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.

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.

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.

Evernote’s Expiration Date

Since 2008, when the App Store first opened its doors, one app has consistently been on my home screen – Evernote. The combination of a great syncing service, a fabulous API, fantastic organization, and ubiquity across every platform you could imagine made them the note taking app. But as of late, things are not looking so good. They replaced their CEO, slashed jobs, and have generally seemed unfocused. But the biggest problem is that their core product has become a slow, bloated mess. And I am tired of it.

To give you an idea just how much an Evernote lover I am, at my old job I helped bring a whole group of people, some of them company directors, into the Evernote fold. I gave regular classes on the product and used it all the time as an example of an app that everyone had to try.

Early on the app was in a class of its own. But increasingly the note space is getting more crowded and the competition is getting better. Even the built in Apple Notes app has gone from a bit of an afterthought to a real contender in this space.

Increasingly I find I barely go into Evernote during the day. The mainstream problem is the incredibly poor performance I see these days on pretty much every platform. It’s slow to launch, slow to open a new note, and frequently locks up during use.

I can’t keep going with this. I am giving Evernote six more months before I seriously look at moving on to another platform. I have around 40,000 individual notes in Evernote so this will not be easy. I want to stay. But things need to change.

1. Focus on Performance
Let’s say Evernote is not running and I click or tap the icon. What I want is for it to immediately open and allow me to type. Yes, some of my notes are longer, but the majority of the time I just need to quickly jot something down. Right now the app opens and basically freezes while it syncs. Getting to a cursor where I can reasonably type sometimes takes over a minute. I have all but given up on quick notes in Evernote completely and usually just use TextEdit now, maybe transferring the text to Evernote later. This is not okay.

2. Stop Advertising Yourself
Work chat is not a compelling feature. Stop telling me about it. Stop reminding me the web clip can import PDFs. I have been a premium member for six years, I know.

3. Don’t be Word
Even Microsoft has figured out that note apps are not word processors. They need to be free form. The best feature of OneNote is the ability to throw the cursor anywhere and type. Evernote’s editor is too rigid, and causes content to not scale well going from the desktop to mobile versions.

If Evernote did just these three things it would at least stop the bleeding. Yes, it also needs innovation, but first they need to undo years of damages caused by an ever bloating and scattered product. Get back to basics and make it work as close to perfectly as possible, then figure out how to make better use of your considerable lead in this space.

Ranking iCloud’s Services

Apple often gets a lot of flack for its cloud services, including by your’s truly. And a lot of it is deserved. MobileMe was a terrible service, to say nothing of its predecessors. It is not surprising that the most recent, iCloud, has also suffered a perception problem. But is it deserved?

ICloud

Remember that iCloud was the last major initiative at Apple announced by Steve Jobs himself. The idea was to create a service that allowed all its increasingly numerous platforms to be equal when it comes to user data. No more home base, iCloud is now home base.

I think the biggest issue for iCloud has been the difficulty in defining it. Even among those of us who are in the know, there isn’t one thing you can point to that describes the service. It is more an umbrella term, encompassing numerous functions, some more successful than others.

What follows is my ranking of each service of iCloud from worst to best. My opinion of course, but it comes from both being a user and a support provider. I am including all the iCloud services currently available, as well as one discontinued but still in wide use. The only thing I am not including is the new iCloud Photo Library. It’s still too early in the beta life of this service to make a fair judgement.

With all that said, here is the list. Starting at the bottom. Continue reading Ranking iCloud’s Services

Disney Movies Anywhere Bridges the iTunes / Google Play Divide

Disney Movies Anywhere, which previously connected only to iTunes, now also works with Google Play. Best of all, you don’t have to choose between the two. You can link a Disney account to both iTunes and Google Play. Purchases made in one are available in the other, including DVD + Digital redemptions. I did this today and got a free copy of Wreck it Ralph, which immediately was available for download from both stores, despite being purchased in neither.

No need to commit. Choose both.
No need to commit. Choose both.

I love this and think it is as close to a perfect solution as we are going to get. Unlike the failure of UltraViolet, which is incredibly restrictive, confusing, and locks you in, Disney has chosen to allow its customers the choice of where to buy their digital content, without forever committing them to that decision. Want to buy Frozen on your iPhone but then watch it later on your Android table? That is now possible for the first time.

Except for Transformers (which came free with my Nexus 7) every movie here in my Google Play account was purchased with iTunes.
Except for Transformers (which came free with my Nexus 7) every movie here in my Google Play account was purchased with iTunes.

Everyone wins in this decision. Disney get’s more customers to use its service, Apple and Google benefit from more movie sales, and consumers can freely buy content without the fear of platform lock in. It certainly makes me more willing to purchase Disney movies in digital form. I wish the other studios would follow in Disney’s footsteps, but I am not holding my breath.

 

Bad Advice Masked as Security

John Gruber makes an excellent point over on Daring Fireball about the rather extreme overreaction to the iCloud celebrity photo theft.

Don’t trust Apple “with any of your data” isn’t just wrong because it’s a hyperbolic overreaction, it’s wrong because it’s potentially dangerous. What has been mostly overlooked in the reaction to this photo leak scandal, and completely lost in Auerbach’s argument, is that backups are a form of security — in the same sense that life insurance is a form of security for your children and spouse.

Exactly right. I see this happen all the time. iCloud backup has been the single most effective tool against data loss I have ever seen. The chances of losing or breaking your phone are orders of magnitude greater than the chances of someone brute forcing their way into your account, unless you happen to be very high profile.

But I will go a step further. Many articles I have read instruct users to simply turn off iCloud entirely, all in one move. This not only removes the security of the backup, but it potentially can lead to data loss itself. Turning off iCloud can cause a user to lose their address book, calendar, notes, documents, and other important data. It has very far reaching consequences. For the most part those stay in iCloud, and can be added back later. But it is entirely possible (again, I have seen this happen) for things to go wrong. Even if not data loss, it can result in duplicates, conflicts, and other issues if iCloud is then reenabled later. Not to mention other cloud syncing (Google, Exchange, etc) may take over and split the data, which is very confusing for regular users to figure out. And many may not realize that turning off iCloud has any of these effects and will just assume that their apps are suddenly broken.

But this is typical of our media culture. Issues that are really bad but unlikely to happen to you are reported breathlessly, while the real dangers go unmentioned. I guarantee you that more people lost their iPhones this weekend than celebrities had photos released. Then again, more people died driving to work than on roller coasters, but guess what gets reported. FUD is alive and well.

5 Tips for Living in the Cloud

This article originally appeared on the Tekserve Blog.

Cloud services are quickly becoming central to our digital lives.  It is vitally important that you use them properly and carefully to protect your data and to stay as productive as possible.  Here are five tips that can help. Continue reading 5 Tips for Living in the Cloud