RIP WebTV – The Internet For The Rest of Us

Today, we mourn the passing of a truly amazing product. After 17 years of faithful service, WebTV (later known as MSNTV) has officially shut down for good. WebTV had a huge impact on my life, both personally and professionally, so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about what I loved about WebTV, what I'll miss, and what I'll never forget.


I also recommend reading Brad Hill's farewell to WebTV article. He experienced a different side of the company's story than I did, and his article is a great read.
An Inside View of the WebTV Revolution That Didn't Happen
- By Brad Hill (no relation)


My Introduction to WebTV

I first discovered WebTV in 1997. I had just gotten my AA, couldn't afford to go on to a four-year university, and wasn't really sure where my career was headed. So when I met a cute redhead who told me about this great customer service gig in the bay area, I called in a favor to couch-surf with a friend for a while, moved down from Sacramento, and took the plunge.

[Aimee and Tash, I will never be able to properly repay you. Thank you!]

I joined the company a few weeks before it was acquired by Microsoft, but the negative impact from that didn't really start to manifest until a year later. That first year, WebTV was the quintessential startup environment. The CS team was housed in the same ratty garage on Alma St in Palo Alto that the company had been founded in. The building was crammed with young, idealistic 20-somethings who had their eyes set on changing the world, one user at a time.

It was a magical time for me. I was surrounded by great people, most fresh out of college and aching to make a dent in the world. We started out answering phones and responding to support emails from extremely passionate users. Within a year, we had outsourced the first-level calls and everyone on the team has chosen a new area of expertise to sink their teeth into. Some began running the Previews beta testing program, some went into data analysis to spot trends and feed the data back to the product side of the business, and some transferred to other teams like Usability or Engineering.

Me? I went into training and documentation. Shortly after starting there, I had camped out in front of my TV for a week and — with just a WebTV, a Laura Lemay book, and a Geocities account — taught myself HTML. So as we began to outsource front-line CS, I built a CS Agents intranet that would let anyone from any of the three call centers get to any of a few hundred support issues (the bulk of which I helped write) within three clicks. I took Andy MacFadden's incredible "Greater Scroll of Dialing Wisdom" document (still the best developer-written documentation I've ever read) and distilled it down to a Lesser Scroll for advanced connections agents, wrote a IRC chat FAQ and a scad of internal documentation, and flew to call centers in Florida, Kentucky and Salt Lake City to train the next wave of customer service agents, who would be the first point of contact with our wonderful users.

I even recreated a vitrual version of the WebTV Classic, Plus and DishPlayer services, using service screenshots tied together via imagemaps, so the CS agents who didn't have a WebTV box at their desk, or had to share one, could still follow along with users while explaining how to get connected. Now that the service itself is going dark, I have posted an archival version of this for posterity.

Those were the days. We would get calls from 70 year old users who were literally crying because they were so frustrated at not understanding how email worked, or how to get into a scrapbooking chat room. With patience and a healthy supply of metaphor, we'd explain it in a way they could grok, and send them on their way. And a few months later we'd get a call from the same user, complaining that the HTML in the website they were hand-coding on Angelfire wasn't working the way the expected it to. If we ever doubted for a moment the potential for a simple user experience to empower normal people to do truly mazing things, WebTV users would quickly set us straight.


WebTV's Original Mission

The original idea behind WebTV was simple. Provide an inexpensive, easy-to-use option for normal, non-technical people to get online. "The Internet for the rest of us" wasn't just a tagline, but a mission statement. If $2,000 for a PC seemed absurd, you could drop as little as $99 on a small device that plugged into your TV and gave you access to email, bulletin boards, IRC chat, and a rudimentary web browser, with as little pain as possible, for just $20/month. Add another $70 to replace the remote control with a wireless keyboard and you were off to the races.

While younger users (like me) might quickly outgrow the system and move on to PCs, the core WebTV users turned out to be the older or less technologically inclined half of the population, who didn't want to over-complicate their lives with too much tech, but still wanted to keep in touch with their out-of-town children, share baby photos through email, and connect through bulletin boards and chat with others who loved the same things they loved. Rarely have I ever met users who were so passionate about a product as WebTV users. To many of them, WebTV was the internet. And the fact that the WebTV service has stayed alive as long as it has is a testament to their devotion.


WebTV Plus, DishPlayer and TiVo

But getting the web to run on a TV was just the start. The bigger long-term bet was on integrating the web with TV, to create a seamless hybrid of the two. WebTV Plus took the integration one step further, allowing you to plug your cable signal into the box, and providing an extremely easy to use interface for searching TV listings, keeping track of your favorites, and even tying the shows you watched to related websites.

WebTV Plus was ahead of its time. Many of the innovations it pioneered (including the ability to click through to purchase or get more info on an item directly from a TV commercial) are things that today's technologists still strive to include in the next generation of set-top boxes.

And with the DishPlayer box (essentially a WebTV Plus built into a DishNetwork satellite box), they took it one step further and included one of the first-ever digital video recorders. DishPlayer and TiVo were in development at the same time, with offices just a few blocks from one another, and launched within a few months of one another. It still kills me that the DVR race played out the way it did.

At launch, DishPlayer had all the same functionality as TiVo, a much more intuitive user interface (most people forget the initial learning curve TiVo users faced), the ability to play games like Doom and You Don't Know Jack (hey, it was the 90s, these games were pretty cool back then), and the entire internet to boot, for essentially the same price. Sadly, Microsoft really didn't understand what they had on their hands, and put almost no money into marketing DishPlayer. Meanwhile, their pluckier startup competitor with a clunkier UI, far less features, and a cute animated mascot marketed the crap out of their product, and now TiVo is a verb and hardly anyone remembers DishPlayer.

Would TiVo be a verb today if WebTV's founders had said no to Microsoft's $425 million offer and run full steam ahead the way TiVo did? And would it have taken another 10 years for set top boxes to start infiltrating the living room like they're finally starting to do now? The world will never know. But I'll always have my suspicions.


How WebTV Fell, but Refused to Die

For the first year after the acquisition, Microsoft mostly left WebTV alone. They knew they had something amazing on their hands, but didn't really understand it, so they let us continue working our way. Besides the obvious flaw of not believing in DishPlayer enough to properly fund its marketing, Microsoft started to dig its teeth into daily operations.

Emily, the CS manager we all loved and adored, left the company and was replaced by a devious, soulless shell of a human being Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned. My own manager, Steve Kroll (who I would have gone to hell and back for) finally left the company in frustration, and was replaced by an old-industry manager who literally couldn't even type, much less grok the technology industry. And the two of them proceeded to replace all the passionate, knowledgable startup staff with business types who didn't know the product and didn't care about the users. I was lucky enough to find a new startup gig and left the company the day before our group moved into Microsoft's new Silicon Valley campus. By the time Soulless and Clueless had been fired (a few months after I left), they had already cost the company at least a dozen of its best CS employees and laid waste the the team's morale.

Some of the other organizations might not have ben hit as badly as CS. And indeed, there were a few of the old WebTV crew who spent the next decade of their career quite happily at Microsoft, both moving to the Xbox and Hotmail teams (or to the Seattle mothership) and doing their best to keep the WebTV service alive and kicking for as long as possible.

After the move to the Microsoft campus, the product remained on the shelves and in active development for several more years. They rebranded it MSNTV, upgraded the browser, migrated the email to run on Hotmail servers on the back end, and even came out with a box that supported broadband. Eventually, despite continued demand for the WebTV/MSNTV service, demand for new hardware decreased to the point where they stopped selling it. Despite the lack of new hardware, the service continued to live on for many years beyond.

The fact that today's shut-down is happening 17 years after the acquisition, and 16 years after the Dark Days should stand as a testament, not only to the herculean efforts of Andrew Levin and his team, but of the incredible staying power that was built into WebTV's business right from the start.

Today, we live in a world where most "products" on the web are subsidized by the advertising companies who use them to harvest ad targeting data from their users. No matter how beloved a product is, if it ceases to be sexy or cool, or provide enough ad-targeting intel, it gets the axe. (Google Reader users, you may now rant.) But WebTV was an old-school business. They made a product that served a need, and charged a fair price for the service. This gave them product a much sturdier foundation upon which to stand.

If I recall correctly, WebTV had a base of close to a million users at its peek. This number doubtlessly dropped steadily over the years. But with the majority of the service already up and running, the service could likely be run on a skeleton crew of maybe a dozen people plus server costs. I don't have access to any internal numbers, but by napkin math, at $20 per month per user, you would only need about 10K users to cover costs. Beyond that, you'd be looking at another $2.4 million in revenue for every additional 10K users. So even at only 10% of its peek user base, you'd still be looking at a business unit that generated around $22 million per year in profit.

It's hard to kill a product that refuses to stop generating income. I sincerely wish every entrepreneur today would take this lesson to heart. (Someday I'll write a post on the history of Half.com. It's a very different product from WebTV, but the lesson is identical.)


WebScissors and the Legacy of Jos

I made a lot of friend in my time at WebTV. Easily the friendliest and most prolifically talented of them was Jos Claerbout. He was one of those guys who just radiated friendliness. You couldn't meet him and not instantly adore him. And his brain simply wouldn't stop producing. He thought objecting oriented programming should be easier to learn, so he wrote the funniest, most useful object oriented programming tutorial I've ever seen: Don't Fear the OOP: Why coding Java is just like writing a trashy Western novel. He saw users having trouble making their own websites? He built his own tool, WebScissors, to make it easy for them to import images to their WebTV scrapbooks.

Sadly, he shared so much of his heart with the rest of the world that it gave out on him far too soon. Jos's death had a huge impact on everyone who knew him. His father, Jon, put together a beautiful site on The Life of Jos Claerbout that crystalizes many of our thoughts and memories of him.

Before he died, I had been talking to Jos about working with him to upgrade the user interface for WebScissors, and add the ability to view HTML source code. So I was deeply honored when Jon and Andrew Levin (who was maintaining the site on Jon's behalf) invited me to help maintain WebScissors for posterity, and add the features Jos and I wanted to bring to our users. To this day, WebScissors 2.0 is alive and well, and we have no intention of letting it go any time soon. It will outlive the WebTV service itself, as a testament to Jos's creativity and dedication to his users.

And it may even continue to be useful, as today's tablet users often face similar browser limitations to those that WebScissors necessary in the first place, all those years ago. Time will tell...


The Legacy of WebTV

WebTV was an amazing product that was far ahead of its time. It taught me the importance of usability, and how a simple interface and a few visual/textual metaphors could bridge the gap to make complex technology accessible to the masses. It taught me the importance of community, and how deeply users will love your product if you fight like hell to make it serve their passions. And it gave me the curiosity, inspiration and opportunity to start a career that still gets me excited to this day.

But the true legacy of WebTV is its people. WebTV alumni have gone on to play key roles in creating some of the most ubiquitous technology on the market today. I've lost count of the number of WebTV alumni who have worked behind the scenes at Apple to continue the mission to bring the internet to the rest of us. Andy Rubin, Andy MacFadden and their team are behind the Android smartphones that appeal so well to the masses. And quite a few of alumni have remained with Microsoft, contributing to the Xbox platform and other products within the company.

And let's not forget the users. Never, ever forget the users.


As WebTV fades to #191919,* I will always cherish the people it introduced me to, and the lessons it taught me.


* WebTV Trivia:
It can be really hard on the eyes to read contrasting text on a true-black background. Especially on a low-resolution TV screen.
So all of the "black" screens in the WebTV service actually used the shade #191919 instead of true black for the background color.

How to Fix the Live-Tweet / Spoiler Problem

For those who want to experience a media event from a particular person's perspective, live-tweeting can be great. A fan of a TV show might enjoy reading along with the reactions of an actor from the show, a media personality they like, or even one of their friends. But unless steps are taken to manage one's message, live-tweeting can also be one of the worst violations of Wheaton's Law in social media, pissing off all of your followers who don't like spoilers. The good news is that this is a fairly easy problem to fix, simply by using a parallel feed for live-tweeting events.


Why is live-tweeting such a bad idea?

Quite simply, unless your Twitter feed is specifically set up for live-tweeting, the odds are quite high that the majority of people who follow you do not want to read your live tweets. For anyone who is interested in the event you're covering but hasn't had a chance to watch it yet (either because it hasn't aired yet in their time zone, country, or online distribution platform, or because they simply don't have the time to schedule their life around live events), your need to live-tweet contradicts their desire to experience it fresh and spoiler-free when they do watch it. And for those who aren't interested in the event at all, your live-tweets essentially hijack your followers' feeds with irrelevant noise, which again translates to a bad experience for them.

As an example, let's look at Syfy's live-tweets of Warehouse 13. As part of the marketing for the new season, Syfy had the characters from the show live-tweeting several episodes. Given that the network has dozens of shows and even more movies on their channel (and many of their followers are drawn to their Twitter feed for Craig Engler's great "how the business really works" tweets), we can safely assume that it is a relatively small subset of their total followers that are fans of any given show. Let's be generous and call it 25%.

Let's further assume that, with an international following, a relatively small percentage will have the opportunity (much less have the time) to watch the show when it airs live in the same time zone as the live-tweet. Some will watch a few hours later when it airs in their time zone, some will watch the next day when it airs online, and some will watch a week or more later when their personal schedule allows. Let's again be very generous and assume that 20% of the fans watch live. Thus, 5% of the total users would be both fans of a given show and watching it live.

That would mean that 75% of the Syfy Twitter feed's followers will be annoyed at the flood of tweets that are irrelevant to them, 20% will be seriously pissed off at having the show they love spoiled for them before they've had a chance to watch it, and only 5% will be happy to have been able to properly enjoy the live-tweet experience. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that providing a negative experience for 95% of your followers in order to provide a positive experience for only 5% is a bad move.


But what if I give advanced notice to mute/unfollow me before I start?

Typically, when the recently-spoiled masses chew out the live-tweeter for spoiling things for them, the live-tweeter's response is to point out that they did make a warning tweet before they started. Something like "we're going to be live-tweeting for the next hour, so if you don't want to be spoiled stay off Twitter or un-follow us for a while." Setting aside the inherent presumptuousness of saying, essentially "I'm going to do something I know is bad, so it's your responsibility to avoid it," this kind of warning tweet simply doesn't work.

Twitter is, after all, reverse-linear. Unless they spend the whole day constantly refreshing Twitter (yes, I know some do, but they're the minority, particularly outside desk job hours), people experience your Twitter feed in reverse order. So if you spend an hour live-tweeting a show they love, they won't see your warning tweet until after they've had to wade through an hour's worth of crap, and already had the joy sucked out of their viewing experience. And they can't simply skip your tweets, as they have to sift through them in order to see all the other tweets in their timeline that are interspersed with yours.

Live-tweeting on a non-dedicated Twitter feed is simply a bad thing to do. Please, please don't do it.


Ok, but some people LOVE live-tweeting. How do we make it work for them?

It is absolutely true that some people love live-tweeting. Some tweeters love doing it, and some followers love reading it. That's great! If everyone involved is enjoying it, more power to them. The trick is simply making your live-tweets opt-in rather than opt-out by doing them on a separate Twitter feed.

Let's return to the Syfy example. Instead of using the main @syfy feed to host live-tweet events, Syfy could create a separate @syfy_live feed. Whenever they want to host a live-tweet event, they could then use the main feed to let people know that they can follow the secondary feed to play along with the event. That way, anyone who wants to see the live-tweet content can easily follow the live feed and bask in the instant gratification, while anyone who doesn't want to be spoiled (or simply doesn't care to have their feed flooded) doesn't have to be inconvenienced.

This setup also has the benefit of allowing Syfy to better judge how many people are actively engaged with the live-tweet events, as they can watch the follower count for the live feed go up and down with each event, rather than having to guess what portion of the main feed's changes (positive or negative) are related to the live-tweeting. Using separate feeds for live events really is better for everyone involved.

Craig, on the off chance that you're reading this, please let me know when you decide to implement something like this. I love almost everything you do with the Syfy account, particularly the "how the industry works" educational tweets. I was very sad to have to unfollow to avoid the flood of spoilers, and I would really love to be able to follow again.


But can't people still be spoiled when the live-tweet feed gets re-tweeted?

Yes, of course. But if that happens, the sin that is committed is by the retweeter, not by you, and unless they retweeting you en masse, it's going to be a far, far smaller problem than live-tweeting on your main feed. We can't solve the problem universally without Twitter building filtering tools into their product (which, as an advertising company, they have little incentive to do). But we can at least minimize the problem as much as possible by putting some thought into how we use our primary Twitter feeds and when we move special content to secondary feeds.



Hmm. Wouldn't this work for other high-volume live events, too, like sporting events?

If we could convince sports fans to have separate feeds for their game-day tweets, that would be utterly fantastic! Seriously, I might cry from the pure joy of it. But there the number of sports fans who annoy their followers with this undecipherable (to the rest of us) gibrish is far larger than the number of people who live-tweet TV shows and other live media events, so I figure it's best to start with an easily solvable problem, and work our way up to the more daunting problems.

Besides, when was the last time you tried to get a sports fan to listen to logic regarding how they consume their sports? Especially while they're watching the game? Up. Hill. Battle. :-)

Anyone want to beta test for OnLive?

OnLiveAny gamers out there want to test the latest cutting-edge gaming hardware? OnLive beta testing is about to begin and they're recruiting testers.

What is OnLive, you ask? Cloud gaming. All you need is a browser plugin or a mini-console, your own controller, keyboard or mouse, and you have on-demand access to a huge library of games. OnLive sends the signals from your controller over the web back to their custom-built gaming servers, it plays the game there (with more processing power than you'd ever have at home), and sends you back a video stream of what's going on in-game.

Plus, since they're bending video streams like crazy, they let you eaves drop and watch other people playing their games - live. Want to check out that new Star Wars: The Force Unleashed game, but don't know anyone who owns it? Just click into the game and pick from dozens of people who are playing it to watch over their shoulder. Or, while you're playing, click a button to record "brag clips" to post on your blog or twitter feed.

"But wait!" you say. "It'll never work! It would take years to develop the tech to get video streaming to the point where you could push that much video over the web seamlessly." And you'd be right. It'd take about seven years, actually. Luckily, Steve Perlman (of WebTV fame) has always been about a decade ahead of the curve. He and his crew have been working on this since 2002 and are finally ready to lift the veil this winter. Should be exciting!

Lets just hope he doesn't sell this company to Microsoft like he did WebTV. Apple, TiVo and YouTube are still struggling to catch up with Perlman's business plan from a decade ago, that Microsoft didn't understand and let fall by the wayside. I'll still never forgive them for the epic marketing fumble that lead to Dishplayer's obscurity and TiVo's ubiquity.

Palm is back in the game with the Pre!

Palm PreThe ads that accompanies the original iPhone drove me crazy. They were talking about it like it was something new, when I'd had the same basic functionality I've had on my Treo since 2002 (before the iPod even had USB or color). Sure, it wasn't as pretty as the iPhone, but it was functional as all hell and much, much easier to use (physical keyboard, customizable buttons, copy/paste, etc).

But over the past two years I had been getting nervous. While Apple and Blackberry were continuing to innovate on their phones, and application developers bent over backwards to make snazzy toys for the iPhone, the Palm OS and accompanying hardware just stagnated. You'd get a slightly faster connection in a new model, and some buttons moved around, but nothing worth writing home about.

I was beginning to fear that I would eventually have to break down and get an iPhone in another year or two when my Treo gave up the ghost. Which wouldn't be that bad if they came out with an iPhone with a slide-out physical keyboard. And copy/paste. But the chances of that, I think, are pretty slim as long as Steve Jobs is running the show.

But this week, my faith in Palm has been restored. At CES, they gave a preview of their new phone, called the Palm Pre, and their new Linux-based operating system, called Web OS. It's a damned sexy phone, both physically and beneath the hood.

It does all the basics, plus integrating calendars/contacts from multiple sources, allowing you to run multiple apps at the same time, wireless charger, and has what looks like the ideal balance between touch-screen goodness and slide-out physical keyboard.

For the first time in ages, I'm actually looking forward to upgrading my phone. Yay!

Don’t Fear the OOP

I got an awesome email today from an old WebTV coworker's dad today.

Jos (pronounced "yose") was an amazing guy. One of those people you just couldn't be in a bad mood around, who was always creating these wacky side projects that were sometimes more successful than some of the company's main projects.

One of my favorite Jos projects was called Don't Fear the OOP. It's a brief, informative and highly entertaining tutorial on "why coding Java (or any other object-oriented programming) is just like writing a trashy Western novel." Each page was separated into three sections: explanation in normal English, using cheesy Western novel metaphors; pseudo-code that was still readable, but structured more like code; and actual Java code. Add in a bit of Jos-patented humor, and it really is a brilliant way of teaching object-oriented programming.

Sadly, Jos died not too long after completing the tutorial (and the WebScissors tool that I maintain on his family's behalf). Healthiest man I knew, and he died of a heart attach at his desk one day. Just like that. I suppose it's true what they say: "You get what everyone gets; you get a lifetime."

But Jos really did something with his. (Besides the obvious, of leaving behind scores of people who loved him dearly.) It's been... wow, has it really been almost a decade since we lost Jos? And yet his WebScissors tool is still getting a few thousand hits a day, and his Don't Fear the OOP tutorial is still out there on the web, helping people get friendly with Java.

Which brings us back to the letter. Jos's pops just forward this email that he got from a high school programming teacher (does it make me old that that's a foreign concept?) who stumbled upon Don't Fear the OOP and used it to great effect in his class.

Letter from a happy OOPer...

Palm comes to its senses and kills Foleo

Palm Foleo DiscontinuesIn case you missed it in the news a while back, Palm announced that they were going to be releasing the Foleo smartphone companion, which would be a small $500 laptop that syncs directly to the Treo in real time. They thought it would be the ideal companion to the Treo, since it is relatively small, starts instantly (no booting up) and doesn't take any time to sync with the Treo.

But instead of saying "wow, that's awesome, when can I get one," the vast majority of spectators either laughed or cringed. It's a phone accessory that costs more than the phone? It's a laptop that doesn't run 90% of the applications people want to run on their laptop, but costs the same as an entry level Dell? It doesn't give you any functionality that the old fold-out keyboards and is five times as expensive and five times as bulky? And you're spending all that money on this instead of investing in raising the bar on the Treo to blow that upstart "revolutionary" iPhone out of the water? These are just a few of the questions that were asked. Also, not uncommonly, "have you lost your frikkin' minds?"

Well, Palm may have had a brief bout of temporary insanity, but they have not completely lost their minds. They're admitting that it would take a huge chunk of change to make the Foleo into something to be proud of, and have the good sense to realize that they'd be much better served investing that money into the existing Treo platform. So they're giving the Foleo the axe.

This means that they've blown $10 million that could have been spent on a next-generation Treo, and fallen a few months behind in reclaiming their "coolest smartphone ever" title from Apple. But at least they're admitting their mistake and changing course before it's too late.

A Series of Tubes

I'm sure everyone remembers the embarrassing moment when Senator Ted Stevens described the internet as a series of tubes.

But little did I know (until now) that this is not the first time that the phrase "a series of tubes" was used in conjunction with the internet. In his book Weaving the Web: The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee uses the exact phrase: "a series of tubes."

Of course, Berners-Lee uses the phrase correctly in describing the CERN particle physics research institute, where the particle accelerators are the tubes). But I thought the parallel use of the phrase, years apart from one another, was amusing.

Dell abandons its Vista-only policy

It's a blow to the reputation of Vista, but raises my respect for Dell. When Vista came out, they switched all of their consumer computers to ship only with Vista (only business computers still had the choice between XP and Vista, since corporations are often tentative to upgrade early). But there has been enough consumer demand for XP that Dell once again gives their consumers a choice between XP and Vista.

This doesn't really effect me at all, since I'm not in the market for a Dell at the moment. But it does give me more respect for them as a company, and increases the chance of me recommending them (or, rather, continuing to recommend them) to anyone I know who is in the market for a PC.

Good on them.

Review – Apple TV

Apple TVI have been looking forward to Apple's new Apple TV (formerly known as iTV) since before they announced it. I have been downloading a lot of current-season TV shows and watching them on my PC, so the idea of being able to plug a little box into my beautiful 50" TV and watch it from the comfort of Cindy & Jason's insanely comfy couch was very, very appealing. I was even looking forward to the possibility of shit-canning that annoying TiVo box in the next year or so, if they delivered a compelling enough product and could keep up their expansion of available shows.

Well, today the Apple TV was officially announced, along with preliminary details on how it works. To be honest, I'm a little disappointed. Granted, it delivers the basic functionality it promised, but none of the functionality I figured they would include as an end-to-end solution, and the price point is just a little too high to make it all that appealing.

Lets take this review bit by bit, for those of you who are interested...

Too many books to count

ISBN13Or at least to uniquely identify within 10 digits. Yes, folks, the 10-digit ISBN that we've all come to know and love over the years is growing up. Soon it will be replaced with ISBN 13, which will ask to borrow the car keys and probably raid your liquor cabinet when you're away for the weekend.

*sigh* They grow up so fast.

In related news, the 12-digit UPC is also going to 13 digit, although I haven't heard yet whether they will be combining the two or keeping them separate. And how much of a dork does it make me that I'm actually kind of looking forward to reading the ISBN 13 For Dummies PDF this weekend?

Apple improves Boot Camp

When I got rid of my 13" MacBook last month, I described the MacBook/Boot Camp shortcomings that lead to this decision, explaining that they would probably get fixed in the Leopard release early next year, but I wasn't willing to wait that long. Well, it looks like a lot of the complaints I had have been fixed wit the release of Boot Camp 1.1.

Things that are reported to have been fixed in Boot Camp 1.1

  • The keyboard drivers have been updated to fix most of the problems I reported before. It is now possible to use a key combo to right-click without a mouse, page up and down, and have access to a true delete button.

  • The device drivers have been improved so that you can now use the built-in webcam, microphone and (presumably) CD/DVD burners.

  • No word on whether or not additional screen resolutions have been added. But since my Dell has the same problem, I doubt it. I think I may just need to swallow my pride, admit that the laser eye surgery did more harm than good, and get myself a new pair of glasses.

Remaining MacBook shortcomings that prevent me from regretting my switch back to a Dell - at least for now.

  • The hardware problems with the heat and the sharp front edge are still an issue. If they fix these in the next iteration of the MacBook next year (and hopefully add a real right-click button!), that would go a long way toward convincing me to switch back.

  • I still haven't found a way to export email from Mac Mail into PST files. There are utilities to go from PST to Mail, but not the reverse. Which means that any email I send from Mail is locked in to Mac, and can never be retrieved if I decide to switch back, or even backed up on my PC desktop. If anyone hears of a utility that can get around this problem, I would love to hear about it. This is the one deal breaker that prevents me from considering OS X as a primary OS.

  • I'm actually rather fond of the built-in SD card slot on the Dell. If the MacBook had an expansion card that could replicate this, that would be cool. But it really is convenient to be able to back up your digital camera photos to the laptop without having to have a cumbersome cable with you. After all, if the MacBook had a SD card slot, I wouldn't have lost all those photos from ComicCon when my bloody camera disappeared. That alone is worth a lot to me.

So I still don't regret switching back to Dell for now. But my hopes have improved that they might have a MacBook that meets my needs by the time I need to get a new laptop again. And if nothing else, I am still very anxious to see when they'll come out with the Mac media center box (ie, a DVD player sized Mac with all the Front Row goodness of the Mini, a giant hard drive, TV connectivity, DVR capability, and possibly HD DVD player), especially now that I'm going to have a decent TV to plug the puppy in to.

We Didn’t Start the Wiki

While listening to 95.7 Max FM a while back, I was pleasantly surprised to hear We Didn't Start the Fire being played. I hadn't heard the song in ages, but was amused to realize I could still sing along with all the lyrics. My first thought was that kids who heard this song for the first time now would have no idea what half the lyrics refer to. Then I got to thinking... I didn't even understand half the references when I first heard it. At least kids today (did I just use that term?) have the internet to look things up (without having to deal with the Dewey decimal system).

Thus I decided I must give myself a silly geek project: write a blog with the lyrics of the song, and link each phrase to its accompanying Wikipedia listing. Well, I finally sat down to give this a shot today, and was amused to see that there is already an incredibly detailed Wikipedia entry for We Didn't Start the Fire. Not only does it provide links for each of the phrases, it also points out that the phrases are in chronological order, which I think is pretty cool.

And it saves me from doing a hell of a lot of searching and copy/pasting URLs. Which is good and bad, considering that now I have no choice but to do all those household chores that have been piling up all week while I've been sick. Damn you, Wikipedia!!

Abandoning my Little Black Book

I was really hoping that installing Windows on my sexy black MacBook would be the key to turning me into a Mac user. But as much as I do love it in a lot of ways, I'm afraid it's just not the bridge I was hoping for. Most of the issues I have with it are software related, and will probably be fixed in Leopard. But some are hardware problems, and at least one of them is a deal-breaker.

So, sadly, it looks like I'm going to be selling my Little Black Book (as lovely and wonderful as it is) and replacing it with a Dell M1210. It's definitely not as sexy as the MacBook, but it solves all of the complaints I have with the MacBook and even throws in a few extras, for roughly the same price. Function wins over form. For those of you who are curious about the details behind the decision, read on...

A virus for the what??

I can't believe it. Someone finally managed to write a virus for the WebTV...

WebTV Virus Writer Sentenced to Prison

Of course, what I find particularly amusing about this is the nature of the virus. Basically, it just reset the box's dialing script to dial 911 instead of the local access number. That in itself is not funny. But remembering how many times the Palo Alto (and then Mountain View) officials had to come to the WebTV campus for accidental 911 calls, back in the old days, makes me wonder that the whole QA staff isn't in lockup on precedent.

You see, when a WebTV box downloads its list of local access numbers, it makes its best guess as to what format the number should be dialed in (seven-digit, 10 digit with area code, 11 digit with one then the area code - I've even seen some bass ackwards places that require one then the number, with no area code - weirdos). But since this formula is not foolproof, it also lets you edit your own custom dialing options. You can tell your box to dial a nine to get an outside line (useful if you're on a PBX, like a hotel or a business), force it to dial a one when calling, and other nifty options.

The trouble is that if you have it set to dial a nine to get out and always dial a one... what happens when your local provider goes away and is replaced with a long distance provider, or a 1-800 number. Instead of dialing 9,1,5551234, you're suddenly calling something like 9,1,18004093288. Which results in the call being placed to 911, and the operator getting nothing but modem screeches in their ear.

The difference, of course, is that this guy did it intentionally, and we always did it accidentally. But man, the folks at the 911 switchboard must have hated us after a while. I'm just glad that our building never had a major disaster, since any call placed to 911 from our PBX probably would have been bumped to the bottom of the queue, under the assumption that it was just those damned WebTV people screwing with their dialing scripts again.

Sifting Spam with Gmail

I have several domain names that I'm not currently using. I previously had three of these domains pointing to the same email account. I hadn't checked it in a while, but when I went in last week it had managed to collect 60,000 emails. I found one that was sent there by mistake, and have since found out that two or three more might also have been sent there by mistake. But that's still a hell of a lot of spam!

As a test, I set up a secondary Gmail account and set my unused domains to redirect their mail to that account. That was Friday night. I just checked the Gmail account and there are 320 pieces of spam sitting in my inbox. Which sounded like a lot, until I looked in the "Spam" folder and found out that Google nabbed 4,390 more emails that it automatically recognized as spam.

Wow. Out of 4,710 pieces of spam, only 320 (~7%) slipped past Gmail's spam filter. Kick ass! And my guess is that if I begin marking the ones that got through as spam, it will help Google's algorithms recognize even more in the future. Groovy.

Puppet Voting

My ex-roommate Andy just sent me a New York Times article called Gambling on Voting, which examines how the software that runs slot machines is scrutinized and regulated in comparison to the software that is used for electronic voting (not to mention the inherent conflicts of interest among the key players, and how those are handled).

This also reminded me of a Wired article I read last year called Aussies Do It Right: E-Voting, which examines the Australian decision to base their electronic voting software on open source code, to insure maximum security and accountability.

Considering that electronic voting will soon be the primary method for deciding who takes the reins of the country, the fact that our current system is as flawed as it is, and the the war monger who's currently in power already bought one election, this all makes me very, very frustrated. It seems that the Powers That Be in this country are intentionally setting our system up so that it can be influenced from behind the scenes. Thus negating the legitimacy of the entire bloody republic (for which we used to stand).

This does not make me happy.

Social implications of filtering mechanisms

In response to my "Wearing my heart on my blog" post, marmelade27 wrote the following comment:

"You can use filters to make posts visible to only certain people or
you can make them completely private and not visible to anyone...
so make some custom filters and post away..."

I wrote out a nice, lengthy response to the comment, but LiveJournal apparently thinks I talk to much and wouldn't let me post it (it was over their allowed number of characters for a comment). So instead, here is my response as its own posting:


Ignoring, for the moment, how unintuitive the admin UI of LJ is, and therefore how much of a pain it would be to try and figure out how to use their filters, that still wouldn't really solve the fundamental problem.

You see, I don't really care if random strangers read my posts about who I'm pining over. And I don't really care if most of my friends read them, either. It's just when the people involved read them that it could get awkward.

And yes, I could put a filter dis-allowing just those people, assuming that I know their LJ username. But I'm assuming that the list of dis-allowed people is not shown on the blog. So if I write a post and disallow just the involved individuals, our mutual friends will see it and not know that the person involved is not seeing it. So the chances are fairly high that they'll ask the person "so what did you think about that post, eh?"

Ultimately, I guess it's analogous to talking about someone while they're in the room. Adding filters to dis-allow one person would be the equivalent of kicking that person out of the room before speaking, or otherwise distracting them. Everyone who does hear the comment doesn't necessarily know that the person is no longer in the room. And since the comment was made to the whole room, it's commonly assumed that what is being said is now common knowledge. This is why filtering by exclusion doesn't work very well. Or, at best, requires much more complex filters to work sufficiently.

This is why, in the blogging software I'm theoretically writing, filters are based on inclusion instead of (or in addition to) exclusion. Basically, there are three default permissions levels you can assign to a post:

  1. Public - Anyone can see it.
  2. Private - Only users who have logged in to your website can see it.
  3. Secret - No one sees it but you.

Public and Secret are all-or-nothing settings that cover 95% of the use cases. For Private, you've already done some inherent filtering by deciding who does and does not get an account on the site (equivalent of a friends list). In addition to that, you can create various user groups, and add those user groups to either a "show only to" or "do not show to" list (with do not show taking precedence, if the same person is on both lists). And when you make the post, both lists will be shown on the posting, similar to the "to" field in an email.

That way, if you create a usergroup called "confidential bitch session" and add just a few of your closest friends to it, they can see that the post is only being sent to a few people, and know not to spread the word to people who are not on that list. To return to our previous analogy, this would be the equivalent of grabbing a few people in the room and dragging them outside, to tell them something in private. They know that they're the only ones being told, so they know the information is private.

I believe that filtering based on inclusion instead of exclusion is much more similar to how people have already been conditioned to behaving with emails (as well as actual social interaction). If the email is to a widely distributed list, then the content is fair game. If there are only a few people in the "to" field, then you know it's not public info. So using a similar metaphor in your blogging filters would be the best way to insure that private info is kept private, and no one accidentally lets the cat out of the bag.

Furthermore, filtering by exclusion leads to far too much drama. If, for example, you were to specifically exclude someone from a party invitation, that person would likely be incredibly offended if they found out (and Murphy's Law tells us they *would* find out). It's a very passive-aggressive way of avoiding someone without being honest about it, and I don't like it when technology urges us to continue our societal bad habits.

In fact, the only reason that I would still allow filtering by exclusion is for the use cases where you want to exclude one person, and at the same time let everyone else know that you are excluding them. The obvious example would be when sending out an invitation to a surprise party. You could send it out to the "everybody" user group, but put "Joe Schmoe" in the exclude list, so that everyone except Joe gets the message. And right under the "to" field would be an "exclude" (or whatever - it would need a better name) field, which shows the list of excluded users to everyone who's reading the post. That way everyone knows that they're not supposed to mention the party info to Joe.

Wow. Was that a tangent, or what?

Anyway, since I'm pretty much stuck with LJ until I get off my arse and finish my own software, the conundrum remains. And even if I do finish my software, it'll be good for me to know the kind of problems that others are also having with the existing tools, so I can fix those problems to the best of my ability in my own tool. So getting to the root of the "what you say to whom" question is still going to persist, regardless of what technological toys we have to play with.

Don't you just love it when advances in technology make you go back and re-examine fundamental questions of social interaction? No? Maybe it's just me...