Thursday, January 22, 2009

Circuit City

Must be my week for silly things in the mail. I got a Circuit City Advantage (their extended warranty) renewal form in the mail with choices of 1, 2 or 3 years. I always question the value of extended warranties, but in the case where a company has filed for bankruptcy you'd have to be just plan nuts to sign up for this.

With the loss of CompUSA and now Circuit City I wonder if we're heading to an age where there will be no instant gratification for electronics and you'll be relegated to the internet and the good, but not quite as instant, services of NewEgg and Amazon

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

XM Radio

The concept, advertising free radio you can receive anywhere with high quality, was good. The execution has not been. In multiple cars by multiple providers i've seen poor XM radio reception. And when digital radio doesnt come in it goes out completely, not just fuzzy, but gone. This is on main roads (route 495) in Massachusetts so this isn't an edge case. Its not under a bridge, in a tunnel, its on open highway. 

Then look at stations like XM station 11 (Sirius 61), its full of advertising. Why am I paying to be delivered ads? Oh because SOME of the stations don't do ads. I see.

And now the ultimate insult, they're raising their prices

Don't get me wrong, XM has entertained me for my 2+ hour commute for the last few years, but when the 1 year subscription I paid for runs out in May i'm not renewing. While Pandora Radio finally caved in to ads at least its a free service. 

I'm thinking iPhone 3G with a audio out cable and Pandora and i've got my replacement for XM better tuned to what I want to hear. If I want ad-free I buy songs online at $1 each and play the playlist. At the rate I buy songs its cheaper than XM.

Another broken business model. 

Off topic - Disney

I don't usually write about non-technical things on this blog but
having just gotten off the phone with Disney Dining Reservations I
can't resist. The reservation agent was extremely helpful and the
process was as efficient as a human could have been. But my point was
I had to speak to someone. Now all the guide books etc recommend
booking dining spots for your stay in disney and doing that as far in
advance as disney allows so you can get into the places you want. We
like to eat and i'm a planner so we mapped it all out where/when then
I needed to book the 12 reservations. They have NO ONLINE SYSTEM.
Thats NUTS. Can you imagine the volume of calls, duration of calls and
human mistakes they're experiencing with a manual dining booking
system? This should not be a complex technical problem and they have
piles of "Imagineers" on staff. What are they thinking?

And yes, we're off to Disney in April. We promised the kid when she
was 5 we'd take her back when she was 10 (5 year decompression cycle).
With that booking experience complete all we have to do is turn up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GPS Updates

Today I got an ad in the mail for a GPS update for my Lexus. The GPS update is $265. Sure the Lexus is a luxury car and you should expect to pay more when its involved. But $265 for a $0.50 DVD that they're mass producing? And one thats out of date the day its produced? Thats getting a bit crazy. You can't even plug in addresses while you're moving, it has no traffic updates etc.

Lets see for $247, I can buy a high end Garmin Nuvi 760 or dozens of other types for that or much less and most include more advanced features than the Lexus GPS. You can get a decent portable GPS for $129 these days.

So I could have a GPS that moves with me from car to car and I could buy the latest version every year or I can pay for a DVD from Lexus.

What are they thinking?

Along the same lines, those portable GPS's sell updates for $80. So you buy a GPS for $129 and the software update is $80. 

Folks its time to figure out the model and drop the price and get more people to do the upgrade. 

I, for one, am not paying for GPS updates when they don't make sense.

(p.s. its my wife's car anyway!)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Quicken Online & Mint

Quicken Online's recent failing for me led me to go off looking for other solutions. I started looking for a desktop app to replace the ancient Quicken 2005 I have installed. After some searching and trials I found a lot of pretty poor apps that were either free or shareware. 

Eventually I found iBank which is trying to be the replacement for Quicken on the Mac. Its not free and one thing that really bugs me in app trials is where they limit you based on content versus time, especially when the content has no online effect. For example, I can see Evernote limiting you on content as they're paying for the space online to cover your free capacity. But with iBank all the data is local, there's no reason to limit the number of transactions. Just limit my trial period so I can really try the product. With the demo version they limit you to 75 transactions in a single account. I suppose for many that will be a sufficient trial, but my test was to load in 3 months worth of real data for all my accounts and see how it does. I hit the limit and couldnt do the test. Sure I could pay and then use the 30 day money back guarantee but thats a pain. Anyway, thats no way to do demos, give them the full product and then limit by time or online (i.e. stuff that costs the developer money) capacity ONLY. 

So now you're probably wondering, ok so its a lousy demo but how was the product otherwise? Its a decent desktop money management application. But in using it I came to a couple realizations:

1) Whether its online or offline you still have to categorize your downloaded transactions and fix payee names. None of the solutions out there get this right for you. And even though you can remember a classification to automatically rename VendorX or categorize it on import that generally doesnt work with real and electronic check payments as they all come in as "Check" and "Uncategorized". This means you have to do some data entry (even if its just drop downs). This means all services collect some data from you that has some value for you. Mint, Quicken Online and the offline apps. That means its harder to use more than one and it means its harder to jump between them.

2) With local financial management apps you have to find a place to save your data thats secure, back it up, etc. With the online apps you either trust them or not.
3) With the local apps you're limited in how fast they update the application and roll it out whereas the online ones evolve much more quickly. 

The above led me to back to the online side, I tried again and found they had fixed my Citizens bank support. This means I really got to try Mint for the first time. 

Mint has some nice features like the automatic alerts, and even the "ways to save" area I found interesting and potentially useful (although their data was skewed). The interface was nice and clean. The had a nice investment section which Quicken Online doesnt have. They seemed to have some issues connecting to some of my financial institutions and I got intermittent results there.

Along the way having used Quicken Online for a few months and now using Mint I noticed one glaring difference. Quicken Online lets you enter transactions yourself, Mint doesnt. This means if you're trying to use one of these services as an electronic checkbook to know what your balance is etc, only Quicken Online meets that need (assuming it doesnt lose your transactions). 

I went back to Quicken Online and found they had, at least for now, fixed the lost transaction bug and my balances were correct once more so i'm back to using Quicken Online.

I think the local financial management apps are doomed and the competition by Mint and Quicken Online and others (I did look at Wesabe but wasnt interested in its approach) will be interesting. There are a few core use cases and features that must be there and be reliable for the service to win. Neither Mint nor Quicken Online has the perfect set yet. Quicken needs more reliability and investments (eating into their desktop products which is probably why it isnt there). Mint needs more reliability and the ability to enter your own transactions. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Wow DRM free

Here I was just catching up on a blog backlog and I complained about Apples DRM versus Amazons DRM free approach only to have Apple drop DRM a few days later. Perhaps they're listening :)

As Mel Gibson would say "FREEDOM"!


I went to buy a song today (i'll spare you my taste) and sure enough the song I was looking for was in iTunes Plus format (DRM free, 256 bit AAC). Thats nice, its DRM free, but AAC is not a very portable format. When I burn MP3 CDs for my Car they have to be MP3 not AAC, so I still have a conversion problem. I found a tool called Advantageous MP3 that helps you jump to the Amazon MP3 store from the iTunes App. Its not perfect (has to be an artist or album not just a song) but it reduces the time to purchase while using the better interface of iTunes.

I ended up buying off iTunes to see how bad the conversion process was, and iTunes has a "Create MP3 Version" option that worked fine (and kept the rating). Its one more step in the buying process but keeps me within the iTunes App and the pricing was the same. All my smart playlists filter based on Mp3 only so I dont get dups.

Will Apple eventually let us choose our download format or cave to the one everyone else uses?

iPhone App addendum

One other thing I should have mentioned with the iPhone apps: Several others could be on the list (and hopefully will be some day) if Apple supported background notifications. Its supposedly on its way. Once that happens perhaps some chat/Instant Messaging app(s) may make the list etc. Until then they have little value to me when they have to run in the foreground.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

iTunes & Music

I'm no saint and have a questionable past, but I continue to try to be
a better person. Several years ago I decided that all my software,
music and movies should be legally paid for and went on a buying/
purging spree to get to that state. When you pay for everything you
really know the value before you buy and you don't end up with a hard
drive full of useless apps, music you don't listen to, etc.

Anyway, a few things I found out along the way:

1) Software application licenses often don't make sense. The software
vendors need to think about the multiple machine users (I use 3
regularly) and the multi-user households (I have 3 in my family). Some
do offer family licenses, but several require a license per copy.
Sometimes licensing schemes can be so broken that you can't buy more
than one copy at a single email address forcing you to violate the
license or create a fake/new email just to buy it. Anyway, if you
really try hard to pay for everything you have in terms of software
(perhaps most people do that but I didn't always), you'll find a lot
of inconsistencies and annoyances along the way.

2) DRM for music is painful for people who try to follow the law. It
feels like I'm getting penalized for the crimes of others. So for a
while when I bought music off iTunes, i'd create a playlist, burn it
to CD, and then immediately rip it back as MP3. That keeps the
metadata and gets it in an unprotected form. Not so I can share it or
do anything illegal, but so I can use it where I want to use it
without worrying about odd formats and protection. About 6 months ago
I switched to buying all my music off Amazon MP3. The music comes DRM
free and is cheaper or the same price as iTunes. Its not many more
clicks to get it and it saves me wasting a CD and the other clicks to
get rid of the DRM. I think Apple has to go the DRM-free route.
There's no added value to me from buying it off iTunes and their
"Genius" approach isn't going to make me buy more music from them.

So, the thing that bothers me is that if you went into someone's house
and tried to audit their household for compliance with the music and
software licensing laws who would pass? How would you prove that the
2,635 songs in my music library were all bought and/or ripped from
CD's I owned? They are, but i'd hate to try to go through such an
audit. What if I lost a CD after I ripped it? Was I even allowed to
rip it in the first place? Where are the receipts for the music I
bought off iTunes, Amazon etc?

What it comes down to is you doing your best to adhere to the intent
of these broken licenses and concepts and paying (at least once) for
every piece of music and software that isn't free that you have in
your house (yes, even if you have music you don't listen to - if you
have it you should have paid for it or you should delete it).

People that know my past will find this post funny. A long time ago I
ran a multi-state computer piracy bulletin board that was quite
popular in its time. That was back in the days of speedy 300 baud
modems (you're likely accessing this at 15,000x or more faster speeds
now). I've either evolved or gained a lot more respect for Bubba.

iPhone & iPhone 3G

Being the gadget/Apple fanatic I had to get the newer iPhone 3G the
day it came out. What did I do with my old iPhone? Unlike many that
sold them on eBay etc, I gave mine to my daughter. Its not enabled as
a cell phone so its basically and iPod touch. She loves it and does
all sorts of things on it - email, pictures, games, videos, music. And
I can honestly say that after watching her (she's 10) abuse it for the
last 6+ months that the original iPhone is a TOUGH device. Like my
Lexus RX300 that I gave to my wife when I got a new car (Acura MDX), I
feel sorry for it. It was kept in such good shape and now its abused,
but both are tough and can take it. Then again, my girls are tough too.

iPhone Apps

Seems that its the thing to do at the end of the year to rate top iPhone apps you use. To date i've purchased ONE (1) App. And that one was a whopping $20. Which one? 

OmniFocus. A friend turned me on to a series of Apps by the Omni group. The apps are generally overpriced but work well on the mac. I was looking for a better to-do list manager and he swore by the product so I broke down and bought OmniFocus for the mac. It's been helpful in consolidating all my "to do" lists and get things more organized. The natural extension was to buy the iPhone version too (they sync with each other). The insult was that the iPhone App was $20. Its not worth the money. It has a horribly slow launch time (which evidently is better than it used to be) and takes forever to sync with MobileMe. The interface and capabilities are decent but if you want to quickly add a to-do item you'll forget it before the thing launches. I do use the app but mostly for To-do cleanup when on the road/waiting somewhere.

Ok, out of 7 screens of Apps (see full pile below), what is worth mentioning?

Rob's Top 10 iPhone Apps (free unless otherwise noted):

1) NetNewsWire - RSS reader, syncs with my other locations. Wonderful way to keep up on news etc. Great way to kill time waiting in lines, airport etc.
2) Shazam - For finding out what song is playing and remembering it so I can buy it later
3) WeightTrack - because I need to lose we
ight. I wish there was a better free one (its odd when its tied to the OKC stuff) but this one works and is fast & easy
4) GalCon Lite - only game i've liked enough to play more than once on the iPhone
5) 1Password - Password tracker syncs with the mac. In case I need my login info on the road (dont really use it for the iphone browser)
6) Flixster - for finding movie times quickly (Showtim
es has promise but has consistently been unstable for me)
7) Google - I had little use for the early versions which just launched a web browser page, but the voice activated search in it now is the bomb.
8) Dialer - A free working voice activated dialer for the iPhone that works
9) PhoneFlix - Look my Netflix queue
10) OmniFocus - Task manager that syncs wit the Mac. $20.

Apps i'm looking at that have promise:

1) Urbanspoon - a cool way to find restaurants (but not how I pick where to go)
2) Mobile News - AP news reader. Seems more conci
se than RSS etc. 

Apple apps that have little value to me:

1) YouTube - im not a big YouTube fan. I mostly use MobileMe to share videos with family
2) Contacts - its also accessible in the "Phone" app and before they made another app I got used to getting them there
3) iTunes - I dont buy music on the road (or update RSS feeds)

The rest of the Apple apps I use all the time.

Quicken Again (and Happy New Year)

Hi folks, Happy New Year.

Now onto my rant:

A while back I mentioned that Quicken would finally be the last product to update for the Intel macs and the target date was the fall of 2008. Now it seems they've pushed that out to the Summer of 2009. This just adds fuel to the fire. Not only are they the last to update, but they can't hit their own dates. They've proven not to care about the Mac market. I think its time for the mac market to speak back by not buying the product when (IF) it comes out.

I also mentioned that I moved to Quicken online and so far so good. Well it turns out that along with some annoying security issues related to my bank and some unsupported banks, they also miss account transactions which falsely makes you think you're about to go into overdraft. This is what they have to say on the matter:

"Some Quicken Online customers may find that some Account Activity transactions are missing. We have identified the issue and are working on a release to resolve this soon"

I ask you, what good is an online financial tracking service that misses random transactions? None at all, its useless. In this case 99% isn't good enough. I hope the Quicken people are paying attention. 

Perhaps Intuit should stick to Quickbooks and drop its personal finance stuff altogether. They seem to have their act more together there (yes, I use quickbooks 2009 on the mac for a business).