Tag Archives: Manitoba

Sleazy Practices Cont.

Fired up by Google’s move into the crapware domain by foisting an “updater” on customers who want to install (otherwise great) programs like Google Earth, I took another look at what was happening in the updater sphere.

Apple drew some heat for its own bit of underhandedness recently, when its own Apple Software Updater automatically included downloading the company’s Safari browser. After a backlash, it dropped the Safari from the “Updates” section to a “New Software” section, but still prechecked it:

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In other words, run the updater and not concentrate, and you’ll find yourself downloading 22 MB of browser you didn’t ask for, and didn’t have before.

So no, I don’t think Apple did the right thing here. Apple fans can protest as much as they like, but there’s a clear move here to get new software to users to install software they didn’t ask for and, if they don’t actively intervene, will have it installed by default. Browsers, like media players, are particularly significant because they will try to make themselves the default browser, and users once again need to act against the default process to avoid this.

Needless to say, Apple’s bid has been modestly successful, apparently at least doubling its modest market share for Safari. Still miniscule, but a start.

Of course, software is one thing, but it has to be used. For that it has to be visible to the user. No point in hiding the program launch icons somewhere they can’t be found. On Windows, there are three places you want to be: the desktop, the system tray, or the start menu. Apple is particularly smart about this, ensuring that all its products sit, not in some side-alley subfolder, but in the ‘root’ menu:

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and

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as well as on the desktop:

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(though not, interestingly, the Updater.)

Of course, Apple isn’t alone. Microsoft has long been doing this, as has Adobe.

Folk argue this is all besides the point, that users retain control over their computer and can remove all this stuff if they want. But to me it’s worrying that Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sun, Adobe et al think that this is OK, and, like their defenders, fail to understand that for the vast majority of users, installing software is not an everyday experience, and that these sleights of hand merely cause extra stress, confusion and uncertainty. That can’t be good.

Confessions of a PDF Hater

There’s a lot of discussion about the ongoing spat between Microsoft and Adobe over whether Microsoft will be able to install PDF/Acrobat support in its next version of Office. This should be as straightforward as PDF support in OpenOffice — where you can choose to save (well, print, technically speaking) a file as an Acrobat PDF. But it’s not. Allowing a niche, free, office suite like OpenOffice to add this for free is one thing, but for the market giant Microsoft — who are preparing a PDF rival, XPS — to do it is another. So as things stand at the moment, Office users will be abe to have PDF support, but not out-of-the-box: They’ll have to install it as a download plug-in. Not too arduous, but as comments on the blog of Brian Jones, Microsoft’s Program Manager, suggest, a lot of folk won’t do that.

Everyone’s talking about this issue, blaming Microsoft, blaming Adobe, but no one seems to be asking a question I’ve been mulling for years: Why are Adobe Acrobat files so hard to use, and the Adobe programs to make and maniuplate them so darned user unfriendly? I’ve been using Acrobat reader and Acrobat for years, and each version I hope is going to be a little more intuitive and easier to understand. And yet every time I try to do something a little bit different or more complicated than simply saving a file or extracting a line of text I run into problems.

I’ve found no straightforward, wizard-type way to tweak a saved file to balance reduced file size with reduced quality of images. This means that I — and I’m sure lots of other folk, including a friend of mine who yesterday received a PDF file from a major international organisation that was 7 MB in size, had Chinese characters that appeared as gibberish on her screen — can’t easily use what should be the most powerful features in what should be a great program.

And don’t get me started on the naff way that the Adobe Reader includes a promo for the Yahoo! Toolbar — how low do you have to stoop? — and, next to it, a helpful search box. How many people have entered text in that box thinking it’s to search the active PDF document, only to find that it’s actually a Yahoo! search box?

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Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that it looks remarkably similar to the Adobe “find” box that appears if you hit Control+f:

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It’s telling that most of the best PDF tools are not actually Adobe’s at all, but simple PDF makers that bypass the whole Acrobat maker process. (My list of these programs is here, although it needs some updating. Here’s a free PDFCreator which will allow you to print to PDF from any Windows program.)

Sure, PDFs are great for the security measures they build in, and they have definitely changed the way people exchange and collaborate over documents. But usability has not improved. So if Microsoft or anyone can come up with a better format that’s easier to work with, I’m all for it.

The “Sharing Files Thing” Gets Cheaper

It’s a growing space, as the marketing types call it, and it’s not surprising that Laplink, best known for their linking of laps (shurely “laptops”? – ed), have decided to make the basic edition of their file sharing applications, ShareDirect, free. Previously available online for $40, the program can now be downloaded for nothing. It’s not a bad application — you just invite trusted contacts to view and download them from the folders you designate. “The files never leave the safety of your hard drive until you invite someone to download them from you directly. All files are protected by 128-bit encryption, and can securely travel through existing firewall settings,” as the blurb would have it.

The free version will allow unlimited ordinary transfers and 500 MB per month of what Laplink calls ’Premium Transfers’. These are transfers that pass through Laplink’s own servers without any need for altering your firewall and other connection settings. The Plus version, costing $70, lets you make 5 GB a month worth of Premium Transfers.

It doesn’t surprise me because Microsoft recently bought FolderShare and made that available for nothing. I’m working on a review of these various services so watch this space. Well, actually, this space.

Computer-On-a-Stick

Here, for those of you still lapping up the whole USB programs off your thumb-drive thing, is FingerGear’s Computer-On-a-Stick:

The Computer-On-a-Stick (COS) is a USB Flash Drive featuring its own ultra fast Onboard Operating System with a full suite of Microsoft Office-compatible applications.

According to Tom’s Hardware Guide, the drive is 256 MB and has programs taking up 192 MB, and retails for about $150. Software includes “a Debian-based Linux OS, a version of the open-source productivity suite OpenOffice as well as Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, an Instant messenger and a PDF viewer.” (Thanks, TechSpot News.)

A 512 MB version is coming soon, as is one with biometric fingerprint scanner.

Is The Tablet Coming Back Down The Mountain?

This space is getting interesting: The sort-of-tablet-handheld. Nokia unveils Linux based 770 Internet Tablet:

The main attraction of the device is its widescreen, 65K colour TFT touch screen with a diagonal size of 4″ and resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. This, along with a navigational array flanking the screen on its left side, provides an interface to the Nokia Internet Tablet 2005 software which powers the device, developed atop Linux by the handset maker to power this new category of devices.

Offering up 64 MB of RAM and approximately 64 MB of non-volatile storage for users, the 770 Internet Tablet also harbours an RS-MMS card expansion slot for the purpose of memory expansion. Whether this will be necessary, however, is another question entirely as the functionality of the 770 appears to revolve mainly around the streaming capabilities as provided by its Wi-Fi 802.11b/g connectivity.

Not content with Wi-Fi, Nokia also integrated Bluetooth 1.2 into the unit, allowing for among other things the ability to connect to the Internet via a compatible handset. Several profiles are supported, including Dial-Up Networking, File Transfer, SIM Access and Serial Port, with the 770 also offering USB as a wired alternative for PC connectivity.

Does this compete with the revived Tablet PC? Or the LifeDrive? What I would love to see is these devices coupled with the wonderful Stowaway XT Portable Keyboard for USB from ThinkOutside, which I’ve never seen in the shops, but which has the same great action and design as its Palm and PocketPC forebears. Maybe they just didn’t sell, which would be a shame. The keyboard coupled with one of these devices would be all you’d need.

RAMming Home An Old Point

For many of you this is a no-brainer but maybe some folk might find it helpful. I had to switch laptop the other day while one was being fixed and was horrifed to find how slow the replacement was. Every program, every file, every function loaded slowly and the hard drive was stuttering along despite being well-defragged and with plenty of spare space.

Of course, it was the RAM (computer memory, where programs operate, rather than hard drive storage, where they hang out between bouts of action). Why IBM ThinkPads com come with only 256 MB of RAM as standard baffles me. Unless you’re running absolutely nothing, my experience has been that it’s just not enough to get you into Windows, let alone do any serious work.

The good news is that it’s really, really easy to add another 256 MB, just by unscrewing the bottom and slotting it in. Do it. Given it’ll cost you less than $100 it’s worth it. Now I’m back to 512 MB and I’m very, very grateful. Now the question is: Is it worth adding another wodge of RAM? My technical advisor says not.

The Online Storage Revolution?

An interesting byproduct of the Gmail all-you-can-eat online email is the fact that online storage, a service sold by the likes of Xdrive, is likely to get a lot bigger, at least in terms of how much you can store there. If you can store 1GB of your stuff on Gmail for free (and, according to some rumours, up to 1 terrabyte), why pay for a measly 100MB of online storage?

Xdrive told its customers today that in July it will increase the space available per use to 5GB, “more than 60 times the size of your current subscription!” (no press release available yet). That means 5GB for $10 a month. Expect others to follow suit, although Mercury News quotes FilesAnywhere as saying they’re sticking with a flexible pricing model that starts at $4 a month for 100 MB. Their argument is that most folk only want limited amounts of storage, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.

That may be true, although if Gmail turns out to be an easy place to park files, my guess is users will go for that. In which case for-fee online storage is not going to make much sense. And with flash drives so ubiquitous, my hunch would be folk are going to look at online storage as a place to back up large quantities of data they can’t fit on a USB keydrive, rather than a place to store small chunks.

But I could be wrong. All that is clear for now is that Gmail have made nonsense of the idea that you can’t store stuff online cheaply. Yahoo! have taken up the challenge in part, by allowing users to store up to 100MB, while Lycos Europe is offering paid up members 1GB, and British-based Planet-Tolkien.com is offering 1GB for $7 a month, but Xdrive’s decision to go for 5GB now raises the possibility that for some folk it may actually be worthwhile to keep most of one’s stuff online, and then access it as, when and where it’s needed. That may be the most dramatic outcome of all this.

The Smallest Hard Drive In The World

Small is beautiful.

The Guinness World Records has certified Toshiba’s 0.85-inch hard disk drive as the smallest HDD in the world (it’s not actually out yet; expect to see it in September).

Toshiba say it’s the first hard disk drive “to deliver multi-gigabyte data storage in a sub-one-inch form factor”. (The 0.85-inch measurement refers to the diameter of the magnetic disk.) It comes in capacities of 2 to 4 gigabytes and will probably end up in mobile phones, digital camcorders and portable storage devices.

The Guinness folks offer some historical perspective: The first hard drive came out in 1956, and needed 50 two-foot disks to store 4.4 MB.

Of course, with hard drives the size of your thumb, this is going to have a very interesting impact on PDAs, cellphones, laptops and MP3 players. My tupennce worth: Marry these very small drives with thin displays and what else do people need?

The USB Pen

Not a bad idea this: A pen with a built-in USB drive. PNY Technologies have just launched a line of Executive Attaché ballpoint pens with attached USB 2.0 flash drives that hold up to 512 MB of stuff.

The pens look chunky — and very executive-looking, ‘made with -quality materials similar to those of high-end writing instruments’, and in colours ranging from blue and black marble to black and red herringbone to brushed silver — but not unpleasantly so. The USB bit is basically the top half of the pen, which when removed reveals the USB plug. They cost between $80 and $100.

CD-Rom Business Cards. Huh?

I know I may be missing something here, but what is this all about business cards on a CD Rom? Newsweek reports increased sales of these things — either full size or credit card sized and shaped — which people hand out at trade shows: “General consensus in the biz world: why spring for color brochures at $5 a pop when CD cards average a buck each? For much more cash—$3,000—New York’s HYLife Productions can squeeze up to eight minutes of video on its cards.”

I have to say I have enough problems with real business cards that aren’t the right shape or where the text is the wrong way up. Out here in Asia these small CD sized name cards came and went — at least in my line of work — a few years back, and I’m pretty sorry to hear that they may be making a comeback. First off, how exactly is 100 MB of Flash really going to help? And if the ones I received are anything to go by, folk would usually jazz up even the most basic contact details with fancy graphics so you could forget about simply copying and pasting the salient details into Outlook. Sorry but I’d rather the guy say ‘Here’s my name card but I’ll email you my vCard”. Or “Are you all Bluetoothed up? Let me beam it to you now.” Or, if you like the guy and want to make a firm commitment, ask him: “Are you on Plaxo?”

Sure, I can understand the use of CD-Roms to hand out data about reunions, parties and whatnot, but most folk who would know what to do with that sort of thing are wired, so why not email it to them? I already have way too many CD-Roms in my den; the last thing I want is funny shaped ones to add to them.