A great history of hubris

One of my favorite words is hubris, overweening pride, from Greek mythology. Tristan Louis has recently written an interesting history of Netscape and draws potential parallels to Google. It is well worth reading.

I will throw in my own bit of Netscape hubris. Back in 1998, when its world domination was in decline, Marshall Rose and I were writing our book on Internet email and we went to Netscape to talk to their email client product manager. He started off our session by asking us if we were familiar with the POP and SMTP protocols. Marshall and I just looked at each other and smiled: little did this clueless product manager know that Marshall’s name was on top of all those RFCs. That is hubris, and why Netscape eventually went nowhere in the email world. Of course, getting absorbed by AOL and whipped by Microsoft also helped move things along.

Review of Star Office Migration tools

If you want to kick the Microsoft Office habit and run Sun’s Star Office, you will need help when it comes to migrating all those valuable archived documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Sun of course has thought of this and has a set of tools to help migrate the documents and macros. Star can read most MS Office formats, but still there are conversion issues.Read my review posted to Newsforge/OSTG here.

IM Interoperability Status Report

Today, the instant messenger world is about where the email world was in the early 1990s. For those of you not around then, MCIMail became one of the first private email companies to connect to the Internet and offer the means to bridge incompatible systems. Then the flood started, and eventually the TCP/IP and POP worlds became the default and no one cared about proprietary systems.

Now Vint Cerf is with Google, and MCIMail (his former home and pet project) is largely forgotten. With the advent of Jabber-based XMPP messaging systems (here is a complete list), and with the work of Apple, IBM, and others, we are now seeing software that can connect multiple IM systems, although it still is pretty crude. The issue is more than just the protocol, you need federated identity between disparate systems to make this all work.

I looked at five products that are available on Windows clients (Google Talk, Gizmo Project, AIM, Skype and Trillian Pro), along with Apple’s iChat. Three of the Windows products are also available on other platforms. All do basic chat or text messages from person to person. Some offer audio and video conferencing features, whereby you can connect multiple people on the same line. Two offer the built-in ability to record your text chats and also record your audio conversations, which are useful for assembling podcasts. And two also offer voicemail systems, so when you are away from your computer you can still receive audio messages.

Just as we were with email in the early 1990s, there are three commercial IM systems that don’t really connect with each other: AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Then Trillian came along a few years ago and produced a single client that allowed you to chat with all three, along with ICQ. Then came Skype, which set things back as its own communications island, but moved chat into a features war with lots of enhancements, including voice conferencing and dial in/dial out features. And now we have all the jabbering Jabber clients, including Gizmo Project, which takes most of Skype’s features a step further but is notably missing file transfer.

Eventually, I will add more to this grid, but this should whet your appetite for what you can do. You can find the page here on my site

Finding New Connections When Wi-Fi Is Not Enough

It’s wireless week here at Web Informant. My article in the New York Times today on new directions for WiFi was a fun article to report and work on, and also fun to get something into my favorite newspaper. One of the interviewees was with Rick MacKinnon, head of the Austin City Wireless project. He told me about an unique phenomena called “drive by WiFi” that has transformed one of the downtown parks that offers free wireless.

He’s seen usage at this particular hotspot rise, since he takes the time to review his usage stats. But when he went to the park he didn’t see anything different and there didn’t seem to be any large population of laptop-totting visitors around. Then he took another look, and figured it out. Given that Texas is usually hot and humid, the people with laptops are often in air-conditioned cars, so they can check their email and surf the Web in comfort. Only in Texas.

I have written before about WiFi as urbane renewal. In New York, having wireless has been one of the many things that has transformed Bryant Park from a drug den into a tremendous urban space, and I’ve noticed this in other cities as well.

The Times piece talks about how the success of WiFi has sown the seeds of its potential demise with new wireless technologies such as Zigbee, Cable-Free USB, and others that can extend its range and functionality.

Also worth reading this week, Glenn Fleishman talks about how wireless is also transforming where you’ll get your Internet access from, and how cable, phone, and broadcast TV providers are changing how they get Internet dial tone to you.

For those of you that want to know what it is like to live in LA

I used to recommend Steve Martin’s “LA Story” as an accurate picture of what life in LA-LA land was all about: talking freeway signs, the excruciating after-dinner coffee-ordering process, driving 20 feet to visit your neighbor, and “some of these houses are even 20 years old” remark.

But now we have Lazy Monday. For the rest of you that wonder what we all do around here when we are not writing our screenplays, wonder no more. A very funny take. And while I am not usually a fan of the music, it just works. I guess a trip to the local pottery store is in order.

Beware of Gizmo Project

Yes, those emails from Gizmo Project were generated by me, but unintentionally. If you are willing to try out this new IM/VOIP software, download the client and give it a whirl. And if you are tempted to run the “Contacts Assistant” realize that it will also scan your address book and send off a batch of emails to your friends and associates asking them to join up.

I am not sure this is kosher, and would suggest that the Linspire folks add a disclaimer or a warning to this assitant before it goes and does the deed.

Three great video resources

Tristan Louis has done a nice job comparing the various video capabilities of Yahoo, MSN, etc. portal services. He reviews what kinds of content is available, what the downloads cost, and what works with what kinds of players. As he says, “If only Apple, Microsoft, and possibly Google, could sit down and agree on a standard way to handle [DRM], it would make everyone’s life easier.” Amen!

While you are looking at this, you might also want to take a gander at Jerrod Hefford’s iLounge guide to iPod video formats and resolutions. He also has tutorials on how to get from a DVD or other video source to your video iPod for Mac users. And here is one for Windows’s usersThis stuff is still far too hard for civilians.

How to really create cool software

I just finished watching Aardvark’d, a short movie by Lerone Wilson about four summer interns creating a cool software app. The interns were gathered in the NYC offices of Fog Creek software last summer by CEO Joel Spolsky, and given the task to build the application from scratch, create the marketing materials, pitch the product at a trade show, and of course, ship the bits before they headed back to school. The movie documents the entire experience and is well worth watching.

I have to tell you up front that I am not a big fan of reality TV and think the whole Trump thing is over-rated. The movie turns this entirely around: there are no scripted performances, the bad hair is on the geeks and is real, not some ill-fitting rug. The geeks are as real as they get. Watching it with a fellow geek, we were both transported back to our college days and enjoyed the video.

You see the four geeks-in-training being mentored by Spolsky and his staff and making mistakes and having fun, or at least fun by geek standards. More importantly, you see them learning how to build a commercial product.

The scene where the interns try to figure out whether they can safely jump to a nearby building are hilarious. And I loved the office set up: each workstation is a minimalist Ikea desk combined with Aeron chair and dual-screen LCD monitors. You get to see the team camaraderie form over the summer, and see first hand how they learn how to create a product and work through the many issues to get ready to ship.

The movie is both poignant and amusing, and often at the same time. If you ever wondered how software is created, wonder no more. And if you want a benchmark to compare how your hi-tech company operates vs. someone who knows what they are doing and doing it well, then this flick is for you. You can order a copy here.

Don’t buy a Treo 700w

You would think Palm’s first phone that uses Windows and EVDO would be a big deal. Yes, you read that right — Palm has joined the Borg. Their latest SmartPhone is packed with a ton of features, but one thing missing is the Palm OS. I think it is mostly a bad decision.

Overall, the Treo isn’t as cool as the Sidekick, doesn’t do iTunes like the Rokr, and isn’t as addicting as a CrackBerry, although just about as big and with an even smaller micro-QWERTY keyboard. Call it a phone designed by committee, and subject to many compromises.

It sits squarely in the middle of the Rokr-kick-berry axes. It has the cumbersome duo of Windows Pocket Media and Microsoft Synch (rather than the elegant iTunes) to manage your music, should you have enough room to store any number of tunes to your phone, for example. The first thing you’ll want to do is boost its internal storage with a SD card.

The synch program is annoying in what it does: you can view the filesystem on the phone, sort of. You can move programs and data back and forth from phone to PC and from phone main memory to phone SD card — if you can find where Windows puts things. This can make a Unix admin grin with sympathy. And while you can synch via Bluetooth rather than the supplied USB cable, I couldn’t get it to work with my HP dv5000z notebook. That USB cable is good for charging the phone, but you have to turn the phone feature off (what Palm calls “flight mode” — meaning that you can’t get calls).

Next, the Treo doesn’t do email as well as the Berries: if you want to synch up with a POP mailbox on the Internet, you’ll need to download some software and spend some time messing around with the configuration. On the other hand, if the DOJ shutters RIM next month, Treo does have a viable solution. In the device’s defense, it did allow me to grab my email from my IMAP server without doing much more than entering the account information. And you can grab emails from multiple accounts, something the Blackberry doesn’t do.

Finally, the range of communications applications isn’t as rich as with the Sidekick: there is no AOL IM and the support for SMS is a bit cumbersome. There is just their stripped down Windows counterparts including Explorer for the Web, Pocket Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and Pocket MSN Messenger. If you want to spend a lot of time scrolling down to view your documents, then you’ll like this. Otherwise, it will drive you crazy.

For a $400 fancy phone ($500 minus $100 rebate), I would have liked a few more things. For example, the ability to use it as my EVDO broadband connection for my laptop (what Palm calls Dial up networking via USB): it hogs the broadband for its own pocket apps, although Verizon might add this feature eventually. In the meantime, buy PDA.net and you can get around this limitation.

Another thing missing is the ability to stream my music to my Bluetooth headset: nope, that’s just for the voice calls. And it would be nice to have a little bit more internal memory, or a way to manage it better: when I tried to download all 6000-some contacts into it, it rightly complained. The only way I could clear them out was to delete them over on the PC side, and then synch up.