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Tag Archives: Windows

5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Facebook Home

FB Android

Facebook Home (for Android)

Facebook has its own phone now. It’s a midrange HTC phone called the HTC First, which can be bought for $99 on a 2-year AT&T contract in the U.S. (EE and Orange are supported in Europe). It runs a lightly customized version of Android (not even a fork) called Facebook Home. For a few other compatible non-First phones, Facebook Home can be downloaded as an app from the Google Play Store. Facebook Home provides deeper social notifications, such as full-screen (ad-choked) notifications on your lock screen and home screen, and these notifications come from people rather than from apps, apparently.

As with most things Facebook-related, I regard this as a ton of hype from a company that is essentially a one hit wonder. Here’s why I remain skeptical of Facebook Home.

1. “People First” is a Losing Strategy

Facebook Home is, to use the company’s own language, all about people and not apps. If that sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft has been using the same language to talk about WIndows Phone for some time now. What’s worse, this tagline doesn’t even make sense: are the apps you use on Android or iOS somehow not about “people”? The portrait of the stock iOS/Android user that one gets from FB and MS is of someone who indulges lots of discrete, antisocial apps like PDF readers, music players, podcasting clients, and note-takers, and that somehow this must be stopped by putting “people” back at the forefront.

But this portrait is bullshit. It ignores every trend that’s happened on iOS and Android over the past five years. Just look at iOS alone. For an OS that’s not about “people,” it was the perfect proving ground for Instagram (an app so popular that FB had to desperately buy it for ~$1B), Flipboard, Albumatic, and Vine. Cross-platform (read: iOS + Android above others) apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and other SMS-replacements have also sprung up without any need to embrace the FB/MS “people first” ethos. As Michael Gartenberg has noted, resorting to this type of language indicates that one is actually very much involved in a heated battle over apps. It’s always about apps, in other words, and the only people who talk about “people” instead are the ones who are losing the app race. If people were all that mattered, a simple dumbphone with a contacts list would be enough.

2. Facebook Still Doesn’t Get Mobile

FB has the same problem as MS, namely that it wasn’t born mobile (to use Qualcomm’s icky catchphrase) and is having to adjust accordingly. The “app” concept – that high-quality, mostly self-contained programs that do a narrow range of things well – was so revolutionary because it finally addressed the silent majority of users who never multitask and just want their software to do well-defined tasks in relative isolation from each other, while preserving OS stability and device battery life. This is why iOS is so successful and appealing to multiple demographics. From the demos at today’s presentation, Facebook Home has all of the charm of a PC-era trojan that hijacks your device. Facebook is already a huge battery drainer on Android, and now that it has deeper access to your device, as well as the ability to run ads in your cover feed, it’s going to do everything it can to erase the optimized experience that iOS and top-tier Android have been working toward for years. Of course, many people won’t care.

3. It’s Confusing

Most people don’t know what a launcher is. This won’t be a problem for users who buy the HTC First, but for people who download the Home app (odd how a service “not about apps” is itself an app only salable via Google’s Play Store), it’ll be interesting to see how well an app that takes over your entire Android experience fares. Custom launchers (Nova, Apex, Go) are usually the province of power users who know Android in and out, but for the casual FB user, it’ll likely be hard to get back to the stock Android launcher once they go through with the Home setup. This specter of a potentially broken, overly complicated software experience relates back to point #2.

4. Who Will Buy The Hardware?

The HTC First is $99 with a 2-year contract with AT&T. For the same price, you could get a Galaxy S3 on any of the four major American carriers, or an iPhone 4S with Facebook integration into iOS, ad-free. Which would you choose? Granted, I have a low opinion of the savvy of many Facebook users and as such may underestimate how many of them may want to walk into AT&T and buy “the Facebook phone.”

5. Facebook is an iPhone-centric Company

Zuckerberg himself uses an iPhone, and the rest of the company seems to have given much more mindshare to the simple iOS experience, without going out its way to exploit the peculiarities of Android (widgets, larger screen sizes, etc.)

-The ScreenGrab Team

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Facebook Goes Back to Basics

For the vast majority of Facebook users, there is no notion of Facebook without News Feed and its inevitable stream of political polemics, cat photos, and here’s-me-on-Mount-Everest status updates. But Facebook existed for 2.5 seemingly interminable years without it. Plus, its introduction in August 2006 sparked a strong backlash that, in retrospect, looks weird and out of step with the “progress” of social media, but also predicative of the byzantine privacy maze that would ultimately drive numerous Facebook users away to Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram (and yes, I know that Instagram “is” Facebook, technically, but all of its value-add was created by the original Instagram team and it would never have succeeded if mobile-addled Facebook had conceived it).

I began using Facebook in the late summer of 2004 on a Dell desktop running Windows XP (almost everyone at my university had a similar machine; if I were to return today, I suspect I would struggle to find any student who had a desktop running any OS). It’s startling to think about what a cesspool consumer Wintel computing was at that time. Microsoft’s blasé attitude toward security meant that your machine could contract a terminal virus anytime you ventured into the wild west of Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, the wide-open, custom-wallpapered world of MySpace was the default “open” (very much so) tool for networking with friends online, and it possessed a similar “enter if you dare” air. In this context, Facebook was startling. A walled garden with a minimalist look, limited to other university students, and safe: it was an oasis. It was a harbinger of the end of Wintel dominance (which incidentally peaked that year) and the rise of newer, more closely controlled platforms.

Opening up pre-News Feed Facebook took you to your profile, when included some oddities as a fully editable “wall,” a laundry list of your attributes (birthday, last update, etc), and a modest “Quick Search” box in the upper left, which let you find your friends or perform general stalking (just kidding). During this time, the careful pruning and customization of one’s profile consumed most of the time that s/he spent on Facebook.

News Feed changed that in 2006. It was perhaps Facebook’s last innovation, the one that made Facebook look like it does now, and it was very forward-looking for a company that would in subsequent years so often find itself playing catchup. Twitter had been launched only a few months earlier, but wouldn’t really take off for several more years. News Feed was, for ~8 million users, the first look at an easily navigable timeline of status updates and posts. Facebook was now as much about reading the brags of others and it was about bragging on one’s own behalf. It was a flood of information, like a mini-Google for one’s own contacts.

But on the back of Facebook’s runaway user growth in the late 00s and its attendant drive toward monetization, News Feed’s value as a way to get, well, news about friends, began to deteriorate. The informally dubbed, completely opaque EdgeRank algorithm began to prioritize certain types of posts and traffic, meaning that you might never see a friend’s post without having to go to her actual profile. Facebook Ads further muddled the News Feed with “targeted” garbage, making AdBlock all but necessary for viewing the site, but even that slight fix didn’t address the eccentricities of EdgeRank.

Basically, Facebook (in its defense) matured at an odd time in computing. Its explosion in growth neatly dovetailed with the rise of the iPhone and Android. Along the way, it clung to the desktop-born paradigm of having a “profile” while also trying to keep up with new mobile app usage paradigms. It’s funny to look back at it now, but Steve Jobs’ demo of something as completely-taken-for-granted-now as a scrollable contacts list (when he showed off the first iPhone) forced Facebook’s hand. It needed better, more scrollable content in a continuous stream, rather than the discrete profiles that has been its original bread and butter.

The obvious solution to this need has been more focus on images and videos, both from a content curator’s perspective (for Facebook) and a user’s perspective (since sharing images/video feels a bit easier than typing out long textual updates on a mobile device). Facebook has been forced to keep up with both Google+ and Tumblr on these fronts, two networks that came of age once mobile was already in full swing and hence had more time to accommodate image sharing and streams/feeds from the ground up.

Facebook is too late in making these changes. At best, they could have implemented them several years ago when Flipboard launched, since Flipboard’s ability to aggregate your Facebook feed is already a far more progressive view of how one’s News Feed and Wall can be translated into a mobile-friendly, images-first format. Of course, the number of Flipboard users is small relative to the number of Facebook users, so Facebook hasn’t been hurt by its dalliance. And that’s part of the issue: Facebook, like the horrible XP cesspool I mentioned at the outset, has so many users that it can almost afford to be lazy or careless with the quality of its product, since critical mass was reached so long ago and the costs of leaving can be painful.

Today’s Google+–inspired updates to the News Feed – which now permits multiple feeds and greater priority for photos and videos has a ton of minuses for users, including louder/more prominent ads (for the sad souls who don’t use AdBlock) and more opacity in terms of EdgeRank algorithms. But it may have a slight plus (no pun intended), too. With the gradual pollution of the News Feed and the concomitant rise of Graph Search (even if overrated), there may be an opportunity for individual profiles to shine again.

Tired of News Feed? Then use Graph Search to get away and find profiles more easily. It’s perhaps ironic that Facebook’s efforts at mobile-centric modernization may take it back to its roots as a profile-based service (with an assist from its Graph Search), but I think it’s a predictable consequence of Facebook’s monetization. It isn’t part of a wider ecosystem like Google+, nor well-defined by a particular demographic (artists) like Tumblr, so it has to be increasingly forward it how it tries to get revenue from its incredibly varied users. With these stabs at making more money from larger photos and larger ads, user fatigue may continue to rise and drive users back to the profile basics, whether they were there in the 2004-2006 ancient history era or not.

But will that profile-checking occur on Facebook or elsewhere? A major part of Facebook fatigue is that Facebook has too many opaque mechanisms – byzantine privacy controls, EdgeRank algorithms, inconsistent/unpredictable search results – which get in the way of actually comfortably/safely connecting. For many users, these obstacles can be overcome, in the way that enterprise software users often overcome terrible products and continue being productive, at least at some cost. The relative anonymity of Tumblr, or the clean feeds/profiles of Google+ provide real alternatives, but as much as I’d like to hope that better products will win out, Facebook will sputter on, til at least 2023 or something.

-The ScreenGrab Team

5 Tips for Getting Started with Chrome OS

Chrome OS appears to be a hit, thanks to Acer’s workhorse $199 C7 Chromebook and Samsung’s sleek $249 model. Chromebooks are often construed as “companion” devices, meant to supplement a Mac or Windows laptop/desktop, but in my experience they feel more like companions to a tablet/phone. Their modest power, stripped-down OS, and rich ecosystems make them much like a traditional computer influxed with cutting-edge mobile-informed software.

That said, transitioning from a traditional Mac/Windows machine to a Chromebook can be jarring. After all, you can’t install any native apps, and you have to run nearly everything thru the Web browser, all the while being conscious of the machine’s limited power. Here are some tips for getting started:

1. Samsung or bust

The variety of Chromebook models is diversifying, with both Lenovo and HP now getting into the game. The trend is sure to accelerate now that OEMs seem increasingly skeptical of Windows 8.

The $249 Samsung Chromebook is currently the best value on the market. It has a sleek, much-more-expensive-than-it-looks body, and it runs totally silent and cool. Its custom ARM processor is power-efficient and gives you up to seven hours of battery life. It can also support a 3G connection. It escapes the cheap netbook look that plagues the Acer C7 and it’s lighter and better performing that the heavier Samsung 550. While HP’s Pavilion Chromebook is still to be released, its heavy body (replete with Ethernet port) and power-hungry Intel processor don’t inspire confidence.

2. Consider an Ethernet-to-USB dongle

While wifi is more than enough for more uses of the Chromebook – I enjoy playing Pandora One while cooking or exercising, or using it while watching TV -, power users may also want to think about an Ethernet-to-USB dongle for the Samsung Chromebook, which doesn’t have a native Ethernet port. The cabled connection is great for more intensive productivity tasks, such as using Google Drive/Docs or uploading/editing photos, since it gives a nice speed boost to the machine’s modest guts.

3. Customize your dock

Screenshot 2013-02-05 at 8.56.46 PM

While Chrome OS only runs Web apps (with the exception of the browser itself and the file manager), it still offers a comforting desktop metaphor that makes launching apps easy. Filling the dock with icons gives you quick access to full Web apps like Evernote or Tweetdeck, or to your favorite sties, such as the New York Times (optimized for Chrome) or Phandroid.

4. Use the Search key

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Chromebooks feature a novel Search key which is a great productivity enhancer. It searches all apps and files on your machine, in addition to a standard Google search.

5. Find equivalents for your Mac/PC apps – they’re out there

I often hear that Chromebooks “can’t do anything” and aren’t serious laptops. This may be true if you’re a hardcore gamer or Wall Street analyst, but otherwise a Chromebook can do almost anything a casual user or student might need to, using apps from the rich Chrome Web Store:

Productivity – Evernote, Google Drive, Write Space, and the excellent Drive-integrated Scratchpad can perform almost any writing or blogging functions

Photos and Images – PicMonkey is a nice lightweight photo editor, while Bomomo is an excellent drawing app.

Music – Pandora and Google Play Music both run flawlessly in the browser (and can be stored in the dock), and things should get even better soon once Spotify pushes out its Web app.

Video – Hulu, Internet TV, and YouTube are some of the choice options here.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Chrome OS Gains Traction: Is The “Netbook” Really Dead?

Acer reported today that computers running Google’s free Chrome OS accounted for up to ten percent of its US PC shipments since November 13, when the company released its $199 C7 model Chromebook. That’s small in absolute terms, but surprising in light of the nascence of Chrome, as well as the even greater novelty of Chromebooks with the right hardware and design (such as Samsung’s model) for Google’s minimalist operating system. Some have framed the issue as a windfall for OEMs, who now have even more leverage to call out the emperor’s new clothes that is Windows 8, since Chrome represents – at long last – a commercially viable non-Mac alternative to desktop Windows. But I think there are two more pressing questions that the apparent success of Chrome raises:

1) Is Chrome really a “desktop” OS?

2) Does Chrome provide hope for inexpensive laptops to beat back the tide of tablets?

Question 1 seems easy enough to answer on the surface. Chrome doesn’t run any native apps and almost hilariously cordons off your files (the hallmark of all desktop computing for 30 years) in an app called, well, Files. Everything runs side by side in the browser and notifications (Gmail, NYT, Google Talk) for anything come directly to the desktop – I would go so far as to say it dispenses with the very idea of a “browser,” since it is agnostic of the notion of “offline” existence and knows that, anymore, your devices are all doorsteps without a connection. Chrome OS is to the Internet what iOS was/is to file systems – it would rather you just not think about it/them.

And I think that it is this always-online existence – and more specifically, the way in which Chrome takes the Internet for granted – that makes both Chrome and the Chromebook line that runs it a possible foil to the storyline of laptops and especially netbooks completely giving way to mobile devices and tablets. PCs are in a rut for myriad reasons: bad software, price, and inefficiency. Why pay $1000 for an email and Facebook machine, after all? At the other end of the price spectrum, netbooks – cheap, modestly powered laptops running Linux or Windows – have suffered tremendously at the hands of the iPad in particular, which offers basically the same experience but with a better OS. Moreover, the iPad has crushed netbooks because iOS makes it extremely clear exactly what your device can do – your apps are clearly differentiated and displayed in a simple visual interface. What you see is what you get; no complex unfriendly file systems or cumbersome user interfaces.

But iOS, even amid the pain it has exacted on traditional PCs, still clings to the somewhat traditional idea of native apps – in fact, it is (in the user’s eyes) a catalog of native apps tweaked to the OS’s strengths and capabilities. The latter point is important in differentiating the iPad from a netbook – a netbook can theoretically try to run many of the more demanding Windows/Linux apps, but performance is bad, an example of users being given too much freedom which in turn leads to a poor experience. The Chromebook line is by almost any technical standard a “netbook” line. These laptops all use either very simple Intel processors or even ARM chips, have no optical drives, and are extremely cheap, with the C7 in particular available for a basically unmatched price.

But unlike traditional netbooks, the experience is carefully and adroitly managed. All “apps” more or less come from the Chrome Web Store and downloadable executable files are forbidden. An “app” tray simulates a traditional desktop computing environment, but lest you think you’re still in Kansas, note that all browser shortcuts (new tab, new incognito, etc) work directly from said desktop.

Basically, Chrome packages a radical new notion of computing – always online, with the whole Web integrated into or at least in close proximity to your apps – in a highly digestible package, much like iOS did when it debuted. And in doing so, it is redefining what a “netbook” or cheap computer even is and what it can do.  While it can’t compete with smartphones, it could grow into a real competitor most tablets, especially if Google actually makes a Nexus-grade Chromebook and further hybridizes Chrome and Android.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Windows Phone and “Communication”

I went to an AT&T store today to get my Nexus 4 fully activated. The experience ended up being much more positive than my admittedly low expectations had prepped me for. Along the way, the tech savvy clerk and I discussed his experiences with some of the devices in the store, specifically the HTC One X and the Nokia Lumia 920.

I won’t bore you with reviews of these phones, both of which are fantastic pieces of hardware that are flagship devices for their respective platforms. But in justifying his abandonment of the 920 in favor of the One X, he said that Windows Phone was good for “communicating” but not “much else,” with much of said “much else” being apps.

It reminded me of a recent TechCrunch piece about Nokia’s decline, in which the author argued that the Finnish giant lost its way when it became obsessed with improving the phone functionality of its services and not foreseeing that data would become more important than voice. Ironic then, that is partnership with Microsoft would end up bringing it back to the same behavior that necessitated such a partnership in the first place.

Microsoft and Nokia either fail to see that there is more value in data than voice/traditional comms or they simply can’t compete when it comes to data. I expect that the latter is true, primarily due to their tardiness in entering mobile with Windows Phone 7/8 (three years after the first iPhone, two years after the Android G1), but at the same time I think that they’ve failed to compete in part because they failed to see the value of data.

Windows Phone is in a way the software equivalent of Nokia’s current hardware: beautiful, totally different from anything in the mainstream, and barely used. As a “phone” – something that can make high-quality calls, sort thru contacts, and perform basic tasks, it’s fine, but when you try to do something as simple as peruse Twitter, it stumbles early and often.

If it’s not enough to simply “communicate” anymore, however, then the carriers themselves ought to be just a bit wary of the smartphone market’s vitality. While hoary institutions like SMS and cellular data are not shuffling of this mortal coil any time soon, the notion that the “phone” is the default communication device could be in trouble.

iMessage and Snapchat, whose combined scale is still small, are nevertheless two excellent examples of lightweight apps that would be right at home on a wearable device like Google Glass or the increasingly mythical iWatch “smartwatch.” And while such services would allow for “communication,” they would be data hogs first and foremost, with features like cellular calls and SMS likely taking a back seat to the various in-app walled gardens, or to some aggregation service like Google Now.

One could argue that we are already there with smartphones. I know people who have moved the iPhone Phone app to the dreaded junk folder along with defaults like Videos and Reminders. But the elite status of the iPhone is still seen in the huge prestige gap between it and the iPod, the latter of which has no competitors and is more about fun than a full mobile experience.

Oddly, the lackluster status of Windows Phone as a glorified feature phone could open the doors for Microsoft and Nokia to simply leapfrog the smartphone paradigm and release a must have wearable computer. This is what Apple did with the iPod: lagging badly in the CD burning race (the first iMacs shipped without one), it decided to just change the game rather than play catchup. The same can be said of what it did to netbooks with the iPad.

In any case this seems to confirm my ongoing pessimism about Windows Phone, its opportunities in China notwithstanding. “Communicating” isn’t enough, which of course is obvious in the smartphone era – but though the phone is still king for now, this decline in the value of traditional “communication” means that it is already losing ground to the very things (data, apps, services) that is so perfectly enables (via cellular networks).

Paradoxically, by not seeing that, Microsoft et all may be best positioned to exploit the shift – they could just throw in the towel when it comes to smartphones, and try their luck at something else. But I expect at some level that they do not so much “not see” that a smartphone’s value has more to do with data than call quality and specs, but that they instead have just not competed, in large part because they just don’t get what users want.

– The ScreenGrabTeam