Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Everyone, Including Microsoft, Missed About the Courier

Microsoft Courier from aswin indraprastha on Vimeo.

The Microsoft Courier was hinted at and cancelled with most people never noticing. Sadly I don't think even Microsoft knew what they had. To the casual observer it was a tablet prototype, but its true innovation was never about the dual screens, the camera, or the drag and drop environment, it was about the workflow. When I say workflow, I don't mean how you work at work, but how you work with your data.

The Past

For years we have been stuck in a files and folder workflow, where each piece of data is put into a folder, as if there is only one way to think about it. This was fine before all aspects of our lives were converted to data. Our data now is not a series of stand alone events, but a complex fabric of interrelated information that demands a new paradigm (that's right I said it) be entered. A new way of thinking that relates all aspects of our data to one another. The Microsoft Courier was the first attempt at that new way of thinking.

What they missed

In all of the videos demoing the Courier, you see a woman using the Courier for her freelance design job. What’s impressive about the video is how all of those items that she compiles for her project aren’t a series of files stored in a folder, but are items that live in their own space, and are linked to the project and presumably a thousand other projects in the future. Microsoft should have picked a more common scenario for their videos that everyone could relate to. For instance, let’s say you go on vacation and take pictures. You get back home and download your pictures to your computer. In the current file/folder model you have to put them in one place on your hard drive. What folder do you put them in? How do you know who’s in the pictures? What’s the name of the hotel you stayed at in the picture? You can find out this information, but you’ll need to check four or five different programs to do so. In the Courier model, you download the pictures to your computer, you associate those pictures with the events on your calendar, in the calendar events is your complete itinerary of your trip (e.g. who from your contacts list was on the trip, where you stayed, the dates you were there) and now all of that information is linked together and can easily be found from any number of ways. All of these relationships are built using the assets that are already on your computer. You don’t need to create a series of custom tags because they all exist as entries in other programs.

Why it was cancelled

No one knows why the Courier project was canceled. There was a theory that this was impossible to do. There are some crazy bells and whistles shown in the video, but at its heart this is just a relational database. Every blog, forum, Facebook post is just an entry into a relational database, and it's something that computers have been doing easily and for a long time. I’d rather think that it was canceled because they couldn't figure out how to translate the experience to another platform. A big part of the Courier was sharing your projects with other people and fostering an open collaborative process. If the other people are not on the Courier OS what does the experience look like to them? Is it a series of emails about project updates? Is it a Courier desktop emulator that you run on your XP/Linux/OS X desktop?

Hope for the future

This is what Windows mobile should be. I still have no answer for replicating the experience on other platforms, but maybe the shared component is less important in a phone. If you married the Courier OS with strong XBOX 360 integration, you could deliver a defining new experience for phone users. Right now Microsoft needs something bold to get anyone to care about a Microsoft phone.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Your Hard Drive Will CRASH!

It's not a matter of if but a matter of when. So what can you do. To avoid data loss from a hard disk crash I'm personally endorsing Carbonite. It's a great system that automatically backs up your files over the internet to your own secure location. What I like about carbonite over other services is: unlimited space, clear indication about what is backed up and what isn't, it's all automatic. The big negative to the service is how to restore your data after a crash. I advise, after you get your machine up and running again, call their service department and they'll walk you through getting your files back. Don't try it on your own.

I know most people are thinking, “I'm not gonna pay $55/year per computer, I'll just spend $80 on a USB hard drive and that'll be fine.” USB hard drives have the same problems that the hard drive in your computer has. They crash. USB drives are especially problematic because they are frequently moved around, increasing the chance for failure. A service like carbonite has the added bonus of being automatic and out of your house. If anything happens to your house or to that USB drive all your data is gone. Your income taxes that you filed electronically, your photos, all your documents that you never got around to putting on google docs, gone. If you really want to have a home solution I would recommend a Network Attached Storage unit.

NAS are very simple file servers. I prefer the one made by QNAP because it can also work as a web server, ftp server and media server. NAS are great because they attach to your home network, you leave them on all the time, you never need to move it from computer to computer, and any computer in your house can get to it, including your networked XBOX or PlayStation 3. If you plan to back up your files to a NAS make sure you get one that has at least two hard drives in it that are mirrored in a RAID 1 configuration for two drives, or a RAID 5 configuration if you have four or more drives. I realize all these terms sound scary, but the great thing about the QNAP is it's very easy to setup.

None of these options are as cheap or as fast as the portable USB hard drive, but they are vastly more reliable, and definitely cheaper than a data recovery service. What you really need to ask yourself is, “How much is my data worth to me?”

I'll be posting every now and then to remind you to back up your data. Here's to safe computing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


The good news is any new laptop you buy these days will be fast enough and have enough room for RAM to do email, web, and Word. The bad news is there’s many new things to consider before buying a laptop.

Even though a 17” screen is preferable to watch a movie on, whether it’s trains or planes, no seat back is far enough away to allow you to open your 17” laptop comfortably.*

You’ll have to dig through the stats to find it, but when “weighing” the options on which laptop to buy, weight is just as important as any criterium if you’re planning on commuting with your computer.**

Video Out
If you envision yourself hooking your laptop up to your TV or external monitor, make sure to get one with a digital video out. This will limit your laptop choice dramatically, as most manufacturers still don’t offer this, but the difference is very noticeable.

DVD burner?
With the advent of YouTube the need for this has decreased, but you may consider it if you need to share large amounts of data with friends.

Used? Refurbished?
I’ve never tried the refurbished route, but I would never buy a used laptop. You don’t really know what kind of abuse the laptop has suffered, and any repair needed to the body or the screen will be very expensive.

I am currently writing this on my 10” netbook running the Ubuntu flavor of Linux. Coming in at just over $220 it’s a great travel laptop. I got mine running Linux because it starts up faster, it came pre-installed with Open Office and a web browser, and Linux is free. If you want to pay more you can get the same model running Windows.

The Bottom Line
Figure out what you need and don’t pay more for things you don’t. Always buy trusted brand names. Shop around. There are a bunch of deal sights out there that are always offering coupons and deals on products, like this one : Deal News

* I’m sure this isn’t true if you’re sitting in first class, but this website is for the average computer uer.
**Pun intended.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Confusions of Speed

I hear a lot of people saying, "My computer's running slow I think it's time to upgrade." But the real question is, "Why is your computer running slow." Many people are blinded by the numbers that computer manufacturers' release in regard to processor speed, and think that a faster processor will solve their problems.

Unless you're part of the rare few who are rendering out video or 3D Animations a faster processor won't help you, because most of the time the slow downs come from times the computer is accessing the disk drive. Most computers have some kind of indicator that lets you know when the disk drive is being accessed. During times of slow down take a look at that light and see if it's blinking. If it is, it's hard drive access that's slowing you down and not processor speed.

Why is your hard drive slowing you down? Your hard drive is accessed every time a new application is launched, file is open or saved, or virus scan is running. The reality is, there could be a lot of reasons why your computer is accessing your hard drive. The good news is, spending a ton of dough on a new computer won't help you. The best thing you can do is look for patterns. Does this happen the same time every day? Does it only happen when certain programs are running? This could all lead to auto saves or virus scans slowing you down.

The lesson here is, don't spend your hard earned cash on a faster processor when the real culprit is your hard drive.