini hooked up to my HDTV to stream the game.  I paid $4.99 to watch the game live from www.mediazone.com and then used VMWare Fusion to allow me to watch the DRMed file using Windows Media Player on OS X.

Minor points that made this experience really great:

  • The fullscreen high def video through Skype was excellent quality and not at all choppy.  When the camera was turned towards the game I could see the play perfectly, albeit at 5 frames per second.
  • Skype have really improved their echo cancellation technology in the last few releases.  Using the “speaker phone” mode of Skype was great as it was like a virtual conference call.
  • Foxtel IQ on my brother’s end allowed him to pause the game enough to get it perfectly in sync, again contributing to the feeling I was there
  • Wireless laptops meant the camera could get moved around, and I was able to have individual conversations with people in the room.  If only I had been hooked up via ConnectR… but it was a good approximation

The other great use of Skype video calling was the ability to play Rock Band more collaboratively (the game lacks any method to interact with the other players, not even voice within the game menus!).  Sadly the experience there wasn’t as immersive as there is always a 1 second delay on the audio which is quite distracting.  Otherwise, the future is here!  Who knew when video calling came it would be completely free (aside from equipment)…

Real World Ubiquitous Computing – Nike Plus

For all the doom and gloom about the lack of real world ubiquitous computing (even I was guilty of it in my thesis), if you look around there are devices that support ubiquitous computing ideals. And I’m not talking about smartphones and iPods.

My first example is the Nike Plus running kit. How does this fit ubiquitous computing?

  1. Embedded, perceptually invisible computing
  2. Functionally invisible
  3. Accountable
  4. Inexpensive

Perceptually Invisible
The Nike Plus running kit has two parts to it.  The first is the receiver that attaches to your iPod.  It is relatively compact, and many armbands and pouches for the iPod have been designed to accommodate it, so it is not noticeable.  The second part is the sensor for your shoe.  If you buy a pair of Nike Plus shoes, it already has a space in the shoe for you to insert your sensor, where you’ll never think about it again.  If you have other shoes, you can buy a “shoe wallet” that holds the sensor.  Again this is unobtrusive, and I never even think about the fact that I have the sensor in my shoe.

One nice touch with regard to the sensor is that they spent a lot of time building smart energy saving routines into it.  This means that although the battery is not user replaceable, it should last years (a new kit can be had for as little as $15 on eBay anyway).

Functionally invisible
Another clever part of the software Nike developed was calibration routines.  Out of the box, the device is fairly accurate, and after a single calibration session, I found it to be within 2% accuracy of my GPS running watch.  What this means is you don’t even notice the fact it is a pedometer – to the user it just works, and gives you your distance.

Another way in which the Nike Plus kit is functionally invisible is its integration with the iPod and iTunes.  I use my iPod as I normally would while running.  When I sync my songs on iTunes, in the background it uploads and formats my run information to the Nike Plus website.  If I am entered in any competitions it updates those.  I choose when I want to look at my stats, and I never have to think about collating them or accessing them (unlike Garmin’s efforts).

Accountable
By “accountable” I’m referring to a property of design which I defined in my thesis.  For a design to be accountable, it appropriately presents information about itself and how it works to the user.  One difficulty in ubiquitous computing is providing embedded computing that automagically performs actions, while not obscuring how it works to the user.  Users rarely use designs in the way the designer intended, and by exposing how something functionally works you can assist the user’s understanding of the design, and assist with their appropriation.

The Nike running kit is very open with how it works (an accelerometer and wireless system), provides the data in an easy to read format (it has already been used in many academic projects), and allows for calibration of the sensor (while not requiring it).

Inexpensive
This is simply – the kit costs only $30 SRP, but can be had for far cheaper on eBay or sites like Eastbay.  It is amazing how many people I know (I can think of four in my extended family alone!) who have bought the kit after finding out how cheap it is.

But the real question is – is it useful and does it work?  I was talking with a colleague yesterday about his running, and he was saying that after a coming competition was over, he knew his motivation would flag.  Since using the iPod running kit, I found my running increased by a factor of 4 thanks to the competitive motivation.  I get to “go running” with my brother who lives in Australia.  Everyone I know who has one is still using it.  I’m here writing about it on my  blog!  That to me seems like success.

Ubiquitous computing done right

I was happily surprised when I saw this video.  I was sent it by Miles, and I think it is an outstanding example of ubiquitous computing.  Amazingly it’s also several years old now, and part of Johnny Lee’s work at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Link

For those of you who can’t watch the video, it’s of a new type of projector calibration.  By embedding fiber optic sensors into the edges of an object, any standard commercial projector can then be automatically calibrated to perfectly project an image onto that object.  It is quite amazing to watch.

Normally I’m a philosophy-first ubicomp kind of guy, and prefer projects that focus on the human effects of ubiquitous computing.  However, I’m not an idealist and I realise that technical innovation is a fundamental requirement of the field.  However I still believe some of the best technical achievements are in reusing existing technology in novel ways.  This is a perfect example of this.  In particular, there are three things that I think are done right:

  1. Keep the functionality simple
  2. Keep the technology smart but simple
  3. Use off-the-shelf-technology

First of all, they focused on a single problem at hand.  Achieving computing potential embedded invisibly still requires a means to interact with that potential.  Finding new ways of getting information displayed on everyday objects is a huge step forward, and previously was a pretty hard task.  It required custom screens, or complex manual configuration.  Solving a single problem provides a design pattern for others to use and extend upon (and then worry about the user experience).

Secondly, the technology itself is simple.  Fibre optic sensors mean the system should be robust and cheap.  There are not a lot of different sensors which could break, nor is there a complex system with fragile dependencies.  Most of the magic is done in the software which allows for further improvement and customization, as seen by the later project:

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Link

Finally, the technology is off-the-shelf.  This project used a single embedded chip, plus a regular projector and some custom software.  Sounds like something both easy to hack up yourself, and to commercialize for other people.  This is a very nice comparison to a system like Microsoft Surface, which is full of proprietary components.

This functional and technical simplicity in turn achieves two things.  One – it means the technology itself is cheap, and two, it is reproducible.  Ubicomp needs to drastically lower the cost of entry to continue rapid expansion and adoption.

With micro-projectors becoming more popular, I’m really looking forward to commercial implementation of such a system.   While there are some shortcomings (such as the brightness of the projected image), this is still a lot more immersive than fiducial markers.  This is the exact type of technology needed to allow ubiquitous computing to be useful to mainstream, commercial applications.

Turn your iPhone into a wifi Skype phone

There has been a lot of buzz on the intertubes today about Fring.  They’re an Israeli startup who released a fairly popular mobile chat client.  That’s simplifying things – in addition to supporting every major IM client, Fring automatically logs you into wireless hotspots, does VOIP and allows file transfers.  It’s like a mobile version of Trillian on steroids.

I’d heard bits and pieces about it, but hadn’t really been that interested.  That changed when I was browsing The Unofficial Apple Weblog and read their post about trying out the new beta of Fring on the iPhone.  If you have a jailbroken iPhone then this is easily the best application you can get for it.  Certainly a lot of other bloggers seem to agree.

A bit of backstory as to why I am so excited about this.  When I first moved to the US in July of 2006, I was staying with friends for a while and moving around a lot.  I purchased a SkypeIn number.  Two in fact – one for the US and one for Australia.  This meant people back home could call me for the cost of a local call, and I could also have a local number here that wasn’t a cell phone (I’m not a fan of the paying to receive calls model prevalent here).  Making US based calls was free until the start of 2007, and after that I purchased unlimited calling.  Now I’m on Skype Pro, and for $3 a month I get unlimited US calls and a whole slew of other benefits and discounts.

When I started renting my own place, rather than reconnect the phone line, I bought a Skype phone.  I just plug a network cable into the back of my Netgear SPH200D, give my account details and it just works.  I don’t even feel like I’m making Internet calls – it’s just a home phone to me, and to anyone who’s calling me, thanks to SkypeIn.

I had trialled the Belkin Wifi Skype phone for a couple of months.  This was easily the worst product I can think of using in the last 10 years.  I cannot even begin to explain just how bad this product was.  Slow, unresponsive, ugly, cheaply made and unreliable to start with.  Poor battery life, terrible call quality and broken functionality topped it off.  Wow, the designer in me shudders just thinking about how awful that phone was.

Since the iPhone came out I’d idly wondered if a Skype client would ever be released.  I figured if it did, it was a long-time coming.  Then along came Fring.

While it was somewhat fiddly to install (adding a new source in the Installer application), setting it up was a breeze.  Within just a few minutes I was making my first test call.  And it worked.  Amazingly so.

Fring

The best bit though is that while I can make calls on my home Skype phone, it is useless for sending and receiving messages.  Fring’s IM feature is very slick, and I love that I now have dedicated Google Talk and Skype on my iPhone.  Previously I had to use Meebo for Google Talk.  I notice they also appear to have gotten around the “one app at a time” limitation of the iPhone.  Pressing home just minimises the app, and I am able to receive calls and IMs with it in the home screen or even if it is locked which is great.

So basically I now have one phone for everything (except for one thing, which I’ll get to in a minute).  I can now make my cheap international calls at home from my mobile rather than switching to the Netgear phone (I wonder how worried they are about this development?).  I’m a big fan of minimalist setups, and so this pleases me no end.

Some notes on using it so far.  Calling my iPhone number from Fring makes it do odd things.  The “incoming call” dialogue pops up, but then it tries to switch back to Fring and just hangs.  Some outgoing calls seem to fail.  There are some definite UI issues (particularly with number dialling – requiring a “+” for outgoing numbers).   I also couldn’t accept add requests.  But the main problem seems to be no SkypeIn!  I’m not sure what the limitation here is, but calling my SkypeIn number doesn’t result in a call appearing which is kind of a bummer.  It’s also weird, because I can receive calls from Skype contacts just fine.

I have a few questions though, particularly given how slick and just plain good this product is.  Firstly, how did they get Skype access?  I could probably Google an answer, but I’m just surprised that there is Skype access on a free product, given it is a proprietary setup and they would have had to license some libraries.  Ok, I actually bothered doing a search and they are using the Skype API.  More importantly though is how on Earth do they plan to make money?  There are no ads, and while the server load isn’t high, there’s obviously been a lot of development (several years worth based on what I found about the company).  I tried checking to see if they had any plans or if anyone had even any speculation and all I found were a few articles:

From 2006:

An Israeli company has just rolled out a service (beta) that might cut into the Skype subscriber base by allowing users to make free VoIP calls using any 3G handset. Fring is the word and the service is free now until the commercial offering appears around the end of this year. What the innovative service lets subscribers do is call any other fring subscriber for free anywhere in the world. Fring members can also call Skype and other VoIP service subscribers using any 3G-enabled handset. Fring uses your existing data plan to make calls over the network thus saving the caller from using any phone minutes. It’s not clear what fring’s business model will be but for the time being it’s free so what are you waiting for?

From 2007:

Shechter said fring is committed to improving the quality of its product and will be adding innovative new features to it over time.

As per the press release, fring is “100 percent free with no subscription costs; consumers simply pay for the data they use under their existing line rental agreement.” (Therefore, the plan under which a customer pays for data transactions, including any limits therein, comes into play.)

It looks like they recently got 12 million in second round funding.  Whatever their plans, I’m enjoying it for now despite its limitations.  If you have an iPhone, what are you waiting for?  Jailbreak that guy and install Fring.

Beer beer beer beer beer!

Heineken Beertender Anyone who knows me knows I am a massive beer fan. 2 years ago I organised a trip around Belgium for my friends and myself. We ended up visiting several different monasteries around the country, and sampled some of the most amazing beer ever (such as a 1988 Chimay Grand Reserve). Superb. However, I digress.

I was very excited when my wife sent me a link to this several months ago, and the ever-witty and amusing Joel from BoingBoing Gadgets has a post detailing the new Heineken Beertender. I have a soft spot for Heineken, especially after a visit to Amsterdam when I was 21. That, coupled with the fact that it was one of the few decent import beers you could get in Australia, means it’s still a regular purchase of mine. This Beertender looks like something definitely worth getting, given the beautiful design and delicious cold beer it would bring into my life.