An edited version of this article was published in the Canadian Globe and Mail Newspaper 14 September 2006
Productivity applications are software packages that aid in making you more productive, whether creating letters, faxes, or spreadsheets helping you to forecast your companies finances. Office suites, bundle the most popular application types, like word processor, spreadsheet and presentation into a single package that is often more tightly integrated, allowing you to transfer data between them, more easily.
Whilst on-line productivity application are by no means a new thing, they have only recently begun to mature into the feature packed and stable systems they are today. Being able to run a word processor or spreadsheet anywhere you have an Internet connection is a huge benefit, allowing you to work on any computer, anywhere that has an Internet connection, using the tools you are familiar with. However there is also another huge benefit of using Internet based tools and that is the ability to collaborate with other users. Traditionally collaboration meant passing a file to a colleague, them working on it and then passing it back to you. With the Internet however and the right tool, users can now work on the same document at the same time.
All of the new services available will allow you to save the file to your own computer in one of the genre standard file formats, i.e. .DOC for word processing, .XLS for spreadsheet, etc. A few of the services will allow you to store the resultant file on their own servers, allowing you to access the file in the same way you access the service, with a web browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer, from anywhere you have Internet connectivity. Obviously this is preferable if you are using the service at an Internet cafÃ© or a computer with restrictive access, but being able to save the document to a file that you can open in any capable word processor, spreadsheet, etc. is also very beneficial. especially for backup purposes, or if you need to give a physical copy to someone else.
Most of the companies offering productivity tools, have found a particular niche and do it very well. This was originally how Writely began, before being purchased by Google. Google now offers many productivity tools, including the Writely word processor, a spreadsheet, calender and not forgetting the best in email services, Gmail. There are many more things planned at Google I’m sure. Although all of their offerings seem to remain in perpetual beta, they are updated often and at times add a whole raft of new features.
The other company offering a range of services is headed by Michael Robertson. If you remember the original MP3.com music repository, then you are already aware of forward thinking. MP3.com was sold to CNET many moons ago, but ever the technical evangelist, Robertson is now probably better known for his mp3Tunes.com, Gizmo the voice over IP, Skype competitor and Linspire, formally Lindows, the Windows lookalike Linux based operating system. All of the tools available from Robertson’s company Ajax 13 are non hosted, which means that although you can create and edit documents, you have to ultimately save them on your own computer.
Another company offering a suite of productivity tools is Think Free, who have a complete Java based office suite, comprising of a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation elements, which looks and functions almost exactly like Microsoft Office. This offering is a slight cheat as each element required, loads from their server, which means that the first time you use each tool, there is an extensive delay until you can actually begin work. All subsequent times however load relatively quickly as the application is cached (stored on the users computer).
The final suite offering is from gOffice, a relatively new service to me. They offer fully hosted files, like the Google services and are the only company to also offer a desktop publishing module. There’s many other productivity providers, who have chosen a specific niche to concentrate on. Because they are focused on a particular application, they tend to implement their chosen area, particularly well. Some of the other providers, in no specific order are:
Gliffy – This killer Visio lookalike, diagramming tool, has a great user interface with all the familiar features. Whilst not as powerful as the real thing, for many users the features offered are more than adequate, especially for creating things like flowcharts, floor layouts and organizational charts..
DabbleDB -This is the only on-line database I’ve seen so far. It’s not free, but has some great features and is relatively inexpensive for a small number of databases, allowing you to store data of all kinds.
Box.Net – A file storage service which enables you to store and retrieve as many files as you have storage space for. The basic service is free, with varying paid for options, offering additional features.
The last category which can act as the kind of glue that holds these services all together is web desktops. Netvibes and Protopage are probably the best known and rightly so, but for different reasons. I personally use Netvibes as it has a great user interface and fits with the way I work. Both of these services allow you to add bookmarks to other website, RSS feeds for receiving the latest news from your favorite sites and widgets that allow you to interact with many other Internet services, among them Flickr and PhotoBucket the the on-line photo storage services and the previously mentioned Box.net, all from your Internet desktop available anywhere.
Many of these tools are useful in their own right, but the true power of having Internet based productivity applications is in the ability to collaborate. The collaborative features are varied depending on the tool, but those that offer it, allow users to be able to work on the same documents in parallel. Some of the tools even let you chat to the other users working on the document, which is an incredible feature.
Productivity applications still have a long way to go. I’d ideally like them all to offer hosting of the files created. This is one of the main reasons I use both Writely and Google Spreadsheets, which were also used to write this article. Something I would love Google to offer is some kind of file repository, so I can see all the files I have across the Google services. Something like this may be possible, with the rumored service called GDrive, which will do for files what Gmail did for email.
With new services being launched almost daily, this is certainly an exciting time in the hosted application area. Please remember though, with all services allowing you to store your files on their servers, it’s important to make regular backups to your own computer. As quickly as new services launch, they also disappear, so it’s important to ensure your files don’t disappear with them.
Excerpt Published September 2006 in the 8th Edition of the Indie Bible
The CD was first introduced in 1982, but took several years to take a foothold in the music world. For the first time you could hear your music with unbelievable clarity, thanks to digital reproduction. Some would say this new clarity removed the soul from the music, but the new medium was easy to operate, didn’t need rewinding, or turning over half way through and allowed you to make a perfect copy onto tape. Making mix tapes from vinyl was a job that could take all night. Not that it was overly complex, but it was so easy to get distracted reading the sleeve notes. With CDs however, the end result was much better. You no longer got the crackle, hiss and bumps during each song. The musical revolution has begun.
Jump forward 12 years to 1994 and the Fraunhofer Society in Germany. An invention was made, that was going to change forever, the way we listen to and discover music, but like the CD before, it would take a few years for the MP3 to find it’s niche.
CD’s store music in a raw format, meaning that the music is represented on the disk byte for byte. The average song in it’s raw format takes up approximately 50 megabytes of disk space. While quite feasible to rip the CD to your computers hard disk, it wasn’t practical, as back then the average hard disk capacities were measured in megabytes, rather than the gigabytes and terabytes of today. This meant you could only store a few albums on a hard disc, that is if it was totally empty. MP3s began to gain acceptance as they compressed the data ripped from the CD. Instead of a 50mb per track, the average song was around 3 MB in it’s MP3 form, when compressed at 128kps. So how does the compression work and what do you lose. Yes, lose something you do, as the form of compression used, is commonly referred to as lossy compression, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Every song on a CD has lots of sound you hear, but also a lot you don’t. Think of dog whistles. Yes they make a noise, but only dogs can hear them. The lossy compression, basically eliminates all the sounds either inaudible, or deemed non essential, again based on the level of compression you choose. So that’s the potted history of the MP3, but where does it fit into the music scene today? Let me give you a clue. Napster!
In 1999 Shawn Fanning, an aspiring programmer decided to write an application that would allow his friends to share music and files across the Internet. Once the software got out into the wilds of the Internet, no one could have predicted it’s almost viral ability to spread and spread it did. There was however one tiny, little problem. 99 percent of the files and music transferred from user to user where copyrighted material, which meant that every person transferring the files, was in effect breaking the law. While piracy of this kind was not too uncommon, the scale of it was. It was usually tech savvy geeks and nerds that were guilty of this before, but with the inception of Napster, anyone with a computer and the Internet, could type in a keyword a phrase and find nearly anything they wanted from music, movies and retail software. Obviously the powers that be, were not happy about this turn of events, but the snowball had started and it was not going to stop there.
Napster spread like wildfire, it wasn’t long until the powers that be caught wind of this new phenomenon and tried to shut it down. However it wasn’t as simple as that. For all the measures that Napster was forced to implement, it wasn’t long before someone created a way round them. When Napster was breathing it’s dying breaths a new kind of peer to peer service was launched, which threw open the floodgates further, this was called Gnutella and it is this service, that many of the current peer to peer offerings are based, providing the information needed to connect the two computers. Peer to peer, basically means there is no centralized server to shut down, machines connect directly with nothing in between. Around the world there are many Gnutella nodes providing a high level of redundancy, so should one node be shut down, there are many more to take its place. I think upon the proliferation of Gnutella, many record companies realized they were facing an uphill battle. Although their forecast was doom and gloom, it wasn’t quite as doom laden for them as they wanted us all to believe, depending on which study you choose to believe.
With the arrival and eventual demise of Napster, bands and artists realized there was another way to distribute their music, which didn’t require hard to come by record deals. With just a web page and a Pay Pal account, bands and artists could press their own CDs and send them directly to fans who wanted them. However the future in music, lay very firmly in digital distribution and it wasn’t until January 2001, when Apple unveiled iTunes, which was initially a CD cataloging program and player. It wasn’t until April 28th 2003 that the music service launched. Then the general public suddenly had a simple way to obtain the latest bands and artists music, by just clicking on a buy button. While iTunes has done a lot to promote the digital delivery of music, it does have it’s opponents. The only reason that the large and many smaller record labels agreed to be included in the iTunes service is Apples use of “Digital Rights Management” or DRM. This enables downloaded music to be tied to the computer it was purchased on and an iPod. Many people find this very restrictive, especially when a computer dies and you find you’ve lost all your music. Napster relaunched in 2004 as a legitimate service, now also employing DRM technology, but it’s intended audience was Windows computers instead of Apples own Mac computer. Apple came out with a PC version of iTunes in October of 2003 and then on-line music sales really exploded. As of February 22 2006, over a billion songs have been downloaded. There are a few website offering music without DRM. Emusic is one service that mostly caters to a more mature audience. You won’t find the latest Jessica Simpson or Fall-Out Boy album, but there are many more established artists, allowing their music to be purchased in MP3 format with no digital rights protection. mp3Tunes is probably the biggest on-line music service, specializing in independent artists, but there is an abundance of talent and with album prices relatively inexpensive, with no restrictions it is great value.
In July of 2003 a new website launched which would further empower musicians to promote their own music. MySpace launched as a social networking site. People would post their profiles and would search for and be sought out by people with similar interests. Musicians were soon posting their profiles and a few sample tracks to listen to or download directly from their profile page. The MySpace service has givenindependent musicians another shot in the arm and again allowed musicians to reach out across the world to new and existing fans.
It’s arguably the last piece of the puzzle that really caused the next revolution in music. Podcasts. In their simplest form, podcasts are audio files created on a computer or portable media device that are subscribed to by people interested in the content of the Podcast. These audio files are then transported across the Internet to the users computer. This can be done automatically using one of a myriad of podcast aggregators like Juice, Doppler or WinPodder. Podcast comes from the amalgamation of two words, iPod and broadcast. This has led to the common misconception that an iPod is required to listen to them, this is not the case. You can listen to a podcast on any computer, MP3 player or CD player if the podcast has been written to an audio CD. The early genesis of podcasting is commonly attributed to Adam Curry and Dave Winer. With Adam’s drive to make it happen and Dave’s RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to act as the kind transport layer to get the podcast out to all subscribers. Talking of subscribers, another common misconception is that you need to pay for the podcasts you download, after all you are a subscriber. While there are a few paid for podcasts, the vast majority are totally free. Podcasts have grown at a phenomenal rate and their popularity was launched into the stratosphere, when Apple decided to jump on the podcast wagon and allow people to subscribe to podcasts through iTunes. Like music before it, suddenly podcasts were available to the regular person, without requiring complex knowledge of RSS feeds and aggregator software.
With podcasts coming into their own in the latter half of 2004, suddenly there was a medium that was inexpensive and could reach the world over. Creating a podcast can be relatively cheap, but once the bug catches hold, it’s not long before podcasters outgrow their modest hardware and strive for perfection with a new microphone and mixer. Another big issue for podcasters is bandwidth. Having a few dozen people download your podcast is fine, even though the average music podcast is around 20-30 megabytes, but just imagine what happens when you have thousands of people downloading. Many people find themselves with an expensive bill from their Internet provider. There are many services that alleviate this problem for a small fee and it’s these hidden costs that most people, especially listeners are not aware of.
Adam Curry had his own podcast called the Daily Source Code. At the beginning of each show and occasionally within, he would play music often referred to as mashups. This was the fusion of two or more different songs into one. This sometimes resulted in some great songs, but it was also in direct violation of copyright. While many didn’t think it to be a real problem, it wasn’t long before the powers that be came knocking on Mr Curry’s door and he was forced to stop. In the latter half of 2005 however an artist from NY, USA stepped into the breech and gave Adam full permission to play his song Summertime on the Daily Source Code. This artist was Brother Love and it was the beginning of something quite special. It wasn’t long after this, that bands began to see the potential of podcasts and either gave permission to podcasts to feature their music or to sometimes create podcasts themselves.
So fast forward to August 2006. There are now literally thousands of podcasts, featuring a multitude of new bands and artists. Bands are now finding new audiences from around the world. Hollow Horse, a band from Glasgow, Scotland are one of the many bands with positive things to say about podcasts. Kenny Little from the band says “If it wasn’t for the medium of podcasting we would probably have split up. As it is, we are now in the middle of recording our third album and, the strange sideline to all of this, is we now have friends and fans from all over the world”. After being first featured in a couple of podcasts, Kenny said “We have sold more copies of the album in America than we have in Scotland. How amazing is that”. Many bands now have no intention of seeking a record label, preferring to handle everything themselves. With Podcasts, MySpace and a Myriad of other services available in your arsenal, it’s now quite a feasible thing to do.
Published in the September 2006 Issue (#8) Podcast User Magazine (Download)
Iâ€™ve already reviewed Egress from Garish Kernels for Podcast Launchpad, but I wanted to do a follow-up review after having actually used the product over a few weeks whilst being on holiday at home. I turned to Egress because I hated to think I was going to get back to work with hundreds of podcasts to catch up on. WinPodder alone wasnâ€™t an option, as it doesnâ€™t track whatâ€™s been listened to and what is still outstanding. I also decided against installing Juice on my laptop, as disk space is at a premium and sometimes it slows my laptop to a crawl. Egress was perfect solution for me, as I could keep a track of the new podcasts and listen to them when I got a chance using WinPodder on my laptop. We have the laptop in our kitchen, which overlooks the living room, and itâ€™s a great way to listen to various podcasts using WinPodder and music from my main computer in the basement via iTunes.
So over the last couple of weeks, Iâ€™ve used Egress each morning to see what new podcasts have been released and to mark entries read, as Iâ€™ve listened to the podcasts on my Pocket PC. I found it funny that with over 60 subscriptions, all being handled by the freely available Juice receiver, I was missing an amazing amount of information. For instance, Iâ€™ve been subscribed to the Adventures of Mr Behi, an Iranian podcaster, for the last eight or so months, but in that time Iâ€™ve received only a couple of podcasts. What I didnâ€™t know was that he also posts a blog entry a few times a week, which makes for very entertaining reading. Iâ€™ve been missing these blog entries as they just donâ€™t appear in Juice. Actually, of the 60 podcasts Iâ€™m subscribed to, there are 20 or 30 that post additional information in their feed that I have just not known about.
The reason that Egress picks up and shows this additional information is because itâ€™s not a podcatcher as such, but more of an RSS aggregator that has been expanded to handle podcasts as well. Iâ€™ve used RSS aggregators in the past on my PC but have always preferred to view the main websites rather than read the RSS entries and then be forced to view the web page anyway. I can actually do this very simply by using Firefox. I have about 50 websites I check regularly, so I just put them all in their own folder and then open them all at once in their own tab, which Firefox makes very easy. However, the benefit of having the websitesâ€™ RSS feeds available on my Pocket PC is that I can update them anywhere I can get wireless access, and I can then read them at leisure when Iâ€™ve got a few minutes to kill.
So Egress makes it easy to listen to podcasts and also to keep up to date with the news from my favorite websites. On the whole, it is an excellent piece of software. I did have an annoying problem with Egress losing my subscriptions, but I have to say that this could well have been caused by my Pocket PC, as itâ€™s been a bit flaky and in need of a clean out and fresh install. A couple of times, though, Egress has been unable to find my subscriptions. I cured this by just reinstalling to no ill effects; everything worked fine again after this procedure.
Egress is more than happy to download any podcast found either automatically or on a user-selectable basis, but bear in mind that this is going to require a substantial amount of free memory space, should you have close to the same number of podcast subscriptions that I do. Even with three or four new music podcasts, you will need around 90 to 120 MB of required storage memory space. That being said, this is still a nice aggregator to have, especially if you want to have available a few podcasts on your Pocket PC for those times you are going to be away from your main computer.
Thus, Egress is nearly perfect. I say â€˜nearlyâ€™ as I have a few great ideas for features that will make it the perfect application. (That is, perfect in my opinion). One great addition would be a desktop version of Egress that I could use on my PC. Then a great feature would be the ability to synchronize my desktop subscriptions with the handheld. This would allow me to dispense with Juice and easily carry my podcast subscriptions with me. If I listen to some podcasts at home, I just mark them as read on my Pocket PC, and then when I get back to my desktop machine, it makes the required changes, so at all times Iâ€™m kept up to date, whether at home or in the office. Another good option to use in conjunction with this idea would be the ability to save all unheard podcasts (that is, the downloaded MP3s) to the Pocket PC, giving a nice level of flexibility for going places where there is no internet connectivity.
Conclusion : If you listen to podcasts and have a Pocket PC, Egress is a must buy, especially at the ridiculously low price of $12.95 with free upgrades