Saturday, 16 April 2005

Get Messenger Plus!If you're a MSN Messenger user and you have not yet tried the free Messenger add-on called Messenger Plus!, you're missing out. Cruise on over to download a copy and see all the extras you can get.

I have been using Messenger Plus! for well over a year, and I find myself using many of its features all the time. The logging is great, and the floating messenger contacts capability is very cool. I can also use it to associate special sounds with individuals and their actions - so when Tim logs on, for example, timmy_scream.wav plays instead of the default Messenger sound. Heh... And the emoticon sounds thing is cool, too.

There's also a whole slew of plug-ins available. Click on the Plug-ins link that you'll find on the download page for a complete library. One of my favorites is the IRC-style plug-in that lets me type things like "/me slaps himself upside the head."

Click to download it:

About the sponsor program that comes with the software: When you install Messenger Plus!, you'll be given an opportunity to choose whether or not you want to install a "sponsor program" (this is how the author makes a few bucks for his work). I'm glad Patchou, the author, allows people to opt out of this when installing, since some people either cannot or don't want to install that kind of software. The sponsor is C2 Media, and it installs a toolbar in IE and adds some commercial advertising. You don't have to install the sponsor program if you don't want to.

Note: If you're not already on my contact list, my MSN Messenger address is the same as my email:

  • greg(at)greghughes(dot)net

Feel free to add me if you like...



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Tech
Saturday, 16 April 2005 12:54:28 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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ToyotasI'm having a little fun (while taking my coffee intravenously this morning) manually browsing Google Maps and satellite images from around Portland.

There's these incredibly huge cargo ships that have TOYOTA printed in enormous red letters down their sides. They show up in Portland regularly and fill up the parking lot in the picture at right (map link) with brand new cars. From there they are taken all over the states, I am told. And let me tell you, that lot holds a whole bunch of cars.

Toyota_shipWhen you see that big Toyota ship actually coming at you on the Columbia river, it's pretty impressive. Maybe the next satellite pass will catch it in port. I looked down the rest of the river to see if it might be in any images between port and the Pacific, but not to be found. Unfortunately, a large part of the Columbia between Portland and the ocean is only available as low-res images. My house is in a similar predicament, resolution-wise (and no, it doesn't bother me if people know where I live).

Wired News had an article about interesting things in satellite images. Makes me wonder what else is out there in sat-imagery land?

Other stuff UPDATE: Planes in flight



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Random Stuff
Saturday, 16 April 2005 10:27:52 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Adam Cogan IM'ed me this morning with some cool news: Visual Studio 2005 Beta 2 was released to MSDN's Subscriber Downloads web site over the past couple of days:

Vs2releasemsdn

Just as we're about to start a new round of software evals - perfect timing! It will be interesting to see what people in the community think about the new releases.



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Tech
Saturday, 16 April 2005 08:44:52 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Friday, 15 April 2005

I've recently gone on a run of trying all kinds of new devices in the PDA/MobilePhone/Email-Enabled-Device arena. I have used various Blackberry devices for a few years now (and have been using the Blackberry phone devices since they were first born). I have occasionally moved to other devices to try them out and see if they would suffice for use in my work. Recently I undertook that sort of project, evaluating various mobile carriers and their networks and devices, so it's been a real gadget-land around these parts since around the first of the year.

I won't be writing about the networks and service providers (maybe some other time), but I did want to catalog some of what I encountered, the geeky part of the project: All these nifty mobile devices.

It's worth noting right up front that as a general rule, I've pretty much always been disappointed with more-than-just-a-phone devices whenever I've tried them, for one reason or another. My experience has been the same with most of this latest run of devices I have tested. Also, I wrote this entry/review over the course of the past couple months, going back to it periodically to document bits of my experience over time.

To cut to the chase, let me jump to the end of my story briefly: As of yesterday I am back (by choice) with a Blackberry phone from Cingular - the very same model of phone I had before this whole testing process started. It's a RIM 7290 device. And that's a choice I made after using a whole slew of what people say are the coolest, newest phone/PDA/email/whatever devices.

You know what they say - Once you've had Blackberry, you can never go backberry. Or, uh, something like that... Sorry. Bad joke. But it's true.

My recent device trials (and tribulations) have included the Audiovox 5600 smartphone running Windows Mobile 2003 from AT&T/Cingular (which has been the rage among bloggers the past several months - it's unofficial nickname is the "Scoble Phone") and the Blackberry 7100t phone from T-Mobile. I've also used the Blackberry 7100g (Cingular) and the PalmOne Treo 650, both from Cingular. Rounding out the list was the Siemens SX66 device, which has a slide-out keyboard and WiFi built in, running the PocketPC Phone Edition of Windows Mobile 2003.

In each case, there were things I liked about these devices, and there were things I didn't like.

Audiovox 5600 SmartPhone (running Windows Mobile 2003 - ATTWS/Cingular)

Audiovox_5600I'll give Audiovox kudos for making a really cool phone in the gadgety sense, but I have to give it lower scores in terms of it's practical utility. Keep in mind, I use this kind of device as a tool, one that I use constantly for communicating and staying in touch for work. The "Scoble Phone" has been hyped up as the only device you'll need to carry around, and it has all kinds of nifty things on it, like mobile MSN Messenger, Windows Media Player, the ability to use Mini-SD cards for tons of extra storage, a built-in still/motion camera (of very mediocre quality), etc. But the software apps are a little glitchy, and I lost count of how many times this thing either reset itself or required me to pry the battery out of the back and replace it in order to get it started and working again. On top of that, while the geek/nifty factor is fairly high (I can see how Windows Mobile is a useful and appealing mobile OS), the practical/regular use score is low - it just doesn't work that well for me, beyond its simple use as a phone and SMS device. Text input is T9, which is cumbersome at best and impractical for work. Bluetooth for hands-free use worked somewhat reliably, but was problematic from time to time. Audio quality was good. It's small and compact and has a certain "neato" quality. But it doesn't allow me to quickly and efficiently communicate, except via voice calls. I handed it back. I liked the phone, but it didn't work for me, not even close. And by the way - as of the time of this writing, Cingular is not offering the phone on its web site.

Blackberry 7100t (T-Mobile) and 7100g (Cingular)

Pho_blackberry_7100g_smallThese two devices are essentially identical in terms of the guts and the software running on them, but the Cingular device has a better form factor and body/shell - It's a lot more solid, the keyboard is laid out better and is easier to use, and I get a strong feeling it would last longer than the T-Mobile model in a durability sense. Text input is a unique hybrid type - the keyboard has a standard qwerty style layout like all Blackberry devices, but instead of one letter per key like others by RIM, the 7100 series has two characters per key. It does the predictive text thing, a lot like T9 does on a mobile phone keypad, but it's considerably more accurate and a lot faster to type with. Making the move from a standard-keyboard Blackberry to this device takes a little getting used to, but after a few days I found myself fairly comfortable with the layout. Bluetooth hands-free functionality was flawless and reliable - better than the Audiovox phone. RIM figured out some good things with this device, but there are a few things missing that keep it from being a truly killer device: There's no MP3 support like you get in the other phones tested, and the ear-piece audio level at max volume is painfully quiet (a common complain with Blackberry phones that really needs to be addressed). There's no camera, and since this is a biz-class device, that makes sense. But RIM should really consider building a model with a camera option, an SD slot, MP3 capabilities, an MP3 voice recorder, MSN instant messaging (they included Yahoo! and AOL on this one, so why the heck not), and better audio capabilities (ring tones, music, etc). In fact, a Windows Mobile device that actually shipped with the vaporware (to date) Blackberry Connect software package would have me running for the store. But, progress is progress, and all in all the 7100 is a pretty good tool that makes some improvements on earlier models. But hey, put the standard RIM keyboard back, please - if it ain't broke, well - you know... I returned both these devices as they were loaners, but I'd recommend them to others, and a few people I know have bought these recently - and they're thrilled with them.

PalmOne Treo 650 (ATTWS/Cingular)

Pho_palmone_treo650_smallTopping out in the community's collective Bling! category is the PalmOne Treo 650, a nice looking and feeling PalmOS-based SmartPhone with lots of counterintuitive functionality and mediocre documentation. Now I remember why I left the PalmOS behind a few years ago. You'd think I'd have remembered, but sometimes we just need to be reminded. This is another phone with a so-so-quality camera built in (better in overall image quality than the Audiovox 5600, but with the same low 640x480 resolution). It has a full keyboard built on, which is arguably it's most redeeming factor, but in daily use the keyboard feels lumpy, klutzy and crowded compared to any RIM/Blackberry device I have used. The Treo uses a touch screen and a slide-out stylus for screen navigation, as well as a set of directional and select buttons. The screen is bright and contrasty, which is nice. Battery life is fairly limited when you're actually using it. Call audio is excellent, and is louder in earpiece volume when compared to the other devices mentioned here. The email setup and use of multiple email programs ranks a "so-so" score, and overall it was clunky to use. I can't count how many clicks, scrolls and stylus gestures/touches it took to do even the simplest activities. If I am sitting in a chair, have some time, and have both hands completely free and nothing else to distract me, I can use this device. But I don't want to. Returned to sender, can't recommend it.

Siemens SX66 PocketPC Phone (running Windows Mobile 2003 - ATTWS/Cingular)

Pho_sie_sx66_smallI was excited about getting my hands on this device, and hopeful that it would meet my needs and satisfy the usability/utility requirements. I also hoped it would have Blackberry Connect software on it, as was advertised some places and rumored at others. It didn't have it, but I tried it anyhow. The first things I noticed was that I was able to use it with my Exchange server (the Audiovox device crapped out if I tried to use a "space" character in my password. I had thought [assumed] the inability to use a space in a password was a limitation of the OS, but this device proved me wrong). The screen on this thing is very nice, and the backlight is bright and contrasty. Bluetooth worked better than any of the other devices in hands-free mode, and the keyboard makes it more accessible and usable than the Audiovox device by far. But the keyboard's pimple-style chicklet bubble layout was painful to use in the real wold - keys are tiny and way too close together unless you;re six years old (probably not the target market). Battery life was pretty awful, especially if you use the WiFi at all. Even without using WiFi, the battery was dying on me regularly between charges, and since there's no USB charging with this thing I could not charge it in the car or anywhere convenient (You have to charge in the cradle, which is plugged into the wall via a power adapter, or you use the same wall plug adapter with a socket adapter to go straight to the device. So be prepared to be tangling the wall adapter cord up a lot to carry it with you everywhere, or else plan on a dead phone periodically - dumb). To top it all off, this morning I grabbed the device and went to turn it on, but it did not respond. Yet, the little green service light was flashing so I knew it had power to it. I pulled the battery put it back (the Windows Mobile version of CTRL-ALT-DEL), but still no response. I started driving to work and tried it again while I was stopped for coffee at the local store. Voila! Up it comes, but totally reset, nuked, blown away, default ROM settings - everything I had set and stored before was gone. Good thing the important stuff was on my SD card... I've read and heard rumors of serious software problems with this phone, and when you combine that with the lame keyboard that looks cool but isn't at all usable, well... Returned, with prejudice.

Back In Black - or, Right Black Where I Started From

Pho_blackberry_7290_smallSo, as of this morning I am back running on a Blackberry 7290 phone with the latest, solid Blackberry software. This is the same model I gave up a few months ago to do the testing. Sure, it's not as fancy in many ways as the 7100-series, but it's got the best keyboard and it works, works, works. And probably the best test of all was this: Within one minute of picking this thing back up and setting a couple of device options to something other than BB's defaults, I suddenly found myself orders of magnitude faster and more productive than I was with any of the other devices I'd tried.

RIM got something right when they built the Blackberry. Then they added a phone to the device. Then they did this funky keyboard thing with the 7100 that works pretty well. It works, and it is usable.

DontmakemethinkThere's a great book I've held onto for a few years now called "Don't Make Me Think" by author Steve Krug. It's all about usability (as related to web design, but that doesn't matter, the same concepts apply here). The reasons the Blackberry devices are all so good is because they are truly intuitive - I don't have to spend my time clicking and clicking and tapping and clicking just to try to find some simple function, and the user interface is so intuitive it becomes almost reflexive to use. RIM wins because their devices have utility. It's because they're reliable. It's because they're usable. I have confidence that RIM/Blackberry will keep that as their core philosophy, and so I am very much interested to see what will come next from the company.

But damnit, I still want to see and use a good, reliable phone that runs Windows Mobile latest edition, with Blackberry Connect software on it! PLEASE! There's a lot of room for growth, and it's not all about smaller, smaller, smaller, or geekier, geekier geekier... It's all about usable, usable, usable. Size is just one part of usability. Geeky is fun, but not always practical. Who will end up winning this game? Can't wait to see.

But for now, Blackberry's in the lead in my book.



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Mobile | Tech
Friday, 15 April 2005 18:23:33 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 13 April 2005

It's amazing how far we have all come.

I can sit here in the PDX (that's Portland, Oregon) airport, and in all of 10 minutes resolve a minor work crisis, post a new web page to a business web site and get it reviewed and approved, order flowers to be delivered for my mom's birthday today (Happy Birthday Mom!), sync all my email into Outlook from the office, IM with my web hosting provider (who is in the UK) about trapping email viruses, answer a few work emails, and post this blog entry.

All that thanks to free 802.11G WiFi at the airport, with a full signal and none of those get-your-email-etc registration hassles. So nice.

I have a full hour before my flight leaves (traffic was, thankfully, quite lite). Who knows what all I'll be able to get done between now and then.

It used to be that waiting at the airport meant you were completely out of touch unless you wanted to use an airport pay phone (never my favorite thing, either financially or from a hygiene standpoint). Anymore you can't help but be connected and active. I may be flying off to Reston Virginia, but my ability to communicate and stay productive is hardly affected.

It's true that there are some negative effects of always being connected. Stress from overconnectedness (ohhhhh new word, cool...) is a real thing for some people. But managed carefully and moderated successfully, it can also be a great thing.

It's a whole different world we live in today.



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Geek Out | Tech
Wednesday, 13 April 2005 13:24:42 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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I was wondering when this would happen. Microsoft can now alert you to new security bulletins via .NET instant messaging and mobile device alerts (as well as RSS). Great idea:

Microsoft Security Update instant message alerts notify you when time sensitive information about Microsoft products has been posted on the Security Web site. You can choose to receive these alerts through MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger, your e-mail, or a mobile device like your cell phone or PDA. Register at the Microsoft Security Alerts Web page.

Information on Microsoft Security Update Instant Message Alerts as well as RSS Feeds for Security Bulletins, the Microsoft Security Notification Service, and the Microsoft Security Notification Service Comprehensive Edition can be found at this location:

http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/notify.mspx

SIDEBAR: Oh, and it looks like they are using LiveMessage, which is what powers my .NET IM alerts for this weblog:



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IT Security | Tech
Wednesday, 13 April 2005 10:59:09 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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