Google Inbox for Education

Inbox by Gmail is finally available to Google Apps for Education domains.1 This means I can finally use Inbox as my primary email client across the board. When it launched, it was mostly a clone of the now defunct Mailbox, but it has really grown over time. There are two main reasons I prefer it to the other mailbox-like email apps.

One, it is available basically everywhere. There are apps for both iOS and Android, and the web client works great on basically everything else.

Two, it is made by Google. You do not need to rely on a third party server and all the potential security issues that brings. It is also not going to break because of some server side change that Google implements.

It’s a great productivity apps that can help keep your inbox sane, and I highly recommend Google Apps both enable it for their users and actively encourage its use.

  1. It was supposed to be enabled automatically, but I had to check a box in the admin console.

A Goodbye to Tekserve

I walked into Tekserve on my 23rd birthday and filled out a job application. Two weeks later I was sitting in the service area1 a few seats away from Harrison Ford, with his PowerBook, as I waited for my first day of training. It was clear this place would be special.

Today is Tekserve’s final day as a retail and service location, after 29 years serving the Apple community. Having not grown up in NYC I didn’t have memories of its early days. I remember it from Apple discussion boards online, back when those were new, and of course from the immortal Sex and the City episode. But then I got to work there. It was my first real adult job. I went in thinking I would spend a few months there. It ended up being over eight years.

I was already a huge Mac nerd, but this job pushed that up to 11. It was an eye opening experience where I really got to know all the things I didn’t know. And this was when Apple really had only two products, Macs and iPods. There was no iPhone, no iPad, no Apple TV.2 My phone was a Treo 650. In fact, for the first year I was the “Palm Guy”. There was a need for that back then.

I don’t think anyone who worked there left without feeling an amazing sense of community. Tekserve was not perfect, goodness knows it was not perfect, and there were a lot of missteps along the way. But the people who worked there were, and remain, among my closest friends. These were smart, interesting, driven people. I learned so much from them, and they learned from me in turn. It was a community. For all the complaints you may have seen of Tek employees as snobbish, aloof hipsters3, the place was, at its best, unapologetically New York. Hard, rough around the edges, but honest and real.

Unfortunately this is really what is being lost. Anyone who follows Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York knows what is happening. The combination of mega-corporate retail, the internet, and the shockingly high rent in New York City is erasing these kind of places. In their place are bland, stale, faceless machines. Whatever your opinion of Tekserve, it was not this.

So even though I have not worked there in nearly two years, it will never forget my time there. Tekserve was the start of a career, the start of friendships, and the start of an entire chapter of my life. It was a special place that existed at a special time. And the Apple community is a little bit less of a community now that Tekserve, and so many of the small Apple Specialists like it are disappearing.

So goodbye Tekserve. We will miss you, but we will never forget you.

  1. “Intake” as it was known internally.
  2. Although it was coming soon.
  3. Thanks Yelp.

The Ads that Work

I generally don’t see advertising these days. For all the tracking that websites do, they don’t offer much in the way of relevant ads beyond just showing me the last thing I saw on Amazon. TV ads are more often than not loud, annoying interruptions that send me diving for the remote to either skip past them or at least mute.

The only products and services I can think of that I purchased as the result of an ad recently would be:

  • Linode
  • Hover
  • Lynda.com
  • ITPro.tv
  • Fracture

My next mattress will most likely be from Casper.

Guess what all these things have in common. They were podcast ads. For all the talk of podcasts needing more data and analytics, the shows I listen to seem to be doing fine without it. It’s almost as if they know their audience. Hm…

Pokémon Go Failed at Security, but Google Failed Harder

If you downloaded Pokémon Go (and there is a good chance that you did as it is at the top of the App Store charts), you may have tried to create a Pokémon trainer account, only to find that the servers were overloaded and that you can’t. So you likely moved to the other option, which is to use your Google account. If you happened to be using iOS, what you ended up doing was giving Niantic full access to your Google account. This means that short of deleting it entirely or spending money, they have almost limitless access to your Google data. This includes your emails, you contacts, your documents, your photos, and more.

Full Google account access granted to Pokemon

This is extremely bad. Any rogue employee at the company could potentially access any users personal data if they could gain high enough credentials. That is to say nothing of a potential server breach, which just became infinitely more valuable. While this is likely a mistake, it is a pretty major one.

But even worse is that Google allowed this to happen in the first place. At no point during the login is it ever presented to you that you are giving this high a level of access. Most other apps present a dialog explaining the permissions that you are about to grant before allowing you to confirm. But in this case, nothing. Full access is silently granted. This is a malicious hackers dream come true.

Not only should it never be possible to skip the permissions screen, but anything requesting full access should pop up a big, scary warning to make it painfully clear that you are about to sign over the keys to the kingdom. Especially considering how many Google accounts are being used in education and business. I question whether this should be an option at all for anyone other than a properly vetted and trusted partner. This is inexcusable both in that this is being allowed to happen, and that Google has not as of this writing blocked access. They should take their users account security far more seriously than being an inconvenience to Niantic.

And Niantic needs to issue a statement on this whole mess beyond “No comment to share at the moment.” No, sorry, the correct answer is “Holy crap we messed up and we have our engineers working to sort this out yesterday! All hands on deck.” This is a major security error that requires an emergency patch.

For now at least, revoke the app’s authorization. This will cut it off completely (that’s what is nice about OAuth, your password is not sent to the other company, so you can revoke access without having to change it).

Authenticating through a third party, especially one that is (normally) as secure as Google has its benefits. It means a hack on the third party won’t disclose your passwords, preventing the massive data dumps we have seen time and again. But I can’t help but feel we have allowed ourselves to become way too comfortable granting this access to our most important repositories of information. Google needs some serious quality control over what it allows to access your data. Say what you will about Apple’s app review. They may be heavy handed, but their demands to developers that they explain their reasons for requesting your data goes a long way to prevent this kind of error.

The Gorilla in the Room

In case you somehow missed the story that took over Memorial Day Weekend here in the US, a four year old boy fell into a gorilla pen at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the zoo workers shot and killed the gorilla to keep him from harming the child. Pretty much a terrible story all around.

But this was not enough for the internet. Oh no, indignant people armed with keyboards have been savaging everyone from the mother – mostly riffing on terms like “stupid bitch” and the like – to the zookeepers. People who were not there, who do not know any of the people involved, and who are not experts in great ape behavior all rushed to make their opinions heard loudly and forcefully.

This was one of the ugliest digital mobs I have seen in a while. It has made me question the value of social media in its entirety. I think we are losing our fucking minds in the vast echo chamber that is our carefully curated list of friends. It was a pathetic display of humanity that millions of people gleefully took part in.

Maybe the mother was at fault. Maybe the enclosure was poorly constructed. But there is no way for any of us who were not there to have any reasonable grasp on the situation, and we certainly will not become experts after watching a few minutes of someone’s cell phone video. Hell even if you were there the chances that you would have carefully seen every minute detail of what happened are slim to none. Sometimes tragedies happen. But what I really cannot understand is other parents attacking this parent. I am not a parent, but if I were and I thought an animal was going to harm my child, I would strangle it with my bare hands and not feel bad about having done so.

These demonization fads run across social media from time to time, but this one felt a lot bigger and a lot more vicious. Again I know nothing about this mother, but short of her throwing her child over the railing she does not deserve the level of vitriol being spewed. She has become the victim of, to borrow a phrase from Clarence Thomas, a high tech lynching. You know the scene where the villagers go the kill the beast in Beauty and the Beast? That was you this weekend Facebook users, are you happy?

Actually I think you are, and that is the real tragedy here. From the safety of your own internet connection you stuck your nose in and tore apart everyone and everything you could get your hands on. This whole thing was absolutely shameful. Shame on you if you took joy in your own superiority at the expense of strangers. And remember, this monster can turn on you at any moment. And when it does, how will you be judged?

iSmoothRun: Lapping RunKeeper in the Race for Best Running App

I have been a RunKeeper user basically since I started running regularly back in 2009. I would go so far as to credit the app with helping me go from being winded after a mile to completing 13 marathons and over a hundred other races within the last seven years. But lately things have been going wrong. Very wrong. Every update has been worse than the last. I submitted tickets, I hoped that things would get better, but it got me nowhere. The app crashes more often than it works, the watch app is useless, and the whole experience with the platform has become a big bloated mess. Unfortunately, in light of RunKeeper’s sale to ASICS, it appears to be yet another tech startup being destroyed by its own success.

This all reminded me of a running app I downloaded forever ago but gave little thought to over the years, iSmoothRun. After a month of using it instead of RunKeeper, I have no intention to switch back. This app now occupies the space on my home screen that RunKeeper has had for seven years. With this new app in hand, I can continue to use RunKeeper’s backend service for now as it still functions well enough, but am no longer locked into their increasingly buggy iPhone app.

First of all, the most important feature of iSmoothRun is that it is stable. You would think this is an obvious feature, but somehow it seems to get missed amongst the third or fourth rebranding. I have not had it crash on me yet. Not once. It is not my idea of a good run when I have to stop to take my phone out and troubleshoot why an app is no longer working. iSmoothRun gives me the peace of mind that this won’t happen.

iSmoothRun is easily the most customizable app I have ever used. Not just running app, any app. The device’s main display during a run is completely under your control. Want to see average pace instead of current pace? No problem. Or show both, or neither. There are 11 spaces on the main screen for different stats and none are locked in. If, for some reason, you didn’t want to see time and distance, you can swap them for something else. Pretty much every stat you could imagine is available to you here. The same goes for the Apple Watch display. You pick the stats that are important to you.

iSmoothRun dashboard setup
The setup screen for the dashboard displayed when tracking a run. Every single section is editable.

Perhaps the most important reason I am switching to iSmoothRun is its integration with other services. Pretty much every other running app available is all about getting you locked into their system. So while they may offer some import and export capability, it is never straightforward or simple. iSmoothRun has 16 different integrated services (not counting Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, or email) and you are free to use as many or as few as you wish. RunKeeper is one of the services and iSmoothRun has virtually 100% compatibility with it. Looking at runs tracked side by side it would be impossible to tell which app was used. It is that good. But because of the extra possibilities I have started exploring additional services. Strava looks to be the most interesting of the group so far. By signing in and enabling export on save, my run is automatically sent to every account I have chosen. No more lock in, no more requesting downloads of my data. This alone is worth switching for, stability aside.

iSmoothRun supported accounts
Supported accounts. The full list does not fit in a single screenshot!

It should also be noted that if you prefer to stay offline, that is fine too. iSmoothRun does not require you to connect to any service, giving you a completely private running log.

There are a few minor issues with iSmoothRun. Currently, the Apple Watch app cannot actually save a run, which means that it does not reflect in the Workout section of the Activity app. The workaround here is to also start the built in Workout app on the watch, but having to enable two apps is not ideal. The developer has stated that this capability has been developed, so hopefully we see it soon. Also, the Watch app does not do a great job of heart rate monitoring, but this looks to be more a watch limitation. A dedicated chest strap for heart rate is a good purchase if you care about that sort of thing (the Wahoo TICKR works very well for me).

iSmoothRun is one of the few paid-up-front, independently developed fitness apps left in the App Store. It is a travesty what the activewear companies who purchased the rest have done to those products. It is clear that they have absolutely no respect for the users. It’s all about branding and marketing, and the products have suffered dearly for it. iSmoothRun is a breath of fresh air. An app that cares about the user experience, that respects you and your data, and that works exactly as promised every time. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

TiVo’s Reassurance is Unreassuring

TiVo’s email to customers stating that they will not change their commitment to their customers; 109 words.

Legal disclaimer at the bottom of the email telling you not to believe said email and that anything and everything may be changed; 1282 words.

I am not holding out much hope here.

TiVo's email with small content section and giant legal disclaimer.

Apple Watch 365 Award (10 Days Early)

Yesterday I got the 365 day move goal award on the Apple Watch. Which would be very cool, if it had been the 365th day I met my goal. But my both my count and by the move streak award’s, it was only the 355th day. Not sure if this is a weird glitch that hit just me (perhaps related to my previous issues with my broken then repaired move goal) or if it is more widespread. Not seeing many reports elsewhere, then again you would need to have not missed a day since the watch’s release. That may be a small number.

Apple watch move goal award for 365 days.

Let’s Encrypt (Our WordPress Blogs)

Websites hosted on WordPress’s commercial service are now encrypted using certificates from Let’s Encrypt, the free certificate authority that removes both the cost and complexity from HTTPS. If you host a site on wordpress.com, this is already available too you with no additional effort required on your part.

If you have your own hosted WordPress site and you can install software to your server, it is fairly easy to get the Let’s Encrypt software up and running. I recently migrated this site to a VPS and had no issue getting Let’s Encrypt up and running. Many shared hosting services such as DreamHost have also added support.

HTTPS is moving closer and closer to the default state of the web, and that is a good thing. A notable holdout at the moment is SquareSpace, which has never allowed custom certificates, even paid ones. I had an exchange with them on Twitter not that long ago but they did not commit to any timeframe on support for secure connections. I would urge them to move on this before it becomes a competitive disadvantage.

If you are just starting out with creating a website, I would make support for free and easy HTTPS a requirement when choosing your host.

The Apple Watch Needs Some Love

At this week’s Apple event, the Apple Watch got new bands and a $50 price drop. That was it. A software update came out later that day, but got no mention on stage at all. I have had my watch since day one, and if I were to get a survey today measuring my satisfaction with the product, I would have to place myself in the “unsatisfied” category. Yes, there are things that work fine, and there are features I am happy to have. But a large part of the promise of the watch, for me at least, is still falling flat almost a year later.

The biggest reason I use my watch is for fitness. Third party fitness apps were very limited in the first watchOS, but in the second gained, in theory, first class capabilities. Unfortunately none of the apps I have tried using have worked reliably. They either crash at best, or corrupt data at worst. I have had to stop so many runs to take my phone out and restart my fitness tracker there because of the watch’s instability. If the promise of the watch was to touch your phone less, it has failed here.

Even other apps and complications have not been a good experience. I think just about every Apple Watch owner has experienced opening an app, seeing the spinner turn for what feels like forever, and then giving up and taking out the phone app instead. Third party complications frequently do not update often enough to be useful. Even built in apps have difficulty syncing data with my phone. For example, I have an event in my calendar on the watch that I deleted weeks ago, but it refuses to sync to the watch, even as other events do. If I cannot rely on the information on the watch, I end up taking out the phone again.

From my own informal questioning of other watch users there seems to be a split. Many are perfectly happy with their watch. But I almost uniformly heard from these people that they are not using very much, if anything, beyond the built in functionality. That’s fine, but that isn’t how Apple sold this product, and it is not a good sign for it as a platform going forward. It seems like a lot of developers have abandoned their watch app entirely, as it has proven difficult, if not impossible to make it work well.

When the iPhone first came out, people would ask me about it and if it was worth getting one. Back then it was an enthusiastic “YES”, and I could easily launch into a 15 minute demo of all the reasons a person would really want one of these. I was hardly the only early adopter doing this, and within a few years virtually everyone was buying a smartphone of some kind. With the watch, my response has been much more muted. The best answer I can give is “I like it” and maybe I would show how it tracks my activity.

At this point I have uninstalled nearly all third party watch apps and will revert to the built in, base functionality for now. I think the best I can hope for is that Apple Watch 2 solves a lot of the issues of this first generation hardware. I am willing to accept that the first version of a new product will have its share of issues. But with watchOS, each release seems to be getting less stable than the one before. That isn’t good. I want to love the Apple Watch, I really do. But right now it feels more like we are merely tolerating each other.