Google Voice definitely underutilized

After reading a lot about 1:1 iPad programs and there being an "app for" everything in education, I found How To Use Google Voice In Education to be refreshing. Many schools use Google Apps for Education, but I haven't read many educator accounts of using Google Voice.

Google Voice wasn't around when I was a teacher, but I've still found it very useful for the non-teaching roles I've had in schools. When I was an admission receptionist, Google Voice helped me to better manage the hundreds of phone calls I was getting every day.

  1. I could easily forward (including a bad but still helpful transcription) voicemails to others working in the office.
  2. I could make notes about when I got back to each voicemail or missed call.
  3. During particularly heavy call periods, I could prioritize in the morning (based on—yes, even bad—voicemail transcriptions) which calls were most urgent and time-sensitive to return.
  4. As an office, we could give it a phone number visiting parents and students could text, which meant it was also easier to answer everybody (not everything is a phone call, which means you can text back straight from a web browser and move on to the next call or text more quickly).

Even as a student advisor, I found it convenient (particularly on a field trip) to give out my Google Voice number to my advisees and not worry that they then have my cell phone number (yes, it would ring my cell, but I could always easily block or mute them if it came to that—fortunately it never did).

I'd love to see more and more educators using less obvious technology in more obvious ways.


The Power of Defaults

I tend to see two extremes whenever there are arguments about what should be the default (I’m speaking specifically of arguments on the Ubuntu Forums, but this could be applied to really anything in technology or anything in life in general).

One extreme is that defaults don’t matter at all. It’s not worth arguing about. Just put whatever as the default. Then people can just choose to change the default to something else if they don’t like the default. The other extreme is that defaults matter enough to have 500-post forum threads about arguing back and forth. Somewhere in the middle is some sanity.

Defaults matter. But defaults are only defaults. People can choose options other than the defaults.

Why do defaults matter? Here are some examples:

  • I love that on my wife’s Macbook Pro, you just press the function keys, and they do something right away (lower the volume, adjust the brightness). My netbook by default needs to have the blue Fn key pressed in combination with the function keys to get that behavior to happen. I can easily change that. But if I change it, it’s confusing for anyone else using my netbook, because the instructions on the physical keys themselves indicate the function keys are normal functions and that you need the Fn key in combination in order to do anything. In other words, whole products sometimes have fixed parts built around the assumption that defaults will go unchanged.
  • I use VLC for playing individual sound bits or videos. When I dug into the settings for VLC, I didn’t understand half of what that stuff is, and there were a lot of options to configure. Very confusing for a multimedia newbie like me. Good thing I didn’t have to configure all those settings. I just used the defaults. Sane defaults save the user from having to understand unnecessary minutiae.
  • As far as I can tell, every Linux user has a list of things she does immediately after a fresh installation. I usually change the wallpaper to a picture of my cat, replace Evolution with Thunderbird, add in some proprietary codecs, and delete the bottom Gnome panel. Sane defaults should make the sense for the most users. Even though I personally delete the bottom Gnome panel, the vast majority of Gnome users like to have both a top and bottom panel, so to have the top panel only wouldn’t make sense, because it would mean more people would have to take more time configuring things. If defaults are well-thought-out, less time is spent tinkering and adjusting and more time is spent using.
  • Linux live CDs can come in handy, especially if you need to help a Windows user recover deleted data. What happens in a default installation is the first impression that non-Linux user is going to have of Linux and may be the only impression she has. So if an ugly noise or splash screen appears, that’s the impression she’s going to get. It doesn’t matter if that noise or splash screen can be changed. Likewise, if you are using the live CD to show someone what Linux is like, you don’t want to have to “uninstall” and then “install” in the live session a whole bunch of software, especially if the computer you’re using has very little RAM.
  • And don’t forget that even though power users like to tinker and explore, most people just stick with defaults. 99% of Windows computers I see have the taskbar on the bottom, even though you can easily drag it to the top or the sides. 99% of Windows XP computers I see have the stupid blue theme, even though you can easily change to a silver or classic theme. Even though Firefox’s marketshare has skyrocketed in the past five years, Internet Explorer is still, globally the more-used browser over Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari. It being the default web browser in Windows probably had something to do with that.

Yes, if you have an absolutely unbearable default, many people will probably just ditch it anyway, but instead of thinking “I’m so glad I have the freedom to change this setting,” they’ll most likely be thinking “What a terrible default! Who thought of that? Now we’re all going to have to change this!”

Sometimes defaults can have ethical considerations, too. For example, making people have to opt out of sharing information with a company or third-party corporation “partner” is a bad default (people should always have to opt in for that sort of thing), because it means if people forget to change the defaults or don’t investigate all of their basic settings and advanced settings, they will end up sharing more than they intended to share.

So if I see a bad default in Ubuntu, I’m going to make a point to say it’s a bad default. Good defaults matter. I will not, however, spend hours of my time arguing the point back and forth. Some things are a deal… they may not be a big deal, but they are still a deal.


Why fill-in-the-gadget-killers don’t actually kill

Every now and then in the tech news I see a new product announced as the fill-in-the-blank-killer. The most commonly touted is the supposed iPod-killer, though I’ve also seen supposed Macbook Air-killers, supposed Eee-killers, and supposed Google-killers.

The idea that some new product on the horizon is going to metaphorically “kill” some well-established industry-dominant product may make great news, but it’s also based on a faulty assumption that people buy or use products based on the products’ relative quality or features.

iPods aren’t popular because they are the best MP3 players on the market, even if you believe they are best. Google isn’t popular because it is the best search engine available, even if you believe it is the best. Whether iPods or Google is “the best” is irrelevant. Being “the best” may help the products or services retain their popularity, but it isn’t the primary reason they remain popular. It’s not workmanship and features. It’s entrenchment. It’s brand-name recognition. It’s also ignorance.

Do you know how many times I’ve had people assume my Sandisk player is a new kind of iPod? Do you know how many times people get confused when I tell them I don’t have an iPod? They seriously wonder how I’m able to listen to music. The furrowed brow almost says, “Is it possible he still listens to a Walkman… or listens to only records?” There are great things about iPods, I won’t deny. I love the circle scroll wheel, and I have to say they just look pretty. That said, they don’t have radios (and I’m not going to pay $50—the entire cost of my Sandisk player—to get some add-on that will allow an iPod to play the radio), don’t have a microphone, and won’t support drag-and-drop of music (you need a program like iTunes to manage your music transfers).

You could make a case by feature comparisons that many other MP3 players on the market are “better” than the iPods Apple produces. Maybe they can play more music formats. Maybe the sound is “better” for audiophiles. Maybe the battery life is longer. Maybe the screen is bigger. It doesn’t really matter. Most iPod owners I know (not all, of course) own an iPod because that’s all they know, and they don’t want to spend hours researching all the relatively unknown alternatives. iPods are convenient and “everybody” has them. They’re a safe bet. And that’s all people really want, a safe bet and what they’re used to.

I’ve been using Google for years now, and the only time I even considered switching was when the news announced the supposed Google-killer called Cuil. I thought I’d give it a shot, did two searches that turned up no results, and then I switched back to Google. Is it possible that there are better search engines out there than Google? It’s possible, definitely. Do I want to try every single search engine until I find “the best” one? No. Google is what I’m used to, and it works for me.

This is human nature, I think. No one has the time to test out every single option for every single thing they do. You can do a reasonable amount of research before making a choice, especially for big-ticket items (where to attend university, what car to purchase, which house to put a down payment on), but you wouldn’t have any time to live your life if you looked at every single shirt available before buying a shirt, tried every single search engine before picking one, read reviews for every single book before choosing one to read, and studied every restaurant’s menu before eating at one.

It’s for this very reason that I don’t try to “convert” Windows users to Linux. I think Linux is a great alternative to Windows under many circumstances, but if people are happy with Windows and used to it, they should be left alone with their choice. I certainly would get annoyed if people said, “You’re using Google still? What a sheep you are. You should use fill-in-the-blank search engine instead. It’s much better.” I know it’s possible there are better search engines out there. I just don’t see the need to change right now. Google works for me.

Now, that said, if someone complains about her iPod stinking and she wishes it had X, Y, and Z features, I’d be the first to suggest a non-Apple player. And if Google started turning up crappy search results, I’d be the first to ask, “Is there a better search engine than Google?” For something to “kill” the product or service I’m used to, it has to do a lot more than just be “better” or have extra features. It’s not easy to depose a king by promising to be a better king. A revolution against the current tyrant usually has to happen first.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Ubuntu Windows

Freedom for the short-term or the long-term?

As a Ubuntu Forums veteran, I’ve seen many disgruntled potential migrants return to Windows from Ubuntu because they wanted things to “just work.” They would say things like “I don’t really care about software freedom. I just want to be able to play video files and do what I need to do. The computer is just a tool.”

Just as in debates about feminism, there needs in software freedom discussions to be a distinction between short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. If you use a proprietary operating system like Windows and use proprietary formats like .doc and .wmv, you will have a lot of short-term freedom. Buy any device from a consumer-oriented electronics store, and it will be Windows-compatible. Visit any website with Internet Explorer, and it will probably work. Watch any video online, and it will probably play. You can buy from the iTunes store. You can use Netflix’s Watch Now! Any commercial software will be available for purchase for your computer. It seems as if you can do anything. Isn’t that freedom? Yes, it is—it’s short-term freedom.

My wife isn’t really into the whole software freedom thing, and she uses a proprietary operating system (Mac OS X) and lots of proprietary software (Adobe CS3, Safari), but she recognized the other day the importance of long-term software freedom and open standards when she tried to watch a video at on her Mac. It couldn’t be done. It was an embedded Windows Media Player video, and she tried downloading some helper software, but that didn’t work either. Eventually she gave up, frustrated. Why would they make it Windows-only? That’s stupid. Why couldn’t they make it Quicktime?

Well, in that moment (just as when we both found out Netflix wouldn’t support either of our operating systems with its streaming video feature), she knew what it was like to be a Linux user. You don’t get any support. But why should you have to switch to Windows just to play a video? Is that really freedom? If I’m free, shouldn’t I be free to choose what operating system I want to run? My wife loves Mac OS X and would never want to switch back to Windows. She considers running Mac a software freedom, even if it means sacrificing the short-term freedom of watching a video. I love Ubuntu and would never want to switch to Windows, either. I’ve made many sacrifices of short-term freedom as well.

What proprietary formats (yes, Quicktime is one of them, too, as I explained to my wife) do is tell you “You have the freedom to do what you want… as long as you play by our rules.” That’s not long-term freedom. That’s bait and switch.

Take, for example, someone else I know who loves her Mac Mini but feels compelled to get a Windows computer for her new job, because they use Windows-only software, and she’s worried about .docx files not working on Mac. When you get dictated to what operating system you have to run and what computer you have to get, that is also not freedom. And this .docx business is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s not even backward-compatible. If you have Microsoft Office 2003, you can’t handle .docx without some helper program to convert the file.

Open standards are good, and some short-term sacrifices along the way have to be made in order to get them adopted. In 2003, very few people were using Firefox, and there were many sites that didn’t work with Firefox, because there was very little incentive to follow W3C standards since “everyone” used Internet Explorer. Now, there are very few sites that don’t work with Firefox, since smart businesses realize they will lose potential customers if their sites work with only Internet Explorer. And increased Firefox compatibility has benefited Safari and Opera indirectly as well. Now people have a lot more long-term freedom on the web in terms of web browser choice.

You could argue, of course, that open standards and formats are not the same as open source, and that is true. Frankly, I’d be down with that. If people wanted to use proprietary software to create .odt word processing files and .ogg music and video files, I think even open source software users would benefit, and there would be very little software restriction.

If we are to get to that point of long-term software freedom, there have to be some people (like those early Firefox users) willing to make a few short-term software freedom sacrifices in order to have open source software and open formats more widely adopted. That’s why I like what Mark Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu community are doing with Ubuntu. It’s one of the few distributions that is treading a thin line on the free/proprietary line. It wants to be as free as possible while also recognizing that people are still very much reliant on proprietary software. Other Linux distributions tend to be overzealously long-term freedom-oriented or overzealously short-term freedom-oriented.

Yes, the computer is a tool, but if someone dictates which tool you use for a task, is that really freedom?

Further reading
Ubuntu’s Shuttleworth blames ISO for OOXML’s win

Computers Web Browsers

Giving OpenDNS a try

With stories in the tech news about a recently discovered DNS flaw that allows malicious parties to redirect even properly-typed-in URLs to spoof sites’ IP addresses, I got curious about this OpenDNS I keep hearing about. Supposedly it’s faster and also blocks phishing sites, has patched the DNS flaw, has 100% uptime, and allows configuration for blocking other categories of sites as well.

If the terms DNS, IP address, URL, and phishing have you confused, I’ll give you a quick explanation of at least my basic understanding of them. If you have a cell phone, it’s very likely, you store your friends’ and family’s phone numbers in there, but you don’t browse by phone number—you browse by name. If you see Aunt Myrtle and call her, your phone has a translation for itself that says “Aunt Myrtle is really 212-867-5309.” That’s basically how DNS and IP addresses work, too. When you want to go to Google, you type (the URL) in the address bar of Firefox, Opera, Safari, or Internet Explorer; you don’t type (the IP address). The DNS server translates the URL to the IP address. If there’s an exploitable flaw in the DNS server, the people exploiting the flaw may be able to take the proper URL you typed in and point it to an improper IP address. In the analogy I gave before, it would be as if someone messed with your phone and made it so Aunt Myrtle really called 911 instead of 212-867-5309.

Well, I think I see a slight increase of speed, but maybe it’s just a placebo effect. I don’t know. I’m giving OpenDNS a go, and we’ll see if I can live with it hijacking my keyword URL search in Firefox. I know some people have privacy concerns, but really my privacy isn’t any more secure with my ISP’s DNS server than with OpenDNS’s DNS server.

Asus Eee PC Computers

Technology ideas I thought were stupid… until I tried them

I have consumer’s arrogance. I’ll admit it.

While innovators, inventors, businesspeople, and artists are busy working to make money (and art, too, if they’re lucky), I’m comfortably sitting back, relaxing, and critiquing them from my little soapbox of a blog. It’s easy once something has tanked to balk at it, “What were they thinking?”

Sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes they had a good idea in theory, but in practice it was terrible. Sometimes it just didn’t get implemented properly, or it worked for test groups but not consumers at large.

Well, sometimes… sometimes, it actually works!

Here are three products I balked at wrongly. I thought they were stupid until I realized they were brilliant.

  • The iPod’s Scroll Wheel. Yes, I understood the appeal of the iPod. Yes, I knew Apple made slick-looking products. But the scroll wheel baffled me. I thought about the CD players of old. Wouldn’t I just want to click to the next song right or left? Why would I want to go in a circle? Apple knew, though. They knew that people either already had or would soon amass music collections with songs numbering in the thousands, and scrolling through thousands of songs without a scroll wheel is tiring for your fingers. Even though I’ve long since grown disillusioned with iPods and iTunes (I use Sandisk players with Linux now), I do miss the scroll wheel and appreciate it for the brilliant invention it was.
  • The Wii. When I first heard about the Wii, I thought Nintendo was crazy. The name sounded stupid, like a kid peeing. The system’s graphics weren’t in the same class as the PS3. You used the remote to make motions with? What is this—Tron? Well, apparently it is. Gamers and non-gamers, children and adults alike love the Wii. I’m not much of a gamer myself, but I enjoy the Wii, too. It’s like a video game console for non-video-game-players. I even know someone who claims that Wii bowling practice leads to better real-life bowling performance. Not sure about that, but if it’s true, then cool!
  • The Eee PC. Okay. It has a 4 GB hard drive, a crappy webcam, no optical drive, 800×480 screen resolution, a child-size keyboard, and only a 3-hour battery life? Why do I want that? I guess it’s at least cheaper than the Macbook Air by US$1400. If someone had pitched that to me, I would have said, “You must be on crack!” But the Eee PC has been selling quite well for Asus, spawning competition from HP, Acer, Dell, and others, and keeping Asus itself on its toes with a new release with better specs. It’s gotten rave reviews, too. I was intrigued by this little giant and read literally hundreds of reviews before taking the dive and buying one myself, and it’s lived up to the hype even though it isn’t perfect. Asus just realized that these days most of what people use computers for is the internet, and that’s all the Eee really is, an internet appliance that can do a few other cool things, too.

So, hats off to you CEOs who, on rare occasion, know better than I do what will be successful or a good idea.


Chasing the gadget dragon

A lot of tech enthusiasts are wondering whether they should get Eee PCs now or wait until something better comes out… or wait until the Eee’s have a better processor, or wait until the price has come down. My wife has been waiting for ages for the next-generation iPhone to come out.

Technology is moving at such a rapid pace these days that it’s hard to get that perfect deal we’re looking for. By the time such-and-such becomes affordable or better spec’ed, another product has come on the horizon and displaced it.

Sure, occasionally, you can get or miss the good deal (like when my sister-in-law bought an iPod and two weeks later Apple lowered the price by US$100 and included more with it), but most of the time, you’re chasing a ghost. If you need a gadget (“need” here being used loosely, as we don’t really need any gadgets), get it. By the time it dies or appears obsolete to you, there’ll be something else new and exciting around the corner.

I’ll end with a comment from our TV repair guy. Five years ago, my wife and I bought a TV that was state-of-the-art at the time (and very expensive) that is now kind of bulky in comparison to the ship-shape models of today. When it broke, we decided to get it repaired instead of getting it replaced, and we asked the repair guy how long it would last. He said something along the lines of, “It’ll last at least another five years. By then, we’ll all be watching television beamed straight to our brains anyway.” A bit of an exaggeration, of course, but there is truth in that statement.