Tech Blog or Press Release Machine

One of my biggest internet pet peeves is news sites and blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases for companies without any attempt to provide context or additional useful information. Verizon launched their Up program today. Up allows you to earn points that you can use toward things such as Apple Music subscriptions. Unfortunately it also comes with a requirement that you surrender a pretty substantial amount of privacy to them and their advertisers.

But you would not know this from reading tech blogs. Both 9to5Mac and MacRumors ran with the stores with no mention of the privacy implications. MacRumors as since updated the post to point this out. But not 9to5 as of this writing.

Far be it from me to tell people that they should not be allowed to trade their privacy for a few discounts. If they decide it is worth the tradeoff, go right ahead. But come on tech blogs, this is not a minor point with this service. It does a huge disservice to your readers to not mention it. I can get press releases direct from Verizon’s PR channels.

At least some sites such as The Verge and ArsTechnica were very clear about how this program works.

So yeah, I won’t be signing up for Verizon Up. I would not recommend you do either. Up to you, but know what you are signing up for first.

iPhone at 10

Ten years ago today I woke up before the sun rose, grabbed a folding chair, and went out to what was still the “new” Apple Store in midtown Manhattan. When I got there, I had to walk around the block to the now shuttered FAO Schwartz toy store (ironically currently inhabited by a temporary Apple Store) and got in line. According to someone who was keeping count, I was number 163. It would grow into the thousands as the day went on. I and a fellow Tekserve employee took off work to sit outside until 6pm. When the store opened and we were led inside, it felt as close to walking the red carpet at the Oscars I will likely ever get. An entire wall of reporters and photographers greeted us at the entrance of the store. We even got featured on Gizmodo.

It is almost hard to believe the iPhone is 10 years old. 

We take it for granted now, but the iPhone, and smartphones in general were not a sure bet at the time. The smartphone market of 2007 was focused almost entirely on business customers, with the sole exception of the T-Mobile Sidekick. Those of us who were in tech knew it would be a big deal, but the public at large had to be convinced. I remember earlier that year being outside on the boardwalk at Atlantic City on my Palm Treo. People were impressed that I could access the internet out there. At Walt Disney World the year after the iPhone’s release there were only a small number of us with them. By my visit the next year, everyone had one.

The line for the original phone was a lot of fun. This was before the lines were overrun by resellers, and Apple started to downplay these kind of launches for that very reason. It felt like a big block party at times. Walking down into the store, with the employees applauding, and boxes of brand new iPhones everywhere, it really was magical.

I don’t think anything else in personal tech will compare to what the iPhone did. We often talk of Apple “Sherlocking” other tech; taking existing products and making them obsolete. Just think of what the iPhone sherlocked: cell phones, GPS, cameras, music players, plane tickets, maps, 411, address books, day planners, and for many people even their computers and televisions.

The original iPhone did not need to be set up in the store, you took it home and did it yourself in iTunes. I ran home, plugged it in, and got to be one of the first people outside Cupertino to actually use it. You could tell this was special. In retrospect, it is kind of quaint now. The original iPhone had 16 apps, no more, no less. Compared to the iPhone I hold in my hands now, that first device was tiny, and had an almost laughably low resolution. The cellular network was dial up speed. But compared to its contemporaries, there was no contest. My Treo instantly felt ancient. The existing smartphone makers, who dismissed Apple, never recovered. None of the platforms that were common 10 years ago have survived to present day.

Back in 2007 it still wasn’t clear to me that I would make technology a full time career. I liked it, but I still wasn’t totally sure. I feel like getting that first iPhone and being the iPhone “expert” in the early months finally pushed me over that line. It remains my favorite technology purchase of all time. Even though the first iPhone has been far surpassed by the ones that came after it, that first one was special. A lot of technologies get too much credit for the change they brought. But with this device, the credit is entirely justified.

Happy 10th birthday iPhone.

We the Writers Must Do Better

Whenever a tech company gets caught doing something sketchy, the response is almost always something along the lines of “We need to do better”. This week it was unroll.me issuing the “Sorry not sorry you are upset / we need to do better” statement after it came to light that they were straight up selling your data out to the highest bidder.1

It is common wisdom in tech circles that if the product is free, then you are the product. And yet, these business keep popping up, offing free services with not a hint of a business model in sight. And they keep growing. Why?

While running a search for more about unroll.me I got the following result in Google, which brilliantly demonstrates the problem.

And it is not just CNET. Searching for results from 2013 (when it became prominent) brings up dozens of articles glowingly covering the service, including LifeHacker, PCWorld, and mainstream news such as ABC and Newsweek.

People use these services because they hear about them. And they are free. So what do you have to lose? Turns out what you have to lose is your every thought, every business transaction, and any hint of privacy you may still have. Because we keep telling people to go ahead and try it out.

So we need to do better. I need to do better, and everyone else who writes about technology needs to do better.

Those of us who write about tech need to start taking this into account. From now on I won’t review any app or service unless I have a reasonable understanding of its business model. If it doesn’t have one, that is a huge red flag. And yes, I will even start reading terms of service and privacy policies. This does not mean I won’t ever recommend an app that allows advertising or tracking. But it needs to be reasonable, and I will be sure to highlight it.

I can’t promise to never lead a reader down there wrong path2, but I will at least make sure they are properly informed. And the Slices of the world can find someone else to push their invasive services. I want no part of it.

  1. Uber in this case. Because there is no rake on this earth that they cannot resist stomping on.
  2. Companies can lie, or at best tell partial truths.

The Internet is Optional for Some

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin voted to eliminate the new ISP privacy law that was set to go into effect. This has been an unpopular decision across the board, regardless of political leanings. But Sensenbrenner isn’t backing down. According to him, “Nobody’s got to use the Internet.”

Of course, anyone who has tried to get a job anytime in the last decade knows that this really isn’t true. Sure, they may be some way to live entirely offline, but it would put you at massive disadvantage compared to your online peers.

It would be easy to blame his age for these comments, but I think it comes more from his profession. He has been in congress since 1979. He has not had any need to experience the hiring market since then. While it is true that he has had to run for reelection every two years, the incumbency rate for the US Congress is around 90%. Sensenbrenner has, in some years, run unopposed. He is someone who has the unusual benefit of being able to avoid such modern necessities.

This is a bipartisian problem. Our representatives live in their own alternate reality. And their decisions, often flying in the face of all logic, reflect this. This is DC syndrome, and it is highly infectious.

Thing is though, while he may not use the internet, I’ll bet you his staff does. And I will bet they use it a lot. This is another thing congressional members have that the public at large lacks, a personal staff at their disposal 24/7.

So here is my challenge to Rep. Sensenbrenner. If this internet is truly optional, prove it. For your 2018 reelection, run it as you did your first election 40 years ago. No internet, no cell phones, no social media, no email. This includes you and everyone on your staff. Break out the corded phones and typewriters. Get a taste of what it would be like for one of your constituents to try to succeed in the modern world without using modern tools to do it.

Quiver: Code and Commands

In Part 1 of my series on leaving Evernote I took a look at Google Keep. Part 2 is an app that most people will have no need for, but it ended up being a very useful tool in my day to day work. It is Quiver, a note taking app designed specifically for code.

I actually started using Quiver while I was still using Evernote. While Evernote was an okay place to store code snippets, it wasn’t ideal. Notes are rich text by default, and if you wanted any sort of syntax highlighting, you had to do it by hand. Evernote was not designed with this task in mind.

Quiver is different. Code is its purpose. Yes, it can be made to function as a very nice plaintext note app, but that isn’t the primary purpose. Like Evernote you can create various notebooks, each storing a collection of individual notes. The notes can contain a mix of “cells” that are either rich text, code, markdown, latex, and diagram.

The code cells are the big one for me. Quiver isn’t an IDE, nor is it meant to be. I don’t use it to write any complex scripts or programs. But my job does require me to use a lot of commands, whether it be managing Macs, configuring switches, or setting up servers. I can’t keep it all in my head. Quiver has been extremely valuable for recording and finding these commands. In particular those ones that are used infrequently. I can’t commit them to memory, but I can easily find them in my Quiver library. It provides the answer to those “how did I solve that last time” questions. I also created a few notebooks for my “standard setups”. If I need to quickly spin up a web server, I can open that notebook, follow the commands in order, and end up with a system configured exactly how I want, with all the security settings that are important to not overlook. Yes, I know how to do this in my head, for the most part, but being able to follow a checklist pretty much guarantees I am not accidentally skipping a step.

The only real downside to Quiver right now is that it does not have an iOS component. A beta was announced a while ago, but nothing has come of that yet. Quiver does support sync via Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive, so I am able to keep a copy on both my home and work MacBook Pro. I use Dropbox for sync and has been completely reliable. The library can be stored anywhere, so in theory you could set up your own server and sync through it in the event you were syncing sensitive data and would rather not trust a public cloud service.

Given that I rarely do this kind of work on iOS, it isn’t a big deal right now that the iOS version has yet to materialize. It is something to keep in mind if you are regularly using an iPad for this kind of work.

Most people don’t need Quiver, and you could easily use another tool to store code notes. But I like having a tool dedicated to this task. I can very quickly find the commands I am looking for without returning a whole bunch of other unrelated results. If you are a programer, sysadmin, or any job that requires regular use of the command line and / or programming languages, this is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

Google Keep – Modern Stickies

Stickies is that Mac app that you either ignore completely or use for everything. It has been on the Mac for a very long time, one of the few apps from the classic OS days that still ships with macOS today. It is one of those apps that is just there, rarely getting an update and never getting mentioned. And yet people love it because it serves a very specific need; they are quick notes that are easily glanceable.

Among the many downsides of Stickies.app is the inability to access them anywhere than one local Mac.1 It is a pure, old school, local only app. That may work, but it is far from ideal in today’s multi device world.

Enter Google Keep. Keep has been around for a while. It is one of those Google apps that gets a big announcement, and then you rarely hear from again. When it was announced a lot of people compared it to Evernote and listed it as a competitor. It isn’t. But it does make a very compelling modern replacement for Stickies.

Keep gives you a canvas of card-like notes. You can even color them in the colors commonly seen with physical sticky notes. It is on the web as well as iOS and Android, along with a curious ChromeOS app that breaks out of the browser for some reason.2

When I first tried Google Keep I threw a ton of data at it, and it quickly got overwhelming. There is a web clipper similar to most other note taking apps, but all it does is save a URL, unlike Evernote’s clipper that will attempt to grab the whole page.

Where Keep came in handy was for taking down a quick note that either needed to be referred to often, or that was a task that needed to be completed. For example, at work I will take down order numbers or repair invoices while I work on them. This makes it much easier to find when I need to. When I complete them, I archive the note. Like Gmail, Keep has a one button archive that removes the note from view, but keeps it around in case you ever need it again. If the text grows into more of a document, there is a one click option to make a Google Doc.

Another nice thing about Keep is that if you set a reminder on a note, it will also appear in Google Inbox and Google Calendar. This makes Keep a great choice for task related notes if you are invested in Google’s ecosystem.

My biggest complaint about Keep is that is lacks an API. This a bit of a disturbing trend I have noticed with Google, who used to be very good about allowing programmers to augment their products in interesting ways. It makes it impossible to use Keep with any of the automation apps on iOS, somewhat blunting the impact it could otherwise have.

Keep is useful for what it does. If you find yourself scribbling down notes on actual stickies, Keep may well serve a useful function for you. For the things I need quick, glanceable access too, it is much faster than Evernote. I never have more than 10 to 20 notes outside of the archive, and that seems to be the key to how it works best for me.

  1. They are stored in a database file in ~/Library that many people miss when backing up or transferring their data.
  2. ChromeOS does this sometimes. Why one app is a webpage and another is standalone is anyone’s guess.

The Apps that Replaced Evernote

After quitting Evernote I went off in search of the One True Evernote Replacement. Turns out there is no such thing. Or rather, I found that there shouldn’t be. I used Evernote much as the creators intended, as a repository of basically everything I could ever want to recall at a later date. While this has an advantage in that there is one unified place for everything, in practice there was a hidden cost. Actually using the data I had saved was becoming a burden. So rather than replace Evernote with a single app, I replaced it with four.

  • Google Keep: Short, frequently referred to notes, as well as tasks. Basically the modern replacement for Stickies.
  • Microsoft OneNote: The most Evernote-like of my new apps. This is where I take longer text notes, as well as clipping websites I intend to use often and/or annotate.
  • DEVONthink: This is an app I knew about but never used before. It ended up being a near perfect solution to “place where I save things that I may or may not ever need again”. Receipts, attachments, random screenshots, and most of all, web articles I am saving “just in case”.
  • Quiver: Specifically for code notes.

It is counterintuitive that four different apps would perform better and be more convenient than one, but it ends up working better in day to day use. Everything has its place, in an app optimized for that purpose. I will explore each of these solutions in detail in subsequent posts.

One question that you may ask is “Why not Apple Notes?” It is true that Apple Notes has gotten much, much better in recent years. And for most people I think it is the right solution. But that usually ends up a liability for me. Anything that is “right for almost everyone” tends to be wrong for someone as particular as I am. Notes is great, but the apps I ended up settling on are all better in ways that, though small, total up to being a more enjoyable experience. I am not knocking Notes or its capabilities, but it is not quite what I am looking for.

Goodbye Evernote

I am quitting Evernote, and this time it will be permanent. I have have given then the benefit of so many doubts that I honestly can’t remember the last time I was genuinely happy with the product. The level of mismanagement at this company is simply astounding. This week’s change to the privacy policy broke the camel’s back. I said over a year ago I would leave. I have given them much more time to sort things out than I said I would. Despite being in a hole so deep that sunlight can’t reach the bottom, they just kept digging and digging.

Somehow, at a moment when a large portion of the world is in a total panic over their digital privacy, Evernote thought it would be a good idea to opt everyone into letting their staff see our notes without our knowledge. Of course the CEO tried to explain away the change using the Silicon Valley version of “I’m sorry you were offended”. Then, after that didn’t quell the storm, they backtracked entirely. But it doesn’t matter. I no longer have any trust in the leadership at this company to do the right thing.

I stuck around through the product getting bloated and slow.

I stuck around through “Would you like to try Work Chat?”

I stuck around when they started selling socks.

I stuck around when they started inserting links to useless articles.

I stuck around when the jacked up the price with no new features or fixes.

I stuck around when they lost some of my data.

I could excuse a lot if the product got better. But it is slower than ever, to the point that I rarely even open the app on anything other than my MacBook Pro, and even there is painful. They ruined Skitch, which was a great app once upon a time. They don’t need to improve their machine learning. They need to improve the core app. But it seems this won’t be happening.

It pains me to leave. I have been using Evernote since day one of the App Store. I have been a paying user nearly that entire time. I taught classes on Evernote at Tekserve. But at some point you have to admit that the relationship no longer works and it is time to move on.

I expect that one day students in business school will study Evernote as an example of how startups can go horribly wrong.

As I type these words, I am running the Microsoft OneNote Import Tool to move all my notes over. Then I will delete each and every one from Evernote’s servers. And then the elephant will go to the trash.

Super Mario Running Toward One Star Reviews

Super Mario Run launches tomorrow. It will be very successful. It will also get a lot of one star reviews. This is because it will require an internet connection to play. I know this. You probably know this if you have read any tech news recently.

But most people don’t read tech news. They won’t know. They will buy the app because it will be marketed heavily. Mario is a cultural phenomenon. Everyone knows Mario games. This despite being “expensive” by App Store standards at $10.

These users, unaware of the copy protection that will require a constant internet connection, will go into the subway, or on to a plane, or anywhere with no or limited connection, and the app will fail. Nintendo does not have enough experience with mobile gaming to realize the problem. Users will be angry.

And then be on the lookout for 1.1, which will feature a new “offline mode”.

My Year with Google Photos

About a year ago iCloud Photo Library failed me. It was not the first time, but it was the last. While Photo Library has generally gotten much better reviews than most of iCloud’s other services, for some reason I continually ran into issues. So as with nearly everything else in my life, I looked to Google to ease my iCloud woes. And I have been extremely happy. Google Photos was born out of the remains of both Picasa and Google+. The former was a well liked, but aging desktop/cloud hybrid app. The latter Google’s desperate, and ultimately failed attempt at competing with Facebook in the social network field. Photos is Google at it’s best; a fast, reliable, easy to use cloud app.

Getting Started

This proved to be the most difficult part of switching to Google Photos, or at least the most time consuming. At this point all of my photos were in Apple’s Photos app for the desktop. My goal was to transfer this directly into Google, keeping my existing albums. Unfortunately, there were no tools that made this automatic. Google does have an uploader tool, but all it does it point at the originals folder within the Photos library structure. There are two problems with this. The first is that any edits made in Photos will not be uploaded, only the original version. I wanted my edits, and the inability to revert to the originals once in Google was not a concern. The second issue was my albums. The uploader does not load albums at all.

The solution was to first export all the photos from my Albums, and upload each album one at a time to Google. Once those albums were all created there, I exported every single photo and video from my Photos library, using the current version, and uploaded them in batches of 500. Trying to upload more than 500 at a time slowed the process to a crawl. I uploaded everything by simply dragging into Chrome. It is impressive both on the server side and on the browser side that I never experienced a single problem with this upload process. The photos already loaded into albums were skipped. There were no duplicate photos when I was done.

I should also note that I have a G Suite unlimited account, so storage is not a concern and I used the full originals. But even if you don’t have a professional account, Google Drive has very reasonable pricing and in my opinion it is worth paying to be able to upload originals.

There was only one other issue I encountered. Videos I shot on my iPhone as either slow motion or time lapse did not retain these properties when uploaded through the browser. Only when loaded directly from my phone. The solution here was to send these videos back to my phone via AirDrop and use the iOS app to upload these videos. Google’s web app won’t show the slow motion videos the way the phone does, but they do work correctly when downloaded.

iOS Apps

Now that all my historical data was there, I set up the iPhone and iPad apps to upload all photos and videos in original form to Google as soon as they are taken. Unlike iCloud Photos, there was no long sync at the beginning to pull the existing library down. It was all there right away. Uploads are fast and I have yet to see a single photo or video fail. If you have an iPhone capable of taking Live Photos, these will be uploaded and can be displayed within the app. It isn’t quite as nice as in the default app, but it works well enough. The web app does not support Live Photos unfortunately.

Another advantage of Google Photos is that it supports multiple accounts, something you cannot do in iCloud Photo Library. Since my work account is also a Google Apps account, I can take photos on my phone that are work related and upload those, and only those, to my work account. Since only the primary account auto uploads I don’t have to worry about any unintended uploads to my work account. A single tap switches between the two.

Google has heavily marketed this app as a space saving feature. Google Photos will, if you choose to do so, remove any photos and videos from your local storage once they are safely stored in the cloud. Apple does a similar thing with iCloud Library, but it still maintains a smaller version of the photo on your local device. With Google Photos you can remove the photo completely, leaving it only in the cloud. If you have a phone with lower storage this can be a huge help. Even if you don’t (my iPhone 7 Plus is 256GB) it still can help reduce iCloud backup sizes. No need to keep the photos in two places.

Reliablity

I have never had an upload issue with Google Photos. Ever. Only once did I have a problem at all, with the iPad app not displaying new photos uploaded from other devices. The fix was simply to delete the app and reinstall. That was it. When I had to do this with iCloud Photo Library it took hours for the photos to clear from my device (you can’t delete Photos.app, only turn off iCloud).

I can load photos from anywhere. If I am on my work computer all I have to do is open Chrome and upload the photo. Then sign out if I don’t want to keep everything there. While iCloud has a web app for photos, it is extremely basic. Google gives me the whole experience.

Another selling point of Google Photos is its ability to search. Given that it is Google this is not a surprise. But still it is amazing just how accurate this feature is. Apple is trying the same thing, but Google does it faster, more reliably, and can sync everything across the web. Privacy concerns aside, and I will say that I do trust Google to do the right thing, it makes me feel like I can rely on Google much more than Apple when I want to actually find my photos.

Feature Requests

Great as Google Photos is, there are some features they are missing that I would like to see. While search is great on its own, I would like to see some sort of smart album capability. Apple does this well, and its absence in Google Photos makes it a little more difficult to drill down into my library the way I am used to. Another feature from Photos.app that I miss is the ability to create printed products such as books, calendars, and cards. I have used this service extensively over the years and would love to see it built into the places where my photos now live. Having said that, I still keep my old Photos library on an external drive, and will occasionally load photos from Google into it. This way I still have my local photo library and can use those missing features, but I consider Google my true library.

Conclusion

Google Photos is a stellar product. It is all the best parts of Google. Their ability to do a reliable and easy to use web app is unmatched in the industry. Their iOS app is amazingly good, especially considering it is on their main competitor’s platform. While there are certainly people who are wary of Google due to the sheer amount of information they collect, I think Google has proven that, a few lapses in judgement aside, they have been respectful of user’s privacy in relation to this service. Despite Apple’s improvements in iCloud, I see no reason to return. Google Photos gets large feature upgrades frequently, not once a year. Ultimately I trust Google more. I trust that when I sync data to their servers it will work. Apple has a way to go to reach this level of trust for me. And that is okay. The iPhone is the best camera you can get on a smartphone. The fact that someone else provides the best place to keep those photos does not take away from that fact for me.