Saturday, May 3, 2014

Remembering the Holocaust at the US Capitol

The United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance as the nation's annual commemoration of the Holocaust and created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to the victims. Each year, the United States Holocaust Museum leads the nation in commemoration through a ceremony at the United States Capitol. In 2014, the commemoration theme was "Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses." Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew gave the keynote address. The ceremony was very moving. You can watch it in its entirety here:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Can Apple Flourish Without a Strong Cloud Presence?

My first computer was an IBM Thinkpad. When I bought it In did not even know how to use Windows. My focus was the software I could run on the device, mainly MS Word. I connected to the internet using a dial up connection. I remember first having 14.4 kbps, then 28.8 kbps and then 56 kbps. This was all heady stuff for me at the time. What I bought mainly was hardware that could at times connect to the internet.

Now my focus is the cloud. Most of my documents reside on Google Drive, my music is on iTunes Match and on Google Music. If I buy movies or TV shows I buy them on Amazon or on iTunes. My photos reside on an external hard drive that is backed up to the cloud using Backblaze.

In other words, my focus now  is on the cloud not the hardware I buy. I can do what I need do on a laptop or desktop (Mac, Windows or Chrome OS), on an iOS device or an Android device. If all my hardware were lost or stolen I could recover everything or nearly everything in the cloud.

What this says to me is that future belongs to companies with a strong presence in the cloud. It is also really nice when everything works together. When it comes to the cloud, the two firms I primarily think about are Google and Amazon.

Apple makes beautiful hardware that I enjoy using to connect to the cloud but I feel less strongly about the hardware I use. I can do most of what I need to do on a $250 Chromebook. I might prefer an expensive Apple desktop or laptop but it isn't a necessity. I still need reasonably powerful hardware and local software for my digital photography. I use and enjoy Adobe Lightroom. But I am doing less of that and taking more photos from my phone. For photos from my phone, the tools Google provides are easy to use and quite powerful. They are also getting better and better. Google automatically backs all my smartphone photos to the cloud.

Apple is a company I respect and admire. I just wonder if it can flourish over the long term unless it has a stronger presence in the cloud. Right now the only Apple cloud service I use is iTunes Match. But I now listen to most of my music using Google Play Music All Access. Having said this, my next computer will probably be a Mac but in ten years or less I may be able to do everything I care about on a Chromebook or some other internet appliance.

Increasingly what I value most is a first rate cloud experience. Google offers all the services I need. Amazon is great for entertainment but weak in other areas and Apple is a distant third. In my mind, Microsoft is not even in the race. I can do everything I need to do in Google Docs and spreadsheets. I no longer feel I need Microsoft.

I hope Apple will step up its game in the cloud either with its own services or a partner.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tim Cook Calls Android Tablets are "Crappy" - That's Not My Experience

John Gruber of Daring Fireball notes today that Apple CEO Tim Cook called the user experience on Android tablets "crappy" in part because iPads have many more apps available than do Android tablets. Gruber loves that Cook used the word "crappy."

Although I am frequent customer of Apple hardware and software, including an iPad Air, I also own two Kindle Fire HDX tablets (the 7 inch and the 8.9 inch). My experience with them is so positive that I now rarely use my iPad Air.

I don't use a tablet to replace a laptop or a desktop. I use a tablet to watch TV shows and movies, check email, Twitter, Tumblr, Feedly and the like. The iPad offers more apps and better apps but I don't use them. I watch movies on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, HBO and Showtime. I can do all that on either the iPad or the Fire HDX but the screen on the Fire HDX is hands down better for watching videos than the iPad. The colors just pop and there seems to be less glare. In addition, the 16:9 aspect ratio on the Fire is better for watching video than the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad Air. And the apps I care about are all available on the Fire. Now I realize this is just how I use a tablet. But I'm sure I am not alone. I feel Amazon offers me a better experience overall for less money. Both Apple and Amazon offer first rate customer service.

I respect Tim Cook and John Gruber very much but in this instance their point of view does not agree with my experience.

The full Wall Street Journal interview of Cook is here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Is Cancelling The New York Times Today Like Cancelling AOL in Days Gone By?

I recently signed up online for a digital subscription to The New York Times, a newspaper for which I have great respect. In my opinion, The New York Times is the best written American newspaper. The paper has high standards.

Although I am happy to pay for a newspaper I have never thought that the paper's digital pricing was fair. If you are ok reading the paper only on the web and a smartphone the price is $3.75 a week. If you are ok reading the paper only on the web and a tablet -- but not a smartphone -- the price increases to $5.00 a week. And if you want to read the paper online, on smartphone and a tablet the price is $8.75 a week. This makes no sense to me. I feel I am paying for content and not where I read it. To me it's like saying the paper costs a $1 if I read it at home, $1.50 if I read it at Starbucks and $2 if I read it on the subway. But maybe that's just me. At all the prices offered there are ads galore -- and I find them annoying.

When I decided to cancel, I found that I could not do so online. I feel that if I buy something online I should be able to cancel it online. The system works well for Netflix. I have cancelled Netflix in the past online with no hassle whatsoever. And I have come back (mainly for House of Cards and Lilyhammer - but that's another story).

In the old days I could sign up for AOL online but to cancel I had to call a number and the rep would do anything to keep me including offering free or discounted service. Even if tempted at the time by the free or discounted service I didn't want to do that because it would mean having to call back again and engage in another tug of war. With AOL, I was reduced to repeating politely "I want to cancel" to whatever the rep said. It was time consuming, aggravating and humiliating. But I never thought AOL was a high class hoity toity institution like well The New York Times.

When I called the Times I first got a recording saying that call volume is high and asking me to be patient. So I was patient. Then the rep wanted to know why I wanted to cancel and tried to convince me to stay. I said I had limited time to read the paper. She then offered a discount that -- like AOL -- was tempting but the last thing I wanted to do was end the call still a subscriber because then I would have to call and wait again and then repeatedly express a desire to cancel. It is a hassle I did not expect from an "enlightened" entity like The New York Times. So after some convincing she eventually cancelled my subscription. I really don't want to go back even though I get email offers all the time.

I told the rep I signed up online and felt I should be able to cancel online. She had no interest in hearing that.

So, is The New York Times the new AOL? And if so, is this the best America's "newspaper of record" can do? Is the paper so desperate for subscribers that it wants to fence them in?

I hope this fine publication will open its eyes and let customers come and go as they please. It seems to work for Netflix. I am eager to see season 2 of House of Cards.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Enjoying Google Music All Access

I'm using iTunes less and less even though I am an Apple iTunes Match customer and have access to Apple's radio music streaming service.

I was an early adopter of Google Music All Access, which is Google's answer to Spotify, Rdio and Mog among other competitors. What originally attracted me is Google's willingness to match my music library in the Cloud for free. Google lets users add up to 20,000 songs (up to 300MB per song) to Google Play Music from your personal music collection using a small program that runs in the background called Music Manager.

This is a great free service. You can access your music from any computer. You need no software other than a web browser. With Apple's service you must have iTunes installed. Google also has apps for iPhone and Android. The apps are beautiful in my opinion. Google doesn't yet have an iPad app, although I hope that's coming.

With All Access users pay a monthly charge (now $9.99) and you can listen to anything in Google's vast music library. You can download music to listen to offline on an iPhone or Android device or stream as you prefer. I mostly stream music. I can't compare Google's library with competing services but I almost always find what I am looking for -- even new releases. You can create a "radio" station based on a song. I do this at times and it works well. But what I really like is Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" option. It amazes me that Google always comes up with music I mostly like that I have yet to hear. When I don't like a song I click thumbs down and Google moves on and presumably remembers my preference.

Although you can buy music from Google or elsewhere (Google Music Manager will automatically update your library even if you add music from sources other than Google) I see no reason to do so. I am ok renting music.

Google Music All Access also imported my playlists from iTunes but not my Smart Playlists. I can create new playlists and add to them on the iPhone, on Android on a desktop or a laptop. 

Google has very limited support for Smart Playlists -- like recently added and highly rated songs. I wish they would offer more of this. Maybe that will come but even if it doesn't I feel like I am getting good value for my money. Apple's approach feels outdated. I prefer access to my music from a browser and the vast selection. The Cloud is sweet.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Amazon Kindle HDX - Very Impressive

I have been a committed Apple customer. I use an iPhone, iPad and an iMac and enjoy them. A few months ago I ordered the 7 inch Kindle Fire to see what it is like. I took one look at the screen and immediately saw that it is significantly better than the screen on my brand new iPad Air. The colors are significantly richer and there seems to be less glare. I am an Amazon Prime customer. Amazon Prime allows customers to download TV shows and movies available through Prime. Netflix does not allow downloading of programming under any circumstances. The ability to download entertainment is great when I travel or go someplace that lacks WiFi. (I didn't get 3G on my Kindle Fire). I also like Amazon's original programming, especially Alpha House, which makes me laugh.

The day I received the Fire I could not figure out how to set the time so I used the MayDay feature. A rep appeared on my Fire within seconds and helped me with my question. Seeing a support person is really amazing, especially when the help comes right away.

About a week or so after receiving the Kindle Fire HDX, it would intermittently reboot without warning. So I called telephone support. A live person came on the phone in a couple of minutes. I explained the situation. The rep put me on hold and came back on the line and said that Amazon would send me a replacement unit right away. He said when the new unit arrives to send the old one back. The new one came in about two days already registered to my account. I put the old one in the box the new one came in and left it for UPS to pick up. Very easy.

Coming from iOS devices I noticed that my headphones would not control the volume on the Kindle Fire. I reckon the wiring is different. Some headphones will stop and start the sound and some won't. None of my headphones or earphones will control the volume.

So I went on Amazon to try to find headphones that will stop and start the sound and raise and lower the volume on the Kindle Fire HDX. I couldn't find any that I was sure would do all that so I wrote an email to Amazon to ask if any such headphones are available. Amazon wrote back in under a day explaining that it does not offer any such headphones on its website and giving me a $10 credit for my inconvenience. Bear in mind that I did not complain to Amazon nor did I request anything other than information.

This is truly exceptional customer service. I now also own an 8.9 inch Fire as well. I use my iPad Air far less than before. I watch TV shows and movies almost exclusively on the Kindle Fires. The iPad is better for reading RSS feeds and for content creation. But I prefer to create content on a desktop or a laptop. If I had to do it over again I am not sure I would buy an iPad.

The iPad is sleeker than the Kindle Fire but also seems more fragile. The Amazon Origami case is bulky but it seems to protect the tablet well and really will hold the Fire up either horizontally or vertically.

The iPad cover from Apple looks nice and protects the screen but won't really hold the iPad up in either direction easily or well in my experience.

I use the smaller Fire more than I use the larger Fire. The 7-inch Fire will fit easily in a coat pocket. And compared with the iPad I prefer the Fire's 16:9 aspect ratio, which is better for watching TV shows and movies.

The Apple community shuns the Amazon Fire. I think they are missing out on a great device, superb customer service and wonderful content all at a price well below what Apple charges.

I am a very happy Amazon customer.

Thursday, November 14, 2013