Author Archive | Harry McCracken

Microsoft’s Vista Mea-Sorta-Culpa

Over at ZDNet, Ed Bott has posted an intriguing item on Microsoft’s attempt to reintroduce Windows Vista to a world that seems to have its fair share of Vista skeptics. Ed noticed the image at left, comparing Vista doubters to flat-earth believers, on the Microsoft.com home page. (It wasn’t there when I just checked, so I’ve swiped Ed’s copy.)

Ed’s wondering if the image is a precursor of the message that Microsoft plans to spend $300 million hammering home in a new Vista ad campaign. If it is, he seems guardedly optimistic that it’s a smart move by the behemoth of Redmond. I’m not so sure.

For one thing, comparing people who aren’t so sure about Windows Vista to ignoramuses from a millennium or two ago doesn’t seem like the smartest strategy for initiating a conversation with said people about why they should give Vista a second look. (It is, however, consistent with the spirit of past Microsoft ad campaigns that did things like tell folks who hadn’t upgraded to the latest version of Office that they were dinosaurs. Me, I’m more likely to respond well to ads that compliment me than ones that mock me…)

And when Ed clicked on the flat-earth teaser, he arrived at a page headlined “Windows Vista: Look how far we’ve come” that’s as much apologetic as accusatory. The page doesn’t seem to be brand new–it refers to the June 30th cutoff for Windows XP sales as if it hasn’t happened yet–but I hadn’t seen it until Ed pointed it out.

After the jump. a quick summary of the gist of the page and more thoughts…

Continue Reading →


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When Amazon S3 Goes Boom, So Does the Web

The Web is atwitter with discussion of the technical hobgoblins that are bedeviling Amazon’s S3 Web storage platform today. S3, which a lot of significant Web-based services rely on to provide the disk space that they need to store stuff, has been glitchy or altogether inoperative for at least the last six hours. There’s some good information and perspective over at SmugMug’s official blog–SmugMug being one of the services that uses S3 and has therefore been wonky today.

I happen to be working on a review of Web-based image editors for PC World. and found that a couple of them weren’t working today. One, the excellent Picnik, says that S3 is to blame. (I have a hunch that the other one also leverages S3, but I’m not positive.) The outages are a hassle–hey, I have a deadline to meet–but they’re also a sobering and useful reminder that Web-based services are extremely dependent on a lot of complicated technology and infrastructure working properly. Picnik may be problematic today, but my copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements, an old-fashioned piece of desktop software, is working just fine.

Not that desktop software is invulnerable: If my motherboard or hard drive croaked right now (and they could!) I’d be denied access to Elements until I solved things myself. All things being equal, it should make sense to throw technical challenges like keeping software working at a big company like Amazon or Google or Yahoo or Microsoft.

But it’s fascinating and sobering to see that Amazon–a company with oodles of resources, armies of techies, and, one hopes, a sophisticated game plan for keeping its services chugging along even when things go wrong–can fall victim to technical gremlins like this. The Amazon Web Services site refers to the Amazon platform as “robust,” and it is, mostly…but “robust” is not a synonym for “failsafe.”) With S3 as popular as it is, an awful lot of customers of an awful lot of services were inconvenienced today, even if they didn’t know that S3 was to blame. (In many cases, they didn’t: The error messages I got at Picnik didn’t mention S3, and I only learned they related to it when I checked out the Picnik blog,)

S3 suffered another major outage back in February, so this current one isn’t unprecendented in the least. I wonder if any of the companies that use S3 will reconsider the proposition. And I hope that Amazon explains exactly what happened and what steps it’s taking to prevent it from happening again.

(Wacky postscript: I uploaded an image of the Amazon Web Services logo to use with this post, and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t displaying. Yup–WordPress.com uses S3, too.If you see an empty rectangle at the top of this post, S3 is still sickly; if you see the Amazon Web Services logo, it’s a good sign that it’s feeling healthier. I’ll say it again: When Amazon S3 goes boom, so does the Web…)


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13 Ways I’d Change the iPhone’s Interface…if I Could

For a year now, an amazing number of people have assumed I own an iPhone. Until last week, I had to politely correct them. (My phone of late has been an AT&T Tilt.) I hadn’t bought a first-generation iPhone for three big reasons. Which were:

1) I worked for a large company that used Lotus Notes–as large companies are wont to do–and there was no good way to get Notes on an iPhone;

2) Every time I tried Mobile Safari, I got depressed by how hobbled such an excellent piece of software was by the slow AT&T EDGE data network;

3) I didn’t want to buy a phone that could only run the applications that Apple itself decided to produce.

Problem one went away when I departed the corporate world to start Technologizer. (Side note: I’ve been using Gmail and Google Calendar to do the stuff I used to do in Notes.) The iPhone 3G solved the second one. And with the advent of the Apple 2.0 software, the iPhone can run third-party applications, of which there are already hundreds in the iTunes Store. So last Friday, I got myself up at 2:30am and braved the lines to buy an iPhone 3G–and a week later, I’m mostly extremely pleased with it. Continue Reading →


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Opera Mobile 9.5: Full of Promise–and Rough Edges

Back in February, the Norwegian Web wizards at Opera previewed a new version of Opera Mobile at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. It looked like it might be the phone browser that folks who don’t own iPhones have been waiting for. The company promised a public beta, but its timetable slipped so much and so frequently that I decided to stop being excited about it until it showed up.

That day is here–Opera has released a free public beta of the browser. The beta is still a very rough draft of the product that Opera touted back in February–it’s for Windows Mobile only (a Symbian version is also in the works), and lacks important features such as Flash support. I encountered bugs, such as the way the browser insisted on popping up an onscreen keyboard for URL entry even though the Tilt has a real keyboard.

Opera says that the beta is 2.5 times faster than Pocket Internet Explorer, the antique that’s the default browser on Windows Mobile devices; I haven’t done any formal speed tests, but on my 3G AT&T Tilt, pages rendered into place bit by bit in a way that usually didn’t feel anywhere near as zippy as Safari on the new iPhone 3G.

Opera Mobile 9.5 is, in other words, a true beta that doesn’t claim to be entirely ready for prime time. It’s a promising one, though, and anyone who’s serious about Web browsing on a Windows Mobile device and isn’t intimidated by beta code should give it a try.

Like Safari on the iPhone and Opera’s Java-based Opera Mini)–and unlike Pocket Internet Explorer–Opera Mobile now uses zoom-in/zoom-out navigation: When you land on a new page, the browser squeezes as much as possible on the screen, rendering the formatting much as it would appear in a desktop browser. You then tap to zoom, and can pan around the page. (You don’t get the multi-touch, fingertip precision that the iPhone provides, but bopping around a page using the Tilt’s stylus or my finger worked quite well.)

Here’s CNN in zoom-out and zoom-in view:

On my AT&T Tilt, I instantly found that the biggest issue was not the browser itself but the available screen real estate. Like most Windows Mobile phones, the Tilt has a 240-by-320 pixel screen, with half the pixels of the iPhone’s 320-by-480 model. That’s just not enough to make the zoom-out/zoom-in browsing experience nearly as intuitive and practical as it is on the iPhone.

For instance, here’s Gmail as it looks when I load it into Opera Mobile. Except for the Gmail logo itself, all the text’s too small to read–there just aren’t enough pixels to render characters in legible form:

But when I zoom into a more legible view, I don’t see enough of the page to let me make much sense of my inbox:

I ended up using Gmail’s mobile view (m.gmail.com), which is designed to work well in browsers with limited screen real estate. (I found, incidentally, that Opera Mobile always loaded the desktop version of sites I went to, even when there was a phone-optimized one; the iPhone’s Safari automatically loaded phone versions of Gmail, MSNBC.com, and other sites.)

Opera Mobile still offers a “Mobile View” that converts Web pages into long, skinny columns that wrap text to fit onto the phone’s screen. It’s an crude, old-fashioned tactic that’s reminiscent of Pocket Internet Explorer…and for some sites, it’s more practical than zoom-in, zoom-out. As far as I can tell, you can only get to it through a Settings option; I wish there was a quick way to turn it on or off for the particular page you’re on.

On the plus side, Opera is smart enough to go into a full-screen mode whenever you don’t need toolbars or menu items, thereby using every available pixel to render the Web page. Here, for instance, is a comparison of the New York Times homepage on Opera Mobile 9.5 on the Tilt (top) and Safari on the iPhone (bottom). The iPhone does have more pixels to play with, but since it uses some of them to display your phone carrier, signal strength, the current time, Bluetooth and battery status, the URL, and icons for search, refresh, bookmarks, tabs, and back/forward navigation, the Times itself doesn’t look radically better.

On Windows Mobile phones, Opera Mobile faces potential stiff competition from Skyfire, a browser that’s also reminiscent of iPhone Safari, and which uses proxy browsing to offer the potential of the most desktop-like, accurate Web experience yet. But Skyfire’s in private beta, and the version I’ve tried has some usability problems that get in the way of its considerable promise. Then there’s Windows Mobile 7–you gotta think that it’s going to come with a version of Internet Explorer that’s much, much better than the current one. But it’s not here yet, and won’t ever run on some current Windows Mobile devices.

The bottom line at the moment? Opera needs to polish up Opera Mobile 9.5 quite a bit before it starts charging for it. (Version 8.65, its predecessor, sells for $24.) Once it’s finished, it won’t outdo iPhone Safari, and can’t until Windows Mobile hardware gets better. But even its current form, it’s a browser which outdoes Pocket Internet Explorer in most respects that matter–and I bet a lot of serious Windows Mobile users will adopt it as their primary browser right now.


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More MobileMe for Your Money: Apple Does the Right Thing

Large companies don’t always seem to think they’re required to actually deliver the services they promise in order to get their money. (I still remember the time years ago when a rep at Pacific Bell–now AT&T–told me that it expected me to pay my full bill for a week-long period when I had no phone service whatsoever.)

So it’s nice to see the news that Apple is proactively giving everybody who signed up for its MobileMe service or was an existing .Mac user an extra thirty days of service by way of apology for the service’s erratic availability after its launch last week. Gizmodo has the text of an email in which the company admits the rollout was “a lot rockier than we had hoped” and had “lots of problems.” That’s serious crow-eating by any standard.

The company also said it’s going to stop referring to MobileMe’s data-synching as involving “push” for now, since it can currently take up to 15 minutes for e-mail and other info to travel from a Mac or PC to the Web or an iPhone.

(Incidentally, I have a MobileMe account and qualify for the extension, but haven’t received this e-mail yet; why, I’m not sure.)

MobileMe costs $99 a year, so the extra thirty days are worth around $8.25–not a huge whoop, but still nice.

I’m still playing around with MobileMe and forming a firm opinion–it’s a good idea for sure, and an ambitious one, but I wanna get a better sense of just how well it works and if the initial hiccups are over.


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Five More Ways to Improve Twitter

Today’s top story in tech? Microblogging site Twitter has bought Summize, which was until today a separate company which offered something that shoulda been part of Twitter itself from the get-go: real-time search of the gazillions of brief messages from zillions of people that make up the surging sea of information that is Twitter. At the moment, Summize has morphed into search,twitter.com, which isn’t really integrated with the rest of the service. But it seems a safe bet that it won’t take long until a deeper melding happens, and that Twitter will be vastly better for it. (Here’s Twitter’s own blog post on the acquisition and the thinking behind it.)

Without Summize’s search, Twitter was sort of like a gargantuan party that was such a mob scene that you most likely ended up hanging out only with folks you already knew or who you encountered through pure serendipity. With Summize search, it’s going to be a cinch to find conversations you want to join and people who share your interests. Already, searches such as iPhone battery life and Iraq news make for good reading, and after I blogged about my new Humanscale Freedom chair, I idly searched for it–and was startled to discover that the chair has been the subject of lots of Tweets.

As a Twitter fan–I am, by the way, harrymccracken over there–I’m looking forward to seeing search become a big part of how I use Twitter. But I’m also thinking about other ways I’d improve the service–aside from the obvious hope that its days of frequent outages are behind it. So herewith, a short, highly personal wishlist.

I wish Twitter had…

1. Threaded conversations–real ones, I mean. The most interesting Tweets are part of discussions among two or more people, but the current form of threading on Twitter is a kludge that doesn’t work very well. It’s often hard to tell what a reply’s replying to, and impossible to read a conversation all on one page. A service called Quotably attempts to address these issues, but it only works some of the time…and who wants to go to a different site to experience what should be one of Twitter’s core features?

2. Threaded permalinks. Speaking of threading, I often want to point people to Twitter dialogs–sometimes ones from the distant past. I’d love a way to create a link to any snippet of conversation I chose.

3. Photos in Tweets. TwitPic lets you share photos via Twitter, and for what it does, it works quite nicely. But I wish that there was a way to make images show up in Tweets themselves. Maybe Twitter could even use MMS to push those photos out to folks who follow Twitter on their phones. (My take on Twitter is skewed by the fact that I mostly use it on the Web.)

4. More ways to find really worthwhile people and discussions. Right now, I discover new people on Twitter largely by accident or word of mouth, and I know that there are countless conversations going on that I might want to join…if only I knew they were happening. I’m sure Summize’s technology will help here. And maybe there should be a mechanism for rating Tweeters and/or the Tweets they produce.

5. Features that were just slightly more like e-mail. I say “just slightly” because it would be easy to ruin Twitter by complicating it. But I’d like to see something akin to an address book in Twitter; currently, your lists of people you’re following and those who are following you are separate and (I think) permanently arranged in the order they were added. And Twitter users have both user names and screen names, a distinction that’s fuzzy enough that I keep forgetting what’s what and when to use which one.

One thing I hope Twitter never does is allow you to create Tweets that are longer than 140 characters long. The fact that you’re forced into haiku mode when Tweeting is a huge part of the joy of Twitter…

So how would you change Twitter if you could?


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Hello Again!

During the past few weeks since I announced this Web site, I’ve been delighted by the response. But whenever anybody’s asked me when it was launching–and boy, have a lot of folks done so–I’ve been vague and shifty. “Soon,” I’ve said. “Soon.” And then I’ve tried to change the subject.

Let the evasiveness end. I’m ready to begin posting on Technologizer, and will be doing so just about every day. And I hope you’ll hang out here with me.

I’m happy to report that I’m publishing Technologizer on the wonderful WordPress blogging platform. And like a bunch of bloggers I admire, from Om Malik to Curt Schilling, I’ve asked Automattic, the company behind WordPress, to host my site. (Automattic also hosts blogs for The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and others.) Special thanks to Automattic’s Lloyd Budd, who did much heavy lifting to ready Technologizer for prime time from a technical standpoint.

I want this site to be as much a conversation as a soapbox, and much of the conversation will go on in the Technologizer Community I’ve set up on Ning. Thanks to Ning, a service I not only use but enthusiastically admire and endorse on multiple levels, Technologizer will let members participate in forum discussions and groups, publish profiles, connect with friends with shared tech interests, post photos and videos, and a lot more. Signing up is painless, and I hope you’ll do so if you don’t have a Ning ID already–more than sixty people are in the community as I write this.

That’s it for now. See you shortly, and thanks for being here.


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My Declaration of Independence

Introducing Technologizer: A Smarter Take on Tech.

My name is Harry McCracken. I’m the founder of Technologizer. We haven’t officially launched yet, but I’m glad you found us.

Technologizer will cover the fun, fascinating, and sometimes frustrating world of personal technology–from the Web to digital entertainment to both PCs and Macs. My goal is to create a site that’s always forthright, always opinionated, and always entertaining. Whenever possible, we’ll put products through their paces in hands-on tests before we write about them. And I want all the folks who visit the site to have the opportunity to share their opinions and expertise, too.

I feel like my whole life has led to this project. I’ve been an avid user of personal computers and related stuff for almost as long as there have been “personal computers.” For almost fourteen years, I was a journalist at PC World, the planet’s largest computing magazine and one of its biggest tech sites. I worked with amazing colleagues, helped PCW win a bunch of awards, and ended up as editor in chief. And in general, I had a ball. But in May, 2008 I resigned to try my hand at building something from scratch. Technologizer will be that something.

Technologizer will be an independent site, owned and operated by me. (If you don’t like it, you’ll know who to blame.) But I’m extremely pleased to say that I’m starting it in partnership with the smart people at Federated Media. FM will be handling ad sales for the site and providing other forms of help on the business side–just as they do for a bunch of the biggest blogs on the Web, including several of my favorites.

The site will launch…well, I’m saying later this summer, but it won’t be very long. And I may blog a bit on this preview site a bit before the full-blown Technologizer site goes live.

Meanwhile, here’s some shameless self promotion for me. And if you want to reach me for some reason, you can do so here.

See you soon!

(Photo credit: Marie Domingo)


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