Monday, September 26, 2011

Spotify vs. Rhapsody

I've been listening to Spotify a lot lately - particularly since they got the whole "social with Facebook" thing happening. It's pretty snazzy to have my tracks automatically coming up on Facebook, and of course being able to instantly play just about any song in creation on my computer whenever I want is pretty awesome. But here's the thing... my wife and I have been sharing a Rhapsody account for several years now. Rhapsody also allows me to play any song in the world on the cheap... plus, Rhapsody also allows me to transfer those songs to our non-Internet-connected portable music players. So I haven't seen a reason to switch to paying Spotify, although frankly Rhapsody has a pretty bad track record as far as their PC music playing software is concerned (frankly, it sucks, especially if you have a lower-powered computer to begin with).

So here's the thing. Today Spotify announced something that they apparently see as a "Great news, this is so cool!" moment, but which I see as an "Oh, I didn't realize that was how it works" moment. Here's the blog post:

Other Spotify users: did you know that the free all-you-can-eat buffet is only a six-month thing? I didn't realize that. After that time you can still listen to songs for free, but not as many as before. (Rhapsody used to have a similar listen-to-so-many-per-month-for-free policy, but recently I tried to listen to some tracks that way and I got 30-second previews, so that may not be the way it is any more.)

On top of all this, the new social features on Facebook will complicate our Rhapsody situation. Reportedly, soon Rhapsody will have some kind of integration with Facebook that resembles what Spotify has now. The problem is that since my wife and I share an account, if I link it with my Facebook, tracks will get scrobbled to Facebook if she listens to them even if I'm not around. I don't want that.

I also use (say hi if you do too:, and Spotify also scrobbles there. Rhapsody does not scrobble to natively like Spotify does, although I've found a way to make that happen (usually). My workaround works by scrobbling tracks from the Rhapsody RSS feed, so I have to be on a computer or at least have a computer running in order for it to work. And I still want to scrobble everything to - my media player that I use with my own MP3s scrobbles there, and actually, since Spotify doesn't seem to scrobble tracks that aren't on Spotify to Facebook at all (although it does scrobble them to - quite possibly when gets their Facebook Open Social application working, I'll turn off the scrobbling in Spotify and just use for all of it. It sure would be nice if Rhapsody supported native scrobbling like Spotify does!

So let me get to the point. For ten bucks a month, I could get my own separate Rhapsody account going. It won't scrobble natively to, so if I play songs on a cell phone they won't scrobble, but it should scrobble to Facebook once they've got that running (should be pretty quick... they're one of the "media partners" Facebook keeps trumpeting about). That would allow me to listen to music on portable devices and on my computer, and it would also eliminate the problem of getting my wife's plays scrobbled to my and my Facebook. This would also allow me to downgrade my wife's account, which now supports three portable devices, to the cheaper one-device version:

OR, for ten bucks a month, I can subscribe to Spotify. I can listen on portable devices, scrobble to Facebook and natively to, but I don't have the option of using tracks on my non-connected portable device. The added bonus is that the PC client for Spotify works better than the comparable Rhapsody application:

The services' music offerings are pretty comparable - I haven't run into music on one that I couldn't find on the other, although I know Rhapsody does have exclusive content (interviews and stuff) from time to time and I believe Spotify has their own exclusives of the same nature. I see them as a kind of Coke and Pepsi comparison: they're both dark colas that cost about the same and will quench your thirst, and it's a matter of which one you like better. For me, if Rhapsody had native support, it would be the obvious choice; if Spotify had support of downloading music to non-connected devices, it would be the obvious choice. An added benefit of Rhapsody is that if you are on a computer that doesn't have their client software installed, you can still log in and play tracks using their Web interface - try THAT with Spotify!

What do you think? I'm interested in any opinions, differences you notice in the $9.99 plans of the two, advice or comments. If you'd like to visit me on Spotify, here's my public profile:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook's Timeline, Online Privacy, and TMI

Yesterday around noon, my mind was officially being blown. I was watching the keynote presentation at Facebook's f8 Developer Conference, during which Mark Zuckerberg showed this to the world for the first time:

What you see in that video is a rather sentimental look at Facebook's new version of the Profile, which they are calling "Timeline." Timeline will organize all of your past Facebook activity chronologically, selecting the "most important" things via an algorithm (or via your own later editing) so that your profile is (more or less) a look at your entire online life. In fact, you can add things that aren't already present on Facebook, so your offline life (even pre-Internet) can be a part of your Timeline. I was amazed, and a little bit shocked! This is the first time I can remember an update to Facebook that strikes me as a win for the users, as opposed to a ham-handed attempt to bring in more ad revenue for Facebook. This is a way for users to present themselves online so that people who find them actually can know what's important to them. A way to get to know your friends better, or catch up with life events of old friends you'd lost contact with. A truly comprehensive online presence.

To make Timeline even more personal, Facebook also announced some enhancements to the "social graph" which will make sharing content even more comprehensive, personal, and immediate. Last night I was able to get Spotify to start "scrobbling" tracks to Facebook. "Scrobbling" is a concept that originated (if I understand it correctly) with social music site What it means in concept is that every track you listen to is automatically recorded somewhere. In practice that doesn't actually happen (what if you hear it on the radio? A speaker at the grocery store? Using a portable player with no Internet connection? Using software that does not support scrobbling?) but with a little bit of work, long ago I managed to get most of the music I listen to during my work day to scrobble to Getting Spotify to work with Facebook, by contrast, was actually very easy; I had already linked them back when I got my Spotify account, and it just started working... suddenly I got a comment on a track I was listening to right on Facebook, without me even actively mentioning it. According to Facebook, although I haven't had occasion to try this yet, you're supposed to actually be able to listen to the same song a friend is listening to, as they listen to it, synched up with their player. So they hear the same part of the song I hear. Now that's a social music experience!

The same thing is supposed to be coming to more music services, and also to video-on-demand services Netflix and hulu (among others). Over time, all of this information will be aggregated to your Timeline, so people will be able to find out, for example, which movies you watched on Netflix in September of 2011, or which album or artist you listened to the most in October. It will also function as a sort of social recommendation service, automatically endorsing the things you enjoy for all of your friends, who presumably have similar tastes to yours.

This all will have a few effects that people in general may not have thought of. For one thing, your Timeline/Social Graph will be an absolute bonanza for Facebook's advertisers. Is there a new Johnny Depp movie coming out? The people who've watched all of Depp's recent movies will be easily targetable by Facebook, because it will be chronicled in their Timelines. What about when an artist - let's go with someone a bit obscure, not a Lady Gaga or Eminiem - with a new CD coming out. The artist is relatively unknown, so the record label may not have the money to run a bunch of blanket advertising, but the people who have listened to that artist will be easily findable and targetable via Facebook, likely for much cheaper than it would be otherwise. And with the low barrier to listening to those tracks via Facebook + Spotify, those people who see the ads and then listen to the new tracks will automatically generate advertising for the music too, and for free! This is a marketer's dream coming true! Did you think Facebook was "free"? It's not. You're paying for it by giving it more and more information about yourself, every time you log in or do anything.

Another effect, when Timelines become available for everyone, is that everything you've ever done on Facebook will potentially be available to view, handily indexed in reverse-chronological order. This is going to be great if you've been judicious in what you've posted online, but if you have a habit of posting drunken beer-bash photos of yourself, you're going to want to get in there with the privacy and editing tools and make sure people see only what you want to see.

But what about privacy? you may ask. Well, I reply, what about it? What if things come up on your time line that you don't want people to see, or that you don't want to remember yourself? I'll quote a friend of mine on this topic: "What I didn't want to remember, I didn't post as a status update." If you don't want people to know it, was it really a good idea to put it on the Internet? Social networking has, for some people, created an atmosphere where oversharing is OK. "TMI" is what my friends and I call this: "Too Much Information." And this TMI factor gets worse when you figure in those "scrobbling" applications.

What if I listen to something on Spotify that I don't want to broadcast to my friends? What if I watch a movie that I don't want everyone to know about? And what if I forget to turn off the social sharing aspects of those applications before I do my watching or listening? Or, what if my daughter watches ten episodes of Hello Kitty on Netflix and I don't want that on my Facebook? Currently I don't see any tools for "un-scrobbling" my Spotify tracks - not that I intend to listen to or watch anything I wouldn't want to share, but occasionally I've been known to clear a track from my history if I didn't want it in my "library," and it would be nice to see those kinds of tools here. As it is currently, once you enable those social apps, the firehose is open... and once it's on the Internet, you can't really ever take it back. You can't un-shoot a gun or un-throw a rock, and even if you retrieve the bullet or the rock, if it hit someone on the way, you can't take that back.

That concern aside, I think people are going to dig this stuff. Personally, I already share all kinds of information online anyway: I scrobble my track plays on here, record what movies I watch here, record what books I read here and here, and keep a list of all those links here. You probably keep online records of some of the things you already do somewhere too; you may have online records of your cooking or your diet, your running or your vacationing, your family or your friends. All Facebook is really doing here is centralizing all of that information in one place. It's a masterstroke of genius, and I think it's going to be successful.

But again... what about privacy? What about the privacy of someone who doesn't want everyone in the world to know everything they do, so they never get on Facebook, or maybe never even use a computer? Well, I've got news for you: in 2011, "privacy" is just short of a myth anyway. If you use a checking account, debit card, or credit card, there are records somewhere of every time and place that you used them to pay for something. If you bought a house or a car, if you went to college or got a driver's license, there are records somewhere of all of it, handily indexed (if you live in the United States) by your Social Security Number. There are security cameras in most public places, and there are satellites with who-knows-what resolution of surveillance up in the sky, maybe looking at you and maybe looking at me. If you carry a cell phone, some computer somewhere knows exactly where you are, probably to within a few feet. The cell phone company potentially has a record of every phone call you make and every text message you send. Your email provider probably has logs of every email you send; on top of that, there are records of that email on the recipients' mail servers, and on every piece of equipment on the Internet that the message traveled through on the way from server to server. Your Web browser has, and probably your Internet provider also has, a record that you've visited my blog today and read this post. There are millions of datapoints of information about you out there right now, and you have control over very few of them. In actuality, though, just making your way through life, even in pre-computer days, you left a trail of information behind. Ask anyone who enjoys researching ancestry about the kinds of records that still exist for almost anyone... birth and death certificates, tombstones and land ownership records, journals and diaries and photographs and newspaper announcements. It's just that nowadays, that information is accessible and able to be cross-referenced in mind-boggling ways. If you'd like to see an imaginary but plausible account of how that data might be able to be used to aggressively control people, take a look at this fictional novel... or if you'd like a real-world example, pull down a copy of your own credit report and see how much it knows about you.

So privacy, as many people see it, is an imaginary thing. Somebody's always watching you; get used to it. But that doesn't mean you should do just any old thing online. Don't post things publicly that will allow someone who would like to hurt you, to easily find you (although your address is probably in the telephone book anyway). Don't broadcast information that will make it easy for someone to commit identity theft on you (although with information that most everybody has on their profiles, someone could probably call your place of business and convince a coworker that they are related to you). It's the same common sense you use when you're in an unfamiliar place: keep your eyes open, think about what's going on around you, pay attention if anything looks suspicious, and don't walk into trouble.

BUT: do enjoy yourself while you're there. Use social networking to enhance your life. But just be aware that sometimes when you're using a social network, that social network is also using you.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Google Plus

My first post on Google+ was made on July 1 at 9:06am. My boss had scored an account over the weekend, and was wondering if I was using it too. I actually hadn't heard of it until he told me; I had been a little bit out of the tech news loop because of a big project at work, but when I heard, certainly I was interested! He had "shared" something with me - at the time this was the only way to get an account - and so I was in. The post was a link, shared only with him, to this Mashable article about the then-upcoming Gmail update.

I was immediately hooked! This was like Facebook, minus all of the things about Facebook that constantly annoyed me! This was awesome! This was... this was... well, sort of empty. It was like arriving at a party at the newest, coolest venue in town, but nobody had arrived yet. The primary attraction of Facebook is that everybody is there. All your friends. Everyone you've ever met, it seems, is on Facebook. The only people on Google+ at the time were you and the person who shared something with you, and the other guy who you shared something with and talked into trying it out. All the coolness, but none of the people.

On those counts, things haven't changed too much 2½ months later. It's a little easier to get an invitation (in fact, if you need one, feel free to use one of mine), but so far the general public hasn't particularly seen a reason to jump ship on Facebook, or even bother to try out another social networking service. And heck, after Google Wave in 2009 and Google Buzz in 2010, who could blame anyone for not jumping on a Google social networking site right away? I think Google is getting it right this time, though. The interface is Facebook-like enough that it's not too hard to understand what's happening, but it's different enough in good ways that the experience is much nicer. I have several friends who actually have jumped ship on Facebook for G+ (although I doubt most people will completely abandon Facebook any time soon... too much history there). I'm not deleting my Facebook account, but I'd love to go all-Google+. Problem is that there are a few things that are making that difficult at the moment... and there are a few more things that, should they happen, would make a move to G+ almost a no-brainer for me. Keep in mind that G+ is really still officially "in wide beta-testing" which means that the public has access, but it's not to be considered a complete product yet. It's entirely possible that some of the things I'm going to mention are in the works. I think it's probable that a few of them are on the drawing board. Let's see how prescient I am!

I'm so impatient about the lack of an API for programmers. At this writing Google has released a very minimal, first-iteration API limited to only reading public profile information and public posts. I can't wait for the release of something more substantial; I use TweetDeck for posting to Facebook and Twitter, and I would love to be able to use it (or Hootsuite, or whatever) to post to all three. Right now it seems the only way to post to G+ is using the Web interface or one of the mobile apps. I have a mobile phone, but it's a Java-only "messaging" phone, a free feature phone from several years ago; it doesn't run Android or iOS.

That leads me to another thing I'd like to see: better SMS support. I have G+ set up to forward status updates from several of my friends to me vis text message, but I can't respond to those messages via text, and I can't send posts of my own via text. I text posts into Twitter and Facebook several times a day most days; I'd love to be able to do the same with Google Plus. Even just sending new posts that way to a default bunch of circles that I specify ahead of time would be useful. I'll be getting an Android phone when my contract runs out on this phone, and at that point I'll install the G+ app, but even then I could see SMS as an easier way of firing off a quick post than starting up an app. And with SMS posting, I can actually cross-post to several services very easily, just by sending to multiple recipients.

I'd like to see RSS feeds made available for posts. You can already use third-party hacks like this one to pull down a feed of your public posts (or roll your own using the API that was just released), but it would be nice to be able to create "private" feeds based on your circles (something you can do with calendars in Google Calendar). I'm using the hack I linked to above to cross-post my public G+ posts to Facebook by running the feed through Feedburner and Twitterfeed. It would be SO awesome, instead, to just share a post with a "Facebook" circle or a "Twitter" circle and immediately shoot the post out via a custom RSS feed!

Part of the talk when G+ was first launched was about incorporating it with other Google properties... Picasa was of course a launch-day incorporation, but what about other properties? Here are my two favorite no-brainer Google properties to incorporate into Google Plus:

Google Reader. G+'s "Sparks" functionality mirrors some of the functionality of Reader; how difficult would it be for G+ to represent your Reader feeds or lists as Sparks? Or, coming from the other direction, wouldn't it be cool for Reader users to be able to easily do a one-click share to G+?

Blogger. Many G+ users are very nearly using G+ as a blogging platform anyway; why not optionally integrate Blogger blogs into Plus so that there's none of this post-the-blog-entry-then-share-it-on-plus nonsense. Just magically allow the blog post to show up on Plus when it is posted to Blogger. An added bonus: combine blog comments and G+ comments so that if I post a comment on a Blogger/G+ entry in Blogger, the comment also shows up in G+, and vice versa. I would LOVE to automatically have more comments on my blogs because comments flowed in from Plus users! Another bonus integration: automatically (but optionally) convert a blog to a Spark, so when you see a blog post from someone you like (say, a friend of yours reshared it) you could follow that blog without having to circle the blogger.

There's a lot of potential in Google Plus! I hope to see some of this stuff happen in the near term. If Google suddenly today rolled out all of the things I've mentioned in this post, for me it would be like knocking the walls out and letting the sunshine in. I really would love to be able to use Plus as my social networking hub and flow information out from there. With these kinds of adjustments, it could happen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


So, I finally broke down and signed up for the free trial of Netflix. The main idea is to stream through our Wii; I signed up for the 1-DVD-at-a-time service too, but I'll likely cancel that and just go with the streaming. The streaming is much more economical... watch as many movies and TV shows as you have time for on Instant Streaming, vs. watch as many single DVDs as you can receive in the mail and send back, one at a time, for the same monthly price? No contest! There are, however, a couple of things about Netflix Streaming that annoy me a bit, and I wanted to blog about those things... maybe someone from Netflix will read this blog entry and take it to heart. (Fat chance, but a guy can dream, can't he?)
  1. I'd like to see separate Instant queue profiles made available. Obviously, the shows in my queue (Bond movies, Star Trek, The X-Files, etc.) are going to be incompatible with the shows my 3-year-old daughter is going to want to watch (Care bears, Caillou, Strawberry Shortcake, Hello Kitty, Wonder Pets). Recommendations are going to be different, too. It would be nice to be able to select an Instant Queue to view, and maybe even select who's watching. It would be smart marketing, too.
  2. I'd like better parental controls. Right now all you can do is limit the programs that can be viewed based on the MPAA rating... only allow shows rated PG or less, for example. This is a joke! For one thing, "NR" (Not Rated) movies fall in the area on the other side of "R" from "G", which means that the Mario Brothers Super Show cartoon from the 1990s, which my two kids like, is prohibited if I restrict my account to PG-13 or less. And if I turn on parental controls, I can't watch documentaries or more grown-up movies myself. "Control" indeed!
  3. What's with the Android app only being available for like two-and-a-half phones? Make it available to all phones, but just "support" it on your shorter list. If people want to try it on their non-supported phone, why stop them? Worst case, they call support and you tell them their phone is not supported... and then you not which not-supported phones keep getting called in, and you add them to your support matrix as soon as you can!
  4. What's with not being able to exit Netflix and go back to the Wii menus? Apparently you just have to turn the Wii off. User Interface FAIL.
  5. Scrolling to a certain point within a program, or fast-forwarding/rewinding, is positively painful. You're telling me that after I select a new spot, you're going to re-download the entire show? Even YouTube does better than that! Software FAIL.
In general, we LOVE the Netflix service. I have a poky Internet connection (on purpose, to save money) so it's fairly easy to push it over the edge and cause the streaming to re-buffer, but that's not the fault of Netflix; I'm sure with a faster connection I'd get faster buffering. With a few tweaks, Netflix could be not only a killer service, but a killer application as well. Hoping that day comes soon!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Music in the Cloud

music notes with violin keyphoto © 2010 photosteve101 | more info (via: Wylio)I've been looking for a feasible way to stream my music from the Internet since before the Internet was being called "the cloud."

My first stab at it was something like seven or eight years ago. I found a service that would let me upload some of my MP3s and play them back. It worked, but it was SUPER-clunky, and frankly it was unreliable as well. I used it a little bit, but eventually I just got tired of it and gave up. I don't even remember what the name of that company was; they've since been swallowed up by another company which is all about cloud-based storage and not particularly interested in music. Good thing I kept copies of my MP3s!

In the years since then, I've occasionally taken a look at music-locker services as they appeared, but nothing has really met the requirements of what I wanted. The last service I really remember looking at didn't actually allow you to upload music at all... it just scanned your local copies of your music library and then allowed you to play the (licensed) copies of those same MP3s from the cloud! Ingenious, but no good for some of my more obscure tracks... the ones I prize the most because I've had them a long time or because I worked hard to track them down in the first place. So I didn't waste my time with that service. Others felt so obscure and fly-by-night to me that I decided not to waste my time again until something came up that I felt I could trust to stay around for a while.

Meanwhile, I had discovered that for less than the price of a single CD per month, I could listen to almost any song I could think of by subscribing to Rhapsody. With the right subscription, I could even download the tracks to my portable music player and listen when I'm not at my computer! (Notice that this marginalizes the "scan your tracks and play back our copies" to complete irrelevance... with Rhapsody I can play any track, even if I don't have it in my library already.) Rhapsody doesn't take care of some of my most obscure tracks, but it adds a lot more tracks to the mix, some of which are more obscure than any in my collection. (Rhapsody isn't the only "subscription" music service by a long shot... the retooled Napster is another contender with a similar plan, and there are others if you look for them.) Color me VERY satisfied with Rhapsody, but it STILL doesn't let me play the rare songs from the dusty corners of my music collection from the cloud.

Earlier this year when I heard that Google was working on a new cloud-based music service I got really excited. I already use Google for my documents, my RSS feeds, my calendar, my telephone calls, and of course my email, so a streaming music service would fit in there nicely. (I don't use them for everything I keep in the cloud; I keep my bookmarks in Xmarks, my passwords in LastPass, my pictures in Flickr, etc., but I generally have good experiences with Google's services when I need them.)

After weeks of waiting impatiently for Google to release their service, suddenly this week there was a surprise: Amazon beat them to the punch! Amazon Cloud Drive was introduced a couple of days ago: 5GB of free space to store any files you like, but the part of that service that has garnered the most attention is that MP3 or AAC files stored on your Cloud Drive can be played back using Amazon Cloud Player. This was exactly what I had been looking for! 5GB is nowhere near enough space to store my whole music collection, but it's a start... and it's enough space to store the rare gems... anything I can play back through Rhapsody, I don't really have to store in a music locker, do I?

So I tried it out. It works as advertised: you upload your music, you see it, you play it back through your browser. You can also play it back using an Android phone if you have one, but I don't have one so no luck there, but I happily filled up most of my 5GB with songs that aren't on Rhapsody that I might want to listen to on the go. The player isn't particularly feature-laden, but it plays back the songs. It starts the playback quickly enough, and you can even "scrub" through to the part of the song you like, provided that part has streamed out to your browser. There's playlist support, play entire album, play all songs, that sort of thing. Not a bad start!

But what of Google? When I found out that Amazon had actually thumbed their nose at the music industry (who inexplicably believes that people who have purchased music should have to pay again to listen to that exact music online) and told them that they don't need any stinkin' license to do what they're doing... storing users' files and allowing the users access to those files. The music industry is seething, but they don't seem to have figured out a way to attack Amazon yet; I'm sure they will try to penalize Amazon somehow, because if they don't then other music locker services will also turn their noses up at licensing (it's pretty obvious that this is what's holding up Google, and probably Apple too; both of them have similar plans in the works). Kudos to Amazon for having the guts to push the issue. There is no technological reason why we don't have cloud-based music delivery of this kind; it's all music industry foot-dragging. This forces their hand; after the courts decide what's legal and what's not, I expect these other services to pop up almost immediately.

Will I continue to use Amazon's service after Google and Apple and whoever else get their services running? That remains to be seen. There is of course a lot of Google inertia in my case, and if their service is comparable to Amazon's and not inferior, I'll probably use Google's just because I'm using Google for so many other things. It's unlikely that I will use Apple unless they have a positively amazing service in store; iTunes is such awful software on Windows that it would take a totally mind-blowing service to get me to use that.

But let's look at another option. What if Rhapsody, or Napster or one of the other subscription music services, adds a music locker option to their offerings? Would I use that? Certainly I would! That would put all music that I had any interest in in the same place, behind the same login. I would likely even switch, for example, from Rhapsody to Napster if Napster offered a good music locker and Rhapsody did not.

The thing that makes me the happiest is that thanks to Amazon, the cat's out of the bag. They are too big to ignore, and the next move the music industry makes will determine how quickly or slowly more cloud music services appear, but they will definitely appear. People want them, and people will pay for them if they are good enough. People wanted to be able to obtain music online; the music industry didn't want it so people did it illegally anyway, and eventually, we got iTunes and Amazon MP3 and Rhapsody and hundreds of other legal outlets. If Amazon had to go a little bit rogue to get them to make this next advance, so be it. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming weeks and months. It's going to be an exciting time for music lovers!