Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When good companies make bad products

What do Zimbra, Knol and MobileMe have in common? All three have come out in the past month, all from companies that have loyal customers and solid revenues, and all three are dogs. Yahoo, Google, and Apple should know better: don't push something out the door before it is baked. I've tried them all, and while I haven't spent tons of time to review them, I have seen enough to know that none of them are ready for real customers.

Zimbra is Yahoo's answer to a desktop email client, like Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook, or something similar. It allows you to combine a variety of Web-based emailers like Yahoo Mail, Gmail, and AOL (remember them? I know, there are still a few people in my life that insist on using AOL, try to be kind to them and not sneer) into one unified inbox. The trouble is, it is a product that would have been innovative say back in 1997 or 1998. But today? Nope. Gmail does a terrific job organizing my email, and can collect emails from other systems, too.

Yahoo's email software has always been a day late and a dollar short, sorry guys. Icahn doesn't love you for your email – indeed, if he ever did use a computer, that would probably be the last email product he would pick up. It is clunky, the user interface (both the classic one and the current one) are used in classes on bad design principles, and when you have to manage multiple accounts it bogs down like quicksand. Into this environment we have a solution: let's develop a client emailer! Well, at least give them points for diversity training: it comes in Mac, Windows, and Linux flavors. But a dressed up pig still stinks.

I also don't want to go back to a desktop email client for several reasons: First, because I use several computers during the course of my average day, and when I am on the road I don't want to have to bring my laptop and fight through the TSA screening lines and cart it up and down concourses and escalators ad infinitum. Second, because I have forgotten how to set up POP and IMAP mail servers and don't want to have to dig out my book (which I wrote with Marshall Rose back in 1998) to remember how to do it. Finally, I don't want to have to backup my desktop email archive: having it sorted out by Google's Gmail means I don't have to deal with this chore. Scratch Zimbra.

MobileMe is Apple's latest incarnation to its dot Mac service. It's failures have been well documented, and it has been amusing to watch Apple stumble on this one. Again, give them some points for having both a Windows and Mac versions, but they didn't quite get it right: the Windows version doesn't run on Internet Explorer. Hunh? What reality distortion field were you living in, Steve baby? I mean, what do you expect all those Windows users to do, move over to Safari or Firefox just to run your nifty software? I even said Apple's choice of nomenclature was prophetic: remember Windows Me, the version that lasted all of a few months before Microsoft realized what a dog it was? MobileMe is the Apple version for the rest of us.

And now we have Google's attempt at creating another Wikipedia with Knol. Isn't one Wiki-tiki-web site enough for our universe? And I mean the good folks over there all due respect. I like Wikipedia, it is responsible for endless hours of amusement and resolving pivotal factual arguments in my life. Granted, Knol has some nifty name verification features, so that you can at least have some clue who is writing all that free content and whether you want to trust them when you have to cut and paste it into your next term paper. But I couldn't verify my name using either with a credit card or phone number, probably because I have just moved and the addresses aren't on file. Oh well.

But more importantly, why oh why would Google get into the content creation business just to piss off every one of their advertising partners? It doesn't make any AdSense. Some have already claimed that Google IS in the content business already, we just haven't been paying attention. I will leave that argument for another day.

Knol, MobileMe, and Zimbra are all cases of bad products coming from otherwise good companies. Notice I didn't draw any parallels to any number of past Microsoft products, like Bob, Vista, DOS 4, or even MSN for that matter. Remember those?

If you have your favorite bad-product-from-good-company story, please share.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Using OpenDNS to protect your network

This week we had another Internet security exploit revealed. And while I don't want to get into the details, let's just say that if you aren't using OpenDNS.com for your home network, now is the time to take the five minutes and get it done. It is simple (well, as these things go), it is free, and it will protect you from any number of issues in the future. And you might get better browsing performance as a result.

Before I tell you how to do this, let's have a brief explanation of what the Domain Name System is for those of you that really want to know. Think of what a phone book (remember them, before we used online searches to look up a friend's number, seems so quaint now) does – it allows you if you know someone's name to look up their phone number. The names are in alphabetical order, so if you know the alphabet, you can quickly page through and find the person, if they are listed.

The DNS does something similar, except for computers: if you type in "google.com" it translates that name into a sequence of four numbers, called an IP address, which in this case for google.com is Paul Mockapetris, a gentleman I have spent some time with and one of the Internet bright lights, put the thing together in the early 1980s, which is enshrined in RFC 882, even before Al Gore had invented the Internet itself.

The overall Internet infrastructure has a series of master phone books, or DNS root servers, located at strategic places around the world and maintained by a collection of public, semi-public, and private providers. They talk to each other on a regular basis, to make sure that as we add new domains they are in synch. As you can imagine, if someone wants to "poison" one of the entries, or misdirect Internet traffic to a phony domain, it can be done with the right amount of subterfuge.

Here is where OpenDNS comes into play. When you set up your home network, typically you don't give your DNS settings any further thought. If you have a cable or DSL modem, you hook it up and it automatically gets its DNS settings from the cable or phone company's DNS servers.

What I am suggesting is that you change these settings, to reflect the DNS servers at OpenDNS. There are instructions on their Web site, but basically you specify the two (one is used for backup) DNS IP addresses for your router or DSL/cable modem. If you have a wireless gateway from Netgear or someone similar, you make the entries there. You need to know the router's IP address, and how to access it via its Web interface.

There are a few nice things about using OpenDNS. First, you can set it up to block objectionable domains, so that you might be able to get around your kids seeing something that you would rather they didn't. They also spend time to block known exploit domains, so you have a better chance of not getting trapped by some hacker. You also get better DNS service, because they have servers that will return the domains supposedly faster than the ones for the general Internet. They also catch common typos, so if you are like me and make mistakes typing in names in your browser, they can usually direct you to the place you intended.

How do they make money? If you type in an unknown domain name, you are directed to their search page where they show ads, just like the Google search pages.

OpenDNS is not the answer for everyone, and businesses should go a step further and protect their DNS servers on their networks. While I don't want to get into that here, you can find out more about the explot from the experts, start with this blog post here:

It is sad that the Internet is at risk: this exploit is serious, and goes at the core protocol that everyone uses all day long. Hopefully, the engineers will find a fix soon.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A grown-up's guide to legal music downloads

The reason for the title is simple: we all know that a world of music is available for the stealing from any number of sites. But if you want to download music legally – and if you are going to pay for it you might as well get it without any DRM copy protection restrictions -- what are your choices?

Before embarking on this project, I asked my kids if they have ever heard of any of these services. Other than iTunes, I got blank stares. Of course, none of them pay for their digital music, and don't care. Here are the five sites that I spent time with:

eMusic.com offers several different monthly subscription plans for what they claim are from two million DRM-free songs. The cheapest is for 30 song downloads at $12 per month, up to the most expensive at $20 for 75 songs a month. No matter which plan, you get 50 free downloads and you can cancel your subscription at any time. If you want to be really mercenary about the whole deal, you can sign up, take your 50 songs, and cancel within the same day, without spending a dime. You have to sign up before you can browse their store, however.

Rhapsody.com from Real Networks claims more than four million songs, and you can just listen to the full length of up to 25 tracks a month for free, provided you sign up and give them the right to send you unlimited email solicitations. (They are a bix obnoxious in that regard.) If you want to download them, you pay 99 cents per most songs or $10 per most albums. You can only download a song once, and if you use their Windows software, it will automatically add the songs to iTunes (but not Windows Media, they are still a bit huffy after the lawsuits). Mac or Linux users can download a zip file with multiple songs included, and then you have to manually import them into your music library.

Amazon.com has "millions" of songs, but unlike Rhapsody you can only listen to a 30 second sample and not the entire song. They have optional downloading software for Windows, Linux and Mac that will add them automatically to iTunes (or Windows Media) and makes buying multiple tracks simple. If you don't use the downloader, you have to download one track at a time. Each song is 89 or 99 cents, albums range from $6 to $10. The ones I purchased had fairly high encoding rates of 256 kbps. You can only download them once like Rhapsody.

iTunes Music Store (who claims a catalog of five million songs) is beginning to experiment with DRM-free music from some of its publishers. The songs are 256 kbps encoded and cost the same as the copy protected songs. If you have bought a DRM'ed version previously you can upgrade for an additional 30 cents a track or a third of the price of the original album purchase. To do this (not that you want to give Apple any more dough), you go to the iTunes Store within the latest version of the software, click on the link for "iTunes Plus," and then click on the upgrade button. It will show you which of your tracks can be upgraded and what it will cost. Unlike the other services, you are buying an AAC file rather than an MP3, but most portable and PC-based players will be okay with this format.

Finally, there is SpiralFrog.com, an interesting site run by a friend of mine that doesn't charge for its downloads, but only gives you music that contains DRM. They claim 800,000 tracks and have a large music video selection as well. You need to be running a recent version of Windows, Windows Media Player and dot Net Framework. Unlike eMusic, you don't need to register and Install their download manager to browse the site, so you can get an Idea of what they have to offer. But once you install their software, you can download whatever you desire. And one other limitation: you can't copy their tracks to more than two portable players, and you can't play them of course on iPods. You also can't play them on Zunes, which shows you how messed up Microsoft's DRM Is.

So there you have it. There are some choices, other than stealing your music. If you want to do a lot of downloads, I would go with eMusic, especially if you go beyond 15 or so songs a month, but it is a subscription service and right now you might feel as I do that you are paying enough between monthly charges for premium cable, premium DSL, and premium unleaded gas.

If you are the occasional downloader, as I am, then Amazon makes the most sense, especially as I have my music on my Mac and it has a nice client for that OS. You can turn on the one-click ordering and it is effortless. I don't like Rhapsody's corporate culture, and if you use the iTunes player the imports into your library is cumbersome. And while the iTunes Plus Music Store is trying to get more DRM-free tunes, most of its music is still copy-protected, so best to steer clear until that changes. Finally, SpiralFrog has an Interesting twist on the music download, but since I am Mac and iPod-based it Isn't for me.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The changing nature of pop culture distribution

My wife and I watched the movie Juno last night, and I highly recommend it for your own viewing. But this isn't a review of the movie, what sparked today's essay is how (depressingly) little of its dialogue I didn't understand. This was because of the quick cultural references spoken by the teenagers portrayed in the movie. I guess I am getting to that generation where words like cool and hep cat are no longer part of the lexicon. I know, this isn't a news flash.

It occurred to me that years from now we will watch this movie and need on-screen annotations to explain what they are talking about.

But the movie is a static, finished entity. What is more interesting to watch is how pop culture references are being incorporated into various online media, and how they are passed around, consumed, and transformed as part of the media itself. As the online world becomes more a fixture in our lives, we are seeing a much more complex evolution. It isn't just the insertion of a bunch of slang words, but an almost complete encoding or translation of pop culture itself. Witness leet-speak, the gamer lingo that results from substituting numbers for letters that luckily (for me, at least) peaked a few years ago. The more cynical of us could look upon leet as just a substitution cipher, but it really is more than that, embodying a way of life and world view. (The best example is the Pure Pwnage videos available here:

The most recent evidence of pop culture is this music video by Weezer (for those of you that don't know, they are a pop music group):

The video contains visual references to a wide variety of topics. The difference is that these are mostly other Internet videos and online personality references. It is a very clever collection too, and like the Juno dialogue I doubt that I got more than a few of them even after repeated viewings.

Back in my misspent youth, we didn't have online videos. (Well, duh!) We were lucky to have black and white TV, and we had to contend with decoding rebus puzzles, and playing Sgt. Pepper backwards on our turntables to hear "Paul is dead" and figuring out Mad magazine's parodies. When we did get computers, we thought the ultimate in geek coolness (sorry, I will try to think of another word that doesn't date me) were Easter Eggs, bits of hidden code that required you to hit five different keys to bring them up.

Now we have fake news that contains some truth and is broadcast every night on the comedy channel, serious news that contains some fake information that is broadcast on the news channels, and music videos that contain sly references to other videos. The mind boggles at the whole interconnectedness of it all. We have invented words used by the fake anchors like "truthiness" that are included in dictionaries, and script writers for reality shows.

Yes, we are at new levels of how pop culture is being incorporated, parodied, and encoded by teens, and others too cool for school, even some noobs (maybe). It will be interesting to look back on this moment in time and see if anyone in the future can figure any of it out, or maybe they'll say, "Wassup with that?"

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.