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    The Bungee Line was an audio podcast for web developers, covering web API's, software development, and the creation of richly interactive web applications.

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Open Letter to eBay CEO John Donahoe


Does eBay Really Need a Special Exception to online tax collection? I received an email from eBay’s CEO, stating

…we believe small businesses with less than 50 employees or less than $10 million in annual out-of-state sales should be exempt from the burden of collecting sales taxes nationwide.

At first blush, the exception seems reasonable. But considering eBay’s business model, it’s completely self-serving. I replied to the address from which he sent the email. Since it might bounce, I share my response publicly.

Mr. Donahoe:

I agree that processing state & local taxes could be a burden on small businesses, especially the sort of special-focus, long tail small businesses that reach customers far and wide through eBay. eBay’s opportunity is to alleviate this burden. How? Provide new services & API’s in your platform to make tax collection a dead-simple process. Wouldn’t this render eBay an even more strategic platform for the small businesses that integrate with your platform? Coming from eBay–a company among the first to demonstrate how a web platform could simplify doing business online for micro-businesses–the “burden of collecting sales taxes nationwide” argument is rather specious. I notice that eBay does not advocate that all businesses of the scale you state–online or not–should get that exception.

Online businesses have had a remarkable opportunity to germinate and prosper for nearly two decades free of sales taxes. As online sales have grown, state and local governments’ revenues have declined. That affects our schools, highways, municipal services and other infrastructure. Furthermore, since the demographics show that online shoppers are generally wealthier than those who don’t shop online, isn’t your exception for online micro-businesses a special accommodation for higher-income households?

Perhaps eBay needs to re-think this issue in broader terms than asking for a special exception for eBay’s sweet spot in the market.

Thanks for your email and consideration of my response,

Ted Haeger

Donohoe’s complete letter follows. Continue reading

2010 in review


After this paragraph, the rest of the post is completely penned by WordPress.com. They give me seemingly high marks for my blog, while noting that I only posted 16 times in 2010. Remiss? Maybe. My top posts date back to early 2007 and before, when I was blogging actively for my role at Novell. But from the silver lining department, one of my top 5 referrers was bobjamieson.net, a paleo-geek’s blog. Perhaps a sign of things to come in 2011?

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. This blog was viewed about 40,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 5 days for that many people to see it.

In 2010, there were 16 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 384 posts. There were 8 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 198kb.

The busiest day of the year was January 5th with 206 views. The most popular post that day was Mac vs. PC: How Would Linux Fit?.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were stumbleupon.com, roseindia.net, linuxcompatible.org, bobjamieson.net, and facebook.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for linux, wallpaper, mac, suse wallpaper, and opensuse wallpaper.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Mac vs. PC: How Would Linux Fit? March 2007
204 comments

2

Can Linux Desktops Live in an Active Directory World? September 2006
65 comments

3

OpenOffice.org and Excel VBA Macros July 2006
25 comments

4

SUSE Wallpaper #2 August 2006
1 comment

5

Show Me That New GNOME Main Menu June 2006
34 comments

Is Steve Jobs Killing Housecats?


Magsafe: Dealer of Feline Death?

Droves of house cats may be dying, and Apple’s Steve Jobs may be to blame. Apple’s latest revision of the Magsafe power adapter has a new cable coating that seems to be purposely tailored to lure innocent kittens to a convulsive, incendiary death.

The as-yet unconfirmed but increasingly popular rumor is that specifications sourcing from One Infinite Loop in Cupertino are directing sweatshop laborers in Jiangsu to mix concentrated cat nip extract into the formula used for the latest Magsafe cable coating.

I only recently became aware of this when a friend reported to me that his cat had chewed through the cables of both of his brand new power adapters. Some short research revealed that my friend and his furry, fried feline not alone:

Certainly, these are merely a few examples, and none actually lethal. But as with all things reported via the Internet Tubes, each incident must be multiplied by one million (at least) to devine an estimate for how many incidents have gone unreported. Who knows how many of these have ended in tragedy?

OS X names aside (“Snow Leopard” indeed!), it’s a well known factoid that Steve Jobs hates cats. We should have seen this coming.

With INTERPOL occupied by ongoing WikiLeaks investigations and the record for US police agencies turning a blind eye to cat crimes (those K-9 units? we know whose side you’re on), a wave of vigilante tabbies may be emerging:

Note No cats were actually harmed in the creation of this blog entry.

Launching code.mozy.com


Since my start at Mozy in September, 2009, one of the internal programs in which I quickly took interest was Mozy Labs. Labs’ main champion was a former Google intern named JT Olds, who had witnessed directly the power of allowing engineers free time for innovation and wanted that for Mozy. After several months, Labs had spawned numerous projects, some of which are now on their way to becoming features for Mozy customers. But a few of the projects addressed lower-level needs in the Mozy service–such as helping Mozy handle massive storage (currently 50 petabytes) scale and data transfer demands. The Labs’ projects in this domain end up help us to serve our customers better, but are entirely the domain of deep-think developers. Nevertheless, the developers driving such projects want to share with others who would appreciate their innovations.

After several months of quiet preparations and effort,  we now have a way for those developers to do exactly that. Today, Mozy launched code.mozy.com, a site on which we can host free and open source software projects.

Related Resources

[updated 10/26]

Congrats to Polar Rose


Late last year, I met with Jan Erik Solem and Carl Silbersky to learn about Polar Rose‘s facial recognition technology. Their command of the tech, and stats compared to iPhoto and Picasa’s success rate, impressed me immensely. To the average MBA student, they likely seemed to be yet another tech startup with no real  business viability. If the competition are huge companies that make similar tech available at no cost, why would anyone pay?

But Jan Erik was very clear about Polar Rose: they were focused on R&D. They aimed to develop such a high mark of competency, that they would distinguish themselves through tech. The business would follow.

So when a former colleague at Mozy emailed me a link to “Apple Snatches Up Facial Recognition Software Firm,” it made me smile. They did it. They engineered their way to success. Congratulations, guys!

Foursquare & Gowalla: Heralding The Age of Ubiquitous Loyalty?


Two habit-forming, game-like mobile apps are competing to gain user base. Their names are Foursquare and Gowalla. Each has fairly similar “game play” involving GPS-related check-ins at points-of-interest–bars, restaurants, parks, plazas and so forth, most of which were originally entered by the users. By checking into a site, friends with whom you have connected can see where you have checked in and come join you.

So, big deal, you might say, yet another “social” application. Yes, at first blush, these apps may seem trivial, even pointless. I assure you, they are not. These apps reveal a lucrative future, and one or both may strike start-up gold.

Welcome to Carmel, Mr. Eastwood
Both apps involve jacking into the brain’s psychological payout hooks: rewards, achievements, status–the very same hooks so expertly employed by computer game creators to make gameplay as addictive as possible. Level up, baby. You’re getting somewhere.

But of the two apps, Foursquare was first to establish special status for being the most frequent visitor to a site. That person becomes established as the “Mayor” for that site. The name is dumb, but the concept is golden.

A few savvy restaurants and bars picked up on this status and started offering discounts to whomever currently holds the mayorship. In other words, Foursquare has stumbled into a simple loyalty program that pits customer against customer.

Prediction: Very soon, Gowalla will introduce something similar to Foursquare’s “Mayor” status recognition (maybe with a better name).

Hey, Make Me Feel Special
Over ten years ago, savant marketer Seth Godin delivered a manifesto. Permission Marketing explained how the Internet was permanently changing how businesses market to their constituents. Highlighting the intersection of frequent flyer-style points programs, video game achievement levels, and quid pro quo relationships between customers and companies, Godin declared the imminent diminish or demise of “interruption marketing.” The future of marketing was about membership, exclusivity, recognition, and personal connection between companies and their constituents.

Huge, specialized companies like airlines can establish rewards programs or communities and recognize their MVP’s. But many businesses struggle to create similar programs that are adequate. It’s an old saw that regulars are the mainstay of restaurants and many retail business types. But how do you acquire them? How do you keep them? Points programs are tough to create, manage and run. Their implementation is out of reach. The costs are too high. The nuances require too much attention. And for consumers, how many bar-coded loyalty cards do you really want to carry?

That means that there is opportunity for innovation. Bigtime.

Prediction: Either Gowalla or Foursquare will introduce an “Owner’s Circle” concept, allowing businesses to claim their sites, and then to recognize not simply “the mayor,” but top tens or hundreds of customers with special favors for their loyalty. This will be how Foursquare/Gowalla suddenly become economically relevant.

The Last Foot
The term “last foot” comes from NAVTEQ’s Marc Naddel, who I met during my time at Alcatel-Lucent. GPS solves what NAVTEQ calls the “last mile” problem. You know someone was close. But GPS is imprecise. How do you know that someone who checked into a location didn’t simply claim they were there, when they merely walked by? Especially since GPS is pretty much useless indoors.

This is where Foursquare or Gowalla will need to go beyond GPS. Bar codes may be a solid way to get the job done. A phone can display a bar code, and many businesses have bar code readers. But Near-field Communication (NFC),  a passive RFID technology currently available in a very limited number of mobile phones, would be much  better. NFC works at a range from 4 to 10 centimeters, so it can be used to verify not just that you were close, but that you were really there.

Prediction: Loyalty programs will drive adoption of NFC technology in the United States. First in the form of too many NFC loyalty cards, but soon after, they will converge one ID card, which will swiftly get replaced by NFC in mobile phones.

Bridging the Interim Gap

USB NFC Reader

Low cost NFC readers like this one work with NFC phones and passive RFID tags.

If a company like Gowalla or Foursquare made a play into loyalty programs, they could consolidate the proliferation of numerous bar-code loyalty cards into a single Foursquare or Gowalla NFC card.  This would accommodate the interim from multiple loyalty cards to using your NFC-equipped mobile phones (which are too few today). With USB readers available for under $40, NFC is low-enough cost for even the smallest companies to adopt if they want to run a simple loyalty program. The only shortcoming right now is that no one is considering the tiniest businesses as a prime target.

Prediction: Even if it’s not NFC, it will be among the small business space–retailers and restaurants–that a democratization of loyalty programs will come about–because small companies want a solution, and won’t care so much that they don’t “own” the identities.

Conclusion
Gowalla and Foursquare are not piddly little social apps. They’re seeming simplicity belies a sophisticated understanding of software psychology, which will reveal itself rapidly–quite possibly faster than most observers can follow. At least one of these companies will prevail through loyalty–helping location-based businesses better connect to their customers. When that happens, demand will rapidly push sophistication beyond the constraints of GPS. Finally, the businesses who jump into this will prevail over those that don’t, or those that do but use it poorly (such as for spamming).

Related Reading

Microsoft: Still Breathtakingly Evil (a rant)


Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL.
– A. Guthrie

With the age of the netbook upon us, I can finally retire Heidi’s decrepit Dell laptop and get her a system that works perfectly for her needs. I found a sweet little Lenovo S10-2 that met her top requirements perfectly: It’s pink, and it has cute little flowers on it.

Knowing that I will be the person to support it, I read the spec carefully. Everything looks to be in order, but it comes with Windows 7 “Starter” thing. Uh oh. I’ve seen ominous naming like this before.

But how bad could Microsoft be? Surely in this age of increasing Linux love (Ubuntu Netbook Remix!) and Apple’s rapidly approaching eclipse of Microsoft’s market cap, pressure from above and below has squeezed the folks in Redmond enough to understand that how they do business has its costs, right? Nope.

SindowsOn Amazon, reviewers of this netbook reveal that some evil genius at Microsoft crippled this “Starter” edition. You can’t even change the wallpaper. Further research revealed Starter to have a numerous other You-Can’ts. They apparently changed the original idiotic 3-app-limit, an idea for which its originator should be publicly cannibalized.

Surely, they limited the OS to economize on disk space, right? Nope. They have this “Windows Anytime Upgrade” thing that allows you to instantly unlock all the capabilities that don’t work in starter. The bits are all there on your disk…you just can’t use them! Microsoft’s entire fat ass operating system is using up disk space so that they can sell you stuff, and that stuff is standard capabilities we expect from a computer operating system.

Where have we seen such temerity before? Credit card companies, who bury their terms and conditions deep in multiple pages of fine print, knowing that most people won’t read the fine print, and have little hope of understanding it. Mobile carrier, that refused to provide us with a simple display to show you how many minutes remaining each month. Or, Internet providers re-defining “unlimited” bandwidth as, well, limited.

Is comparing Microsoft to industries that have instilled self doubt in Satan himself (“Maybe I’m just not that good at this Prince of Darkness stuff,” he says, sweeping one of his scarlet hooves across the floor) perhaps going to far? Nope.

GoGo the No-Go: Chasing the Margins of the Wired World


SpectrumDNA’s CEO Jim Bannister, a local to Park City, wrote this weekend about GoGo’s craptastic in-flight Internet service. I started a reply on his blog post, then chose to post here instead:

Jim:

GoGo indeed seems to cling to a vestigial 90′s ISP business model, but there also seems to be a predatory element to them. GoGo’s ilk creep into telecosmic margins and attempt to wring out as much money as they can before they get eschewed by rising connectivity expectations and price commoditization. Then off they ooze to the next frontier where the wired business traveler still might encounter no-Net desperation.

Airports are now falling fast. Salt Lake International Airport finally provides free Wi-Fi–a big relief from BoingBoing (another WordWord ISP). Who knows what drove the switch, but it is definitely better for business travelers. Perhaps this is why Singapore started offering free wi-fi about 10 years ago (for your passport, they even lent out wi-fi PC-card adapters). As it gets easier to send that last-minute email from the airport, the plane is the new frontier, and sometimes may seem worth $12.95/shot, shoddy though it may be.

History shows us that these high-price leaders may even make their ouster inevitable. Hotel rooms, once charging as much as $25/day, are no longer a happy hunting ground for these businesses. More and more, chains are including Internet rather than tacking it on as an extra. Travelers like me factor this cost into selecting a room.

As with big banks, creditors, and mobile carriers, people begrudge these ISP’s for their bleed-’em-when-there’s-no-other-option overcharging, and their poor service. Not a single tear gets shed when the site of their latest exploits dries up. Soon enough, big airlines will differentiate their service with Wi-Fi as part of their frequent flyer programs, and gone goes the GoGo.

–Ted

The Sleeping Disorder of the MacBook Pro


I have two MacBooks. One is from early 2007, the other from late 2009. Both have intermittent problems waking up from sleep often enough, and similarly enough, to indicate that the perfectionist culture rumored to drive Apple’s every move has its severe blind spots.

This morning, when I tried to wake my sleeping older model, the screen stayed dark, resisting my plaintive cajoling for a response. The hard shut-down: hold the power key, and watch the stalwart, white LED on its front darken like a dying Cylon Centurion’s fading red eye.

After rebooting, Apple’s “Gosh, something apparently went wrong during my sleep!” dialog appeared, asking whether it could send a report to Apple. I expanded the comments field and started to provide details, thinking that I would help them solve this. But if the problem persists  year after year, model after model, and remains an infrequent, yet persistent issue, then they must get a lot of these. Perhaps people have so far simply been ineffective at explaining the circumstances.

I did the best I could:

Stupid thing looked like it was asleep, but the display would not turn on. It was brutal. I called for re-inforcements. A grapefruit appeared, winking at me menacingly. There we several moments of silence, and the room filled with fog. Someone was playing an old phonograph record of Lazy Larry singing “Hallelujah, On the Bum” to a banjo. The strumming kind. Not the picking kind. Suddenly it was September of 1956, and my hair had thinned and grayed. All the while I could sense in my spine the dry crackling of shake shingles on the rooftop slowly turning to chalk, even though the house had curved terra cotta tiles atop it. Then I saw it: across the room, the cat held a Kleenex to it’s nose with both forepaws, as he claimed profusely that it was a mere nosebleed. My mother leaned over to me and whispered, “It’s really not okay. He’s a hemophiliac.” A breeze carried the smell of bacon, and I wondered if the cat could smell it.

Stupid Marketing Tricks: App Store Envy at Mobile World Congress


The announcement: “Leading Operators Unite to Unleash Global Apps Potential

Gizmodo’s headline: “Two Dozen Telecoms Unite to Form Apple App Store Rival

The likely response: Snore.

How is it that a computer company once presumed-dead now dictates the actions of the telecom industry?

A few years ago, Apple attacked the question “why do mobile phones suck so much?” As with MP3 players some years before, they saw an opportunity to create something people loved. By most accounts, they hadn’t planned the App Store. Serendipitously, pressure to open the iPhone as a platform built rapidly. As they had done with podcasting, Apple swiftly dropped an initial resistance and applied a similar strategy. They found a way to make apps conform to the iTunes delivery model, used it to extend economic incentives to developers, and supported the program with the right tools for devs, and marketed apps to end users.

Yes, I know that I oversimplify this story, but the point is: Apple innovated to create and command a new market.

I am not an Apple fan-boy. I am an Apple skeptic, and generally agree with much of Jonathan Zittrain’s analysis regarding how phenomena like the App Store are swinging the Internet pendulum precariously away from the side of truly open, generative innovation. (Nevertheless, I do use an iPhone, and as you can see from other posts, I love it.) But from a marketing-is-war viewpoint, I find the disruption of the iPhone-iTunes-App Store a simply brilliant application of Apple’s age old tactics.

I cringe at the “Wholesale Application Community” (yes, it’s”WAC”) announcement from Mobile World Congress (linked above). It takes me right back to the seven months of abandon-all-hope-they-just-don’t-get-it purgatory I spent working at Alcatel-Lucent. The telcos and handset manufacturers–these stumbling, dim-witted giants–will chase anything that seems to work. They try to replicate, arrive late, and altogether fail at delivering something anyone actually wants. But the biggest issue is that they never bother to figure out the underlying formula that makes each of these shiny new objects successful.

Instead of applying the “innovate to create a market” pattern, these two dozen telcos and handset manufacturers scramble to respond to Apple. By taking a reactive stance, they allow Apple to define the game. By playing the exact same game in which Apple has such a massive lead, they concede that Apple controls the conversation. Apple is using the tactics taught in Debate 101. They’re applying the marketing equivalent of Lakoff’s thesis on the importance of framing to control the public conversation. Apple is running circles around the old guard in an industry in which real innovation is completely moribund.

What do you think? Will this WAC unseat the App Store? Is it innovative and disruptive? Is it’s goal to delight customers with something new? Or does the Demotivator poster about meetings–”None of us is as dumb as all of us–apply to reactive industry consortiums, too?

The Truth about Innovation Patterns


In “The Truth about Mobile Application Stores,” ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez calls out several slides from Distimo’s MWC presentation about app stores. The short of it: Apple/iPhone leads by far; Google Android comes in a distant second (but growing fast); Blackberry and the others lag at the edge of irrelevancy.

It’s fascinating to compare and contrast Apple and Google in this context. Their approaches are both so different.

Apple has a first-up innovator’s edge over all the other players. They are vehemently proprietary, fanatical about UX, and notorious about privacy. Re-order the adverbs however you see fit, people still love what they produce.

Google pushes an open, webby agenda. It’s chock full of good will, freedom of information, and the gift economy ethos. Real or ruse, people still love what they produce.

In the post-Microsoft reality, only the absolute best of the proprietary can lead, as Apple demonstrates. The “the wisdom of crowds” crowd follows, quickly gobbling up the Good Enough gap so that everyone else scrambles to stay in place.

So, aspiring tech companies, what fits you best? Do you have the guts to be radically open? Or, do you have the intensity to be fanatically dedicated to quality of user experience to the point that your CEO lives outside of the boardroom and executive bathroom? Or, would you prefer the third option, mediocrity?

Add USGS Geologic Units to Google Earth on your iPhone


Google Earth example screenshot from iPhoneThe United States Geological Survey’s website provides map downloads of geologic unit data. You can download and view these files in Google Earth. This makes Google Earth a “killer app” for geologists, paleontologists, and other earth sciences explorers. What an amazing resource for understanding and exploring the surface rocks of a given area!

My partner Heidi and I love to camp and explore areas in which the terrain may have fossil bearing rocks. So, we use Google Earth on my Mac to do a lot of our planning. Once out in the field, I like to have the same data on my iPhone, too. But that’s a bit tricky.

Here are some tips and tricks that I have learned about using USGS data.

USGS data, KML files, and Google Earth

KML files

The USGS digitizes geologic units in Keyhole Markup Language (KML). KML is a text format that uses an XML schema originally created by Keyhole, Inc, the original creator of Google Earth. (Google acquired Keyhole in 2004.) Google Earth is free–meaning there is no financial cost to download and use it–and can open and render KML files. (An alternative to Google Earth is the Free Software project called Marble.)

KML file extensions: .kml or .kmz

screenshot exampleKML files can get quite large, especially when it comes to mapping a whole state’s geologic terrain. For that reason, KML data is frequently found in a compressed (zipped) version with a .kmz file extension instead of .kml. Both are referred to as KML files. Google Earth can use .kmz files directly, without being first unzipped.

Getting the USGS KML File for Your State’s Geologic Unit

The USGS provides geologic unit data for each state on their website as KML files. Open one in Google Earth, and each geologic unit’s regions display as opaque colors layered atop the terrain. Zoom into an area and click one of these colored units open a balloon showing the info contained in the KML for that unit. The data is pretty lean, but the Detailed Information link in it will take you to the USGS web page containing more information.

Using USGS Data on the iPhone

Can you put USGS data on your iPhone? Yes.

I have found a couple ways to do this, each with its pros and cons.

There’s an App for That

The App Store has a series of applications from Integrity Logic called “Geology,” plus the state two-letter code. For example, Geology UT is the app for Utah.

This is essentially one of those apps that just re-packages public domain data. What makes Geology UT any different from Geology CA? Essentially, it’s the data (USGS, mainly) bundled with the app. At $7.99, it’s not too steep for the functionality it provides. Unfortunately, Integrity Logic has yet to update it (despite having graciously thanked me for providing several ideas for enhancement).

To be sure, this app is not nearly as slick as Google Earth. The main advantage of using this app is that it works offline (unlike Google Earth), and includes descriptive data from the USGS website that is not in the USGS KML files. If you work in the field, far from a cellular signal, I definitely recommend this app.

Using KML Data on the iPhone in Google Earth

To be sure, Google Earth on the iPhone presents a challenge when it comes to using KML files, but by no means an insurmountable challenge. Here’s how to make KML data usable through the iPhone edition of Google Earth.

Requirements

* A Google account
* Google Maps (maps.google.com)
* A Computer with Google Earth
* An iPhone with Google Earth on it
* USGS KML file

Overview

You’re going to use the Google Maps feature called “My Maps” to import the KML file. Then, you can use Google Earth’s My Maps feature on the iPhone to see the data.

There are a couple inconvenient issues to get around. First is the 10MB maximum file size that you can import. This restriction applies to the uncompressed file size, which may prevent you from importing. The .kmz for Utah is 6.9MB, but it contains 25MB of data when uncompressed. Second is the default opacity of the data layers. These big, opaque shapes mask the underlying terrain, which is inconvenient. I’ll show you how to get around both of these obstacles.

Steps

  1. Download the USGS KML file that contains the data that you need.
  2. Open the file with Google Earth.
    • All of the geology data will display on the landscape in numerous opaque layers. It will also display in the left-side Places navigation.
  3. Right-click the unit that you want to add to your phone, and select Get Info from the menu.
  4. Now, go to the Style/Color tab and set the opacity to 50%. (Also, you may want to change the color to something that will show up well in Google Maps, given the iPhone’s small display.)
  5. Once you have set the color and opacity to your liking, you can export that unit as its own, self-contained KML file for that unit. Right click the unit again and choose Save Place As… and give your file a name. This should yield a file that is well below the 10MB import restriction imposed by Google Maps.
  6. Now open a browser and go to Google Maps. (Make sure that you have logged in with your Google Account.)
  7. Click the My Maps link (on left, near Get Directions).
  8. Click the Create new map link.
  9. Create the Import link, and upload the file that you saved from Google Earth.
  10. Before clicking Done, consider whether you want this map shared. (Google Maps will default to Public.)
  11. After clicking Done, you will see the geologic unit in Google Maps. (If it appears to be incomplete, scroll down through the list of elements at left, and you’ll see why: Google splits the list into multiple pages. Google Maps is not very good for viewing numerous polygons that often comprise a geologic formation.)
  12. At last, it’s now time to get your iPhone and open Google Earth.
  13. Click the Options button (i) in Google Earth.
  14. If you have not already done so, log in with your Google account. Once you have, you can use My Maps to enable the map you just imported into Google Maps.

And with that, you have brought USGS geologic units onto your iPhone.

On API Replication and Web App Compatability


Commandeering Applications by Replicating APIs

I recently met with Jesse Stay to discuss some plans and ideas I have been working on at Mozy. As expected, Jesse’s insights and feedback were tremendously valuable. (Thanks, Jesse!)

Tweetie API endpoint config on iPhoneOne of the items Jesse directed my attention toward was the recent implementations of the Twitter API by three different sites: WordPress.com (the host of this blog), Tumblr (another popular blog hosting service), and identi.ca (a prominent Twitter alternative which has supported the Twitter API since 2008). By providing 100% API compatibility with Twitter, people can use any application built for Twitter with these other services (as long as the app allows you to modify the service URI/endpoint it uses). Because services survive or wither based on use, supporting a popular and relevant API can instantly yield a slew of applications to support users better. As a result of their work, WordPress.com has gained applications like the iPhone application Tweetie. Although many of the applications for Twitter currently do not allow you to modify the API endpoint (Tweetdeck, for example), most developers want more users, and API-level compatibility makes it short work for developers to support your service. I suspect that soon, nearly all applications created for Twitter will let you modify or add to the default API endpoint.

This got me to thinking about GroupWise, Novell’s strong alternative to Microsoft Exchange.

Novell: Align with Google for Developers

Novell GroupWise has a complete web API, and has for quite some time. Unfortunately, Novell seems to neglect developers these days–especially in their legacy products (as evidenced by GroupWise having only a SOAP API). Aside from their list of close partners, few developers use the GroupWise API.

Google Code logoMeanwhile, with Google’s enormous cachet with developers, numerous applications support Google’s collaboration-related APIs (such as Contacts). Perhaps even more importantly, developers can easily integrate Google’s API into new and existing apps through the numerous source code libraries available for Google’s various API’s (again, see Contacts, this time for the list of libs). Google’s Atom-based REST API’s are popular, well-understood, and widely used.

Consequently, Novell has an opportunity to serve their dwindling fan base better: replicate the Google API’s that are most relevant to GroupWise. Make it so that developers can easily adapt their apps to serve GroupWise, and so that end users can select from a wider assortment of 3rd party apps. This would give nothing over to Google that they don’t already have. It can only increase the relevance and extend the life of Novell’s venerable old product.

It also makes it possible for Novell to get on board with the biggest technology trend of the latter half of the last decade…

GroupWise in the Cloud

Since my time at Bungee Labs, I have been considering how Novell could offer GroupWise as a hosted SaaS offering as a way of acquiring aspiring new companies. As Salesforce has shown well, small is beautiful, and there is big business in the “No Software” proposition. This is where GroupWise competes (entirely ineffectively) with Gmail (“Google Mail,” actually) and its related collaboration components. It’s very easy to set up a Gmail account that uses your own company’s mail@domain. You can’t do that with GroupWise today.

But GroupWise does have something that Google lacks: a rich client. With all the apps that Google enjoys, none do a complete enough job of unifying all the typical collaboration features of an enterprise collaboration suite. With legacy collaboration being such an unsexy subject in the age of the social web, it seems unlikely that Google will re-solve some of these relatively mundane features. Finally, although there is a de facto rule about “everything through the web,” that does not mean “everything in the browser.” GroupWise has browser-based access, but it also has a full client that works online as well as offline, giving Novell a complete end-to-end advantage.

So put it all together–SaaS + Google API compatibility–and Novell has a viable technical path for GroupWise. All that remains is to figure out a  freemium model that can viably compete with Google. (This is where I clock out.)

Note I realize that it’s kind of cheap to sit back and throw out directives for how some other company should manage its API strategy while sparing any mention of the company over which I may have actual influence. Some of the above thinking applies to our planning at Mozy. However, we do not offer a public API (yet), so it’s a challenge to directly discuss this subject without getting mired in caveats and cautionary or indefinite statements. If you have any more than a casual interest in where Mozy is heading with our API, please contact me by commenting on this post.

iPhone Apps for Field Science


screenshot of field app iconsIn a parallel universe, I am a field biologist. In another, a paleontologist. In yet another, an ornithologist. And several very useful applications now available for the iPhone have recently re-kindled a yearning to live these parallel lives.

Mobiles Go Wild

The utility of mobile phones for field science keeps getting better and better. Behind this are three inter-related trends, the advances in which can largely be attributed to the iPhone.

  1. The first is the long-running convergence of mobile technologies. GPS, compass, and camera are now integrated on a single hand-held device that not only offers broadband Internet, but also adequate storage capacity for storing data for offline use.
  2. The second is richer user interaction. Beyond large, high-resolution screens, a combination of diverse gestures allow interaction directly through the visual interface. The result makes it possible to provide user experiences that go way beyond the classic constraints of keypads and standard buttons.
  3. The previous two trends yield a device that can be purposed many different ways, which is what makes the third trend–application programs–so powerful. App programs give software developers a means to create applications that use the advanced hardware features and rich user interaction for special purposes that phone manufacturers could never produce on their own. (For that matter, even fathom on their own.)

The result is a wave of new applications that promise to revolutionize–among other things–scientific field work. In the forefront is the iPhone, but I expect that Android devices–with their more permissive developer model–may show similar promise. Nevertheless, the iPhone can take credit for setting a new high bar for the current wave of mobile devices. Consequently, there is an emerging treasure trove of high-value applications for doing field science. Let’s take a look at a few.

Example Apps

These are a few of the iPhone apps that I find to be essentials for planning and conducting explorations in the natural world. If you have some suggestions for me to add to this list, please leave a comment. An asterisk (*) notes an app that does not require live Internet.

The Ground

  • Geology UT* is one of several similar Geology apps, each using a different US state’s set of public domain data. The app uses on-board GPS with its own map to help you  find out quickly what the US Geological Survey knows about the age and composition of the surface wherever you may be. I use the Utah version extensively while I search for fossils or wonder about the age of an outcrop.
    Because the app stores all of its data on the device, this is also a good example of an app that works in the field without a data connection. Tap any area of the map that you might want to know about, and it presents details that normally require a browser when using Google Earth and a kml file on a computer.
  • Geotimescale* is a simple reference app, providing a visual guide to the age old question: “What on earth does Cenozoic mean?”
  • Google Earth is an excellent tool for understanding the terrain. Using the on-board GPS lets you quickly see where you are. Various layers, including Panaramio photos, further enrich the virtual exploration experience. And  similar to the desktop app, Earth features tilt, which allows you to virtually explore the terrain relief of an area before heading out.
    For example, here is a tilted view showing Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park. In the bottom right (at the ‘s’ in technologies), there is a trailhead for a trail that follows the ridge across from the rock “cathedrals.” Although this screenshot was not done on site–there is no data connection in this part of the Utah outback–you can see how studying it can help you to understand the landscape you intend to explore.
    I should also note that the desktop application is an essential companion to the mobile version. I often start investigating on the big screen, especially since the USGS makes various .kml files available for many areas of the US.
  • GPS tracking apps enable you to record your tracks so that you can know where and when you were at a given time. That’s great for when you find something that you want to come back to later. I have yet to settle on a single one, since they each provide different features (for example, some can download the topo map for a given location).
  • Compass* is a default application that Apple introduced with the 3Gs, eliminating yet another piece of equipment to carry.

The Sky

  • Pocket Universe* satisfies my long-running desire to know the night sky. Books always frustrated me., mainly because I have a hard time mapping them to the sky. “pUniverse” tells me which constellations and planets are visible on a given date, at a given time, from a given location. That’s handy, but the application uses the iPhone’s compass and GPS in what pUniverse calls “planetarium mode.” Imagine simply holding up your phone and seeing a labelled map of the night sky in any direction. Tap any labeled celestial object to find out all about it. This is the kind of app that makes you feel smarter than you are without your phone.
  • Weather happens, and meteorological surprises can be the difference between a great excursion and misery. There are many, many applications to let you know what’s in store. I use the free (ad-laden) app Weatherbug, mainly because I have yet to research and find a better tool.

Biology

  • iBird Explorer Pro*, at $29.95, will likely remain the most expensive app I have ever purchased. There are several lighter-weight versions of iBird Explorer, but I’m an avid admirer of birds–I had to have the full catalog of North American birds.
    With this app, you can quickly narrow down a species by its shape, family, markings, colors, habitat, and flight style, and range (with options to filter using the data and your current location).
    Content is an age-old trade-off with field guide books. For example, each bird’s range map in my trusty old Peterson’s guide is stuffed in one of the book’s appendices. As an application, iBird Explorer makes each range maps simple–each species has a Range tab. Similarly, the trade-off between illustrations and photos is settled handily. (Most birders favor illustrations, but the debate becomes moot with iBird Explorer.)
    Much as I love my Sibley’s guide–which became my manual of choice while out birding–no printed field guide allows you to play a bird’s call. Not only does iBird Explorer play calls, it does so loudly enough that Heidi and I have been able to use it to draw in Ravens and Pinyon Jays in from a good distance. (Now I want a selection of calls, since the Common Raven’s vocalization, for example, varies considerably from region to region.)
    My one critique is that I would like a sightings and life-list feature, similar to Audubon Mammals.
  • Audubon Mammals* is a splendid reference for identifying the mammals that you see–and those that you don’t. Beside providing photos, you also get range maps, track and scat illustrations (sometimes with comparisons), and a thorough description. Designed to help you quickly identify a creature, the app flows in ways that you always wished your field guide would. The app also allows you to record sightings, as well as a life list, which get GPS-tagged and allow you to add your own notes and observations.

General Field Tools

  • Camera* taking a picture or video not only documents what you saw, but where you saw it. Each photo has latitude and longitude coordinates applied by the GPS. That means that you can document exactly where you saw a specimen. However, rather than use the on-board camera application, you might consider using it through a notetaking application, such as…
  • Evernote logoEvernote* is an application whose importance I can’t emphasize enough. What a great tool Evernote is!
    Geo-tagged photos are a great start, but there are other ways you may want to document your experiences.
    Whether recording simply for your personal memories or for detailed field notes, Evernote geo-tags your notes. Notes can be text–of course–but you can also record your voice as a note. And that means that you can even record a location’s ambient soundscape. Evernote also allows you to take geo-tagged pictures, and if a picture contains text, Evernote will even process the text so it becomes searchable.
    One of the most important features of Evernote is that it’s not just an iPhone app. All of your notes get uploaded to your account on Evernote’s servers. That means that your notes are effectively backed up each time the Evernote app synchronizes. And…you can access and update your notes through any browser. And…you can also access your data from an Evernote on your computer. In fact, Evernote will sync between applications on Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, and PalmOS. Simply put, Evernote is a life tool.

Prediction

Even if the iPhone represents the upper echelon of expensive mobile phone gadgetry, the various applications available on it for working in the field allow you to replace numerous books, maps, and other reference materials. In short, the iPhone has opened access to scientific participation by laypeople–amateurs and enthusiasts–as well as professionals. However, the applications I list here are mostly popular applications–primarily made for laypeople, but able to provide substantial support for actual field biologists, botanists, archeologists, paleontologists, and so on. I expect that there is a huge raft of more  applications ready to be made…applications that are custom-tuned to the specialized technical details of various types of field research and data recording.

My interest in sharing this is not simply to bring about more awareness so that more specialized science applications get created. With many, many science-friendly tech geeks like me starting to make field observations through iPhone and Android devices, science may now face a huge opportunity in crowd-sourcing. In the 90′s, SETI@home demonstrated how willingly geeks will apply effort to help science. In the past decade, Wikipedia used volunteerism to produce one of the foremost social-informational triumphs of the web. Now with an army of geeks readily equipped with powerful mobiles, and with strongly overlapping areas of interest between tech-geeks and science nerds, perhaps a new era of scientific data gathering is waiting to be unlocked by innovative, creative minds.

Post Scripts

(last updated 28DEC09)

Apps

Here are some additional apps relevant to the list subject:

  • Field Assets is “a field data collection application for the iPhone and iTouch.” Some further web research uncovered this app. It appears that this could easily be purposed for science work. At $12.99, I have not tried it yet.

Links

Also check out these links…

Personal Cloud: A Microsoft Employee’s Take


An interesting and well articulated take on Personal Cloud from Vu Ha, a Microsoft engineer, states:

I believe that there is an excellent opportunity to build an open user-centered data platform that comprehensively addresses data silo and privacy issues, and thus catalyzes dramatic improvement in agent applications.

Me, too!

I recommend checking out his post.

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