What Are You On?

intel dongleWhat are you on right now?

Helaine uses a laptop. My dad is 100% tablet. I rotate through devices and touch close to a dozen keyboards or screens through the day.

Nearly everything you know about computing is about to change. The size is shrinking again.

If you have a recent iPhone or one of the high end Android devices, you know the brain in that small device of yours works fine for browsing and video. Why do we need anything with bulk?

We don’t.

There is a new class of dongles entering the market which are full fledged PCs. Plug one into an HDMI port on any TV, pair with wireless keyboard and mouse and it’s a computer that can do nearly anything! Browse the web. Stream HD movies. Skype. Whatever.

These dongles are quad core machines special image processing chips. Very low power, they need no fans. They are light on RAM and disk space, but are optimized for the tasks most people normally perform.

They’re not for making content. They’re for consumption.

At the moment (and we’re very early in this game) the Windows version is $150 and the Android $100. Expect those numbers to fall.

This is crazy. How far we’ve come. We’re not slowing down.

Skyping Is Like Being There… Sorta… Almost


I got an email a few minutes ago. No text, just a subject.

You awake? Can you skype?

It’s from a long time friend. She and her husband are making their way through France.

I fired up the app. The cameras came on.

I was poorly lit in a dark t-shirt. They were in white cotton robes sitting in the sun on their patio. A carafe of coffee and two cups sat on the table.

Today’s coffee was good. Yesterday’s not so much.

They are absorbing France. And they’re sharing. Updates and photos come to friends and family in a daily mass mailing.

“Tell Geoff to check his email.” It was husband’s off-camera voice. The photo at the top of this entry was waiting. It’s early morning there, late evening here.

“You’re the only one we could think of who’s awake,” she said to me. We all laughed.

Their vacation sounds great. I love these conversations.

To me, Skype is transparent. That’s its power. Once your conversation gets going (not always easy), it disappears. A conversation on Skype is just like speaking to someone in the room with you.

I enjoyed my quick trip to France.

I Like Skype More All The Time

Skype-LogoI’ve been doing a lot of production work lately. A few websites (including Kristen Cusato’s), an asteroid oriented presentation for Slooh.com (which I can’t show until Wednesday) and me teaching teachers to teach for UC Irvine.

Sometimes I have to go onsite, but I mostly like to work at home in pajamas. I have worn a suit once in California… and then without a tie.

Skype has become my friend. I can telecommute to my co-workers’ desks, where I appear from the waist up. If you see me wear a hat just assume I haven’t taken a shower yet.

When I hit a milestone and need someone to check off on a project, I use Skype and screenshare. Consultations are easy. I can play a video or show a website. I often make changes while they watch.

I told one friend, “I like this better than the phone.” Face-to-face communication is more powerful than just speaking or typing. The ability to reference what’s on my computer screen seals the deal.

Working With Clients From Home

google-hangouts-iconI’ve been working on a website. The client is in Connecticut. I’m in California. That makes things a little tougher, especially for collaboration.

Tonight we worked together using Google Hangouts’ screen sharing feature. It’s like a video conference, except he sees what’s on my computer monitor as opposed to my webcam&#185.

The client was able to watch as I cropped and modified pictures in Photoshop and tweaked the website’s look. He could say what he liked or disliked instantly.

This is not the way to work through the meat of a project, but there are certain times when it makes a great deal of sense, like tonight.

We originally tried Skype. Screen sharing is a paid feature for them. We ended up at Google Hangouts because screen sharing is something they tout.

Most people don’t have Hangouts installed. That’s a problem. I’m not sure everyone wants to, or is capable of, working through the setup process. It was non-intuitively cumbersome and took too long. Until it worked, we weren’t sure we were doing it right!

I’m up for using an easier solution, but tonight this scratched an itch.

Oh, and working in pajamas is a good thing!

&#185 – And, unless he reads this had no idea I was in pajamas.

I Thought By Now I’d Be Skyping More

I saw Judah this afternoon. Judah is my not quite three year old nephew&#185 from Milwaukee. We met up via Skype with the help of his parents Jessie and Evan. Baby sister Gabby looked on.

The conversation started with Judah burrowing his head into Jessie’s neck. Cute, but not a confidence builder there’d be much substance to the chat. He says he’s looking forward to Helaine and my upcoming trip to Milwaukee to see the hapless Brewers play the hapless Phillies.

Just establishing the chat tonight was like pulling teeth. Jessie favors iChat. I’m using a Samsung phone. Oops. We settled on Skype.

It took at least a half dozen attempts before we were able to connect. A few times Jessie’s face appeared briefly before the whole thing shut down. My hopping between 4G and WiFi here at work is probably the culprit. Maybe the Skype app isn’t resilient enough to follow along?

I have my tablet. I have my smartphone. I use a laptop with a camera built into the bezel. I expected to be using Skype or Oovoo, or Google’s video chat service a lot more than I do… which is nearly nil.

Maybe my expectations were too high? Maybe the ease of connection needed still isn’t there?

I don’t Skype with my folks. I don’t Skype with my daughter. Friends? Nah.

It was fun when I used to video chat with my friend in Kabul (he’ll soon move just north of the equator in West Africa). It really was like being there, which was good for both of us during his isolation. The only problems were his horrendous Internet service and undependable electric supply. We’ll see how Africa compares.

I’ve been a big believer video chat would be the favored method of person-to-person comms going forward. Not anymore. Keyboard-to-keyboard continues to grow strongly while even cellphone voice minutes fall off.

Facebook, Google and others promote their video services, but I never hear about them being used.

Video is still too difficult. Communications are best when easiest.

Video is best saved for special occasions like talking to Judah.

&#185- I’m not very good with this, but Judah is my sister’s daughter’s son. Nephew? Maybe great nephew? I’m always confused.

My Impressions On The New Phone

This is the best phone I’ve ever used. How’s that for an open? The Samsung Galaxy S II isn’t without faults (beginning with its clunky name), but it is so pretty and fast that everything else is inconsequential.

This is the best phone I’ve ever used. How’s that for an open? The Samsung Galaxy S II isn’t without faults (beginning with its clunky name), but it is so pretty and fast that everything else is inconsequential.

It’s difficult to describe the screen in words. More blacks. More contrast. That’s the result of SUPER AMOLED technology.

The iPhone has greater resolution. I can’t paper over that. I haven’t yearned for additional screen real estate yet.

Everything is fluid and fast. You touch, it happens. You swipe, it keeps pace with your finger.

There are apps for the iPhone that aren’t available for Android phones like mine. The opposite is true too. The vast majority of what I want to do with a smartphone is already taken care of.

Android exposes more of the inner workings of the phone. For a geek like me it’s fun to see what the GPS is seeing, even if it’s worthless from a practical standpoint. There are lots of other small peepholes into the hardware.

The phone is a little larger than the iPhone. It easily fits in a shirt pocket and rides nicely in my pants pocket. The screen is Gorilla Glass and reasonably impervious to scratching.

When people pick it up that always comment about how light it is. It’s mostly sturdy, though I worry about the back cover over time. It’s very, very thin.

Smart phones suck batteries. I spent $12 and ordered two spares and a charger off eBay. The batteries are small and flat and easily carried.

A large problem with any new technology is you have to make choices before you understand your device. It was my intention to use the phone for a little while then wipe it clean and start again. That way I had a small idea before I downloaded and installed apps permanently.

The factory restore took ten minutes tops. Painless.

I was pleased to see we are served by 4G out here on Mount Carmel. I’ll still stick with WiFi when I’m home.

We have WiFi at work, but it’s very weak at my desk. Unfortunately as soon as you lock onto WiFi the phone disconnects you from the 4G network. That’s the bad news.

The good news is a program called Llama. It allows you to create profiles so your phone acts differently at different times and places. The phone knows to shut its ringer between 4:00 and 5:00 and again from 10:00 to 11:30, but only if I’m at work! It also knows to turn off WiFi at work. That’s a pretty neat trick.

The profiles changes can be triggered by a variety of things including nearby cell towers, GPS location, time of day, etc. That’s one feature Apple didn’t have.

Yesterday I took my friends Peter and Farrell on separate tours of the station using Skype and 4G connectivity. I walked up and down stairs and through the newsroom and studio.

There are tiny things wrong with the phone. I wanted to answer a text message with a video reply. Only the rear camera is enabled for that. Why?

I can’t seem to get Gmail, from the same company that built the operation system for the phone, to push emails to my phone as received. Instead the phone polls Gmail every ten minutes.

The menu structure is often non-intuitive, but there are so many menus because there’s so much you can customize. This complexity unlocks the phone’s power!

Is the Samsung Galaxy S II for everyone? Yes, if you want to play at least a little. If you’re going to use your phone as it came out of the box the iPhone might still be the right choice.

How Much Longer Will We Pay For Phone Calls?

Basically I have flat rate service and both at&t and I know it! It’s just neither of us is saying it aloud.

I spoke with my friend Peter Mokover earlier today. That’s him in the screengrab from our Skype call. Peter’s located just south of Atlantic City.

There was a time when we’d worry about the cost of this long distance call. Now, who cares?

Let me show my age for a second. When I was growing up prices for long distance calls varied depending on the time of day.

Daytime rates were outrageous. Evenings were cheaper. Late night, calls after 11:00 PM, were cheaper still.

Phone companies offered person-to-person and collect calls. They existed to shield you from paying dearly for calls that didn’t quite work out. Do those services even exist today (other than for calls made by prisoners)?

When I was growing up there was only one way to make a long distance call–AT&T. Starting in the late seventies new long distance companies like Sprint&#185 and MCI arrived. By dialing a code or later switching your provider entirely you could put your long distance bill on a diet.

Steadily year-by-year the cost of long distance calls have come down. For the last few decades people have been predicting the end of billing individual phone calls entirely. It’s not here officially, but for me and I suppose many of you it’s the practical reality.

I buy a cell package for my family. We share 1,400 minutes per month. On top of that all mobile-to-mobile calls are ‘free’ as are calls to my ten number “A-list.” Calls after 9:00 PM or on the weekend don’t count either.

Better than halfway through our current billing cycle we’ve used 194 of our 1,400 minutes. At the same time we’ve used nearly 1,800 minutes where the meter’s not running!

If it made sense I could cut my minutes even farther. With Google Voice’s “Click2Call” I can make outgoing calls which look like incoming calls from one of my “A-list” numbers. Practically speaking that means unlimited unmetered calls!

No wonder we have 6,002 rollover minutes available!

My cell provider at&t isn’t stupid. If I tried to cut my bucket of minutes below the allotted 1,400 I’d lose a bunch off those otherwise “free” call programs.

Basically I have flat rate service and both at&t and I know it! It’s just neither of us is saying it aloud.

The downward pressure on phone rates isn’t over yet. My call to Peter was made via Skype. It was free.

The video call was about as effortless as can be. If there’s lag I didn’t feel it. Beyond that Skype has figured out how to cancel the echoes and other disturbances that come when both Peter and I use microphones and speakers (as opposed to somewhat sound isolating handsets). And though I made the call on my desktop PC I’ve got Skype on my cell too!

Skype is good, but it’s not the end of this technology shift. There are and will be more methods of moving voice and video over IP networks instead of the switched long distance we’ve all been using. The one thing I’ll guarantee is none will have an incremental cost.

Sometime within the next few years we’ll start paying for a data bucket on our phones. Use that data any way you want; no more billing for calls. That would allow the telcos to get back in the business of making a little cash on individual phone calls.

We’re going to have to start thinking differently about how communications works and how we buy it. If you buy smart you’ll surely save.

&#185 – Sprint actually began as part of a railroad! Southern Pacific Railroad had excess microwave and later fiber capacity from the lines it ran along its right-of-way. That’s how they routed calls in competition with AT&T. Sprint actually stood for “Southern Pacific Railroad Intelligent Network of Telecommunications.”