At Long Last: The Convergence of Phones and PCs

I remember a few years ago when we were selecting new telephones for my office. A few of us got to test out some of the possilibities and we later talked about the pros and cons of each.

I made the point over and over again (as I know I am prone to do, but at least I’m consistent) that I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more convergence between the PC and the good old phone. Specifically, I was amazed then, and I am still amazed now, at the lack of communication between PCs and phones, particularly in the corporate environment. If you’d told me back in the eighties that in 2006 there would not be an easy and widely used way to click on a name in your Outlook contacts and have your phone dial that person’s number, I would have laughed in your face. Yet, if anything it’s gotten worse over the years. One click dialing actually worked back in the dial up with your slow modem days. If I were creating the tech universe, once click address book dialing would have been the next thing I did after word processing and email.

But is hasn’t happened. And the inroads that have been made are much better suited for you home telephone than your office one. There’s still not easy way to get your office PC to talk to your office phone.

Sure, I have a Skype account at home and I know we could use some fancy VOIP phones at work that integrate, at least somewhat, with your PC. In fact, I tested a Cisco VOIP phone for almost a year. It was fine for me, as someone who is very tech savvy. But it would have been a disaster to roll them out to thousands of people who aren’t. Not to mention very expensive.

So we continue to plug along tethered to our regular old phones, which sit beside but never speak to our PCs.

But things are finally starting to change.

Jajah, for example, allows you to make phone to phone calls from their website. Just add your number to the first blank, the number you want to call to the second one and click “Call.” Your phone will ring, the other person’s phone will ring and, presto, you’re talking. It is easy and it works. Even better, there is an Outlook plugin that promises one click dialing from within Outlook- including both contacts and phone numbers that appear in the email you’re reading. The plugin would not install correctly in my exchange-driven office computer, but it is still in beta, so whatever problem I experienced may be fixed before the plugin is finalized. I will contact Jajah and see if I can get a fix on the issue.

Another startup, Hullo, provides similar services. Plus it lets you talk either via your regular phone or over the internet via VOIP. Plus, you can also add others to the call, creating easy conference calls. You can even switch between your regular phone and VOIP during a call.

Pinger, which I just read about today, takes things one step further. It allows you to store a special number in your mobile phone’s speed dial. You press the button for that number and, via voice prompts, you can access a person’s information from your phone’s address book and send that person an audio message, either to his email account or via SMS. Handy for when you need to leave a quick message, but don’t have time to talk. It’s in invitation-only beta right now but it looks very promising.

The big winner will be the company that combines most or all of these features in a cross-platform application that can be used in with corporate phone systems.

We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m excited about the possibility that my PC and my phone might soon be on speaking terms.

Dave Digging Crack for Our Berries

crackberryDave Winer has begun using a Blackberry, which is a good thing for the rest of us, because he will drag applications out of developers and, if all else fails, write them himself.

The format of the New York Times’ Newsriver that Dave writes about is exactly the way mobile content ought to be pushed- though I’d like to see it updated more frequently. There’s nothing to set up, no registration, just quick and easy like mobile content ought to be. Hey Dwight, how about something like this for the Chronicle?

I have used a Blackberry (or Crackberry, as they are often referred to) for years, recently having the good fortune to lose my old one, which required that I buy a new one. That post contains my mostly positive thoughts about my Blackberry- including the best feature. The model I have lets me connect my laptop to Verizon’s wireless broadband network.

It works great in Bandera, where Verizon can hear me now, but not so well in Concan, where it cannot. The best use of course is in airports and hotels in order to avoid high daily connection rates.

Here are some things I really want for my Blackberry. Hey Dave, can you help a brother out?

1) I want a media player that is easy to install and works. I pay for Verizon’s broadband service, so I want to be able to use it. Any of the features on the Sprint phone that Dave and I both got for free would be a good start. The Sirius Radio capability alone is enough to love that phone.

2) I want an application on my Blackberry that will let me listen to my office voice mail via email, the way I do at the office. For years my voice mail has been delivered to my email inbox, where I listen to it via the possibly abandoned Lucent Voice Player. It sounds silly if you’ve never tried it, but once you get used to getting clickable voice mail via email, you’ll never go back.

3) I want some reasonably priced GPS functionality. My Blackberry has GPS, but as far as I can tell only for 911 calls, etc.

4) And of course, I want to have Blackberry network capability in a Treo, but that’s a gift for another Christmas I suppose.

The biggest impediment to writing killer Blackberry apps, in my opinion, is the lack of a flash memory drive. With all that extra, swappable, memory, it would be a breeze to expand the Blackberry’s relatively meager media offerings.

Hopefully Dave will figure out a way to get us there anyway.

How Zune Can Win the iPod War

zuneMicrosoft has confirmed what we already knew: that it is going to take its shot at knocking the iPod off the portable music player throne. TechCrunch has a story about it, in which Marshall Kirkpatrick sums up what I and others said a couple of weeks ago when the Zune rumor first hit the blogosphere:

“It’s an ambitious project that some critics are already saying goes too far outside Microsoft’s core strengths and could end up joining other media projects on the junk heap of tech history.”

Trying to pick up where Scoble left off, Microsoft’s Cesar Menendez is blogging about Zune at the aptly named Zune Insider blog.

I don’t own an iPod, and I would love to see someone provide a successful alternative to the proprietary iPod/iTunes semi-monopoly. I’m just not convinced Microsoft is ready to take on the musical equivalent of trying to convince Coke drinkers to switch to some new cola.

But here’s my roadmap for how to do it, in case Cesar and the rest of the Zune crew are serious about it.

First, embrace the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and go cut a deal with Yahoo to embrace Zune as a part of its looming war with iTunes. France and America don’t like each other either, but they unite every 50 years or so in the face of a common enemy. If you have to, make Yahoo a partner in this venture. Otherwise, I can’t envision a way to unseat iPods to any significant degree.

Second, make the players work with as many formats as possible- do not try to force people to formats they don’t want to use. Windows media may or may not be a better format, but millions of people have millions of MP3s that they are not going to convert to another format just to use Zune. Couch yourself as the open standards player. Play the proprietary technology card when talking about iPods.

Third, be thoughtful about DRM implementation. DRM will be necessary to get the music providers to play ball. But don’t forget the horde of people, including me, who have never and will never buy a DRM infested song. We want the ability to move our music to and from our players without any DRM-related hassle. DRM should be invisible to us.

Fourth, be wary of feature overload. Don’t try to make the Zune all things to all people. Make it a quality, reliable and intuitive music player. Period.

And finally, market the player as aggressively as you market the new versions of Windows. You don’t need to hire the Stones again, but go hire a bunch of new artists to do commercials for Zune. Come up with a slogan- maybe “Set Your Music Free,” and use it over and over and over, until people associate a positive shift in music management with Zune.

There you go, Microsoft.

Have at it. We’re all watching.

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Will Zune Stumble and Fall Like Origami?

zuneWord about Microsoft’s upcoming media player continues to crawl around the blogosphere, with Engadget reporting today that the device, currently dubbed Zune, will support wireless song transfers. I’m sure that will either require a potload of DRM or invoke the wrath of the priority-challenged RIAA.

Anyway, Gizmodo reports that the Zune device is the flagship product of a new line of portable devices. Everybody seems to have a plan to dethrone the iPod. Here is Microsoft’s:

“Microsoft’s concentrating on features the iPod doesn’t have, instead of trying to beat Apple at their own game. The tipmeister reiterates that ad-hoc networking feature will be there, as well as a possible buffered internet radio streaming feature. If you’re within range of a WiFi signal and you’re listening to a station, the device will snatch as much of the feed as it can so when you wander out of WiFi signal, it’ll keep playing the stream as if you were in range. This might not make its way into the final product, so don’t get your hopes up too high.”

I’m guessing once the RIAA gets wind of this most excellent and logical feature, it will let slip the lawyers of war and yet another great idea will be canned in the name of preserving a dying business model.

What I am more interested in, however, is Microsoft’s marketing, or lack thereof, with respect to new products. Microsoft doesn’t seem to know how to manage a proper build up to release- particularly with hardware.

Recall the great buzz that was generated prior to the release of Origami, now renamed a buzz-killing UMPC. I wondered at the time whether Microsoft would walk the walk or toss the product out there and let it twist in the wind.

Well, I have read many reviews of UMPCs, and most of them have been negative. My blogging pal James Kendrick believes the bad reviews are a result of a misunderstanding of the UMPC’s purpose and features. While I have never held a UMPC, I tend to agree with James (I would love to have a UMPC to read news, etc. around the house and on trips). But in the face of a lot of negative press, Microsoft seems to have moved on to phones and iPod killers, etc.

Robert Scoble used to try as hard as he could to manage the build-up to release of new products. But Robert has left Microsoft and there’s no one left with the mindshare to try to point bloggers, and the three non-bloggers who read blogs, in the right direction. Sometimes, how people feel about something depends more on their expectations than the actual thing itself. Einstein, relativity and all that.

Get enough press, real and citizen, to understand a product and write about it from a place of understanding and you’ll go a long way towards ensuring a successful release. Let people speculate wildly, toss something out and forget about it and you’ve ensured the opposite.

Someone needs to step up for Microsoft and help inform, direct and manage expectations.

Otherwise, I predict another stumble out of the gate for Zune.

What’s Old is New: Microsoft Phones

According to the New York Times, Microsoft has plans to change the telecommunications world the way it changed the computing world in the 1980’s. And, I suppose, the way it tried and failed to change the telecommunications world the last time it made a newer, better phone- back in the nineties.

The trick seems to be that this time, instead of just linking your phone and your computer, Microsoft is going to link your phone, your computer AND your cell phone.

Wow.

John Markoff wrote the very thought that came to mind when I saw the headline:

“Microsoft’s challenge is to convince corporate clients that they need to adopt a growing suite of the company’s desktop and server-based software at a time when inexpensive and modular Web services are becoming increasingly popular.”

It’s not only that they are cheap, it’s that most companies already have newish phones and big companies don’t like to change their phone systems because they have to buy and install new equipment and, perhaps more importantly, retrain all of the end users.

The idea of putting another Microsoft (phone, this time) on every desktop will require people who are not risk takers to overcome their risk aversion. This is something that Scoble and I talked about earlier this year, and it is as big a hurdle as ever to making inroads into corporate IT departments.

Microsoft is touting the fact that their system will allow email to be read by the telephone. Why? Everyone and their cat have Blackberries, etc. and can get their mail anywhere. It’s better to go the other way and have voicemail delivered via email- which I have been doing for many years via my firm’s existing telephone system.

Not that there isn’t room for vast improvement in office telecommunications.

Am I the only person who can’t believe that in 2006 we still can’t dial an office phone from within Outlook by clicking a button? That fact blows my mind almost as much as the fact that Hillary Clinton might be our next President.

Give me dialing from Outlook. Not all the other bells and whistles that no one will use.

Alec Saunders talks about Microsoft’s 10-year plan for phones. Is it a 10-year plan or an every 10 year plan? What’s different about this decade that gives Microsoft a better chance of success. Going for the corporate user? Maybe, but that seems like a tougher sell to me than the phone-hungry consumer browsing Circuit City.

As a gadget hound, I am intrigued by the prospect of a nifty new Microsoft phone. The chances of our IT department ever putting one on my desk, however, is between slim and none.

And slim just left the building.

Top 100 Best Products of the Year

I love lists and PC World keeps bringing them. The latest is their list of the 100 Best Products of the Year.

Here are some notes for each grouping of 10.

1-10

Lots of dual core chips, which I haven’t used. Craigslist, the newspaper killer, is a well deserved number 3. Google Earth seems a little high at 6. Mine and Doc‘s new camera comes in at number 8. YouTube is 9, which sounds about right.

11-20

Photoshop Elements
is too high at 11. Give me a program that edits like Paint Shop Pro and organizes like ACDSee 8 and I’ll be so happy. Firefox is 12, but that seems too low. Google is 17.

21-30

Photoshop CS2 is number 22, proving that somebody at PC World has the Adobe love and a fat wallet. The new Yahoo mail (still in beta) is about right at 30.

31-40

TIVO, my dying on the vine favorite, is 31, which would have been too low two years ago and is too high today. Blogger gets some AOL-like bring the masses to the party love at 33. The Thinkpad X60 (I like the tablet model) is also about right at 37.

41-50

Opera, which is the new Firefox, is number 48. Vonage, which is to IPOs as Brittany Spears is to parenting, rolls in at a generous 50.

51-60

Scads of devoted fans will rejoice at seeing StumbleUpon at 51.

61-70

Rhapsody, which would be fine if not owned by Real Networks comes in at a DRM infested, must telephone to cancel, never again for me number 69. I know zip about any of the others in this group.

71-80

Flickr comes in at a far, far too low 78. It should be way higher. Likewise, Nero should be teens higher than 79.

81-90

Other than the Xbox, which I’ve never used, and EvDO, which I use all the time, I haven’t heard of anything in this group.

91-100

Del.icio.us squeaks in at 93. Because most people have never heard of it, that’s probably about right. If the list was blogosphere-oriented, it would be in the top 10 for sure. WordPress (95), Greasemonkey (98) and FeedDemon (99) demonstrate a desire to appease the tech savvy with some toss-ins at the end.

Outside Looking In

Where is Digg, Techmeme and Technorati? For that matter, where’s MySpace?

No Treos, no blackberry devices?

No Feedburner or Odeo or Audacity? No Skype?

PC World’s Worst Tech Products of All Time

PC World has an article ranking the worst tech products of all time.

Here are my thoughts about the ones I used.

15. Iomega Zip Drive

My intense dislike for zip drives has been well documented. 15 is too low. I’d rank zip drives a strong number 2.

13. IBM PCjr

I didn’t have a PCjr, but I had one of its many clones. I used that computer from 1986 to 1990 and it served me well.

12. Pointcast

I actually think the Pointcast screensaver back then was better than anything similar we have today. It was push technology a little before its time.

4. Windows ME

I thought ME was pretty awful as an upgrade, but I didn’t have the massive problems with it that others experienced.

5. Sony BMG Music CDs

Sony did a stupid thing and got rightly trashed for it.

2. RealNetworks RealPlayer

This is my least favorite software of all time. 2 is too low- it should be number one by a mile. Bloatware that is hard to get rid of. It’s better to never install it.

1. AOL

This is a choice engineered to gain approval by the technical elite. AOL has lots of problems, but it has also helped bring millions upon millions of people to the internet. AOL is the bunny slope of the internet ski mountain. I don’t use it, but I recognize its value, particularly historically, to lots of people.