Category Pop Culture

Quick Take on Spotify

Last week Spotify launched in the United States, though It’s been available abroad for years. If that wasn’t enough buzz, invites were hard to come by so congrats if you were lucky enough to get an invite, find a loophole or paid your way in. For those that haven’t had a chance to check it out here’s a quick rundown of the service.

Spotify is a subscription/free streaming music service boasting over 15 million songs in its catalog and offline listening (subscription only). According to Spotify’s promos “Spotify is any song, any album, any time”. I tested out a few of the more obscure bands from my college years and it found most of them that had more than one major label release. Song wise there were more gaps but overall pretty impressive. Their catalog also loaded with new releases, not just forgotten tracks from yesteryear.

The Spotify application is pretty simple and it layout is reminiscent of iTunes and other music apps. Rather then having the play controls front and center, they’re located across the bottom of the app, similar to Grooveshark, which took some getting used to. The search box is located at the top left, hinting that it’s a primary tool for getting around Spotify’s offerings. When using search it returns a list of potential artist, albums and in the main window all the songs that are a potential match. This allows you to go from search to playing pretty quickly.

Despite the top placement of Search the UI seems focused on playlists. To help you get jump started you can import you music and playlists from iTunes. Though beyond the jump-start I don’t see much value with this feature unless you pony up for the premium subscription giving you at-will offline access to your music on your phone. Additionally, located above the playlists is a “What’s new” and “inbox” where you’d find the latest pop hits and music friends shared with you (respectively). Overall it’s a solid service with a large catalog of music that is worth checking out but it does have some issues.

I know Spotify isn’t alone in their pricing model treating mobile as a premium feature. Regardless it still tops my list of issues. Though the app on both Android and iOS are nicely designed they do little more than offer access to music you already have on the device. Streaming and offline access to Spotify’s music are $5 and $10 a month. On the plus side it does offer the ability to sync via WiFi. Who knows this could change as popularity of free services similar to Amazon’s Cloud Player and Google Music gain more traction.

Another issue is how focused the app is on playlists and albums. Honestly I don’t always have time to create playlists and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. They need to add a “genius” feature, basic stations or any sort of lazy mode if only to showcase the vastness of their catalog. Currently, despite having 15 million songs if I can’t think of it, I don’t know they have it or I’m stuck listening to albums which isn’t always what I’m looking for. If you love Pandora’s ability to create an instant playlist based on a single song/artist I’d say stick with Pandora for now.

My last big issue with Spotify is their advertisements. I know they have bills to pay so I’m not complaining that there are adverts in general but they are either three in a row, feature samples from songs I have zero interest in or worse yet fail completely and not time out forcing me to restart the app to continue to the next song. Their ads also bounce around the user interface, great for advertisers, horrible for the user. With advertising it’s all a game of balance and it wouldn’t take much to fix that balance.

There are a few things smaller things they could fix and be easy wins for the service. An iPad version of the app would be welcomed a welcomed addition, especially since the service is so playlist focused the added screen real-estate would be a blessing. The share feature is a nice addition but the method to do so is a bit retro and more obscured than it needs to be.

Though the big issues aren’t enough for me to stop using the service immediately they also don’t drive me to becoming a paid subscriber. The ironic reality is even though two out of three of my issues would be alleviated by subscribing their existence keeps me from wanting to subscribe. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know I’m not alone in this either. Overall, Spotify isn’t dramatically different than other services available (Rdio, Napster, Rhapsody, Grooveshark or even Amazon and
Google’s new music offerings), it does work well and has a huge catalog. Will that be enough for Spotify to convert people into subscribers?

Pros:

  • Huge catalog (15+ million songs)
  • Connection with social networks
  • Quality search results
  • Off-line access (paid)

Cons:

  • No streaming to mobile without subscription
  • Off-line access additional
  • Playlist/album/search focused
  • Obnoxious commercials
  • No error detection

– – – – –

Ways to get a Spotify invite:
Don’t Have A Free Spotify Invite? Use Your Klout Perks
Get a quick and easy invitation to Spotify
Spotify Invite Fever Strikes: How to Get In Now

Links:
Spotify
Rdio
Napster
Rhapsody
Grooveshark
Amazon Cloud Player
Google Music

Google Plus a Second Look

I’ve been using Google+ for the last few days, nearly exclusively to get real feel for it over the other options that are so ingrained in my day-to-day. After a few days there are number of things that really stand out to me and other based on things I’ve been reading online.

The biggest stand out is Circles and how they affect your Stream (think News Feed in Facebook). I really like the idea behind Circles and the ability to publish content to the right people rather than one size fits all. I would also love for my organization of people into Circles it would also influence the content I receive. For example, if the “friends” circle is only for close, real-life friends, and “acquaintances” is for those people I’ve met but not necessarily close to, shouldn’t that also influence who shows up in my stream. In my case I added Robert Scoble to my “follow” Circle as he often has interesting things to say. When I say often, I mean he post multiple times a day. Now he overwhelms my global Stream. I know this is partly because he’s posting more than my other connections but I want to know what my friends are doing/saying way more than an acquaintance (or follow). Granted this is not everyone’s use case for G+, so I suggest that Circles and how they bias the content in your Stream be controllable.

The second big thing with Circles is the overlapping content and no quick way to see if you’ve already seen that content. My friend Arpit suggests a “read” option for posts similar to how it works in any email system or Google’s Reader…so they should be able to easily handle this from a technical side. This overlapping also rears its head when managing your circles. For this I think another friend‘s suggestion would be a huge help…displaying the Circles as Venn diagrams. Not for every view but it would be hugely helpful managing the groups.

My last thought on Circles is to connect them with Sparks (topics), Arpit touches on this with his “Smart Circles” idea in his post on ways to improve Circles. Currently Sparks is completely generic feeling with generic topics and stock art topic images. These should be join-able, like a public Circle based on around a topic. It’d be a perfect way to bring content I’m interested in into my Stream. For example, there’s one on recipes, as a foodie I’d like to join this and maybe post to it as well. Thus offing salacious recipes intermixed with my friends and family’s social updates.

One lacking with Google Plus’s Stream is the ability to +1 a comment. Though many feel this ability to “like” a comment on post is unnecessary within Facebook it’s actually something I felt myself looking for when reading stuff in G+. I don’t use it often on Facebook, but it comes in handy as a way to agree/acknowledge a statement without having to write “I agree”. Granted this may add little to a conversation on its own, but it does let the writer know their message was received/read and used as a way to filter responses on post with more comments than could be displayed in a reduced state.

Some of the other issues come from the newness of the service: lack of diversity of the membership (most conversations are about Google+, hello worlds and technology), updates being out of sync (Gmail is the most up to date, then site post refresh, then the Android app), and figuring out how it fits with the rest of my social outlets. Minor UI issues on the Android app which are both personal learning curve from previous experiences and potential misses on a V1 app. These things happen.

The issues above are minimal and far from deal breakers but when Google is up against Facebook and the habits of its 500 million users Google needs to over deliver again and again. Since they’ve already made some updates since Tuesday’s launch the future looks promising for Google Plus.

– – – – –
Related articles:
Some Ideas for Google Circles by Arpit Mathur
Why yo daddy won’t use Google+ by Robert Scoble

Google gives social another try

Earlier this week Google launched their new social platform, Google+ and unlike their previous attempts (Wave and Buzz) this one isn’t a beta concept. Currently it’s only in limited release and invites are hard to come by, but beyond that, it’s anything but beta. Instead Google+ is a slick, well designed, full fledged attempt to compete with Facebook. Can they pull it off?

To improve their chances Google has created a clean and attractive UI for both the website and the Android app. Then they add features that people have been asking for from Facebook, like the ability to easily sort your friends into groups (called Circles with in G+); group messaging, think Beluga and GroupMe (called Huddles); group video chat, think iChat or Skype (called Hangouts); content recommendations (called Sparks), though I haven’t seen this is action yet; and this one is for the geeks, you can take your G+ data with you . Also with the Android app they also offer a “local” version of the news feed/stream which shows you the public posts from other G+ users nearby, they don’t even need to be in any one of your circles. Combined it’s a great feature boost, though I don’t doubt Facebook will follow suit with some of these.

So then why switch? Other then it’s new, clean, different, less noisy…at this point not much, as the critical mass hasn’t been reached but when it does it’ll be a force that Facebook will have to deal with. Which is good regardless of your participation with G+. Facebook needs a challenger, clearly MySpace wasn’t up to the task. Speaking of MySpace, think back to when it was the dominant social platform. Then Facebook was the new, clean, different, less noisy new kid on the block…so Google may still have a chance here. And just like MySpace felt back then, Facebook is feeling a backlash of interest from the fickle social masses that have OD’ed on the FB.

Overall, I have to say I’m impressed with Google+. It’s one of the most well thought out, planned and executed tools that Google has ever done. Only now has Google started to improve the design and UX of their search and email services. So I expect big things from Google here. Despite Goggle’s best efforts if the people don’t start using (or getting invites to) it, G+ will die from empty room syndrome and that would be a shame.

– – – – –

Some related articles on Google+
How to hack Google+ to send your friends invites (maybe) [TechCrunch]
Andy Hertzfeld talks about not being the only designer behind Google+
How To Recreate Google+ Circles in Facebook. by Ian Schafer
Google+ code reveals intent to unleash Games and Questions to the social world [Engaget]

Looking back at the Techcrunch Disrupt Hackathon


The idea behind the hackathon was to turn an idea into reality in 24 hours. Well at noon Arpit, Gabo and myself were still trying to figure out which one of our ideas we should work on. Luckily, when we checked in we came to a consensus. We settled on creating a commenting platform that would be site agnostic and simpler to find relevant content. The full concept includes integration with blogs and sites replacing their silo-ed system with one that helps spread the word and lowers the bar for participation. Obviously, the full package couldn’t be completed in 24 hours so we focused on building and testing the basic concept.


We got off to a rough start, plagued with technical glitches and an overloaded wifi. Since our project, called Yatr (pronounced yatter), was using a number of web based API’s the wifi’es were kinda important. As the night went on our table mates decided to call it quits, as did others. Despite the late hour and reduced numbers there was still a energetic vibe in the room. No doubt the cans of Red Bull and endless coffee had something to do with this.


When the sun started rising my eyes wanted to do the opposite. Thankfully a quick walk outside helped me get my energy back. At that time we were wiring up the designs to the back-end and dealing with some minor bugs. So we were feeling good about making the 9:30 deadline. By the time 9:30 hit I was busy working on the presentation and making sure I could explain our work within 60 seconds. An hour later we piled in to the auditorium (of sorts) where each of the teams sharing with the world what they’ve been working on for the previous 24 hours.

The first one out of the gate was Docracy, a online way to validate legal documents. Very cool idea and definitely set the bar for both concepts and delivery. Not surprisingly they were also one of the winners for the day. Sixty nine teams later it was my turn to present. Almost no one likes presenting to a crowd let alone trying to do so while compressing 24 hours into 1 minute. Since I had been practicing for a while I felt ready. Still 60 seconds is both forever and over in an instant.

Yatr didn’t win, but it’s not just about winning. Instead, we walked out with a working product and a architecture to take it to the next level. We also got a chance to see what other people feel strongly enough about that they would spend 24 hours working on a solution for. There was some really great projects beyond the few that got called out on TechCrunch and exhausted or not staying for all the presentations were just as rewarding as making Yatr into a working product.

UPDATE: If you would like to know more about Yatr, see how it works and why we did it check out Arpit’s post Yatr: Our hack for the Techcrunch NYC Hackathon.

5 Reasons Why Gesture isn’t happening

Movies like Minority Report, make controlling your computer with little more then the swipe of your hand look easy. With the release of the Xbox Kinect the dream of this power coming to the masses has finally come true…well not exactly.

The Kinect has become the fastest adopted technology to date and that people are using their Kinect’s for everything from gaming to self-guided robots. A quick glance at YouTube is all you need to see tons of videos showing off all the Kinect can do. So why isn’t this the launching point into being able to control our computers with a wave of our hands?

In the real world, body based gestures is anything but simple and smooth. Though there are many people successfully experimenting with the Kinect, many of these experiments don’t translate into real world feasibility. I know this first hand as I too have enjoyed hacking the Kinect, as well as working with physical gesture based UI on more legitimate terms. In both cases it’s clear, regardless of technical limitations you won’t be controlling much beyond your Xbox with gestures. Below are the five biggest reasons why gestures won’t be breaking out of the box anytime soon.

  1. Accuracy: To be blunt, the Kinect is ridiculously underpowered. The resolution of the two cameras combined is under one megapixel (read: garbage). Which means the images used to create the 3D environment are blotchy and inaccurate (see photo above). To make matters worse, even still objects are hard to define as their edges dance about from frame to frame. The actual (circa 1994) video/webcam being used is nearly useless in low light (read: your living room) and it’s poor quality doesn’t provide enough useful information to work as a supplement to the 3D data.
  2. The Lazy Factor: Face it, people are lazy. No one wants to jump up and down, flail their arms just to control their TV or computer. Lazy or not, it’s actually physically tiring to hold your arm outright and use it like a pointing device. Even in filming Minority they had to keep taking breaks because of this. Still doubtful? Hold your arm out straight forward for a minute or two. Part of the beauty of the mouse, trackpad and small touch screens is the limited amount of movement needed to control everything on the screen.
  3. No Sensory Feedback: Think of how simple it is to use a standard remote for one’s TV, or dial a standard phone. You know where the buttons are, you can feel the difference between each button and you feel the button depress beneath your finger. None of these exist between you and the air, so it’s all a guessing game and muscle memory. Touch screens have a similar problem but to a much smaller degree since one can look to see where their fingers are and the device can provide some sort of feedback to signify it received your input. Some touchscreen devices employ some sort of haptic feedback to give their users a sign that their touch has triggered an action.
  4. Children: They love touch screen devices as it’s primal to touch things and even there UI’s need to account for their high energy actions and their potential. To the Kinect cameras a moving child is a bundle of potential gestures or they can just block the camera from seeing yours. Either way a little child is a potential plethora of problems. Older children bring their own issues, their curiosity and interest to explore new things is a plus. While their potential for shorter attention spans and limited patience are in conflict with the limited abilities of today devices.
  5. Is this thing on?: On the technical side, there’s a lot of guessing involve with figuring out when the user is gesturing to control the device or just waving hi to a friend. Most of the videos showing off the cool things you can do with the Kinect are short and in a controlled environment so this issue doesn’t become obvious to the viewer, but rest assured the folks in the video know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Kinect also offers voice support, which brings it’s own set of complications. On their own gesture and voice have a long way to go before they permeate market enough to matter. Both of these technologies are great as an secondary or companion input tools instead of being the primary option. Regardless of effectiveness, they offer a new and fun way to interact with the technologies around us.

Netflix steps up the competition with Cable (rumor)

According to Deadline Hollywood (via engadget) Netflix is in bidding war with channels like HBO & AMC for a new series from David Fincher staring Kevin Spacey called House of Cards.

Needless to say this would be a huge coup for Netflix. In the growing competition between the online video service this would clearly set them apart from Hulu+ and Amazon Prime‘s video offerings. It also makes them a clearer threat to the current cable business model. Even if this rumor fails to become a reality, the seed has been planted and the game has changed.

Only time will tell if this is Netflix’s first step in becoming a premium content provider? And if so, will the masses change their habits and think about “tuning” to Netflix to catch up on their latest show.

UPDATE: This is a rumor no more, Hollywood Reporter writes Netflix Outbids HBO for David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s ‘House of Cards’

Email isn’t dead afterall

Email is dead or so they said, well it seems like Facebook has another idea. A few weeks ago Facebook announced their plan for merging all your communication to be found in one place, and including a @facebook address as a way to be reached. Though they’re suggesting it’s not email and calling it a conversation hub, since they’re removing the subject line as part of the message. Regardless of what they want to call it makes a good case that email is in fact not dead, just due for an upgrade.

Despite it’s failure, Google Wave had some solid ideas on bringing email inline with modern technology. The good parts of Wave will resurface in Gmail and other services. For example earlier this week Posterous launched Groups which has number of the things I liked about Wave with simpler and prettier UI. Been testing is over the last few days and thought there are still a few odd UI issues, the overall UI is simple enough for non-geeks to use and that’s key for mass adoption. In the sample at left (from Posterous) you can see the basic layout and support for photos/video etc. Not as pretty as some of the standard Posterous themes but I’m sure that will come with time. The big question is whether the masses start adopting it, especially with competitors like Facebook Groups; though they are different offerings, Facebook already has the masses using their services everyday.

AOL is also giving email another try with their recently launched Project Phoenix. I love the paper cut-out animation they used to announce the project (see below) and for the users of Aol Mail this will be a welcome addition. They’ve simplified the UI, added the ability to import your other email services and now lets you send text messages. Another plus is I didn’t notice any ads cluttering up the interface. I assume they’ll be there sooner or later and if not, this is an even bigger plus for the consumer. I also like their “quick bar” access to multiple communication tools. Despite these improvements I’m not sure it’s enough to attract new users, though it may help keep their current customer base.

Personally, I still use email for some things, but for many things email’s formality and permanence isn’t needed. If I just want to share a link, or something else temporal email is overkill. At the same time having an archive for things is still needed at times. It’s good to see some progress in allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. Only time will tell how this will shake out but for now these are a step in the right direction.

Weekly Rewind: the mobile continuum

With all the hype and speculation surrounding the iPhone being released for Verizon and today being the launch day for Window Phone 7 in the US…Samsung and Verizon steal the limelight with releasing the new “dual-screen” Continuum. It’s actually one screen, divided into two parts via the default Android buttons. It’s not a half bad idea, especially the stealing the lime light part.  Interestingly enough Verizon has once again added Microsoft’s Bing search tool to the Android based phone (read: Google).

Engadget’s First Look
PC Wolrd’s First Impressions

– – – – –

Also cutting into Microsoft’s big day was an announcement that Gingerbread, the next version of the Android operating system, would be available to Nexus One owners in the next few days. The best part was that this announcement came in the form of a Twee at.

– – – – –

Last week Blekko, a new search engine was launched. Co-created by Rich Skrenta, who also founded the Open Directory Project back in the 90’s. With a quest to “clean up the web” from garbage content, Blekko filters out content farm content as well as allowing you to filter the results through the query string itself. I gave it a few tries. It’s clean and seemed to do what they suggest. Check out the NY Times if you want to know more about the history and how to get the most from Blekko.

– – – – –

This should be entertaining for anyone in technology that saw the Social Network or knows someone that has.

How quickly things change

In yesterday’s weekly recap I reported on Zynga out doing EA in their financial worth. Just a bit shocking as Zynga has been around for around 4 years and produce simple albeit social games. While EA has been around since the early years of computer gaming, and now own the rights to just about every sports franchise there is. Clearly EA has more overhead but who would’ve thought selling virtual goods could be worth so much.

Well, it seems as though EA has seen the light and just signed a 5 year deal with Facebook for game distribution. While last week EA bought the publisher of Angry Birds, the current gaming zeitgeist.

Weekly Rewind: Friendships, Mayorships and the social monster

Two little changes that have a big effect.

This week Facebook added a new feature, called Friendships, that allows you to see the activity between friends. For many this will be a great way to reminisce, and be a nice addition to Facebook’s features. On the other hand it’s a privacy nightmare scarier then a Halloween horror flick.  How can this feature be bad…think of  jealous partner, this feature could easily be miss used to stalk their mate and easily read into any/all cross communications they’ve had with others. To make matters worse, it shows you activity between someone you know and people they are friends with, even when you are not. I wouldn’t have such a complaint if it was just me and one of my friends, but the friend to friend and especially the friend to stranger friendships cross the (privacy) line for me. If it does for you, check out Opt Out of the FB Friendship Feature.

The other little change this week took place on FourSquare, where they now allow venue owners to revoke mayorships. It make sense now that becoming a Mayor may come with incentives FourSquare has too crack down on the false posts. Still, this little change is going to have repercussions, no doubt someone will try to use this to oust a legit mayor for whatever their reason be it prize or ego. On a lighter note, FourSquare also allows check-ins from space.

– – – – –

Personally I don’t participate in Foursquare, Gowalla or Facebook’s Places as they give me nothing I value in return for my participation. Though there are a number of crossover (online to local) services I do use like Groupon (and similar services), Yelp (for reviews) and Google’s mobile search. I also post my photos to Flickr and Pegshot with their location data turned on as location seems to be a vital part in the story that picture has to tell. More an more this cross over between the real world (local) our online one is going to become seamless. David Marcus’s editorial on TechCrunch talks about how these services need come together to really provide something useful in our day-to-day lives.

– – – – –

Another buzz word these days is HTML5, this time it’s Microsoft that’s doing the talking. Seems as though Microsoft has decided to back off on the development of their Silverlight platform and focus on using HTML5 for creating online apps. This is a genius move on their part. HTML5 is the only cross platform supported technology. For those developing native mobile apps you’re now looking at supporting a growing number of iOS devices, all the flavors of Android (see more here), Symbian OS and now WinMo7. With WinMo7 being the newest of the group the quickest way to get developers to support your platform is for them to support all platforms. Joe Wilcox goes into greater detail about Microsoft’s David and Goliath strategy.

– – – – –

We use our smartphones for just about everything filling it with tons of personal data but how often do we think about all that data and how secure it is. Last week there were postings on how simple it was to gain access to one’s contact list on a locked iPhone. So far Apple hasn’t acknowledged it but the method works and is simple enough for just about anyone to do. Sorry, intentionally not providing link.

– – – – –

Zynga, the creators of FarmVille etc., are now worth more then EA, the second largest game publisher and makers of every sports franchise game there is. The reasons…virtual goods, lower overhead, and of course social networking. Still, both are smaller then Activision Blizzard but Zynga has only been around for four years, so who knows how long that will last. Get more of the details at Bloomberg Businessweek.

– – – – –

Two lengthy reads from the NY Times