Monday, September 27, 2010

The End of XMarks

Today Marks announced that they will be closing their doors soon. They had a great bookmark syncing service for Firefox which made it possible to share bookmarks across multiple computers and access them on the web. It was great for people who had more than one computer (at and at work for example) or who simply wanted an easy way to import their browsers when they upgraded their computers. You could even access your bookmarks on your cellphone through XMarks' web interface.

It was a great, innovative service—real cloud computing at a time when most people had not even heard of the term. But their support page for the shutdown shows quite dramatically, why XMarks will cease operations soon. Simply put, the functionality of XMarks has been taken over by web browsers. Beginning with Chrome, all of the major web browsers today have added a syncing solution for bookmarks in recent months. While XMarks could also sync bookmarks between different web browsers, most people tend to pick a browser they like and stick with it.

That's certainly what I do. While I occasionally run different browsers just to compare and keep on top of what's out there, I've mostly stuck with Chrome over the last couple of years after having been a loyal Firefox user for many more years. And before that, I had stuck with Netscape for the better part of a decade. In fact, even though I have fond memories of XMarks, the truth is that I haven't used it in years. And even if I was a big browser slut, I could always use a social bookmarking service like Delicious without installing XMarks. So while the closing of XMarks seems surprising to me at first, perhaps it shouldn't have been much of a surprise.

But the end of XMarks causes more than just nostalgia; it also raises concerns. While it came into existence before "cloud computing" caught on, XMarks is essentially a cloud service. It stores your bookmarks on a remote server and allows you to download them on whatever computer you are using. XMarks is not the first cloud computing service to be shutdown after going out of business or being bought out but it will not be the last. And that is the issue that we all must grapple with as more and more of our data migrates from our computers and our control and onto remote servers which companies which may or may not be financially stable control.

This is going to keep happening. Cloud computing services will come and go and users will be forced to scramble to save their data when those services go. Ultimately, the only solution is that age old solution that we always seem to be too lazy to do; set up a backup plan and stick with it....

Friday, September 17, 2010

Will the New iPod Nano Be the New Wristwatch?

The new iPod Nano hasn't been received as well as its predecessors by some people. But for others, it has been something of a revelation. The idea that you can actually replace your wristwatch with an MP3 is very appealing to a lot of nerds, myself included. In a way it represents the arrival of the legendary Dick Tracey watch. While a few companies have actually tried to create a high tech watch, most of them have been wildly impractical. They always too big, ugly, expensive, and lacked the battery life that people expect from a watch.

But perhaps the time has come for the iPod watch. I haven't worn a watch on a regular basis in over five years, because I always carry a phone or a PDA or an iPod around with me anyway and they all display the time. Moreover I have been "trained" to recharge modern gadgets on a regular basis, so battery life is less important to me. And the iPod Nano is small, looks great, and fulfills multiple needs: it can be a watch, an MP3 player, and it even has a pedometer and FM radio. More importantly it is something that I would use every day, I'm always listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks and this device is as good as any other for that purpose.

In fact the new iPod Nano has everything it needs to be an "invisible" piece of technology. Everything except Bluetooth. Why does it need Bluetooth? Because with Bluetooth, you can use wireless headphones with the iPod Nano. Without Bluetooth, you need to attach a set of head phones attach to long wires. And these wires would attach to your wrist which seems very awkward if you are going to be walking around with one of these things. You could also use a Bluetooth dongle, like the Nike+ sensor but that would make the pretty little Nano bulky and probably ugly, defeating the purpose of a Nano watch.

So close. Maybe a Nano pocket watch? Of course you could always switch it from a watch band to a key chain or even use it as a tie clip whenever the mood struck and that's pretty cool too.

Portable Apps—Now With Updates!

Once upon a time, it was possible to just drop a program on to your hard drive and just run it. At worst you might have to unzip a group of files into a folder and just run your program. But these days software is so complicated that it insinuates on putting pieces of itself on every corner of your computer. This often makes our computers slow, buggy, and hard to upgrade.

A few years ago, some people began taking advantage of the growing sizes of USB flash drives to create a new generation of software which has been helping fight this trend. Portable Apps can be installed on a flash drive and allow you to work with your own files and your own applications on any computer without making any changes to the computer which you are using. It's perfect for people who need to borrow someone else's computer or for people who often find themselves having to schlep files from one computer to another. For that matter, it suddenly occurs to me that users of files synchronization services like Dropbox would do well to keep a few frequently used portable apps in their Dropbox and cut the flash drive out of the equation.

I always keep a flash drive with a Portable Apps installation on my key chain just in case I ever find myself needing to do something on a computer but don't have one with me. But my biggest problem with this—indeed with the very concept of Portable Apps—is that software gets updated from time to time and it's very hard to keep up with software updates, especially when you have dozens of portable apps which are constantly being updated.

Enter Platform 2.0. The latest version of the Portable Apps software brings several interesting changes, like themes for customizing the look of the Portable Apps menu. But more importantly, you can now check for updates to your apps and Portable Apps will download and install them automatically. Platform 2.0 is currently in Beta so caution is advised. In my own personal testing, Platform 2.0 was able to update all but one (PNotes) of the thirty-nine applications on my my SD Card and another app (Notepad++) needed to update some of its plug-ins the first time it ran. Everything else ran perfectly. While it wasn't perfect (hence the "Beta" tag) this was certainly preferable to downloading and installing thirty-nine programs.

Overall, Platform 2.0 is a welcome update to a very useful application platform which itself was already a welcome addition to any large flash drive.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Fountain at Daley Plaza

Facing City Hall
Facing the Picasso Sculpture

Rainy Day Flowers

It's amazing what can get your attention sometimes. Last week it was this the water in these flowers following some morning rain.
Zooming out....