Thursday, November 17, 2011

Amazon Kindle Fire Initial Thoughts

I want my Google Apps. OK, I get it that Google and Amazon are in competition here and that the chances of Google having their apps available in the Amazon Fire App store are slim to none even if the Fire is Android under the covers. That doesn't stop me from viewing that lack as arguably the only significant problem with the Fire.

Fit and finish on the Fire seems to be excellent. It feels solid without being excessively heavy.The Kindle line has never been about being pretty, so it shouldn't be surprising that the Fire is utilitarian in its looks. One button, one USB port and one headphone jack is what you get.

The glare off the screen is arguably a bit excessive. Screen protectors are available that claim to cut down a bit on that problem. I'm not a fan of screen protectors as they generally seem like a waste to me. I've had my Droid X for a year plus now and the screen is perfect in spite of never having had a screen protector and the fact that I don't baby it. My phone often ends up in the same pocket as my keys for instance. The Fire has a Gorilla glass screen that shouldn't need babying either.

The Fire is fairly responsive but does bog down if you're installing a lot of apps in the background. The same is true of my Droid X which is a somewhat less capable platform so I'm not totally surprised. I'd guess memory is the main culprit here.

Reading technical books on the Fire is much easier than on the E-Ink Kindles. Specifically I'm talking about diagrams and figures. The resolution on the non DX E-Ink readers is just not high enough to render detailed drawings and the speed of the Fire's more basic relatives makes the whole experience of dealing with anything other than basic text frustrating. The Fire provides enough resolution and performance to avoid these shortcomings.

The UI for the Fire is reasonably intuitive and polished. Responsiveness is generally good and I haven't run into any bugs but I've only had about an hour to play with it.

Here are some pictures of dubious quality along with additional comments.

The box that the Kindle comes in is beveled on one end. I'm assuming this was a primarily aesthetic decision but it did save a bit of material which translates into money saved assuming the manufacturing process for creating these non standard boxes doesn't have additional costs. I'd assume it doesn't given Amazon's obsessive focus on costs.

The packaging was nicely designed. There is a high level of protection here. The screen glare isn't quite this bad in reality as this pictures implies. At this point the Fire is still in its shiny protective plastic shipping envelope. This was natural light, somewhat overcast. Yes, I'm using my Cellphone to take the pictures. It's fairly obvious both in regards to the quality and the reflection in the Fire's screen.

When the Kindle was removed from the box a cavity was revealed that contained the external charger/power.

Here's a better view of the shiny protective envelope and the back of the Fire.

The initial boot. I didn't time it but I'd guess around a minute for the Fire to boot from a cold start. At this point the plastic envelope has been removed and you can see there is still a lot of glare.

Minor nit, the power/charger is what I think of as the "old" kind that is one piece. The previous Kindle's we've bought have had the converter with a USB plug and the appropriate cord for charging the Kindle. These are nicer since you only need to carry one around along with whatever cords you need to charge your various electronic devices. This appears to be one place Amazon cut costs. Not a big deal though.

Once you've booted for the first time you'll get a few intro screens. Nothing excessive and it gives you a good idea of how to use the Kindle Fire UI. I tried hard to avoid the glare but didn't have much success. It's not this bad when you are in a place where natural light is minimized but it is distracting. I read an interview with Jeff Bezos where he said that the Fire fills a somewhat different niche to the E-Ink Kindle's and I agree. I'm not going to be getting rid of my older Kindle any time soon based on these results. For plain old text it's much nicer not to have to deal with the LCD and glare. This and size are the main reasons I don't do serious reading on my iPad.

The Kindle Fire in action. Note the diagram is very readable and the use of the built in dictionary.

Overall my initial impressions are positive in spite of the glare. I was able to quickly take advantage of my Amazon prime membership and start streaming a movie. The quality was good and frame rates were fairly consistent though there was some slight stuttering at one point which was likely due to application downloads going on in the background. I was able to quickly pull down books and apps from the cloud and even after I got everything I wanted I still had the vast majority of my usable six gig of storage available. That will likely change over time as I add video and music but it was nice to see that I'm not going to have to worry about managing my "disk space" initially.

For $200 it's hard to go wrong here. The Kindle Fire is solid and a good performer. The screen glare could be better and the lack of Google Apps is a significant downer but a few warts are not unusual when a company is offering a particular type of product for the first time.

I'll be doing some more testing over the next week or two and will likely do some additional BLOG entries on this topic.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kindle Anticipation

Apparently my wife and I didn't get our Kindle Fire pre orders in early enough for shipment to happen on the first day. We finally got notification late yesterday afternoon that our Fires are on the way and should arrive today. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on one and getting a better feel for the pros and cons of the platform.

Reviews so far have generally been positive for the Kindle Fire. At worst people have tended to say "Well, its imperfect but its so cheap that is OK." Given the price, Amazon is clearly getting cut a lot of slack for less than perfect performance. That's not something that Apple generally benefits from. There aren't a lot of downsides to being a premium brand, but this is one.

None of the issues I've seen mentioned sound like show stoppers. Performance seems to be the biggest gripe. One big advantage Apple has over Android tablets in general is that they only have two platforms to optimize for. This explains in large part why Apple's iPad's provide a better experience with less memory. Hopefully over time Amazon will be willing and able to do a better job of optimizing Android for their fire platform. Doing so would give them an additional leg up on other Android tablets and shouldn't be prohibitively expensive.

At this point its probably fair to consider the early going of the Kindle Fire as an unqualified success for Amazon. The interesting question is where will they go next? My guess is a larger form factor tablet with a screen a bit smaller than the iPad's 10.1 inches to avoid direct competition with Apple both on the supply side and in the market place.

The next couple of days are going to be really busy for me but I'm hoping to have an initial review and thoughts fairly soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Klout/Kindle Fire/Adobe Flash/Foursquare/Google

Here are some short takes on various things that are on my mind right now.

My Klout score has continued to decline. Interestingly the decline nearly mirrors the decline in the "True Reach" sub score. My network has continued to grow and If anything it seems like I've had more engagement recently so I continue to be baffled by what is happening. It's really not that big a deal other than the fact that I'd prefer to have at least a bit of a clue as to what the issue. is.

The Kindle Fire is set for release in a couple of days. The ones my wife and I ordered are actually showing up under the "Manage My devices" section of the Amazon store and have been for at least a few days. Hopefully this means we'll be part of the first batch shipped out. Our order went in on day two. I think the fact that they are registered with Amazon means that they have been configured and boxed. One of the nice things that Amazon does is configure your Kindle so that all you have to do is register it to the wireless network (Assuming its not 3G capable) and you're good to go.

Adobe claiming that Apple killed mobile flash is completely absurd unless Steve Jobs pointing out the all to obvious shortcomings of flash somehow magically made the world wake up and realize the absurdity of the concept of a platform that was never light weight or stable on much more capable platforms being viable on mobile devices. Adobe only needs to look in the mirror to figure out who is responsible for the failure of flash.

The Foursquare app on my first generation Droid X continues to be annoying in spite of the occasional update. It almost never seems to be able to figure out where I am which in turn leads to few points being assigned for check ins as Foursquare understandably declines to give full credit for check ins that are "off the grid". My Wife's iPhone 4 never has this problem. On the plus side I have an excuse whenever she's ahead in the scoring which is pretty much always. Google's navigation software figures out where I am nearly instantly so the looks like a short coming on the foursquare Android client.

I'm hoping Google wakes up and starts proving a better user experience with all their new apps. The new gmail web client has some nice features but the excessive space and lack of good visual separation of elements by way of contrasting colors is frustrating. I use a theme that has primarily light characters on a dark background so at least I don't have worry about being "blinded by the white" like on the new Google reader.

Have a great week, time for me to get some sleep.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Klout Is Annoying Me

061111_ cobwebs 2Image by Headphonaught via FlickrI'm not one of those people who was annoyed a week or two ago when Klout radically changed their scoring method and recalculated everyone's scores going back several weeks using the new formula. Maybe that's because mine went up a little or maybe it's because Klout had made less significant changes previously and had always recalculated peoples scores. Throw in the fact that the site clearly says "Beta" and it should be clear that changes are going to be made.

Having said that, I am getting a bit frustrated with Klout right now. The changes were supposed to make it more transparent as to why your score was going up or down. I still don't have a clue. I've been seeing a steady decline over the past week in spite of no changes in my level of activity and modest additions to my Twitter followers and upticks on other social networks as well. In short, I can see no connection between the decline and what is happening in the real world.

To be fair to Klout, my "True Reach" is going down in spite of the fact that my "Network" score is growing. So it seems likely my score is declining due to my downward trending "True Reach" but an examination of changes in my network over the past week shows no obvious reason for that. Transparency is great, but only if it actually gives you enough information to understand what you're being told. That just isn't the case here.

The other thing that Klout has done recently to annoy me is scrape my Facebook friend info. Yes, I gave the application access to my profile. That was a mistake and it's been rectified. The reality though is that it should never have been able to happen. Facebook continues to have a very lax regard for the privacy of the social graph and that has implications that not everyone is going to understand or appreciate. I feel like Klout took advantage of my trust to invade the privacy of my friends. That's not something I'm comfortable with.

I'm thinking of totally pulling the plug on Klout at this point. I'm going to give the whole thing some more thought though and review my options in another week or two.
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Intrusive Advertising, Forbes (Short Take)

I was reading an article on Forbes recently and found random advertising text in line a couple of times. These were single sentences in stand alone "paragraphs" that interrupted the flow of the story big time. It's not like Forbes is skimpy on the ads even without this intrusion so I found the whole experience very annoying. Seriously, why go there? I'm now less likely to click on a Forbes link then I was before and how does that help their bottom line?

I've even been known to let the obnoxious ads run that they often redirect to before displaying their content as I understand they are in business to make money and I'm willing to give a little back.

I'm an MBA. I'm not against businesses making money. I am however less than enthused by how prevalent advertising and invasions of my privacy have become. I have to wonder how much revenue I'm generating for all the web sites I frequent over the course of a month. If it's under $50 than I'd love to have the option of paying the money up front and being left alone. If it's more than that then maybe they should be paying me a share. :)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nintendo (Short Take)

Nintendo Gamecube Games Pile
People continue to blame Apple for Nintendo's downward spiral and while there is some truth to the assertion that the iPhone and other similar devices have bitten into Nintendo's revenue that isn't the only issue. Another problem is that the Wii should have been a stopgap, not a platform they depended on for six years. At it's heart the Wii is essentially as slightly upgraded GameCube. The GameCube came out five years earlier in 2001 and wasn't state of the art hardware wise even then. Nintendo built their success on innovative game controllers and great content but that was only going to carry them so far. Their aging core hardware and the rapid mainstreaming of HD Television have made the Wii look anemic and dull visually. The Kinect has added insult to injury by taking the wind out of their sails on the controller front.

Nintendo is still a year away from delivering their new console apparently. That will likely be much to late. They should have had new hardware ready by last year at the latest. Expecting to go a decade plus on the same platform would have been a stretch if they had started from a superior position technology wise. Content is the most important factor in a consoles success but there are limits to how much it can help an increasingly inferior platform.

Nintendo still has several great franchises including Mario. If all else fails they can start making games for other platforms including the iPhone. That will be a bitter pill to swallow if it comes to pass but at least they have something to fall back on.

Right now they are claiming that their hardware is essential to the company and that they won't give it up. If they manage to pull a rabbit out of their hat then they may be able to maintain their presence on the hardware front. I don't see that happening though. For the good of their shareholders I think they should be seriously exploring other options at this point.

Image by digitpedia via Flickr
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lytro Light Field Camera Part 2

I posted the first part of my thoughts/observations on this topic previously.

I've been thinking some more about the resolution issue. As I mentioned in my previous entry it seems to be the case that the just announced camera, even though it is described as capturing eleven million light rays generates 2D images in the 1080x1080 range. I also speculated that higher resolutions were not possible because not enough information was gathered to calculate each pixel accurately when the resolution is pushed beyond that point. I still think that is true, but I also suspect that we'll see steady improvements in the resolution possible from the data gathered by this first generation camera, at least up to a point. In the typical 2D photography world the quality of images enlarged beyond their initial resolution has improved over the years as computer scientists have discovered better methods of interpolating and computational resources have increased. I'm guessing we'll see a similar phenomena with light ray cameras.

Keep in mind that a decade ago utilizing this technology required a room full of highly powerful computers and many cameras. We're not talking about a mature and well understood field at this point. If I'm right than we may see good quality 2D images being generated from images captured with these first generation cameras at better than one mega pixel some day.

There has been some grousing about the file format of the images being non standard. This is a bit like complaining that Chinese language text files do not use standard 7 or even 8 bit ASCII. Yes, that's a very esoteric and obscure reference. Don't worry if it is meaningless to you. My basic point is that Lytro is doing something that cannot be easily encapsulated in any existing file format.

Don't expect Photoshop or any other image manipulation software to be able to read their image files any time soon, if ever. The most likely short to mid term outcome is that companies like Adobe will utilize Lytro's software to generate a conventional 2D image that can then be edited in Photoshop. You would have to rewrite Photoshop, or any other image editing software from the ground up to deal with the data that Lytro is capturing because light wave photography makes the differences between still images and video seem relatively trivial.

That huge technology/paradigm shift just might be their biggest hurdle. What they are doing is so new and complex that third party support is going to be very hard to come by. I don't see any mention of an API being made available by Lytro to manipulate these images but I'd hope that is fairly high up on their roadmap because even with that as a leg up they're likely going to be an island onto themselves for the next couple years even if things go well.

The last thing I wanted to touch on here is the contention that with phone cameras being ubiquitous Lytro doesn't stand a chance since their technology currently requires a stand alone device. That may be true if Lytro is assuming/planning on this being a mass market device but I don't think that is the case. Not everyone wants/needs a digital SLR camera but enough people do to keep several large companies such as Nikon and Minolta churning out new models each year.

Along the same line of thought; I think people tend to look at the simplicity of Lytro's initial offering and equate it with a simple point and shoot. The thing is, the Lytro camera isn't simple because it's a "cheap" camera, it's simple in large part because the technology allows Lytro to leave out a lot of stuff that a traditional camera would need/have.

Hmm, I suppose the Lytro camera's simplicity might be a liability as well given the price point. If you don't understand the technology at all then the fact that the only things you have control over are the zoom, where the camera is pointed and when the shutter button is pushed might give you pause if you're contemplating spending $400 or more for this camera.

Personally I like Lytro's chances but I have to weight that opinion against the fact that I'm a lifelong technology geek that gets easily excited by stuff like this. Most of the people backing Lytro seem to fit into the same profile. The proof of this technology will come in the marketplace. I have my fingers crossed that they'll do well because I'm really interested in seeing what a third or fourth generation product might look like.

Image by Road Fun via Flickr
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lytro Light Field Camera

The @Lytro camera in action (apparently it's s...
Lytro announced and showed their first product yesterday. The shape was a bit of a surprise to me. If you haven't seen it looks a bit a matchbox that stores the long wooden matches people use to light fire places. It's actually very pleasing aesthetically with only three controls. An on off button, a shutter button and a touch sensitive zoom area that didn't appear to be visible in the video I saw. The square shape translates into square pictures as well which is an interesting choice. I'm not sure if the square aspect ratio is a result of the industrial design they chose or the technology being used. It may be a bit of both.

If you don't know anything about Lytro then you owe it to yourself to do a bit of research on light field technology which is at the heart of what they are doing. Essentially it allows this camera to capture much more information which in turn allows you to post process the images it captures to be 3D or change the focus to be at any depth of field. It's very cool.

Of course all this power does have a trade off and that is resolution. The people at Lytro got noticeably uncomfortable any time that topic came up in the video I saw and tried to change the discussion to focus on "mega rays" rather than "mega pixels". It turns out the first Lytro camera is capable of capturing around eleven mega rays. Based on what was said, that translates into a traditional 2D picture that is about 1080x1080 which doesn't sound very impressive until you take several things into consideration.

First, you aren't capturing just one image at that resolution; you're capturing many. Being able to change the depth of view after taking the picture is a huge advantage. It also seems likely to me based on the ability to do 3D images and video on this technology that I've seen on YouTube that you can somewhat play with the perspective of the picture as well. If you're a photographer this means you have a lot of additional flexibility and control.

Next, it's almost certainly the case that you can in fact generate higher resolution images from the data that is gathered. The problem you're going to run into though is the resulting image will become less and less sharp as you up the resolution. This is what happens when you increase the resolution of any digital image of course. The difference here is that the images generated from Lytro pictures are composites created from the database of rays that the camera captured when the image was initially captured. It seems like at a ratio of ten or so to one you have enough rays to create a picture that is clear and sharp. As you up the resolution beyond that point there are not enough rays to calculate every single resulting pixel with certainty so the sharpness of the image drops. I'm going to guess that the resulting loss of clarity is actually less severe than when a traditional image is upscaled but that is pure speculation on my part, as is most of this paragraph.

One interesting thing they've done is make their initial offering available in three different colors and two different storage capacities. Normally this would mean


Different choices, but there are only three. Two of the three colors are available with eight gig only while the third color choice is only available with sixteen. I suspect this serves two purposes. First, it reduces the number of product variants they need to get to market. When your a startup that is a good thing from a logistics and operational standpoint. The next is it makes it very easy for people in the know to tell the difference between the top of the line model (available only in red) and the standard models. It's fashionable to deny it, but a lot of people prefer it when they can somehow differentiate themselves from the masses and this setup allows for that.

The base 8Gig models are $400 while the $16 gig model is $500. I saw some grumbling online about this but the prices seems about right to me. Hard core geeks are going to buy one due to the cool tech factor and serious photographers are going to buy them because the capabilities of the camera are interesting and potentially revolutionary. I don't see either group worrying too much about a $ four to five hundred purchase. Heck, lenses can run many times that cost.

There were a few more topics I wanted to talk about but I'm running out of time. I may make another entry tomorrow. I've put  in an order for one of the eight gig models. It should be hear by March 2011 based on their current estimates. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this technology works.

Image by TheNickster via Flickr
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Month And Counting Until Kindle Fire

Amazon warehouse in Glenrothes, Fife; source M...
I should be coding but that part of my brain appears to be fatigued right now so I'm taking a short break to write a few things down here about the upcoming Kindle Fire.

First up is the fact that I realized we're just one month away from the scheduled debut of the Fire. The coverage in the press has been kind of fascinating. It's an iPad killer, it's a panacea, it slices bread and does the dishes. On the flip side there has been some grousing about the fact that it only comes with 8Gig of storage and lacks things like cameras and SD card slots. Apparently the $199 price tag isn't enough of a clue for some people that this is a no frills device intended primarily for the consumption of media sold by Amazon.

According to some recent projections the Kindle Fire could ship five million units in Q4. That would be about 40% of what the iPad 2 is projected to ship during that same time period which may not sound impressive until you consider Amazon started from zero and that ASUS was overjoyed to sell just under three quarter of a million EEE Transformer tablets in the April->June quarter which put them at number two behind Apple.

Amazon isn't going to be able to deliver as polished an experience as Apple but they don't need to. So long as their build quality is decent and their custom Android launcher and apps are reasonably bug free they'll be off to a great start.

Actually another concern will be can they meet the demand? Limited delays in shipping are going to be OK, heck Apple thrives on 'em but Amazon doesn't want to leave too much money on the table here or cause excessive frustration to prospective buyers. They would be better off suspending pre orders once they get to the point where they aren't confident they can ship in time for Christmas.

With ten inch tablets rumored to be coming early next year Apple might finally have a legitimate competitor. (Or not, more on this topic below). 

It's not surprising that Apple chose not to compete in the 7 inch tablet space. It is a little ironic though that Amazon may use that hole in Apple's product line to leverage their way into a market that Apple has owned since the debut of the original iPad.

All this apparent success has led to speculation that Apple will come out with an iPad "mini". I'll say two things about that possibility:

  1. They already have one. It's called the iPod touch. 
  2. Apple is a premium brand. They don't and won't compete on price. Steve Jobs may be gone but it's going to take more than a few weeks or months for the people in charge to forget his vision and guidance.
Apple has always been content to let others chum at the bottom of the revenue pool. Amazon has thrived on low margins since its inception. These two companies couldn't be better suited to share the tablet space. Yes, there will be some overlap but I doubt it will be substantial enough for Apple to worry.

So basically Apple isn't losing here but the life of pretty much every other tablet vendor just got a lot more difficult.

I have Amazon prime and ponied up the nominal additional money for next day shipping when I ordered my Kindle Fire. I'm hoping to get it on day one of availability since I ordered within the first few days of the announcement. I'm sure I'll be one of about a million people posting first impressions within a few hours of getting mine.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hiatus/Facebook Page/Twitter/Google+ (Short Take)

I've decided to put the BLOG on semi hiatus for now. How frequently I contribute will depend on what is going on in my life and when inspiration strikes. I've been very busy with the side project I've talked about and most of my creativity and time is being spent there. I do post fairly regularly on my Facebook page and Twitter still. I find the two platforms work differently enough that I seldom end up with the same stuff on both. I'm also still posting on Google+ as well.

FB Page:

Now I don't have to feel guilty about not updating here. Life is good, time to get back to work!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Goodbye Steve Jobs And Thank You

I posted the following on both Google+ and my Facebook page.

The things I learned from observing Steve Jobs career are that technology is secondary to the experiences it creates and that details matter. It's very sad to see him gone so soon but oh what a legacy he left.

Like pretty much everyone else I'm greatly saddened by Steve's passing. I've loved technology for as long as I can remember and while I was never an Apple fan boy I've grown to greatly admire Steve Jobs and the company he built over the years. He always pushed the status quo and while sometimes it pushed back more often than not he came out on top. He has been described as relentless, painfully honest and focused. He was in short exactly who he had to be to accomplish what he did.

I suppose that last sentence is a truism, but it says what I wanted to say so I'm going to let it stand.

Nobody did it like Steve Jobs. A Quintessential American original from start to finish. The world became a little less exciting today.

Apple iPhone Aftermath, Bad Labeling?

Image representing Siri as depicted in CrunchBase
I wasn't as accurate on my predictions yesterday as I would have liked but Thats part of the fun when trying to guess what Apple is up to. I did get some things right including my conclusion that people would be disappointed if the new iPhone just turned out to be a rehashed iPhone 4. The ironic thing is that this iPhone is arguably as different from the previous generation as any other has been with the possible exception of the original iPhone 4 when compared to the 3GS. This illustrates the importance of getting every detail right when launching a product, including the naming.

Apple apparently doubled the RAM from 512 meg to 1 gig(I'm seeing conflicting reports on this), significantly upgraded the rear camera, upgraded the CPU and graphics and integrated both CDMA and GSM into one phone with HSPA+ thrown into the mix for those on GSM networks that support it. Would anyone have blinked if they had called this the iPhone 5? I certainly wouldn't have.

Part of the problem is the amount of time this phone took. We waited an extra four months for this. People were expecting something awe inspiring. Calling it the 4S may have been a misguided attempt to manage expectations?

The other issue here was of course the absence of Steve Jobs. This was Apples first chance to shine with Jobs not on stage. Put simply, they didn't  there were some bright spots.

Siri is a nice piece of technology. More importantly to Apple's long term bottom line though it is also going to make them a part of the "conversation" people have with their phones. Currently a big chunk of that conversation takes place with Google or Facebook. With Siri Apple has displaced Google for many tasks and will likely displace them further as this technology rolls out to more devices and becomes more refined. There is speculation that Google has similar functionality in the works at its easy to see why they would. This is the way many people have dreamed of interacting with their phones for awhile now.

Another thing that impressed me was "Find my Friends". Not so much the technology itself, which has been done before; but instead the fact that APple actually thought to give people the ability to turn it on with an expiration day/time. If you're on a family trip to Disneyland then you might be willing to turn on that tracking just for the convenience of being able to keep track of where everyone in your group is but that doesn't mean you want your personal space invaded that much normally. It's that kind of design decision and attention to detail that separates Apple from their competition.

While there was a disappointment in the short term I don't think it will linger much. This does put additional pressure on them though for the next big announcement. Apple's growth over the past several years has been nothing short of phenomenal and maintaining anything close to that pace is unrealistic. With Jobs role being deemphasized Apples current management is likely going to get a lot of blame for any slow down even though it may be part of the normal growth cycles that companies go through. Steve Jobs is going to be a hard act to follow not only because he is brilliant but also because of when he stepped aside. I don't envy Tim Cook one bit. He's in an almost impossible to win situation.

Image via CrunchBase
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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Apple Day Predictions Fall 2011 (Short Take)

Apple iPhone 5Image by tychay via FlickrIt's a bit like an international holiday any time Apple is announcing new products. All the speculation and rumor mongering of the previous several months finally hits the wall of reality as Apple reveals exactly what they've been working on recently.

Speculation this time around has been typically rampant with contradicting stories circulating on what exactly the iPhone announcement will be. Could it be an upgraded iPhone 4? Will it be a totally new phone? Will Apple in fact announce two new iPhones, an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 4S with some upgrades and a lower cost? We'll know soon of course but my speculation is two new phones, one completely redesigned and the other a rehash of the previous generation. Both will be capable of running all the latest iOS5 features. The iPhone 4S will be dual mode CDMA/GSM while the iPhone 5 will also be dual mode and support HSPA+. The iPhone 5 will have a somewhat larger display both in terms of size and resolution while the iPhone 4S may only have a 5 megapixel camera instead of the iPhone 5's 8 megapixel.

I don't think we'll see Steve Jobs make an appearance but it would certainly be a welcome surprise if he did. Speculation on his health continues to run rampant and a personal appearance could potentially help ease shareholder and fan fears.

The big risk for Apple today is that people walk away going "Eh, not that impressive". If the new iPhone is just a rehashed iPhone 4 expect major disappointment.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Thoughts On The Kindle Fire

fireImage by matthewvenn via FlickrI'm fairly sure it's possible to be tired of being tired. In fact I'm pretty much there. The past couple of weeks have been very productive which is good but I'm going to allocate a few more hours to sleep over the next week or so. The deficit is contributing to lousy coding quality and an enhanced tendency to wander off the point and babble on incoherently. This opening paragraph is probably a case in point.

I just preordered a Kindle Fire. I may change my mind before shipping time which is mid November. I thought very seriously about the 3G E-Ink touch pad Kindle. It's fifty dollars cheaper and for reading I find a non back lit display much more pleasant. My year or so old 3G Kindle is working fine though and its occasionally nice to have the physical keyboard so I'm going to stick with it for now.

One of the big questions in my mind in regards to the Fire is how much of the current Amazon Android app store is going to be available to run on the Fire. One way Amazon could win my heart and mind on the Fire is to at least provide the option of seeing only applications that have been specifically tested on the Fire and verified within a reasonable level of certainty not to contain viruses or malware. If that means there are only a few hundred apps to start out with than I'm totally OK with that. I'd rather have a few hundred optimized and tested applications than thousands of half baked and possibly malicious ones. If the Fire is a success than app availability will grow steadily over time. Developers will follow the money and a platform with tens of millions of potential customers would be attractive, particularly since the issue of fragmentation, at least initially would not be present on the Fire platform and it shouldn't be that difficult to optimize Android Apps for Fire.

Another question is the browser. Great, it's optimized because some of the page rendering takes place on Amazon's cloud. If I'm recalling correctly Opera has been doing that for awhile with their mobile browser. It's a nice enough feature but how well does the browser work and how much advertiser friendly information is Amazon going to be able to grab while they are doing that rendering? Will they allow other browsers to be made available in their app store or will I be forced to use Silk?

Is eight gig of local storage going to be enough? It's clear that Amazon wanted to keep costs down on the Fire. They cut a number of corners including leaving out an SD card slot and only providing eight gig of local storage. For books this will work great. You're not going to get a whole lot of music or streaming HD video on there though and that may be an issue for some people. The free cloud storage is a nice feature so how big an issue this is will probably come down to an individuals ability to consistently find affordable/free WiFi.

Even with these and other questions surrounding the Kindle Fire I'm still likely to let the order stand. I'm thinking my biggest possible regret will be the announcement of a ten inch Fire early next year. On the one hand that would be a more useful form factor for some use cases but the smaller size is much more convenient to carry.
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Early October Venture Update

Venture ProcessImage by Michael Lewkowitz via FlickrIt's been a few weeks since I wrote about my side project. I'm willing to share a bit more information at this point but I'm still going to be vague.

I've continued to explore the technical side through coding and the business side through thinking and my enthusiasm remains. This is  a record for me at this point. Generally I run into some sort of issue that causes me to lose interest much more quickly. More often than not the walls I've hit have been related to pursuing ideas outside of my own area of expertise. I'm pushing the boundaries a bit with this one but I'm capable of doing a lot of the initial prototyping myself and thats a big bonus.

One thing I am willing to share at this point is that the basic idea is centered in social networking but is not a social network in and of itself. With Google entering the market this year we have all the social networks we need. There are probably opportunities for niche players similar to LinkedIn but going that route would take deep pockets and a lot of luck.

This doesn't mean that there isn't still some potential to build interesting and useful products in this area though. The tricky bit is figuring out the where and the how. I think I may have done that. Time will tell.

To date the big challenge has been finding time to work on my idea and developing or dusting off the skills I need to create the prototype. I feel a bit like I'm back in school working on my MBA. It's tough to do something like this while working full time. It's mostly fun, but there are times when I'm frustrated and tired. The same was true of completing the MBA though and I made it through that.

Yesterday I finished the initial implementation of the first part of my project. It still has some warts but it more or less appears to do what I want it to.

I'm at a bit of a crossroads right now in terms of what is next. Right now I'm leaning towards spending a few days formalizing the business side of the equation. Figuring out if I should incorporate, if I should look for people to partner with at this point and the all important question of how I will monetize (make money) if this were to become a company. I've been giving those questions "back of mind" cycles for awhile now but I think its time I sit down and "do the math".

It's been a great experience to date and at the very least I've learned a lot. I'm excited to see where this thing leads. Wish me luck.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Barnes & Noble Email

Barnes & Noble's Union Square store in Manhatt...

I woke up this morning to find an email from Barnes & Noble informing me that...

"As part of Borders ceasing operations, we acquired some of its assets including Borders brand trademarks and their customer list. The subject matter of your DVD and other video purchases will be part of the transferred information. The federal bankruptcy court approved this sale on September 26, 2011."

It's not clear what if anything B&N acquired beyond the items listed explicitly in the above statement.

When I read something like that I start to wonder what the thinking was behind the acquisition of the assets. Why DVD and Video purchase information in particular? Did they bid on other items and lose, did they actually win and choose not to disclose? I'd expect this information to be a matter of public record but if it is, I can't find any reference on line right now so I'm going to have to do a lot of speculating. That's pretty much par for the course though so onward.

The acquisition of the brands and trademarks were probably a defensive move. The email did include the Borders logo at the bottom but I suspect that was done in an attempt to smooth the transition by providing a visual reference with the B&N and Borders logos together. For now you can see the image below this text and before the next paragraph. There is no telling how long B&N will make it available though.

In the longer term I don't think we'll see much if any additional mention of Borders. Acquiring the name and marks was likely a defensive move to prevent somebody else from picking them up and possibly providing continued competition to B&N. One source quoted the sale price of the Borders assets that B&N acquired at $14 million. That's a small price to pay to prevent the potential rebirth of a competing brand, particularly when you include the customer lists and information on DVD and video sales.

Understanding why B&B only bought the video/DVD customer information is tough. I don't have any ready theories. It would be interesting to know who did get that information and how much they paid. The basic question in my mind is did B&N intentionally pass on everything else or did somebody simply out bid them?

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, September 30, 2011

RIM, PlayBook And More Kindle Fire

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19:  Blackberry Playbook t...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeSleep is good. I've always been a fan though I generally have to make up for my lack of skill with  enthusiasm and a good attitude. Thankfully I slept fairly well last night. That should translate into a little less mental fuzziness today. I can hope so anyway.

On the tech front I wanted to briefly discuss a couple of things before getting ready for work.

First on todays laundry list is a story focused on RIM and their Playbook tablet. You can find the text at the following link...

The gist of the story is that there was internal disagreement over who they were going to sell the Playbook to and over the direction the company was taking. Just a few years ago smart phones with almost exclusively used by businesses and RIM's Blackberry phones were king. Heck, they are still very popular in that space. People tend to focus to much on the fact that RIM's market share is slipping and not enough on the fact that the market for smart phones has been growing rapidly. RIM is a profitable company and will likely continue to be for at least a couple more years. What happens beyond that point is murky though and the Playbook scenario outlined in the linked story explains why. On the one hand you had people in the company that wanted to target sales at corporate customers. The advantage of this approach is that you can price the tablet higher and play to your strengths if your RIM. You're not going to sell as many as you would if you successfully rolled it out to the masses but your margins will be larger and you won't be going head to head with Apple. The other alternative is to try to sell it to everyone. If you're going to do that you need to price it a lot more aggressively.

Either approach might have worked. Sadly for RIM they chose to "compromise" and price it like they were selling to corporate customers while attempting to sell it though mass market channels like BestBuy. The results have spoken for themselves.

Cisco also brought out a tablet called the Cius this year. Haven't hears of it? No surprise there if you're not using Cisco's call manager it's not very useful and they aren't selling it to consumers. It's very expensive relative to the iPad but it isn't meant to compete in that space. It's only been on sale for about a month and I can't find any news stories about how Cisco is doing sales wise but they are following the strategy RIM should have if they wanted to charge a price that clearly made them a worse value than the iPad in the consumer space. Getting your targeting and message right is so important in this space. Trying to compete with Apple if you haven't done that is basically pointless and a good way to lose a lot of money.

The other thing is a bit about the Kindle Fire. There are apparently rumors that it's going to be in limited supply this year. Bezos said as much at his press conference when it was announced. If true there are likely two reasons for this. First of all Apple has used its excellent cash position and operational excellence to secure much of the manufacturing capacity that is available. This leaves Amazon and other tablet makers picking up the bread crumbs.

The second possibility is that Amazon never intended to produce that many of this version of the Fire. They may have wanted to get something out the door quickly and this was their best alternative. It's a capable platform but much like the first generation Kindle I suspect the subsequent versions will be more capable and elegant devices.

The end result of either of those two reasons being correct is we may see a limited supply of Fire tablets this holiday season so ordering early may not be a bad idea. I have my order in already as I believe I mentioned yesterday. Another thought is that scarcity has worked well for Apple and Amazon may be charting that same course for themselves in regards to the Fire.

Time to get ready for work and get a few other things taken care of. Have a great weekend!
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon On Fire (Short Take)

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Amazon founder J...
This will be another quick and short post. I had the choice of getting close to enough sleep for the first time in three days or spending an hour on the BLOG. Sleep won out. It's been even busier than normal around here but things should be settling down a tiny bit over the next few days.

Amazon is a really smart company. How do I know? The proof is in the pudding as the old saying goes. Look at their bottom line, look at what they are doing to their competition and look what they announced today. I'm going to talk about the Tablet and hopefully cover the other parts of the announcement in the next few days.

Seven inch tablet, $199. Wireless only, and not that impressive hardware wise but a good device to test the waters. Will feature the Amazon store which is substantial and a select number of other Apps. Android underneath the covers but that doesn't really matter anymore than the fact that the E-Ink Kindles run Linux

I think Amazon is testing the waters here. The new Fire compares well to Barnes & Nobles $250 Nook. B&N are rumored to be bringing out a new tablet soon, and will now have to think very seriously about how they price it. Think of the first Fire as a test shot across Apples bow. It's not going to compete directly with the iPad as it lacks the apps and the form factor. If things go well for Amazon though it would be very feasible for them to introduce a ten inch version in the spring of 2012. They would be very competitive on the content front and would have a decent selection of Android Apps, particularly if they upgrade the underlying version to something more up to date. They won't be able to compete head to head on the apps, but they don't need to. If they could sell such a device for say $300 wireless and $375 with 3G they would likely be in good shape.

Apples success to date with the iPad has been primarily due to two factors. One, the rich content experience they can provide and two, the Apple name. This lead to a third advantage when developers flocked to the platform (following the money and the cool factor) and built apps.

Amazon isn't as cool as Apple but they arguably have a more diverse pool of content and have the potential if they manage their app store well and entice developers to create a platform that will have a substantial enough pool of applications to please the majority of people who might otherwise buy an iPad.

As with all things technology related we'll have to wait and see but this race is likely to be interesting over the next year.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Morning Miscellany

Tokyo floodgates created to protect from typho...
The weekend was very productive, both in terms of getting stuff down around the house and my current side project/venture which I'll write more about later this week.  I'm a little slower than normal getting going this morning as a result though so this will be another short/scatter shot entry.

Topic one is Google+; which is now open to the general public. On the plus side Google has been growing rapidly since the flood gates opened. In theory people are still required to use their real names.  On the downside, I've seen several apparently real names posting random spam to topics with little or no relationship to the topic of the spam. Google does provide a button to report bad posts. It's unclear to me what effect that has though and the quality of discussion is certainly down since the flood gates have opened. Google is going to need some better spam controls in place ASAP if they don't want to annoy their existing user community. Their email filters are amazingly good, so hopefully they'll get something similar in place on Google+ soon. A growth of ten million plus users in this first week is good, but they'll need to have sustained growth if they want to challenge Facebook

On another Google+ related note Klout now supports Google+. I'm kind of excited about that as my level of engagement on Google+ tends to be high which should help my score. It's not that Klout defines who I am but it's nice to have it measuring pretty much everything I do online at this point. I gave up on Peer Index awhile back since they never seemed to be able to fix the problems with my profile. The forty point mark seems to be a magic value that a lot of Klout perks require. I've been hovering just below it for the past week or so. Hopefully this week is the week I push above and maintain at least that level.

I'll round things out with a rumor that Apple is cutting production of the iPad 2 and thinking of a price cut. My initial reaction is that this doesn't sound all that credible. Thinking about it a bit though it could be true. Even the base model isn't cheap, particularly when compared to small laptops that do a lot more but don't have the Apple logo. At this point the early adopters and Apple enthusiasts should all own an iPad so we're getting to the point where a drop in price might be needed to sustain sales. The other alternative would be introducing a new version and there have been rumors of that for awhile. I don't think we'll see a new iPad until next spring though.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

HP CEO Swap (Short Take)

This sign welcomes visitors to the headquarter...Image via WikipediaNot a lot to say on the whole HP CEO debacle right now but I did want to note a few things.

Clearly this story started a year back when the current board ousted Mark Hurd and hired Apotheker. Whether the decision to fire was right or wrong I don't know. What I do know though is that it was done hastily and apparently with minimal thought based on the outcome. It isn't a surprise then that the HP board did such a sub par job again this time. I'm not referring to Whitman who should almost certainly be an improvement over Apotheker, but rather to the very public way in which the whole thing played out. That was unfair to Apotheker, unfair to HP's employees and unfair to their shareholders as well. It betrayed a lack of professionalism and ethics that was kind of disturbing.

I have no clue who the leaks came from but I very much question the suitability of the source or sources to be looking out for HP shareholders interests.

The last thing I wanted to note is that Apotheker's biggest mistake may arguably have been talking about selling or spinning off HP's low margin PC business. If he'd had a serious buyer lined up or plan in place this might have made sense since it would have let shareholders know that HP's margins would be under less pressure in the future. Apparently though neither scenario was in place so the net outcome was a lot of businesses that normally buy HP started looking at other vendors due to uncertainty over the PC divisions future.

Whitman has the advantage of coming into the middle of a train wreck in progress. Almost anything she does is going to look better than what her predecessor accomplished. I think it makes sense to spin the PC division off or sell it if a serious buyer can be found, but that planning/negotiation needs to take place behind closed doors and not discussed until a firm plan is in place.

A thorough review and housecleaning of the current board would be a great idea as well but that's going to require outside intervention.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook's Timeline And Why I'm A Doubter

Ford Model T Touring
I've covered some of this ground over the past couple of days but there are a few new thoughts here and I've refined my thinking a bit.

First of all I'm going to say that I'm not making predictions here and I'm not confident I'm right. As I've alluded to in my previous couple of entries though I do have a nagging suspicion that a lot of people are looking at Facebook and their changes in a way that doesn't actually make sense. I've seen a lot of cool technologies that were loved by tech types (including myself) come and go over the years because they did not in fact appeal to a wide enough audience. This feels like a case in point. I'll be dropping this topic after today and taking a wait and see attitude though I may comment more in the future as things develop.

The first point to keep in mind is that Facebook essentially owns the social graph. This means nearly everyone you would want to communicate with is on Facebook. That includes not only your tech savvy friends but also people who are not. Different kinds of people have different priorities, needs and desires. As a long time tech geek and intermediate social networking participant I'm going to desire a different interface and volume of content than my seventy eight year old mother. This general concept explains why companies offer a variety of products in whatever market they compete in. Think cars for instance. Early in the history of the Ford motor company Henry Ford was quoted as saying you could have any color you wanted so long as it was black. Over time Ford added additional colors and models to their product line in order to entice more customers to buy from them. These customers weren't necessarily being fickle or stubborn either. If you needed to haul stuff around than a truck was much more useful than a car.

The second thing to keep in mind is that most of the people in the press who follow Facebook as well as the people creating Facebook are tech and social networking savvy. They are advanced users who handle change with much more comfort than much of the Facebook user community. The problem with this scenario is it means that a substantial % of Facebook's user base has little or no voice inside the company or from within the tech press. Their only avenue for expression is via the mechanisms Facebook provides for feedback and based on what I've been reading Facebook isn't very responsive in answering complaints that are voiced by their user community in those forums. I suspect this is because they are busy, they've seen this phenomena before and because they just don't understand what all the ruckus is about.

Facebook does have a marketing department but I wonder what the average age and background is and how comfortable they would feel saying "Hey developers, that stuff is neat and all but does it really address the needs and desires of the bulk of people using our site". I can't know for sure of course since I don't work there but based on my own workplace observations over the years I tend to suspect the answers are mostly under thirty five and "not very".

All of which leads to a very large blind spot for Facebook and the press that covers them, or so I theorize. What makes this blind spot more difficult to spot is the fact that other social networking sites don't have nearly as big a worry in this area since their customer bases are much smaller and more tech savvy.

Facebook has made changes before and after an initial period of discontent things have settled down until the next big change. Owning the social graph gives them a lot of leverage and makes it difficult for people to leave if they want to keep in touch with their friends. For the past several years there wasn't a credible alternative either which helped as well. It shouldn't be assumed though that the discontent simply goes away.  Based on comments people are making recently it's clear that much of that discontent lingers below the surface until the next change. At some point Facebook may reach a tipping point. I'm not convinced they have but I am convinced its possible. I've seen modest growth in the number of people I know on Google+ over the past week or two. At this point it's a trickle but with further changes coming it isn't outside the realm of possibility that it become a flood in the coming months. I'm not betting on that but it sure wouldn't surprise me either.

Consider also that the tech savvy types have numerous other social networking outlets where they can find both their tech savvy friends and interesting people to talk to and Facebook's dependence on their less geeky members becomes even more important/clear. If they start losing their "main street" base things will go very badly for them.

The next big change is Facebook's Timeline feature. I've read about it and checked out the demos and while it's techy cool I don't see the broader appeal primarily because it's going to take a lot of time and effort to curate it down to something manageable/attractive and I seriously doubt very many people are going to bother, particularly after the initial euphoria over the new capability wears off.

Using Facebook has increasingly become a "drink from the fire hose" experience and Timeline is just another step in that direction. It certainly has utility, particularly for people who want to make it easy for old friends who have been out of touch for awhile to catch up but is that utility enough to get people to actually maintain and read what is there?

I'm not against innovation. I am against creating products that fail to please large portions of a companies customers and it seems  to me that this is what Facebook is doing. If I were them I wouldn't give up on the innovation though. Instead I'd design my site so that it was possible for people to customize how they interact with it. By default I'd give people a very simple view that minimized the amount of clutter and information overload and maximized their ability to keep in touch with the people they cared about the most.  If you're wondering what that might look like, think Facebook three years ago or so. I'm not familiar with the FB API, but I suspect it wouldn't be hard for somebody to create a "lite" front end that minimized the bells and whistles while maximizing the experience. I'm not sure how Facebook would react to that though. Next, structure the site so people have an incentive to explore the more advanced features. Allow them to wade into the deeper parts of the pool slowly and in a way that they feel comfortable with. Also allow them to stop at any time. Not everyone is going to have the same sweet spot.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the few humans alive today who in my opinion has the potential to be the next Steve Jobs. He's clearly brilliant and has a drive and clarity of vision that is very rare. Much like the young Steve Jobs though he isn't without his rough edges. One big question in my mind is will those rough edges eventually lead Facebook into a downward spiral or will he learn and adapt quickly enough to avoid that? As with all things, time will tell.

Image via Wikipedia
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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Not Everyone Is A Geek (Facebook)

My Social Graph
I'm pressed for time today so this one will likely be short, minimally edited and perhaps a bit more jumbled than normal logic wise. The topic is highly news worthy right now though and I really want to get something out.

Facebook is apparently going to release/announce even more changes today and many in the technical press are waxing poetic about how wonderful it is going to be. Great, I don't doubt that people who love technology are going to be impressed. Frankly though that doesn't matter because the vast majority of Facebook's seven hundred and fifty million users are not tech savvy geeks. They are just people who want to hang out with their friends and family and share the occasional thought or event. They want a platform that intrudes minimally on their ability to do that and each "feature" beyond that happy minimum clutters their experience and leads to confusion and frustration.

Those of use who are of a geeky persuasion have always made up a disproportionate percentage of the users on most online services. Yes, the representation online has broadened substantially in the past fifteen years but until Facebook there was never a site that appealed broadly to almost everyone.

Facebook isn't run by normal people. It's run for the most part by a core group that are under the age of thirty, highly tech savvy and very bright. That description matches a substantial percentage of the work force as well. They are creating features that they think are cool, and they are right. If you're under thirty and highly tech savvy. This isn't to say that there is zero appeal outside of that core group, but the amount of appeal is going to be much more limited for many of these new features.

This likely explains why so many people complain every time Facebook rolls out a new round of changes. Much of that complaining is just a fear/dislike of change which is much more common outside of the technical community than it is within. It's easy to dismiss those complaints as meaningless in the longer term but I'm not convinced they are. With each successive major overhaul it has seemed like the level of complaints have increased and the amount of activity I see on Facebook has gone down. Keep in mine that the vast majority of the people I hang out with on Facebook are over forty years old, as am I.

This latest round of changes seems focused on turning Facebook into an all inclusive platform, almost an OS. You could in theory create devices that ran Facebook as an overlay. Add an HTML 5 browser and you would never have to leave. I can see the appeal of that for tech types, particularly the tech types working at Facebook but will it appeal to the majority of their customers who just want to hang out with their friends with minimal clutter and noise?

Facebook owns the social graph. This is their biggest asset right now and a big part of the reason they've been able to get this far in the changes they are making. They risk is that they'll reach a tipping point where large numbers of people are no longer willing to deal with the changes and the complexity they introduce and start leaving. Are we at that point now? Too early to tell but I think we're close. The next month or two will be very interesting for Facebook and social networking in general.

I halfway seriously made a comment on Twitter in response to something I read that Apple should create a simple cross platform social network similar to early Facebook. Apple understands the importance of simplicity and could probably pull this off fairly quickly. They also have a large and seemingly ever growing legion of fans who are willing to at least try anything they bring out. Could they supplant Facebook with such a service? I'd like their chances more than I do Google's.

Image by krazydad / jbum via Flickr
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