The New @SkyDrive: Positive First Impressions

Earlier this week our friends in Redmond launched the next major update for Microsoft’s cloud service, called SkyDrive. I’ve had a SkyDrive account for, oh, years and was a fan of Windows Live Mesh. My only beef with the SkyDrive service? A depressing lack of integration with the Windows operating system. You had to open a browser to upload files and you couldn’t upload entire folders. Booo.

The newest SkyDrive release fixes these shortcomings. The beta app released on Monday adds a set of folders under the user account that background sync across connected devices and the cloud service; the devices and account are managed through a single Windows Live ID. Better yet, Mesh becomes superfluous because users can remotely traverse the complete file systems of connected computers (with SMS-based two-step authorization required) provided they’re powered-up.

Initial impressions:

  • The SkyDrive desktop app installed quickly and provided adequate instruction about the new SkyDrive folder under the user’s account.
  • First-pass uploading took a while. I had the 25 GB storage option already enabled by virtue of having had more than 5 GB of data on my account. I purchased an additional 20 GB ($10/year) to give me a total of 45 GB. Uploading roughly 25 GB of additional data took almost two full days. Whether this slowness is because of Microsoft bottlenecks or because our local Comcast service provides blazing-fast downloads but snail-like uploads, is a question I cannot answer.
  • Once all my files migrated between my desktop computer (running Windows 8 Consumer Preview) and my netbook (running Windows 7 Professional) through the SkyDrive tool, life was good. I’ve tested a few different sync scenarios and the service performs flawlessly.
  • The SkyDrive app for my Windows Phone 7.5 took it all in stride. The recently refreshed WP7 app added multi-select capability — a delicious addition to the feature set.
  • For some odd reason, I cannot actually access SkyDrive on IE 10 on the Win8 CP.  The site kills the IE instance. Every. Single. Time.
  • The desktop app’s notification icon provides a lovely little green bar animation to indicate a synchronization action in progress. Nice touch.

Suggestions for other SkyDrive users:

  1. The SkyDrive folder tree on your local machine contains real files, not pointers to network files. If you re-map your Windows libraries to point to your SkyDrive folder tree, you get an instant, full-fledged cloud option with zero additional work and complete transparency as you go about your daily computer-related tasks.  If you work offline, you need not worry about losing data; the service will sync the next time you have a network connection.
  2. Another tip: Put a desktop shortcut to a “temp” folder that’s stored in your SkyDrive folder tree to keep work-in-progress/unsorted files up-to-date across all your devices with a minimum of drama.
  3. I formerly employed an external hard drive as my “source of truth” storage location, with Live Mesh keeping a subset of folders in sync between that HDD and the Mesh servers (and, thereby, a folder tree on my netbook). I no longer have a need for Mesh at all. Team Microsoft fixed the “wall between Skydrive and Mesh” that so haunted my nightmares these past few years. And I probably will use the external drive only for archiving huge raw temp audio files from the podcast I produce.
  4. Have an Android tablet? Microsoft highlights a few third-party apps that integrate with SkyDrive. I use one on my dual-boot Touchpad and have no trouble with it whatsoever.

Short version: The SkyDrive update brings this cloud solution into maturity; it’s fast, easy-to-use and comprehensive — earning this humble scribe’s enthusiastic endorsement.

Assorted Ruminations

Well. What an interesting couple of weeks it’s been. Summary commentary follows, on subjects as diverse as writing, politics, socializing and privacy. Read on, dear friends, and be enlightened.

“Society” Isn’t Responsible For Your Bad Choices

Big Al and I have engaged in several recent conversations about Occupy Wall Street, and in particular, about the nature of the main claims emanating like a vile penumbra from the protestors’ wish lists. The crux of the debate: To what extent is society responsible for the condition of people saddled with huge student loan debt and no strong employment opportunity?

Although Alaric refuses to state categorically that he thinks the protestors are totally free of moral culpability for the current condition, he does seem to argue that they aren’t solely culpable and therefore deserve a personal bailout. He asserts that the overwhelming social message that “college is the key to success” means that people really had no other choice if they wanted to be successful, and that colleges have misled many students about the value of their chosen courses of study. As best as I can tell, his position is that the social pressure to attend college mixed with bad or misleading counsel about the options available for majors means that many unemployed students were effectively sold a bill of goods. Therefore, in the interests of the macro economy, it makes sense to lighten their load and to implement reforms to prevent such from happening again.

Our debates have been lively. Although I appreciate his perspective — and do, in fact, concede that social pressure is a not-insignificant contributor to the higher ed bubble — I cannot agree that debt-laden students get a pass. For one thing, imprudence isn’t a virtue. Yes, I’m sure some people really did think that a degree in puppetry would be fulfilling — but did they bother to check the expected labor market for such a focus? Research is abundant and free, beginning with the Department of Labor public databases. As an ethics major, I realize that the only job I’m qualified for is one that requires “a degree, any degree” — no one is actively looking for someone with a B.A. in moral philosophy. I knew that going into it. I made my choices, and I have to accept my consequences. Choosing to go in willfully blind doesn’t provide a layer of insulation for when times get tough.

I get that for many people, life is challenging. I don’t think it’s society’s problem.

Evening of Cocktails and Fine Dining

Last Saturday I welcomed the opportunity to have dinner with Jon and Emilie, Tony and Jen, and Joe. We started with cocktails at Tony’s office in Lansing, then went to Copper for dinner. The meal was delightful and the company was heavenly. We had a great time and settled on the dates for the “All Things Tony” trek to The Happiest Place on Earth in early June.

Scotch Is Good for the Soul

Good Scotch whisky is proof of the existence of a benevolent God. In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed Ardbeg 10-year (a staple of Jim Murray’s list of top whiskys) and now I’ve laid hands upon another rare bottle of Ballentine’s 17-year. Add to that a good deal on Lagavulin 16-year, and life is good.

But added to the mix: Gentleman Jack. I saw a fascinating Discovery Channel documentary on how Jack Daniel’s is made, and it impelled me to pick up a bottle. Glad I did. GJ may become my default sipping whiskey.

NaNoWriMo Is Harder Than It Looks

So I’m writing a novel. It’s harder than it looks. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to produce a minimum of 50,000 words in the month of November. Some people have already met their goal, and bully for them. I remain stuck in the low four figures, mostly because I started late and have been planning as I go. The prose I’ve generated so far, I’m mostly happy with. And I purchased Scrivener for Windows — an all-in-one writing application for professional writers — and sync its data files with SkyDrive so I can pick up on any of my computers. So far, so good.

The “discipline thing” presents something of a self-improvement opportunity. My goal is to generate 80,000 words and shop it for sale. As a published writer of non-fiction work, I hope I have at least a tiny bit of credibility to get an agent to look twice at my submission. But if not — it doesn’t matter much. I’m enjoying the craft of writing for writing’s sake.

The fun thing about NaNoWriMo? The social aspect. There are active forums and chatrooms for local areas. The “Ottawa County – Grand Rapids” group has been a blast. I’ve done two write-ins with fellow novelists already, and will do more in the coming weeks. It’s been motivating, and fun to connect with fellow local writers. Even if Elizabeth insists on circulating a paper chat room while I try to write and even if Jennifer won’t bring me Scotch. At least Adrianne gave me chocolate because she’s a nice person.

I’m Not a Commodity: Or, Facebook+Spotify Sucks Huge Donkey Dick

Having read of the hype around Spotify, the streaming music service recently made available in the U.S., I was eager to install the app on my phone and enjoy a wide library of musical bliss. The downside? The only way you can actually register for Spotify is to log in with your Facebook account and agree to share an astonishing amount of personal information (including your name, age, location, friends, and profile details) with Spotify. There is no other way to gain access to the music service. Spotify, seemingly caught off-guard, insists that people can create dummy, empty Facebook accounts if they wish — which seems to defeat the purpose.

Long story short: I refuse. I uninstalled Spotify. And for good measure, I logged into Facebook and stripped all of my data from the service. I deleted all my photos (except a really crappy one for the profile), untagged myself from everyone else’s photos, removed all my personal profile details, and set all privacy settings to the most restrictive level. I even “unliked” almost everything I’ve liked in the history of Facebook — only a few dozen things, but still. My profile is now mostly an empty shell devoid of useful marketing data. Fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg.

Note to Big New Media: I’m a human being, not a data profile. I own my information. You don’t. I grow weary of being offered “free” apps or services only to discover later that the fine print says that you get to commodify me into a package of information that you can sell to others and that I have no say in the matter (not even to opt out or to at least curate what gets shared). I’m also out of the game of “logging in with Facebook” (or Google, or Twitter, or …) — give me the chance to log in using de-identified information, or forego me as a customer. Next up for scubbing: Google. I’m watching you, Mountain View.

State of the GOP Presidential Race

Here’s what I know. Most significantly, Rick Perry managed to disappoint me; I can forgive a bad debate performance, but not a 100 percent failure rate in debate performances. Mitt Romney really does look like the default nominee, and despite Erick Erickson’s bloviations, I think he’d be a strong contender and a solid POTUS. Notwithstanding my lack of enthusiasm for his early debate performances (where he came off arrogant and picking fights on social issues he didn’t need to wage) I think Jon Huntsman might be the best man for the job — he’s sufficiently conservative, smart, polished and experienced. Paul, Gingrich, Bachmann and Johnson should probably exit, stage right. And Herman Cain? He just needs to implode and retire from the race before too much damage is done to the GOP brand. Between the sex scandals and the implausibility of 9-9-9, the risk to Republican seriousness is high.

What a Difference A Gigabyte Makes …

Last week, I acquired for the low, low price of $44 a 2 GB memory chip for my netbook (the package also included an 8 GB micro-SD card). I installed it, booted up the machine — and it purrs like a kitten. Still not quite as fast as my full-sized laptop at home (what, with its dual-core Athlon processor and 4 GB of RAM) but the netbook is keeping up admirably with a dual-boot Win7+Fedora16 setup.

Truth be told, I think I’ve finally settled on an all-Microsoft approach to data management. My laptop, netbook and smart phone all run Microsoft OSes, and I use Windows Live SkyDrive for all my personal cloud storage. I’m increasingly centralizing information with OneNote, conveniently synchronized across all my screens. Although it’s not a perfect setup, I’m satisfied with it and am more productive than I was in the days of miscellaneous FTP syncing and random OS mixes.

… Also, a Single Settings Tweak

The only non-MS device left in my portfolio is my HP TouchPad. Granted that I acquired it at firesale prices, I find WebOS to be snappy and elegant. I was tempted to install the CyanogenMod tweak to push it to Android, but why screw around when WebOS works? The only problem I had — and it frustrated me to no end — was TouchFeeds, an RSS reader that’s simple and robust. However, it would hang the tablet on occasion and sometimes be mind-numbingly slow. Slow, to the point I wanted to chuck it at the window and grind my boots on the shards just to show it who’s boss. Funny thing, though: Simply changing the TouchFeeds setting to stop auto-mark-read-as-you-scroll completely fixed the problem. Now, I just push the “mark all read” button and it flies like a dream. Sometimes, just screwing around with settings solves problems.

Pictures on the Wall

Last weekend, I finally got around to printing 21 4-by-6 photos for the huge wall-mounted photo display I got for a steal a while back. Picking which 21 I wanted to print prompted a delightful trek down memory lane. It also reminded me of how bad of a job I do at taking pictures, despite having a 5 MP camera in my HD7. Now the display is prominenly affixed to the wall of my living room.

Tech Industry 2015

Blogger Charlie Stross makes some interesting five-year predictions for the tech industry. The short version is that he senses a certain blood-in-the-water mentality among the major tech players because the future of computing rests not with hardware or software, per se, but rather in consumer devices that seamlessly connect to a cloud for distributed data and applications. The world of desktop computers with locally installed software that have occasional use of the Internet — a paradigm dominant since the early 1990s — is about to be radically upended.

He seems to suggest that HP’s recent Palm bid, and Microsoft’s dropping of the Courier tablet project, and Apple’s Fort-Knox security practices, and Google’s cloud focus, and the leapfrogging in wireless infrastructure in the U.S., all point in one direction: Hardware will become a secondary, generic, low-margin commodity even as applications that reside on a single hard drive lose market share and visibility. In Stross’s view, as I take it, the future lies with Apple’s business model of a walled-off garden of propriety software and strictly regulated third-party applications, which users access seamlessly through devices that sync with centralized servers that perform OS upgrades, store data and configuration settings, and push subscribed applications directly to the user.

To some degree, I agree that Stross’s hypothetical has potential. There is an unambiguous drive toward centralization and coordination of the user experience. Cloud computing has a real benefit to people who move from place to place, and having a trusted vendor coordinate access and security rights is useful.

That said, I question (in a constructive sense only) his overall conclusion, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Many people have information that they refuse to push into the publicly accessible ecosphere. Ever wonder what people do with the billions of dollars each year they download in porn?  Hint: It’s not going on a discoverable cloud server, nor will trillions of pirated MP3s. As long as people desire privacy for critical files, including most importantly pirated media files, local storage will be essential, and as long as local storage is essential, the role of the cloud (although perhaps strong) will not “kill” hardware. The RIAA and the Apple App Store actually work against widespread public adoption of cloud storage: Why risk a lawsuit and the risk of peeking by the vendor or law enforcement, or a vendor making your decisions for you about which applications and data you are allowed to have, when local storage is faster/cheaper/more secure?
  2. High-end computer gaming — just try it on an Atom processor.  Have *you* experienced Barrens chat on a netbook?  Likewise with apps that require large datasets, like some statistics packages. And don’t get me started on high-end video and image editing, or publication design.  Tablet or netbooks have their obvious benefits, but they just aren’t capable, in current form, of replacing a full-strength desktop/laptop system, and until they do, these new devices may serve a niche role in the lives of those who own them, but they will compliment, not displace, the current computing paradigm.
  3. A backlash may be brewing on privacy. As Facebook and Twitter grow, so also does a sense that perhaps we are “too connected.” I suspect that there is an upper limit to how much personal information — including sensitive data — we are willing to push into the cloud, and as society matures about social-media concepts, my gut says we will err on less sharing than today, rather than more. The initial rejection of Google Buzz was significant, as is ongoing user (and Congressional!) scrutiny of Facebook’s shifting privacy standards. We may be willing to share information early on, before we are aware of the drawbacks, but eventually we will pull back from the brink.
  4. Sometimes some files and applications are too important to trust that always-on network connectivity will be an option. Too many places still have too sporadic access to data services. Data access is also so slow that syncing and using a massive filesystem remotely using Wifi or 3G is prohibitive: If I want to browse for a song in my 30 GB music library, am I really going to wait for the library to stream, or to wait as the file cache reloads?  Or will I sync my Blackberry music library via USB every couple of months, and call it good?  I’m not sure that widespread, high-quality, high-speed wireless access will be ubiquitous enough to support a mobile-device/cloud-access model for at least a decade. We just aren’t where we need to be with open-access infrastructure.
  5. Users like consistency. As long as I have a radically difference experience working on my laptop with local data versus using a Web app for cloud data versus using my Blackberry for yet other data, I’m going to be in a “roll your own” environment that speaks against a desire to look to a single vendor’s all-in-one solution as my default go-to strategy. I suspect savvy users will act similarly. I will never buy an iPhone or an iPad because I refuse to be locked into Apple’s proprietary model, nor do I put anything but the bare minimum into Google’s “free” services.  Instead, I have my laptop and a long-running contract with a professional hosting company. I have my own private browser-accessible cloud (I use Gladinet software to sync critical files real-time with a protected file tree on my hosted account), my own IMAP server that won’t be shut unless I shut it down, my own public FTP directory on my private server for world-sharing sharing files (and occasionally, hosting them for others), and my own WordPress blog that won’t be shut down because a user complains about content. Everything I need, I have on my own, at little cost and hassle, and customized to my exact preferences.  Although most users aren’t going to go to the same level as I do, enough will, I suspect, especially when the cost of the walled garden is a nickle here and a dime there, every day of the week.
  6. Hubris is a powerful roadblock.  Yes, Apple’s recent strategic moves are suggestive. But what happens when Apple’s market share is eroded overnight by something new and disruptive? What if a kick-ass HTC unit running Windows Phone 7 Series, this autumn, gives the iPhone a run for its money? What if the FTC signals it’s interested in breaking up Google? What if Microsoft gets its act together and develops a truly comprehensive, seamless online suite that transparently extends Windows 7 with Office 2010 and its new smartphone OS?

My gut prediction for the tech industry in 2015:

  • Apple’s market share remains constant, and people continue to give Apple the credit for having more influence than it really does.
  • Consumer pushback against invasive data practices by Facebook and Google result in a rollback of data-sharing, prompted by the threat of legislation and FTC inquiries and as a strategic move against online-ad monopoly lawsuits against Google. As aggressive opt-in strategies proliferate, people choose to opt-in less frequently, thereby undercutting a data-commodity revenue model that undergirds a chunk of Google’s strategic plan.
  • Open-source solutions (led, most iconically, by Canonical) grow in sophistication and polish but cannot significantly improve market share.
  • Infrastructure improves but is still not capable of reliably supporting ubiquitous cloud computing on mobile devices.
  • Hardware complexity continues to advance (more and more cores, more and more memory, increasingly powerful GPUs) but almost no consumer applications will tax the new standard of hardware resources. This will have serious implications in the enterprise market.
  • Microsoft has an internal shake-up that starts to move from a “battlin’ business unit” model into a more top-down and centralized hierarchy; this has implications for core business decisions.
  • Search is concentrated between Google and Bing, and the browser wars are largely as they are today.

Of course, the nice thing about predictions is that it’s mostly just a random guess.

Apple, Google, Microsoft

Some observations about the tech industry:

  • iPad was a curious direction for Apple. Not sure there is a market for oversized iPod Touches. It’s as if Apple is starting to believe its own hype, that it can do no wrong and everything it releases is magic. It’s a company whose motto ought to be, “I did it my way” — from locking down the App Store to eschewing the likely mods needed to be a player in the enterprise market, the company does what it wants to do so it can retain maximal control over its brand.  That’s fine.  But it’s also self-defeating.
  • Google terrifies me.  Yes, I have a GMail account, and I use Google Voice and Google Analytics. But the company scares me — it tracks too much, archives for too long, and appears to have some sort of master plan. And I don’t like companies that have master plans. It would not surprise me that when the Cylons finally come, they will be running Android (come to think of it, Android is a curious name for an OS …).  Google’s core business is search, and matching ads to search. But the forays into other areas (which have been successful mostly through acquisitions and not in-house development) suggests a growing monstrosity lurking in the corners: Why, exactly, does Google need to own broadband spectrum, fiber, cell phones, operating systems, social networks, IM systems, and such?  Because it archives and profiles data, for reasons that are not yet public.  That bugs me.  Especially when the company’s motto is “Don’t be evil.”  It’s as if they cynically believe that merely saying “don’t be evil” will lead people to believe that you are a force of good in the world.
  • I’m increasingly impressed with the “new” Microsoft. Windows 7, IE8, the demo Windows Phone 7 Series, and Bing are solid products.  Office 2010 Beta is positively orgasmic. And more to the point, given Microsoft’s “battlin’ business unit” model, I don’t really worry that info I store in a MS property will eventually be used to profile me for my assignment in the Brave New World of the Googleverse.

So:  Microsoft good, Google bad, Apple as emo adolescent.