Web services I use, 2011 edition

Someone recently asked me about tools I use for my own personal infnormation management. I guess I haven’t posted about that kind of thing in a while, so here’s a list:


Simplenote syncs text notes across devices. For example: I can create a note on my home PC and know it’ll be waiting for me when I get to work. Notes can be tagged and searched. Simplenote has a great web interface, but I find it most useful when accessing the service via one of the numerous offline client options. I use ResophNotes on PCs, and FlickNote on my Android phone. The official iPad client is nice too. Simplenote is invaluable to me, and is absurdly useful for both complicated project planning and simple tasks like getting a grocery list onto my phone. It works with unformatted text only, but I view that as a feature. Similar options like Evernote have always been too complicated to draw me in. (P.S. I’m drafting this post in Simplenote)

I initially signed up for Pinboard‘s bookmark storage service as a Delicious replacement, but have since grown to use it far more regularly than I ever used Delicious. Pinboard monitors my twitter feed and automatically pulls in links from both my own tweets and my list of marked favorite tweets. For $25/year it even archives a copy of what the site looked like when I bookmarked it, with fulltext searching available! Signing up for Pinboard requires a one-time fee, which is currently $9.54 but very slowly increasing.

Tripit is one of the most useful travel tools I’ve ever encountered. I forward all my confirmation emails to Tripit – plane tickets, hotel reservations, event confirmations, car rentals, etc – and Tripit parses the emails to build a simple custom itinerary. Pro level users can even have Tripit monitor their airfares for price drops! I once used Tripit for a complicated trip involving 4 countries, 3 cities, 3 airlines and a train ticket with zero problems.

As far as reliable ‘it just works’ services, Dropbox can’t be beat. After installing Dropbox on a computer, it creates a folder. Any files you put in that folder will be synced across the web to any other computer you’ve also installed Dropbox on. I use it all the time for moving files back and forth between work and home, and have never had a single issue with the service. There’s even phone apps to access your files on the go. Shameless self promotion: If you want to sign up for Dropbox, please use this link. You and I will both get some extra space in our accounts if you do.

I’ve migrated a bit between cached reading services, but at the moment I use Spool. Here’s the idea: If I find an article online that I want to read later, I click the Spool button in my browser. Spool caches a copy and pushes it to my phone or tablet for later, offline reading. It’s often able to grab just the text of an article, stripping out unnecessary ads and sidebars and such. I previously used Instapaper and ReadItLater, which accomplish the same goal and are pretty good. But Spool has a far superior Android app to either of those options.

Those are the services I love. Here’s a couple that I’m on the verge of dropping:

Flickr, while undoubtedly still popular, doesn’t have the appeal or engagement for me that it once did. I had a bit of an epiphany a few months ago when I realized that most of my photo metadata like descriptions and tags existed only on Flickr’s servers – I had no local copy of any of that. I was eventually able to get most of that data out of Flickr and onto my hard drive via a program called Bulkr, but I’m still not entirely happy with the experience. Flickr feels stagnant to me, and I’m no longer sure I’m getting money’s worth out of my pro account. It still has immeasurable value as a place to search for creative-commons images, but it doesn’t serve me well anymore as a place to describe, store, and share my personal photos. I’m currently looking into Picasaweb (soon to be rebranded as Google Photos) as a replacement.

Google Reader is almost dead to me, and if you’d told me just a few months ago that I’d be this dissatisfied with Reader I’d never have believed you. Google recently merged all of Reader’s social functionality into Google Plus, but didn’t do a good job of it. What was once a very active community where my friends shared and discussed links very quickly dwindled to almost no activity. Without that social component I find myself much less motivated to return to Reader to consume articles and find more things to share. My unread count has skyrocketed. I have yet to find a replacement that even approaches the niche that Google Reader once filled for me.

Lastly, here’s one service I can see myself using a lot in the future:

The awkwardly named ifttt (“If This, Then That”) lets non-programmers easily tie various web services together a bit. After authorizing Ifttt to access various accounts I’m able to set up simple triggers and responses. For example:

  1. Every time I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook, Ifttt automatically saves a copy of that photo to a folder in my Dropbox account.
  2. Every time I star an item in Google Reader, Ifttt saves it as a bookmark in my Pinboard account.

There’s a browsable list of tasks other people have come up. They range from simple (if your profile photo changes on Facebook, change it on Twitter too) to slightly more complex (if an RSS feed indicates a tornado warning in my area, send me a text message). The possibilities are pretty endless, and don’t require any programming knowledge at all to accomplish.

Kindle Fire: First impressions from a library perspective

We were lucky enough at work to buy a Kindle Fire for experimentation. It has a mostly decent UI, feels very solidly built, and if you structure your media-consumption habits around Amazon content there’s no better tablet choice for you. But there’s reviews of the Fire all over the web, so I won’t waste time and words by rehashing all that in any more detail. Instead I want to focus on how the Fire’s features can (or can’t) be used in libraries.

  • First and foremost, the Kindle Fire’s PDF reading capabilities are what I’d call bare bones at best. PDFs can be sideloaded via a USB cable like any other Kindle, but the built-in PDF reader doesn’t allow highlighting, notes, or even bookmarks. Previous Kindle models did allow all of those features. Of course you can install and use a better PDF reader app to get around those restrictions, but that’s a clunky solution. As for loading PDFs in the browser from a website, I couldn’t get JSTOR or any EBSCO product to load a PDF article at all. Anybody planning to read journal articles on a Fire will be pretty disappointed.
  • For libraries which have chosen to circulate Kindle hardware, there may be new disappointment with the Fire. I know some libraries use their Amazon/Kindle account to purchase and load ebooks on the device, then remove the account and check the device out to users. This allowed users to read the loaded books, but not to purchase any new titles under the library’s account. Unfortunately the Fire does away with that. When removing an account, all ebooks are deleted without warning.
  • Not only are all Amazon-purchased ebooks removed, but any sideloaded content in the books folder is wiped as well. I find this baffling. I sideloaded my own (legit purchased from another site with no DRM) book via a USB cable. Why does that need to be deleted? Again, there’s no warning that this will happen.
  • After removing an account you can still play locally stored music and access some apps. But which apps still work is wildly inconsistent, and I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. Some work fine, others demand the original account log back in before proceeding, and a third category just don’t work at all.
  • The Fire is a nice video player, but the limited storage space (6.54gb usable space) means relatively few movies or tv episodes can be stored for offline viewing.
  • If purchasing an app directly on the Fire, you must first link your account to a mobile phone number. Even for ‘buying’ a free app. I can’t think of a reason why this would be necessary other than to gather more personal info. This is also an annoyance, as the library I work at doesn’t have a mobile number to link it to. In addition, purchasing an app on the Amazon.com website from a PC requires no phone number. It’s a weird inconsistency.
  • We don’t have Overdrive books, and neither does my local public library, so I’ve been unable to test loading one of them on the Fire. Can anyone confirm that it works?

It’s possible I’m wrong on some of these points – I only experimented with the Fire for about an hour today. But I think these are a number of issues important to library use of a Kindle Fire. Is there anything I’ve missed?

Amazon adds Whispersync for personal ebooks

Last Friday I received an email from Amazon with a fairly innocuous subject line: “New Kindle Personal Documents Features”.

I’ll put the full text of the email at the end of this post, because I can’t seem to find it anywhere in Amazon’s online Kindle documentation. Which is weird, because I think the new features have broad implications.

To sum up, Amazon now applies their ‘whispersync’ functionality to personal documents. What does that mean in detail? Well there’s two necessary bits of background here.

1. Amazon has always allowed users to email their personal documents to their Kindle, that’s nothing new. A personal document might be a Word document, ebook file in a variety of formats, raw text, a pdf, or just about anything.

2. Whispersync is Amazon’s name for the feature that syncs your reading across devices. Leave off on a Kindle, open the Kindle app on your phone, and you can pick up reading where you left off. Highlights and notes taken in the book get moved between devices as well. It’s a powerful feature that I’ve used often to read a few pages while waiting in a long line somewhere.

By combining these features, Amazon is extending their cloud-based prowess to house users’ ebook libraries. I have a large quantity of ebooks that I’ve downloaded from non-Amazon sources. Project Gutenberg, Fictionwise, and freebies from authors are three sources that come to mind. I can now add them all to my cloud-based Kindle library, which I find pretty exciting.

Via Whispersync Amazon will now back up the books for me on their servers, and also sync any notes or highlights across reading platforms (or will soon anyway, it doesn’t work quite yet on Kindle apps). Each user has 5gb of space for their personal ebook library, which is enough storage for a library of staggering size.

There’s privacy implications to Amazon storing your personal documents, but the feature can be disabled.

Amazon is declaring that they don’t care where your ebook comes from, they just want you to read it on their platform (as long as it doesn’t have DRM mucking things up anyway). I’m not sure what their motivation is to open the doors like that, but as a consumer I’m not going to complain.

As a bonus, if libraries can get DRM-free ebooks from our vendors then those copies will suddenly be very useful on Kindles.

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Dear Amazon: We just want changelogs!

After pulling Neal Stephenson’s new book Reamde from the Kindle store, Amazon replaced it with an updated version yesterday. The whole saga is detailed at Teleread.

While perhaps not as disturbing as the time Amazon infamously pulled copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles, I would still have been annoyed if my copy of Reamde suddenly changed.

The issue here is a lack of transparency. Amazon informed customers that the book had been replaced, but only cited the changes as: β€œthe version you received had Missing Content that have (sic) been corrected.”

As it turns out, most of the fixes were relatively minor. But users were not provided with that information up-front. They had to blindly make a choice to either lose all their accumulated bookmarks and annotations when switching to the new version, or keep a potentially fatally flawed copy.

Amazon seems to have an odd aversion to changelogs in general. They don’t provide them for updates in their app store either. If I’m going to trust Amazon to provide me with access to content, they need to trust me in return with the information I need to make informed decisions.

The Kindle Fire is no iPad

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being drawn between the Kindle Fire and the iPad. This doesn’t make a lot of sense.

While the iPad catches a lot of flack for being a consumption-only device, I’ve never found that to be the case. I find tablets of the iPad’s size to be sometimes awkward for content creation, but also sometimes wonderful. It’s the Kindle Fire that I think will be a true consumption-only device, and so the two can’t really be compared. The Kindle Fire exists solely to accomplish one central function: consume Amazon-branded content. Video, music, and books. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m not trying to be a Fire killer or iPad fanboy, but both the Kindle Fire and the iPad were created to fill very different niches. I honestly expect that each will perform their duties admirably.

If the Fire must be compared to something, it should be the Nook Color. That’s a more or less equivalent product, and one that I’ve never seen or heard of anybody creating content on.

I’m highly interested to see what using a Fire is like. I just hope people don’t buy a Kindle and expect an iPad.

Why I’m not sold on Bloapp

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

There’s been a lot of excitement on librarian blogs and twitter accounts today about Bloapp. The service converts your blog into an app… sort of. Now excuse me while I put on my cranky old man hat:

I understand that apps are cool, and mobile websites don’t grab the public eye as much. But there’s one question I always try to ask myself when looking at a new technology service or product: What purpose does it serve? In the case of Bloapp, I’m not sure there’s a payoff beyond getting to say “I have an app!”. And even that statement turns out to be not entirely true.

What does a blog as app accomplish that a blog as mobile-formatted website doesn’t? Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

If Bloapp gave you an actual installable app distributed via Apple’s app store, that real estate grab alone might be worthwhile. But it doesn’t. Instead, users must first install the Bloapp app. They then scan your blog’s QR barcode, which adds your blog to their list of blogs that they follow inside the Bloapp app. That sounds an awful lot like the process of subscribing to a blog in an RSS reader to me, or even just saving a bookmark to an app.

I’m all for playing with new products and services to see what works. I just don’t think Bloapp is one that makes sense. Apps are shiny! But libraries shouldn’t jump into them without a real use case in mind. We don’t want to turn our users off of the concept too early.

Review: Droid Charge

While my original Droid will always by my first smartphone love, last month it was finally time to move on to greener pastures. After agonizing over the choices for far too long, I picked up a Samsung Droid Charge.

First a look at some other current options, and why I dismissed them:
-Droid 3: A beautiful phone with beefy specs, but sadly it has no 4G.
-Droid Bionic: Perhaps most obviously, it isn’t available yet. And while I would be happy to be wrong about this I have concerns about what 4G plus a dual core processor will do to battery life.
-iPhone: I’m not a hater, the iPhone is indeed a very nice device. But Android just works for me, and I’m pretty firmly embedded in that ecosystem now.

I’ve been very happy with the Charge (despite it having a semi-difficult name to search for online – every Droid phone out there has questions about getting it to charge).

The good:

-Verizon’s 4G speeds are amazing. They don’t enhance regular web browsing that much, but I stream a lot of music on the bus and it makes a huge difference there. Speed tests put it better than my home broadband connection, which is both exciting and sad at the same time.

-Battery life, while not spectacular, is still a big improvement over my old Droid. I can get through an average workday without plugging it in and be down to 10% by bedtime. With heavier use (like our recent trip to San Francisco where I used maps all the time) I still need to carry around some sort of extra battery. But at least on most days I’m not constantly searching for outlets anymore. And I still have to wonder – will smartphones ever get the multi-day charges that my dumbphones did? I miss that.

-The HDMI mirroring is really fun to play with on a big screen. Never has Angry Birds been so amazing!

-It works with Netflix streaming, unlike a lot of Android devices.

-Also unlike most Android devices, I can take screenshots via a simple button press instead of involving the SDK. I’m still baffled that this isn’t a standard Android feature, but at least I have it on the Charge.

-The 8MP camera is the best I’ve seen on a mobile device. Outdoor shots in sunlight are almost on par with my Canon point & shoot, and indoor or dimmer shots aren’t too shabby either. The 720p video camera is similarly impressive.

-Android in general has matured as an OS a lot over the last 2 years. Much smoother around the edges.

The bad:

-The Charge is running Android 2.2, when 2.3 has been on other phones for many months now. That’s sort of embarrassing. 2.3 enables a lot of video chatting features, so the front-facing camera is pretty useless without it.

-Samsung’s customizations to the Android UI seem questionable at best to me. The home screen is a mess, and of the dozen or so pre-installed apps (which I can’t uninstall!!) I don’t want any of them. Most of the home screen customizations can be undone by installing an alternate Launcher (yay Android!), but I still wonder why Samsung would go to so much trouble to make things worse. Apple is currently suing Samsung for supposedly copying the iPhone UI in their Android phones. If that’s true… well they did a really terrible copy/paste job.

Thankfully both of these negative points can be negated – the alternate Launcher gets rid of the UI junk, and the Charge will supposedly get an OS upgrade soon(ish). Crossing my fingers on that one.

I recommend the Droid Charge without major reservation. It feels much more future-proof that my original Droid did – I was ready to throw it out the window by the end as it ground to a slow halt – and I’m confident it’ll get me through till my next upgrade cycle.

Spotify vs. Rdio

Now that Spotify finally launched in the US I’m happy to recommend it to people. (I admit I’ll miss the British ads – it was somehow charming to hear all the pleasantly accented shills for products I’d never heard of and cannot buy.)

Sarah gave an excellent overview of the pros & cons of Spotify and Rdio. I won’t bother reinventing the wheel here, but do want to toss my $.02 into consideration.

I like Rdio a lot, especially now that they have useful desktop apps which respond to keyboard controls. I love the potential of it’s social features, recommending music back and forth among friends. But social on Rdio has turned out to be a largely unfulfilled fantasy for me – almost nobody I know uses it. I think I have two friends on the service, and only one is actively using it.

Here’s where Spotify’s free version comes into play. Sure, it’s only 10 hours per month of music. But that’s 10 hours per month more than my friends are using Rdio, and a real chance to send songs back and forth. I already have 21 friends there, most of whom seem to be active users. So Spotify wins the network effect for me. Which is a shame, because I think Rdio’s overall interface is much better. I find it astonishing that Spotify doesn’t have a better way to organize a collection of albums.

Another strike against Rdio is their recent removal of music. Laura Marling and Placebo, two of the bands I’ve listened to most on the service, suddenly had much of their catalog pulled with no explanation. Placebo has been gone for months, and Laura Marling for weeks. I’m assuming a rights issue is involved somewhere along the line, but ultimately I dont’ care – I just want to listen to the music I subscribed to. Right now Spotify still has Laura Marling’s catalog intact, and some of Placebo’s songs.

Summary: I can boil it down to a struggle of Rdio’s interface vs Spotify’s selection and social features. While I’d like to say that UI is important, ultimately the catalog available to me is even more important. The music is what I’m paying for, after all. I’ve cancelled Rdio and will give Spotify a turn this month. I’m not entirely sold on it long term, but it deserves a shot.

Panel on using virtual focus groups at ALA 2011

As co-chair of LITA’s Distance Learning Interest Group, I’m really excited to point out the panel session we’re running at ALA this year!

Using Virtual Focus Groups in Distance Learning & Online Environments
Monday, 6/27 from 1:30-3:30
Morial Convention Center, Rm 333
ALA Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA

We have a great panel lined up, all of whom have practical experience running virtual focus groups. And that’s including (if conference center wi-fi permits) one presenting remotely – we’ll try and practice what we preach πŸ™‚

Depending on how bold I feel on the day of, I may try to ustream the whole panel via my phone. I’ll be sure and post the link on this site if we do.

Here’s the program in the conference scheduler:
http://connect.ala.org/node/137552

More details are after the cut. Note that the last 15 minutes are reserved for the brief annual DLIG meeting. Hope to see you there!
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Xoom vs. iPad

Xoom vs iPad by Sir.Christopher Of Baltimore, on Flickr

I’m a regular (some might say obsessive) iPad user, but recently had the opportunity to use a Xoom Android tablet for a few days. The experience made me think a lot about what’s necessary for me in a tablet, and I’ve been mentally evaluating how each option measures up. It’s impossible to review tech like this in a vacuum, and I always find it most useful to look at competition side by side. I’ve broken it down into a list of the things I most need a tablet to do – here’s how each option measures up:

First, productivity-related tasks:

Instapaper has become the centerpiece of almost all my professional reading.
-iPad: Instapaper has an official app, which is one of the best-produced apps I’ve seen anywhere.
-Xoom: There’s still no truly great Instapaper Android app, either for phone or tablet. Instant Fetch is functional, but can’t compare to the iPad app.
Victor: iPad

Google Reader is the source for much of what I read in Instapaper, and helps me filter down an incredible array of sources.
-iPad: Reeder, like the Instapaper app, has a beautiful UI that’s a joy to use. It fully integrates with Google Reader.
-Xoom: While nothing’s quite as fun to use as Reeder, Feedly functions well and does the job.
Victor: tie

Gmail.
-iPad: The mail app gets the job done, but in a clunky fashion. I’m continually annoyed that I can have either a delete or archive button, but not both.
-Xoom: The Gmail app is everything I could want it to be. It beats Apple hands down.
Victor: Xoom

SimpleNote is the repository for all my text notes – work, trip planning, random thoughts, meeting notes, drafting blog posts etc.
-iPad: Once again there’s a beautiful official SimpleNote app.
-Xoom: Andronoter, while unofficial, is just as good.
Victor: tie

Dropbox is amazing. Enough said.
-Here the iPad and Xoom are fundamentally equal – both have great official Dropbox apps.
Victor: tie

Then there’s of course the slightly… less productive side of tablets. The fun things I need a tablet to do:

Games.
-iPad: There’s no contest here, the Apple App Store is chock full of great games.
-Xoom: There’s Angry Birds, which is admittedly at the top of my list. But other than that Android has a long way to go catching up.
Victor: iPad

I use Google Maps all the time, on both tablets and phones. I don’t know how I’d navigate or plan trips without it.
-iPad: The Google Maps app is embarassingly out of date. It hasn’t substantially changed since the original iPhone launched in 2007. The ipad-optimized webapp is actually a far superior experience with all the nice features Google has added in the last 4 years.
-Xoom: As expected, Google has packed Android full of amazing Google product apps. Their tablet-optimized Android map app is a shining example of what the platform can be.
Victor: Xoom

I don’t listen to music on tablets a lot, but it’s still nice to have the option:
-iPad: There’s iTunes, which I honestly haven’t used for purchasing music in years. The default music player works, but I find some of the UI elements confusing. And since I almost never sync the iPad with my computer, it’s a pain to put music on it. I can also use the Rdio app, but it’s designed for the iPhone and doesn’t look great here.
-Xoom: Between Google Music, Amazon’s Cloudplayer, the Rdio app and more I have almost too many good options to pick from. All without being tied to iTunes or my computer.
Victor: Xoom

I watch movies a bit more than I listen to music on tablets. But here it’s almost no contest:
-iPad: Besides the iTunes store’s movies, a number of the blu-rays I own came with ipad-compatible copies of the movies that are easy to load. Netflix and Hulu work very well too.
-Xoom: Google just launched Android movie rentals, and I admittedly haven’t tried them yet. But I’ll guess it works fine. The Xoom doesn’t have Netflix or Hulu, and I haven’t managed to quite figure out what video formats it can and can’t play yet. It’s confusing to say the least.
Victor: iPad

The Overall UI plays a role too. It’s one thing to have all these apps, but what about using the OS that ties it all together?
-iPad: iOS just plain works. It gets me from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss but with pretty transitions.
-Xoom: The Android Honeycomb UI, while highly customizable, isn’t quite as polished. I like the ability to put widgets on my homescreen a lot, and the notification system is very well executed, but otherwise it’s not quite there yet. Where iOS gets out of the way and lets me work (or play), Android Honeycomb takes a bit too much active thinking to use.
Victor: iPad

Totaling it up:
The iPad wins out in 4 categories
The Xoom wins out in 3 categories
Another 3 categories were ties

For such a new product, I was impressed to see how well the Xoom holds up. Give the Android app ecosystem another year to evolve and I think a lot of the iPad’s wins will shift into ties. There might be actual competition for tablet marketshare! I can’t wait.