Some Gadget Ideas for Christmas Shopping

Here are some gadgets I’ve used over the past year that I’d recommend as presents for people into that sort of thing:

Chamberlain MyQ WiFi Garage Door Opener – This allows you to open and close your garage door from your phone. And check whether your garage door is open or closed. I’ve found it useful when I leave the house but can’t remember for sure if I closed the garage door. I’ve also used it to let people working on my house into the garage while I was out. It took around 30 minutes to install. The only thing that’s not 100% about this is the app, which is slow to open. But:

Wink Hub. – A Wink Hub allows you to control a large number of WiFi connected devices from a single app that worked quite well. You connect this to your WiFi network then tell it what WiFi connected devices you’ve got, such as the garage door opener. It also supports notifications, so you can see when your garage door is opened, or door locks, motion detectors, etc. And, it makes it easy to set up automated tasks, like turning things on/off at certain times of day. A lot of devices from a wide variety of companies can work with the Wink hub, which is nice. You don’t have to worry about buying this, then only being able to buy, say, Wink deadbolts for your house.

PWR+ Cell Phone Charger. – This is a Mini USB charger, so will work with most Android phones. The beauty of this is it charges your phone around 4X faster than the one that ships with phones. Basically, it’s ridiculous that cell phones don’t ship with chargers like this.

EyeFi Mobi SD Card – Assuming you still use a camera other than the one on your phone, this SD card connects to your phone and auto-syncs photos from your phone to your camera as you take them. You can then upload or email those pics from your phone without ever needing to take the card out of the camera.

Remembering Reusable Grocery Bags with IFTTT

Remembering to bring reusable bags into grocery stores is not one of my strengths. But, I figured out a way to make that happen. Geofencing grocery stores using IFTTT, then sending myself reminders. By the way, I don’t think IFTTT supports doing this on other phones, but there are other ways to do it. There are also apps that can be used to do this on Android phones, but I’d rather use a cloud service for this so I don’t have to recreate these every time I get a new phone.

For example, here’s a recipe I created on IFTTT that sends me a text message to remember to bring in bags when I arrive at Longfellow Market:

IFTTT Breakdown

These are really easy to set up. You just zoom in to the location where you’d like to have an alert triggered. I moved the range to the south a bit after getting some false-positives while driving by Longfellow Market on Lake Street.

IFTTT Map

Then set the message you’d like to receive:

IFTTT Message

The messages automatically pop up on my phone and watch when I enter that area:

IFTTT on Pebble Watch

What this doesn’t do is remind me to put the bags back in the car after bringing groceries home. That’s another step.

Another IFTTT recipe I like using is to adjust my phone’s volume to vibrate mode when I arrive home. This could be done based on a geocode, like the example above, but it can also be triggered based on the name of the WiFi network I attach to.

Small things like this make my days slightly smoother.

Should Best Buy Address Showrooming or Reverse Showrooming?

This nugget from a recent MSP Business Journal story on Best Buy got me thinking:

Best Buy does have a lot of room for transformation: The chain is pressured by same-store sales declines and online competitors, such as Amazon.com, that have capitalized on “showrooming,” consumers who check out goods in stores then buy online.

But CEO Hubert Joly thinks that the showrooming threat is overstated, and apparently [new CFO Sharon] McCollam agrees, telling Reuters that customers don’t fall in love with websites. Physical stores with a strong online practice have a better shot of winning loyalty.

I think Joly and McCollam are right that showrooming isn’t that big of a deal. Sure, some people may walk into a store to check something out before purchasing it online from one of Best Buy’s competitors, but that’s probably not the biggest reason Best Buy’s sales are lagging. The bigger problem is that people aren’t coming into their stores in the first place.

In fact, a bigger problem than “showrooming” for Best Buy may be “reverse showrooming”. As in, people who research a purchase online then come into a Best Buy store to make their purchase.

For example, one of my last trips into a Best Buy store was to buy a GPS as a last-minute gift. I hopped on Amazon.com to research GPS units and found one with the features I was looking for at a price I found reasonable. Since this was a last-minute purchase, I then turned to Best Buy’s website to see if they carried the same model. They did.

So, I hopped in my car, drove to the Roseville Best Buy store, and walked directly to the GPS display. I couldn’t grab-and-go my pre-researched purchase (with a slightly higher price than Amazon) because their GPS stock was behind a locked cabinet. The first blue-shirt I tracked down didn’t have a key to the cabinet so he had to track down someone who did.

“I’m trying to give you money but you’re making it hard for me” moments like this make me question why I came into the store in the first place.

The blue-shirt asked me what I was looking for so I told him. He then tried to upsell me to higher priced models that allow for updates to the route data over time, which is a fairly worthless feature for most people because they’ll lose, break, get sick of, or switch to a GPS phone before they ever upgrade their GPS’ maps.

Then the key master arrived and unlocked the cabinet. It turns out that the model I was looking for was out of stock. This was not noted on the display model, which could have saved myself and two Best Buy employees some time.

“I’m trying to give you money but you’re making it hard for me” moments like this make me question why I came into the store in the first place.

It wasn’t for a lack of looking. The blue shirts spent a good amount of time looking through their concealed inventory (websites don’t do that to people). The key master then started explaining to me why I’d be better off with a most costly model that allows for updates to the route data over time (heard this before?).

I grabbed the closest model in features and price to what I had planned to buy (based on the sides of the boxes rather than Amazon reviews), bought it, and made a mental note to avoid getting into situations like this in the future.

Maybe I’m a difficult customer? I doubt Amazon thinks so. They seem to know how to make my credit card smoke.

The challenge for Best Buy is that tons of Best Buy customers across the country have gone through similar “reverse showrooming” experiences. What starts out as a really good online “showrooming” experience on Amazon falls apart when people optimistically leave their homes to scratch their technology itch at Best Buy rather than waiting the 48 hours it would take Amazon to get a product to their doorstep for free.

Can a Person Love a Website?

The scariest thing in those two paragraphs is McCollam’s comment about people not falling in love with websites. Here’s the full quote from Reuter’s:

“I do not believe that people fall in love with websites,” McCollam said. “When you try to create affinity with a customer, no doubt you will be more successful with bricks and clicks than you will ever be with just clicks.”

This may actually be somewhat true for the types of products sold by Williams-Sonoma where actually seeing and touching the product may play a larger role in the purchase process. But, people really do love websites. Take a look at Google Trends for “I love _____”:

Love for Etsy is on track to surpass Best Buy. Etsy is not a “physical store with a strong online practice.”

Love for Ebay dwarfs Best Buy. Ebay is not a “physical store with a strong online practice.”

As long as Best Buy’s leadership isn’t convinced that people can love a website they probably won’t devote the kind of resources needed to create a website people can fall in love with.

How and where are people researching electronics?

When a person considers a new electronics purchase in 2012, do they think “I think I’ll head on down to Best Buy, sit at a left turn signal that takes forever to change (then wait because the person at the front of the line is on their phone and hasn’t noticed that it’s finally green, navigate through a gigantic parking lot to park, dodge cars while walking to a store through heat, rain, or slush, only to receive marginal information on products compared to what I can find on Amazon in the comfort of my own home.”? That person exists, but they’re not who Best Buy needs to reach to turn things around.

Somehow, Best Buy needs to make the experience better for the “reverse showrooming” crowd so it’s worth visiting a store to satisfy their purchase decision faster than the web can, or convince them to make their purchase on BestBuy.com.

Kensington Windshield Mount for iPhone and Android Evo Phones

Kensington Windshield iPhone Android Evo Mount

I snapped this shot 48 minutes outside of Holland, Michigan last week. That’s my Sprint Evo Android phone being used as a GPS, being powered by a power inverter sitting on the floor, and plugged into the stereo’s auxiliary jack of my rental car. That’s how I roll on the road these days. The podcasts I download through CarCast are much more interesting than the radio, and the phone is smart enough to interrupt the podcasts to speak turning directions when necessary. If I’m looking for tunes, I stream Pandora stations. It’s also possible to stream YouTube videos, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that while driving.

But the key to making this work is the Kensington windshield mount. Without that, I’d spend time looking at my phone in my lap, which is outside my peripheral vision of the windshield.

If you’re using your phone as a GPS, I highly recommend picking one of these up. It will work on any common iPhone-ish shaped device. They also have an air-vent attachment model, which I do not recommend for travel (too tough to get on/off the vent) but could be a good choice for your own car because it may be a bit more discrete than having a suction cup on your windshield (better not to give thieves a reason to break in).

Comcast DNS Hijacking – Domain Helper Service Still Not Helpful

Back in August, I wrote about how Comcast’s Domain Helper Service Makes Lives Crappier. As a refresher, if you’re a Comcast user and you type a web address incorrectly into your browser’s address bar, your browser will be hijacked by Comcast, send you to a different URL, and place a bunch of ads on the page.

To me, this is not useful at all. It’s intrusive. Comcast makes more more money from me for providing a worse service. Our interests are not aligned.

As I mentioned last August, Comcast provides a way to opt-out of the service. But why should I have to opt-out of something I never opted into in the first place? To me, this is a case of Comcast changing the terms of our contract, for the worse, without my permission.

So, at the time, I asked a Comcast customer service rep to fix the problem they created. Amazingly, they claimed that they couldn’t, which made no technical sense. So, today, I gave it another shot. Sure enough, they were able to fix what they broke and reset my modem, remotely, in a couple of minutes.

So there are now two ways to solve the problem Comcast created. You can either waste your own time by using Comcast’s self-service opt-out system to remove yourself from their browser hijacking system. Or you can call them up to waste your time AND their time while they undo what they’ve done. Personally, I find the latter more satisfying. As a paying customer, I’m not particularly interested in cleaning up messes that they create.

One other thing: as a pathetically loyal Comcast user who suffers from a lack of local competition, I had this service imposed on me, thus changing my contract without my permission. If you’re a new Internet subscriber, you’ll have the “benefit” of having this intrusion turned on by default. You can still get Comcast to turn off DNS hijacking.

iPhones Battery Backups, Blackberry, Android

I have found a cell phone battery backup device that rocks my world. The Imax Power IMP500 External Battery.

On the left, below, is my current cell phone (and HTC Hero from Sprint, which I would not recommend. Wait, if you can, for better options), and on the right, the Imax Power:

Imax Power

Here’s the deal: Batteries have a limited amount of power. Having a way to conveniently top off your phone’s battery may have some value.

In the case of my HTC Hero, the default battery has 1350 mAh of power (pronounced: milli-amps). This isn’t bad, but it could be better.

The iPhone 3GS has 1219 of power and the previous iPhone has 1150 mAh.

Now, more battery power doesn’t guarantee more talk or web browsing time. The efficiency of the phone plays a role as well, and iPhones seem to be a bit more efficient than comparable Android phones today. Regardless, neither phone has the capacity to last through an entire day at a conference where a person is browsing the web, checking emails, texting, and taking calls on a regular basis. You know: the kind of stuff the phones are sold as being designed to do.

So, in comes the Imax Power. This thing holds 5000 mAh of energy. So you can recharge a typical smartphone 2-3 times before this thing dies. That’s awesome. It’s enough to get through the day and then some.

The specs claim that you can get up to 38 hours of iPhone video playback time out of this thing. That seems slightly aggressive, but if you’re even considering that much power, you can understand how much of a game changer this is.

For me, this is a device I’ll be keeping in my suit, so I can continually top off my phone throughout the day so it’s not dead by the time I go to dinner. I’ll also use it when traveling overseas to top off my iPod Touch for days and days.

And, the real beauty of it is that it connects to any device. It has a USB plus on it, so whether you have an iPhone, Android phone, Blackberry, Bluetooth headshet, etc., you can top it off. And you can even use a splitter to top off more than one device at a time. Awesome.

So, get yourself a brick of power so you’ll be able to weather those powerless situations you’ll encounter throughout the day or while traveling.

Are URL Shorteners Here to Stay?

Garrick Van Buren posted a recent post about URL shorteners where he suggests that “URL Shorteners Are So Last Year” where he runs through a variety of examples to make his case. To me, this generated enough yeah but responses that I decided to respond here.

For those not familiar with URL shorteners, they are services that allow you to take very long URLs and convert them into small versions

For example, here is a URL from a blog post I wrote in May 2009:

http://www.thedeets.com/2009/05/23/how-the-government-saved-
backpagecom/

That URL is 72 characters long, which isn’t too bad, but it isn’t exactly short. If I pasted it into Twitter, where there is a 140 character limit, I’d have less than half my allotted characters to comment on what I’m linking to.

I took that URL and shortened it at TinyURL.com into this:

http://tinyurl.com/y7284jm

That turned 72 characters into 26, so cut the size of the link in half. Clicking that link takes people to the exact same location. There is a drawback to this, as Garrick points out. It’s not as clear what people are going to find. The first link includes quite a bit of information in the URL, such as the destination site (thedeets.com); the year, month, and day the post was written (May 23, 2009), and the post’s title. That is all there due to settings I chose when setting up this blog. I could have created shorter, yet less readable, URLs on TheDeets.com which wouldn’t be all that much more user-friendly than TinyURL.com’s other than mentioning the destination domain, but didn’t do that for a variety of reasons not worth getting into right now.

If I took the same URL to another shortening site, Bit.ly, I can get it down to 20 characters with this:

http://bit.ly/dDfAKY

This is about as short as a URL can get.

Now, to Garrick’s points.

1. Shortened URLs can be used for spam. Yep, just like any other type of link. Sure, the chances of clicking to somewhere you weren’t expecting go up a bit with shortened URLs since you may be able to catch yourself before you click through to a spoofed PayPal site or some other bad neighborhood on the web if it’s in the URL you’re about to click on. However, how you get to a site isn’t as important as what you do once you get there, so I don’t think that’s a particularly big deal. Also, don’t click on links from people you don’t know (or suspicious looking links from people you do know) regardless of whether the links are shortened or not.

Top of the link URL Shortening services also test links that are shortened with their services to try to protect their users from ending up at spam sites. Clearly, the future of their services rely upon people trusting their service’s links, so they do what they can to proactively solve problems (not easy).

2. Shortened Links Expire. This is not true. URL shortening services would have a hard time existing if people clicked on a link a year from now only to end up at a different site than that shortened URL pointed to a year ago. Bit.ly explains this in their FAQ. TinyURL has provisions on what they’d do if they ever shut down (they have a plan on how to keep every URL that’s been shortened to date living forever).

Shortened links will expire if a URL shortening service doesn’t include provisions for what to do if they decide to get out of that business. For example, Garrick’s started and later stopped a URL shortening service using the domain culld.us, which he used to shorten a link here:

Garrick Using Culld.us

Since the service shut town, that culld.us link has pointed to this:

Screen shot 2010-04-19 at 9.04.20 PM

This makes me glad that I never shortened any links using that service. It would suck to hear from a client who decided to click on a shortened link in an old email telling me that the link no longer worked due to something outside of my control. It looks like Google can see 193 such links that were shortened and then published to the web somewhere that Google could see.

We also can no longer tell what David Brauer was talking about when he used a culld.us link in this Tweet:

Screen shot 2010-04-19 at 9.12.55 PM

Critical parts of Twitter conversations by Brauer, Tom Elko, Mike Kelliher, Jason DeRusha, Paul Jahn, Michael Janssen and Mookie (Chuckumentary’s cat) were destroyed when culld.us went offline. Here are some examples of pages within Twitter that Google can see that include now-dead culld.us shortened links:

Culld.us Link Rot

This is known as “link rot”. It sucks when links go bad, so be sure to shorten your links somewhere that has provisioned for this.

Case insensitivity is one of the keys to keeping URLs short without having to recycle addresses. With 6 characters after the / where Bit.ly uses a combination of numbers together with both lower and UPPER case letters (62 options per character), they have generate over 44 billion URLs before they’ll need to add another character.

3. Usability. Here is Garrick’s take:

At best – they make less usable URLs – because both the URLs shorteners domain name and the random string are meaningless (not to mention hard to remember) to people.

First off, if they were less usable, why would people use them? People don’t go out of their way to make life more difficult for themselves or for others. While it would be nice if we could link to everywhere on the web from a nice short URL, there are some good reasons why that’s not possible. The trade-off of linking to content using URLs that are more email and Twitter friendly is clearly favoring the shortened URL side of this equation. We can see this in the combined growth of just two of these services (bit.ly and tinyurl.com) who’ve had a combined 3X increase in traffic in the past year:

Bit.ly vs TinyURL.com Traffic

With bit.ly capturing a ton of that due to their superior service.

While URLs provide guidance, I don’t think many people are remembering long URLs. Sure, they may be able to remember that a company’s blog is at domainname.com/blog/ but that wouldn’t need to be shortened. Few people will remember 70+ character URLs.

Guidance can help, but true guidance comes from what’s around a URL as much as what the URL itself has to say about itself. If a friend sends me a link that says, “here are some pictures from last weekend” I know what I need to know about the link whether it’s shortened or not.

4. It’s webmaster’s faults for making long URLs in the first place. As Garrick puts it:

“URL shorteners are cheap hacks apologizing for poor content-management-systems”

By that, he’s saying that URL shortening services only exist because web developers are slackers who are too lazy to create human friendly (describe what they’re linking to) short URLs. He picks on Google Maps, but doesn’t provide an example of how Google (who has a few smart coders) is supposed to create human friendly (and short [possibly even memorable]) links to their maps. Google Maps’ links, as they exist today, can include up to dozens of variables (along with values). So once we get past maps.google.com, you’ll often see variable=value&variable=value combinations building out a long string with popular variables being:

Latitude
Longitude
Zoom Level
Map Type (map, satellite, hybrid)
Layers (bike, transit)
Driving directions (or other type of directions)
Starting point
Name of venue
Language
Character encoding

Is this really a case of bad URL architecture, or is there simply no way to get a URL that has to contain so much information down to a shorter format? I’m guessing the latter.

There are over 40 variables that can be used to customize a map view. Most people don’t interact with the variables directly, but every time you move or zoom the map, the URL needed to get someone else to that exact same view changes.

Once you get to the map location, zoom level, venue, etc. that you’d like to share, would you rather send your friend an email with a URL that goes on for multiple links and probably breaks, causing them to click on the link then email you back to say that the link didn’t work for them? Or would you rather shorten that down to something that easily fits on one line (and will even tell you if your friend clicked on it)?

5. Twitter built the need for URL shorteners and they’ll also kill it. Garrick explains that the demand for URL shortening services exploded when people became addicted to sending 140 character or less messages with links. There is no question that Twitter took URL shortening to a new level, but the original link shortening problem that I believe tinyurl.com was initially set up to address was making URLs easier to email. That problem still exists. When I send a long link to people today, I shorten it, because I don’t know if they’re going to be opening it using a desktop client, webmail program, mobile device, etc., and all may treat long URLs differently. With or without Twitter, there is a market for shortened URL services.

That being said, Garrick has a point that bit.ly and other services used by people to shorten URLs may take a dive if Twitter builds in their own service. He goes so far as suggesting that Twitter’s move into URL shortening is “a move which will promptly shorten the already tiny lifespan of other URL shortening services.”

While possible, that depends on a quite a few factors, such as:

a. Whether it’s available in Twitter user’s preferred Twitter clients.

b. Whether it has reporting that’s as powerful as what people find elsewhere.

c. Whether it’s as reliable as what people use today. Would you trust Twitter with your important URL shortening needs based on how reliable their basic service has been?

Sure, 3rd party URL shortening services will see some impact from Twitter getting into the game, but I see no reason to believe that this will mark the end of quality link shortening services like Bit.ly or Tinyurl.com.

Thanks, Garrick, for throwing some ideas out there for me to riff on. Good stuff.




Feit Compact Fluorescent Recessed Lighting Light Bulbs

One type of compact fluorescent bulb that’s a bit harder than average to find are bulbs for recessed lighting. I have a hallway that uses 60W incandescents or 15W CF bulbs, but exposed regular CFs just weren’t going to cut it.

This bulb from Feit does the trick:

Compact Fluorescent Recessed Lighting Light Bulbs

Like most CF bulbs, they take a bit longer to warm up than comparable incandescent bulbs, so they may not be the best choice in lighting situations where you need something to be at 100% right away. But once warmed up (around a minute) the light quality is great.

Feit makes a dimmable version as well. I haven’t had luck with dimmable CF bulbs to date and haven’t tried this one (it currently receives one star for burning out quickly) so I can’t recommend it.

A Coffee Shop Printing Service

Coffee Shop Printer

Maybe this exists everywhere already, but it’s new to me. A coffee shop in Toronto had a printer available for printing by WiFi users. The printer lists a URL where customers can upload their files. They’re sent from the website to the printer in the coffee shop for fulfillment. The quantity of prints and credit card transaction is handled on the website.

This does seem to have the potential to take coffee shop officing to a new level. A shot across the bow of Kinko’s?

2009 Technology Predictions Follow-Up

Here are ten technology predictions I made at the start of 2009 over on Technology Evangelist. Did I get any right?

1. Google Docs will add Mail Merge functionality. This highly requested feature will allow more people to rely primarily on Google Docs for their office software solution. For example, organizations could build mailing lists using the web forms available within Spreadsheets, then merge to labels with Docs.

Hasn’t happened yet. The head of Google’s enterprise division has stated that 2010 will be the year where people can seriously consider dropping Microsoft Office for Google Docs, so I imagine mail merge will be among the “30-50 updates” they make to their service this coming year.

2. The Apple TV will finally be discontinued (I’m sticking with this one for another year.)

I still don’t see the attraction of this product. Apple TV 3.0 came out in November, so it’s still alive at this point.

3. FriendFeed will peak (if it hasn’t already) as people realize some content is best consumed in silos.

Friendfeed.com 2009

I’d call that a peak.

4. Tumblr will double in traffic & users as people catch on to how easy it is to find and share really interesting stuff among friends.

Tumblr.com 2009

Correct. Underestimated.

5. Amazon will release a new Kindle that actually looks and feels cool. Possibly with a multi-touch screen.

The latest releases of the Kindle offer slight improvements in design, but the biggest improvement in look and feel is the release of the Kindle for the iPhone and iPod Touch (my preferred book reading platform these days). The Kindle for the PC reportedly has multi-touch functionality for zooming. I haven’t tried it.

6. A groundbreaking Android phone will be released with awesome technology but underwhelming sales when people fail to understand what “Android” is.

Some groundbreaking Android devices have been released, including the HTC Hero (my phone of choice these days on Sprint) and the Droid on Verizon. The sales have not been underwhelming, which I credit to a sore lack of innovation from Palm and Apple. Yes, I said Apple. They’ve created one style of phone in 2.5 years.

7. A least one suicide will happen at a nursing home that fails to install digital converter boxes on their patient’s TVs in time.

Poor prediction. Too tough to prove.

8. At least one company will suffer from a self-inflicted PR disaster due to something they Twittered on their business account that was meant for their personal account.

Here are some example PR blunders involving Twitter, which are much more mundane than I anticipated. I think mistweets are common enough that it would take a major screw-up to make news at this point.

9. RSS will become an important advertising technology as it is used to feed current offers into banner ads, making banners slightly more useful in 2009 than 2008.

This has certainly gained traction. Sites including Mashable, MinnPost and The Deets are using RSS feeds and twitter syndication to power at least some of the ads on their websites.

10. Mint.com will at least double in traffic and users. They may add widgets that allow consumers to publicly share their budget goals to hold themselves accountable among their friends.

Mint.com 2009

Only up 89% year over year at this point. Only. The free service has saved me hundreds of dollars in the past year. I’m a fan.