Yesterday evening SwiftKey released a major update that adds new functionality giving more control of the keyboard layout to the user.  This functionality had been in beta for a little while which I decided not to join (the first beta run by them that I haven’t joined since the first one way back in 2010) because the new functionality is not something I would use.  I assumed that the addition of this new functionality would have no impact on my life.  I was wrong.

SwiftKey got a number of things wrong with this update because their basic assumptions were wrong.

  • They assumed that everyone changed the settings in the keyboard by using the shortcut on the keyboard and not via the app or the Android settings – wrong.
  • They assumed that everyone knew about the shortcut on the keyboard – wrong.
  • They assumed people would be OK to find that if they had modified the layout – within the constraints of what had been allowed in the previous version – that it would be OK to return some settings to default – wrong.

First of all I have never changed the layout of my keyboard since I set it up.  I have had no desire to and I can’t really understand why anyone would want to – a variable layout on a keyboard strikes me, personally, as very counter productive.  The few times I have wanted to tweak a setting (usually it’s the duration of the long press, to update the language packs, or to set up a new device) I have entered either through the app or the Android input settings – never through a keyboard shortcut that I didn’t even realize existed.  This is all from my own, personal, experience using mobile input devices including the iOS keyboard, the built in keyboards on multiple Android devices, Swype, SwiftKey and others.

SwiftKey with this one change ruined my user experience to the point where I will be looking at alternate keyboard solutions for both my devices.  And this could have been avoided simply by leaving access to the layout settings where they had been while adding access to the new feature.  It wouldn’t have required a lot more work and they would end up with fewer frustrated customers. What frustrated me even more was that I had to hunt through the FAQs on their site since this feature is not mentioned on the landing page.

SwiftKey has lost a customer who, up until now, was extremely happy and has often recommended their app.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m not the only person dissatisfied with this update who goes to look for a new solution.  And all because of a few invalid assumptions.

My Must Have Android Apps

Posted: June 17, 2013 in General

I spent my morning commute (I was on a bus so don’t worry) having a Twitter conversation about the best Android keyboard out there.  It all started when a friend and fellow Android user let me know that she had no clue about swiping keyboards.  That gave me the impetus to put together this little list of the apps that I install on all of my Android devices (tablet and phone) and that I consider the must haves to make it through the day.

I’m going to leave apps like Facebook and Facebook messenger off the list since if you use Facebook you will have them as there are no replacement apps for either.  Bear in mind that this is my personal list and lots of other people will put down different apps in each category – these are just mine.

1. SwiftKey
This is, in my opinion, the best keyboard around for Android hands down. Even before they implemented Flow (the swiping mechanism) it had the best predictions and made typing and writing mails, tweets and status updates doable on the phone. With Flow it makes them easy.

2. Evernote
Evernote is a wonderful app that lets you sync your notes across all platforms. It has apps for Mac, PC, Android, iOS, as well as a web app. This is what makes my tablet a productivity tool by letting me take it (and not the laptop) to meetings so I can take notes that I can continue to work on on the computer when I get back to my desk.  I use it to transfer textual information from one device to the other all the time.

3. APP Lock
If you have kids this is a must have. This app allows you to put a pin code on any app you have. This is the app that lets me feel safe giving my kids my phone or tablet to play with since I know they won’t be able to change settings, update statuses, send e-mails or do other things that I might not want them to do.  It’s easy to turn on and off so you don’t need to pin lock your e-mail app all the time – just turn it on right before you hand it to the kids.

4. Plume
In my opinion this is the best Twitter client available on Android. It just works and it works well. Good UI and meets all of my needs.

5. Waze
I need to go places. Sometimes I need to go places I’ve never been before and sometimes I’m worried about traffic.  In either case Waze will get me there the best way possible.

6. Drisk
Drisk is a game based on the board game Risk. The way I have it set up it takes me about 5 minutes to play a game and is perfect for when I just have a few minutes and want to kill some time. With a variety of maps to choose from as well as a multi-player option this is a game I play almost every day.

Back in the good old days (before the internet…) people used to find friends in their neighborhood or at their kids’ schools or at the office. If this circle of friends felt too limited they’d join social clubs, sports leagues, book clubs or the like.  In the old days (for example, when my parents were growing up) neighborhoods tended to be a lot more homogeneous.  My father grew up in a neighborhood with dozens of relatives in walking distance – some even in the same building.   He grew up in a neighborhood that was predominantly immigrants from Europe (lots of Jews and lots of Italians) where finding common ground to make relationships wasn’t too hard.

Fast forward to today.  We live in heterogeneous areas where you can find people of all backgrounds with few commonalities that tie a community together.  We still look for friends in our neighborhoods, our schools and our jobs but finding them seems to be harder without these common ties.

Enter the internet.  Enter Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and all of the other ways we communicate online.  Some help us link together people we knew but drifted apart from – either physically or otherwise – while others help us find a community where we feel we belong.  We still look for the same things in our friends – we look for common interests, we look for people who will have our backs, we look for people we can relate to.  None of the things that we look for in a friend has changed.  What has changed is where we look for them.

About a week ago I went to a gathering of people who met through the internet – a tweetup.  Some of the people knew each other before connecting (or reconnecting) online while others had met online and developed a relationship – in some cases spanning months or years – and this would be the first time that they met.  For a number of us this was the first time we’d seen beyond the avatar or the profile pic and met the person with no Photoshop or Instagram involved.  Every time I ran into someone at the tweetup who I only recognized by handle it was a chance for me to see (and hug or shake hands with) an old friend for the first time.

One of the people I follow on Twitter, Hillel Fuld, and who’s opinion I generally respect posted a piece on his blog saying that he thinks the Nexus 7 ad showing a father and son camping is misleading.

He says that this ad is misleading because it shows some use of internet connectivity in nature while using a WiFi only tablet.  Needless to say this provoked a discussion of the issue and a close examination of the video.

The only place that I saw any actions that required connectivity was towards the end when they were using Google Earth.  At that point in the video you can also clearly see on the screen that the tablet is connected to WiFi.  The use of WiFi takes place within the tent which, if you watched to the end of the video you noted, is pitched in the backyard.  I don’t know about you but my WiFi signal is strong enough to reach me 15 meters (~50 feet) away from my house.  I know this because I have a reasonable signal in the parking lot of my building even farther away from my house than that.  What’s more, I can have a WiFi signal available to my tablet any time – I just need to turn on the hot spot that’s in my phone and I’m set.

I think Google went to a lot of work to make a very nice, positive ad showing one way that you and your family could enjoy this tablet.  I don’t think that the ad is in any way misleading because on the one hand, the only use of connectivity takes place a distance from the house where it is reasonable to assume that WiFi would be available and, on the other, someone with a Nexus 7 will also likely have a phone that has hot spotting available as an option.

What do you think, misleading or not?

An open letter to Leo Laporte

Posted: July 5, 2012 in General

Dear Leo –

I was listening to Mac Break Weekly this morning on my commute and truly enjoyed your conversation about software patents and Apple’s behaviour in regards to it.  I personally feel that Apple’s pursuit of market share via litigation is reprehensible.  With that, software patents are necessary.  As a software developer I know that I work very hard in designing and implementing the algorithms I use to make the programs I write do what they need to do.  The problem with the current system is that the concept rather than the algorithm is being patented.
If you think about it, AltaVista (or maybe Lycos was the first) could have patented a “system of indexing the contents of a computer network” and used that patent to prevent Google from even existing.  Apple is trying to control the concept of unified search and not the algorithms that they use.  If Apple could show that the algorithms and methods used by Google copy Siri (which they obviously cannot), they would have a legitimate case for a lawsuit.  
I think Apple knows that it’s tossing money out the door in many of these lawsuits but in keeping competing products out of the market they are using litigation rather than innovation to reacquire market share that they lost.  I look at the announcements that Apple made during WWDC regarding iOS6 and I see some nice features – none of which are especially new to the world – but nothing ground breaking, revolutionary or even especially innovative.  I have used iOS products since I bought the first generation iPod Touch and Android phones since the Nexus One.  I have enough experience with both to be able to say that Apple is now in the same position (software wise) that Microsoft had been when it released Windows 98 – nice evolutionary jumps but nothing special.  I would love to see Apple spend the time and energy more in innovation and less in litigation.
Yours truly,

Dan Shernicoff

It’s that time of year again.  Apple’s WWDC was just 2 weeks ago and Google’s I/O conference is starting in less than 24 hours.  From the way these 2 tech behemoths manage their main interaction with the swarms of people who make their products what they are we can get a much better insight into how they work, how they’re and how they think than by examining anything else.

Everyone knows Steve Jobs was a control freak, there is no news in that.  Steve Jobs took secrecy and attention to detail to a level rarely seen outside of Fort Meade or CERN.  This blend of secrecy, care of the minutiae and technical knowhow are what made Apple the company it is today.  Apple designs great products that are extremely well integrated at all levels.  I sit here writing this on my MacBook Pro that I got because I wanted a computer that would give me the design aesthetic of Apple and the flexibility to do almost anything on it.  There is no application that I can think of that I can’t run here if I want to.  This juxtaposition of open – anyone can write or install what they want including Windows and Linux – and closed – Apple is the only one that makes this hardware – is what makes this a great computer.

In the translation to the mobile world that wonderfully balanced juxtaposition got lost in the scuffle.  I can’t put anything I want on an iPhone – I can only run applications that Apple has approved, and the approval process can be capricious and petty – without hacking the phone.  Same for the iPod Touch and iPad.  This step towards a more closed system has been evident for years – some might say since the argument that Jobs and Woz had as to how many expansion slots would be in the Apple II.  It grew more evident as Apple began the slow withdrawal from all events that they didn’t organize – CES, MacWorld Expo, and Computex to name a few.  While just a few years ago it would have been possible to see Apple booths and hear Apple keynotes at these conventions, now you only hear them at WWDC.

WWDC is as close to a closed event as you can have for something that is nominally open to the public.  Tickets for this year’s event sold out in less than 1 hour.  Press entrance is only for the keynote address and even then is invitation only.  The lucky few developers who managed to score tickets are required to sign NDAs – the only information that leaves WWDC is the keynote.  And the keynote leaves tape-delayed.  Yes you can see the keynote online now, but Apple did not live stream it.  Bloggers at the event did try to live blog it – and many did an admirable job – but seeing the retina display MacBook Pro was limited to those in attendance for a while.

Google started with the basic idea that an index of websites – a phonebook like structure – was not the right way to go.  Websites were changing and new ones started too fast for this to be a practical idea, yet this was how the top search engines were working at the time.  After becoming one of the most popular search engines around Google figured out that it’s business wasn’t search – it was advertising.  Google’s entire business plan can be summed up as “the more people use the internet, the more money we’ll make.”  With this in mind Google gave its employees “20% time”, time to work on whatever itch they had.

This served 2 practical purposes.   First, it let those developers scratch those itches and be happier.  Second, great programs come about by people – software engineers – scratching their own itch and discovering that lots of other people had them.  Some of the products that we use on a daily basis like GMail and Google Maps came out of this 20% time.  Google felt that the more open everything was, the more everyone could do what they wanted, the more people would use the internet and, as a result, the more ads Google would sell.

And then came Android.  Android gave Google a way to give people ads in their pockets.  It gave Google more access to data about the users because it came in from the most personal computer we use – our phones.  Matching this with the results that Google saw from their 20% time and a genuine belief in the need for open and strong standards in technology, Google left Android as an open source product.  They let anyone develop for it taking only a nominal fee for the right to sell it in their store.  Google makes its presence felt at almost every conference they can get to – from CES to Mobile World Congress to their own I/O conference.

Google I/O is truly a conference for developers.  While it sold out quickly – in about 20 minutes – even those not lucky enough to grab a ticket can still see what’s going on through live streaming of many of the conference sessions as well as the keynote.  They even go beyond that in promoting Google I/O Extended events around the world.  Google I/O Extended events are, essentially, events where developers can go and meet up and watch the live streaming of the keynotes and other sessions and figure out how they apply to them.  NDAs from Google at a conference, not going to happen.

From the way that Apple and Google handle events and public relations we can see the real differences between the two.  Apple promoting a closed, secretive system where only the lucky few get the head’s up on what’s coming down the pipe and Google promoting open standards and systems where everyone is involved in the process.  I’m not necessarily saying that one is better than the other.  I’m definitely not saying there is no middle ground.  If you want middle ground, look at Microsoft – they license their software while keeping a (relatively) consistent experience for the user on a variety of different hardware platforms.  Take a good luck at how the companies that you do business with handle their interactions with the people who make their products possible and you decide which you like more.

Nobody talks of “fragmentation” in the windows world. No one talks about “fragmentation” in the Mac world. Yet for some reason no one talking about mobile neglects to talk about “fragmentation” in Android.

Yes there are multiple versions of the OS out there and running on handsets, so what? There are still people – albeit a very small fraction of total users – running Windows 98 or ME. There are still people that run Tiger or Panther or even older versions of MacOS, so what? They run this because that’s what works on the hardware that they have or they need an app that won’t work on a more modern version or because they just don’t want to upgrade.

Developers programming for a desktop (and by desktop I mean, non-mobile) environment are used to dealing with multiple screen resolutions, different OS versions and all the other issues that can arise because of the choices that users make. People who develop for Linux have even more issues – there are so many variations of Linux out there that there are bound to be issues because you wrote and tested your application on Ubuntu but not on Red Hat. This is a part of the development world.

Just because Apple in its infinite wisdom has decided to create a closed system in the mobile space where only certain screen resolutions are supported and everything is very neat and tidy doesn’t mean that this is the best thing for users – or for developers. The truth of the matter is that people like being able to choose what’s best for them. The Apple system is fine – it gives a good uniform user experience and makes life a little bit easier for developers because they know exactly what they are going to be seeing on the handset. With that, it’s not right for everyone.

Android – with all of its issues – gives the user the choice of how s/he wants the phone to look and behave. The control of exactly what OS version is running. The choice of a bigger screen or a higher resolution. Yes developers have to work a little bit harder to take these things into account and yes this can lead to having an app that doesn’t work on one phone or another. Most developers, when they run into a phone specific issue go out and fix them – and usually pretty quickly.

Android is not a fragmented system. Nor is MacOS, Windows or Linux. each offers different options and capabilities to users and developers. Enough already with the F-word. Start calling it what it is – choice for developers. Choice for handset manufacturers. Most importantly, it’s choice for users.

Kitchen Equipment You Must Have

Posted: February 3, 2012 in Food

I’ve given a bunch of recipes on here – and I will give out more – but no matter how good the recipes you have are, if you don’t have the equipment, you’re not going to be able to make them.  Here is a list – and I’m sure other people will have things that they say they can’t live without – of things I think every kitchen should have.

  • Knives – This is something of a no-brainer, but every kitchen needs to have good knives.  A good knife is one that is comfortable in your hands – I can tell you what knives I like, but you have to hold them and feel them for yourself.  At a very minimum you need a good chef’s knife, a good serrated blade for bread and cakes, and a tournet knife.  99% of the time I don’t use any knife beyond those – including when I was in a professional kitchen environment.
  • Cutting boards – You should have a few – at least one a “show” cutting board that you can bring to the table for carving meat or cutting bread.  Cutting boards should be wood or plastic – never glass.  Glass cutting boards will kill your knives.
  • Spatulas – for both spreading and flipping.  I have bamboo, plastic and metal for flipping and plastic and silicon for spreading.  When it comes to flipping – or anything else – and non-stick pans: DON’T USE METAL!  Metal will scratch the coating and you’ll end up with a pan you paid a lot of money for that no longer has it’s non-stickiness.
  • Pots and pans – Make sure you have different sizes – if you want to heat up enough of the spaghetti sauce that you made the other day for dinner tonight you want to use a small sauce pan, but if you want to make a soup you’re going need a bigger pot.  I like cast aluminum frying pans – they distribute the heat well and aren’t as heavy as cast iron and they have teflon or other non-stick coating on them.
  • Blender stick – These are amazing.  This is the primary electrical appliance I use in the kitchen.  Mine can work as a blender, an electric whisk, or a mini-chopper.  For most day to day use, this is it.

Now I could go and give you the big list of things that I have in my kitchen like my big mixer that I use when I make breads and cakes, or my food processor (that mostly makes bread-crumbs), but the list above represents most of my everyday tools.  There are lots of things that I take out once a month (or not even as much) like a mortar and pestle, a mandolin, or a coffee grinder (for grinding spices) that I have – but before you buy something and spend a lot of money on it (and some of thee things can be really expensive) think how often you’re going to use it.  And if you know someone that wants to buy a used bread maker, let me know.

The 5 days from January 27th to February 1st are a time of great sadness for anyone who has interest in space travel.  During this 5 day span 3 tragedies occurred taking the lives of 17 NASA astronauts over the course of 36 years.  While trips into space have become reasonably common place with launches to the international space station being done by governments and various commercial ventures sending anyone with the money into orbit, it is important to take a breath and reflect on the pioneers of space travel.

Apollo 1 Mission Patch

Apollo 1 Mission Patch

Apollo 1 was scheduled to be the first manned Apollo mission, kicking off the program that would land men on the moon.  On January 27th, during a routine launch pad test a fire broke out in the cabin of the Apollo module killing all 3 crew members Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.  These men were working towards the goal, given by President Kennedy, to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Space Shuttle Challenger during its first landing

Space Shuttle Challenger

On January 28 1986, 73 seconds after taking off on its tenth mission, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Florida killing all 7 astronauts aboard.  Challenger was the second shuttle built and this mission was special in that it included among it’s astronauts Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire school teacher who had been selected as part of the “Teacher In Space” program to be able to talk to school children and educate them during orbit.  As a direct result of this, the launch of Challenger was scheduled to be at a time when schools would be in session across the country as a way to kick off the discussion.  The other astronauts killed in the explosion were Mission Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka and Ronald E. McNair, and Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis.  For my parents’ generation of Americans, everyone remembers where they were when they heard about JFK being shot.  For my generation we remember where we were when we heard about the Challenger explosion.

The Crew of Columbia's Final Mission

The Crew of Columbia's Final Mission

On February 1st 2003, after almost 16 days in orbit, the space shuttle Columbia exploded during re-entry.  Columbia was the first mission capable space shuttle (Enterprise had preceded it but never actually flew any missions – Enterprise was used for glide tests only) and had flown 27 missions prior to STS-107.  Among the 7 astronauts killed was Colonel Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force who was the first Israeli in space.  The other astronauts killed in the explosion were Mission Commander Colonel Rick D. Husband, Pilot Commander William C. McCool, Payload Commander Lt. Colonel Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, Captain David M. Brown, and Captain Laurel Clark.

When we think back on the advances in space travel made over the past 55 years since the launch of Sputnik, we tend to think of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.  We think of the majesty of launches of the old Saturn rockets and of the space shuttle.  And that’s OK.  We need to remember the successes. But every so often, we need to take a minute and reflect on the sacrifices made to get there.

A Parent’s Job

Posted: January 30, 2012 in Family
Tags: , , , ,

I look around at what I see in my kids’ kindergarten and day care and am shocked.  I see 5 year olds who don’t know how to say goodbye to their parents.  I see parents carrying their children’s backpacks – backpacks which have, for the most part, a lunch box, a bottle of water, a change of clothes and, maybe some drawings the kids made.  I talk to the parents who tell me that they pick out the clothes that their children wear – this includes at the kindergarten which has a dress code.

I was taught that our job as parents is to raise our children to be able to take their place in the world.  To have responsibility and accountability.  To be able to bear the burdens of a life which isn’t always easy.  It’s not enough to make sure that they know how to read, write and cypher.  It’s not enough to make sure that they eat right (which many parents I see don’t because their children think – like the US Congress – that pizza is a vegetable.)  We have to let our children make decisions.  We must let them make mistakes.  We have the obligation to teach them what they know.

The shopping list

The shopping list

My son’s kindergarten teacher gave them a homework assignment to make a model ofNoah’s Ark.  My wife sat with him and worked with him and helped him to make it.  She gave the outline of the design and, for the most part, he put it together.  When we brought it in to the kindergarten it was relatively obvious that we might have been the only family where the child actually did the work.  Doing our children’s homework for them is doing them a disservice.  They – and we – learn by doing, not by watching.  When we go to the supermarket, my son helps me pick out vegetables.  Today, my wife wrote out a shopping list with 5 items on it for him to buy.  When I cook, he helps me get what I need, he helps me mix the ingredients, he puts the cookie dough on the baking tray.

Teach your children to do things by themselves.  Make them feel that they don’t need us for every decision that they make.  Get them ready to take their place in the world.  And always remember, our job is not to keep our children from falling down.  Our job is to help them get back on their feet when they do fall down.