GPS -in a time warp

I recently picked up a refurbished Garmin GPS unit (a nuvi 2597, if you’re interested) for an upcoming trip where cell coverage may be spotty (and with a baby in the car, you don;t wanna be lost in the wild.)

So far, I’ve been using Google Maps on my phone.

My first impression – this is like seriously going back in time.

The screen is a touch screen, but so, so laggy and blurry – I think it’s a resistive, not capacitative, and the early ones. It can’t adjust to changing light levels or switch between day and night modes according to sunset time. The battery lasts about an hour, untethered. Graphics are pixelated! When was the last time you saw pixelated if you aren’t into Japanese porn? Animation is jerky enough to be stop-motion. Sunlight on the screen, almost unreadable. Almost a 2 cm thick. Discernible bootup time, including an EULA checkin on every use. No satellite detection indoors. Giant ball-and-socket holder arrangement on the back, so you can’t slip it into your universal cellphone holder – needs a dedicated holder. I haven’t tried the Bluetooth sync, live traffic and stuff yet, and I liked the upcoming turn photo directions, but otherwise pretty… horrifying.

But what’s worse is the realization that a few years ago, technology like this was state of the art. It was killer technology so awesome we would bemoan the fact it was only available in a few countries and gawp enviously if we saw one in action. It wasn’t just technology – it was the equivalent of absolute mastery in a profession like taxi driver or guide, where you literally knew where everything was and how to get there.

Things have come a long way. I can get turn-by-turn directions on my watch now. In almost every way, the Garmin – and every other dedicated GPS – should have been written off as obsolete technology, remnants of a bygone era, except for that one crucial point – can they guide you when the phone can’t? That’s true test. As long as that works, they work.

New paradigms need early adopters and innovators

Sorry, Xbox 360 again.

In the aftermath of Microsoft’s u-turn after the backlash against the Xbox 360’s new features, some things start becoming apparent.

Microsoft had the right idea, but it got executed poorly, and handled worse. They wanted to go for a delivery model for gaming that’s like the current delivery models for apps, and like some movies and books (Netflix, Kindle, etc) – the core idea being that if the audience can switch over to digital-only, or at least a form of digital that might need the multiple-GB game disks acting as the first component of a game that would eventually be much  more embedded in a larger virtual ecosystem, allowing for easier, automated updates, upgrades, integrated mod purchases, portability, etc.

Having a game existing entirely and independently on a single DVD opens up the possibility of it being resold, exchanged, gifted, regifted, and yes, copied. Over time, they might have looked at a vision of a world where all purchases and ownership is virtual and linked to identity, and thus cut down on the resale, trade, and exchange markets, turning them into a new customer base. A purely virtual ownership would also allow for more opportunities to cross-sell, upsell, trigger in-game marketing (maybe based on the complex, detailed profile built up of the player).

The vision, it seems, didn’t get completely understood as it moved down the line from strategy to marketing to PR; end result, bad handling of the questions asked and the public’s assumptions made.

But why did the public react the way it did? Look at the expectations going in. The current 360-playing audience expects the next-gen console to be better, more powerful, faster, able to deliver a better gaming experience. And by that, they mean less latency, faster and better graphics, more realism, hardware support for more complex, realistic games, and maybe integration into a virtual ecosystem of add-on content, DLCs, demos, etc.

What they don’t expect, is a new paradigm of gaming delivery. Especially if the competition is delivering exactly what they are expecting. Nothing new, just better old.

What is a new gaming delivery paradigm? Google Play. Steam. Nexus Mods. Stuff the PC Master Race has been playing around with for years, and getting better, more organized. The biggest grouse I have, as a member of this community, is the amount of demand modern gaming places on my system. Hard disk space. RAM. Processor speeds. Graphics accelerators. Gamepads and adapters. Monitor size. Cabinet space. Installation issues. Viruses, trojans, malware. The living room has a good, large TV, sound system, and a nice couch, and it’s where I relax, not work. The computer is secluded, has a smaller screen and an upright chair, and it’s where I work. The living room has wifi, and the TV/console is online. Why should gaming not happen here?

That’s the main reason I bought a console. Easy plug-and-play, no dependency on system resources for work / downloads with a dedicated piece of hardware, and beautifully rendered graphics deserve a beautiful, big screen.

The Valve box is stepping in exactly here. Dedicated hardware that frees up your PC, makes gaming social and relaxed, and gives most of the PC gamer advantages… and console ones. It’s a new paradigm, so it won’t replace either the PC or the console – it’ll be an add-on. And over time, if it delivers on capabilities, it can replace consoles.

You need early adopters for a new paradigm, but console players are not early adopters. They’re followers, and they don’t like disruption, don’t want innovation. They want what they have, but better. Microsoft made the mistake of giving them something new – the mistake of confusing the huge market of 360 users as potential purchasers of the new system. Sorry, they aren’t. The audience you want is not playing the 360, or the PS3, or planning for the PS4. They’re using PCs, running mods, cracked games, constantly upgrading hardware and trying out new concepts. The Oculus Rift will come to PC first, as will Star Citizen. Consoles are a finished, polished product, and expected to perform as such.

Could Microsoft have done this better? Maybe by sticking the equivalent of a Valve box on top of a more powerful, flexible console. Give the masses something to be happy about and also experiment with, until they start using it more, getting used to it… then deliver the actual console. You’ll have a frankenstein console for a while straddling two paradigms, but it’s the only way. You’re trying to compete with both the PS4 (performance) and PC (innovation) – you have to deliver both.

Now it’s up to the Valve box equivalents. Hopefully with usable VR, solid-state drives, fast and easy but optional connectivity, and massively expanded storage coming up very soon, the PC can go ahead into innovation while the consoles follow for the mass audience.

Samsung Note 800: First Impressions

The Samsung Note N8000

Here’s a brief – ok, not so brief – set of first impressions on the new 10.1-inch Samsung tablet, the Note N8000 (or N800 in some places). I’m writing as a user, not a professional reviewer or a company spokesperson or something, so all opnions are mine, not endorsed by anyone, blah blah, let’s move on.

Specs
If you want extreme detail, go to GSMArena and read in detail, they’ve done a better job.
Meanwhile, the basics –

OS: Android 4.1.1, according to settings. The descriptions say Ice Cream Sandwich, but the 4.1 series is JellyBean; maybe the ‘update to come later’ has already happened.

Memory: 16 GB onboard, so fairly decent to start with, depending on your use. Definitely takes care of standard stuff like docs and photos, and leaves room for a couple of movies at a time. There’s also an interesting add-on, I’ll come to later. Up to 32 GB can be added on SD card.

Processor: Exynos 4412 with a quad-core, 1.4 GHz Cortex A-9; for comparison, the earlier Samsung Tab is a dual-core. Hardware-wise, this tablet is definitely top-of-the-range, future-proofed item.

Screen: 10.1 inches, 1280×800 resolution, PLS TFT capacitative screen. Is it better that the iPad? I don’t know, looks the same to me. Is it better than all the ‘around-Rs.10K’ type tablets – all the Micromaxes and Karbonns, etc? Definitely yes. Do movies look DVD-quality? No. (And you and I both know that a movie that’s been transferred to a tablet is 99% pirated, which means quality is already degraded well below DVD. But is it watchable? Yes.) HD video on Youtube? Yes. If you have DVDs, buy a decent TV and watch them there.
And this is unconfirmed, but from what I’ve heard – this does NOT have Corning Gorilla Glass. Surprising. For a tablet with a stylus, even a little shocking.

S-pen: Interesting little gadget, basically a stylus with a variable pressure tip. Almost as good as a real pen-and-paper experience with a slight lag you have to get used to. An excellent, intuitive add-on for tablets.

S-pen

Camera: 5 MP back, 1.9 MP front. No, it’s not a camera. It’s a tablet. If you use it to take vacation pictures, you’re being an idiot.

Speakers: are on the front, so much better for listening. They’re also placed a little on the higher side, so you don’t block them while holding the tablet. Sound is fairly decent so far, but if you’ve heard an iPad 2, then it’s not as good.

Speaker Placement – the thin grey line

IR: Infrared emitter, the kind you get on your remotes. Limited use, but pretty cool – lets you turn your tablet into a remote for your TV / DVD player / Set-top box. Can’t think of anything else to do right now, more research needed.

SIM slot; 3.5 mm jack; IR emitter; SD card slot

Others: Takes a mini-SIM, SD card upto 32 GB, bluetooth, GPS and accelerometer, Wi-fi, 3G, and all the rest of the standard jazz.

Out of the box

You get – a charger, which is also a detachable data cable; headphones with a volume rocker, so you can listen to music while the tablet’s in the bag; no additional storage cards; no case or cover or scratch guard. There is a protective film on the front and lots of plastic film, but you’d best pick up these quickly.

Handling

At 600 g, the tablet’s pretty standard; not extraordinarily light or heavy, and okay to carry around but if you’re using while holding, your fingers will start to ache after a while.

It’s also smooth plastic finish, so there’s a good risk of the tab slipping and falling.  Fingerprints also tend to show up a lot because of this.

The light sensor is also right next to the camera, so tends to be covered by your fingers when holding in portrait mode; if your screen brightness is set to auto, you’ll find the screen abruptly dimming on it’s own.

Overall, the tablet feels smooth, polished, good quality, a sophisticated piece of hardware.

Startup 

Have your passwords ready! As soon as you switch it on for the first time – especially if you have a bunch of online accounts – the next hour will go in registering, signing in, authorizing, updating, and adding before you can get to actual use.

OS

I’ve been using iOS, 2.3 (Gingerbread) and 2.1 (Eclair) before this, so a couple of things immediately come up – creating folders, moving shortcuts and widgets, and navigation is definitely more streamlined, smoother, compact, and more intuitive.

Another major change is no physical buttons; everything is on-screen, except the power and volume rocker.

All apps + widgets can be accessed from the top right, notifications show in bottom right, back/home/switcher at bottom left (and screenshots – not sure why), and search is top left. The screens are therefore freed up for widgets and shortcuts, folders, and in my opinion, best used for some class wallpapers.

Critical Apps

This isn’t a phablet; I’m assuming you have a phone for doing the more portable stuff. A tablet is best used for reading, writing, creating, and video; install apps accordingly. Set up all your social networks; blogging and writing apps; a decent office-type suite (I like Kingsoft though the on-board solution is pretty good too); media consumers like Flipboard, Pulse, or Reader; a decent movie player; email apps; and since you have an S-pen and a tablet, creative sketching apps. Games if you want. I’ll do a separate post on specifically what apps you’ll need.

Oh, and buying this tablet gives you a two-year subscription to a 50 GB Dropbox account. It works even you’re already using Dropbox, it just upgrades the free account.

Performance 

Overall, good. Smooth, fast, no perceptible lag even with a lot of stuff open. It does feel slightly sluggish when switching between apps, and when using the sketching apps, the stylus point looks marginally marginally off-center, but definitely good to write with. Apple’s iOS is slightly smoother, but this is definitely more flexible in terms of widgets, control over data and content, and personalization.

Immediate next steps:

Buy a cover, a scratch guard, an SD card, and maybe a keyboard. You need these right away. Start using the S-pen to get a feel for it; load up some movies, some e-books and cbr’s – I’ve found it an excellent e-reader – and start using.

Final Summary:

The iPad is smoother and a little more user-friendly, with better sound. The Note is more flexible and customizable, with a better camera and hardware, and more powered-up than the Tab. Other comparable tablets in this range and capability would be the Acer Iconia, the Asus Transformer, and the Sony Experia S tablet.

The MOST critical feature for an online retailer…

…is the humble wishlist. 

I’ve used Baazee.com, eBay, Indiatimes Shopping, Rediff, Indiaplaza, and multiple other random sites for one-off purchases. But one place I keep coming back to each time, again and again, is Flipkart. And it isn’t necessarily because of the prices or the range.

Take any standard online retailer.  Assume that the other basics are taken care of – secure payment gateways, logistics, a decent range, and good searchability is in place and equivalent for all.

The one with a wishlist feature is the one that wins out. Why? Because it’s not only your wishlist, it’s also your shopping list. Every time you finish reading the book / playing the game / watching the movie you bought on the last purchase, here’s where you’ll go back to. Every time you read a good review or receive a recommendation, you’ll look it up and add it – just for future reference. A couple of weeks later, you have a list of items that you’re not very sure where they came from – but you do know that at some point of time, you wanted to buy them. And you still can.

If the wishlist is socially shareable – I’m talking pre-birthday, pre-anniversary and pre-christmas type occasions – it makes gifting so much easier, and a much more rewarding experience. Sorry, but I’m a greedy bastard.  🙂

Items get added onto the wishlist after the search process, which differentiates it from any newsletter-based or deal-of-the-day type models. Those introduce you to items for the first time, after which you start the price-comparison checks. That works for totally unique items, one-offs you won’t find anywhere else. Commoditized items can’t work here.

Newsletters also have a slight trace of the snake-oil salesman; I may be paranoid, but if I see something at an amazing discount, my first reaction will be to wonder why. Nobody’s in the business of giving money away. Is it defective? Obsolete? Scratched? Pirated? etc. The wishlist, on the other hand, is above and beyond reproach, because you’ve put it together yourself. The items you added weeks ago may now be cheaper in a different listing, but what are the chances you’ll recheck before buying?

Ebay has a watchlist – but it gets purged with every relisting. will need to check the others.

Amazon has an awesome feature – the recommendations obviously, but most important, the ‘people who saw this also saw / bought’. Lets you leap from product to product, literally along a train of thought, always through things that you like, till you stumble upon the one you like enough to buy.

And for everyone else – especially the guys who hold inventory themselves – enable a wishlist. It’ll help.

And, Google+.

Google Plus

I’ve had this around 24 hours now, and the critical question is – can Google+ replace a Facebook?

It’s definitely miles ahead of Orkut, but that’s a given. As far as FB comparisons go, there’s one critical feature they got bang on – the issue of privacy. My biggest grouse with FB has been that there are people on it who shouldn’t necessarily know who else is on it, and what they’re doing. G+ lets you split up everyone you know into insulated groups – and everything you mention from here onwards is specifically meant for exactly who you wanted to see it. It’s like having multiple social networks on the same profile, meant for different people.

The best privacy tool is your fingers – don’t post what you don’t want people to know. But this (circles) is the next best thing – now that you’re gonna post anyway, at least keep it withing the circle that won’t blow up in your face. Advantage G+.

The other advantage that G+ has is Gmail – almost everyone I know has an account. So a readymade, ready-to-go list of people already exists on G+. You don’t need to pull them in. Even.

Same with Picasa – there’s a readymade set of images to be shared. Even.

Share links for content shares – easier for FB since they got so massively integrated. Advantage FB.

FB still has the advantage in terms of apps, games, and content – what they need to do now, really, really fast, is differentiate the one mass of friends into distinct, separate, and insulated social circles. That’s easy, and will put them back in front. Right now… it’s iffy.

Google Analytics and Concurrent Users

First of all, read this.

LoadImpact’s post explains how you do this, and it’s a very useful article – I think it deserves to be shared around some more. It basically takes your per-hour data and timespends, and estimates the average concurrent visitor numbers from that.

But while I was testing this out, 2 things occurred to me –
One – is it misleading? when you calculate a peak, you’re taking an average over an hour. The actual spike would be far higher at the point of occurrence – i.e. if your average concurrent users are 10, and you calculate a peak of, say, 50 on one day – the logical assumption is that there will be fifty people on the site together, assuming a timespend of a minute. But those 3000 people could have come 1500 together in the first minute and 25 every minute after – so the actual peak would be 1500, something that doesn’t show or get implied.
(Maybe that’s why it’s not an official feature?)

Two – Now, Google is recording a timestamp on each open. They can calculate minute-to-minute, even second-to-second usage. This is fairly important data – Google, why don’t you just add it to the layout of the basic dashboard anyway? Annual average and peak within the selected daterange would be fine.

Moral of the story – if you’re using this method for an approximation, go ahead. But it might be a little misleading on the extremely high values and also on a series of similar, seemingly identical values. Remember that pinch of salt.

Waving

Wave logo

Got a Google Wave invite at a time when I was pretty much resigned to waiting for commercial release before it happens.

I’m not going to get into the standard dicussions; just read this, this, and this. And continue surfing down some more interesting links you’ll find there. Instead, I’m going to talk about my experience with it so far, pure and simple.

First off – chances are, even if you did get Wave, a lot of the people in your contacts didn’t. In fact, most didn’t. So the most awesome part of Wave – the collaborative part – is pretty much untestable in a real-world situation; I have to do stuff alone, or mock stuff with 1-2 others, and then try to imagine how it’ll be when everyone’s involved.  (Kind of like watching Eyes Wide Shut, heheh 😉

So, I’m going to use analogies.

Scenario 1: Chat. There’s 4 of you in a Google chat, planning a weekend activity. Someone suggests a road trip. The others debate destinations and duration. One takes the initiative and does a little research, shares links to some tourism site and/or photos. You all see them, and the conversation continues.
What would be different in Wave – each link / photo / text could be added to the wave, and comments / debates about each destination could proceed centered around that particular item – a photo, a site link, a text block. Independently and with no confusion. With Gtalk, it’s totally linear; once a line is entered, it will move the conversation inoxerably forward; any attempts to return to an earlier point risks confusing everyone, or needs detailed explanations. Also, once you log off, it’s gone.

Scenario 2: eMail. Look at any mail in your inbox which has multiple replies. In Outlook, for example, it’s a nightmare – 15 people have replied, all the subject lines are the same, different people may have accessed the mail at different times and replied to earlier versions… how do you find one specific comment? In threaded, conversation-style mails like Gmail, it’s easier but still quite difficult; it’s a hub-spoke model, which means that while the guy everyone is replying to, knows what everyone’s saying; but the others don’t know what the rest of the gang has to say. Which means that one guy has to send out updates and final decisions; until then, everyone’s in the dark.

Scenario 3: A shared Google Document. Everyone involved in the exercise is given access, and they can add in their comments, updates, etc. Which means that now, while everyone can see what the others have done, it’s only one person at a time who can make changes. Plus, it’s cumbersome – uploading it, giving permissions… tracking who did what and when…

Scenario 4: A forum. Here, the linearity can be overcome by replying to replies in a thread, but the interface is very clumsy and hard to use. Not to mention lack of flexibility, and it’s real-time only to the point that you sit with a finger on f5, hit it every few seconds, then scroll up-and-down, back-and-forth across the entire thread to see changes.

Scenario 5: A webex+phone conversation. While multiple people may be involved, and conversations can go back to cover earlier points, clarify others, demonstrate actions – it’s still group listening, 1 person talking, and any instance of multiparty participation needs to have set rules and generally leads to frayed tempers. And, it’s expensive.

All the above disadvantages is precisely what Wave gets around. It’s live, real-time. Accessible to all. Easy to use. Simple to search. Non-linear, which puts it in a league ahead of everything else, including a phone conversation. (Face-to-face with visual aids like a whiteboard is pretty close, except that even here you have to take notes and get people into the same room.) Embeddable. Has drag-and-drop-level ease of use.

Then let’s talk about the add-ons which make the above even better.
It’s open-source, which means people can create applications for collaboration the way facebook had users creating apps for socialization. Think about it for a minute. How many times have you thought, when struggling with Outlook / Webex, ‘God, I wish I had something that could just _______ (share / send / take notes / explain / translate / upload / etc)…’ Now, whenever somebody has a similar thought, and any one of them has an idea of how to make it happen… an app will get written and plugged in. The commoner the problem, the higher the chances somebody’s going to solve it. An app to translate into a other language? Already there. An app to lookup a phone number and give the registration details, address, etc? Not too far off, I hope. A mini-Alexa to evaluate sites under discussion? Why not?
It’s embeddable, which means a wave  can be added to other sites – yes, like a live collaborative blog – but also means it’s a remote content-management system for websites. Accessible from anywhere and anytime. By anyone you choose to add into the wave.
It can replace comments and forums. Why be linear? Why be text-only?
Gadgets and Robots – Something you need to keep doing regularly, outside of Wave? Chances are, someone’s created a robot to do just that, automating your manual work  like tweet updates, flickr lookups/uploads,  a dictionary, a route calculator, a countdown timer, a birthday reminder…
Think Wiki. Open-source. Collaborative. Crowdsourced. User-policed. These attributes resulted in the creation of probably the world’s best, most detailed and most exhaustive repository of knowledge… and because it’s live, then over time, also the most error-free. Isn’t that exactly the same attributes in Wave, too?  A single wave can, with the right people involved, become the most exhaustive subject matter in any field. Live. Accessible. Interactive.

That’s it for now – waiting for Wave to get opened up to the public so the rest of my contact list is on. That’s when it’s going to really take off!

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