Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Venmo: A case study on why e-mail verification is absolutely required by any web site with account creation

Friday, October 10th, 2014

I’ve had my estephen@gmail.com address since gmail was in beta, approximately 10 years now.

Now, personally, I don’t find it very difficult to remember my e-mail address. I can type it in just fine. But that’s far too challenging a task for many people, it seems. There’s an Edna, for example, who lives on the other side of the country from me. I know a lot about Edna — I know about her taste in cars and crafting supplies. The main thing I know about her is that she likes to sign up for lots of accounts and she believes her e-mail address is estephen@gmail.com. Poor Edna. And poor me, because I get a lot of her junk e-mail.

Sometimes I end up on e-mail threads having nothing to do with me. Two recent examples were a church group planning a camping trip, and a New York apartment complex trying to rally tenants to sue their landlord.

There is an Ed and an Elissa and quite a few others out there who have mistakenly used my e-mail address when signing up for accounts. Usually I can cancel their account or unsubscribe fairly simply. And sometimes I end up on a mailing list of a company that just refuses to take me off. (Car dealerships seem to be the worst at that one.)

Fortunately, many companies use e-mail verification: Before they let someone create an account, they send an e-mail off to whatever address was used to sign up, and require the recipient click on a link to confirm that the e-mail address is actually associated with the person who was trying to sign up. This is a smart process. It’s not entirely foolproof (since the e-mail recipient could confirm the address even if they’re a different person from the one who tried to sign up). But it’s far better than just relying on people to type in their own e-mail address correctly. You simply cannot trust people to be able to do that accurately.

Now a financial company, one that facilitates payments, you’d certainly expect them to use e-mail verification, right? Paypal and Square do. Both have elaborate processes to verify all aspects of your identity, up to and including your bank account (by sending a $1 charge to confirm that your debit card is real).

Today I had an experience with Venmo, a payments company similar to Square and Paypal (but with more of an apparent emphasis on Facebook integration). Venmo requires verification of your phone number, when signing up, but not your e-mail address. (They require e-mail confirmation to receive money, but not to create the account or send money.) Here is the e-mail exchange I’ve had with them earlier today that explains more.

[Screenshot of Venmo's cancellation screen]

Dear Venmo Support,

At some point in the past, someone named Exxxxxx Stepxxx created a Venmo account. She is apparently not a very attentive person, however, because she used the wrong e-mail address when creating the account — she used estephen@gmail.com.

Sad for her, but estephen@gmail.com is my e-mail address, and I have had it since when gmail was in beta.

Your company is idiotic to not require e-mail address verification. All of your competitors follow a typical process where an e-mail address cannot be used to create an account (or even changed on an account) unless a customer verifies that they actually have that e-mail address. The typical process is to send an e-mail stating that someone has created an account with this e-mail address, and then there’s a link to confirm the customer received the e-mail — thus proving the customer is in possession of that account.

For a banking company to not require address verification is absolutely moronic.

I had never heard of Venmo before today. I have never received any e-mail from your company before today.

But a friend wanted me to pay for a t-shirt using Venmo, so I tried to sign up today and found my e-mail address was already in use.

I thought perhaps I might have used your service in the past and forgotten about it, so I chose to reset my password.

Soon I received a password reset e-mail, and with one click I was logged in to Exxxxxx Stepxxx’s account.

From there, it appears I could see all kinds of financial and personal information about her account. She had a balance of $0, I didn’t check but it appeared to me that her bank accounts were also linked.

Instead of exploring her account, I chose to deactivate it immediately. She’s lucky.

But I’m flabbergasted that you are such a naive and terrible company that you let any customer type in any e-mail address they want and you just assume that they are able to type in their e-mail address correctly.

If you expect that your customers are actually able to remember their e-mail address and type it in, you are sadly mistaken. As a financial company you absolutely cannot trust people to be able to type their own e-mail address. YOU MUST IMPLEMENT E-MAIL VERIFICATION IMMEDIATELY.

I will create a new account using a different e-mail address to pay for my friend’s t-shirt, and then I will immediately cancel my account, because I suspect your company has one of the worst sets of security employees and practices in the entire financial world. You are demonstrably a completely untrustworthy company.

How can you be still in business?

FYI, I will be posting this to my blog, FriendFeed, Twitter, and Facebook. I will also be submitting this to popular security blogs. I will be recommending to all of my friends to not do business with you.

Please forward this message to your senior management, and in particular your security team.

My cell phone is 4xx-xxx-xxxx should you have any questions.

Kind regards,
Stephen Mack
The true owner of estephen@gmail.com for approximately the last 10 years

They replied about an hour later:

Hi Stephen, thanks for your very thorough review of our free service. We definitely appreciate constructive feedback from our users.

We also appreciate you looking out for the security of another user by canceling their account on their behalf.

When you created your account with your alternate email address, we sent a verification email to that address. If it’s not in your inbox, check your spam folder. The process is exactly as you’ve described. The email confirms that an account was set up with that email address, and provides a link for users to click in order to verify the account.

User bank and debit/credit card information is stored securely and entirely encrypted using bank-grade encryption technology. We only display the last four digits of a user’s bank account or card number, just as any other online retailer or financial institution does. This is so our users are clear about what funding sources they have on file at any given time.

We are continually working to improve the user experience and of course, the security of our free service and we value your comments.

I’ve noticed that you did successfully pay your friend but have not cancelled your account yet. If you are still dissatisfied with our free service, you can visit: https://venmo.com/account/settings/cancel to cancel your account.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us again.

Regards,
Tim

But this isn’t good enough, as my response details:

Tim,

Thanks for your detailed reply.

As you saw, I did in fact create my new account (and that’s good detective work on your part, since I used a completely different e-mail address). And I did receive an e-mail that offers me the OPTION of verifying my e-mail address in order to receive payments.

But that e-mail does NOT require me to verify the e-mail address to send payment. And most importantly it does not require me to verify that e-mail address BEFORE the account is created! That is completely horrifying and evil.

So, because of your company’s poor security practices, if I had used the wrong e-mail address, then the true owner of that e-mail address would have been able to see:

* My name
* My phone number
* My photo (if I uploaded one)
* My FB friends (if I had linked FB) or any other linked social media
* My transaction history
* The last 4 digits of my debit card and its expiration date
* My zip code (shown on the confirm cancellation screen)

You don’t mention if you’ve escalated this complaint to your security team and management or not. I highly recommend you do so.

It’s not so much that I’m “dissatisfied” with your “free service” as I am completely mortified at how horrifically terrible your security practices are.

I have not yet canceled my account because I’m investigating other ways in which you may be violating my privacy and security. But rest assured I will be canceling very soon.

I am currently in the process of writing my blog post about my experience. Please be advised that all e-mail communication sent to me regarding this case will be considered public and is likely to be included in my post.

Thanks for your quick response. Unfortunately your response doesn’t help with this security and privacy flaw, not by a long shot.

Best,
Stephen

PowerPoint: “I heard you liked hidden things, so I hid the hide menu afforandance”

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

I delivered a company-wide brown bag at work today. I was surprised during the presentation that a slide I’d included wasn’t displayed. I began to question myself. “Did I forget to copy and paste in this slide?” Afterwards, I found out that the slide was marked hidden. But it’s no surprise that I didn’t notice. Observe:

[Image of the right-click menu in PowerPoint, with a very subtle indicator that a slide is hidden

Bad PowerPoint, bad

I actually saw the gray coloring of the slide when I copy-and-pasted it into my presentation, and wondered if that meant it was hidden. I right-clicked on the slide, and expected it to say “Unhide Slide” if it was actually hidden. Since it said Hide Slide, and I didn’t want to hide the slide, I thought I was fine.

I now see that the subtle 1-pixel wide orange border around the icon next to the words “Hide Slide” means that it was hidden. And the slide was therefore skipped during the presentation.

So, there are two affordances used by PowerPoint to show the slide is hidden:

  1. Gray text in the body of the slide in the main display area
  2. A pale orange 1-pixel border around an icon that I never pay any attention

Trouble is, #1 I thought was because the slide’s text was SUPPOSED to be gray. And #2 was way way way way way way too subtle for me to notice.

PowerPoint, I give you an F. See me after class.

Letters to inanimate objects

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

[Image of a microwave saying "Enjoy"]Dear Microwave,

It’s quite pleasant that you display the message “Enjoy your meal” when your heating task is complete. However. Question. How do you know that I’m not heating up a heating pad or something? Do you expect me to EAT a heating pad? That’s a terrible idea.

Yours,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Laundry,

Stop staring at me.

Sincerely,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Auto Complete Function of My Browser,

Yes, you’re right, that IS exactly what I was going to type. I know it must be frustrating that I’m ignoring you. It’s like when someone is trying to do a puzzle, and they’re moving very slowly, and you want to help, but they want to keep doing it themselves, and you keep trying to reach out to help them and pulling your hands back, as they keep doing it themselves, piece by frustratingly-slow piece, and you end up sitting on your hands, and biting your lip until it bleeds.

It’s not that you’re wrong. It’s not that I don’t know how to use autocomplete. It’s just that my fingers need the exercise.

Best regards,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Mr. Toaster Oven,

It’s confusing to me that when I want to toast something, and I twist the toast knob to “Medium,” that the timer makes noise and clicks and even dings when finished — all while you’re not even plugged in, and not producing any heat at all.

Yours truly,
Mr. E. Stephen Mack

* * *

Dear Router,

We have an on-again-off-again relationship, that’s the only way that “you” and “me” will work.

With love (and hate),
Stephen

* * *

Dear DVD Player,

How long have you worked here, DVD Player? Please, have a seat. Do you like your job? That long? That much? Well, I’m glad to hear that, DVD Player, but that makes the next thing I have to say much harder. You see, DVD Player, I notice you haven’t actually played any DVDs in… well, at least a year. Possibly two. Yes, I know that’s hardly your fault, and that you’re standing by ready to help. And yes it’s true that we have a lot of DVDs here. Too many, in fact. Hah! We have a good laugh every now and then together, DVD Player. But the truth is, DVD Player, technology has marched on, and you’ve stayed still. We’ve all changed a lot. But not you. And really, those unskippable previews and FBI warnings? That’s not looking good for you right now, DVD Player. No, I take your point, but I’m afraid there’s no room here for you anymore, DVD Player. I’m very sorry.

Come on now. Don’t cry. It’s much harder if you cry.

Please, let’s make this easier on both of us. I’ve already packed you up. The Goodwill is down the street. Your old friend the VCR is already waiting for you there. I know you’re going to be much happier being used by some family that has a use for you.

Thank you for your years of service, DVD Player. I’ll miss you in the abstract. Go on now.

Most sincerely,
Stephen

P.S. Yes, I realize this is a somewhat unusual letter. But I wanted you to read this when I wasn’t there in person. Sorry. I expect you to be gone when I get back.

The man was a prophet

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Image of the projected Tupac Shukar from the 2012 Coachella, superimposed with text saying, 'Holographic Tupac says: I don't have no fear of death. My only fear is coming back reincarnated. Also can any of you explain this twitter thing to me?

This technology is amazing, but I’m not sure most dead celebrities would want to be brought back to life this way.

Draw Something was fun until I mastered it

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Draw Something screenshot of Blondie's Parallel Lines album

Draw Something screenshot of Catwoman

Draw Something screenshot of YouTube

Actually, though, the truth is I’m terrible at drawing in Draw Something.

And the real reason I’m boycotting Draw Something is both because I dislike Zynga’s business practices and I found the CEO’s behavior after his company OMGPop’s acquisition by Zynga to be reprehensible.

While it was fun to play, I’m trying to eliminate some of my life’s time wasters, so I’ll use the above as my excuse for quitting Draw Something… at the top of my game.

(If you want to see some genuinely good Draw Something drawings, check out Rachel Fox’s gallery.)

Paper books vs. e-books: I still can’t decide

Friday, April 6th, 2012

I’m late to e-readers compared to some of my friends, but over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly increasing the quantity of books that I’ve read electronically. However, I’m nowhere near giving up on paper books.

The 2010 data from the Association of American Publishers shows that we’re still far from the tipping point. Despite impressive growth in e-book sales, the data shows that paper book sales aren’t yet decreasing, and that as of 2010 e-books hold a 7% share of total sales and a 5% share of units sold. It’s clear to me paper books are still going to be produced and sold for many years. However, in twenty years, I suspect paper books will no longer hold the majority of the market.

2010 data from American Association of Publishers for paper sales vs ebooks (graph by Stephen Mack)(click to enlarge)

It’s clear that e-books are growing fast; the same AAP data shows that e-book growth is over 1,000% a year, and a Harris poll released in September 2011 showed that e-reader ownership increased from 8% to 15% in one year. (Smart phone growth is helping a lot with that.)

Here’s my dilemma.

Paper Books Digital Books
Advantages Advantages
  1. I’m used to this format
  2. You can read them in the bath
  3. Loan them to a friend or sell when done
  4. Can buy ’em cheap at used bookstores
  5. Easier on my eyes
  6. Much easier to be given as a gift
  7. That new book smell
  1. Can read them anywhere, as long as I have my phone with me
  2. Ability to carry dozens/hundreds of books in my pocket
  3. Instant gratification when buying a new book
  4. Always remembers my place
  5. Ability to search
  6. Easy definitions of unfamiliar words
  7. On smart phone, built-in nightlight for reading in darkness
  8. Many free titles that are in the public domain
  9. Can enlarge the font if my eyes are tired
Drawbacks Drawbacks
  1. I lose them sometimes
  2. Gotta have bookshelves to store ’em
  3. Heavy when moving, adds to “stuff”
  4. They came from trees; have to be printed & shipped, using energy & fuel
  1. More expensive than paperbacks typically (but often cheaper than hardbacks)
  2. Repulsive licensing arrangements
  3. Restrictive DRM
  4. Unclear if I will lose access to purchased works in the future or not (what if Amazon or Apple go out of business?)
  5. Format wars
  6. Remote editing or removal from the mothership (e.g., the Orwellian nightmare)
  7. Often no universal page number reference
  8. Uses up my battery
  9. Can’t read during on a plane during take-off and landing

I’ve never had a paper book crash on me and require me to reboot my brain to continue reading. So there’s that.

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with both, and usually pick whatever format is cheapest for the titles I want to read.

How to eliminate e-mail spam from the world entirely in two easy steps

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Spam represents more than 95% of the e-mail sent to the company where I work. On my personal Gmail account, my spam folder reflects the same experience: The daily volume there is approximately 20 times that of the legitimate mail sent directly to me.

Spam filtering, a dismal experience as recently as five years ago, is now relatively successful. Gmail’s filters are top notch, and the corporate filtering solutions we use are also excellent. However, both false negatives (spam not detected) and false positives (legitimate mail caught as spam, which I may not see for weeks if ever) are fairly common occurrences. I personally experience each of those at least once a week.

Simultaneously, not enough people seem to recognize how insecure e-mail is. I commonly see people sending passwords and credit card data via e-mail, because they apparently don’t realize that e-mail is exactly as secure as a snail-mail postcard (which is to say: not secure at all).

I first used e-mail in 1986, when I received an account for an undergraduate computer science class at U.C. Berkeley. It was my first experience with the internet. This was long before the web, of course, and the internet back then was a text-only environment that consisted mostly of news discussions (Usenet), file transfers (ftp), chat (irc), and e-mail. Back then, e-mail addresses didn’t resemble the ones we use today — there was no simple @ address. Instead you had to use a so-called bang path, telling people your account name and a list of machines that would have to be contacted one by one in order to reach the machine that had your account. So for me in that undergraduate class, it was something like mit!uunet!ucbvax!zooey!estephen. The process was error-prone and unreliable. But it was explicit about how many different machines would have to pass along your e-mail from one to another. (Sometimes a machine would not be able to deliver an e-mail until later that night; an average e-mail took 1-5 days to deliver from one end of the country to the other.) It wasn’t long before the modern @ style addresses came in, and you no longer had to tell your e-mail a long list of machines in a chain that had to be reached.

Anyone who used e-mail during that time knew first-hand that the root administrators could read every single piece of e-mail that went through their machine. Fewer people today seem to know that the same is still true now. Certain Google employees can read e-mail on your gmail account (same for Microsoft and Yahoo and their e-mail services). Your employer can certainly read your corporate e-mail. Certain AT&T employees can read all e-mail going through their backbones. Any kid with a packet sniffer can read e-mail you send from your laptop at Starbucks.

I want to say that e-mail has come a long way since my undergraduate days, but of course it hasn’t. Other than the dubious additions of text formatting (Yowza!) and attachments, the last 25 years of e-mail improvements have been minimal. Our vulnerability to spam and scams — as well as the insecurity of what we send — are proof of that. The best improvement has been the growth of free web-based mail services, especially the UI innovations of Gmail itself.

Encrypted e-mail (e.g., PGP) has been around for at least 20 years. But it’s suffered from a long-standing chicken-and-egg problem: people don’t use it because no one else is using it.

But let’s suppose that Google took the lead. Let’s suppose they changed Gmail so that the next time you logged in, you were required to create a PGP key. You were then guided through the process of storing, verifying and exchanging keys with your friends, family and frequent e-mail contacts. All of your banks and large companies would be on board as well. And starting with any e-mails sent from one Gmail account to another, 100% of the e-mails sent were encrypted and signed. There would be pressure on Hotmail, Yahoo mail and other mailing services to follow suit.

That’s step one.

Step two would be an option (completely up to you if you wanted to enable or not) to put any non-encrypted or unverified e-mail sent to you into an “Unverified Junk and Crap and Scams” folder. Over time, that folder would need to be used less and less, and the false negative spam and scams would collect there. Soon people would ignore it entirely, and only read the e-mail that was proven to be from who it was supposed to be from.

Pressure would mount for everyone to jump onto the PGP bandwagon if they actually wanted their e-mail to be received.

As a consequence: Spam would virtually disappear.

And you could send private information with a sense of security. (Not absolute security, of course, since there’s always the possibility of break-ins or the person on the other end not being able to keep your private information private.)

I want to live in that world. Let’s say goodbye to phishing e-mails purportedly from your bank, deposed Nigerian dictators looking for a little help transferring a quintillion dollars, and endless pitches for natural viagra. Let’s bring e-mail into a new era of security and reliability.

Social Networks and Your Mom

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

(Sorry, mom.)

Social Networks & Your Mom

(click to enlarge)

Like roaches, Facebook Places users check in, but they don’t check out

Saturday, August 21st, 2010
I was at a playground earlier today. Yawn.

I was at a playground earlier today. Yawn.

Since its launch on Wednesday, I’ve been checking out the new Facebook Places feature. But that’s actually a misnomer: You can’t “check it out” because you can only check in. (More about that in a moment.)

Facebook Places competes with Foursquare, Brightkite, Gowalla, Whrrl, and several other location-based social networking services that I’ve never used previously. (I’ve dabbled with Loopt and Google Latitude on the iPhone, and used Yelp but only for writing and reading reviews, not for its check-in features.) While some users abstain from all of these location services due to privacy concerns, my main reluctance to use these services previously was because:

  1. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Most of my friends don’t use these services, which decreases their utility.
  2. I’m boring. I’ve got two kids, so most of my check-ins would be to home and work.
  3. Dubious utility. If I’m out, it’s probably with a group for a planned event. Would I want random other friends to crash that? And on the other side, how often would I be going out by myself and wanting to know where random friends are so that I could crash what they’re doing? Absent joining up with friends, what other purpose is there for me to tell people I’m at a car wash or a movie theater or a playground?
  4. Cheaters. Most of these services are easily fooled; I have one local friend who checks into Alaska regularly.

With Facebook entering the picture, and launching their feature switched on by default, immediately you’d think that the first problem is solved, since all of your friends can use the service easily from day one without having to sign up for anything. Alas, not so. The feature only works if you have an iPhone or other smart phone that can use geolocation services on Facebook’s mobile site. So that eliminates most of my friends from ever using it. And furthermore you have to remember to pull out your phone when you arrive, launch the Facebook app or web page, head to the Places feature, find the listing for the place that you want to check in to, and check in. It’s too many steps, and it’s a pain, so most people would never bother. And that seems to be the case: Of the half dozen or so places I’ve checked into, including a popular bar and cinema, most have had zero previous check-ins. It’s still the first week, but it’s clear most users are not immediately jumping on board with this feature.

Facebook’s implementation doesn’t make me more interesting, and if there’s more utility I haven’t found it yet. And I doubt it’s any more cheat-resistant than the competition. So the other problems still apply.

Facebook also has made some questionable choices about how their Places feature works. First of all, you can check in other people without their permission (unless they change the default setting). I cannot imagine any scenario where people would want you to do that for them without approving. Seriously. Maybe on Venus. But not on Earth. You could ask them (as Gawker suggests), but that seems witless:

“Hey, Joe, I’m checking into the restaurant on Facebook Places. Should I check you in also?”

“…”

The second problem is that check-ins appear on your wall or news feed or whatever it’s called now. The stories show up for all to see. This is incredibly stupid. Half of my friends don’t live in the same state as me. I don’t want their feeds cluttered up with the junk news of me checking into a car wash or a bar or any restaurant. It’s stupid. It’s dull. They don’t care. It’s just noise. I want my feed to be signal, not noise. You should be able to change the settings for Places so that it cannot post to your Wall. You can go back after the fact to remove the postings manually, but that’s a pain (and may not remove it from their copy of your feed anyway, depending on when you remove versus when they check their news feed).

Compounding that second problem is that you can’t add pictures. You can go back after the fact and comment, or put a brief comment at the moment of check-in. Pictures would serve to make the check-in a bit more interesting — I would feel like the wall entry wasn’t so dull and pointless if I could add a cute picture of my kids or something.

The biggest problem is number three: As I alluded to at the beginning, you can check in, but there’s no check out. If the point of checking in is to tell your friends where you are, you absolutely need to tell your friends when you leave the place, so they don’t come looking for after you’ve taken off.

Friday night I noted that two friends of mine, who I will call “Steve and Howard” (because those are their names) checked into Tide House. I rarely get a Friday night to myself — it’s usually date night for my wife and me. But Kimi wasn’t feeling well, and the baby sitter was paid for, so I was free to do whatever I liked. I checked into Molly McGees and played liar’s dice with my friend Matt before heading out to a movie, but I happened to notice Steve and Howard being right around the corner and I had a few minutes before the 8:10 showtime. So I walked into Tide House and looked around. No sign — they must have left. Facebook only gives you an approximation of when the check-in occurred (“two hours ago” becomes “three hours ago” eventually, but the period of time where it says “two hours ago” could be exactly 2 hours or it could be 2 hours and 59 minutes, or anywhere in between). So as a tool for meeting up with friends, that’s useless. You don’t actually know where your friends are at all. No check-outs, no certainty.

Dave Zatz checked into Your Mom's House. Not my mom's, fortunately.

Dave Zatz checked into Your Mom's House. Not my mom's, fortunately.

Facebook’s implementation is buggy as well. GPS locations are a bit off when you add a new location — I’ve seen it be off by about a half-mile. It also has failed to list the right location about half the time when I try to check in. If you’re at the car wash and try to check in, and the location isn’t listed, and you search for it, but nothing comes up. So naturally you assume it’s not entered yet, so you go to add the location, fill out the form, submit it, and THEN it warns you, “Oh, Lozano’s Car Wash — but wait, there’s a nearby Lozano’s Car Warsh [sic], would you like to check in there, or add your new one anyway?” Why didn’t it list it in the first place?

None of the locations have any useful info, like phone number, street address, menu, etc. Businesses can “claim” them somehow but few have done that.

Some of the competing services have game-like features where you earn points, badges, titles, mayorships, discounts, coupons or other random crap. Facebook has none of that (yet?).

Finally, the privacy concerns. By default, the Places feature is on, but you have to take manual steps to use it. So far so good. But then they made two privacy mistakes: First, friends should not be able to check you in by default without your permission. That’s irresponsible. Second, even if your settings are so that Places info is viewable to “friends only” across the board (as mine are), when you check in, anyone else at that location sees your name and face, regardless of your privacy settings. Um, what?

So. How pointless is it? Pretty much totally pointless. I’d call it half-baked but I really think like it’s about a tenth baked. Facebook can and should do much better. I feel like the design is, in a word, stupid. I’ll keep experimenting for a little while to see if there’s something I’ve missed, but until they add features, fix bugs, and redesign it almost completely from the ground up to be both more automatic, more accurate, and more respectful of privacy, I can’t see myself using this long-term, and I don’t think many others will either.

The alphabet according to Google

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Quick, head to Google.com. Sure sure, there’s that playable Pacman logo there today, but while I was there for that, I noticed something interesting, similar to what Slacy posted about bit.ly recently.

Type a letter in the Google search box. Immediately after just one letter, the auto-search populates, and you can see the most popular search term for that letter. (It’s not case sensitive.)

Here’s an example with the letter a:

Auto-search results for the letter a at google.com: amazon, aol, american airlines, apple

It’s important to note that the results appear to be regionally specific. Here in the Bay Area, when I type “b,” I see “bart” (for Bay Area Rapid Transit) third. My brother, in Canada, sees “bmo” (Bank of Montreal) third at google.ca, or “bed bath and beyond” third at google.com (whereas for me “bed bath and beyond” is listed sixth).

Even the first place is regional, since x for me is xkcd, but for my brother it’s xm radio.

Nonetheless, owning the first result is definitely an indication of local mindshare. I find the results very interesting and in some cases very surprising.

Now, before you look at the list below (after the break), you can play the Google Alphabet Guessing Game! Just choose a letter and predict what will appear on top. Did you guess correctly?

Numbers and a handful of punctuation characters also work.

(more…)

Buzz vs. FriendFeed: 14 features I miss in Buzz

Thursday, February 11th, 2010
[Screenshot of Stephen Mack's feed in Google Buzz]

My feed in Google Buzz

If you use Gmail, you’re likely aware of Google’s new social networking service, Google Buzz, which launched this week.

It’s only the the third day of Buzz’s public existence, and I only received access yesterday, so my experience is very preliminary.

In contrast, I’ve been using FriendFeed since January of 2008, so with two years’ experience under my belt, FriendFeed feels very familiar to me, and naturally my bias is towards what I know.

As I wrap my head around Buzz, I want to like it and have it succeed, but there are quite a few aspects of the service I can’t help but find lacking. Here are the features that FriendFeed has that I miss the most in Buzz:

  1. Pause. Both FriendFeed and Buzz present a feed that updates in real-time. With FriendFeed, the play button (or q key) pauses/unpauses updates. With Buzz (on a browser, not on mobile), items I’m reading suddenly getting scrolled away and I can’t figure out how to stop that.
  2. Custom lists of users. With FriendFeed, I can create my own lists (“Co-workers” and “Relatives” and “Favorites”) and automatically filter their updates. That way, posts from my relatives and close personal friends don’t get lost in the noise. With Buzz, either I’m going to have not follow so many people or figure out some other strategy for not losing updates that are important to me. Most likely I’m going to have to unfollow a lot of people who followed me.
  3. “My discussions.” In FriendFeed, there’s an easy link for me to keep track of items I’ve liked or commented on. With Buzz, some of the items I’ve liked or participated in appear in my regular inbox, but not consistently and not in a simple list.
  4. Smart collapsing of long posts and comments. FriendFeed’s layout for keeping items compact until I click “more” or “more comments” is ingenious. Buzz wastes a lot of screen real estate by comparison. Especially on the mobile version.
  5. Smart, flexible hiding, including hiding by service. FriendFeed allows very smart ways to hide updates I’m not interested in. For example, I never care about anyone’s Foursquare updates. In FriendFeed I can hide an entire service, or many types of updates from a particular noisy user. Buzz offers no such automatic filters yet.
  6. Hiding duplicates. Buzz seems to have some bugs right now where an individual post by a user is displayed twice (or even more) in my feed in two separate places. It could be the user posted the item twice by accident. But also several people could post the same item (a news item, for example). FriendFeed automatically collapses duplicate items into a single line (“1 related entry from so-and-so”). Buzz desperately needs this.
  7. Bookmarklet for easy sharing. The FriendFeed bookmarklet is ingenious and easy to use, a button that appears on your browser’s toolbar that lets you easily share web content, including excerpts and images. Buzz lets you share a URL but doesn’t (yet?) intelligently create an excerpt of the page. (See screenshot.)
  8. Reposting to other services, such as Twitter. The absence of this one is flabbergasting to me. FriendFeed lets you bring in services and also “exports” your posts to other services, including Facebook (via an application) and Twitter. Buzz is a one-way street right now: It can bring in your items from multiple connections, but once inside Buzz, there it stays. It can’t become your Facebook status or a tweet.
  9. Groups and “Imaginary Friends.” Not everyone will join FriendFeed, so you can create a placeholder account on them that brings in their public content into the FriendFeed interface. Similarly, not everyone will join Buzz, so it’d be nice to be able to get someone’s chat content into the same UI. But that feature doesn’t seem to be available. On FriendFeed you can use this to create a “group” or “room” built from whatever content you like, such as the USGS earthquake feed or the Amazon MP3 deal of the day Twitter account.
  10. Plethora of supported services. Buzz currently seems to support somewhere around a dozen “connections” that can create items in buzz whenever you use the service: GChat status, Facebook updates, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, FriendFeed, Picasa, blog content, Google Reader, and probably others. But FriendFeed supports 58 services, including Amazon wishlists, Reddit and lots more.

    Screenshot of FriendFeed

    Screenshot of my feed in FriendFeed

  11. Customized profile page. Not a deal-breaker, but users today expect their profile page to have some customization. Maybe not to the extent that MySpace allows, but both Twitter and FriendFeed let you pick your background image and color scheme. Buzz relies on your Google Profile, which doesn’t allow you to customize the layout or color scheme or background at all. (Buzz inherits your Gmail theme, so you can control how things look on your screen, but that doesn’t display for anyone else. Thus everyone’s feed looks the same.)
  12. Posting of text and photos simultaneously via e-mail. From my mobile phone I can take a picture, and e-mail it to share@friendfeed.com. The subject line of the e-mail becomes the subject of the posted item. Up to three pictures can be posted. Any text in the body of the e-mail become included with the item, as the first comment in FriendFeed. Buzz allows you to send a picture to buzz@gmail.com, but any text outside of the subject is ignored.
  13. Friend of a friend discovery. In FriendFeed, if I follow my friend Georgia, and she “likes” an item from her friend Lani, then I automatically see that item from Lani and can then choose to follow Lani as well. In this manner you can expand your social network and meet new people with shared interests. With Buzz, I don’t have any option to see items that Georgia liked, unless I already follow the person who posted the item. (Note that FriendFeed is flexible and lets you hide friend-of-friend updates if you prefer.)
  14. Flexible notification channels. Depending on my preferences, I can have FriendFeed notify me in several ways whenever a particular person posts, or if an item I posted gets comments. I can get an IM, a desktop popup via a standalone application, or an e-mail, either in real-time or at the end of the day.

So what does Buzz do better? Its mobile version is location-aware, and there’s a very interesting implementation with Google maps for following local updates. I was able to see someone post about a special offer at a restaurant near where I pick up my kids from their preschool, for example. Location awareness could be a tremendous change to how I interact with social media. Buzz also makes it very easy to e-mail an item to someone. Notification of new followers is handled real-time on screen, and it’s very easy to reciprocate. (FriendFeed notifies you of new followers via e-mail, so following back is less real-time and a tiny bit more of an effort.) Buzz has better keyboard controls than FriendFeed’s keyboard controls, having inherited the excellent Gmail keyboard implementation. I’m sure there’s more. But I can’t think of anything else yet.

In any consumer space, first-mover advantage is of course critical, because it builds mindshare and market share quickly via the head-start on the competition. But the competition gets a huge advantage also, because they don’t have to create the market, they don’t have to educate users on the category, and they can copy-and-paste the feature set while offering refinements and new features.

But if the competition only copies SOME of what the original offers, they can only succeed either by excellent marketing, an improved implementation on the core feature set, or because of a built-in audience from the brand name or related product. Google has copied some of what FriendFeed offered two years ago. But they really copied only a small subset, and as far as I can see even the core functionality of Buzz needs a lot of work: Counters are buggy, the layout is ugly and hard to follow, and the integration with Gmail feels intrusive and clumsy.

But it’s from Google, and by bolting it onto Gmail (which I use heavily and find to be the best web-based e-mail solution in existence), Buzz has instantly catapulted into a dominant position in the social media space, because they can make all 150 million Gmail users aware of it and even force them to try it.

‘Twas the Night Before iSlate

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

'Twas the night before iSlate, when all through the land
Every techie was jonesing a bit out of hand;
The stock market was hung on the announcement to be,
In hopes that Steve Jobs would soon let them all see.
The faithful were tapping upon their iPods
While mock-ups of AMOLEDs appeared on their blogs;
And Terry McGraw (he's the McGraw-Hill head)
Let slip a few things that he should not have said.
Then suddenly on twitter there arose such a chatter,
I pulled out my MacBook to check out the blather.
And I sifted through web sites all loaded with flash
And read many nutters using #ipad as hash.
The loons who loved gadgets were gabbing again
Giving the lustre of newness to concepts mundane,
When what to my iGoggling eyes should appear
But a plausible leak from a tunneling peer.
With its burnished titanium shiny and new
I knew in a moment this jpeg was true.
More features than Kindle or Android they came
And we googled and journaled and guessed at its name;
"It's iBook, no-- Canvas, no-- Tablet or eSlate!
Or iPad! Or iGuide! Or maybe it's iWait."
To the top of the trends! To my facebook wall!
Now post away! Post away! Post away all!
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So onto my wish-list this gadget did flew
With a cart full of accessories and free shipping too.
And then it was Wednesday morning at last
I'd canceled my meetings and closed all my tasks.
As I fired up Safari and loaded the sites,
I logged out of my IMs and ate my last bites.
And onto the stage strided Steve Jobs
He was dressed in a turtleneck like the flash mobs.
The Apple Store and iTunes were down to deliver
And Steve looked like he could use a new liver.
His iPad -- how it glistened, its curves were so sexy!
Its apps were all written in code that was hexy!
Its cute little screen was so packed up with pixels,
And its underlying OS allowed many C-shells;
The form factor was sleek and just right for reading,
And with its touch-based UI no keyboard was needing.
It used up broadband and a little more 3G,
And no buttons at all, just multi-touch easy.
It was silver and sleek, a right sexy device
And I had lust when I saw it in spite of the price;
A wink of Steve's eye and twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke a few words, then went straight to his demo,
And filled all the screens with a 3-D memo,
And showing us the features we all had expected,
Including which apps were not yet rejected,
We sprang to attention as his team came to the stages,
And an exec from B-N showed us how to turn pages.
And I heard Steve exclaim before he said one more thing,
"Many iPads on sale, for just $899."

Resolved: To never write another check

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Image: A generic check crossed out

I will never write another check again.

Any company or service provider who needs to be paid anything regularly can be set up for automatic billing through my bank or through their billing system. My bank will write the check for me, if need be — whether it’s for my gardener or the daycare my kids go to or what-have-you.

Anyone else who needs money can take cash or paypal or a bank transfer.

Checks had a good run (2100 years or so, if this article is to be believed), but I will no longer be a part of perpetuating this dead end of financial technology.

Why? My handwriting sucks. I hate having to wait for them to clear. I hate having to manually classify them in financial programs. I don’t want to have to carry around a checkbook. And who wants to pay other people?

I will still accept them. Begrudgingly. For now.

“New Wave” no longer means Blondie and The Cars

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

My previous post is entirely null and void, because I have a Google Wave invite now (thanks to Marty Bonner).

Screenshot of Google Wave with the New Wave button highlighted

Google Wave UI has a 'New Wave' button -- Gary Numan would be proud.

I have played with it for all of twenty minutes, so I don’t have any impressions of import to share yet, but:

  1. This is a bit buggier than other betas from Google I’ve played with during the invite phase, like Gmail. (Occasional crashes, buttons not working, things not archiving when I say archive.)
  2. It’s not really that hard to explain. It’s chat combined with e-mail in a post format, except each exchange can be edited by the participants and can be rich in media, and you see the other participants making their edits in real-time, typos and all.
  3. More than anything else, it reminds me of a bug system (such as Bugzilla).

I hereby boldly predict that — for groups collaborating on projects together — this will win. But for non-business uses, regular e-mail will remain more popular for, oh, the next ten years or so.

I’m estephen@googlewave.com. Wave me.

The actual real genuine reason you don’t have a Google Wave invite yet

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

A sad waveAmong certain circles, the main topic of conversation for the last few days relates to invitations to try out the new Google Wave service. On eBay, invitations can be had for the low low price of $100. Enthusiasts say it’ll be bigger than gmail. Some reviews call it a bit overwhelming. Detractors say it’s overhyped.

Right now about 100,000 invitations have been sent out to early adopters. And in turn each of those 100,000 users have been given 8 more invitations, but those ones are not yet distributed. Speculation — and gnashing of teeth — abounds as to why those invitations haven’t arrived yet.

But I have my own suspicions. Here is my understanding of why you (yes, you) haven’t received your Google Wave invite yet.

  1. You didn’t respond to Google’s last invite to you, Google Rave.
  2. You’re doomed to repeat today over and over until you learn how to truly love and be worthy of being loved. Only then will you receive your Wave invite.
  3. You aren’t worthy. You smell. You dress funny. You think strange thoughts.
  4. You don’t type fast enough. 130 wpm, minimum. With 99% accuracy.
  5. Your invitation was sent to Evite by accident. Yes. No. Maybe. Tragically, no one ever reads Evite invitations anymore.
  6. You don’t read item 6 in list posts.
  7. You are unable to describe Google Wave using actual words. In your defense, “Unfortunately, no one can be told what Google Wave is. You have to link in an 8 minute YouTube video.”

Did I forget any?

Seventeen imminent replacements for Twitter

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

You may have read about the recent Twitpocalypse, which has killed off Twitter entirely. Sure, for some users, things may seem fine at twitter.com, but really that’s just fumes. The whole thing has imploded and should be considered an ex-service.

[_itter logo]

Micro-blogging is here to stay, however, so I present to you a smattering of Twitter-replacement sites, each limiting you to 140 characters, that will shortly overtake Twitter in popularity.

  1. Bitter: Angsty updates from divorcees and teenagers.
  2. Litter: Just trash talk, from litterbugs and teenagers.
  3. Fitter: Automatically sends updates every few minutes when you’re working out at Gold’s Gym, from gym rats and teenagers.
  4. Knitter: It’s your grandma’s micro-blogging service. And her related teenagers.
  5. Sitter: Yup, they’re in your house, eating your pizza, watching your TV, talking to their significant others, and sending “seats.” Statistically, most babysitters are in fact teenagers.
  6. Flitter: Changes topics automatically mid-tweet, for those suffering from ADD as well as teenagers.
  7. Quitter: Trying to stop smoking or sniffing glue? This is the micro-blogging service for you; updates from 12-steppers and teenagers.
  8. Spitter: Great expectorations, from watermelon-seed-lovers and teenagers.
  9. Fritter: Some fried apple donut content, but this is mostly a service where the freeps hold a contest to see who can come up with the biggest time-wasting activities. Each minute brings hundreds of hour-squandering suggestions from the idle rich and teenagers.
  10. Glitter: It’s not gold, but it’s got a lot of Mariah Carey discussion, from her fans and other teenagers.
  11. Slitter: An exclusive status-updating site for Jason Vorhees and those he stalks: teenagers.
  12. Ritter: When you roll a seven in Settlers of Catan or eat imported chocolate bars, tweet about it here; from grognards and teenagers.
  13. Titter: Every update brings the LOL, teehee, from nitrous-oxide abusers and teenagers.
  14. Jitter: Red Bull-branded site emphasizing extreme caffeine consumption status updates from Starbucks baristas and teenagers.
  15. Hitter: Very heavy updates, from boxers, Tae Kwon Do masters, and teenagers.
  16. Snitter: This one’s not very different from Twitter, actually.

Of course, there’s another site, and everyone uses it every single day, but modesty demands that the only thing I say about it is that each update from this site consists of just the letters TMI. It’s kind of a crappy service.

Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek, Batman: Fan Films come of age

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in high school, there was no desktop publishing. Before the age of laser printers, the best home printers were dot matrix, and the best home computers running the best word-processing software could only barely handle “What You See Is What You Get.” If you wanted something printed professionally, you took it to a typesetter working with equipment large enough to fill a small room. Fast forward a mere five years, and laser printers combined with better software produced the desktop publishing revolution, which meant that any mom’n’pop store owner could create professional signage in minutes, and even the “Lost Cat” sign on a nearby lamppost uses professionally-kerned fonts surrounding a high-resolution image of the wayward kitty.

Over the last few years, something similar happened to film-making. Digital imaging, lower prices for HD cameras, and readily-available high-quality editing software means that dedicated fans can produce a product that passes for much more than a home movie, rivaling productions that cost professionals a million dollars or more to produce.

The secondary market then also expands, and you get things like Indy Mogul, a video blog dedicated to uncovering the secrets of independent film-making (with a particular emphasis on practical effects).

Film-making of any ambition is never simple. Locations, sets and set decoration, props, script, music, sound effects, actors — and acting!, costumes, make-up, hair, special effects, practical effects, and editing are required — and that’s a lot to coordinate, plus a lot to pay for. (Online productions also have to contend with file formats, web hosting, a web site, and even piracy.) But what was previously only available to a Hollywood studio is much more attainable for ordinary people — in particular, fans. Time and enthusiasm must substitute for big budgets.

Fans will make films about things that interest them, and for a lot of us who work with computers, we’re interested in Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, and Middle Earth.

Placing a fan film in a known universe is a double-edged sword. On the positive, it means there’s a ready-made audience, and you don’t have to spend as much time in your film on back-story or setting the scene. On the negative, the chance of making any money on these productions is extremely limited, since the intellectual property is not owned by the fan film-makers. And some productions risk possible cease and desist orders while invoking the wrath of the original writers and directors and actors and producers — the very people the film-makers probably admire and want to impress.

Here, then, are four ambitious productions that I hope will exceed your expectations if you’re not already familiar with what’s possible from fan film-making.

Star Wars: Ryan vs. Dorkman

[image of light saber on ground from Ryan vs. Dorkman 2]It was 1997 when Troops first appeared, a short film that mashed up A New Hope‘s desert planet of Tatooine with the TV show “Cops.” The success of Troops ultimately ended up in Lucasfilm themselves partnering with Atom films to create an annual award for the best Star Wars fan films. Into that environment, Ryan Wieber and Michael “Dorkman” Scott created two Ryan vs. Dorkman films focusing on light saber battles.

Skimping on plot (or any kind of backstory which might explain why a Jedi or Sith would go by the name “Dorkman”) to focus instead on the battle choreography, the ten-minute RvD2 from 2007 is an amazing product.

The music alone sets apart this film from cheap home movies. Adding in the creative fighting and the sterling special effects, it’s easy to see why this film has garnered nearly five million views on YouTube.

Batman: Ashes to Ashes

[Ashes to Ashes banner]Ashes to Ashes is an 18-minute French film (with English subtitles) made from 2006 to 2008 and released this year. Crossing the look, grit, violence and sexuality of Frank Miller’s Sin City with the staple characters from DC’s Batman, the film takes a bold approach by changing the viewpoint perspective away from what the viewer of a Batman movie might expect.

The filmmakers manage to mix in Batman, The Penguin, Harley Quinn and The Joker despite the short running time. The overall trick of recreating the look of Sin City succeeds amazingly well.

One warning: Several of the scenes are disturbing.

Star Trek: Starship Farragut

[Starship Farragut banner]Starship Farragut is clearly a labor of love, with superb production values for props, music, and special effects. Two episodes, each split into an introduction and five acts, and each totaling about 40 minutes, were produced in 2007, earning the crew several awards for best fan film. The attention to detail in recreating the look and feel of the original series of Star Trek is evident in every scene.

As a culture, we’re extremely critical of acting, and the actors in the Farragut episodes are clearly not professionals. Some of the delivery underscores the barriers that amateurs have to face when competing against professional productions. (Interestingly, the RvD films avoid this problem simply by giving the actors no lines whatsoever, while Ashes to Ashes makes an end-run around the issue by keeping each scene brief and the lines short and loud.) The stars of Farragut are clearly earnest and engaged, however. Bolstered by the costumes and sets, they carry themselves well to make an overall presentation that’s enormously fun. The space battle scenes in particular rival what was done by the Paramount productions.

(One slight barrier is that it’s not as simple to watch the episodes as it could be, because you have to navigate from the main site to the download section to a mirror site to a download page on the mirror, and then choose each act one at a time. That’s likely because as a free download they have to gather what they can for hosting arrangements.)

Middle Earth: The Hunt for Gollum

[The Hunt for Gollum banner]

The Hunt for Gollum is a 34-minute production (40 minutes with credits), released in May of this year, set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth — a prequel meant to bridge the gap between what happens in the forthcoming The Hobbit movie and the first of the Lord of the Rings films.

The Tolkien estate is notoriously protective, so there have not been nearly as many Middle Earth fan films as you’d see for Star Wars or Star Trek. (EDIT 6/5: Here’s a list of six other Lord of the Rings fan films, from Clive Young, per his comment.)

The FAQ from The Hunt for Gollum claims, “We have reached an understanding with Tolkein [sic] Enterprises to allow the film to be released non-commercially online, but the project is completely unofficial and unaffiliated.”

NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on this production back on April 30, focusing on the legal issues. But that story misses what sets this film apart: Its surpassing quality. The acting here, especially Adrian Webster as Aragorn, is top-notch. Even better are the costumes, effects, fightcraft, music, and atmosphere.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more coverage about this film (especially on social media). If you enjoyed the Peter Jackson films at all, I’d say you’re absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this production as well. You’ll immediately recognize what they’re doing, and stills from the real thing fit comfortably side by side with the stills from The Hunt for Gollum.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the whole affair is perhaps too slavish an imitation of Peter Jackson’s vision. That, and some brief outtakes in the final credits seem a bit jarring when presented with the gravity and beauty of the end credits score. But these are tiny quibbles. I cannot recommend this film more highly.

Fan films have made tremendous strides in just the last few years. Imagine, then, what a few more years of advances in computers and effects will bring.

SGI sold; what I learned there

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

“April 1st, 2009. For immediate release. Rackable Systems Announces Agreement to Acquire Silicon Graphics Inc.”

I saw this news release cross the wires yesterday, but thought it was a prank. Rackable Systems? Who? And only $25 million? Hah hah, very funny. Try harder to make it believable next year, okay?

Except it wasn’t a joke. When I opened this morning’s Merc, the front page of the business section had a big headline: “Fallen star SGI to sell most assets for $25M.” Engadget also covered the story today. So it’s true. SGI will not emerge from bankruptcy and is finally no more.

Its products will continue in some form, of course, and I’ve heard from a friend of mine who’s still there that “the early word is they want to keep most of us on.” But SGI is no longer an independent company.

I worked at SGI from 1997 to 1999, my first Silicon Valley job. (I’d worked as a corporate trainer in Oakland and as a freelancer on web sites and computer books prior to that.) It was my first exposure to the culture and work style of corporate high tech: casual start and stop times combined with long hours and passionate, smart employees; vendor food, beer busts, high end cafeterias, over-the-top holiday parties, and free soda; casual attire; dogs at the workplace; back-to-back meetings filling the entire day; 500 to 1,000 e-mails daily; the uneasy alliances and divisions between engineering groups and marketing groups and operational groups and customer support groups and IT groups and HR groups.

I went in already familiar with Unix and the web, and with broad computer and database skills, but I didn’t know anything about how large companies work, or what was involved with program management and product release cycles. The politics of big companies were also new to me. I learned a huge amount, from BOMs and ECOs and the importance of quarter end dates, to the different ways you need to communicate to, say, a VP of manufacturing vs. a director of marketing vs. a principal engineer. If I had to list the top skill I emerged with, I’d have to say it was knowing when to communicate with e-mail, when to pick up the phone and talk it out, when to walk over in person (not always easy with 40 buildings in Mountain View plus employees around the world), or when you needed to leave a note on a chair, sometimes with a plate of cookies. Or when to call from your director’s cube.

I witnessed first-hand a beaten company falling apart. In 1997 SGI was facing its first set of money-losing quarters, and I barely made it in the door before a hiring freeze. This was right around the time when long-tme CEO Ed McCracken resigned. I managed to survive several rounds of layoffs even as the new guy.

SGI was reeling from culture clashes between the Minnesota employees who came on board when Cray was acquired in 1996. On the high end, Sun and IBM and HP were brutal competition for SGI’s server and supercomputer business. (Especially Sun.) On the low end, Mac and Windows workstations were starting to catch up with SGI’s high-powered Irix-based graphics workstations made famous in movies like Jurassic Park.

Things bounced back a little in 1998 after Rick Belluzzo came on board. Rocket Rick talked a good game, the stock rebounded a bit, and new products shipped. He had two major strategies. The first, a Windows NT workstation, was a miserable failure. It took forever to develop, and when it finally shipped, it was far more expensive than anything else on the market, and while it did perform better, it was riddled with compatibility problems. Point releases from Microsoft for NT weren’t able to be installed until SGI could come up with their own patches months later. Sales of the Visual Workstation were awful, and competing Dell workstations caught up in performance before too long. His other strategy, to shift focus to servers, seemed pretty smart to me, since most of SGI’s business came from the government. But most of SGI’s reputation and PR came from Hollywood, and distancing itself from its Maya line of software and the special effects business was probably the wrong move. Belluzzo left in August 1999, Microsoft-bound. The company contracted rapidly after that.

By 1999, the dot-com boom was in full explosion. Gravity didn’t exist, and money grew on trees. Insanity ruled all. At SGI, the stock price was going down, the products weren’t selling, and every single week came announcements of major departures at all levels from all around the company. I ended up with three different bosses in three months. When the opportunity came along to move to TiVo, I resisted at first, because I was moving up the ladder at SGI pretty rapidly. But the writing was on the wall and none of my SGI co-workers were enthused about SGI’s prospects. Despite all that, SGI had thousands of employees and billions in assets when I left in 1999. So it’s not a surprise to me that they hung on for 10 years, despite losing money year after year. Many of the governmental and server contracts were multi-year, multi-million dollar deals.

SGI, I salute you. So long. Thanks for the experience and friendships. You made some amazing products and hired some absolutely brilliant geniuses. If only there had been a way out.

Sammy puts toy dinosaurs in the water test video

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

A second test video, in which Sammy dunks three toy dinosaurs in water. They are expected to expand to 600% size over the course of several days. (“Just add water!” it says on the package — and then wait three days, they don’t use the big font size about that part.)

This one was shot with the Mino Flip HD as well (see previous post), using the tripod. Here I have problems keeping Sammy in frame, there appear to be a couple of audio sync issues, and the low light is a little more problematic. However, for a device smaller than a pack of cards, dealing with the fact that it was dusk in a room with no lights, it’s not too bad. As I learn to use the zoom and position the thing properly, I expect the quality to improve.

Mino Flip HD: Preliminary review and test video of my daughter Sophie

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

At Costco today, I bought myself an early birthday present, a Mino Flip HD, which is a video camera in a small form factor — about the size of my iPhone. (You can read this PC Mag review for more details.) Costco carries the 60-minute Mino Flip HD in black with a bonus tripod for under $200.

We do have a video camera, and it has more features than I’ll ever use, but it uses mini tapes, and it’s difficult to capture the video on computer to edit or publish here. It’s also not as ultra-portable as the Mino Flip HD. I’ve been interested in it ever since I saw David Pogue review it on The New York Times “Circuits” show a few months ago.

The package includes a soft pouch and wrist strap, plus composite cables for quick playback on your TV set (but that’d be in SD, obviously, given the cable). The product itself is well-designed in terms of UI, stripping down the feature set to only the bare essentials. It has only the most minimal controls, to make video capture simple.

I took two quick test videos, one of Sophie and one of Sammy. The first test video, of Sophie, quickly showed that I don’t have a steady hand and should really use the tripod.

For the second test video, I used the tripod, which helped the stability a lot.

The light wasn’t great for either test, and it looks like the Flip did a better job of handling low light conditions than our handheld Canon camcorder.

The Flip does capture in HD (see below for specs), and it was very simple to use the built-in USB to transfer the videos to my computer. After installing the software (automatic the first time you attach the Flip to your PC), transfer only took a few seconds.

The supplied “FlipShare” software is a little too stripped down. While it has very basic editing (titles, clip beginning and end, organize clips into a single movie, add music) and has functions for uploading to YouTube and other sites, there’s not enough control over the file conversion.

My one minute Sophie sample file was 70 megs in the native MP4 (H.264/AAC) file format, at 1280 by 720 resolution. FlipShare can convert to WMV on a PC (or apparently to MOV on a Mac). So I had it convert for me, but the version it produced for sharing via e-mail or uploading to a web site was 10 megs, in 640 by 360. It didn’t offer me an option to change that resolution or compress further. Ten megs a minute isn’t bad, but is too big a file size for uploading here to zeigen.com.

The YouTube upload is seamless, however, and it’s painless to embed (plus I don’t have to pay for hosting — thanks, Google!). The first test is below.

See, I wasn’t kidding about the jerky video. Sophie is now 18 months old.

Overall I haven’t used the Mino Flip HD enough to give a full review but I’m cautiously optimistic.