Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review of Google Music

I was one of those people who jumped on the Google Music bandwagon as soon as it came out in beta. Now that I've been using it for a few months I thought I would post a review of it for others who may be interested.

Google Music is amazing. I love it so far. I have completely switched away from Apple iTunes and have no regrets. My switch was forced upon me, though, because my MacBook Pro died on me and so I had to think about whether to buy a new Apple product or to switch to a Chromebook. I made the choice to flip over to Chromebook (which I will review separately) and then decided to go whole-hog into the world of Google. I was already using many other Google services, so iTunes was a sore thumb sticking out from a mess of Google stuff.

Here is what is great and beautiful about Google Music:

  • Excellent integration with my Android phone (Motorola Droid Bionic). The user interface is so easy to use, so intuitive. It takes the old iPod interface up a level. If you have an Android phone, I strongly suggest you get rid of iTunes and switch to either Google Music or Amazon Music.
  • Very easy to buy music on the Website (no desktop app needed)
  • Being cloud-centric. I am so happy that Google Music sits in the cloud. It is so cool to buy a song but not have to download it anywhere. Certainly my Chromebook would not know what to do with an mp3 file, but, amazingly, downloads to my phone are also unnecessary. Songs stream instantly to my phone, thanks to 4G networking. Also, I can mark a certain playlist as "available offline" and Google takes care of the rest behind the scenes. Cloud support as an add-on or a clumsy syncing activity like iCloud is so retro compared to this.

  • Here are some things I don't like about the beta:

  • The store is still missing a lot of music. Universal Music Group hasn't signed on yet, plus many of the independent artists have not uploaded their songs here yet, they are assuming that iTunes is all they need.
  • The search is actually kinda sucky. C'mon Google, search is your thing! Certainly, if you put in an artist name or song name it will come up, but it seems treat the clutter the same as the real thing. For instance, you'll see a bunch of karaoke and K-tel-type remakes of your song and then the actual original song will be somewhere among the mess. And, of course, since Google doesn't have every popular artist, lots of searches end up with nothing but karaoke and K-tel.
  • Shopping for music on Android is terrible. When you click "Shop for this artist" you'd think you would go to Google Music, right? You don't. You go to Google Shopping, which gives you the 24 online sites that have music by that artist. Whaaa?
  • There is no choice of where to store your "available offline" songs. You should be able to put them on an SD card, but I'm only able to store them in my limited phone memory. Apparently, some Android users have the opposite problem, only able to store songs on SD but can't switch to internal memory.
  • Since Google's music store doesn't have all the music I want, I often go to Amazon's amazing music store and pick it out there. Transferring the music from Amazon's cloud to Google's cloud is a true pain in the ass. Google's music uploader does not work on Chromebook (Ugh!!) so I have to use my wife's Mac Pro to get the whole job done.
  • Now, people like Leo Laporte are saying Google Music is too little, too late. Why would someone want to "own" music when they could use streaming services like Pandora or Spotify? he asks.

    Sorry, Leo, but I ain't buying it. If you are a person who puts on music just to have noise going, then I'm sure streaming services are fine. But I am a more serious listener. I don't like to hear the same song twice in one week. I like independent artists, which are not well-represented on streaming services. I love mashups, which are totally missing from all streaming. I'm just very fussy about my music. I am a paying customer of Pandora and do listen occasionally, but it could not be my primary source of music. I like to have music that I own, I just don't want it to be on my machines (still smarting from my MacBook Pro crash...yes, it was backed Google Music and Amazon Music coincidentally).

    As a sidenote, I've found a wonderful music discovery streaming service called EarBits. They have a lot of independent artists and they randomly stream them on various genre channels. Most wonderfully, they have some curated channels like "Scott's Chick Singer Channel" which are excellent. The whole service is free (for now, I guess) with no ads whatsoever. I don't know how they make money.

    The biggest thing I like about Google Music is that I feel like I'm using the next generation of music playback. Never worrying about downloads, syncing, duplicate copies of songs (iTunes was horrendous for this), and hard drive crashes.

    My prediction is that consumers flock away from iTunes in the coming years and half of them move to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while the other half move to music systems like Amazon Music and Google Music (which are almost identical, by the way). "Managing your music" can and should be something we don't have to worry about anymore. These new services make it possible, friendly and even fun to listen to your music again.

    Saturday, November 26, 2011

    Should "Occupy Wall Street" Become "Dismantle Wall Street?"

    I've been paying close attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement in America and other parts of the world. Could we be experiencing an "Arab Spring" right here in our own backyard?

    Well, maybe. But it's hard to figure out what these American kids are really asking for? Mainly because, they won't say. They produce a wide-ranging list of social cures, many which seem to lead towards socialism and away from free market capitalism to the casual observer. For me, that's a non-starter. I love capitalism and, being from Canada originally, am no fan of anything that smells like Trudeau-style socialism.

    But what if we refocused on the initially defined villian for a minute - Wall Street. The true extent of the global damage that these clowns inflicted on the world was not apparent to me until I read the book "Boomerang" by Michael Lewis. Wall Street "geniuses" intentionally wound up a giant time bomb of free-flowing money that not only wreaked havoc in the U.S. but in many other countries as well. Iceland tried to remake itself as a investment bank, using the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) from Wall Street, bankrupting itself in the process. Ireland caught the real estate bubble fever and, using free money from the U.S. investment banks, created enormous debt for its banks, and, subsequently, the Irish taxpayers. And, most damningly, the Wall Street firms cynically played the German banks for suckers right up until the entire debt crisis came crashing down.

    So what should we do with these assholes? I, personally, am not a fan of political witch hunts. I have no interest in tracking down "the guy" who is responsible for it all and throwing him in jail for twenty years. There is no "one guy." It's the whole Wall Street system.

    I propose that we immediately begin engineering a "Dismantle Wall Street" policy in the U.S.. Here's what we should do:
    • Execute a one-time fine against all the Wall Street firms, the maximum amount that will still allow them to continue operations but that will help bail our federal government out of the mess it is in (at least a drop in the bucket).

    • Break up all Wall Street firms into tiny little shops maybe 1/50th the size they are now. Dismantle the fucking place. Wall Street dudes are so well known for their highly competitive nature, well, let's see it! Compete against one another as 600 or 700 itty bitty firms and let's see you tear each other apart. No investment bank needs to be $45B. If ever an anti-trust break was required in our history, this is it.

    • Increase transparency of derivatives. I know some of this is already in progress, but the 2008 answer of "I didn't know what was in the thing" has got to be fixed. Derivatives must be transparent, understandable, taxed at a high rate and regulated like hell. Derivatives do not add to the benefit of the country, they are just card tricks to try to make some money. That's fine, fiddle away, but we're going to tax your ass and watch your ass, so keep it clean (pun intended).

    I think these three steps would really help to change how things work on Wall Street. Thomas Friedman says in his new book "That Used to be Us" that the U.S. needs some "shock therapy" like we've been so eager to administer to other countries that get into financial trouble of their own making. Let's take our medicine. Let's start with Wall Street and make some big fixes. See what happens and incrementally keep fixing our institutions.

    Wall Street fat cats will howl. Newt Gingrich will have to cry. But who cares? All Americans want to see something get fixed after the 2008 financial crisis. This is at least a step towards that.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    Why I Use an Android Phone

    I work in a technology company so we talk a lot about new tech and gadgets. There is no shortage of discussion about mobile. Starting a flame war in our Socialcast forums (like an internal Twitter) is as easy as postulating that one phone is better than another in some way.

    But trends have emerged. In general, our company leans heavily towards the Apple side of the argument. With Apple and Google's Android becoming the de facto leaders in the mobile space, the camps are digging in and the vitriolic is ramping up.

    I've never considered myself a fanboy of either camp. The gadgets don't make me swoon. I don't know why. Or, I didn't know why until now.

    Although I tend not to be a fanboy of gadgets, I am definitely a fanboy of companies. Apple is a company that has revived us from decades of sameness and has vaulted the entire computer industry into a place that's exciting and awe-inspiring. When the iPad was announced, I was more interested in how Apple had come up with such innovation than actually using the gadget itself. I, personally, could not think of a use for the iPad. I already had a Kindle for reading eBooks and a phone that could do everything the iPad could do. I ended up buying one for my wife once I realized that the iPad was the perfect portable television for her as she moved from room to room in our house. She enjoys it a lot. (I know Apple fans will assume I'm using her iPad constantly but I really don't.)

    Google occupies a similar status in my mind to Apple. The Google search engine is a thing of beauty. Many of Google's follow-on products -- Docs, Blogger (which I'm using now), Maps, Earth -- you name it -- have been so tremendously useful for me in my life. I'm just listening to an audiobook called "In the Plex" that delves into Google's short life as a company and it is just making me appreciate how much I depend on their technology day-to-day.

    Which brings me to my point (finally). I own an Android phone. I don't think the features of my ancient Motorola Droid are so much more fantastic than the features of a comparable iPhone. As far as I can tell, they're about the same. I have to agree with Steve Jobs initial assessment of the Android operating system - they really did copy a lot of stuff from Apple. They are so similar.

    And yet, as it is now time to upgrade (I'm a faithful Verizon user), I have the choice to wait for the next iPhone model or the next Droid (which is the Bionic, pictured above). Part of the decision is made easy. The Droid Bionic will definitely be an LTE phone, the next iPhone most likely will not.

    But that's not my biggest reason for choosing to stick with Android. My biggest reason is because I live in the Google universe. I use Google's services from end-to-end. I live in them, I work in them, I want to use all of them on my mobile phone.

    I made a list of the Google and Apple services I use. In each case, I tried to find a comparable service from both.

    Search Google Search use Google on iOS but contemplating switching to Bing
    Maps Google Maps use Google Maps on iOS
    Documents Google Docs Pages, Numbers, Keynote
    Browser Chrome Safari
    Music Google Music Beta iTunes
    Social Network Google+ Ping
    News Reading Google Reader a feature of Safari
    Payment System Google Checkout a feature of iTunes
    Voice Calls Google Voice N/A
    E-mail Gmail MobileMe
    Video Viewing YouTube Quicktime
    Book Reading Google Books iBooks
    Calendar Google Calendar iCal
    Chat Google Chat iChat
    Home Page iGoogle MobileMe
    Photos Picasa iPhoto

    Here's what I've realized. In sixteen categories (not meant to be all-inclusive) I use Google services in twelve cases. I use Apple services in two cases (iPhoto and iTunes). In two cases I use some service provided by another company (Amazon Kindle for book reading, Facebook/LinkedIn for social networking).

    (The music situation is complicated. I only buy music on the Amazon MP3 store, but I play it on iTunes and my iPod Classic.)

    I sure look like a Google fanboy. I don't know how this happened. I think a big factor was that my employer decided to start using Google Apps as our primary collaboration toolset a few years ago, including Gmail, Google Docs, Sites, etc. I've been really happy with the switch (we were using Exchange and some wiki product). A few months prior I had switched my personal e-mail account to Gmail. Everything seemed to culminate after that.

    Apple fans will point out, of course, that you can use Gmail, YouTube and other Google services on the iPhone. This is true. However, Apple's clear message to its user base is "You will use what we tell you to use." Note the discussions last year of Apple possibly switching to Bing as the iPhone search engine. Bing? Blecch, that would disorient me terribly. All my search history and preferences is with Google. Not to mention that Google is still a better search engine. I could easily see Apple switching to non-Google defaults or, worse, banning certain Google apps for arbitrary reasons, as they did with Google Voice for several months.

    So that's why I use Android. Not for the features of the phones, but for the services that come integrated so nicely. A friend with an iPhone was fretting that he had lost all his contacts saved to his phone. My contacts are in Gmail. It's that integration that I love.

    And truthfully, I'm looking to get off of iPhoto and iTunes as well. I think the Droid Bionic has lots of memory so maybe I'll get DoubleTwist and ditch my iPod Classic. Or maybe use Songbird? And I've got to get a cloud repository for my photos. Most likely, it ain't gonna be iCloud.

    I think Apple is better at making innovative gadgets than anyone else, including Google/Motorola/HTC/Samsung. Apple will always be first in coming out with cool new hardware. But I want to use the hardware that is easiest to connect to the services I use. And the services I use are at Google.

    Sunday, January 09, 2011

    GE's Connected Home Unveiled at CES This Week

    Looks like GE is really moving along with their smart grid / smart home strategy. Seems like it might be time to buy GE stock?

    Saturday, January 01, 2011

    How to Cut Your Cable TV

    We cut our cable TV two and a half years ago. We've never been happier with our TV choices after doing it. Here is our story.

    I posted a "how to" blog post back in 2009 a few months after we cut the cable. It wasn't actually "cable TV" that we cut, we were using DirecTV at the time. And we didn't cut it by choice, it was mainly because our neighbor's trees had grown too high and were blocking our view of the satellite.

    That said, let's move on. Our current configuration is much different than it was back in 2009. Also, you need to pay close attention to the type of content we watch, because if your preferences are a lot different, this might not work for you.

    What We Watch

    To be clear, we have specific TV viewing habits. My wife, Tamara, and I watch movies and TV shows but not sports. We don't watch soap operas, daytime talk shows or kid's programming. If you are like us, read on. If not, let's give you some quick advice here. Some sports are available over the Internet. Major league baseball has programming on the Roku unit, as does NHL hockey. But football is not available (as far as I know), nor is soccer. There are some international channels on Roku that claim to have cricket and football/soccer coverage, who knows how good it is.

    For soap operas and daytime talk shows, check to see if Hulu offers access. Otherwise, you might be out of luck.

    Okay, back to "what we watch."

    We love to watch movies. We aren't the type of people who rush to see the latest releases. Basically, we are too cheap to pay for movie tickets, plus the experience of the movie theater (cell phones, sticky floors, etc.) is not inviting to us at all. We are very happy to wait 6 to 18 months until those movies come to DVD.

    But movies are more of a weekend thing for us. During the week, we will usually try to catch one or two TV shows each night. Our favorites are:

    King of Dirt
    It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    The Philanthropist
    Sons of Anarchy
    Running Wilde
    American Dad
    Family Guy
    South Park
    Brothers and Sisters
    No Ordinary Family
    Lie to Me
    Mad Men
    True Blood
    United States of Tara
    Desperate Housewives
    Six Feet Under
    Boston Legal
    The Wire
    The L Word
    Dr. Katz

    You'll notice several things about our list. There are network TV shows here (Desperate Housewives, Lie to Me) but also cable favorites (King of Dirt, Biography, etc.). Many of these are available on Hulu. You'll also notice lots of TV series that are long dead (Six Feet Under, Rome, etc.). We are recycling these fantastic shows and loving them just as much the second (or third) time around. Again, we are not the types who need to be up-to-date on the latest TV shows or movies. If you are, make sure your choices are on Hulu, which keeps up-to-date very well. Netflix TV shows are also 6 to 12 months after the shows have been on HBO or Fox or whatever.

    What We Pay

    I made kind of a big deal in my first post about how little we were paying. Well, it has gone up a LOT since then. Originally, we were paying about $110/month for our DirecTV subscription. That's about average when you have all the movie channels and a DVR/TiVO service.

    We dropped down to only $17 a month for our Netflix service back in 2008, which includes 2 DVDs at a time plus full access to streaming. Netflix has raised prices a lot since then, and we have also increased our DVD limit to 4-at-a-time, so now our Netflix costs us $32.99 (including Blu-ray access).

    Also, we've added a paid Hulu Plus subscription, which costs an additional $8.99 a month. In total, we are paying $41.98 a month for our entertainment. This still isn't equal to HALF of what we paid for DirecTV, but it is higher than what we started with.

    Here is how our current plan is still an improvement over DirecTV (or cable):

    • Most entertainment has no commercials. Netflix has zero commercials and Hulu has commercials in everything. However, even with Hulu, the commercial breaks are usually 30-60 seconds, not the maddening 3-4 minutes you have to deal with on cable. It is quite tolerable. Plus, it is only ever national commercials (Nissan, Crest, e-Trade, etc.) These are so much easier to handle than the locally-produced garbage coming from car dealerships, carpet stores, etc. This makes a big difference in my mind.

    • Everything is on-demand. There is no need to wait for a certain show to come on. Even with DVRs, you are still waiting for a certain show so it can get recorded and you can wait it later. On Hulu and Netflix, everything is at your fingertips. Hulu can be a bit frustrating, because they will often put certain shows on "expiry" for no apparent reason. For instance, Archer, an animated sitcom about a spy agency, has produced two seasons so far. But Hulu only has three episodes of the first season. These quirks are not Hulu's fault. The TV networks are absolutely wacky about this stuff, and so Hulu has to pull down and put up particular episodes of TV shows depending on the whims of the network executives. It is okay as long as you don't mind "taking what you can get" rather than desperately seeking one particular episode of one particular TV show.

    • The user interface is dead simple. It is a big clumsy to navigate between Netflix and Hulu, trying to figure out which show is where and why. But the Roku interface is easy to use and does not get in the way. Plus, we've even found ways to include YouTube and TED Talks onto our Roku boxes as separate channels. Very fun!

    Then there are certain very popular shows that aren't available at all on Hulu. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report are two great examples. They were previously available on Hulu but suddenly Viacom, who owns Comedy Central, took them down. The shows are available on the Comedy Central Website, but of course the technology on the Comedy Central site is much harder to use, less reliable and not available on devices like the Roku. Plus, the commercial breaks are 300% longer. Ugh. As a result, we just don't watch them anymore, even though we were once daily viewers of those shows. Too much trouble!

    Another example is South Park. This is a great animated series about potty-mouthed school children in Colorado. It isn't available directly on Hulu either, and certainly not on Roku devices (except older seasons on Netflix). You can go directly to the South Park Studios site for access to (almost) immediate fresh content, but this doesn't help us much.


    Here is the equipment we use in our house:

    4 normal TVs (some are 10+ years old)
    3 Roku boxes
    1 RF modulator
    1 Wii
    1 iPad
    1 home wireless network

    Here is our thinking. We have an HDTV projector. That is where we watch our Blu-ray disks that come from Netflix in the mail. We can also easily hook up a Roku box to it and project HD content from Netflix or Hulu. Then we have a 55" SDTV where we watch most TV shows. We have another two TVs in other rooms and each TV needs its own Roku box. Roku recently dropped their prices to $55 for the regular box, but it is worthwhile to get the $99 super HD box (we got ourselves two at Christmas last week). This means that each person can watch their own selections simultaneously in different rooms, although you need to be careful of bandwidth overloading. Generally, we find that if we are both watching different televisions downloading streaming content, we run into a lot of wait times. Our connection to the Internet is just standard 3Mbps DSL, so if you have a faster cable or fiber connection, you will probably have no problem downloading onto two TVs at the same time.

    We briefly looked into the Boxee Box. It has the potential to aggregate content from all over the Web: Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, South Part Studios, YouTube, etc. I say "potential," because, currently, Boxee is having problems getting licensed content from the two biggies: Netflix and Hulu. Neither one works on the Boxee Box at this moment, so that's why we didn't purchase one. Once they have that worked out, we may buy a Box just to see how it is different. And to get yet-one-more TV connected to our wonderful world of Internet entertainment...

    The RF modulator is necessary if you want to connect a Roku device to an older television. We have one TV that is so old the only input it has is an ancient coaxial cable connector. That's when you need an RF modulator (about $30 at Radio Shack).

    Why the iPad? Well, actually, this is our "TV on the go." If my wife wants to watch a show in bed, or at the kitchen table, or on the deck, she can easily do so with the iPad and the Netflix and Hulu apps. These are the "killer apps" for the iPad, if you ask me. I couldn't think of a single use case for an iPad until the TV idea hit me. We bought the Wi-Fi iPad because we can easily use a MiFi device whenever we want to connect to the Internet via cellular. Has anyone bought a 3G iPad??? Doesn't seem to make much sense to me.

    The Wii is a very nice Netflix streaming device. We use that in one of our rooms, it works great. No extra cost for the Netflix app on the Wii.

    I think that covers it. I hope this is a worthy sequel to my original post. Please make a comment if you have a question or clarification. Let's get all of you cutting your cable, paying less and enjoying more!!