Personalised News

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed ...

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed icon.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime in the late nineties I wrote a sci-fi story and in one scene a man gets home, taps a touchscreen on the wall of his kitchen and instantly brings up a personalised news feed programmed to display things that interested him and also set up to specifically look for news items featuring certain keywords, to highlight any news about a specific ship in this case.

Now just a bit over a decade later I’m just getting to grips with this exact same thing on my own personal tablet computer, though without the spaceship captaining wife.

Websites, including these WordPress blogs, can provide what is called an RSS feed which summarises each article published and these can be picked up by reader apps.  These have been around a long time admittedly but these readers are now becoming more sophisticated and stylish.  On my Nexus 7 I have tried Google Reader, Flow Reader, Google Currents, Flipboard and Feedly.  Some apps actually access your Google Reader subscription list to find out which feeds you want to receive.  You can even view other RSS equipped sites in your WordPress reader.   The icon above signifies that a site has an RSS feed.

These apps are the solution to the at time overwhelming volume of information that can come at you from the internet.  This sheer volume of articles is one of the reasons why I sit down to write something for this blog and just decide to have a mug of tea and watch tv instead, I just don’t know where to start.  With an RSS reader on a phone or tablet I can skim through articles, share useful ones to Pocket for use later on my desktop PC and read anything that I can just enjoy in the moment – all while half-listening to the tv.

The nice thing about these modern readers is the way they present the content.  You can filter what you see so if you have a news website’s feed you could refuse to acknowledge the existence of articles about X-Factor winners or only view articles about the weather or Wills and Kate.  Then depending on which app you choose you can have a list of your incoming torrent of news, divided into subject if you so wish or displayed to you as a virtual, stylish, one of a kind digital magazine, or a mixture of both.  Of course as it’s tablet/smartphone based (although you can use PC RSS readers or websites too) you can have notifications.

The future of news, personalised and delivered to your sofa.

Still Free After All These Years

36236699I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently.  Writing these books though was enabled by free software.  I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time.  I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at.  By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.

Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine.  This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags.  Today my laptop cost less than them.  I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard.  No mouse.  At all.  It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.

I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built.  I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.

Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice).  These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded.  A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.

There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents.  There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.

With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again.  The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used.  Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.

Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc.  Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products.  Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.

So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.

Adventures With a Chinese Android

It all started eighteen months ago…

Cheap, small, curvaceous but not as slender as more expensive models my droid arrived late and wasn’t quite what I’d ordered…

Chinese Android

Chinese Android (image credit: Andy Vickers)

The picture showed a proper USB port, this didn’t have one but never mind.

I’d been contemplating a tablet computer for a while but wasn’t sure I’d get much use from one so I didn’t want to splash out on a Samsung or Asus I might regret getting.  I could see the advantage of a handheld, touchscreen computer for web browsing, picture and video viewing, quick email or Facebook viewing and so on especially since Apple and Google had managed to make operating systems that suited the way people would use them, i.e. with fingers, and because unlike previous tablets they ran smartphone software not desktop software they could be smaller and lighter.

My MID Epad looked like a shrunken iPad and even came in a very nice, Apple-esque box with a magnetic closure and it was packed with technology that iPad owners would snigger at; old-fashioned resistive touchscreen, an old processor, little memory, low-res screen, plastic back – PLASTIC!  Short battery life.  Not being a perfectionist and being careful financially with such experiments I accepted that what I had wasn’t cutting edge, so far from cutting edge in fact that you could butter bread with it.  Anyway, it was quick enough to play videos, the screen responded well enough to flick through ebooks.  I could even play Angry Birds.

The first problem was that these tablets come with Android but are not approved by Google so can’t access many of the apps in the Play Store, the default Google apps such as the contacts app won’t synchronise properly and often you don’t get updates.  For some these are not problems, if all you want is to browse and get email and read ebooks.  Gizmodo UK recently proclaimed that chinese tablets were all “crappy” and that Google was having to keep Android open to support this flow of effluent but it depends on how you define crappy, what you find acceptable and whether you’re looking at your £65 tablet from the point of view of a well paid tech journalist, someone who just wants to look at the odd web page or a blogger on the minimum wage.

It niggled me admittedly but again I lived with it and was able to get round the issues in a way that isn’t possible with out of the box Apple devices – I put apps on manually, sideloaded them, having downloaded them from app sites.  Most were old versions and again they wouldn’t get updates.  Playing videos from the computer required some research on how to make the software access a shared network drive, though as usual the net provided excellent step-by-step guides, though if anyone mentions the word Samba near me I may cry.  Ok, so it didn’t “just work” as certain fruity products are supposed to do but as a bit of a geek it was interesting.  The hair I pulled out has grown back.

It was a challenging device all in all – it had to be charged after a couple of hours use so I had to make an adaptor lead so I didn’t have to sit two feet away from where the power supply plugged in and so I could have a right-angle plug into the device.  Sometimes the internet browsing was painfully slow.  I loved reading books on it, even using it in a tent in the middle of the Lake District until the battery died again, though using it outside in sunlight was out of the question – one-nil to Kindle and paper.  Being non-approved some of the apps I wanted I just couldn’t have, and the dream of sharing data across computer, phone and tablet would have to wait a while.

The more I used it though the more I saw that the arguments of those people on gadget blogs who complained that tablets were too simplistic, that you “can’t code on them”, and so on were wrong.  The tablet is the perfect consumption device, I can lounge on the sofa and read the news, read a book, browse a website, check mail, listen to music or watch video streamed from my computer, I even have apps filled with tasty recipes which I haven’t yet got round to cooking.  I can share things I’m interested in there and then, add to my read it later.

Now, of course, this is well known and Kindle Fires, Nexus 7s and iPad Minis have been this years big Christmas gift – my mum got a Kindle Fire for her birthday last week because it was the perfect computer for her; so simple to use, just point and tap to read, browse the net or get more books or games.  I now have an Sony Xperia Android smartphone and a Nexus 7 tablet myself, both have newer versions of the software, I can listen to music via bluetooth from either and do even more than with my Chinese Droid, my emails, contacts, to do lists, notebooks, reading lists and bookmarks are automatically synced and available wherever I want them, all from small, thin light devices.

I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and similar, seeing those little pads of information and thinking how great it would be to have all that in your hand.  And it is.  Amazing.

Cataloguing The World

English: A Google Street View Camera Car (2008...

English: A Google Street View Camera Car (2008 Subaru Impreza Five Door) showcased on Google campus in Mountain View, CA, USA. taken by myself [User:Kowloonese] using a Canon digital camera. The picture was taken on Google Campus in Mountain View, CA, USA. Release for Public Domain. Kowloonese (talk) 04:53, 18 November 2010 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is big, lots of land, rivers, seas.  Our history is vast too.  The internet contains ever growing volumes of information about both.  And videos of kittens.

Search engines help with finding things on the internet of course, and even the history part as more historical documents are digitized and more history is recorded digitally, whether it be art, music, myth and legend or epic tales.

Google though continues to go beyond its core business, using search ad revenues to actually benefit people – providing free services such as YouTube (which it bought in 2006), Google Translate, Google Docs, Google Maps and so on – which are also available from Microsoft and other providers too – as well as the Android operating system which in its Ice Cream Sandwich version (4.0) is maturing into a very nice OS.  Then there’s the suite of desktop apps including Sketchup, Google Earth,  Picasa and more.  The company even looked skyward, producing Sky Map which is now an open source product.

One wonderfully useful thing Google gave us, via their fleets of cars with Johnny Five wannabees strapped to the roofs, is Street View.  It’s so useful to be able to actually see what the place you’re going to looks like, to see your route, turn by turn at street level because using our visual memory is far better that trying to remember an abstract set of directions on a top-down map alone. They even added traffic information to their Maps product recently.

Even this though was not the end as they’ve Street Viewed railway journeys, cycle routes, footpaths and walking trails and now they’re going to be photographing towpaths along rivers and canals in the UK too.  There will no doubt be privacy complaints again and parts of riversides across the country will become strangely hazy when viewed online but it will also give us more strange and funny discoveries in the images as we’ve had from the roadgoing cameras.

Another new Google project revealed this week sees the search behemoth collecting and documenting languages from around the world that are on the verge of extinction via videos, audio recordings and other documentation. The result will be presented via an interactive website.

Some people however won’t like their other announcement – a service that allows companies to track their employees’ movements via their work phones.  Well, two out of three’s not bad.