Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Up With Facebook?

I loved the idea of 'social networking'. I tried MySpace very early on, but it didn't do much for me because none of my friends were interested, and my account was inundated by spammers. Facebook is a different story, though. Their growth has been phenomenal, and I soon found a couple of people I know. Now people think you're strange if you don't have a Facebook page.

So what is it I like about 'social networking'. I like the idea of having a page that I can customise to reflect my personality and interests and I want to be able to share photos that friends can comment on. MySpace offers more customisation (colours etc), but Facebook offered these main features. And there was another thing; that little box where you could update your status. Some people hardly ever used this, or updated it once a week, or whenever something really major was happening in their lives.

And then along came Twitter. They took this 'status update' feature on it's own, called it micro-blogging, and created a new phenomenon of their own. And everyone was happy. Well not everyone apparently. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, saw the growing popularity of Twitter, and decided that that is what people really want.

A couple of facelifts later, and Facebook has changed completely. It used to be that the page people saw when they clicked on your name showed interesting stuff, like what books people were reading, what movies they had seen, or what music they were listening to. Now you see The Wall. All that other stuff is hidden away on another tab. Click on Home on your Facebook page, and what do you see. A very Twitter like stream showing the status updates from all your friends.

So Twitter took one aspect of Facebook, and made it a success. Now Facebook is trying to copy Twitter, and make the stream the focal point. How can they fix it? One of Facebook's faults has always been it's poor use of the available screen space. It has always been a very narrow, vertical website, not even utilising the full width of older 4:3 monitors. The other problem is there are too many tabs, and most just show different variations of the same thing. I say use that width to bring selected applications to the home page. The stream is fine, but include the bio, and apps like music, movies, books etc. Personally, I think there should only be 3 tabs; Home and Photo Albums, visible to anyone (decided by yourself) and Settings. That's it. Clean and simple. Then allow the users to position these frames as they like, around the main stream, and select their own colour schemes, to match their personalities. Oh, one other thing. Make the stream auto refreshing every few minutes. Now that would be a perfect.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Big Music Rip Off

Music, and especially the downloading there of, has been much in the news of late. iTunes have dropped DRM (at last), and yet Nokia have launched their South African Store with DRM front and centre!

The guys behind The Pirate Bay were taken to court, found guilty and sentenced to 1 year in jail each. Of course it'll be years before they actually go to jail, as they've appealed the outcome, and in the meantime it's business as usual.

The record labels continue with their 'big stick' method of dealing with illegal downloading, but as quickly as they close down one avenue another one opens. They're fighting a losing battle.

I'm not usually on the side of illegal activity, but I really feel nothing for the big labels. They were greedy, and that greed is what's coming back to bite them now.

To explain I have to go back to the early '80's. I had just left school and was in my first job. At the end of every month I would buy a new LP, for which I would pay the princely sum of R18, or maybe R22 for an import.

Then along came CD's. They were great, and everyone started replacing their vinyl collections with the new media, but suddenly we were paying R65. We were told it was the cost of the shiny new discs, but in reality we now know that CD's are cheap to produce. So what had happened? The record labels used the popularity and demand for CD's to push up their profit margins. And for 20 years they have reaped the profits, and raped the consumer!

If we take the price of a CD today, it's about R150. That's a 230% increase. If we apply that to the R18 we were paying for vinyl, it comes to R41,50. That's what we should be paying! No wonder people are stealing music!

So along came MP3's and Napster and people jumped at the chance for free music because they were tired of being ripped off. Now the damage has been done; we have a whole generation that doesn't believe in paying for music.

Sure iTunes have made a success of selling music online, and now that they've dropped DRM they offer a viable, legal alternative (except in SA, where they're bogged down with all the red tape), but their pricing still sucks, The record labels are still being greedy, and expect the profits they were making in the '80's. Well, here's a newsflash: those days are over; it's time to look for a new business model.
In 1st World countries where there is cheap, always on, uncapped bandwidth, there is a new threat: internet streaming., Pandora, MySpace Music and many, many others are the future. The big labels have made it so difficult to actually own the music in the form the people want, they're starting to give up. Why own music when you can live stream straight from the internet? Some people think of this as internet radio. It's not. You can create your own playlists, share them with friends, and listen to them on your PC at home, or your iPhone wherever there's an internet connection.

Of course, big music is all over this too, and many sites have been closed down, but for each one, two new ones open up. The sites mentioned above are all legal, with agreements with the labels in place, for now, and it remains to be seen if these companies can turn a profit while paying exorbitant per play royalties. recently introduced a charge for some countries (SA included), and Pandora is not available at all in SA. MySpace is OK, if you can put up with all the ads.

There is another alternative though; The Sixtyone is a great place to discover music. Any artist can add their songs, and listeners can rate each song, creating a natural order, as well as adding a social context. Best of all, it's free!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What a Rip Off!

I am so tired of being ripped off. Is it related to the state of the world economy, as is the latest excuse, or is the economic crisis the result of the greed that's become part and parcel of life in the twenty first century. Whichever, I am sick of it; maybe it's time to name and shame. Let me give you a few examples:

eThekwini Municipality
In line with the new rates model applied throughout SA as of 1 July '08, eThekwini opted for the highest randage in SA; 0,9 cents/rand based on their property valuation. This valuation was made by a bunch of beauracrats without leaving their office! In March '08 I filed an objection, as their value for my property was way higher than any local estate agent's quote; last week I received notification that it had been received, but was still under investigation. The result: a rates increase of 163%. What a rip-off!

Standard Bank
Bank charges are notoriously high in SA, but I have always accepted this as purely the cost of local banking. However, after 18 months of no charges on a particular account which is currently dormant (R0 balance), a monthly admin charge of R42 has suddenly been applied, without any option or even notification. Why? Apparently the charge is for keeping a line of credit open to me. What? I have no idea; only that I am being ripped off again.

Discovery Health
Discovery have a wonderful benefit scheme called Vitality. One of the benefits is memebership to the Virgin Active gym. The only requirement is to visit at least 24 times a year. I like to spin at the gym in the winter months, when it is too cold and dark to train on the road. Today I was refused entry because apparently I have only been 23 times from April - March. I knew of the rule, and have actually been quite careful to ensure I complied, but their records show I only clocked in twice this year. I know I have been several times more than that, but what can I do? Apparently I can pay R850 to re-register, or I can give up gym. Once again I feel like I'm being ripped off.

La Lucia Junior Primary
School fees increased from R11,850 '08 to R15,000 p.a. in '09. An increase of 26.5%. Why? No explanation! Just a warning of the consequences of not paying. This on top of the expectation to assist with their fund raising efforts. An example: each kid brings a cake to school, then has to pay R5 to get a slice! More? The kids work on an art project, and the parents have to pay R50+ at an auction for the resulatant painting. That's blackmail - how can you tell your kid you're not going to buy his work of art? Maybe all schools are the same these days, but again, I feel like I'm being ripped off.

What really gets to me in all the cases above is how helpless I am. Want to query something, or complain, or ask for some dispensation? Try speaking to someone in a call centre, that in most cases doesn't even understand the business of the company they're representing. Seriously, does anyone ever get any satisfaction talking to a call centre? There are no options; if you don't like it, go and get ripped off somewhere else. I'm sick of it!

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Battle for Your Twitter Account

Last week I recommended Tweetvisor as a viable alternative to Tweetdeck, with, in my opinion, the advantage of being web based, and not a desktop app like so many Twitter clients.Today I would like to introduce another web based client; PeopleBrowsr.

PeopleBrowsr is still in Alpha release, with a Beta version available in the next couple of weeks. It's therefore not without it's bugs, but mostly works pretty well. So what's so great about it, and is it better than Tweetvisor?
Firstly, PeopleBrowsr caters for columns (or 'stacks'), and the user gets to decide the content, and the number of columns. This allows for more flexibility than even Tweetdeck, and is more than enough even for power users. Getting the right content into each column was a bit of a challenge, but I eventually achieved my goal. On an older monitor (4:3) 3 columns fit just right, while on a widescreen monitor 4 should easily be possible.
PeopleBrowsr has realtime updating, and this can be a bit tiring if you are following a lot of people. This is where the tags and filters come into play. One of the things I like about their system is the VIP button.

From your 'Followers' column, it allows one-click tagging of VIP's, which can then be displayed in another column. I loved this feature. Other tags, or combinations of tags can be added, and even shared with other users.
Another interesting feature are buttons that open a dedicated column for CNN, Digg, Newsweek and others. This is better than following these feeds; it puts all their Tweets into one column where you can scan for breaking news etc.
There are also a wide selection of custom settings, and the user can choose the content he sees. For example, you can choose to see the location of each person next to their Tweets. Want to see more Tweets per column? Easy! Choose the 'condense posts' setting, which removes the avatars, and reduce the font size.
As I said, PeopleBrowser is still in Alpha, and new features are being added all the time. This is another thing that I like about web based apps; no updating to the new level, it's just there! This is definitely a worthy competitor to Tweetvisor, and in my mind even better than the mighty Tweetdeck. I look forward to seeing their initial Beta offering.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tweetdeck vs the Competition

I’m a fairly avid Twitter user but Twitter’s app sucks. No, it really does. If you look at what others have done with the Twitter API, the folk at Twitter should hang their heads in shame. Hopefully it’s because they’re trying to improve the stability of their feed, but maybe they don’t care. They know they’ve got a winner on their hands, and with current valuations at anything from $250m to $500m, maybe they’re just propping it up until they can make it Google’s problem.

My first choice option to the standard Twitter UI is Tweetdeck. After Twitter themselves, Tweetdeck is the 2nd most popular Twitter client after Twitter themselves. I love Tweetdeck, but there is some serious competition, and everyone should be aware of their options.

First off, there’s the newly released Seesmic Desktop

Like Tweetdeck, the Seesmic Desktop is an Adobe AIR application that works as a standalone app on your desktop. Also like Tweetdeck, Seesmic offers the ability to create groups of followers, and then open individual columns for those groups. This is a killer feature, and is the main reason I use Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck’s reaction has been immediate, and their Beta version 0.25 has been rolled out.

This offers a few enhancements, like previewing of TwitPic images, previewing of shortened URL’s, and, most importantly of all, access to your Facebook feed (a trial version of this was available previously as a special download). Seesmic have promised to roll out additional Social Network access, including Facebook, Digg, Identica, Ping.FM and FriendFeed.

The race for control of your desktop client is on, and we, the consumers, will be the winners.

However, there’s an important player in this segment that appears to be very much overlooked; Tweetvisor

Tweetvisor doesn’t even appear on the list of The Top 21 Twitter Clients (According To TwitStat). There’s one big difference between Tweetvisor and the abovementioned apps. Tweetvisor works in your browser. And what does this mean to you? Well, you can log in at home, work, or anywhere in the world, and have all your groups intact (yes, Tweetvisor also offers groups, in the form of tags that can be added to anyone you follow). To me this is a huge plus, and one of the problems I have with Tweetdeck. But Tweetdeck uses the full screen, corner to corner, you may argue. Well, if you give Google Chrome a try, you'll find an option that allows you to create appliation shortcuts. Using this, you're able to open any web page full size; no tabs, URL's or toolbars in the way.

Tweetvisor has recently added a new UI that looks very similar to Tweetdeck, and there are 3 columns, for DMs, Replies, and your live feed. This last column can be switched between all friends, or one of your groups. There are also shortcuts to hot topics (a specified search), Tweets about yourself, and many more. I’ve been told that the option to add additional columns is on the to do list, and this would be the cherry on top for what is already an awesome option, and one that I’m using more and more. Give it a try.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Twitter Snobs

I'm a relative noobie to Twitter, despite first trying the service back in August last year. Like many, I initially didn't see the point. Some 8 months later, after some phenomenal growth, and Twitter has become a permanent feature both on my PC and on my mobile.The main change has been the growth in local users; it's brilliant to be able to follow fellow South Africans when a local news story is developing. The Zuma fiasco is a case in point, as reports flooded in when the judgement was being announced. Fascinating stuff.But I don't restrict myself to only following South Africans. It's equally interesting to hear what's going on around the world. And many of my favourite personalities on Twitter are from other parts of the world. This map from Map My Tweeps give you some idea:

I'm not much of a fan of big-name celebrities, but many are now represented on Twitter. I follow Lance Armstrong, because I know he personally updates, and as a cycling fan his views are gold.
And this brings me to the subject of my blog; the people I call Twitter Snobs. Lance Armstrong has (as of today) 530,557 followers, but only follows 49 people himself. And that's OK, because it's impossible to actually follow half a million people. But I think he's losing out. He's using Twitter to put his thoughts out there, but what is he gaining? I'm sure he gets tonnes of stuff directed at him, and probably spends some time trying to answer a select few, but I think he's missed the point.

So what are Twitter Snobs then? Twitter Snobs are people that don't follow back. They Twitter in their own little circles, without ever venturing out. You can follow them, reply to one of their postings, and actually have a conversation, and they still don't make the effort to follow back. I, like 16% of the Twitter uses out there, use Tweetdeck. This allows me to form groups, so I can have a live feed of everyone, then specific feeds for friends, family, or whoever. I'm always on the lookout for interesting new people to follow, but I think if I'm going to listen to you, it would be really nice if you would give my random thoughts a listen now and again. I tried an app that automatically follows everyone that follows you for a while, but soon cut it off as I was inundated by marketing Tweets. A couple of times a week I now use a program like Twitter Karma and check if anyones following me that I'm not following back. I think this is just good Twitter etiquette. And then I'll also use the same program to see who's not following me back, and unless you're really interesting, or Lance Armstrong, 'Whack!', you're gone from my Twitterland.
Come on people, follow back!

Thanks for reading.