Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Swimming Out of the Shallows (a book review)

Today I reached the end of a unique experience. I finished a book which I found interesting and highly informative... but I completely disagreed with the author's conclusions. I don't dispute any of his facts, but in my opinion, he's adding two and two together and getting five. Or maybe he's adding two and two and getting negative four. Whatever it is, I think he's placing the blame for bad things in the wrong place, and I think he's seeing evil where evil doesn't exist. He's looking at Benjamin Franklin flying a kite and he's saying, that flimsy kite proves that there will never be a 747 carrying passengers across the Atlantic.

Before I go deeper into my thoughts on the book, I'd like to let the author of the book have his say. His name is Nicholas Carr, and the book is a highly-expanded version of an article he published in The Atlantic Magazine. Here it is. Go take a look... I don't mind. I'll wait right here until you get back.

The book I read is called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The basic premise behind the book is that the Internet has caused us to become shallow thinkers, incapable of deep, sustained thought. Carr says that he first started to notice this phenomenon in himself and in his friends. Journalists who no longer do thorough research, instead opting for the easy "click a few times on the Web and find what you need" method. Literature majors who no longer read complete books. That sort of thing. He believes that this is a trend which has to do with heavy use of the Internet, which is making changes to our brains as we surf, rendering us incapable of creating, or even following, longer trains of thought. He takes a great deal of time describing how the adult human brain, once thought to be quite set in its ways, is actually very flexible, changing all the time. Every time you or I do something, a physical change takes place in our brains, creating a memory or cementing a habit. He then goes into the history of writing, starting from brief scratches on ancient shards of pottery and proceeding through several technological changes: writing on clay tablets, the invention of paper, the refining of single-sheet paper into scrolls and eventually the codex (which we usually call a "book" - sheets of paper bound in a cover); the idea is that the computer is the thing that will usurp the role of the codex, in much the same way as paper usurped the role of clay tablets.

And, Carr believes, the Internet is designed with distraction in mind. Emails arrive. Tweets tweet. Ads flash and distract. Hyperlinks take our attention away from the text in which they are embedded. SMS messages come in our our phones. New blog entries hit our RSS readers. Spending our time being variously distracted by all of these things is, Carr insists, making changes in our brain that make it impossible to not be distracted. I agree with everything Carr says, up to that last sentence: I think that the Internet plays a role in our being distractable, but the Internet is not the perpetrator: the Internet is just the tool that the real perpetrator is using to make us distractable. The actual perpetrator is: ourselves.

A book is a highly static medium. I'm talking about a physical, bound book. It doesn't change on its own. It doesn't react to signals from elsewhere. If you tear a page out or drop it in the toilet, of course that will make a change to it, but it doesn't change on its own. Carr explains that before the codex was invented, human beings thought in shorter bursts. A verbal lecture might hold the attention of someone for a longer period, but other than that, your attention didn't really have to last any longer than it took to read the words scratched on that clay tablet. Because writing was time-consuming and difficult, it was generally reserved for extremely important (and brief) documents such as legal documentation. But when the bound book was invented, and particularly when the printing press came to be and books became quite cheap, anyone could have something in his hands that required many hours of sustained concentration to take in. This resulted in changes in the brains of the readers, strengthening their abilities to concentrate on one thing and filter out distractions. Carr had concluded that because our computers interrupt us almost constantly, the constant barrage of interruptions (which we respond to) train our brains to be distractable.

Let's think about that argument a bit. If ancient man was distractable because his (eat or be eaten) environment demanded it, and "codex" man became a "deep reader" because books demanded it, and "Internet" man is becoming distractable again because his computerized environment demands it, isn't that a return to the more natural state of mankind? I'm not sure there is a way to determine whether "distracted" or "immersed and oblivious to surroundings" is a better way to be, but it seems that it would depend on the lifestyle and needs of the individual. For example, someone who lived in a dangerous part of the world would be well-served by being distractable; it could save their life if something in the corner of their eye makes them instinctively duck.

And really, what is it about most books that makes it so helpful for us to immerse ourselves in that environment? When you have immersed yourself in a book, you have allowed one human being to insert whatever he or she wants directly into the world of your experience. That author is controlling, to some extent, your thoughts and your interpretation of events or facts. Is that actually so much better than a quick jaunt across the Web, picking up facts from many sources and building your own composite picture of reality? I say this as a pretty avid reader myself; I love books, but there are definitely advantages to having instant access to multiple trains of thought. The tyranny of one author controlling your thoughts for an extended period is replaced by many voices competing for your attention, giving you the chance to choose best-of-breed for yourself.

There are a number of reasons people have trouble reading long articles on the Internet, and it's not all because of their email "ding." Reading on a computer screen basically is not fun. I say this as a person who has read an entire book, in pdf format, on a computer. Backlit computer screens are hard on the eyes, and people don't necessarily have the most comfortable reading environment set up in front of their computers. It's not that people can't read a long article on their computer; it's that people don't want to read a long article on their computer. But given a strong enough desire, they can and will. I've done it many times. If you've read this far, you're doing it right now. It's completely possible. You are the captain of your own fate. I predict that as e-readers such as the Kindle and its brethren become more and more popular and inexpensive, people will read longer articles, and even books, much more frequently in digital formats. The technology will continue to adapt to become more comfortable for human beings, just like reading and writing technology progressed to ever more useful forms.

So, does Internet use make it impossible for people to read physical "codex" books? Of course not! You can't say that just because you've trained yourself in such a way that it is difficult for you to focus, your brain is ruined for life and you'll never be able to focus again. The mere existence of technologies does not force you to enslave yourself to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And their existence doesn't mean that you even  have to use them at all!

I like candy. Most everyone does. I'd like to eat lots of candy! But if I eat a lot of candy all the time, my body will become sick and fat. Candy is okay in moderation, but too much is too much. Burger King is convenient and always available, but if I eat Burger King every day, all the time, I'm going to become very unhealthy. Burger King is okay sometimes, but it shouldn't become your constant diet. Too much is too much. And if your constant mental diet is making your brain sluggish and fat (or hyperactive and ADHD), maybe it indicates that you are being irresponsible with your use of the technology. The tech is not at fault; your bad habits are.

And really. Distractions are nothing new, and they are not limited to technology. I spend about an hour and a half every weekday reading physical books on my bus commute to and from work; and believe me, distractions are everywhere. Someone behind me having a loud conversation on a cell phone. People getting on and off. Things outside the bus. Announcements by the driver of which intersection we're at. Some of these distractions are important for me to respond to (for example, I need to remember to get off the bus when I get to my stop!) Some of them are unimportant, and some are just a nuisance. But I get through my books eventually, because I've learned to tune out the unimportant distractions. The same goes for the Internet; I've unconsciously learned to tune out the things I don't need to concern myself with, and only respond to distractions that matter. In fact, sometimes I tune out distractions that do matter, which is why I have to change my "new email" sound every once in a while... I've spent whole days not noticing that I have urgent items in my inbox!

Let's talk about some of those distractions. Let's talk about that email indicator, that Facebook ding on your phone, that text message from @AplusK on Twitter. Are they distractions? Do they break up your work day and keep you from concentrating? Yes? They do? How about this: TURN THEM OFF. If they're a problem, eliminate them. The distraction is not forcing itself into your life; you have brought it on yourself. Eliminate your own distractions. Simplify. Your brain will respond to that, just like it responds to the opposite. If our brains are so elastic that they can be negatively changed by negative environmental factors, then they are also elastic enough to be positively changed by better environmental factors.

It's nonsensical to blame distractability on information overload, too, although it's true there is a real glut of information available to each of us on the Internet, information about pretty nearly anything you can think of. One thing I've seen computers bring a huge change to in my own personal life is Bible study. When I was a kid, Bible study was, obviously, all about books. If you wanted to study a topic, you looked it up in commentaries, topical dictionaries such as Vine's, or study Bibles such as the good old Thompson Chain Reference. You could also take a word-based attack, looking up your word in Strong's Concordance (which contained every English word in the King James Bible, along with original language dictionary for translation assistance). It was kind of slow, but it could get you where you wanted to be. Fast-forward to today, when that Strong's Concordance lookup that took you two hours with the book can happen on your cell phone in seconds. But do you really want to find every verse in the Bible that contains the word "love," or do you want to learn about a specific kind of love? How much God loves people? How a husband loves his wife? How a man loves his neighbor? For that, your speedy word-based lookup is only a good starting point. Those commentaries, topical dictionaries, and other study helps are all out there in digital form, accessible at the click of a mouse, but to really understand the Bible, you have to go deeper. You have to do it on purpose. You have to not take the easiest way out. The problem is not a glut of information; the problem is intellectual laziness. The same goes for journalists that go for the "easy kill" without really checking out their facts (like this utter nonsense, which I heard reported last weekend on my local TV news... reporting the 823-year urban legend as fact). You have to actually care enough to take your time, even on a computer, or eventually you're going to wind up looking like a fool. You have to be wise in your use of the tools at your disposal; scatterbrained research leads to scatterbrained thinking.

Let's talk about communication, because Carr seems to think that digital communication is de-humanizing us because when we text message or IM, we are not face to face with the person we're communicating with. Hogwash. Consider people who, in centuries past, sustained long-distance romantic relationships via letters which had to be carried across oceans in ships. Consider people who stay in touch today with distant loved ones via telephone. Those lovers with the quill pens would have loved to have been able to pick up a telephone, but they used the technology at their disposal. Communication is communication, no matter what form it takes, and over time, communication becomes more human and personal, not less, with the introduction of better and better technology. Today I can start up Skype and see and hear moving video of a friend on the other side of the world. For free! I can call or text my wife's cell phone, and no matter where she is (within coverage, of course) I can reach her. In the past year or two I've become involved again in the daily lives of friends I haven't seen for 2 decades, via Facebook. Without those technologies, none of that communication would be possible at all. Okay, so it's digital; that means that the communication is carried on electronic impulses instead of through the air or in an envelope on a ship. It's not a sign of the decay of human interaction; it's a sign that people will communicate, and if it takes a computer to do it, so be it.

Carr also seems to think that there is a chance that people will try to (and already are trying to) sort of "outsource" their human memory to computer memory. But then he explains himself that that is impossible, and gives the physical reasons why it is impossible. Your brain, despite what may have been taught to you in fourth-grade science class, is not a computer. It's not even very much like a computer. Computer memory is not like organic memory, if only because computer memory is digital and organic memory is not digital. You can have a strong memory and you can have a distant, hazy memory; a computer can only have "yes" or "no". Either the computer knows it, or it doesn't. And most of your memories aren't things that you could even figure out how to offload into a computer anyway; your brain is full of pictures, sensations, smells, sounds, ideas, impressions... all things that cannot even be communicated to a computer, and even if you "offload" them to a computer somehow, they remain in your brain as well. The only thing computers are really good at is "computing" (math), and they do a fairly good job as storage devices for data which is much less complex than the things inside your brain and mine. Tools like Evernote can help you remember your shopping list or the date of the Gettysburg Address or what your kids want for Christmas, if you store those things there, but those tools can't help you remember how the meadow behind your house during your childhood smelled in springtime. I know they call it "computer memory." It's not. It's storage space for ones and zeroes.

Does the Internet cause some kind of brain damage? You might argue that; every single thing you do all day long causes minute changes in your brain, and if those changes are unwanted, you might call them damage. Is this damage irreversible? Not according to Carr's book... it says that the human brain is quite flexible and adaptable. The argument that your brain is so flexible that Internet use changes your brain, but then that the changes are permanent and damaging, is circular, self-defeating, and illogical. At any point you can choose to change your environment. Ironically, in the chapter on "how I wrote this book," the author tells about how he did just that... shut off the email and the IM and the feed reader and Facebook and Twitter, and re-taught his brain to focus. Even he, the arm-waving paranoid alarmist, found that all he had to do to work with no distractions was to remove the distractions. Why is this rocket science? Turn off the "ding" and your brain remembers how to concentrate on one thing at a time. The "can't" automatically becomes a "can."

My best take-away from this book is that it has reminded me to re-examine my own work habits. What is distracting me? What do I need to cut back on so I can work uninterrupted? Am I wasting whole days by remaining distracted from morning to night? More than once since I began reading the book, I've considered my environment and adjusted things, or turned things off, or un-followed or un-friended. or whatever I needed to do in order to simplify. That's certainly been a good, helpful thing. The information in The Shallows is fascinating, but the freaking out is unwarranted. If the brain is as flexible as the book says, it can snap back from almost anything... including Gmail and Twitter. Take charge. Don't sabotage yourself by creating a hostile Internet environment! Use a little common sense, and the Internet will be your friend and not your enemy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Voice Calls in Gmail

This week Google released something that we've been expecting for a while... Google Voice calls from Gmail. Actually, you apparently don't even have to be a Google Voice user to use it, but if you are a GV user, the calls route through your GV account. I waited nearly 48 hours after the announcement before it finally showed up on my account, and when it showed up, I immediately used it to call my wife, who was standing next to our land-line, about 12 feet away. She was not particularly amused, but it did work! :) There seems to be an uncomfortable pause between "dial" and "ringing," but it certainly seems to work as well as the other VoIP service I'm using.

Speaking of sipgate... after I blogged about it here, I ditched their client software to try out other softphones. I used QuteCom for a while (once I finally figured out how to find my SIP credentials on the sipgate Web site) and liked it pretty well, but it seemed a little bit clumsy in certain situations (trying to answer a call, for example; I have to answer the call and then press the "1" button, and I missed calls several times) and it didn't really do that well at using my headset when it wasn't the default device... so I tried a few other free softphones and wound up discovering X-Lite. Not only does X-Lite have an "Auto Answer" button, but it can "restore" from a "minimized to tray" state automatically, so when my Google Voice rings, I just pick up the headset and click "1" and I'm on the call. Pretty snazzy!

It's still a little bit weird originating a call through X-Lite/sipgate/Google Voice, though... I have to open a Google Voice window, place the call, wait for X-Lite to come up, and finally I'm on the call. Placing outgoing calls through Gmail is a lot more straightforward; all I've got to remember is not to close my Gmail while I'm on the call! I'm still hoping for that desktop app... in fact, I've been reading about Python with the general idea of rolling my own VoIP application which will work seamlessly with Google Voice's phone book and be SIP provider-agnostic... but the new Gmail integration has an interesting (and useful) niche.

Friday, July 23, 2010


It seems so simple. I just want to be able to receive calls on my computer using my headset. I also listen to music on my computer all day long, though, and I use the speakers for that. I don't want the headset plugged in all day, because Windows automatically switches everything over to the headset when it gets plugged in, so if I keep the headset plugged in I'll have to listen to my music (not to mention all my other system sounds and alerts) through them instead of the speakers. I want to be able to hear or see that my phone is ringing, then plug in the headset, and then answer the call using the headset.

Finally, VOIP provider sipgate got some more phone numbers (they had run out!), and I snagged one (I think it's in California, because there are no Oklahoma numbers yet, but that doesn't matter to me). I downloaded the sipgate softphone software and got it all installed and set up. I saw that I could set my USB headset as the default audio device... awesome!

So I got everything set up right, tested it (success! A crystal-clear phone call on my headset!), and then unplugged my headset and got back to my regularly scheduled work. And that's when the problem happened.

The next time I received a call, I heard it ring... on my PC speakers! No problem, I thought... I can plug in the headset real quick. After all, my other software switches over automatically when the headset is plugged in. Some of it (like Rhapsody, for example) doesn't switch until a certain point (Rhapsody will continue to play the song it's playing through the speakers, but when the next song comes on, it comes on the headset), but they always switch.

Not sipgate! The only way sipgate will work with the headset, it seems, is if the headset is plugged in both when I start up the software, and when the call initially rings. If the headset isn't plugged in on the first ring, no luck. It won't even switch when you actually answer the call; presumably the software keeps the audio device open the whole time, from first ring to the call is terminated.

Now, when the headset is unplugged from the machine, it automatically disappears from the Control Panel "Sounds and Audio Devices" applet's Audio tab selectors, so if the headset is the default device (which it is on this machine), it is the default device only when it is plugged in... when it is disconnected, another device ("SoundMAX HD Audio" - my speakers) automatically becomes the default, which means when I'm ready to get on Skype or WebEx, I just plug the headset in and I'm ready to go. But just to experiment, I plugged in the headset and then opened up Sounds and Audio Devices from Windows Control Panel and automatically set up SoundMAX HD Audio as the default Windows device. Then I made sure the Logitech headset was the default device in sipgate settings. My music was coming through the speakers (the default device), but, in theory, sipgate should use the headset, as configured on the settings page.

Guess what happened? My calls went to the speakers! The setting in sipgate was not honored at all. I would accept having the computer speakers as the default output and having to switch other software manually from time to time, but the sipgate softphone apparently doesn't allow me that option. I even tried out some software called "Virtual Audio Cable" which I was hoping would allow me to intercept traffic coming from sipgate and send it directly to the sound card, but I'm pretty sure even it won't do that for me... or if it will, it would be an advanced configuration of some kind, and I don't have the time to explore it in enough depth to figure that out.

For the record, the sound quality of sipgate seems very good. The features of the service look impressive. I could definitely see myself using it on an ongoing basis... I could even see someone using it as a kind of voice mail-only drop box that was never even used for outgoing calls. If my company ever starts looking for a PBX in the cloud, I'll definitely throw their name into the hat (assuming they obtain some Oklahoma numbers before then, or make it possible to port over existing numbers). Presumably, sipgate works exceptionally well with hardware VOIP phones (that seems to be a core of their business). But they're not making it easy for poor little me, with nothing but the softphone and a USB headset.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blue-Screen Mashup

Yesterday my computer started unexpectedly rebooting. At first it happened sort of randomly during sessions, but after four or five reboots, it became completely unusable. It would boot all the way up into Windows, but as soon as we tried to start up an application, the screen would go dark, then a blue stop error screen would flash up there for a split second, then it would go back to the BIOS screen and start again from scratch! I had no idea what I was going to do, until I remembered a suggestion I read years ago from Fred Langa. The suggestion was that you could document an error screen using your digital camera. Since the screen was gone before I had a chance to read it, I figured that was the only way I was going to find out what the error was!

After a few tries to get the timing down, I got this blurry-but-mostly-readable shot of the screen:

By zooming into the shot on the camera, I was able to make out enough of the text to guess that I had a full hard disk. This made me wonder if I would be able to boot into Safe Mode so I could clear out some space. The Safe Mode trick worked, but it turned out I was not low on space at all! I ran CCleaner anyway, and then rebooted, and after that the machine worked fine. I suspect it may have had something to do with corrupt files in the Prefetcher, but I don't know for sure... all I know is that after clearing out unnecessary files with CCleaner, the machine started working again. So even though the camera may not have directly helped me in the long run, it did help me get past the mental block of not knowing what to do. Try it!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Google Voice Desktop App

It all started back up in April, with a TechCrunch article. Either that or it started in November, depending on how you figure it. Sit back for a minute and I'll review things for ya.

Okay, let me back up. If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm a HUGE fan of Google Voice. You also may remember the post when I discovered that Google had bought Gizmo5. At the time I speculated that Google was incorporating the Gizmo5 dialer into Google Talk, Google's (somewhat confusingly-named, since you "Talk" with your "Voice") IM client. (I didn't realize then that Google Talk is a Windows-only product... which probably has something to do with what comes next.)

This past April, TechCrunch broke an article that said that Google was "dogfooding" their upcoming desktop application for Google Voice (the term "dogfooding" taken from the phrase "eating your own dog food," meaning that they were testing it internally before "feeding" it to anyone else). Pretty exciting news! It made it sound like the app was right around the corner!

Hopes were dashed in June when statements from within Google made it clear that the desktop app was probably never going to be released, in favor of incorporating the Gizmo5 technology into Gmail. But then last week, TechCrunch somehow managed to get their hands on something pretty amazing: one of the internal versions of the application! For Mac, no less! Since then, there's been quite a buzz online about it, at least in tech blogs and news sites. There is even an online petition asking Google to release it (if you're interested, please visit GiveUsGVDesktop.com and sign it!) Who knows if that petition and the online noise will even figure into Google's planning at all, but it couldn't hurt.

In the meantime, I've been looking for other options. I saw in this article that it was possible to simulate the Gizmo5 experience using a free service from sipgate (yay!), but then learned that sipgate is also out of commission (they're out of numbers... D'OH!) My other best idea is to use Skype with a free service called ring2skype to simulate the same thing. Sure would be nice to not have to do that, though. Come on, Google... let's have the desktop app!

update: Ring2Skype won't work with Google Voice... you have to key in an extension number to make the call to Skype. It's still a pretty cool service, though!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Google Chrome browser

I've been a Firefox browser user for quite some time - gosh, it must be at least five or six years at this point. But a month or so ago, I read something that convinced me that I should give Google Chrome another chance. From the beginning, Google has claimed that Chrome was more stable because of it's architecture; each new browser tab is its own process, so crashing one will not, in theory, crash all of them (they even made a virtual comic book about it to explain it better). The article I read said that Chrome has made some strides in speed over the other browsers, and I had been increasingly dissatisfied particularly with startup time in Firefox. Chrome also recently (finally) started supporting extensions, which are a favorite feature of Firefox, so I decided to dip my toes in and give it a try!

First I had to try and find some extensions that resembled the ones I use every day on Firefox. I had been using Echofon as my Twitter client; I didn't find anything I was happy with as a Twitter client, but eventually I tried out the desktop version of TweetDeck and now I use it instead (I even uninstalled Echofon from Firefox). I installed the Chrome version of Shareaholic (which, incidentally, I like better than the Firefox version... come on, guys, let's implement that "save your services in the cloud" thing on Firefox!) and WiseStamp, and both were wonderful. The Chrome version of Xmarks is also terrific. I couldn't find a direct port of Gmail Notifier, which is a staple for me, so I tried Google's tray app (ew) and finally discovered the excellent Chrome extension One Number which not only notifies of new Gmail messages, but also handles notifications for Google Reader, Google Voice, and Google Wave. Nice!

On the whole, I was able to find Chrome extensions that either are the same thing as Firefox extensions, or have basically the same functionality. The one cross-browser extension that I was really disappointed in was iMacros. The Firefox version is pretty solid, and in fact I use it almost every day, but the Chrome version (which, to be fair, is still in beta) is slow and buggy. I actually had to resort to opening up Firefox whenever I needed to use iMacros... not high praise for their Chrome development efforts.

Another thing I use quite extensively on Firefox is called "search shortcuts". If I type g Google Chrome into my browser URL bar, it's the same as if I loaded up Google.com and typed Google Chrome into the search box. If I type gn Google Chrome instead, it looks it up on Google News. Setting this up in Firefox is incredibly easy (if you don't know how, check this link for details), and it uses regular bookmarks, which means that my search shortcuts get synchronized through Xmarks so I only have to set them up once for many installations of Firefox. It is possible to set up something similar in Chrome, but it is convoluted and it does not use regular bookmarks, so you have to set it up on each installation of Chrome. That was my first sign that Chrome might not work out for me.

My next indicator came on my underpowered old machine at home. The first time I tried Chrome, the day it was first released, I found it too memory-hungry to run reliably on a computer without gobs of memory for it to chow down on. I discovered that things haven't gotten much better; eventually I had to quit using Chrome on my home machine. I did keep using it at work, though, hoping that it would prove more stable than Firefox. Firefox is by no means a crashy browser, but it does crater every once in a while; I wanted to see if Chrome could best it in the stability department.

Once again I was disappointed. In my experience and with my usage patterns, Chrome seems to crash just about as often as Firefox... it just has its own special ways of crashing. And it's not at good at recovering my session when I restart it, either. With Firefox, when I crash usually I get most or all of my tabs back when I restart; with Chrome that rarely works, even though it's supposed to. In addition, Chrome doesn't seem to like to be left alone for any amount of time; if I left it running for an hour and went to lunch, often when I tried to use it again it would be non-responsive.

Yesterday I gave up on Chrome and went back to using Firefox everywhere. Except for a few extensions that I liked a lot on Chrome and which aren't available for Firefox, I couldn't really find anything about Chrome that would give it an advantage. Firefox is a solid, mature browser with lots of functionality and a large user base; Chrome is a fairly young browser with some style and flash, but not as much substance behind the glamor as I had hoped. I wish Chrome the best, and maybe at some point I'll give it another spin, but for now, I'm still a Firefox fan.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Online Privacy

Recently a friend of mine posted this on her Facebook profile:
WARNING! As of today, there is a new privacy setting called "Instant Personalization" that shares data with non-facebook websites and it is automatically set to "Allow." Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites ...and uncheck "Allow", then repost this to your profile.

A few hours later, another friend posted this:
FYI EVERYONE- There's a site called Spokeo.com and it's an online phone book that has a picture of your house, credit score, profession, age, how many people live in the house. Remove yourself by the Privacy button on the bottom right. (passing along, scary stuff!) I personally checked it out and it is really there!! some of the info was off but its there!!! COPY, PASTE AND REPOST

These are basically unrelated issues, but they both touch on something that I don't think people understand very well: Internet privacy. Let's take the first one first, and think about each them a little bit.

If you are using Facebook, some information about you is publicly available, and that's that. There's a lot of stuff that you can hide from public view, but some of it you can't. Your name, for example. Your profile picture. Some of the stuff you are a "fan" of. To find out what of your profile anyone doing a Google search can see, simply log into Facebook, click "Profile", create a bookmark, log back out of Facebook, and then click your bookmark. You may be surprised at what you see... your status updates may be public, for example. There are several levels of security, including "Friends Only", "Friends of Friends", and so on. I won't try to go into very much detail here (because chances are, Facebook will change things and my blog post will wind up being inaccurate) but you really need to look into a few things:
  1. Take a look at Facebook's privacy policy to see if you really agree with everything it says.
  2. Read over articles like this one and this one, which will explain some of the privacy issues to you and maybe help you tweak things.
  3. Really, be aware of your privacy settings. Currently they are under Account > Privacy Settings (like the post mentions) and you might be able to go right there using this link, if you're logged in. But don't look at only that one checkbox; click through every page, and carefully consider every option. Only allow the stuff you really want allowed.
Now, as far as the "Instant Personalization" setting is concerned: my opinion is that the concern is a bit overblown. Basically, what that setting does is it allows sites that you are visiting anyway to know what Facebook knows about you and shares with people who are on Facebook but who are not your "friends." It's how Pandora knew who my friends were when I started messing with it earlier this week; it told me which of my friends prefer Big Band and which of them prefer Sade. When a song from a favorite artist of theirs comes up, I see their Facebook profile picture.

Does that creep you out? Well, then be creeped by this: any child-molester on the Internet has the same access to your information. Every serial killer and wacko can know what "Instant Personalization" knows, just by having a Facebook account and looking you up. Kind of puts Pandora knowing who your buddies are in perspective, doesn't it? If you don't care for that idea, maybe you shouldn't be on Facebook at all. Signing up for Facebook essentially equates to making a very minor celebrity out of you, so expect paparazzi if you go there.

(And if you are worried about Instant Personalization, allow me to introduce you to the privacy implications of Facebook Applications, such as Farmville, Farm Town, Mafia Wars, etc. which have access to much more information than Instant Personalization does. Might want to check those settings, too.)

So let's consider the second post, the one about spokeo. This is a service that compiles publicly-available information and repackages it for sale. The creepiness isn't the spokeo site; that's just plain old commerce. The creepiness is that the information is publicly available somewhere in the first place! Spokeo is like a used bookstore; they don't create the information, and they aren't even the primary source; they just compile it and sell it at a price. In fact, if you check the Snopes article about it, you'll find this link to another panic about a similar site, ZabaSearch, which was freaking people out by doing the exact same thing five years ago (they're still doing it). In fact, I'll add another one: put your land line phone number or address into WhitePages Reverse Lookup and you're likely to find your name (and maybe others who live in your house; it found my wife's name as well). And they'll sell you more information for a price, too. (Cell phone numbers don't turn up the same granularity of information as land lines because of legal differences.) Heck, type your land line phone number into Google, and with one additional click you'll see a map to your house. So the fact is, spokeo isn't anything unique or frightening... or at least it's not unique. It's fairly common on the Internet.

For the record, all of these services have "remove me from your list" functions, but before you get wrapped up in that, consider this: it is possible to get your phone number unlisted from the telephone book, but the majority of people do not. Why? Because you want to be found. The phone book (probably) has your name, phone number, and address in it. That's easily enough information to physically locate you, if someone wants to. And if you've ever told a stranger that it was your birthday, and if you also told him your name, that's just about enough information right there for identity theft (never tell a stranger anything that someone from a bank would ask you as a "security question", particularly your Social Security Number!) In the thoroughly-networked, cameras-everywhere, cell-phone-toting, information-addicted, credit-driven society we live in, information about you is literally in the very air. If you want to get off the grid, throw away that phone with the GPS capabilities, close out your bank accounts and credit cards and go cash-only, and then quit your job and move to the woods, because almost everything you do in this day and age leaves a footprint.

Hundreds of years ago when most of the world was very rural and communities were small, everyone knew everything about one another. To some extent, in small communities (little towns, schools, workplaces, churches) this is often still the case, but otherwise as a society we've somehow gotten the idea that we have some kind of anonymity, that unless we want them to, it's not nice for someone to know things about us. But the fact is, there have always been reams of publicly-available information about each of us out there somewhere. It's how modern society has always functioned. A bank that can't find out anything about you won't lend you money to buy a car; a prospective employer expects the chance to talk to your previous employers to find out if you fit into their organization. We use information to make educated decisions, and computers do nothing more effectively than they store and compare information. Don't be surprised to find details about yourself on the Internet, but do consider which pieces (for example, your Social Security Number) need to be protected, and which pieces need not be guarded as closely. Pick your battles wisely. Otherwise, that cave out in the wilderness might as well be your home.

(To find out what kinds of things about you that Facebook might be sharing with the whole wide world, visit http://zesty.ca/facebook/ and click the "How do I find my Facebook ID?" link to get started. Most of the categories will likely show you nothing, but check these categories, which might show you some information about yourself or others: "feeds", "likes", "links", "tagged", "posts")

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Google Buzz

One week ago, nobody outside of Google had ever heard of Google Buzz. Even those in the tech news industry were mystified, although there were rumors out there: "We have just received an invite to attend an event at Google’s headquarters where it will be `unveiling some product innovations in two of [its] most popular products'," one tech blog said. There was speculation on all sides (I was hoping for a rebirth/reopening of Gizmo5, myself) but I don't think anyone quite expected what they showed us that day. Facebook and Twitter were the front-runners in social networking; MySpace was nearly a distant memory, and Friendster was already a distant memory. Google's social networking site was Orkut, and it was very popular... in Brazil. Nobody expected them to try again!

Since then, Google claims that like nine bazillion posts have been made to Google Buzz, and I'm pretty sure that at least that many articles about Buzz have appeared on tech news sites... but honestly, my social contacts are still all on Facebook and Twitter. The people I'm connected with on Google Buzz are largely the same people I'm connected to on Twitter. Despite all of the hype about how many built-in users Buzz has because of the integration with Gmail, I haven't seen a lot of activity on Buzz quite yet (except mostly stuff that's getting imported from Twitter or Google Reader). I love the idea of Buzz, and I think Google has every chance of building a service that beats the pants off Facebook for sheer robustness (if you've read my rant about Facebook, you'll know that I think Facebook is a very good idea which is very broken), but I have a serious wish list for Buzz... it's good as it is, but as far as I'm concerned it's just not at the point yet where I can tell my friends, "You've GOTTA try this! It's SO much better than Facebook!"

Now, in some ways, Buzz IS better than Facebook. I think it embeds pictures and videos better. It's much less crash-prone. It loads quickly, and it certainly is handy to have it right there in my Gmail. And you can even EDIT your own posts... it's like magic! But there are a few niggling things that Google could probably roll out fairly quickly that would make the experience SO much better. For example, Google needs to set up a way for users to automatically activate the much-described "get the Buzz messages out of my inbox" filter. I honestly wonder if anyone is really using the "Buzz to my inbox" feature... I mean, Buzz is basically ALREADY in my inbox! It takes more clicks to delete the Buzz email than it does to actually check Buzz for new stuff. Google needs a "no Buzz to my inbox" setting.

Buzz needs WYSIWYG editing. Now, Buzz has hidden support for boldface, italics, and strikethrough (does anyone actually use strikethrough?) by enclosing your text in _underscore characters_ for italics or *asterisks* for boldface (or both for strikethrough), but come on, Google... give us WYSIWYG. This is not a hard thing; it already exists in Gmail and Blogger. That alone will give it a leg up on Twitter and Facebook, neither of which has any text formatting capability.

Why is there no "Re-Buzz" or "Share" feature? Twitter and Facebook BOTH have this, and people love to share stuff they've found. I even saw an article today that more people use Facebook as their jumping-off point to the Web now than use Google, which blows my mind! People want to share stuff they find, even if they find it on Buzz. Come on, Google... how hard can this be? There's a lot of potential there for users to meet like-minded friends-of-friends and begin to share directly with those new contacts, too.

And hey... what about a link (other than the now-common Google Reader hack) to "Buzz This Page"? Such a thing exists for Facebook and Twitter, and I use them all the time. Maybe this is going to be part of the upcoming roll-out of hooks into and out of Buzz, but it would have made a lot of sense to give us that capability right from the first.

One thing that's cool about Buzz is that you can "mute" a post. The post slowly fades into invisibility, and it looks pretty cool. But in order to make that happen, you have to select "Mute this post" from a drop-down menu, and I mute posts so often that I can't imagine why you wouldn't want this to be an icon or top-level item instead of a 2-click thing. And I can also see people getting pretty cranky about the fade-out, too... it's just long enough to get on people's nerves. I think it ought to be something you can turn off (although I would leave it on, myself).

There needs to be an easy way to collapse a bunch of comments on a post. Facebook doesn't have this, and oddly it never felt like it was "missing" on Facebook, but on Google Buzz it seems like a glaring omission. A "collapse all" would be nice, too.

And there really needs to be an OBVIOUS way to turn Buzz off. There is a link at the very bottom of the screen, but that link is not "obvious"... I would never have found it if I hadn't seen it referred to in a news post. For something as intrusive as Buzz, there needs to be a big red "off" switch with neon arrows pointing at it, because otherwise people are going to be really unhappy about it (in fact, people have ALREADY been unhappy about it).

There needs to be a landing page for links into a particular Buzz account. The Google Profile basically serves this purpose but it's not particularly Buzz-specific. How about a single page where a friend can see all of my public Buzz posts, and only my public Buzz posts? Twitter has it. Why not Buzz?

Now that I've got all of my "tweaks" off my chest, I want to move on to something else: things I think need to be added to Buzz. With some or all of the tweaks I've recommended, Buzz could be at least as good as Facebook and Twitter, and maybe a little better where finesse is called for. With the additions I'm calling for, Buzz could truly be a SERIOUSLY killer app.

My number one wish is for Buzz to use existing hooks into Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites to turn buzz into an aggregator for existing sites as well as a new platform. I'd like to see a dual-screen situation where you can flip over to another tab and be able to see what you would see if you were on other sites, and maybe even add comments to those sites, and then flip back over to your Buzz account and add posts to that. (Using the tips from this article I've actually set up my Gmail account so that I can access Facebook and Twitter directly from Gmail anyway, but it would be wonderful to not have to resort to add-ons to do so.) Even more critical is the ability to post something to Buzz and simultaneously cross-post it to Facebook and/or Twitter (and any other social networks that will be supported.) The advantages of doing this are, to me, fairly obvious... the user has the advantage of one-stop status update posting, and Buzz can have the advantage (especially in the case of 140-characters-only Twitter) of getting to link through to the Buzz version of the post. This functionality alone, I believe, will bring new users to Buzz. And once they are using Buzz for all of their publishing, Buzz will quickly become their network of choice, with other social sites becoming at best places to play Flash games, and at worst, simply convenient avenues to get status updates into Buzz.

There really needs to be a standalone, not-in-Gmail experience of Buzz. Google has acknowledged that this is a possible upcoming addition, and I think it would be a great idea, if only for people who are maybe a little bit Gmail-phobic and don't want to feel like they are creating a new email account that they don't want. (This may yet happen.) Another new incarnation I could see for Buzz would be adding more Buzz functionality directly into Google Reader. Right now Reader works fairly well with Buzz, but it would be nice to see some Buzz flow back into Reader instead of just having Reader content flow into Buzz.

A consequence of tighter integration with other sites will be something that has come up for me already: feedback loops. If I have my Buzz posts flowing out to Twitter AND my Twitter posts flowing back into Buzz, I will get every post showing up both places twice! As it is right now, I would like to syndicate my Google Reader posts out to Twitter, but they are already flowing into Buzz, and if I syndicate them in Twitter, they will turn up on Buzz twice... and because of that, I haven't syndicated my Reader posts out to Twitter.

One way that could be eliminated would be to incorporate Gmail's filtering capabilities into Buzz. For example, I would love to be able to filter my Twitter posts and never Buzz the ones that, for example, start with "Read this: " and then I could prefix my Google Reader tweets that way. It would be great to filter posts from some of my contacts, too... kind of an "auto-mute" so that (for example) I never see posts containing the word "beer" from a college-partying friend, or never see posts with pictures attached from a friend who posts way too many photos of his car.

I like that Buzz already has "allow-only" private posting, so if I have my family members organized into a group called "Family" I can create a buzz that is only visible to my family. Google should follow Facebook's lead and add the inverse of this, so that I can "deny" a group as well. So if I have a group called "Denver" and some of my "Family" group members are also living in the "Denver" group, I could "allow" the "Family" group and "deny" the "Denver" group, and only family members who do not live in Denver would see the post.

Last but not least, I really think Google should allow syndicating RSS feeds into your Buzz stream. Third-party sites (like Twitterfeed) are going to do this eventually anyway, and this would allow information from a multitude of other sources to flow easily into Buzz. Allowing input from RSS feeds is a key to getting even more of people's online identity into Buzz. I would also like to see customizable RSS feeds out from Buzz, so that I could create feeds that do not include information from certain sources or that are filtered by keywords or other criteria. This would be another way that users could deal with the feedback loop problem I mentioned before... if I could generate a feed from my Google Buzz that includes all sources except my Twitter information, I could syndicate that feed back to Twitter and never get a duplicate post. It would also be useful to be able to customize the titles of the items in the feeds; the single outgoing Google Buzz feed is configured in such a way that it really needs some post-processing to be useful... and I don't have time to learn Yahoo Pipes (and does Google really want their information to be processed through a Yahoo service anyway??)

Google Buzz has so much potential. Google creates very solid online software... much better than Facebook's unattractive and accident-prone offering. And although Google doesn't have a perfect record on this account, they do have a much better uptime track record that Twitter, whose "fail whale" page that informs users that the system is down has become something of a pop-culture icon (and when your "our site is down" page is famous, that is known as a BAD thing!) My take on the first week of Google Buzz is that Google has gotten off to a somewhat feeble start, when they could have come out of the gate like a race horse if they had only implemented ALL of the functions of FriendFeed, which Buzz is unabashedly modeled after. But in the current online climate, I think Google has a lot of motivation to make the service better, and they have a lot of potential to make it really dynamite. Even if you're not actively using Buzz yet, I think it's a good idea to keep an eye on it. It may be the next revolution in social networking!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Google Voice

"GrandCentral is the BOMB!" I read on a message board. It was late 2008, and I had never heard of GrandCentral before, but I looked it up and it was looking pretty cool. Using GrandCentral I could get a brand-new phone number for free, and set things up so that calling that number would ring me up at work or at home! I wouldn't have to give people an either-or on a phone number any more! And since it is frowned upon where I work to give out the private "direct" number to people other than immediate family (instead having people call the switchboard and speak to our very sweet receptionist), I figured I might be able to give out this number to friends and not give them the direct line number.

Well, I was right on all counts... I was able to set things up so people could reach me at home or at work, and there are a number of other great advantages I gained as well. GrandCentral, now re-branded Google Voice, also allows me to get my personal voice mails in my Google Voice account (while my work voice mails land in my work voice mail), and even set up a schedule so that my Google Voice number doesn't ring my home phone during the day when my wife is at home but I'm at work. It's great!

There have been so many good tutorials and posts of Google Voice features that I'm not going to waste too much time rehashing easy-to-find information. Even I have already mentioned Gizmo5+Google Voice on this blog, and I've also already mentioned Google Voice's cell phone applications here as well. If you have a cell phone (I do not), you can have GV ring both your land line and your cell phone, and then you can answer whichever one is convenient. In fact, you can switch your call from one to the other midstream (for example, I could answer my Google Voice call at work, switch to my cell phone for the bus ride home, and then when I got home, switch to my land line, and the person on the phone need never know the conversation happened on three separate phones). There are tons of cool features to talk about, but I wanted to mention the very few things that I wish were different about Google Voice.

The one that bugs me the most right now is that Google has not yet re-released Gizmo5 after acquiring it. I even took a look at eBay for accounts... sure enough, they are there to be had! Funny how people will pay twenty bucks for something they could have gotten for free a month ago! :) Once Google reopens Gizmo5 (I expect its capabilities to be folded into Google Talk, myself) I will be able to answer my GV calls through my computer headset. And that will be AWESOME!

I wish Google Voice was able to support SMS short codes. These are the five- or six-digit "text this number with your cell phone" codes that usually connect you with services (for example, in the U.S. you can tweet to Twitter by texting your tweet to 40404, or update your Facebook by texting 32665). The way I understand it, on regular land-line service the number is sent a digit at a time, but on cell phones the number is sent all at once, which makes these short codes possible, and they are by agreement between cell phone carriers. My assumption is that because Google Voice is not a cell phone carrier, it does not have access to those agreements. It's a shame, because SMS short codes are so prevalent these days that I know this one thing is enough to turn people off from using Google Voice exclusively. I use the SMS-to-a-full-cell-number feature almost daily, though, and it works great! Even without a cell phone, I can text friends. It's kind of hard to explain to them, actually!

Google Voice also does not support MMS messages, which are multimedia SMS-style messages (if you've ever texted someone a snapshot on your phone, you've used this). For some people this is apparently a deal-breaker, but honestly, these days everybody's phone has email. Why would you want to send this kind of stuff via text message?

It would sure be nice for Google to roll out wide support for porting cell phone numbers to GV. This has been being talked about for some time now, and I have actually read articles from people who have been allowed to do it... but it's not easy or free (actually, according to Google, it's not even available yet). There is a procedure you can go through to set up your cell phone so that calls go to Google Voice voice mail instead of your carrier's voice mail, so that's partway there, but that's just a consolation prize. One more thing that might cause a long-time cell-phone user to not try it out.

Recently an idea occurred to me that would be a super-cool addition to Google Voice. I sent it in on their feedback form, but I thought I would share it here as a dream feature that I hope they will add one day. For background, I mentioned that I have Google Voice ring my home phone, but only outside of business hours when I can be expected to be home, not during the day when I'm at the office but my wife is home. You can set up individual ring schedules for each telephone you list with Google Voice, and there are two separate schedules, a "weekday" schedule and a "weekend" schedule. So on my "weekday" schedule, I have my home phone ringing only between the time I generally get home after work and the time I generally leave the next morning, and I have my office phone ringing during our normal office hours. On the weekend I have the home phone ringing and the office phone not ringing. If I had a cell phone, I would probably set it up to ring all of the time. What I would like to see would be a third ring schedule, a "holiday" or "vacation" schedule. This would be the phones you want to ring, say, on Memorial Day, which would normally be a weekday "work" day but which you might get off work for, or say on the week that you take the family to Disney World for vacation. When I'm at home on a 3-day weekend, I do need my home phone to ring, but I don't need my office phone to ring, but when the holiday is over, I need to revert to my original settings. Right now I have to change everything manually, which is an unnecessary hassle.

Now, to digress a little bit, GV has a "Do Not Disturb" mode that automatically sends all calls to voice mail without ringing the phone at all. Do Not Disturb mode is easily activated by clicking "Settings" and then the "Calls" tab and then checking a checkbox. Turning it off is even easier; the Google Voice screen has a "'Do Not Disturb' is enabled. Disable now" link right at the top of the screen. I would like to see my proposed "holiday mode" set up to trigger in two ways: one way would be manually, by checking or unchecking a checkbox, and the other way would be on a schedule. So I could set the first and last days of my vacation weeks ahead of time, and then it wouldn't be one more thing I would have to remember between plane schedules, luggage, putting a stop on the mail, etc. With enough flexibility, I could set up the holidays in my Google Voice the first week of January when the yearly holiday calendar is distributed at work, and not have to think about it again until twelve months later. How cool would that be?

I could go on and on about Google Voice's amazing features... voice-mail notifications in my email in-box, receiving and replying to SMS messages via my email account, email-style spam filtering of phone calls, customized outgoing message per contact (I could set it so my mom hears "Hi mom!" when she calls me, for example), contacts shared with Gmail address book, contacts available on the Web and on your cell phone, call "screening" by listening in (like you used to do with your Code-a-Phone machine back in the day!), free calls any time of day to anywhere in the United States. But I'll just end by saying that Google Voice has succeeded in making a huge number of telephone-related things much easier for me. I'm excited to see what Google has in mind for Gizmo5, and I'm interested in using a cell phone with Google Voice integrated into it, and I think Google Voice is a product that just about anyone could use and be thrilled with. I would pay for it if it cost money to use it; that's how indispensable it is. If one of the cell-phone carriers had anywhere near this kind of offering in their plan's online site, they would win customers because of it.

I'm just glad that my mom only has to remember one number to call me at work or home. "Hi mom!"

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cell Phones

I have long been a cell-phone conscientious objector. There are a number of reasons for this... there is the "people got along for decades without cell phones, what makes them such a necessity now?" argument. There's the argument that they're too darn expensive, and I stand by that one, although you can pretty easily find plain talk service these days for something like $10/month... as long as you're not interested in text messaging, data access, or any of the other things people do with their phones these days. But deep down, I know my main reason for not being interested in cell phones is that I just don't really like phone calls. I mean, I like talking to friends... I really do, and if you can manage to get me on the phone, you may have trouble getting rid of me! But I don't like two things about phone calls: placing the phone call, and receiving the phone call. And clearly, one or the other is necessary in order for a phone call to take place! The idea of calling someone when I don't know whether they're busy, angry, sleeping, or they just don't want to talk to me, fills me with an irrational dread. And the sound of the phone ringing still strikes a little bit of fear in my heart... who is it? What do they want? Will they try to make me do something I don't want to do? Will I have trouble getting them to let me end the call? Will I have to hang up on someone? The proliferation of Caller ID has mitigated this quite a bit, of course, but old attitudes die hard.

We probably still wouldn't have a cell phone at my house if it weren't for one person. That person's name is Hannah, and 2 and a half years ago, my wife was pregnant with her and insisted that her water could break in some remote place (unlikely, since she rarely goes anyplace without me anyway, especially when she's pregnant) and if she didn't have a cell phone, she wouldn't be able to reach help. "I'll only use it for emergencies!" she said, and I didn't believe her for a second (and I was right). I got her the free RAZR from AT&T (since they do our phone service anyway) and she was off to the races. I got her the smallest number of minutes and text messages possible, and with the rollover minutes and the fact that texting was godawful difficult on the RAZR, she never went over either.

Our 2-year contract went by and expired, and she had beat her RAZR all to heck. The corner of the metal button plate was bent up, and one section of it was actually missing. To this day neither of us really knows how that all happened, but it was clear that the RAZR was on its last legs. She was wanting a newer styled phone anyway... the whole flip-phone thing was so 2005!... so we picked her up a green LG Neon phone, one with a slide-out keyboard. The keyboard makes it much easier to send texts and Yahoo IMs (which count as texts), which means that now she's on a $100 plan with unlimited data & texts instead of the inexpensive low-minutes, low-texts plan we had before. That's the cell phone racket... hook you with a low base service cost, and then nickel and dime you to death with "extra" services that they know you really want!

Her new phone was the first phone I've really played with that actually had anything approaching usable Internet access (we never used data on the RAZR), and I have to say, now that mobile-enabled sites are so prevalent, it's hard not to make the decision to pick up a phone I can use to look up movie times any time and anywhere I want or write a quick email on the bus on the way home. I'm not sure I'd be happy with a phone like hers that is designed for texting and lighter Web access... to get me to carry around a snake in my pocket, it's darn well going to have to be a smartphone that I can use to look at virtually any Web site I want (my wife's phone on AT&T has trouble with some sites... for example, it can't load the mobile version of meebo). I'm not interested in an iPhone; in addition to being phoneophobic, I'm allergic to products made by Apple. :) Plus, the iPhone App Store doesn't have a dialer app for Google Voice any more, which basically makes it a deal-breaker for me... I love Google Voice!

The only dialer apps for Google Voice are for Android and Blackberry. I'm not too hip to the keyboard-below-the-screen layout of most of the Blackberry phones, so that would leave me with either a Blackberry Storm or an Android phone, and since I'm a big fan of Google products in general, it's very nearly a no-brainer to pick an Android phone. I've been waiting and waiting for something Android to come to AT&T, but I keep being disappointed... and since I'm not particularly getting that good of a deal with my land line/DSL/cell phone bundle, I don't see any reason to be loyal to our carrier, so that gives me options.

Until the first of the year, I was getting very interested in the Droid. Although I've heard that it's a little heavy compared to other smart phones, I like the idea of the slide-out keyboard (that's the big thing I like about my wife's phone). But then very late last December I started hearing about the new Google Phone, the Nexus One. Just the mere idea of the phone being a real Google phone sounded pretty cool to me, and it has some features that the Droid doesn't have (speech-to-text for all data entry boxes, for example), but as I began comparing things, it sounds like between the two, the Droid may just be the phone for me. There's that keyboard, for one thing. And most of the software differences will wind up on the Droid anyway when the new version of the Android OS gets pushed out to it. I actually dig the Droid Eris as well (pictured at the top of this blog post), but it doesn't have the slide-out keyboard.

Will I buy myself a Droid? Given unlimited funds, I probably would head to the Verizon store today and pick one up. I'll need to make sure I have the money to afford the $199 cost of the phone and also support my service plan (sheesh, it's like putting a kid through college!). If I suddenly had the funds to afford a phone, would I ever actually turn the ringer on? I don't know... I suspect the answer would be "rarely." If I felt the need to have a phone for talk, I would go for something much cheaper and not do the data stuff at all, but if I get a phone, for me it will be more like buying a tiny wireless computer/MP3 Player that unfortunately has a ringer on it than buying a telephone with Web access. Of course I'll use it for calls, but you'll be more likely to find me using Rhapsody, Google Maps, twitdroid or Evernote than Google Voice. Maybe the cell phone price wars that seem to be heating up will change that (or maybe not), but for now, you'll have to send me an email and I'll get it when I get home!

FURTHER READING: Here's an interesting Nexus One vs. Droid vs. iPhone shootout you can use to compare apples with (non-)apples a little bit...

MORE FURTHER READING: Wireless plans from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint compared