Cloud storage and responsibility; or why you shouldn’t use Prezi ever

xkcd 908: The Cloud

In the past few years, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the usage of cloud based services. Or, in other words, people have begun to trust services like Facebook, Flickr, Google Docs/Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, etc with important data.

In exchange for trust and reliance, users expect service providers to be responsible (at least to a certain level) for the data they harbor. Sure, system failures, issues and incidents are unavoidable in the tech world, but the responsible company is expected to resolve such issues as quickly as possible, as well apologize and/or compensate their users for the disruption in service or loss of user data.

And, not surprisingly, tech companies generally live up to these standards.

A little bit of history

When Amazon’s EC2 experienced loss of user data in April 2012, Amazon (at least attempted to) recover lost volumes. In addition, they made the whole incident public in the form of press releases as well as messages on their status page. At the end of the day, while there were still users who had lost their data with no pathway to recovery, Amazon at least accepted responsibility for the loss.

Similarly, in July 2010, Evernote had a server issue that led to a loss of user notes. And, just like in Amazon’s case, Evernote also attempted to recover lost data. They also issued an apology to their users about the loss as well as explained specifics of the incident on their blog.

Why am I mentioning all of these incidents? Because I expect a similar level of responsibility from every company that stores my data. If Dropbox or Google or Facebook were to lose my data in the future, I expect them to do all they can to resolve the issue and lessen the effect on the user.

Enter Prezi

In case you haven’t heard, Prezi, a San Francisco-based startup, aims to provide a new way to “present ideas”. In layman’s terms, they provide you with a new, animation-centric way to organize and structure your presentation. They have a couple of pricing tiers, but the basic free account allows you to create your presentations within your web browser and save them online.

I had no complaints with Microsoft’s PowerPoint, or with Google Docs’ Presentations thing, but I decided to give Prezi a shot for one Theory of Knowledge presentation at school. After creating the presentation, I spent 4-5 hours in the evening of Thursday April 4th working solely on my presentation, making sure to press the save button periodically (on another note, shouldn’t the presentation auto-save by default?)

One night later, I log into my Prezi account at school to pull up my presentation on the school computer. And lo, it was incomplete, with loads of text and images missing. Turns out, all the work I did after approximately 3 P.M. on Thursday until midnight (or so) was lost forever, and there was no way to recover it. I ruled out the possibility of it being a localized problem with the computer, as the presentation appeared the same on my Android phone.

Prezi’s “Support”

At that moment, I immediately knew the fault lay with Prezi’s servers. But their blog and Twitter feed did not contain any informational message or press release about the loss of data I was experiencing. I head over to their contact page, only to find out that I can’t file a ticket or contact e-mail support since I was on a free account (Seriously, Prezi? Nearly every other cloud-based service like Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, etc provides e-mail support to their consumers regardless of their account type).

I criticized them on Twitter, expecting them to respond, which they eventually did the next day (Saturday).

 

Browsing through their community forums, it seems like the issue is quite common, and that the exact same issue occurred to a large number of users. I added a post regarding the problem I was experiencing to the forum too, but just like other similar posts on the forum, there’s a good chance mine would be ignored.

Most importantly, Prezi still hasn’t admitted the fact that they had a server issue in the early morning hours (EDT) of Friday, April 5, 2013. No tweet. No e-mail to consumers, No blog post. Because, let’s just hide behind the bunker until users find out, and even when they do, we’ll just act as if nothing happened in the first place.

I’ll most probably have to re-do my presentation, but one thing is for sure: I won’t be doing it in Prezi again. Furthermore, I will be advising my friends to stay away from them as they have proven how untrustworthy they are with user data.

What Facebook must fix on March 7th

In case you haven’t heard, Facebook is having a press event on Thursday March 7, to showcase “a new look for news feed”.

Over the past few months and years, Facebook has been overhauling their search, ads, profile pages (aka timelines), et al, but the Facebook news feed has remained largely the same for a long time. In fact, the news feed has become even worse, with app statuses, trending articles and game suggestions boggling my news feed.

Thanks Facebook, but I’m not really a music, football, horoscope or flash gaming fan

I don’t want Facebook to drop these features completely. Well, actually, I do, but there’s a reason these features exist in the first place: revenue for Facebook. And, being a publicly-traded company, they are often forced to make decisions for the pure benefit of shareholders. What I want them to do, though, is to use their massive droves of user data to prioritize posts and suggestions on my news feed based on my interests.

Here, let me explain this with an example: I’m a techie and have liked the Facebook pages of many tech companies and news sites on Facebook. Now that Facebook knows about my interests, they should give low priority to suggestions about sports articles, music band pages, car fan sites, etc. Even among posts from my friends, tech-related and general posts should get higher priority over posts on how many times Justin Bieber tweeted that day.

Also, the order could be defined by context from the life of the user (winks at Scoble). If the user just got accepted at a university and makes that obligatory “OMG! I GOT INTO ______!” post, Facebook should start to prioritize university-related articles, posts and pages on their news feed.

All along, I don’t want them to start downranking posts into oblivion, just that posts and suggestions should have a relative order that makes sense.

Simple suggestion, isn’t it? Let’s see on Thursday what Zuck and co. have behind the wraps.

Why the tech industry sucks, most of the time

CES. RIM BlackBerry’s event. Soon, MWC too. Phones are being announced at a pace faster than ever. Now, step back, and look at every phone hardware that was announced over the past month. What new does each of these recently-announced phones bring to the table, with respect to hardware only?

Nothing. Except for increases in screen size.

Because, screw research and development. Let’s just make phones larger, and larger, and larger so people buy them. Let screen size be the only differentiating aspect within our lineupNo need to improve on battery life, hardware design or anything else. Just enlarge and resize the damn thing. After all, it worked for Samsung, right?

Good luck carrying Huawei’s 6.1 inch phone around (Photo Courtesy: TechCrunch)

Oh, and while we’re talking about screens, let’s just increase the resolution so we have the best specs sheet. Ignore the fact that power consumption will triple, costs will rise and the unaided eye will not be able to tell the difference between 350 ppi and 400 ppi pixel density anyway.

Enough sarcasm already, time to move on.

The problem of stagnation is not just with phones; laptop makers, camera manufacturers, etc are all guilty of a similar behaviour. The industry is not set up to deliver what people want; instead, it’s set up to deliver what is easy to make and what sells with a large profit margin.

 

The problem with me-too phones

Whether large phones are good or bad is subjective, and I’ll leave it up to others to decide. But here’s the deal: if a larger screen is all your company “innovated” for a new product, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

HTC Thunderbolt. Thick, heavy, and with bad battery life. Who gave the green light on this one? (Photo Courtesy: Engadget)

Phones are still great, yet at the same time terrible. Here’s a list of things I’d like to see improved in phones:

  • Battery life (Motorola got it right with the Razr Maxx HD)
  • Display colours (hey, HTC nailed a display with the One X last year, why can’t you?)
  • Hardware design (*ahem* Nokia and HTC)
  • Prompt software updates for Android and Windows Phones
  • Better camera sensors

It’s interesting to note, each of the possible improvements listed above are present in at least one phone out there. No one has been able to put ‘em all together into one great product. Well, actually, two phones come really close to merging all good qualities of a phone

These two phones aren’t perfect in any one category. They may not be the best camera phones out there, however they are still great camera phones. They may not be THE fastest, however they’re among the fastest. These two phones are not one-trick ponies, but all-rounders.

Of course, I’m talking about the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3. And people wonder why Apple and Samsung are the only ones making real money.

The above is a clear example of how most companies are keen on selling lazily-built products at a high price than actually building a great user experience. The secret to success is building a great product everyone would love to use. Is that too much to ask for?

 

Stagnation among laptops

See that graph up there? According to StatCounter, the most popular screen resolution in the world is 1366×768, a resolution that has been around for almost a decade on desktop monitors and laptop screens. Go out in the market today, and most laptops, even many of the high-end ones, have 15″ screens at that resolution.

Why am I pointing this out? Because 1366×768 looks so pixelated and last-gen on laptops, especially in an age where smartphones are breaking the limits on pixel densities. Or, why even look at smartphones, when one very specific laptop maker produced a really great screen on a 15-inch laptop form factor. And suddenly, every other laptop screen looks lame in comparison.

Why haven’t other laptop manufacturers introduced laptops with better screen resolutions? Because they’re making a lot more money selling cheaper products with low-grade materials at high price points.

(Granted, some laptop manufacturers other than Apple have introduced high-res screens on high-end models, but a) the vast majority of laptops in their lineups are still stuck in stone-age era screens, and b) no high-end non-Macbook has a screen resolution as high as 2880×1800)

Screen resolution is just one stagnant detail in laptops that I picked. Laptops have been terrible ever since they have been in the market. All of them heat up like cars in Arizona during summer, they also run out of juice the moment you need them, blah blah blah. And most of them still look like plastic wrapped around a pre-made motherboard.

The end to innovation (well, not exactly)

Pebble smartwatch (photo courtesy: The Verge)

While large companies are re-hashing and releasing the same products over and over again, small companies, indie hardware developers, et al are growing stronger than ever, thanks to the rise of platforms like Kickstarter which truly encourage great new ideas to develop, get funded and flourish. These indie developers and their creations show exactly what’s best about technology; there are no limits to innovation, possibilities are endless and turning crazy ideas into products is very much possible with dedication, hard work and support.

At the same time, the research wings at the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple haven’t completely shunned innovation. Whether it’s fixing existing problems like laggy touchscreens or introducing new breakthrough products like augmented reality glasses, it’s very much obvious that the giants are not fully asleep. However, they are not fully awake either.

Join me, Benjamin and José on a Google+ hangout to discuss the upcoming Ubuntu product launch!

Ubuntu countdown

Is it a phone? Tablet? Phablet? Laptop? Desktop? Console? Cloud-based service? T-shirt?

Well, we don’t know. But, if you tune in to the hangout where blogger Benjamin Kerensa, Ubuntu contributor and Ubuntu-On-Air host José Antonio Rey and I discuss the news as it happens, you’ll be among the first to know!

The hangout will start at 5:45 PM UTC. Get the time in your local timezone here.

Watch the hangout here!

Connect an Android 4.0+ phone/tablet to Ubuntu, the reliable way

Around a year ago, I wrote this handy-dandy article on OMG! Ubuntu!. While that method worked perfectly for the first few months, changes in libmtp, mtpfs and Ubuntu’s fuse libraries have made that method unreliable and buggy.

And very slow too, that is, if you managed to get the thing working.

So here’s another way to connect an Android device to Ubuntu, which, to much surprise, actually works (woohoo!). Instead of mtpfs, you’ll be using the amazing go-mtpfs library. Just run these commands to install go-mtpfs:

sudo apt-get install golang fuse git-core libmtp-dev libfuse-dev
sudo adduser $USER fuse
mkdir /tmp/go 
GOPATH=/tmp/go go get github.com/hanwen/go-mtpfs
sudo mv /tmp/go/bin/go-mtpfs /usr/bin/
mkdir ~/MyAndroid

Now, go-mtpfs is installed. To mount your Android device, run these commands:

go-mtpfs ~/MyAndroid &

Voila! Your device’s contents can now be found at the MyAndroid folder in your home directory. If you belong to the “everything must be unmounted safely” tribe (like I do), then here’s your birthday present unmounting command:

fusermount -u ~/MyAndroid

That’s it! Not very simple, but it’s not like you’ll be able to find a more reliable method, can you?

Using the Raspberry Pi as a web server

Ever since I got my Model B Raspberry Pi board a few weeks ago, I wanted to use it as an inexpensive web server. So here it is. In fact, you are reading this very post delivered straight from my Pi.

I used the latest Raspbian image (Debian Wheezy/Testing), and installed lighttpd 1.4.31, php 5.4.4 and mysql 5.5.24 straight from the Debian repositories. Linking up lighttpd with the PHP interpreter using FastCGI was very simple:

sudo apt-get install php5-common php5-cgi php5 php5-mysql
sudo lighty-enable-mod fastcgi-php

Then, I followed the steps outlined in this answer on Server Fault to set up a named vhost in lighttpd. There were other methods on various websites regarding mod_simple_vhost but since I didn’t need a dynamic setup based on the name of each virtual host, a simpler setup like the example in the Server Fault answer worked for me.

After that, I followed the regular WordPress installation procedure. Who knew $35 could get you a decent web server?

Initially, I had concerns about the performance of the Pi and whether it would be able to take up the load of a full WordPress website with MySQL and all. While obviously you wouldn’t want to run a high-traffic website on low-performance hardware like this :), it does the job for any very-low-traffic web site, and I’m quite surprised at how much performance it can deliver for the amount of power it consumes.

 

Who woulda thunk you could serve website pies?

So there you have it. I’ll be running this blog on the Pi for the next few weeks. Let’s see how it goes; it’s going to be a hell of an experiment. Or, probably a very good idea.