Monday, October 22, 2012

The Future of Data Storage

In my previous post, I had a nice discussion with the folks at Hindsight Labs.  Christine Meranda saw the future of data as local-based, with cloud synch.  Now that struck me as funny in a way.

Historically Speaking

In the early days of the computer industry, I sold computers that were pretty much an island unto themselves.  Single machines, and in an office setting you might network them together (of course networking meant crawling a wire through the drop ceiling, and soldering the ends together - not to mention buying the networking hardware and paying the services to install and configure it).  The network was to share printers, and maybe a file server to share files within the office, there was no such thing as inter-office network.  So you had this drive on which you saved the file, and you could open it on another computer.  File locking ensured that only one person opened it at a time.

Over the years, as computers became more and more connected, we have evolved to what is now called "Cloud" storage.  Personally I think that is a funny marketing-heavy term for some hard drives on the Internet.  But be that as it may, Secure Common Storage seems to be the way things have been going.  Microsoft has even made quite a product out of SharePoint, and migrated Office to online service-based; Amazon introduced S3; Google had Docs, and now Drive; and so on.  Apple iCloud offers Internet-based backup and synch services.  And the Paprika recipe app offers synch of your app data (incidentally not using iCloud, but their own storage).
So notice that the Apple and Paprika data, for example, are locally stored.  The way iCloud works is you have a local store on your device (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone or iPod), and the Cloud part keeps them in synch by synchronizing updates between the Cloud storage and the device.  This means that if you are disconnected, you still have access to your files (that you have synched).  In contrast, things like Drive and S3 are live online, so you don't have access to them unless you are online.

Now we all know that mobile devices have surged in usage (by that I mean Smart Phones and tablet computers).  By nature, these are not always connected.  Maybe you didn't spring for both the 3G version of the iPad, and the monthly connection charge.  Maybe you are in an area with no WiFi or cellular.  Whatever, it may happen that you want to access your data (i.e. launch Paprika and do something with your recipes) while you are not live online.  I know, it's a shocker to some of us.

What do "They" say?

Having walked through that progression of thought, it seems very logical and obvious that, in a mobile world, what Christine said has to be true.  But it struck me as strange, because that doesn't seem to be the consensus of "they."  That is to say, all the tech blogs we frequent, IT professionals that we talk with, and magazines, news, and other sources seem to be stressing the Cloud.  Basically in Paprika's instance, the data is yours, and it resides primarily on your hardware; the Cloud is used to keep multiple devices in synch.  This is quite different from the Google Drive paradigm.  For example, I created a spreadsheet on Drive called Workout.  I edit my workout routine from my laptop.  While at the gym, I open it on my Phone, and see what the next machine, weight & seat settings are.  I update the weight target as my muscles progress.  When I get back to my laptop, I can open it up and see it again.  The primary storage is in the "cloud" - meaning on a hard drive array in Google's office somewhere connected via Internet.

So in my experience, "they" have missed this key direction the industry seems to be going in - or at the very least, haven't caught on to the full meaning.  First of all, who has used Google Docs extensively?  Other than the cool ability to instantly share and collaborate on a document, let's face it, the abilities of the word processor and spreadsheet, frankly, suck eggs.  And they are a whole lot worse on the mobile device (e.g. iPhone or iPad).  The formulas don't even update!

Christine I think has hit it right.  Local apps with synched data.  Perhaps the ability like Amazon Kindle app, to remove local copy to free up local storage, and download it again later is the way to go.  As we design apps (and indicate to developers our desires as consumers and focus groups), we can stress both the connectedness, and the ability to operate disconnected, as well as the choice to what to carry with us.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Let's Talk Food

Well, food and technology at least.  Everyone who knows us, knows how particular we are about food.  Our lives revolve around farms, farmer's markets, buying food, preserving food, and preparing - you guessed it.  It is a rule in our house that no guest is allowed to leave with the slightest room in their tummy (very few have wanted to).  As you can imagine, tracking our recipes is pretty important.  For somewhere around 13 years (or more), we have used computers to manage our vast and growing recipe collection.  Recipe management software gives some amazing benefits, like:
  • Ease of searching and recipe management (you can easily edit, print, share, and categorize your recipes)
  • Backup - you know, you spend years putting together a scrapbook of family recipes, only to have it damaged or destroyed by water, fire, the 3 year old...(not that we would blame anything on Elliott!)
  • Photos - set up the presentation, and take a pic with your favorite (digital) camera
  • Scaling - scale up or down that recipe to the size you want
  • Meal planning - set up which meals you want to make for which days of the week
  • Grocery shopping lists - take your meal plan, and make sure you have all the ingredients with one trip to the grocery store
  • Sharing, whether it be a single recipe, book, or the entire collection
So this is pretty much standard with any recipe management software, but let's take a look at our two favorites, the top two for different computer platforms.  Do you have any experience with others?  Please discuss in Comments, we'd love to learn about new ones.

Windows / PC - Master Cook  $19.99

A pretty good contender, we used this since 1999 or so.  It's pretty cool, but definitely lacks some major features.  Master Cook (from long-time publisher Sierra Software) was one of the first recipe management softwares, and as such has become the defacto standard for file formats to exchange recipes and recipe collections.  Any software should read Master Cook format.

This gives you all the standard features, but where it really shines is:
  • Simple, easy, yet powerful and extensive searching.  You can limit your search to favorite cookbook collections, and between title, ingredients, and directions and notes.
  • Simple import tools, like import from web site (this is a click-and-highlight, so you click "Title", then highlight the recipe title on the web page, then click Ingredients, highlight the ingredients list, etc.)
  • Lots of cookbooks available from big publishers like Cooking Light, Julia Child, and more.
What are the biggest problems?
  • No Macintosh version.  Nowadays this is inexcusable, as it is a large and massively growing market segment (while non-Mac PC sales are in decline, Mac sales are experiencing double-digit growth, year-on-year, for the past few years, already almost at 9%).  MasterCook confirmed to me that they have "other operating systems" on their roadmap, but neither the timing nor which operating system(s) were mentioned.
  • No mobile version.  Even more inexcusable.  Readers of my blog should already be familiar with the mobile market, and of course which 2 OS's dominates that.  Smart Phones have been out for many years, the iPhone alone for 6 years.  Any major software developer should already have been on the iOS platform.
  • Web import leaves something to be desired.  On some web sites it automatically recognizes the format.  Mostly, you are left to a manual import.
  • Backing up your precious recipe collection is left completely up to you - on a platform that doesn't provide a decent backup strategy!
According to Tony Schumacher from MasterCook Support, they do consider the mobile market strategic and are working on mobile versions.  However, no details nor dates are available.  Also, he said, "We have a lot of very exciting features in our product plan. Over the next 1-2 years you will see more development effort than the last 12 years combined. I can tell you that the most important thing to us as we improve the customer experience is keeping our loyal customers and staying true to MasterCook."

Macintosh / Mobile - Paprika

After more than a decade of relying on Master Cook, we were dismayed when we upgraded to Mac and couldn't get it for the Mac!  However, after a few minutes of trying out Paprika, our fear turned to absolute rapture.  Available on Apple iOS and Android platforms as well, Paprika is by far the premier recipe management software.  If you don't need your recipes on your computer, but have a Windows machine, you should just forget about any other option and just take our word.  Especially if you want it available on your mobile device.  Let's look at the different "flavors" of the software (yeah, that's how I roll - get it, "roll?").  But the biggest benefit is you create your own Cloud account, and synch your recipes with your account.  You can then synch any of the devices, so any additions, changes, or deletions propagate across all your Cloud-connected devices.

Truly, the only problem we had with Paprika was that they do not have a Windows version (for those stubborn enough to stick with that OS).  According to Christine Meranda of Hindsight Labs, LLC (the publisher of Paprika), a Windows version may be forthcoming next year.  When that does hit the market, I predict that Master Cook market share will decline.

Macintosh - $19.99

Truly fantastic, the big benefits with this version are:
  • Great, user-friendly interface
  • Web importing is stellar.  Most recipe web sites support a one-click Save.  Others, you have to select the title, ingredients, directions, etc.  There is a built in web browser in the app, that has the recipe saving functionality built into it.
  • All the features above, of course.
  • Import from Master Cook file formats.
Our problems:
  • It is actually harder to drag and drop recipes to categorize them, than to edit them and put them in categories.  This is because when you click to drag, it often opens up the recipe.  No big deal. (Hey, you got to have at least one problem with any given software.)

Mobile - $4.99

We used the iPhone and iPad version of the app, but it is also available for Android.  Synching recipes is seamless and fast.  For example, recipes that we had entered (or transferred from Master Cook) and had no pictures, we could make the dish, snap a pic with the phone that is always at my hip, and synch it back to the Mac.  Check out these amazing features:
  • Tools to aid you: unit conversion, scaling, and timers.  You can set as many timers as you want, no more limited to just your microwave, and the 2 timers on the range top.
  • Tick-off check list - when viewing a recipe's ingredients, you tap an ingredient, and it crosses it off, so you can track which ones you already added.
  • Highlight directions step - tap the step in the directions you are on, it highlights in blue for easy reading.
  • Phone or iPad does not go to sleep while looking at a recipe, great for those tasks that take longer than the 2 minutes you set up for auto lock!
  • Of course, and I can't stress it enough:  Cloud synch!  Synchronizes everything, including meal plans and grocery lists.
  • Backups - you can manually back up all your data as well.  Although, our data is backed up with Time Machine on the Mac it is synched with, so we don't use this feature.
  • Sharing - yes, we were at the farmer's market and telling someone about that Baked Oatmeal favorite of ours.  Tap, share, and voila - picture, text formatting, and all - it is sent as an e-mail.
So if you are looking for a good recipe manager, these are the top two, but I think you can tell which is our favorite.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Hate it When I'm Wrong


Last month I posted an initial reaction to the iPhone 5, in which I was less than enthusiastic about the new release.  Granted, I have noted how much of a demand the iPhone has generated, but frankly I was not very excited about the improvements.  Well, now the phone has been out for a bit.  Last week, my wife's laptop needed servicing, so I had the opportunity to drive the 30 minutes to our nearest Apple store and play with it (before I had to drag the kids out of there - man, what a gadget place!).

Well, let me be the first one to say, I was wrong.  Way wrong.  First of all, the iPhone 5 is a bit taller.  This larger screen size is exactly what I think many have wanted - and Apple has stuck to their guns about phone width, making sure it fits in peoples' palms.  Unlike some of their competitors, who seem to think bigger is better no matter what in all dimensions, the 5 is elegantly slim.  And, it is insanely thin.  It is significantly slimmer than the 4/4S, and much lighter.  According to one of my new favorite sites, the performance has been measured to be about 1.55 times faster than the 4S, and my unscientific side-by-sides in the store concur.

The smaller connector is a big plus.  Oh, and another big reason I hate being wrong in this case: that means I want this phone, and now I have to spend more money!  Darn it.

However there are a few features I think are sorely missing!

An Appeal

I would like your help in suggesting to Apple these improvements.  Follow this link, and copy and paste these suggestions.  Maybe if enough of us suggest it, they will include it.
  1. Laser Pointer.  Wouldn't Einstein be amazed to see lasers as such a household commodity, but what is missing is an all-in-one device like a smart phone, that has a laser pointer built in.
  2. Infrared transmitter.  With an IR transmitter, or better a transmitter/receiver, a whole new host of apps can be made to work as remotes or data devices over older technology to a wider range of devices.  Remote control your TV, entertainment system, and more.
  3. AM/FM Receiver.  When I go to the gym, they don't offer WiFi sound for the TV's, I have to not listen to the news while on the treadmill.  Anywhere, any time, even when there is no cellular or WiFi signal, it would be very helpful and useful to receive radio stations.
  4. Ability to have emergency or select apps on the lock screen, so they can be launched while the device is locked.  For example, apps with medical information could be accessed by a medical first responder if the owner is incapacitated.
Think of it, if a cell phone has all those features as well, how can any other manufacturer even compete?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Do You Watch "TV?"

We have been using TV revocation as a means of punishment for bad behavior in our kids for quite a while. But in our house, 3 kids have iPhones, one has a laptop and 2 desktops. On these we have Netflix and Hulu. Plus there's YouTube, net stuff, and more.

So now, our punishment definition of TV includes any video format you can watch? Including iTunes and Apple TV. What an age! So many forms of entertainment, and yet my teenager can still say, "Dad, I'm bored!"

How have we dealt with the explosion of channels, content, media, and delivery devices societally? There are (if you count HD and non-HD as the same) some 500 channels on cable, and countless more online. What are the most prevalent genres of shows? Reality TV! It pervades even the Discovery series of channels, A&E, you name it. Remember these lyrics: "57 channels and nothin' on"?

So what exactly is television nowadays? With the vast variety available, do you control access and time spent, either for yourself or your children?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Google Chrome - Not Ready for Prime Time

I was getting annoyed at the constant updates to Firefox, so I thought I would give Chrome a try.  I have been using it for a week now.  It has been out for a few years, and finally features plugins, synching (kind of), and such.  Here are the various platforms I tried it on:
  • Windows 7: Lenovo Core i7 8GB / SSD HD
  • Ubuntu Linux 12.04:  HP Pavillion P4 / 1GB / IDE HD
  • Mac OS X 10.7 Lion:  MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo 4GB / SATA HD, iMac Core 2 Duo 3GB / SATA HD
  • iPhone iOS 5, iOS 6:  iPhone 4S

Now, what about Internet Explorer? Lets just say it is a very rare occurrence when I meet a fan of that browser.

So, I have been a long time user of Netscape, and Firefox. I have gotten totally used to features like quick speeds, near 100% compatibility with web sites, and now synching of your browser data across devices. Other than the updates, my one pet peeve with Firefox: no iOS browser.

So when Chrome browser first came out, I was geeked to give it a try.  What I loved most about it, the minimalist interface!  So clean and simple, so iPhone-ish!  Speed, great.  But, biggest problem: compatibility.  Tons of web sites it didn't work on.  And another large problem: it didn't support the Google Toolbar and Google Bookmarks feature.

That was a couple of years ago.  Now, I figured enough time has passed the product should be mature, lots of plug-ins, and compatibility should be fixed.  Right?

Here's what I found:
  • Overall
    • Improvements:
      • Plug-ins, which they didn't have a few years ago.
      • Synch features to synch plug-in apps, bookmarks, cookies, passwords.
    • Disappointments:
      • Still not compatible
      • Can't open tabs from one device on another - a HUGE bonus with Firefox
  • iOS Browser
    • I know from other developers and Apple's history, that the only browser allowed on iOS devices is Safari.  I was happy to see Chrome, but I do know it is a wrapper to Safari.  That's OK, because the wrapper is all the important stuff - synched bookmarks and passwords and cookies and history.  It works well, the user interface is truly great and a vast improvement over Safari.  However, one feature I find I completely can't live without in Safari is the Reader option.  On a web page that is not optimized for mobile, you can tap Reader, and it will render the text with relevant graphics and hyperlinks in large font so it is easy to scroll and read.  Totally Apple-brilliant.
    • BOTTOM LINE: Nice to have synch with my desktops/laptops, but I do have that with the Firefox app - just can't browse in the Firefox app!  Definitely much more useful than Firefox app.
  • Windows
    • Nice and fast, clean, and there is an IETab plugin to open specific web sites in an embedded Internet Explorer in a Chrome tab (just like Firefox).
    • KILLER: Chrome had critical issues with the following web sites:  GMail, Google Voice, Google Calendar.  Notice a common thread here?  The biggest problem I had with Google Chrome was Google's own web sites!  Pop up menus didn't work correctly with mouse clicks, graphic glitches in renderings, and more.  The sites were unusable.
  • Mac
    • Nice and fast, plug-ins worked (except IETab of course), good synching.
    • KILLER: Same as Windows, didn't work on quite a few web sites including my most important Google sites.  My wife loves it, but I found the compatibility issues not worth it on my most important sites.
  • Linux
    • Nice and fast, clean - better launch time than Firefox is definitely noticeable on a slower system.
    • KILLER: Same issues.
Timely, because a colleague Whitson Gordon had a post comparing the browsers.  Chrome is a memory hog, and I found crashes frequently on the Mac and Windows platforms.

So overall, I was not impressed with Chrome.  Disagree?  Give me your feedback.