Top 5 Google+ Features

I’m not one to do “Top #” lists, but after today’s announcement that Google+ is now available to any and all, I thought it would be useful to recount a few of the features that I’ve been using on a nearly daily basis (well…some things…not everything, of course).

1). House Hunting – When we moved up here, I came up alone and brought along our Flip Video camera so Brooke could get a “feel” for the different options, at least in some virtual sense. This time around, Brooke is taking pictures with her phone, then allowing the Google+ app to automatically upload the pictures to her profile so she can share them with me. Then, I can comment on each picture and she can answer all my questions. This is done without anyone else having to see the conversation(s) or the pictures.

Here's a picture of a living room for a place we're considering

2). Gaming Communication – In the past, we have used Skype to make VOIP calls between Josh, Ryan and Mike so we can voice chat while playing whatever game we’re on at the time. Skype works well, but one person hosts the call and then has to call each person once they’re ready (much like a telephone). Now, with Google+ Hangouts, you can simply “Open A Hangout,” which is basically an open invitation with whatever group you want that can join in at any time. So, if one of us isn’t ready, they can join in whenever they want. Much more convenient, and the voice quality is nice, too.

3). Selective Sharing – I post a lot of stuff on Facebook. A lot of stuff. Google+ makes it easy with their Circles function, allowing me to share with people from Columbia, or people from Truman, or people from St. Louis, or all of them all at once. This is done really easily, both from the web interface and from within the Google+ Android app. Facebook has started adding in some of this functionality, but it’s nowhere near as helpful. It’s obvious it’s a “stop gap” measure to provide some of the same functionality, but is very much “tacked on” to their existing, convoluted infrastructure. Circles is just easier to use.

Photos taken with the camera are geo-tagged and dated. Select the ones you want, and then click the green "Share" button!

4). Full Integration with Picasa – I already use Picasa to post pictures online, partially for display on this very website.  Because of the integration between Google+ and Picasa, any pictures from my phone are automatically uploaded, and then I can share them on Google+ with whoever I want.  But also, they are made available under Picasa, so I can copy them into any albums I want, and either keep them private or share them.  In short: it’s free cloud storage and organization for any picture I take with my phone (though, you can still manually upload them from a camera if you want).

Here's what the main screen looks like.

5). Separated Streams – Right now, I have 287 people in my various circles on Google+.  A lot of those folks are Gamers With Jobs people.  There are times, however, I really just want to see the news updates from my Friends, rather than the GWJ crew.  Thus, Google+ makes it easy to choose which Circle (or “news feed”) you want to view.  Moreover, the Android App lets you set feeds so you just have to swipe from side to side on the screen to switch between feeds, making it much easier to follow the people you want without seeing updates from everyone else.  Again, Facebook implemented something similar in recent weeks, and while their web interface works alright for this, the Android app just doesn’t have the same functionality.  Believe you me, when you have over 500 people on your Facebook friends list, it’s a daunting task to scroll through everyone’s stuff every morning…

So now that Google+ is open to everyone, I hope more people check it out.  Really, anyone that has a Google account for e-mail already has a Google+ account ready and waiting.  It’ll get more integrated over the coming year, anyway, especially with Picasa (being renamed to “Google Photos”) and Reader.  You may as well get used to it now!

Plus, you may find that you like it.  🙂

A Bit Conflicted

A few months ago, Amazon launched their own Appstore for Android phones, however it took me until a few weeks ago to actually get it.  Long story short, Android users have the Android Market pre-installed that allows them to download free and paid apps to their phones, and the Amazon Appstore is a separate entity that does the same thing: just through Amazon.  AT&T, in their infinite wisdom, denied users the ability to install apps that weren’t from the Android Market (including the Amazon Appstore), but they finally reversed course at the end of May and decided to start allowing such things.  However, it took over two months for the update to finally make through AT&T’s network to my phone that would allow the change.  I was in constant contact with AT&T and my phone’s manufacturer, HTC, trying to get this stupid update.  They even sent me a replacement phone, but no dice.

Finally, one day I checked, and I had the ability to install the Amazon Appstore.  All of the sudden.  Lovely.

Since that time, I have grabbed a few apps and checked out some others.  There are some apps that are exclusive to Amazon’s store, and others that are only available through Android Market.  The killer feature of the Amazon Appstore, however, is their “Free App of the Day,” where Amazon allows you to download one free (normally paid) app during that 24 hour period.  Sometimes it’s a productivity app (like, today, it’s “iCooking Barbeque,” which gives you recipes.  Normally, it’s $0.99).  This past Monday, however, the free app was a game called Guitar Hero 5, which normally sells for $8.

You can hopefully see why I was anxious to get this appstore.  Sure, there are frequently things I don’t want, but sometimes, something comes along that’s normally $8 that you can get for free.  You don’t even have to install it: you just have to “buy” it and Amazon will remember that you own it.  If anything, you can just get everything and never use any of it, and not even take up the virtual space on your phone.

I am, however, at odds with what Amazon is doing with their appstore.  Sure, as the consumer, I like free stuff.  It gets me to use their service and I end up purchasing more through them than I would otherwise.  This is Amazon’s strategy in doing this in the first place (and they are paving the way to release their own tablet at the end of this year, with full integration of their own appstore, effectively bypassing Google).

But what happens to the developers of these apps?  You know, the folks that actually made the app that Amazon is giving away for free for that day?

There are more than a few horror stories out there on the internet.  One company put their app up on the store and would get a few hits a day.  Amazon offered to host their app as a free app for the day, and they decided to go ahead and do it (so, yes, it’s voluntary).  Amazon tells the developer that “We have seen tremendous results from this promotion spot and believe it will bring you a great deal of positive reviews and traffic. It is an opportunity to build your brand especially in association with a brand like Amazon’s. The current price of this placement is at 0% rev share for that one day you are placed.So, basically, Amazon gives the app away, and neither Amazon nor the developer makes anything for it on that day.  And this is what happens:

This particular developer was making some money from a few sales a day, and then effectively gave away 100,000+ copies of their app.  Almost $55,000 of product, given away.  After that sales spike, the developer says the sales returned to the original levels.

And this developer is not alone, In another case, the developer ended up giving away 180,000 copies of their app, but they ran into a separate problem from the first example.  The Amazon Appstore apparently doesn’t discriminate between Android phones, so in some cases, a given application won’t be fully compatible with your phone…and Amazon may not tell you this.  If you download the app and it doesn’t work, you tend to review the application unfavorably.  This particular app didn’t work on a certain set of Motorola phones, which meant that anyone that downloaded it gave it a bad review.  All the sudden, these guys ended up with thousands of bad reviews for their application, on a product that shouldn’t have been on some phones in the first place.

So, am I happy I have the Amazon Appstore?  Absolutely.  However, I’m also conflicted about it.  I have heard folks on podcasts that watch the store for updates in order to hear about new products, and if a particular app comes up that they want, they wait until the next day and go ahead and purchase it in order to make sure some revenue makes it to the developer.  Amazon also offers a nifty “Test Drive” feature for many of the apps they host that allows you to actually try the app out for 30 min on your Windows PC before buying it.  Thus, you can try it out on the free day, and if you like it, choose to wait to buy it the next day.  Others will get the free app, and then if the developer makes another application, they will be sure to buy that one also (which is kinda the whole purpose of this model…you get a free app, decide you like it, and then go to the developer’s page and buy more apps from them.  Doesn’t always work, obviously…).

Just something important to keep in mind.  What’s free to us, as Consumers, isn’t free to the people that made it.  Someone is losing money when we are given things for free.


Who Needs Another Music Player?

Spotify just launched in the United States this week, yet another music player entering the digital ecosystem. This time, however, we get one that has been around for awhile in Europe, and quite popular.  In short, it’s an audio program that lets you stream millions of songs to your device, and has other functional features including Facebook integration to check out your friend’s playlists.  One of the key features is that it functions much like Apple’s iCloud will, scanning your personal MP3 library and “mirroring” it on their servers, allowing you to stream that same library to any computer without needing to carry the physical media around with you.  It will do the same thing with your mobile phone.  Spotify’s library is substantially larger than many of the others (Pandora has maybe 800,000 songs, while Spotify has 13 million available), and most reviewers simply think it provides the better service for the money.  You get about 20 hrs of listening time per month for free, $5/mo gets you no ads, and $10/mo gets you other features, including the ability to use the service on your mobile phone.

Digitaltrends has a good summary of the pros and cons of a few of the popular options.

Spotify is not alone in this venture, though it’s new to the U.S.  Grooveshark is another, alternative, web-based application with a mobile version, though I question its legality.  Like Spotify, it has a massive library, but it works a bit more like YouTube in that other users have uploaded music that you then stream to your computer or to your mobile device.  While Spotify has high-quality, licensed music, your experience is more “hit or miss” with Grooveshark, as some people may have uploaded high bitrate versions of music (i.e. good sounding) while others uploaded lower bitrate versions (i.e. very, very bad sounding).  Of course, Grooveshark is free, so most people don’t complain when the song selection is that good.  They also charge various amounts for their services above and beyond the base service, but it doesn’t sound like many people do.

Pandora is the main competitor that folks in the United States have at least heard of, if not used.  It’s much more of a radio system in that you select a station and then music will come up almost at random that you can then skip or “Thumbs Up” so that more music like it ends up in your station.  You have no real choice in what the next song played is, though, while you can make your own playlists in Spotify and Grooveshark.  Pandora also has a very nice mobile app and has been integrated into a wealth of home devices, including Bluray players.  Their only paid plan is $36/yr, removes all ads, and grants you higher sound quality.

For now, I’ll give Spotify a quick go-round, though I doubt I’ll get much use out of it.  The only computer in the house with good speakers attached is a Linux box, and as there is no native Linux client available, I can’t use it.  I will probably try their “preview release” for Linux – thankfully, Linux is more popular in Europe, so this company actually has an incentive to make a client.  Obviously, this is where its competitors, Grooveshark, Pandora, Google Music and Amazon MP3 shine, as they are almost completely multi-platform.

That said, the Spotify client under Windows is silky smooth, unlike iTunes.  It’s nice to see iTunes finally getting some viable competition (and no, Windows Media Player is not “competition”…).  It navigates similarly to iTunes, so if you’re familiar with its style of getting around your library and making playlists, you should feel right at home.

In the end, I’m glad there are plenty of options out there for your digital music needs.  Gone are the days where you would walk down to the record store and thumb through various discs until you found something interesting, then bought it for $20.  Now you can get your music in the comfort of your own home, or on-the-go, and it’s great that there are countless ways to do it effectively.

And legally.

Tough Choice

There have been various announcements over the past few months that got me excited about both options.  They both have some great benefits and the implementations are very functional, if not even downright awesome.  To some degree, it isn’t really a “tough choice” at all, as I already know which option I’m going to go with.

Of course, I’m talking about Google Music vs Amazon Cloud Player.

To be fair, as of this writing, I haven’t actually tried the Google Music Beta, though I signed up for an invite as soon as I found out that this thing exists at all.  I’ve been using the Amazon Cloud Player, though, and like it quite a bit.

I guess I should describe the pros and cons.  The Amazon Cloud Player was launched in late March, providing users with 5 GB of free storage space for their files.  MP3s, documents, pictures, videos, etc.  Any MP3s stored on this virtual drive, however, can be streamed over the internet through your web browser or smart phone (i.e. Android and iOS),  through what they call the Cloud Player.  If you buy any digital album from Amazon MP3, then your 5 GB of storage is increased to 20 GB – you can purchase additional space thereafter.  The service has worked well, from my perspective, and it’s nice to be able to pull up any of my albums and play them from practically anywhere, especially as I’m not carrying my laptop around with me 24/7 like I used to.

Amazon kinda shocked the world when they released this, however.  It was long expected that Apple or Google would go there first, but they were dealing with the legal rights to stream music over the internet.  The question, from a legal standpoint, is whether it is legal to purchase music, upload it to a different location, and then stream it like a radio station.  Does that violate the license that you agree to when you purchase an MP3?  No clear answer was given, so Google and Apple were trying to get things finalized before going ahead with their respective plans.

Amazon basically just said “oh well” and did it anyway.  And so far, to my knowledge, no one has sued them.

Therefore, it was expected that Google would make an announcement during their now annual I/O developer’s conference.  And as expected, Google announced their long-awaited solution: Google Music.  Since Amazon took the lead, they had to come forward with something to show their burgeoning community.  And show they did.

The Google Music Beta, rolling out piecemeal by invitation only (much like Gmail did), allows you to upload 20,000 songs to their cloud service, and then you can stream it to your Android devices or the web.  In that way, it’s very similar to the Amazon Cloud Player.  The catch is that Google Music should be capable of providing better sound quality, even over a relatively slow 3G wireless connection.  Right now, however, you cannot actually purchase music through the Google Music interface like you can from the Amazon system.  Therefore, for digital music, you still need Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

The kicker for me, however, is offline play.

With Google Music, you can “pin” a song, album, or playlist that will synchronize that music on your various devices.  It will automatically synchronize your “recently played” music, as well.  So, for example, if I want to “pin” Under The Table And Dreaming (and I will…), Google Music will download the album to my phone, allowing me to play that music even when my phone isn’t on an internet connection.  And this is extremely important for people like us that don’t have unlimited data plans, or that tend to drive long distances through areas that don’t have the best cellular coverage.  I can rely on streaming, but I don’t have to.

With a single, software-based approach, Google provided me with a good reason to abandon my iPod Nano.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my iPod.  The thing is light, gets good battery life, and is tiny.  Or “nano,” if you will.  But, I have to physically connect it to my laptop to transfer podcasts and music.  This isn’t that huge of a deal breaker for me, to tell you the truth, but I’ve got its cute little 8 GB hard drive maxed out, so I’m constantly selecting which podcasts need to go on the hard drive and when.  And sometimes, new editions of my podcasts are released while I’m at work, preventing me from being able to actually add them to my iPod, because my iPod is only linked with my laptop.

Now, using my phone, I can stream all of my music (~15 GB?) over the internet, and save the ones I want on my phone’s mini-SD card.  Moreover, as my phone has WiFi on it and a wealth of apps, I can access most if not all of those podcasts without having to download them to whatever device I’m using.

So in the end, I think I’ll be using the Google Music offering.  At least, once I get an invite.  For the time-being, I’ll settle for the Amazon Cloud Player.  It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon does to compete here, as Apple will be announcing their own “iCloud” service sometime in the relatively near future, and if Amazon wants to compete, they’ll have to do some drastic things.  iCloud will be built into every iOS device, and Google Music will be built into every Android device.  And the legal drama certainly isn’t over, as the record labels are unhappy with Google’s plan, and likely won’t be all that happy with Apple’s, either.

Where does Amazon go?

A View From The Top

While I was sitting at my parents house over Easter talking with my Dad, it suddenly dawned on me that Linux had finally gained supremacy over Windows and Apple, something that I never thought I’d see.  However, it wasn’t able to pull off the feat using a traditional PC: instead, it used mobile devices via Android OS.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a new idea.  The thought has been broadcast across the interwebs over the past few years, though only recently did Android actually surpass iOS in adoption across the phone and tablet markets.  Seeing the range of new products coming out on the horizon, this trend will only continue upwards as multiple companies release products using the Android OS as the backbone for their software.

What some forget, however, is that the core of Android is, in fact, the Linux kernel.  My HTC Inspire 4G, running Android 2.2.1, is using Linux kernel 2.6.32.  My Linux box at home runs Linux kernel 2.6.35, a slightly newer version.  I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of differences in kernels (nor do I care…), but let’s just say that there has been some disagreement between Google and the maintainers of the Linux kernel as to whether Android OS technically counts as “Linux,” though I believe most would say that it absolutely does.

I guess I just find it fascinating that this “Little Operating System That Could” finally found an audience and most people don’t even know it.  Dad introduced me to computers when DOS and Windows 3.1 were king.  However, once our family started having multiple computers, he toyed with other operating systems, including OS/2 Warp and Red Hat Linux 5.2.  While he purchased a copy of OS/2, he frequently picked up copies of Linux from the Public Library, installing different flavors of Linux for free on his system(s).  As I was curious about these different systems, I learned more about it and once I went to college, grabbed an old Gateway 2000 computer and put Red Hat 6.1 on it, followed by various other iterations of Linux.  Over the past decade, it’s been my desktop operating system of choice, always getting better and better.

But few people know how good Linux has gotten.  It’s an excellent operating system, as it has been for years.  Sure, it still doesn’t run Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or a multitude of Windows- or Mac-only video games, but it does do one thing remarkably well:


And if you want to make a device that is constantly connected to the internet, and don’t want to pay high development costs or licensing fees to Microsoft or Apple, which operating system makes the most sense for you to use?


As we all move further toward cloud-based computing, and companies like Google keep focusing on Linux as their technology of choice (as it’s behind Android OS and Chrome OS, which will power netbooks and tablets beginning this year), further adoption of Linux will take place in populations that never thought they’d ever use it.  Part of this is because the Linux kernel has always had a remarkable “efficiency” to it that Windows has never been able to re-create.  You always needed newer hardware to run the most modern Windows systems, while you could run a modern Linux system on practically nothing.  Mobile phones, especially, use relatively slow processors when compared to the quad-core monstrosities powering many desktops today.  Heck, it was just revealed that an early version of Windows 8 will be the first one to run on an ARM processor, the technology powering practically every mobile phone sold today.  Up until now, Windows hasn’t even been capable of running on anything like that, unless it’s the feature-poor Windows CE.  Windows will ultimately make it to tablets, but not before Android and iOS have a massive foot-hold on the market, as they already do on phones.

It’s just fascinating to consider how far Linux has come and what ended up actually pushing it “over the top.”  We all thought Dell offering Linux on laptops would do it, or the multitude of governments, schools and companies across the world that switched from Windows (or Unix) to Linux would do it.

It was the telephone all along.