Is Verizon the new AT&T?

If you thought AT&T’s exclusive access to the iPhone has made them brazen, check out what happened at the Verizon store on Friday while I was checking out the new Motorola Droid:

  1. The first thing I confirmed was that Verizon does expect you to pay $45/mo for data if you want to use Exchange. I’m guessing you don’t actually have to buy a corporate plan to use Exchange, but they certainly want to make you think you do. Since my company doesn’t pay for my phone, but I still want to use it to access my corporate email, there’s no way I’m paying $15/mo more just for Exchange access. To be fair, I believe AT&T also offers corporate plans, but nobody ever tried to sell me one, and Exchange works fine with the regular $30/mo plan.
  2. I also confirmed that Verizon is raising their early termination fee on November 15th from $175 (somewhat reasonable) to $350 (absolutely absurd). That means after November 15th, pretty much nothing will be able to get me to buy a Verizon phone (until AT&T does the same thing, that is, which I’m sure is coming).
  3. The most atrocious thing I saw was a salesperson tell a customer that he just found out that the Droid was going to have all the apps that the iPhone has. I chuckled, but let it pass until I heard him use the same line on someone else standing next to me as I played with the display model. That was too much. When I called it on him, he assured me that all iPhone applications were being ported to Android. He wasn’t happy when I explained to him (and the other customer) that there was no way that was going to happen. Nor was he particular receptive when I suggested that he pitch the Droid on its own merits (of which it has plenty) rather than misrepresenting it. I really hope this was a sales tactic employed by this salesperson alone, and not something he was instructed to say during sales training.

Part of the reason I was so interested in the Droid was to get away from AT&T which I feel has abused their exclusive access to the iPhone, however from what I can tell so far, Verizon isn’t going to be much better. My inclination at this point is to stick with the devil that I know.

The Phone Itself

My impressions of the Droid were pretty positive in general, but I don’t feel like the keyboard was done well enough to justify the additional size, weight, and moving parts. The four primary problems I found with the keyboard were:

  1. It’s not centered. Because of the D pad on the right, you have to really stretch your right thumb for it to be in position which throws everything off. In my experience, keyboards need to be symmetrical to be usable.
  2. The keys aren’t offset. In order to save space, they keys are in a tight grid rather than an actual keyboard pattern. This seems subtle, but it really slows down typing.
  3. There’s no dedicated number row. Having to use meta keys frequently on a thumb board really slows me down.
  4. The keys aren’t raised enough. I made as many mistakes on the physical keyboard as I did on the software keyboard, and more than I make on my iPhone’s virtual keyboard. Maybe I’d adjust to it eventually, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t.

Google, Motorola, and Verizon are right to focus on a phone that has things that people want, but that Apple isn’t interested in providing (like keyboards), but that doesn’t mean we’ll be happy with a substandard implementation. We’re all so accustomed to the virtual keyboard on the iPhone by now that a physical keyboard has to be done extremely well for it to qualify as an advantage. It really baffles me why so few phones get keyboards right. Here’s a hint: get an old Sidekick 2 or 3, and do exactly what they did. That’s it. Don’t compromise, and don’t even try to make improvements. A keyboard as good as the Sidekick’s on a device as powerful as the Droid would be hugely compelling, and would certainly be enough to make me switch.

The State of the Mobile Industry

So what is ultimately going to save us from this mess that passes as the mobile industry in this country? In the short term, government regulation that makes all these anti-competitive practices (huge early termination fees, unrealistically long contracts, arbitrary software approval processes, etc.) unlawful. And in the long term, our best hope is ubiquitous Wi-Fi (or whatever the name will be for Wi-Fi that’s everywhere). Having ubiquitous and affordable Wi-Fi instantly transforms the mobile industry into what the PC market is today. In other words, rather than being locked into contracts, being forced to pay exorbitant monthly rates, and having your hardware purchases tightly controlled by poorly run service providers, consumers will be able to purchase any type of hardware they want right off the shelf running whichever operating system they like best, then do anything they want with it, including making as many VoIP calls as they want to whomever they want, installing any application they want, and buying as many different devices as they want. Unfortunately, we’re still a long ways away from what’s best for consumers as my trip to the Verizon store reminded me.

Review of the Magic Mouse

I’ve been pretty critical of Apple’s mice over the years, primarily due to Apple’s refusal to embrace the right mouse button. Technically, this changed with the Mighty Mouse in 2005, though I never found the right-click to work particularly well on all four (two wired, two Bluetooth) that I had over the years. Hence my skepticism when Apple announced yet another attempt at the device that they themselves were responsible for introducing to the computing mainstream with the Apple Macintosh all the way back in 1984.

What intrigued me about the Magic Mouse initially was the gesture support. I’ve been doing a lot of work with gestures in Adobe AIR 2 and I’d started using my MacBook’s multi-touch trackpad full-time in order to really try to incorporate gestures into my workflow. The Magic Mouse seemed like a good way to keep using (some) gestures while having the advantages of an external pointing device.

Enough background. On to the facts:

What’s good about the Magic Mouse:

  • Right-click support finally works great. I don’t think I’ve had any missed right-clicks yet (which happened probably 20% of the time with the Mighty Mouse).
  • Swiping also works great. I adapted to the swipe gesture instantly. It’s entirely intuitive, and works exactly like it should. And it works with all applications (at least all I’ve tried it with), and not just Apple apps (in other words, the momentum effect is implemented at the OS level, so it works everywhere).
  • The movement is very smooth. It seems to glide better than the Mighty Mouse, and better than my Logitech optical mouse (though it might just be that it hasn’t had time to accumulate dust and lint yet).

What’s not good about the Magic Mouse:

  • It’s not very ergonomic. I find it a bit on the small side and not as comfortable to use for long periods of time as my Logitech. Although the gestures are very practical and usable, the shape of the mouse is not. I think Apple focused just a little too much on the aesthetics of this device and not enough on the functionality. (Even the old Mighty Mouse is slightly more comfortable for me to use, though not nearly as fun.)
  • It’s all white. I happen to be a frequent hand-washer, so I’ve never had a problem with my keyboards or trackpads getting dirty, but before you buy a Magic Mouse, look down at your computer. If your laptop, keyboard, or mouse has accumulated grime from petting the dog, reading the newspaper, or eating sandwiches, consider getting a good black Logitech optical mouse rather than the pure white Magic Mouse.
  • Price. $69 + tax is a lot to drop on a mouse. I wanted to buy two — one for home, and one for the office — but I didn’t want to spend all that money. I was also hoping to buy a corded USB version, but as of right now, the only version available is the Bluetooth model. In general, I prefer USB mice because they are cheaper, and I don’t have to worry about battery life (I switched to rechargeable batteries a while back, but it’s still much easier just to plug in and forget about it).

I can’t really recommend or advise against the Magic Mouse. I’ll keep using mine on one computer, but I don’t think I’m going to make a special effort to replace all my mice with Magic Mice. Now if Apple came out with an ergonomic USB version, I would happily retire all my Logitech mice to the plastic hardware bin in the basement, but that time has not yet come. I actually think it’s more likely that Logitech will incorporate gesture support and deliver the options that many of us want.

Tips for deploying a LAMP stack on Amazon EC2

If you’re interested in using Amazon EC2 and other services to deploy a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack, you will probably find this post invaluable. I spent about three full days migrating all my sites over from a physical dedicated server to an EC2 instance, and what follows are several things I learned during the process.

This post will cover the following (in varying levels of detail):

  • Selecting and setting up an AMI (Amazon Machine Image) with Apache, MySQL, and PHP.
  • Setting up an elastic IP address.
  • Setting up an EBS (Elastic Block Store).
  • Sending email from an EC2 instance (not as easy as one might think).
  • Backing up your data and web applications.

Continue reading

Review of the Apple aluminum keyboard

Apple’s newest keyboards are very sexy. They are almost impossibly thin with Chiclet-like keys and an anodized aluminum housing. I bought the full-sized USB version (actually, I bought two — one for the office and one for home), but there’s also a smaller Bluetooth version available.

After several months of use, I’ve determined that Apple’s emphasis was definitely on aesthetics when designing this keyboard rather than function. It’s certainly the most beautiful keyboard I’ve ever used, but it’s also one of the least comfortable and "accurate". By accurate, I don’t mean that it literally makes mistakes, but there’s something about its design that encourages me to make more mistakes than I typically make with other keyboards. In particular, I have problems with capitalization.

My other complaint is ergonomics. Even though Steve Jobs bragged about its good ergonomics during its world debut, I find it relatively uncomfortable to use. It probably isn’t any less ergonomic than its predecessor, however it’s much flatter which forces me to bend my wrists slightly further forward in order to meet it. According to Steve, this is a good thing, but occasionally, he and I don’t see eye to eye.

The new aluminum Apple keyboard looks and sounds better than any keyboard Apple has ever created, but when it comes to comfort and pure WPM, I much prefer my big ugly Goldtouch.

Update: I appreciate all the feedback I’ve gotten on this article. In fact, I’ve decided to give the keyboard another chance. I’m really going to work on ergonomics and see if that makes a difference. I’ll let you guys know what happens.

Update 2 (2/27/2009): All this time later, and I’m using two Apple aluminum keyboards — one at home, and one at work. I guess it just took time to get used to.