Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Social iTunes

I’ve been a longtime user of Last.fm, and while it’s a valuable resource for music discovery, it has its drawbacks. It’s not tied directly into iTunes, which means A) not everybody has it, and B) you have to go to a web site outside of your jukebox to access it. I like the idea behind iLike (no pun intended), but there’s so much more they could have done with it.

iLike is a social music site similar to Last.fm. It offers the ability to install a sidebar built into iTunes that, in addition to tracking and broadcasting what you’re listening to, shows you related music to the currently playing track, news about bands and tracks your friends on the service are listening to. But for people like me with large libraries, I get a lot of info about bands I don’t really care about.

The sidebar should take advantage of the mass wealth of metadata iTunes stores on listener history. Data like individual track play counts and skip counts would be great ways to choose which bands’ news gets delivered at the top, and which similar bands you’re more likely to want. Just because I have one song by 2Pac, doesn’t make me a fan of him. It shouldn’t be factored as heavily into my recommendations.

These services should also go beyond their walled gardens and take a cue from the Hype Machine, pulling blog posts and album reviews from outside sources. With all the investors watching these social music services (thesixtyone is another on that list), there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

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Sync Calendar with Facebook Events

Facebook does not run my life. As much as it may want to, I keep track of my schedule on crumpled pieces of paper and in iCal. Like anyone else in college, it does have a bearing on a lot of social interactions, so for some parties, I’ll get the invitation on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t ring an alarm to remind me of events, so I’ll sometimes forget all about upcoming events.

Facebook lets you export events to your calendar, but it doesn’t let you subscribe to an XML calendar of your events that can be updated automatically. This would save me a lot of time manually entering events into iCal, and would ensure that I don’t forget about staff meetings or a friend’s birthday party.

The ability to export your current list of events is available, and while it’s helpful, it still means you need to constantly go back to Facebook and manually export your events. I assume Facebook hasn’t included the auto-sync feature simply because founder Mark Zuckerberg would rather you spend more time on the site. I suppose Facebook could internally revenue the problem by offering its own user-editable calendar, but until that time, why not accommodate the users?

Improving Computer Password Delays

For many computer applications and web sites, if you incorrectly enter your password during login, it will force a delay of a few seconds. Some login systems, like the one for Mac OS X, exponentially increase the delay time for each incorrect entry. This measure was initially put into place to deter password-cracking software, which would repeatedly attempt to enter thousands or millions of word combinations from a dictionary in an attempt to access an account.

The problem with this system is that the software engineer seems to forget that the interface is designed to be used by people, not machines. And people make mistakes. Brand Templeton suggests a better method: implement the delay after four failed attempts. By the fourth, it becomes obvious that the user has either forgotten his password entirely (and needs assistance) or is behind a malicious access attempt.

I’ve seen Templeton’s idea implemented on one banking site I frequent, where after five failed attempts, it locks me out for 24 hours. I seem to always find myself fumbling through my brain trying to remember which login-password combination I used for what banking site. I like the concept of the forgiving password delay, but please, whoever decides to implement this, don’t make the lockout time so absurdly long. It’s a very thin line a developer must walk between security and user-friendliness.

“Try Before You Buy” Music Retail Model

I wrote last month that I’m a big supporter for the donation system because it lets the consumers decide how much an item is worth to them. With all the hype surrounding the (not-so-)new donation-based digital music distribution model being pioneered by Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Trent Reznor via Saul William’s Niggy Tardust album, there’s a lot of questions about what is the best way to guilt the listener into donating.

Many people I talked to ended up downloading In Rainbows and Niggy Tardust for free, and then went back after a few listens and punched in their credit cards. For Radiohead’s album, I paid $5 up front because I knew I was going to love it (and I was right). But for Niggy Tardust, I didn’t pay a dime, and I still haven’t made up my mind if it’s worth the $5, or if I’ll even keep it in my library (but I’ve only listened once).

If the record companies or digital distributors, like iTunes or Amazon, want to jump on the donation bandwagon, the system needs to be more structured. A good way would be to offer a free (or $1 upfront to cover bandwidth costs) one-week trial download, allowing the user to listen an unlimited amount of times during the trial, and then in a week choose to either delete it or donate a fixed amount or (preferably) whatever they choose. Nobody (except the RIAA) likes digital rights management (DRM), so perhaps the trial download will have DRM, and once the user donates, the DRM-free files can be downloaded.

So many people are pirating music anyway. This seems like a good step to getting consumers to pay for music again.

Discovering Old Friends on Facebook

As more and more people jump onboard social networking sites, they are increasingly becoming ideal ways to rediscover old acquaintances. With the rapidly improving person search engines, one should easily be able to rediscover old friends or teachers.

But networks like Facebook and MySpace are having to make sacrifices in usefulness to accommodate users’ privacy. For example, for the default Facebook profile, only a person’s name is searchable. As you can imagine, finding a specific Tom Smith isn’t so easy.

You might know you’re looking for someone named Fred Jones, born around 1965 and graduated from FDR High. Brad Templeton has a great idea for how Facebook could improve this system:

What would be nice would be a way to specify you are looking for a person with a given name, and to provide other data like their age and perhaps school. Then, all the people who match that would get a notification with the brief query. This would not be a full blown e-mail, they would just see a notice that somebody is looking for “the Fred Jones born around 1965 who went to Comdex.” and if they were that Jones they could follow-up on it (or ignore) and if they weren’t they would not see it again and could block seeing any further notes like this.

Google Images Photo Recognition

Image recognition is the next big hurdle that computers need to surmount. An application that could break down an image and recognize certain characteristics (colors, arrangement, etc.) and “understand” what it’s seeing is the next step. By analyzing color composition, an app could be able to distinguish a tulip from a sunflower.

The applications would be incredible. Coupled with the convenience of camera phones, the possibilities would be endless. Imagine snapping a picture of a plant on your phone, sending that to a search engine like Google and receiving a result in a few seconds, just like a text search. “Plant: Poison ivy” is Google’s response.

Pretty handy, huh?

Cell Phone Service Brought to You By…

It seems like advertising can pay for anything nowadays. We have free newspapers, free TV programs, free web services: all in exchange for an inundation of consumerism thrown at us from every angle. A few years ago the idea of a project on the web being able to support bandwidth for hundreds of thousands of 200+ MB each, HD video downloads seemed absurd, but thanks to some well placed advertising from domain registrars and liquor brands, video podcast Diggnation is doing just that.

We’ve even see ad-supported service provider models spring up (but not survive) like NetZero for free Internet access. So what industry might be next to give consumers free service thanks to advertising exposure? Stowe Boyd of /Message suggests it could be the cell phone industry.

In his post Boyd points out that ad-supported cellular content is already on the way in the United States, starting with MySpace as the first major site to offer such a model. Blyk will offer free, ad-supported mobile phone connection in the U.K. Is the U.S. next?

Unlike the U.K., which is currently beyond 100 percent mobile penetration — despite how little sense that makes (are people buying multiple cell contracts for themselves?) — the U.S. stands at 84 percent, says MocoNews. A free cellular provider might be exactly what the cell industry needs to gobble up the last bit of the U.S. population resisting the mobile market.

Google WiFi, free wireless Internet access for residents of Mountain View, Calif., is a good example of what we might see in ad-supported service providers. While Google WiFi doesn’t currently show ads, the model (especially when run by a technology advertising firm) is certainly there. I think we’ll be seeing big things in the next couple years in terms of ad-supported services.

Save the World with $6 Gasoline

I’ll admit it. I’ll be the first to complain when gas prices are a little high. But today’s idea for saving the environment from the evils of carbon emissions comes from Brad Templeton. The concept: deter people from driving by making gasoline at least $6 per gallon across the United States — about double the price it is now. To offset that cost, every registered driver in the country is given $2,000 upfront.

The reasoning is that the gas price increase would set the average driver back about two grand (maybe a little more), so it’ll all balance out for them, or, if anything, will be a good incentive for them to drive less. People who take public transportation will inevitably pay a little more to ride the taxis or buses, so the refund should take care of that.

For heavy gasoline burners — those taking very long commutes, those electing to buy Hummers and Suburbans — it means paying lots more, and subsidizing those who don’t. Those who buy a Prius would be well rewarded, as would those who switch to transit or anything more fuel efficient,” says Templeton on his blog.

I think Templeton is on to something great here. The reason Europeans, especially the English, are much better about conserving gas petrol and taking public transportation is that gas prices are already absurdly expensive over there. They’re very smart about their fuel consumption because they have to be! It’s simply too expensive to drive a gas-guzzling vehicle around.

What do you think? Could this be the change the U.S. needs to drastically curb its carbon emissions?

Sync iPhone with Mac Keychain

I have a ton of passwords. It seems like every web site now requires a username and password to do anything. Facebook, Digg, the New York Times: it never ends! Fortunately I have all these logins saved in Keychain Access, a universal application where Macs save all your passwords for access from Safari, Camino or any app that needs them.

It came as a bit of surprise when I learned the iPhone and iPod touch don’t sync with Keychain. Not only does it not sync, but you can’t even save passwords onto the devices. Every time you want to access the many users-only sites on the web, you need to manually enter your login information.

It’s a minor annoyance, but it is one that could be fixed with a simple addition of Keychain syncing. iTunes already syncs your media, address book, calendar, mail and bookmarks. Why not your passwords?

A Better To-do List

Of all the great uses for a computer, the calendar is probably the most significant to my life. Business execs get secretaries and the rest of us get iCal.

I can’t stress how important the calendar and to-do lists are for making sure I don’t forget everything. But there’s just something missing in terms of combining all my work in other applications with the calendar.

Life happens in terms of projects. I have to-dos tied to a particular project, using the title format “project name: to-do title.” So for my July blog post about running a successful web start-up, I had “startup: email boyd,” “startup: research boyd’s blog” and “startup” (the all purpose to-do when the whole project is finished). But I’ll have files (documents, music, emails, etc.) tied to the project with no way to centralize them.

A solution would be the ability to drag files and emails onto a to-do entry and have them linked. I could then easily access any related materials through the to-do entry. Most of my life is in iCal. A central project manager is the missing link.

On the Mac end, iCal still has a long way to go, but it’s nice to see Apple Inc. is putting a lot of development into the next version for Leopard. With all the cool features of the new OS, it’s pretty strange that the ones I’m most looking forward to are iCal and the new Mail, which will integrate with iCal’s to-do list.