Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Google Voice

Update 7/15/09: Today Google announced a Google Voice app for Android and Blackberry phones. Google announced last month that they would soon begin sending Google Voice invitations to those who submitted requests on their sign-up list.

Grand Central
is Google's free telephone management system.

I've been a Grand Central user since 2007, though we haven't really incorporated it into our life in a big way. Whenever we need to submit a phone number in a public way (we have it engraved onto the back of an iPod, for example), I always use our GC number. Grand Central is being replaced by something called Google Voice.

Right now, the Google Voice service is only available to Grand Central users, but Google is offering a notification sign-up list.

I wrote the following about Grand Central in November 2007:

GrandCentral is a free service which allows you to route calls made one central phone number (which you get from GrandCentral) to your selection of destination voicemail boxes an other phones. Here are some features:

* Screen Callers - GrandCentral looks up callers from its address book and shows you who's calling. If they're not in the book, it asks the caller for their name and stores it.
* Block Callers - Just add numbers to a blacklist.
* Listen In - Hear people leaving messages, and pick up if you wish.
* Call Record
* Notifications - receive email or SMS voicemail notifications
* Ring Different Phones - ring different phones based upon who is calling
* Greetings - different greetings based upon caller numbers
* RingShare - custom rings for callers by their ID
* WebCall - people call you from a web page without showing your number
* CallSwitch - while talking to someone on any of your phone locations (cell, home, work, other cell, etc.), press the star (*) key - all your other phones will ring and you pick one up, the call is transferred - very cool
* Click2Call - while using the Web interface for GrandCentral to view contacts, click "Call" - GC will call you, and call the contact for you

GrandCentral is in beta, and currently on "by invitation" from other users, but you can request an invitation on the site. GrandCentral was acquired by Google in June 2007. Here is Google's description of the service:

GrandCentral offers many features that complement the phone services you already use. If you have multiple phone numbers (e.g., home, work, cell), you get one phone number that you can set to ring all, some, or none of your phones, based on who's calling. This way, your phone number is tied to you, and not your location or job. The service also gives you one central voice mailbox. You can listen to your voicemails online or from any phone, forward them to anybody, add the caller to your address book, block a caller as spam, and a lot more. You can even listen in on voicemail messages from your phone while they are being recorded, or switch a call from your cell phone to your desk phone and back again. All in all, you'll have a lot more control over your phones.

GrandCentral will no doubt be monetized at some point. Perhaps it will become a pay service, or perhaps Google will find a way to insert ads in the onilne content or (hopefully not) in the phone messaging system. Perhaps it provides a solution for you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On the Loss of FireWire from the MacBook

(I'm writing this in early March of 2009, many months after the introduction of the "aluminum" MacBook. I'm sure many have written on the subject, but as I was writing this to Apple's Feedback form for the MacBook, the document grew in length, so I decided to post it here.) 

With the introduction of the "aluminum" or "unibody" MacBook to their product line in October of 2008, and the MacBook air in January of that same year, Apple, Inc. has produced the first Macs in a decade without FireWire connectivity.

I must comment upon this disappearance of FireWire connectivity from Macintosh products - specifically the MacBook. I appreciate that, as in the past, Apple strives to forge ahead with new paradigms and protocols (i.e., the personal computer, the mouse, WYSIWYG, 3.5" floppy disk, ADB, FireWire). I also appreciate the practicalities and economics of manufacturing. However, I feel this single change in the product line had been a damaging one to Apple's loyal users.

Increasingly, personal computer users find the need to own a laptop computer. Most users seek to strike a balance between need and cost, so there is always a market for lower-cost alternatives. The MacBook's price point is far lower than the entry-level MacBook Pro ($1,000 vs. $2,0000 as of March 2009) - enough that a MacBook Pro is not a viable alternative to many prospective buyers.

Apple won an Emmy Award for FireWire's contribution to television. More importantly, the ubiquitousness of FireWire in digital video camcorders has provided a fantastic infrastructure for consumer video for nearly a decade, providing not only an easy way to transfer footage from camcorder to personal computer, but a way to losslessly move high-quality footage back and forth to tape. This infrastructure still works, and though most newer high-definition camcorders may eschew tape as a recording medium - and therefore the need for FireWire's unique suitability for ingesting realtime video streams - many consumers will continue to shoot their home videos on existing FireWire-based camcorders.

I have been a video professional for nearly 30 years, and naturally find myself discussing home-video production issues with family and friends. My wife is a college professor who teaches digital video production, and I've acted as the Mac consultant for her school's video production labs since 1995. Though we see many of her students purchasing HD camcorders which do NOT require FireWire, many still acquire FireWire-based cameras. This does NOT mean that they have the budget to spend an extra thousand dollars to purchase a MacBook Pro over a MacBook. Yes, video professionals who happen to be generating income (which is by no means the bulk of "video professionals") may consider it a business expense to spend money on whatever equipment is necessary, but a large population of prospective professionals must still be cautious with their budget.

Likewise, of all the friends and family we know with video cameras, we know NONE but ourselves who own an HD camcorder - and the HDV camcorder we own requires FireWire to ingest footage from tape. For that matter, of the few consumers we know with HDTVs, many don't even have HD content provided into their televisions. If a prospective consumer is unlikely to spend the extra $1,000 on a laptop, they are also unlikely to "upgrade" their camcorder for $600+ to a non-FireWire HD model because their new MacBook doesn't support it. Non-FireWire RAM-based camcorders may be the future, but the transition from tape-based DV camcorders will still take several years. Any notion that excluding FireWire from personal computers will "stimulate" sales of these new camcorders still excludes a large population of Mac-buying users.

Many Mac users who work or play with applications that generate large amounts of data have established collections of FireWire hard drives. These are fantastic repositories for media files, providing easy transportable storage. We have a large collection of drives, and their usefulness is proven every day. My wife's school owns hundreds of FireWire external drives, providing a durable and convenient method for students to store their own video editing projects, and work on them wherever an available Macintosh is located.

Thanks to Apple's "Target Disk Mode" (another endangered concept), my Macintosh I.T. work is made far simpler, allowing me to clone, backup, and copy entire Mac volumes quickly and reliably - using bootable FireWire hard drives. USB hard drive bootability only works on Intel Macs, and is a dicey proposition at best.

By coincidence, my family purchased the previous generation of MacBook only a few months before the non-FireWire MacBook released. We continue to say that we "dodged that bullet." My writing this was inspired by a friend who has currently reached an impasse, unwilling to buy a new MacBook because it has no FireWire, and even more unwilling to spend the extra money for a MacBook Pro.

Yes, progressive thinking and progressive business often means "moving on" and abandoning the past. Apple has done this heroically at many points over the years - sometimes successfully (OS X is the shining example), and sometimes not.

FireWire will undoubtedly pass into the mists of time, eventually. But now is not the time.

P.S. As of 3/10/2009, Apple still sells the "White 13-inch MacBook" in the Apple Store for $999, which does have FireWire, and is mostly identical to the 2008 MacBook. Here are details of the model at Everymac.com.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

View YouTube High-Quality as Default

In 2008, YouTube added "high quality" support (and more recently, high-definition) to their popular video-sharing site. Videos which were uploaded after this point are available to view in both "Normal" and "High Quality" modes, switchable by clicking on a link below the video window.

By default, every YouTube video begins to play in normal mode, and requires the user to manually choose high quality. If you have a (free) YouTube account, you can configure your browser to always play in high quality (if available - again, this only applies to video clips uploaded since late 2008). Here's how:
  1. Go to YouTube in your browser. (Make sure you are logged in to your YouTube account.)
  2. Click the "Account" button in the upper-right corner of the YouTube home page.
  3. In the sidebar of tabs on the left, click "Playback Setup" (click the image below to enlarge)
  4. Choose "I have a fast connection. Always play higher-quality video when it's available.
  5. Click "Save Changes"
Now, whenever you're logged in to your YouTube account on a computer, if a high-quality version of the video is available, it will automatically play.