Why I still don’t use Apple Products…

… and, if you care about innovation, you shouldn’t either.

Just over two years ago, I wrote an entry for BerkeleyLUG in which I tried to explain to the sometimes baffled people in my life why I so strongly oppose Apple – http://goo.gl/xhc5. While the ultra-closed nature of their devices (see the above article for a small subset of examples illustrating Apple’s closed nature) is a major reason why I don’t personally use Apple products, it was their recent (at the time) litigation against competing open-source products that really got my goat.

I am writing today, with great sadness, because matters have only gotten worse. In the United States alone, in the past few months, Apple has taken advantage of the broken patent system to ban multiple competing products from consumers’ hands:

Apple succeeded in blocking all HTC Android devices from entering the country, forcing HTC to remove common features from its phones and now continues to pursue further litigation against the modified devices – http://goo.gl/j6zrR. In this case, Apple is using a dubious patent that gives them the sole right to detect text strings like phone numbers in documents and to allow users to press on them to perform actions.

Apple has succeeded in getting an injunction against the Samsung Galaxy Tab because they have apparently patented the rectangle with curved edges despite the obviously large amounts of prior art. http://goo.gl/sqRD5

Most disturbingly, in the last week, Apple has succeeded in banning a stock Android device, the Galaxy Nexus, for basic functionality in the Android OS itself. The particular patent in question gives Apple the sole right to perform searches across multiple sources and to show the results in one interface. That is right, according to the patent, Apple is the only company in the world allowed to perform basic search. http://goo.gl/YuWHZ

I started BerkeleyLUG three years ago because I believe in the ability of technology to revolutionize the world. More specifically, I believe that open access to technology breeds future innovation and that this innovation literally defines us as a culture. As evidence, I believe the success of the most important innovation of our time, the open internet, is a direct result of the availability of the open-source standards such as html/javascript and open platforms like Linux, Apache, MySQL and other open projects.

The broken patent system and companies like Apple who abuse it are destroying our chances for creating the next great thing in tech on open platforms and standards. Instead, what we have to look forward to is a future of computing where one company controls the hardware, the platform and the communication protocols to network between devices. This is the future we will have if Apple is allowed to eliminate competition. They control the hardware and the platform already. Additionally, Apple has complete and arbitrary control over which applications can run on their platform (something unheard of in a computer OS). Not only that, they control the content you can sell on their devices by effectively preventing sales that compete with their own content from being sold (e.g. you can’t buy a Kindle ebook in the Kindle app on your iOS device – http://goo.gl/bC4GQ). They have even limited the platforms by which you can access the open-web on iOS – e.g you can’t use html/javascript rendering engines other than Apple’s own. Third party browsers (like chrome) on iOS are forced into simply wrapping a different UI on top of the one and only browser that Apple provides.

This is a sad state of affairs. But, I, for one, am not done fighting. Which is why I ask all of you reading this to join me and the EFF in fighting patent trolls like Apple by fixing the broken patent system. Please start by signing your name to the EFF’s effort defendinnovation.org.

And, for our future’s sake, don’t buy Apple products…

(edited to fix typos that shame me)

Ubuntu Installfest for Local Schools this Weekend

Reminder: Find us on Google+

This Saturday from 10:30 to 3:00, there will be a triagefest at the Creative Arts Charter School at 1601 Turk Street at the corner of Pierce Street in San Francisco. This is the school that had that huge fire on 12/22/11.  More about that fire here:


The purpose of this triage fest is to separate good equipment from bad equipment.  Volunteers with a pick-up truck for moving equipment 3 blocks would be particularly appreciated.  Pizza will be served at 12:30 p.m.

Please bring with you everything that you would need to test a computer and its peripheral equipment, and to take a computer apart and put it back together.  It would also be good to bring Ubuntu 10.04 on a flash drive, since we will be installing that distro on some machines.

This public charter school relies on our Linux computers heavily for the work that their students do, so they will definitely appreciate the work!  Thanks in advance to all volunteers!

GoogleTV Reviewed

A couple of weeks ago, the price of the Logitech Revue with GoogleTV dropped to $99 – http://goo.gl/n5Hvw. This was finally low enough for me to grab one, give it a try and see how it compares to or complements my home-built MythTV/Boxee machine. I have also played around with the Boxee Box in the past, which currently costs around $200.

It is anticipated that the Revue will get an update to Android 3.1 (with the Android market included) in a couple weeks – leaked versions are already floating around out there, and developers can already play around with the new firmware in the Android SDK (I have tested my apps already, and they pretty much worked and looked great without any need for modification). However, my initial review of the product will be with the current version of the firmware and not the leaked version. As this update is bound to vastly improve the usefulness of the device, I will probably have to update this review when I have access to it.

First off, I am a pretty big fan of Android; so, I like the idea that GoogleTV is based on the same platform as my phone and tablet. It feels very familar. For example, you can press and hold the home button to get a list of currently active tasks (and yes, your TV can now multi-task!). Additionally, the settings look familiar and the feel of the interface just generally screams “Android.”

The device is pretty responsive while navigating and one of the biggest surprises I found while using the device is how much I love the bluetooth keyboard remote that comes default with the unit (see the images on the Amazon page linked above). I was skeptical of its size at first; but, I now must admit that it is by far the best home-theater remote I have ever used. On my home-built MythTV box, I have an infrared remote (similar to http://goo.gl/eLdLa) and a compact bluetooth remote keyboard (http://goo.gl/0yJp5). They both pale in comparison to the Revue remote. The IR remote can only control the mouse through lircmd daemon (which is a pain to setup and leaves a lot to be desired in usability), and the compact keyboard/mouse combo has a pretty poor button layout for navigation. The Revue remote just feels light, well laid out and very efficient to navigate around with.

The biggest dissapoint with GoogleTV is the relatively small number of native apps available compared to Boxee for example.  It comes with approximately 10 with no way to get new native apps. This is about to change in a very big way with the release of the Android Market to the device. The Amazon Video app itself is also pretty disappointing in that it is basically just a link to the Amazon VOD webpage that has not really been optimized for the device. On the other hand, the Netflix app is great and the web-browser and search apps are really really well done. Browsing the web on the device is a really great experience. It is surprisingly easy to navigate and to discover new content.

What is not said enough about GoogleTV, though, is that while there are only a handful of native Android apps available (again, at least until the Market is released), there are practically already a limitless number of html5 optimized web-apps for GoogleTV. These apps, which run in the Revue browser, often look and feel just like native apps. What is particularly nice about these apps, is that, though they are often designed with GoogleTV in my mind, because they utilize html5 or flash and live in the browser, they can also be used on Boxee or on your desktop/laptop with the keyboard. Here try a few of them out for yourself: http://www.google.com/tv/spotlight-gallery.html – (Crackle, Clicker and KQED are some of my favorites). Notably missing is a Hulu app.  This is missing not for any technical reason, but because Hulu has chosen to block their content on GoogleTV. This is a bummer for sure; but there is still a ton of content available.

Another disappointment in the Revue is the Logitech media player app. This app advertises itself as being able to view and play media from shared drives (such as samba shares) on your network. The problem is, it only recognizes about 20% of my content, none of my mkv files are recognized for example, and displays the files it does find in a random order with no setting to sort alphabetically. Secondly, the app doesn’t do any kind of curation: It doesn’t look for movie descriptions etc., and requires you to step through a series of menus where you choose individual shared drives each time you launch the app. I am sure that once the Market arrives on GoogleTV someone will have an awesome replacement app in a matter days, but for now, organizing the media on your network using the Revue is a total fail. This is probably the main area where Boxee really outshines GoogleTV.

So, all in all, the Revue is a great little device with a lot of potential once the Android Market comes to it. In it’s current state it is worth $99 but not much more – but the value is poised to go up once Honeycomb drops.

My Favorite Lesser Known Android Apps

The guy sitting next to me on the plane home from Florida was a Droid Incredible user; while we were sharing app recommendations, I realized I had a few recommendations of lesser known apps that really rock that I should share with people.  Everyone knows about Angry Birds, Google Sky Map and ShopSavy … but here are a few hidden gems:

1.  ChromeMarks – If you are like me, you use Chrome on your Linux (or other) desktop.  One of the great features of Chrome is the built-in bookmark sync.  Unfortunately, the built-in Android browser does get in on this syncing action.  This is where ChromeMarks come in; it syncs your Chrome bookmarks to your Android phone.

2. aTrackDog – I like to download, install and try out a lot of apps.  I then tend to uninstall a lot of apps.  aTrackDog lets you track new updates of apps, even after you have uninstalled; so, you don’t miss a big improvement in an app that you previously uninstalled.

3. OS-Monitor – It is basically like running “top” on your phone.  You can see all the processes using cpu at any given time.  Isn’t it awesome how much info about your phone is available on Android?

4. Wikipathia – A fun game of degrees of similarity relating terms on Wikipathia.

Add your own lesser known apps in the comments.

Android and App Development

I love Android. It is flexible, feature rich and becoming more polished every day. Development is happening at a breakneck pace. It uses Linux at its core and is mostly* open-source. The asterisk is because certain elements of a typical Android install are closed, like Google’s gmail and market apps (which both have OSS alternatives) as well as some manufacturer radio integration and device drivers. There are some people in the OSS community (the same people that would be angry at me for neglecting the “FL”) that deplore the fact that there are any closed elements in Android at all; to them, I say, “keep fighting the good fight, but I’m going to use and support the best option that is currently available.” Other people (for example the author of this ill-written post that made the front page of digg http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/60849), will claim it is not open-source because Google ultimately chooses which patches from the community get accepted or not. However, as AOSP developer Jean Baptiste Queru has said, this hasn’t prevented significant opensource contributions to Android 2.x. Open-source does not mean open-decision making (just ask Mark Shuttleworth); so, these accusations are just silly, and, concluding that there is little difference between the iPhoneOS and Android is absurd.

Anyway, I think, ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. If you need proof of Android’s open nature, I point you to the fact that it is popping up in all sorts of devices without Google’s name on them: Archos tablets with their own Market, the Barnes-and-Noble Nook and AT&T phones that replace Google’s services everywhere with Yahoo. This is the real value in Android’s openness – the ability of manufacturers to use it for whatever purpose they want. And, the source code being available sure doesn’t hurt Cyanogen’s ability to make amazing ROMs for the Android phones that many of us own and love – anyone with a G1 want 2.1 on their phone?

Android also happens to have the most open software-store in the mobile world (not to mention the fact that you can install software on your Android phone from any source outside the Market whatsoever). Which leads me to the other point of this post: I have written a couple Android apps and released the source. As a developer, I didn’t have to pay an large amount of cash for the SDK or sign the ludicrous developer agreement that Apple requires for their devices (including restricting the tools you can use to write your app and limiting who you can give it to and by what means). For Android, all I had to do was download the free SDK, try out a few example apps, and off I was (granted, the second app ended up being pretty involved). So, without further ado, here are the two apps I made:

1.SquirrelCam (Available now in the Market). The ledge off my office is home to a squirrel nest every spring. We set up a webcam that utilizes the Linux OSS project web-cam server to set up a live webcam stream. The only problem? It doesn’t work in any mobile browsers (and it wouldn’t be a very nice experience even if it did). So, I wrote a android app to connect to the stream, show live video and allow the user to save frames to his/her sdcard.

HomePage: http://www.jdeslippe.com/SquirrelCam/
Source/APK: https://launchpad.net/squirrelcam

2.EMusicDownloader (Coming to the market soon.  For now, grab the apk file from launchpad). eMusic.com is an awesome DRM free music and audiobook store (I think they are the only DRM free audiobook store actually). To downloads albums and audiobooks from the site, however, you need a download manager – there are a couple open-source options for a Linux desktop. EmusicDownloader for android serves this purpose on Android phones. Allowing users to browse eMusic.com on the Android browser and then download their purchases directly to their phone using the app.  And, because the files are DRM free, you can copy them to your PC at your convenience.

HomePage: http://www.jdeslippe.com/EMusicDownloader
Source/APK: http://launchpad.net/emusicdownloader

To conclude this Android lovefest, here is a list of some of my other favorite Android apps (not developed by me) for you to try out:

Shoot U! – A super fun game by Camel Games, my favorite Android game developers.

Dropbox – If you use it on your Ubuntu machine, you’ll love the Android app.

Astrid – Open-source todo list that syncs with remember the milk = awesome

AmblingBookplayer – Awesome audiobook player/downloader for Android.

GoogleVoice – If you don’t know what GoogleVoice is… go check it out now!

Google SkyMap – Best augmented reality app ever.

WordPress – Manage wordpress sites on the go.

WordUp! – Fun word finding game.

Listen – Awesome podcast fetching app.

Boxee Remote – Control your Boxee box with your phone.

OI-Filemanager – open-source file manager

Qik/Ustream – Stream live video from your phone

Picsay – Edit photos and add amazing effects right on your phone.

Fring – Make Skype calls over 3G.

– Control your phone’s behavior based on all sorts of criteria.

Shazam – Everyone knows what this one is right?

ShopSavvy – Scan barcodes to get web/local prices and reviews.

+Many more.  Come to this weeks BerkeleyLUG meeting on Sunday to see the full list.