Saturday, 16 December 2006

Every good (and bad) geek child needs a fast, efficient and electronic way to send that proverbial  letter to Santa. And good geek kids, of course, procrastinate along with the rest of us. So, for those of you still needing to send that letter and can't stand the idea of paper, pen and licking sticky stuff, here you go with some Internet Santa resources:

  • Santa's Mailroom: According to Biff, the Mailroom Elf, it usually takes a couple days to answer letters, which you can submit online, no need for a stamp or that pesky snail-mail service stuff.
  • EmailSanta.com: Send an email to the jolly red dude and get an instant response, print it out, or whatever.


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Random Stuff
Saturday, 16 December 2006 13:07:01 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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My friend and coworker, Brent, is working this weekend so he can tie up some stuff and go on a real vacation time with his family. Brent does QA, which means he's a bit uhhh twisted at times (and I say that in a respectful, caring way of course, with a friendly smile on my face). Since running QA tests these days often means clicking a button and waiting the automated tests run (quickly, accurately and efficiently, I might add), Brent has short gaps of wait time. QA people get bored quickly these days. Darn that test automation! Between .NET and automated testing systems, our software engineers are becoming the next big population of ADD, MTV-style, video-game-attention-span, immediate gratification victims.

Of course, they already play video games and uhhh, never mind.

But that's not my point. Brent spent one of his while-the-test-is-running gaps goofing around on the Internet and just came up with this:

 

Click the pic to see the whole thing. You can also upload your own photos and make your own video. Or one of someone else you know (preferably someone who isn't too proud and won't be offended, angry or whatever - but I've already been victimized).

Wow, scary. Heh.



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Saturday, 16 December 2006 12:43:41 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Thursday, 14 December 2006

Google has released its Google Patent Search, where you can search more than 7 million patents issued by the USPTO:

Today, we're excited to be releasing the beta version of Google Patent Search, which makes it easy to search the full text of the U.S. patent corpus and find patents that interest you. Start your exploration at www.google.com/patents or visit the Advanced Patent Search page to search by criteria, including patent number, inventor, and filing date. You can view images of original patents online.

Good stuff.



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Tech
Thursday, 14 December 2006 00:01:03 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 13 December 2006

OmniFind Yahoo! Edition is a new release from - yeah you got it - IBM and Yahoo! that companies small, medium and large can install and use for free to enable enterprise search of intranets, file systems, and public web sites.

Looks like a partial answer to the SharePoint capabilities offered by Microsoft. I haven't tried it yet but will probably take a closer look. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend - offering free software to business customers.

Have to say, this is pretty enticing at first glance. They say it's designed to install in five minutes, with three clicks or less.

Might just have to try that.



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Tech
Wednesday, 13 December 2006 23:43:00 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Thursday, 07 December 2006

I almost didn't write this one. But then I changed my mind because it occurred to me that there's a lot of people who are in the same boat. Let me be very clear here that this entry is written from the perspective of a business power user, someone who stretches things to their usable limits, and then some.

As many readers here already know, I am a Blackberry guy. Have been for years. Occasionally, I go through the trial phases with other devices, sort of a change-up process that - at least to date - has always ended up being a sort of Blackberry Vacation phase for me.

Anyhow, yesterday I set aside my trusty and scratched Blackberry 8700, with it's extended battery and general useful goodness, to try the latest in Windows Mobile technology for a while - the Samsung Blackjack, procured from Cingular. Giving up my Blackberry, which has survived multiple submersions (don't ask, don't worry) and significant drops on many a hard surface, is not something I take lightly.

The Blackjack looked interesting. I had an opportunity to switch out with no risk and to see what it's all about. The TV commercials had caught my eye, truth be told, and it looked like about as good of a Windows Mobile device as any, probably even better. So, I thought, what the heck... And yesterday it arrived and we swapped out the SIM cards. I went about my business sans-Blackberry and with a sleek new phone. This blog entry is my (rather pointed)comparison of the two devices and software. It's important to note that a comparison point of view is my primary perspective when I review mobile devices. In order to make a switch from what I already have it has to work for me in a business sense, well enough to make me want to move, so a comparison with a power-business-user slant is both fair and meaningful.

Anyhow, It's been an interesting 24+ hours.

First off, the 30,000-foot Gestalt view: To be honest, my hopes have been fairly dashed. No matter how you skin it, from a strict usability standpoint the Windows Mobile 5 experience still just doesn't match that of the Blackberry. It's much closer than it used to be, but the remaining gap is real and there's much work remaining to be done to move into the same category. And I am not referring to the Blackjack hardware here (more on that in a minute). I am referring to the OS as a whole and the UI navigation specifically. I have to scroll and click through so many things just to do the simplest tasks. The conglomeration of operating system and applications (some controlled by MS, some by the device manufacturer, others by the carrier, I am sure) is just a little too klutzy to work well. It's right on the edge of being too difficult to be practical. Keep in mind, I come from Blackberry land, where things work quite well, where Blackberry controls the hardware and the software in a much more complete manner. And that's the set of users that Windows Mobile needs to win over. Without that, the potential market is considerably more scarce. Also keep in mind, I really want the Windows Mobile experience to rival or even best the Blackberry - there's no fan-boy stuff going on here. The simple fact is that in practical power-user life the Blackberry wins by a significant margin. And by practical use I mean email, calendar, tasks, text messaging, and the like. Not MP3 files and video. Those are nice, but the basics have to work really well first.

What exactly am I referring to? On the Blackberry, I look at one screen and touch one wheel to do everything but type. Everything I need is right there, in full view. My email is one thumb click away and so is the calendar. On the Blackberry clicking the wheel brings up a context sensitive menu of options - all of the options right there on the screen without having to go to three or four more buttons on the face of the phone. Sounds picky, I know, but deal with several hundred emails a day and see how much of an impact it has. For that matter, spend ten minutes reading email flowing in on a Blackberry and then see how long it takes you to do the same thing on the Blackjack or any other Windows Mobile device. It's a different world.

Now, granted - Blackberry doesn't have some of the terrific things the Blackjack and Windows Mobile sport, and it's some pretty darned cool stuff that you get on the Blackjack/Windows Mobile device, to be sure. For example, the 3G UTMS/HSPDA network is amazingly fast (the Blackberry 8700 is an EDGE device, which is okay but doesn't really even compare speed-wise), and of course the Blackjack has a camera, which is something you can't get (yet) on a Blackberry (but the 8800 model with a camera is rumored to be coming in the spring). The 1.3 megapixel camera does a pretty nice job, by the way. Much better than other phones I've used before. Windows Media Player 10 (with some nifty streaming audio and video on the fast network provided by Cingular) and the ability to use MicroSD cards is cool. You don't get that on the Blackberry. And a solid MSN/Live Messenger application that I don't have to go find and pay for was a welcome item, as well. It also does AOL and Yahoo! messengers, by the way.

Did I mention it's a phone? Bluetooth 2, speakerphone capability and a very good phone call and sound quality are all pretty impressive.

There have been three lock-ups that I had to pull the battery to resolve. One was a network data failure to communicate at all this morning first thing, and the others were random application glitches it seemed. I have had to pull the battery on my 8700 a few times, but it's very, very rare.

Ultimately, even with the cool bells and whistles, if I cannot reliably and effectively do email, calendar and messaging in a very quick, painless and efficient manner like I can with the Blackberry phone, it's all for not. At best the experience on Windows Mobile takes some getting used to for a Blackberry user, and yet in reality even after some adjustment time it still lacks. You just have to navigate too much and too far with too many pointers and controls to get much of anything done, and the beautiful, bright screen is used for "bling" more than for practical real estate application. I will look for screen themes that better use the space, but I'm not holding my breath.

As far as the hardware goes, it is a nice feeling device. It's very solid and feels substantial in your hand. I like that. I think the proprietary cable that hooks to the USB port and/or charger cable was a terribly bad decision. Why not mini-USB so I can use my existing cables and chargers? Oh, wait - that's right. How would they sell more accessories if they all match? Ugh.

And don't get me started on battery life. Get this - between 8am and 3pm, I completely went through a charged battery, and that with only one phone call all day, and that call only lasted five minutes tops. I have the Exchange push-sync thing going and Bluetooth is turned on (by the way, the Bluetooth on the 8700 is flaky and the Blackjack has it beat in terms of reliability). I imagine that uses a bit more battery, but is it unreasonable to expect that the battery would last at least a day? The Blackberry lasts forever on a charge. I have a hard time killing it on a dawn-to-past-dusk day of emergencies and lots of phone calls. Good thing there's two batteries with my Blackjack - I needed them both just today. That's not good. A Microsoftie friend tells me there is some way to  turn off the HSPDA capability and that doing so might help with battery drain, and also that the push configuration with Exchange is a power-killer as well. But to me it seems like the features should be supported by the battery system. Either that or else the features need to be made a lot more efficient. Again, I am speaking from a practical standpoint. It has to work in the real world, regardless of what it is. And I can't change batteries mid-day in many cases. Hopefully after a few charges the life will get a little better but I can't imagine it getting so much better as to alleviate the concern.

Probably my biggest and most noticed disappointment about he hardware is the keyboard. I was surprised at how hard it is to type on this thing. Visually the keyboard is pretty cool and is somewhat similar to the Blackberry. But once you touch it you realize the keys are long and tall in shape, close together, and it's too easy to screw up finger placement. They're also slippery and stick up a long way, making accurate finger action even more difficult. The spacebar key is too narrow, and there's actually room there on the device to make it wider - which makes its lack of size even more unfortunate. And worst of all, as I type email or anything at normal typing speed the device randomly misses keystrokes. They just don't register. And at other times the OS seems to lag in showing what I type. I have had to go back and fill in missing letters and characters all day long on the thing, which is doubly frustrating. Again, from a practical standpoint that's not good.

I hate even writing this, because I very much wanted to like the Blackjack. And while I don't quite hate it (and I will stick with it for at least a few more days to see if somehow my experience and opinion changes), the usability issues have just about killed it for me out of the gate. The enthusiasm is gone and it's been fairly disappointing.

I have to believe that on the platform side Microsoft is truly interested in going after the serious enterprise business market, which is why I mention these details about the OS. And I will happily share my thoughts and experiences with anyone on the Mobile OS team that wants to take them. I'm picky, heh. And the war's not over yet: Today no less than ten people noticed the cool form factor of the Blackjack and instantly asked me if that was a new Blackberry I had. "No," I told them, "it's a Blackjack Windows Mobile phone." Hmmm! said the looks on their faces. "Do you like it?" they asked with anticipation. "No," I said. "It's driving me nuts. It should be cool but so far it's just too much work to use it." And that's the truth.

As I said, I almost didn't write this. There are many people out there that will get the Blackjack and love it, I am completely sure of that. It's a great phone. But as a hard-core power user on the business side, I need more - and this is my way of asking.

First impressions count for a lot, and the experience I've had with the Blackjack - colored by my experience with other devices that work very, very well - was simply less than I had hoped for. I think I have reasonable expectations. I am hopeful - and somewhat confident - that it will get better in the future. At least I sure hope so. The Windows Mobile OS has a lot of potential to kick butt. It just needs to get across that magical proverbial line, and probably Microsoft needs to do even more to ensure that the device makers do their part, as well. I know that seems like a legal stretch, but hey there's plenty of proof showing why it's needed. Blackberry has perfected their form factor and their software, which while relatively simple is elegant and works very well. Microsoft doesn't need to copy them to come up with a great solution, and they don't need to stifle the channel partners, software authors and hardware manufacturers, but they do need to set high standards, and they need to push hard and fast.

If and when that happens, maybe then I'll switch. Maybe it'll be a no-brainer. I am open to it, and hope that someday it will happen. Until then, I think this is just another vacation from my Blackberry career, but I am willing to let time tell. Heck, it's probably a good idea to stick with something else for a short period anyhow as far as repetitive stress injury avoidance goes, at least. Right?



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Mobile | Tech
Thursday, 07 December 2006 00:20:24 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 04 December 2006

My friend and coworker, Matt, experienced something last week that no one should ever have to go through, and which we all hope never happens to anyone - whether it be us, or someone we know, or any other person. His parents' house, the one where Matt spent most of his growing-up years, burned down one week ago.

Luckily his folks made it out okay. Sadly, their dog did not and the damage to the house was extensive. They've been piecing things back together (as much as you can do that after a major house fire) for the past week, but I can only imagine what it must be like for them. As a police officer, I experienced many traumatic situations, but when it's a friend it just feels different.

Matt wrote eloquently about what happened, and I am pointing to his blog entry here because I think it's important to be thankful for what we have and the family in our lives, and also because it's important to know that it can happen not just to others, but also to ourselves.

Matt said it best:

"It's very true what they say. A tragedy is just an event until it happens to you. I recall seeing at least one report of a house or apartment fire every holiday over the past few years and thinking how terrible it must be for the affected people, but then I change the station and life goes on. Never did I think that could one day be my house on the news and my family standing in the cold. And while we now have to deal with the task of rebuilding and piecing back together some sense of normality, I've very thankful to have my parents around to help with that."

Amen to that. Read his story here.



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Monday, 04 December 2006 14:01:58 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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