Everything there is to know about texting from the desktop (and why it’s so much easier on iOS than Android)

pc_messaging_640It’s happened to all of us. While sitting in front of our ultra-powerful, multi-thousand-dollar laptops, we’ve reached for our phones to send or read a text.

Think about that for a second: instead of applying the veritable supercomputers in front of us to the task of transmitting a few bits-worth of emoji — machines, incidentally, with obscene connectivity, full keyboards, mice/trackpads, and excellent spell checking — we’ve opted instead to pick up a phone, biometrically unlock it, open a messaging app, and risk autocorrect humiliation while laboriously tapping out a dispatch with less efficiency than a nineteenth-century telegraph operator. Then: lock phone, set down, complete approximately twenty additional seconds of work, and repeat.

For some of us desktop texters, such onerous workflows are a thing of the past — anecdotes to be passed down to our children and grandchildren in futile attempts to make them appreciate the extravagance of modern life. But for others, the loathsome cycle is seemingly unbreakable.

If you bask in the privilege of texting from both your desktop and your phone interchangeably, chances are you are an iOS and Mac user who has discovered the brilliance of Apple’s Continuity. Or you’ve allowed yourself to be subjugated by a more closed and proprietary messaging platform like Facebook Messenger. A few of you might even be Android users who cling to the false hope of Google Voice, or who have sworn lifelong allegiance to Nexus devices for the privilege of testing Project Fi.

What follows are all the ways I know of to text from both your desktop and your phone, along with the pros and cons of each approach. If you are already intimately familiar with the problem and you’re just here for a solution, skip ahead to the “Apple Messages” section and go from there. But if terms like “text” and “iMessage” sound to you like distinctions without differences, you might want to start with the glossary below.

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The 2015 Moto G: Why the “worst” smartphone I own is also the best

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As I write this, I am surrounded by phones. I could justify it by saying that I’m a software developer, or a science fiction author, or some of them are from work, but the reality is that I have a phone fetish. I switch between iOS and Android devices on a regular basis purely for the novelty of it, and as part of an ongoing experiment to see if and how the most recent mobile innovations fit into my life. With several phones charged up, configured, and ready to use at any given time, I find it endlessly fascinating to see which one I’m compelled to reach for every day, and which end up neglected or sold.

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Logitech MX Master Review

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Despite multi-touch screens, voice interaction, and science fiction’s promise of gestural operating environments, the primary ways we interact with computers are still through the firmly established keyboard and mouse. I’ve tested dozens of keyboards to finally find a couple I can claim to truly love, but the same level of passion has always eluded me when it came to mice. So when Logitech boldly proclaimed that they revolutionized the nearly fifty-year-old peripheral with the MX Master, I was in.

Let’s start with some highlights:

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A Watch Enthusiast’s Review of the Samsung Gear Live with Android Wear

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Update (12/10/2014): I’ve tried several more Android Wear devices, and both the hardware and the software is getting better. Android Wear has fixed some of the issues I complain about below, and the LG G Watch R and Sony Smartwatch 3 are actually pretty decent devices. (Most people like the Moto 360, but I think a round display should really be round.) All smart watches are still a very long way from being actual watches (as opposed to devices strapped to your wrist), but I’m glad to see how quickly the industry is iterating.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen of the new Android Wear smartwatches have been from device early adopters as opposed to true watch enthusiasts, so I figured I’d provide the perspective of someone who is decidedly both. I’ve always been a gadget fanatic (I keep the latest iPhone and best Android devices on me at all times—as of today, that’s the 5s and the HTC One M8), and as the founder of Watch Report (which I started in 2005, and finally sold last year), I’ve owned and/or reviewed hundreds of watches from Casio to Rolex. Additionally, over the years, I’ve kept a very close eye on the category of smartwatches from MSN Spot watches like the Tissot Hight-T (the best of its long-extinct class), to the Abacus Wrist PDA (never remotely practical, but undeniably fun), to more modern interpretations like the Pebble.

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Another Attempt at Tablets

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I’ve owned a lot of tablets. I’ve had iPads and Android devices, tablets with seven and ten inch screens, and devices with WiFi and LTE radios. I’ve probably had at least a dozen different tablets spanning almost every possible configuration, but there’s one thing all of them had in common: none of them were able to hold my interest.

No matter how hard I try—and how much I love the idea of tablets—I just don’t have any use for them. I put up with the limitations of my phone because it’s always with me and always connected, and I put up with the bulk of my laptop because it’s powerful enough for just about everything I need a computer to do. But tablets, for me, sit in this awkward space in-between where they’re too limited to be all that useful (at least for the things I do most often) and too big to be easily portable.

Refusing to give up, however, I’ve developed a new theory: maybe I’m simply not using tablets correctly. If I find them too big to replace my phone, that means I’m not trying to use them for anything beyond what my phone can already do. And if I find them too limited to replace my laptop, that means I’m trying to do things that are better left to a fully capable computer. Perhaps what I should be doing are only those things that a tablet can do better than any other device.

To test my theory, I bought a brand new iPad Air, but rather than resorting it with an image from one of my many former iPads, I’m only going to install apps that are better on tablets than on any other device. That means no email, no calendar, no office applications, and no social networking. No Evernote, no weather apps, no navigation, and no restaurant finders. Basically, anything that I can do more conveniently on my phone or more fluidly on my laptop, I simply won’t even attempt on my new tablet.

In an attempt to make my iPad more useful, I’m going to intentionally limit it.

Admittedly, this approach probably won’t leave as many applications as I’d like. Even four years after the launch of the iPad, I think we’re still a long ways away from really figuring out and implementing the best multi-touch surface experiences. But I’ll start with apps for drawing, watching video, and reading (books, magazines, and news), and maybe a game or two. Maybe I’ll try Garage Band, or another music synthesis application. I’ll probably give a lot of different apps a try, but the moment I start feeling more frustrated by the limitations of the device than empowered by its unique capabilities, I’ll uninstall it and move on.

Let me know if you have ideas for apps I should try. It should be very interesting to see, after a month or two, which are left.

Create Your Own Private Phone Line Free of NSA Wiretaps

personal_phone_lineThe other day, my good friend Mike Chambers mentioned that he was planning on building a closed-circuit phone system as a toy for his kids. Since my kids already think his pancakes and popcorn are better than mine, I decided to beat him to it. It turns out that creating a simple closed-circuit system is extremely easy, and can be done for just a few dollars in parts (especially if you already have a couple old disused phones lying around).

As I was wiring the whole thing up, it occurred to me that building your own private phone line would be an effective (if slightly inelegant) way to ensure that your point-to-point electronic voice communication wasn’t being intercepted by the NSA. You’d probably want something more robust than a few 9 volt batteries, a resistor, and some electrical tape, but it wouldn’t take much more work or money to build something fairly serviceable for a small number of endpoints in relatively close geographic proximity.

I’m certainly not one to advocate using a system like this to break the law, but I am a proponent of civil liberties, and I do feel strongly that citizens of all nations have a right to communicate freely without being spied on by their own governments. The gradual erosion of American civil liberties is a major theme of my new novel Kingmaker which has recently become much more realistic than even I anticipated.

Review of Google Glass

wearing_google_glassThere are plenty of reviews and op-eds out there on Google Glass by now — even plenty from people who have never even worn them — so I’ll make this succinct, and try to cover observations that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

In general, I really like Google Glass. Once you get used to wearing it — once you’ve found a workflow that makes sense for you, and once you’ve come to rely on some of the functionality Google Glass provides — you don’t like being without it. You even become gradually more willing to endure the ogling, inquisitions, and the embarrassment that inevitably comes of wearing them outside the house.

Those who criticize the form factor, battery life, etc. need to keep in mind that the Explorer Edition of Google Glass is a prototype. It’s designed to introduce the concept of wearing a computer on your face, and to help developers, content creators, and consumers learn about wearable computing. Limitations aside (and there are plenty), I think the concept that Google Glass introduces is solid. I don’t know how successful the first consumer version of Glass will be, but I now believe that there are real benefits to accessing information almost effortlessly, and I think the world is probably very close to being ready for the next wave of personal and portable technology beyond the mobile phone.

Some specific thoughts and observations (in no particular order):

  • Navigation is probably my favorite feature. In fact, it might be what made me realize that wearable computing had to become a reality. Glass’s implementation isn’t perfect (it drains the battery quickly and there are still plenty of bugs), but being able to simply glance up and see turn-by-directions in the corner of your vision is extremely effective.
  • The camera button should deactivate when you remove Glass from your face. The camera button is on the top and the USB port is on the bottom which means when you turn Glass over to charge it or to connect it to your computer, you frequently take unintentional upside down pictures (which subsequently get uploaded to Google+). Because of where I usually charge Glass, many of these pictures end up being of my crotch. The photos aren’t actually posted publicly, but you still have to go into your photo stream and clean it up from time to time (and if someone is looking over your shoulder, you might have some uncomfortable explaining to do).
  • Kids absolutely love Glass. I frequently give new technology to my children — or do my best to get feedback from teenagers — since kids usually approach new concepts without the preconceptions of adults. While I had friends who were quick to laugh at and dismiss Google Glass, my experience is that kids think the concept is amazing, and aren’t remotely ashamed or embarrassed to wear them. My older daughter wore Glass for an entire afternoon at an art festival and got significant use out of them. When she wore them out to dinner the other night, our waitress confessed that she couldn’t wait to get a pair herself. If you think that Glass is too nerdy to be successful, consider early perceptions around things like personal computers in general, mobile phones, and Bluetooth headsets. Even wristwatches were once widely thought to be a threat to masculinity. It wasn’t until soldiers started strapping their pocket watches to their wrists because it was much more practical than having to remove them from a pocket that wristwatches started to gain acceptance beyond frivolous feminine accessories.
  • While kids love Glass, the thirty degree activation feature does not work well for them. You can activate Glass by tilting your head up thirty degrees so that you don’t have to reach up and touch the touchpad. It turns out that kids are almost always looking up at roughly thirty degrees which means Glass is constantly activating. I find that when I wear Glass, it activates more frequently than I would like, as well (despite the fact that I’m six feet tall). For instance, they activate during movies, and during the all-important motion of drinking a beer. Rather than lifting your heard thirty degrees to activate Glass, I think a more useful gesture would be to look up with just your eyes — something we do less frequently and that is more deliberate than just lifting your head.
  • One of the most frequent criticisms I’ve read about Glass is that you still need your phone. (I’ve heard this about the latest generation of smart watches, as well.) I have no idea where this complaint comes from. I don’t think the goal of wearable computing — whether it be on your face or your wrist — should be to replace other technologies, just like I don’t think phones or tablets replace personal computers. Technology more frequently adds and augments rather than displaces or replaces. The goal of wearable computing is to create new opportunities and interactions rather than render older ones obsolete. Sometimes new technologies are so obviously superior that the old ones are rapidly abandoned, but it’s more common for us to add additional devices and capabilities to our lives — at least during an initial period of transition.
  • I’m probably stating the obvious here, but future versions of glass will need to be water resistant. Once you get used to having Glass, you don’t want to take them off just because the forecast calls for showers.
  • Glass has a built-in guest mode which is a brilliant idea. Like your phone, Glass becomes a very personal device which you will likely be reluctant to share with everyone who asks to take a peek — especially because it’s so easy to post content publicly. Glass also takes some getting used to so you probably don’t want your friends and family familiarizing themselves with the interaction models while connected to your Google+, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.
  • The one big complaint I have about Glass is the viral messaging that gets appended to texts and emails. All messages have the text “Sent through Glass” appended to them, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing you can do about it. If Glass were free, I wouldn’t complain. But at $1,500 (actually, well over $1,600 with tax), I don’t feel like I should be forced to do viral marketing on Google’s behalf. The ironic thing is that given the option, I would probably still append some kind of a message as I do on my other devices in order to provide some context for brevity, auto-correct errors, etc. However, I really hate not being given the option to at the very least customize the message.

Update (5/26/2013): After receiving a great deal of feedback and several questions, I decided to add a few additional points:

  • In my opinion, the camera is not the killer feature. Photos are difficult to compose with Glass, you can’t edit them like you can on a phone, and sharing is much more difficult and limited. (This final point could partially be addressed in software, but it still wouldn’t be as easy as a mobile phone.) The one advantage Glass has over a camera in a phone is that it is more available and accessible. However, that is also perhaps one of Glass’s biggest barriers to adoption. Having a camera constantly pointed at the world prompts all kinds of privacy concerns which bloggers, journalists, and even Congress will not tire of debating anytime soon. Like most things in life, technology is a tradeoff: You measure the good against the bad, and in the end, decide if something is a net gain or a net loss. At least right now, I believe that the camera in Glass is a net loss. The ability to take a picture a few seconds faster than you could with your phone is nice, but it’s probably not worth the accompanying privacy issues (it’s only a matter of time before Glass is banned from my gym, for instance), the additional bulk and weight of the device, and the fact that most pictures simply aren’t all that good. Having gained some experience with Glass now, if I had the option of buying a smaller, lighter, and less threatening version without a camera, I think I probably would.
  • Another issue that Glass has brought to the forefront is the matter of distraction. Distraction is no worse with Glass than any other device. Glass never displays notifications unexpectedly (with the exception of the display activating when you tilt your head up, but that can be disabled) and therefore it is no more distracting than a mobile phone. In fact, because you can glance at a map or a message even faster, I would argue that Glass is possibly less distracting than a phone. That is not to say Glass is distraction-free, however. Not even close. I don’t believe that technologies like heads-up displays or hands-free calls eliminate or even reduce distraction since the lack of attention is far more dangerous than the simple mechanics and logistics of interacting with a device. That said, when used responsibly, Glass should not be any more dangerous than your phone. (Note that I am not dismissing the dangers of phones — I’m just claiming that Glass is no worse.)
  • Related to distraction is the question of presence. I’ve noticed that a significant number of people are offended by Glass because they feel like it represents just one more device to come between people, to distract us from the current time and place, and to devalue human interaction. I’m undecided on this point. I personally choose to be discreet with my devices; unless I’m specifically monitoring something (usually work-related), I rarely pull out my phone in social situations, and I always give someone standing in front of me priority over whatever might be happening on my phone, watch, or Google Glass. That said, I don’t feel the need to impose my personal philosophies on others. I think it remains to be seen exactly what the repercussions are of integrating all these data streams into our consciousness. I know there are studies which are not optimistic, but devices like phones and Glass remind me a great deal of video games. When I was a kid, the conventional wisdom was that video games would “melt your brain” (and there are myriad studies that claim to back that up). I’m sure I’ve heard that phrase — or some variation thereof — dozens of times throughout my life. However, I’ve been gaming pretty consistently from the time I got my first hand-held LED football game, my first PC, and my first console (Intellivision), and I believe that video games have enriched my life in a number of ways. I believe that responsible and conscientious integration of technology into one’s life can be very positive and empowering. However, I also acknowledge that it can have detrimental effects on relationships and quality of life when not moderated. For the most part, I don’t find discussions of whether certain technologies are “good” or “bad” to be productive. I think it’s up to us individually to find where and how technology fits into our lives — to embrace it where it works, and reject or modify it where it does not. I see technology as a massive, never-ending human experiment, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, and to make plenty of mistakes and adjustments along the way. And at least in instances where people’s lives are not at stake, I think we should be patient with those around us who are trying to figure it out for themselves.

Although I really love Google Glass, I don’t love it because it’s perfect, or because I think Google got it exactly right. I love Glass because it is an early attempt at practical wearable computing, and I think it proves that wearable computing is going to happen. Whether it happens now or in the future is hard to say. The world was not ready for digital books on a large scale until Amazon introduced the Kindle, or tablet computers until Apple introduced the iPad, so it’s hard to say whether Google is ahead of its time, or whether the Glass team is successfully creating the environment they need to drive mainstream adoption. Whether it happens now or in the near future, there’s little doubt in my mind that it will eventually happen.

Whenever I question whether a new technology will be successful, I think back to a conversation I had with a friend of mine after the original iPhone was introduced. By any definition, he was and still is an Apple fanboy, but he had no interested in the iPhone because it wasn’t very suitable to single-handed use. He was too focused on the drawbacks, and not focused enough on how the positives would outweigh the negatives. Today, he’s a big iPhone fan, and I’m sure couldn’t imagine his life — or probably even a single day, for that matter — without an iPhone in his pocket.

So to all the nonbelievers, get your jeering and finger pointing out of the way now because it may not be very long before you will be wearing something like Google Glass yourself.

AirPlay is Another Nail in Cable’s Coffin

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I had an interesting experience while sitting around with some friends Saturday night. The subject of awkward pregnancy photos came up (my sister-in-law is weeks away from giving birth), so we decided to bring up the pregnancy category of Awkward Family Photos for a few good laughs at other people’s expense. Having just installed Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8), I decided to use AirPlay from my 11″ MacBook Air (best laptop ever) to my Apple TV so everyone could see better. The conversation eventually turned to politics and TED talks as it so often does, so I threw up Nick Hanauer’s excellent and very controversial TED talk. Eventually control of the Apple TV was passed around the room via iPhones, iPads, and AirPlay, and in addition to playing a few hilarious rounds of Draw Something and laughing at hundreds of photos, we watched some Olympics highlights, Portal: No Escape, Lego Black Ops, the JK Wedding Entrance Dance (there was an uninitiated among us), and finally, one of Stephen Colbert’s many excellent interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson. By that time, it was getting late, however we’d barely scratched the surface of our favorite videos, sites, games, photos, memes, etc. so I’m certain we’ll pick right back up where we left off next weekend.

There were three things that really struck me about the evening:

  1. All of the entertainment throughout the course of the night was entirely free. We did have to watch a few YouTube pre-roll ads, but they were quick and relatively tasteful.
  2. The evening was much more interactive than if we’d watched a movie or a few TV shows.
  3. The experience was extremely collaborative and inclusive as control of the Apple TV was passed around the room and everyone got to have their say in what we all experienced.

I’ve been a cord-cutter for a long time now which means we’re as likely to spend our evenings with our phones, laptops, and tablets as we are with our TV. In fact, since I do most of my gaming either on a PC or handheld device, I’ve frequently wondered if we still actually need a 52″ LCD taking up space in our living room. However last night was the best reason I’ve come up with in probably two years to keep my TV.

If you’re a cord-cutter, next time you have people over, ask them to come up with some of their favorite internet content and put together your own interactive and collaborative programming. I’ve never been so certain in my decision to cancel my cable service as I am now.

(Note that AirPlay is not the only technology for making this kind of thing work, but in my experience, it’s probably the most hassle-free. I have a Nexus Q which I hope to use more for this kind of thing in the future, and I’ve experimented with all kinds of streaming media solutions in the past. At least for now, Apple’s technology is probably the easiest to use, most robust, and — since so many people have iPhones, iPads, or Mac laptops — it’s more or less ubiquitous.)

Video Review of the Google Nexus 7 Tablet

I’ve spent about a week with the Nexus 7 tablet now so I thought I’d do a quick video to capture my impressions:

If you’d rather read than watch, here are the highlights:

  • I really like the 7-inch form factor. Since I have an 11″ MacBook Air, 10-inch tablets don’t feel all that portable to me. 7-inch tablets are very portable, very light, allow me to easily type with my thumbs, and are much easier to hold for long periods of time while reading.
  • The performance is excellent. The combination of the hardware and Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) make the Nexus 7 as smooth and polished as any iOS device.
  • The battery life seems very good. I didn’t explicitly test it, but I’ve only had to charge the Nexus 7 a few times since I started using it. It may not be as good as something like the iPad, but I found the battery to be more than sufficient.
  • I’m not crazy about the emphasis on the Google Play store by default. Since it competes with the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 is designed primarily as a content consumption device (which also justifies the very aggressive pricing — Google wants to make money on the ecosystem rather than hardware). Fortunately all the conduits into the the Google Play store are implemented as widgets which you can just delete in order to get a more traditional tablet experience. I should point out that I actually like the Google Play store and have used it several times already — I just don’t want it to be the central experience of my tablet.
  • My only complaint/request is that I want to be able to buy a higher-end version. I like this device enough that I’d happily pay more for a rear-facing HD camera and 4G wireless support. That said, I know Google is competing with the Kindle Fire, and the price is extremely aggressive for such a capable device. I think Google is doing the right thing for now, however I hope they release versions with more features in the future.

To summarize: great device which is absolutely worth the $199/$249 price.

A Simple Phishing Vulnerability in Mobile Safari

I recently put together a demo of a very simple, yet very convincing, phishing attack targeting mobile Safari:

It works by first checking the user agent and determining what kind of device the request is being made on. If the device isn’t an iPhone, the user is simply forwarded to PayPal.com and will never know the difference. But if the request is made from an iPhone, the user gets the special phishing login screen which does the following:

  1. Shows an image of Safari’s location bar at the top which implies that the user is on PayPal.com.
  2. Scrolls the actual location bar off the screen quickly enough that very few people will notice it.

Since this attack targets mobile devices, it’s pretty safe to assume that many (probably most) users won’t be paying very close attention, and will likely not notice the actual location bar being hidden. The effect is so fast that even users who do notice probably won’t think anything of it.

I really like that mobile Safari lets you hide the location bar in order to have more pixels for actual content, but perhaps there’s a way to tweak the design in such a way as to make malicious applications of this feature less feasible.