Never Say Die

Scientia potentia est

Posts tagged tech

2 notes &

Insanely Great

I was going to stuff this into my usual trivia for the next Around the Web bundle, but it gets its own entry.

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the unveiling of the Macintosh. Here’s a video of a young Steve Jobs doing just that.

Today Apple announced their best quarter ever: revenue of over forty six billion dollars, with profits of over thirteen billion dollars. Read about it on CNet.

And today I bought my first Mac.

Filed under apple tech

8 notes &

Founders At Work

Founders At Work cover

According to my trusty Kindle, I’ve finally finished this book (it’s substantial; hard-copy is 500 pages in medium-large paperback form with a compact font), and figured I’d fire out a quick endorsement. Short version: it’s great and anyone with any interest in startups and/or the IT industry will enjoy it.

The book is straightforward; it’s a series of a few dozen interviews by Jessica Livingston (one of the founding partners at Y Combinator) with the founders of various tech companies, new and old. These interviews are of the sort you might see in Wired or Inc; a handful of brief questions with answers generally expanded on at length by the interviewee - this isn’t a quick back-and-forth Q&A. The structure of the book means that it’s very accessible - even though it’s long overall, you can just jump in and read a particular interview you’re interested in for a pick-up-and-read experience.

The interviewees are of course the real value in the book, and they really do cover the gamut. This includes the legendary Steve Wozniak talking about the early days of Apple (practically creation myth stuff for folks in this line of work), the founding of Adobe and the stories of VisiCalc and Lotus. The book being published in 2006, it also ranges to more modern giants such as Joel Spolsky on Fog Creek’s origins, Craig Newmark (Craigslist.com), the creators of Hot or Not, PayPal, Hotmail, GMail, Del.icio.us, Firefox, Flickr, RIM (of Blackberry fame), the TiVo system, TripAdvisor, 37Signals and more. If that list of startups doesn’t have you salivating, this book ain’t for you and neither is the tech industry.

The interviews are, almost without exception, fascinating reading, and offer great insight into the origins of some of the most famous tech companies out there, not to mention plenty of valuable advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Not sure the world needs another 10-steps-to-founding-whatever from the likes of me, but in any case, some of the key themes that come through throughout the book are persistence (many interviewees emphasise that point), adaptability (several of these companies grew as spin-offs or sidelines of previous ideas), passion and belief (another oft-repeated mantra) and the importance of good partners and good hiring.

Well, there’s really not much more to say about it. If you want to know how some of the hottest companies and products in this industry got built, either for its own sake or because you want to do some building yourself, go buy this book.

Filed under review Business tech books

2 notes &

Intercom, by Contrast

I’ve mentioned Contrast before; a Dublin web/tech startup run by some folks I know. They build web apps of their own and also do consulting around user experience and usability. They’re very good indeed at design and UX. They have an app - Exceptional - that captures, tracks, reports, etc on exceptions that happen in peoples’ web apps, with a very low overhead to add it to an existing app - ones using Ruby, Django, Javascript, etc. They also have a blog where they talk about business and the web, well worth a read.

A few days ago, they began launching their next app; Intercom. This again plugs in very easily to an existing app (just add some Javascript, no DB fiddling or API hacking) and lets the folks running the app communicate with their users; you can send messages to users, receive replies or queries from them, track their interaction with you (logins, activity, location, etc), target particular groups or types of users, etc. Very useful for doing CRM type stuff at the user level, or just keeping in touch with your users in an easy but smart way. In particular, it’s got a very clean UI, some of the cleanest web app design I’ve ever seen. Check it out if you work with a web app and have users, or indeed if you just want to see where the bar is set in web UI design.

Obviously this post is a plug for a friend’s business, but regardless of that, these guys are really goddamn good at this stuff. Once more of the UIs on the web are designed by folks like this, we’ll be getting places.

Filed under dev tech

0 notes &

Amazon Kindle review

Noble as it is to link to other folks’ stuff, about time I got back to producing some. Anyways, I picked up an Amazon Kindle (3rd generation, i.e. the current one) some months back, and I’ve been meaning to write about the thing for a while.

One liner: The Kindle is a great piece of kit and everyone who reads books should get one, no question.

Exec summary: The Kindle is great. Nice form factor, very slim and light, feels good to hold. The screen’s very easy to read off of for long periods, regardless of whether you’re indoors or out in the sun - it’s much closer to paper than an LCD. Amazon have seen to it that it’s very easy to use, from the device itself to the book buying experience. The range of books is good, though far from all books are available, particularly with older books. This situation is improving all the time though, and there’s likely enough to keep most people going. Between its very slim form factor and the fact that the battery will last for weeks of use, it’s particularly well suited for travelling. It’s also excellent value; starting at $139 places it far below the cost of a more general-purpose tablet device. I’ve had one for a while now and read well over a dozen novels and other books on it, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Long-winded review: I’d been considering an e-book reader for some time, and after a 5-minute hands-on with a Kindle, I headed straight back to my PC and ordered one. If you can, I’d recommend you see one in person - that certainly sealed the deal for me. The Kindle really is an impressive device in the hand - the form factor is great and feels good to hold; it’s very slim indeed (8.5mm thick) and weighs in at just 240g (for the wi-fi only version). The controls are straightforward; there’s buttons on either side of the screen for turning pages, plus a few navigation buttons and a small QWERTY keyboard for typing in searches and notes and such (not something you’re likely to do much of).

Kindle side view
Very slim indeed.

The “e-ink” screen is particularly amazing the first time you see one. Doesn’t resemble an LCD at all - the contrast and clarity level really is getting very close to paper. It’s not backlit, and can be read off of for hours without any more difficulty than paper in my experience. The paper-like contrast levels also mean that it reads in sunlight just as well as under fluorescent light. (Note; the screen on the 3rd generation Kindle is one of the best available at present, they improved quite a bit over previous generations). The screen refresh is pretty fast (again improved with the current hardware), under half a second.

Kindle vs paper
Not quite up there with paper for contrast, but very effective.

The fact that once an e-ink display is “set” it doesn’t take any power to maintain the image leads to the Kindle’s very impressive battery life. I have the wi-fi only version, and this will easily last three weeks of regular use between charges. Very handy for holidays and travel, and you’re unlikely to ever be stuck without power. It does take a while to charge (several hours), but when it’s such an infrequent occurrence, that’s not a major issue.

One big advantage for devices dealing with text-based books instead of music or video is that text takes very little space, and compresses very well. Without much ado, the Kindle holds around 3,500 books, which is a pretty substantial library. The small size of book files also means that even over a weak connection, it takes seconds to download an entire novel once you’ve purchased it.

The Kindle was first launched in the States, and if you’re based in Ireland, you actually still purchase it from Amazon.com, and likewise your books are purchased from that version of the site, in dollars. Amazon make this all very smooth - they handle delivery and taxes and such, and in my case at least, the device was delivered within a few days. At $139 for the current 3rd-gen wi-fi version (plus shipping and such) it’s very good value indeed. If you’re in the UK, you can buy the UK version, and UK books, from Amazon.co.uk in Sterling. The 3G version of the Kindle contains a SIM card that’s already been fully configured by Amazon and rigged up with local networks - it works as a roaming US mobile phone, effectively, but Amazon take care of the charges and details, you just use it transparently either at home or overseas in a pretty wide list of countries.

Kindle front view
Also renders pretty good grayscale graphics.

Using the Kindle day-to-day is very straightforward - you have a Home screen listing your books, you can navigate around, read books, organise them into categories, and other basic functions. You can purchase books from the device itself with Amazon’s 1-Click ordering system (via wi-fi, and optional works-everywhere roaming 3G), or on the main Amazon website for download to the device later. Either way, Amazon make the experience as smooth as possible. You can also transfer non-Amazon PDFs and e-books in .mobi format to the device. (If you want to read technical books, papers and the like, there’s also the larger but more expensive Kindle DX, whose bigger screen is probably better suited to that). It’s all cloud-based, so your books stay attached to your account, and can generally be downloaded to any device (there’s Kindle reading apps available for the iPhone, Android and PC), synchronises your reading position between devices, etc.

The range of books was one of the things holding me back from picking up an e-book reader, but the catalogue is pretty extensive and getting better all the time (Amazon now shift slightly more e-books than they do hard-copies, which can only help). Of what I read, I’d guess about 50% of my current wish list is available for the Kindle, which is more than enough to keep me going. New releases are generally coming out in Kindle format as a matter of course, it’s mostly existing stuff that still has to catch up. I’d suggest taking a search around the Kindle section of Amazon.com to see how well-represented your own tastes in genres and authors are.

There’s also publisher, region and licensing messes of course - when browsing from Europe, you’re getting access to a smaller range of books than are available from the US, which is pretty annoying. Books also appear to occasionally disappear from the store (though not from your account if you’ve bought them) as publishers row with Amazon and their partners. This kind of bulls**t will hopefully work itself out eventually as the publishers see the writing on the wall and Amazon beat them into shape. Pricing is OK; books I’ve looked at are usually cheaper than their hard-copy equivalents, but not by much. Works for me.

In addition to books, you can also access a range of newspapers and magazines on the Kindle (either one-off editions or by delivered subscription), though I haven’t tried this myself. Other features of the Kindle include the ability to adjust text sizes, spacing etc to suit your own needs (rendering any book large-format print if you want it that way), and also a reasonably effective text-to-speech reader that will read a book aloud for you (sometimes disabled for particular books due to publisher issues). There’s a basic web browser on the device, though I don’t see anyone using this regularly, it’s not really what the tech is built for.

In summary, after putting several thousands of pages of novels and other books through the Kindle in various circumstances, I’d highly recommend it to all and sundry. It’s of particular benefit for commuting and travelling - as many books as you want in your jacket pocket, plus with the 3G version you can immediately buy and download more from pretty much anywhere. Saves a deal of dilemmas and suitcase stuffing, particularly for the more avid reader or those fond of thousand page epics. This is great tech and everyone should have one.

Filed under review tech

0 notes &

Around the web II

Some more interesting bits and pieces;

Tech/Sci;

  • Gizmag have an interesting piece of kit here from the Media Computing Group at Aachen University; a curved desk that’s all screen/interface, thinks to some projector tech and a smoothly curved surface that allows the whole workstation to act as a multi-touch display. Amongst other things, the curved section between the vertical and the horizontal acts as a kind of holding area/transfer point for stuff you’re working on, that can move from there up or down. Some interesting ideas - article has pictures and video of the gadget in action.
  • Mankind wos ere. Photos of the various marks we’ve left on other planets over the past few decades, c/o Wired.
  • Steve Wozniak (of early Apple fame), talks technology history as he tours a computer museum in a collection of videos from CNet.
  • It being roundup time of year again, Gizmag have a list of their top 10 tech firsts in 2010, including the first commercial jet-pack, Craig Venter and co’s work on synthetic life, etc.
  • The technology going into the USN’s next destroyer, from CNet.

Gaming;

  • In this interview on EuroGamer, Julian Gollop discusses the early history of the classic X-Com series (which he created along with his brother Nick).

Business;

  • 37signals have an excellent profile of a startup, InsuranceAgents.com - one of a series on startups that got to >$1m/month revenue (and profitable), without VC support. Plenty of good material from their experiences in there, advice includes the importance of careful hiring and training, and the difficulty of managing rapid growth.

Misc;

Filed under links misc tech aroundtheweb

0 notes &

Around the web

Some interesting tech and other stories recently plucked from my myriad feeds and sources;

Sci/tech;

Business;

Development;

  • Pete Brown has a roundup of some interesting WPF and Silverlight projects from CodePlex - lots of stuff here, including a WPF web browser control, libraries for creating “dock” UIs/charting/Bing 3D maps, etc.
  • On a random note, an interesting article from Gamasutra on the various aspects of designing enjoyable boss battles in games.
  • Miguel de Icaza talks about what the Mono (open source cross-platform .NET implementation) folks are working on - Android support and better WCF coverage amongst many other things.
  • Stephen Walther has a roundup of 10 useful tools for folks working with ASP.NET websites.
  • From a while back, the folks over at Design GalleRIA were very impressed with the UI design of a WPF app for bible browsing, of all things. Always good to see examples of folks exploring WPF’s potential. That blog is worth following in general btw, they feature applications (of the rich-interaction sort) whose UX/design they’re impressed by, can be inspiring.

Filed under links tech dev aroundtheweb

0 notes &

Setting up ads on Tumblr

Haven’t bothered with this myself yet, but it’s pretty easy to add some paying ads to a Tumblr blog using Google’s AdSense (just don’t expect to make much money off it).

You just need an AdSense setup (sign up with your Google account), and then paste some of their HTML into your template, which again isn’t too hard. Whatever money you make from it can be retrieved from Google by cheque, bank transfer, etc. It’s well tooled and heavily customisable, all pretty straightforward. Just bear in mind a) don’t mess with Google by clicking around your own ads, they don’t like that - see their T&C. They don’t like porn around their ads either incidentally, so best keep your hardcore blog separate… b) as with any income, there may be tax implications, seek professional something something.

How-To Geek have another of their fine tutorials with all the details here.

Filed under tumblr tech