Curating and Sharing

One of the functions I serve in my role as technology consultant is to monitor a vast amount of information and identify important information to share with my peers and leaders. I try to boil down the information to a handful of topics that I think are important for my audience.

The challenge in curating and sharing this information is to do it with a minimal amount of work that produces an index that makes it easy to find the information. Recently I developed a workflow that utilizes Nuzzel, River4, Pocket, IFTTT, and Blogger. Here is an overview of the workflow, working from the web site back up to the source of the information.

tech2watch

The first step is in deciding where to publish the information on the Internet so that it can be accessed. I knew that I wanted to use If This Then That (IFTTT) to route the information to the web site, so that constrained me to five blogging platforms: Blogger, Medium, Tumblr, Weebly, and WordPress.

What I decided to do is create tags for the topics I am curating and organize them under the tech2watch category. I can then either direct readers to a specific topic or the entire group of items under tech2watch.

I’ve been using IFTTT to consolidate my social network posts to a WordPress blog, so I thought I would add categories and tags to that blog. However, because I am posting lots of information to that blog in addition to the topics I am curating, I decided to not use it, instead I decided to create a new site using Blogger, and in the process registered the tech2watch.info domain name.

Publishing Information on tech2watch

The next step is to create an IFTTT recipe that monitors my account on Pocket and publishes items with specific tags to the tech2watch web site. I chose a template for the site that displays the technical topics I am curating in a list on the right side of the page.

IFTTT has access to both my Pocket and Blogger accounts and the recipe monitors Pocket for any articles that have the tech2watch tag, and when it finds one, it creates a new post on the Blogger site. The article title is used for the title of the post, and each post is created using a template that provides a link to the full article followed by a snippet of the article.

Selecting What To Publish

I funnel all web articles for further reading to Pocket for a couple of reasons. I really like how it removes ads and other graphics from most web pages so that only the content of the article displays, making it easier for me to read. Pocket is available as an app on Android and iOS, as well as on the web, so I can read articles using any device I may have at hand. By using IFTTT I can post new items to tech2watch quickly using any device simply by tagging an article.

Finding Information To Share

The Internet provides a wealth of information that can be difficult to keep on top of. You could spend hours opening web site after web site looking for information, and nobody really does that any more as the work is best left to computer software. The sources for my information come to me via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Twitter.

RSS was created before Twitter and provides a way to monitor web sites. You use an application called an RSS Feed Reader (or RSS Aggregator) to scan a list of article titles and snippets, which you click to read. Google Reader was a popular RSS reader application that unfortunately was shut down several years ago, and Feedly has replaced it in popularity.

I use an application called River4 to monitor the web sites I subscribe to via RSS. River4 was written by Dave Winer, who created the RSS specification and continues to be a champion of RSS. The Pocket extension for Chrome provides a Save To Pocket option for when I right-click a link, so as I scan the river of articles, I right-click the ones I want to read and select Save To Pocket.

Twitter has replaced RSS for many people, and while most consider Twitter a social network, I think in reality it is used more like RSS readers. The difference is that with Twitter one follows other people, be they individuals or representatives of company brands or web sites.

Nuzzel is an app that is designed specifically to feature links to web sites that people share on Twitter, and it sorts the articles by how many of the people you follow share it, putting the most often shared items at the top of the list. You can expand to the view of the articles to also include the people who you follow, also follow.

The Workflow

As time permits during the day, I will scan through my RSS river and Nuzzel feed for articles that fall within the topics I am following. I use Chrome to access River4 on my desktop, smartphone and tablets, as well as for Nuzzel on my desktop, right-clicking to send the articles to Pocket. On my smartphone and tablet I use an app and the Android share function to send articles to Pocket.

When I have time to read, I load the Pocket app, and for appropriate articles I assign the tech2watch tag and the appropriate topic tag. IFTTT continually monitors my Pocket account and when it finds an item with the tech2watch tag, it uses the information from the article to create a post on the tech2watch site. Other than slight edits to specify which tags are included in the topic list, I don’t do any editing of what is posted to the tech2watch site, posting to it is completely automated by IFTTT.

The process I have created meets my need for simply and quickly curating content, and I think it does a good job showing the power of IFTTT in automating a time consuming task by adding the ability for Pocket to publish a web site.

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How Do I Like The Nexus 6P?

In early November I wrote of my expectations for the Nexus 6P as I was anticipating its arrival. Now, a little over a month later, it’s time for me to report on whether the Nexus 6P met my expectations. I am happy to report that the Nexus 6P exceeds my expectations.

Doze But Don’t Sleep

Battery life was the primary reason for replacing the first generation Moto X, which had been my daily driver, with a new phone. At Google I/O we learned about Doze, a new power management feature in Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), but frankly, Google had announced power management features before that did not result in significant power savings.

I was skeptical about whether Doze would meet Google’s claims, and my skepticism caused me to choose the Nexus 6P and its 3450 mAh battery over the Nexus 5X and its 2700 mAh battery even though I preferred the 5X’s smaller size.

While the larger battery in the 6P is obviously going to result in longer battery life, I’ve been so impressed by Doze that I wonder whether I could have gotten by with the smaller phone. Doze, combined with USB-C quick charging, has eliminated the battery life anxiety that I’ve been living with ever since I began using Android smartphones.

With the Moto X I religiously plugged the phone in every night so that it would fully charge while I slept and be read for me to go the next morning. Starting the day at a full charge kept me comfortable with the Moto X until dinner, by which I may have 30% battery life left. To get through the evening without worry, I had to top off the Moto X.

I have yet to recharge the Nexus 6P overnight. I don’t need to because either there is plenty of battery life left, or all I have to do is plug it in to its USB -C charger for 15 minutes to get the battery back to a comfortable level.

When I bought the Nexus 6P I also bought a second USB-C charger to leave at the office, as well as another USB-C charger for my car. For the first three weeks I never took the extra charger out of my bag at the office, I simply did not need it. In fact, it wasn’t until I went on a weekend trip that I even took the charger out of the box.

Frankly, I’ve never had a smartphone for which I have not had to worry about battery life. I know my iPhone toting friends will derisively comment on how the iPhone has always been this way for them, but frankly, I see lots of iPhone users carrying chargers, external battery packs, or battery pack cases. The only other device I have had the same battery life experience with is the iPad.

A Tablet In Hand

What the iPad and Nexus 6P have in common is a large size that enables large batteries. For a while I carried my iPad with me everywhere, until I tired of its size and weight. The Nexus 6P, while large for a smartphone, is much smaller than the iPad and yet it provides similar battery life experience.

Prior to the Nexus 6P arriving, I speculated whether I would start using it more than my Nexus 9 tablet. So far in practice I have not, when I am sitting on the couch I usually grab the tablet to check social networks and read web articles.

I don’t find it comfortable to hold the Nexus 6P for long periods of time while reading a book, it feels too small to hold in two hands for long and my hand starts to cramp when hold it in one hand for long. I do find the 6P’s screen plenty large for reading text.

The larger screen size brings me to the only real significant issue I have with the 6P, and even it is a nit and more a fault of software developers than Google. I use a few different 4 x 1 widgets that fit perfectly across the width of the screen on the Moto X, but are a half inch short on the 6P.

Developers can write their widgets so that users can re-size them but unfortunately that is not the case for the Yahoo Sports widget. Sure, there are alternate sports widgets available, but really, why can’t all developers make theirs re-sizable?

In November I had the following expectations:

  • Have much longer battery life than my current phone, the Moto X 2013. Expectation met
  • Run much faster, not slow down, and not lock up. The Nexus 6P is much faster than the Moto X, and I’ve yet to experience any slow downs or lock ups.
  • Be noticeably larger than the Moto X and it will take me some time getting accustomed to the size. The Nexus 6P is definitely larger, and while I am getting accustomed to it, I wonder how I will feel about it during summer.
  • Replace some for what I use a tablet, particularly reading The Nexus 6P has not replaced my tablet.
  • Receive updates faster than any other Android phone because it is a Nexus. Google has released version 6.0.1 of Android a few weeks ago, and it is already on my Nexus 6P.

In summary, if you are in the market for a new Android smartphone, and can get by with the larger size, I highly recommend the Nexus 6P, it may well be the best Android smartphone that you can buy.

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New Surface Pen

Today I received the new Surface Pen that I will be using with my Surface 3. Back when Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 4, they also announced the new pen, which works with all Surface models.

Three things attract me to the new Surface Pen. First, it has replacable tips that add more or less friction to make writing on the Surface’s glass screen feel like paper. Next, the top button on the pen acts as an eraser, mimicking a pencil. Finally, the new pen has one flat edge that prevents the pen from rolling off a table.

The new tips are for me what make it worth buying the new Surface Pen because I write a lot. You get four tips ranging from the least friction (2H) to the most friction (B). The HB tip provides a “medium” degree of friction, and is what ships in the pen, while you get another with the tip set.

The tips come in a holder, color coded and labeled. One end of the holder is the tip extraction tool, it is simply a wide plastic tweezer in which you insert the installed pen tip, press to squeeze the two sides and pull out the pen; the tip remains in the tweezer’s grip.

I tested all of the tips, and I think the 2H tip, which has the least amount of friction, is most comparable to the original Surface Pen. When you use the 2H tip the pen easily slides along the screen and feels like you are writing on glass, which of course is what you are doing. To me a 2H tip feels like a rollerball or fine ballpoint pen.

The HB and B (medium friction and most friction) tips feel more like a felt tip pen, and I haven’t really decided which I like better. While I clearly feel the difference between 2H and HB tips, I don’t feel much difference between HB and B. For now I will use the HB tip.

I did not think that the flat side on the new Surface Pen would make much difference, but I have found that it makes writing more comfortable. Place your index finger on the bottom of the flat edge and you will find the pen more comfortable to hold than placing your index finger on the round portion of the pen.

The original Surface Pen is completely round and has two buttons on one side, one to erase and the other to select. To erase something you press and hold the lower button while scribbling over what you are erasing. With the new Surface Pen, you flip the pen over and glide the “eraser,” which is the top button, over the area on the screen you want to erase. One can debate whether flipping the pen over or pressing and holding an eraser button is faster.

The new Surface Pen does have a select button but it is not obvious. Along 90% of the flat side is a raised area that appears to simply provide padding, but you can press in the lowest portion of that pad, which is the select button. If you place your index finger on the lowest part of the flat side (nearest the tip), you slide your index finger slightly up to use the select button.

People who do not use the Pen to write a lot on their Surface will not find the $59 price worth spending, and I expect most people who already own a pen may not want to pay that much for a replacement. I did find that you can pair multiple pens to a Surface, so I can leave one on my desk in case I lose or forget the one I normally use.

The new Surface Pen comes in three colors, silver, black, and blue, and can be bought at the Microsoft Store. If you write a lot using OneNote, I think you will find the new tips provide a better writing experience.

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Reading The Web

webAdThe World Wide Web has a wealth of information but reading it is becoming more and more frustrating as ads appear all over web pages. Many people have given up even using the web, replacing it with smartphone or tablet apps or social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Those who chose to not be chased away from the web have employed ad blockers in their fight against the bloat and distraction of ads. I have not yet installed an ad blocker, but I do utilize a number of tools to make reading more enjoyable.

My desktop browser of choice is Chrome, although I wish it had the reading modes available in Firefox and Edge. You activate the reading mode of both browsers by clicking a button in the browser address bar that removes ads and displays text in a font of a size you specify. Pages seem to load instantly, partly because it has already been retrieved by the browser so it is simply being reformatted. I wish there was a way to make the reading mode a default, or to tell the browser to use it before loading a web page.

I really like Microsoft Edge, mostly because it is noticeably faster than any other browser on my Surface 3, but it doesn’t support plug-ins, which means Lastpass is not available and that renders the browser nearly unusable for me. Even though Chrome is slower than Edge, I still prefer it because of how well it handles the web apps I use.

Evernote’s Clearly extension for Chrome provides the same reading mode built-in to Firefox and Edge, and it has the added benefit of providing a way to highlight text and save directly to Evernote, which is my personal information database. Clearly also works with Firefox.

Another tool I use to read the web is Pocket, which provides a way to save web pages to read later as well as providing a clean reading mode just like those built-in to Firefox and Edge. Pocket apps are available for smartphones and tablets, so I can save pages to read later on any device.

I use the River4 RSS aggregator to retrieve articles from hundreds of web sites and when I find an article that I want to read, I right-click the link and click Save To Pocket. Unfortunately, there is not a similar way to save a link to Pocket in Chrome for Android, instead you have to first load the page then use Android share to send the page to Pocket.

Firefox for Android has a built-in reading list that works like Pocket, and you can tap and hold a link and then tap Add to Reading List. If the Firefox reading-list synchronized between the Android and desktop versions I would probably use it instead of Pocket, and with that use Firefox more than I do today. My understanding is that Mozilla is working on adding the reading list to the desktop version (for a period of time it was included) but for now Pocket is integrated by default.

You can configure the reading list to display by default when you open a new tab in Firefox for Android, which means my reading list is just a tab away. I like the reading list feature so much that Firefox has become the preferred browser on my Nexus 9. I’ve even configured Firefox to be the default browser for Android, and find it to be faster than Chrome on the Nexus 9.

Another way to add items to the Firefox reading list is via the Android share function. For example, in Nuzzel on Android, tap the share button on an article and then tap Add To Firefox. Of course, you can also tap Add To Pocket. I wish Android provided users with a way to sort the order that options appear in the share menu.

It is unfortunate that web content providers have let their desire to monetize make the web horrible for reading. Long time Internet users will point out that what we now have was inevitable as soon as the Internet become available for commercial use. Fortunately, several tools are available that make reading the web better, but I fear we may be in an ever escalating war that will just turn the web into a commercial wasteland.

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Smartphones In November 2008

T-Mobile G1 launch eventSeven years ago today I was a guest on the MobileAppsToday Podcast and talked about the T-Mobile G1, which was the first Android smartphone. Tonight I will participate in a seventh anniversary recording, and no doubt we will talk about how Android and the smartphone personal computing market has matured.

In preparation for the podcast I spent some time jotting down some thoughts of how things where then, seven years ago, and how they are now. It occurs to me that what I have are some good topics for a series of blog posts about smartphones as we head towards the end of 2015.

To start, we have to remember back seven years and remind ourselves that in 2008 smartphones as we now know them were very new. Apple had just started selling the iPhone on June 29, 2007. Prior to the iPhone, the iPod was Apple’s most successful consumer device and in fact I recall during that first iPhone announcement Steve Jobs made it a point to describe the iPhone as an iPod that can do more, although that first model only ran web apps and apps specifically written by Apple.

Prior to the iPhone, Microsoft had been selling Windows Mobile smartphones and Pocket PC Phone Editions for several years, Palm had the Treos, and RIM had the Blackberry, all of which enjoyed success selling to professionals and businesses but did not gain a great deal of success in the broad consumer cellphone market.

sidekickiiPerhaps the one device that did have some success with consumers was the T-Mobile Sidekick, also known as the Hiptop Danger, that was released in 2002. The Sidekick had a screen that flipped out from the base to reveal a physical keyboard, its operating system was based on Java and it automatically backed up all personal data to the cloud. For apps the Sidekick featured an instant messaging client that worked with AIM, Yahoo, and MSN, and it along with e-mail were the primary functions of the device along with phone calls.

The Hiptop Danger, which eventually became property of Microsoft, can be thought of as the forefather of the T-Mobile G1. Andy Rubin was a co-founder of Danger and left the company in 2003 to create a new company, which was later acquired by Google. At Google Rubin led the development of a new operating system that would take on the name of his former company, Android.

It should be no surprise that the T-Mobile G1 had similar hardware features to the Danger given Rubin’s prior experience. Further, in 2007 it was widely believed that to be usable for inputting text, a device must have a physical keyboard. At the time, Blackberry was the market leader and had what is still believed to be the best physical keyboards for smartphones.

What was most shocking at the time about the iPhone is that it did NOT have a physical keyboard. Instead, the iPhone had an on-screen keyboard with predictive capabilities to determine the letters and words one intended to type. Despite Steve Job’s claims that with its predictive capabilities the on-screen keyboard could be just as good as a physical keyboard, some people were skeptical.

At the time that T-Mobile began selling the G1 on October 22, 2008, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Palm were the incumbents, and the iPhone was the up-and-comer having been sold for just a little over a year. While most people considered the iPhone easier to use than its competition, it was functionally hampered by the web-app model it launched with, but that was corrected in July, 2008 when Apple introduced the iTunes App Store as a means for third-party developers to release standalone apps.

world_wide_smartphone_sales_share

While Apple did finally provide a way for developers to create apps for the iPhone, before an app became available for download it had to be approved by Apple and that process took time and often lead to denials. The first version of Android came with an app store called the Android Market, and Google provided minimal review before placing most apps in the Market. Further, Android had, and continues to have, the ability to directly install apps from third party source web sites or directly from personal computers.

In November, 2008 we saw the beginning of two contrasting approaches to what I like to call the real personal computer market that includes smartphones and tablets. Apple’s approach focuses on providing the best end-user experience by controlling the hardware design (only Apple makes iPhones and iPads) and the software that runs on their hardware. Google’s approach focuses on providing users a wide range of options, allowing for multiple manufactures to sell devices that run Android, and even allowing them to customize some of the appearance of the software to match the manufacturer’s branding.

In November 2015 there are more smartphones running Android world wide than iPhones, while the iPhone may be more profitable for Apple and remains to be in the eyes of most the best smartphone. In fact, it seems as though both company’s strategy is working, and with a market much larger than traditional personal computers, it seems both strategies will enjoy long term success.

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