Initial Kindle Experience

My family gave me a Kindle for my birthday, and while I haven’t used it too much, it is starting to become a device I use more and more.

The big problem for me is the cost of digital books. I have a huge library. I’ve spent lots of money on books over the years. Mostly tech books. These books were expensive to buy for stacks of paper, roughly $30 a piece (some more, some less). The problem is that I don’t get a digital copy of the material when I purchase the book, so if I want to read the same book on my kindle I have to buy it again (usually spending another $30).

My largest gripe at the moment is that some tech books cost more digitally then they do for physical copies mailed to my house. Here’s an example:

Other than demand setting price, I see no reason for this. How can a book cost more than $3 dollars more for the digital copy? The costs are so much cheaper with digital copy.

Physical Cost Digital Cost
Paper Formatting
Printing Network Bandwidth

The digital costs aren’t completely invisible, but they seem to far undercut the physical costs. It makes no sense to me why the kindle edition would cost more.

My other major concern with the kindle is that I could not find any easy way to read the web content I wanted to read on my device. That was until I found the Instapaper App. Converting HTML to mobi is not the easiest thing in the world, and the kindle at the moment has a very interesting way of reading web content. Saving a link with Instapaper and transferring it to the kindle makes it incredibly readable. Problem solved.

I think the kindle has been quite successful for Amazon, and I think it is useful. I think it would be better if there was a better way to get started. Apple does this well with their products and I think Amazon is just a step behind. The Kindle has a ton of potential, but it is just shy of that stickiness factor that products like the iPad have.

Sleeping your Mac with a Microsoft Ergo 4000 Keyboard

One of my friends, who will remain nameless for the purpose of this discussion, convinced me start playing around with a Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000. I got one at work, then I bought one for the home and I’ve been pretty happy with it. There are just a couple of things missing from my standard mac keyboard.

Firstly, on my old computer, I used to be able to hit the a keyboard combination to get my machine to sleep. I believe it was something like Cmd – Shft – Eject. Well, the Microsoft keyboard doesn’t have Eject. So I’m out of luck there. It does, however, have a set of buttons reserved for favorites. So I decided to code up a little AppleScript and bind it to one of these keys. Here’s the script, and I just saved it as an editable application. Then you can go into the preference pane for the keyboard and assign the whichever key you want to this script. Good luck.

tell application "finder"
end tell

OmniFocus vs. Things (continued)

A while ago I wrote a post about my switch from OmniFocus from Omnigroup to Things by Cultured Code. Both do pretty much the same thing: allow you to make lists of tasks so you can keep track of what you need to get done. Each has their own feature sets. I originally bought OmniFocus, but after some time switched to Things. It’s a great App, and they have an iPhone version that is pretty handy. I work on a PC during the day, so it makes it a little hard to use Things as my primary means of tasks, but I use it for my secondary items.

The real motivation by this revisit is to mention how the Apps have been coming along. Things is the primary product of Cultured Code, whereas OmniFocus is one of several Apps produced by OmniGroup. This has lead to a more rapid development and, in my opinion, a more refined product. Things for iPad was released on the same day the iPad was. OmniFocus for iPad is still in developmental stages. Now, I don’t yet own an iPad, but I’ve looked at the online videos for both OmniFocus and Things and I’m a little disappointed in OmniFocus. I feel like their icons aren’t at the same quality level as Things. Their App feels less refined and it doesn’t feel like they are using all the screen space to it’s fullest ability.

As a little tangent, I’d like to mention that OmniGroup used to be my favorite company. I LOVED OmniGraffle when I was in college. I used it for most of my projects. The new version of OmniGraffle just doesn’t feel right. There are too many features and it is hard to find what I’m looking for. The interface doesn’t really make sense to me. I had this issue the other day when I was trying to set the background color of a canvas. It was not intuitive. I’m very interested to play with OmniGraffle for the iPad and see if the reduced screen and processing power has gotten the company to focus more on a core set of features, thus making the App easier to use.

In conclusion, I’m getting Things when I get my iPad, and I don’t know how much of a market OmniFocus will have.

Suggestions for Building a Successful Business Website

Per usual, I’ve been surfing the web. Here are some frustrations I have with some business sites:

  • Items Are Out of Date. Sometimes when browsing a site I will see information about events that have long since expired. This information is not pertinent, and tells the user that you don’t keep your information up to date. What does that say about your business? If you aren’t detail oriented in your website, how are you when it comes to making your products or fulfilling your services? It might also be harder to see upcoming events if there are bunch of past events in the way. I don’t care about the last six months of wine tastings, I care about the next three weeks.
  • Your site is missing information. Quick! I need your phone number! Wait, I’m driving to your office, but I forget your exact address. You’d be surprised how many times I have looked for the address of business and been unable to find on their website. Sometimes Google Maps will be able to help me, but not always. The most important and common questions should be the easiest to find. If you are a consumer facing business, you should have your address and phone number in the footer of every page on your site. You should also have a contact page, containing the same information.
  • You assume a level of interest/knowledge I don’t possess. You are most successful Fencing gym in the bay area when it comes to split match foil saber fighting. One problem, I’m new to fencing, and I just want to learn. I have no idea what split match foil saber fighting is (t’s made up for the purpose of this post). Yeah, it’s nice that you are the best at it, but what I really want to know is how to get started. What classes are appropriate for me? Your claim is a little like boasting, and not relevant to me. If you HAVE to use technical vocabulary put references to the terms so I can understand it. Along those lines:
  • Relevant information is hidden. When putting together your web site, spend some time considering the user classes that will visit your site. If you are looking for new business, listing your products and services and how people can buy them should be the first thing on your page. If you are creating a site for people that are already a part of your business, then maybe technical terms are okay. If you are trying to get both, optimize for new people coming to your business. Once people are convinced you are amazing, they will spend the time click another link to get to their content.
  • There are still pages under construction. One of my favorite companies is guilty of this. I swear by my Field Notes, but their website has a page called “The Sheet Team” which has been in a state of non-completion for as long as the site has been up. If the page isn’t ready, don’t post it. Don’t put in a place holder, don’t leave more clutter on the site. You might get one chance at your users’ attention, capitalize on it.

This isn’t the end all list to designing a business website, but is a list of some concerns I have with a lot of sites I visit. Even if you are successful with your website, you might be more successful by fixing the problems above. Remember, your competitors are always trying to improve, you should too. In this world where technology is only expanding, making sure your website is up to snuff is an important part of running a successful business.

Best Payment Form I’ve Seen

I purchased the MacHeist bundle today. If you’re not familiar with it, its a collection of Mac Apps that this group puts together and sells rediculously cheap. I spent 20 bucks, only for one app that I really wanted (Flow by Extend Mac).

Regardless, this post is not about that bundle. It’s about my checkout experience. It was amazing. Textbook UI for checkout. Here’s a screenshot of the payment section:

Lets talk about what they did right here. Firstly, they allow you to pick between Credit Card and Paypal. Note, they don’t make you select which type of credit card you are using. They only support Visa and Mastercard, and they can use the digits of the card to determine which you are using, so they don’t need you to provide that information.

Next two fields are standard, “Name on Card” is easy is enough to figure out and if you don’t you know where to find your credit card number, you’ve got bigger problems.

Next is the expiration date. Lets talk about what makes this field so great. Firstly, they list both the month number and the name. This is very clear. It shows you that you are talking about months and displays the context in relation to the month number. The key here is that they number is first. This means that if your browser supports it, you can start typing with the field selected and get straight to the month number. Also note how this field is a two digit number? Add clarity as the numbers will align in the pull down.

Next is the security code, they have a little credit card graphic to indicate where to find your code. Very helpful.

Next you move on to the address information. There is a clear separation between the Credit Card info and the address info. Breaking forms up makes them easier to parse. None of this information is overly hard, but large blocks of form fields can be intimidating.

All in all, this is the best online checkout experience I’ve had for some time.

Percentage of Mac Use by University of Virginia Students

Daring Fireball has a link to the a study of the computer statistics for the student body of the University of Virginia. You can find the article here. The most interesting chart for me is the last one about the number of Macintosh users versus Windows users. The table is interesting, but I would also like to see the percentage of user population, not just the hard numbers. So here is the same data put in percentage of user base using Mac OS and Windows.

Year Percentage Windows Percentage Mac Percentage Other
1997 92.51 6.60 0.89
1998 94.26 3.22 2.52
1999 94.96 3.51 1.53
2000 96.39 2.80 0.81
2001 96.24 2.85 0.91
2002 94.86 3.55 1.59
2003 95.68 4.03 2.90
2004 89.20 8.26 2.53
2005 86.38 12.97 0.65
2006 80.28 19.59 0.13
2007 73.05 26.66 0.29
2008 62.28 37.46 0.26

While the table is interesting its hard to really see the trends. The Bar charts at the original site are useful, but I found a line chart much more conclusive. It cleary shows the trend of macintosh percentage as it climbs. If you’re a fan of Windows, this might be a little disheartening as it very clearly demonstrates that while Macintosh use is on the rise, Windows use is on a significant downturn.

Windows and Mac Percentage at UVA

Facebook Is Losing It’s Fun

Today I decided to create a Facebook account as woodside’s cheerleading coach. The benefit of this account is that it keeps its distance from my personal Facebook network, but still allows me to create events and groups for Woodside cheerleading. Anyway, I wanted my name to “Coach Zack”. Facebook rejected the name. So I tried to create ‘Zachary “Coach” Cohen’, again, Facebook automatically rejected it.

Now I have been a big Facebook fan in the past, but of recent, I’m more dissapointed with them. I feel like they have started to remove the “fun” aspect of the application. Facebook used to be more about the network, and it is has turned into almost a twitter status message board. I’ve gone from checking Facebook twice a day, to checkign it once a week, if I get an email.

Please Facebook, bring the fun back.


Apple’s iLife is TOO Good

In an amazing post on Daring Fireball John Gruber quotes the technology directory for a public school in Massachusetts:

However, even iLife has its drawbacks in an educational setting. It simply hands so much to the students that they struggle with software (whether Windows, Linux, or even pro-level software on the Mac) that isn’t so brilliantly plug and play. Yes, iLife rocks in many ways, but the level of spoonfeeding it encourages actually makes me think twice about using it widely, especially at the high school level.

To which Gruber responds

So the problem with Apple’s iLife apps is that they’re too good, and kids never learn that they need to struggle with technical issues before using software to express themselves creatively.

I agree with Gruber. However, I don’t think we should limit the discussion to just creative Apps. Modern day software is built on complexity. A consultant at my company once said that if we made the software too easy to use, then the consultants would be out of work; our product wouldn’t sell because it would to be too easy to use. I don’t necessarily agree with the argument, but the fear is common, and not unique to my current company.

Would easier software put people out of work?

I don’t think so. I think it would change the focus. If we started designing our software with a greater attention to user experience, the access time could be spent on further improving that experience, instead of support calls. Apple’s iLife wasn’t easy to create. Each of the apps has had millions of reviews, UI meetings, discussions, arguments and refinements. This wondrous amount of work has lead to an incredibly intuitive suite of tools. It would be fantastic if we could switch our focus (as an industry), from simply providing more tools, to providing better tools. Perhaps than our software will “too easy” for them to teach in school.

How is Palm Going to Mess up the Palm Pre?

Palm has recently announced its first really new product in years, the Palm Pre. To be fair, the product is actually quite compelling. It runs a on its webOS, a cool new operating system that allows you to use a bunch of different applications at once.

[… the history …]

My father is a business guy. He has been in retail since before I was born. When I was a young child he carried around a Filofax with hundreds of business cards, This (almost) little booklet was my father’s life. He couldn’t survive without it. Wherever he went, the Filofax went. As technology improved my dad found the Palm. I believe his first Palm Pilot was a Palm III. Overnight he converted his Filofax to the Palm Pilot. As the years wore on I became a fan. I bought a Handspring Visor, and used it to keep my contacts organized, tried to keep a calendar, and maybe played the occasional game.

Then I got frustrated with Palm. They began to cease innovation. The Palm V, might have been the best palm over. Over the years we have heard rumors of a new Palm OS. One built on Linux, but the promises kept coming, without any products. The applications for the Palm became outdated. I moved away from the Palm, even trying the Sharp Zaurus, a Linux based PDA that promised easier development and a better product.

None of them really got me hooked. They were too big, too bulky, too much for me carry around on the average day. My PDA was a toy that I’d take with me if I felt like it.

Enter the mobile phone. Even before the Filofax my father had a cell phone. As technology got smaller, PDAs began to morph with mobile phones. There have been a bunch of operating systems for these phones: Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Sony Erickson, etc. Finally I could get by with one device. The first phone that really allowed me to do this was my T-Mobile Sidekick. Yeah, it was big, but it wasn’t overly expensive and it allowed me to do everything I really wanted/needed to do, minus playing MP3s.

[… Back to the (almost) present …]

A few years ago Apple announced the iPhone, and the players in the market were pretty sure that Apple was not going to be a major player in the mobile phone space. Mostly, I refer to this Daring Fireball article. They were a little taken back with the amount of demand for the iPhone when it came it. Still, Apple kept very rigid control over the applications on the device, and many thought that Apple wouldn’t allow developers to mess with their device. Over time, Apple rolled out a development platform, and the App Store. Now there are thousands of additional applications for the iPhone and it the second most popular handset in the market.

Welcome to today. Palm is finally announcing their next OS, along with a new phone. The comical part for me is that the new Palm OS looks surprisingly similar to the iPhone OS, with gestures and other iPhone innovations. There are a couple of Palm innovations that look appealing:

  • Cards allow you to have multiple instances of the same Application running at the same time instead of “Save as Draft and come back later” mentality of the iPhone
  • Better integration with Facebook and other web partners, allowing you get personal photos from their partners
  • Multiple Calendar systems: Google Calendar and my personal calendar on one device, and allowing you to block out time in each

Despite the interesting features of the Pre, I still think it isn’t going to work. One of the lines in their introduction video is “We Developed the Pre for the developers” (paraphrased). See, I’m really excited about the Pre from a developers perspective. How many typical users have 3 different calendaring systems? How many professionals use Facebook for contact photos? The thing that Apple does well is design a product for the consumers. Remember, while developers might buy your phone, they aren’t going to develop just for other developers. The money is in the consumer market.

With all this in mind, I’m still excited to see what the Pre can deliver. I’m keeping my hope in check, because I’ve seen Palm falter in the past.