Vale The Old Reader, and whither hosted RSS?

The Old Reader has closed its doors to the public, not long after Google threw the gigantic corpse of Google Reader overboard and created the wave that nearly sank TOR. I wish TOR all the best in it’s new life as a more restricted service. It seems timely to ponder the fate of hosted RSS readers as a service class.

Let’s review the data:

  1. Google has decided Reader isn’t worth the effort
  2. TOR not only closed up shop, but more tellingly, couldn’t find a buyer. I don’t know if they tried very hard, but still – the time is not long past when buyers would have trampled each other to get their hands on 420,000 subscribers.
  3. Feedly is fee-free. Maybe there’ll be a paid service “later”. Otherwise, the sum total of what Feedly has to say about their business model is this: “Q: How are you guys funded. A: We are a self-funded company”.
  4. InoReader is fee-free. Even more directly, the founder says: “About the business, honestly I still don’t have business plan”.
  5. People associated with running each of these services have made a point of commenting on how resource-hungry they are
  6. Every one of these services has users who are asking to be allowed to pay so as to assure the future of the service

What are we to make of this rather strange picture? Reading the tea leaves from a long way off, I’d say there’s a yawning gulf between the expense of running this kind of service and the subscription fees that could realistically be charged. I’m not sure what might be the issue with advertising for this class of service – after all, Google pays for just about every other service through ad revenue. I suppose either they think this particular user base won’t tolerate it, or the advertisers won’t pay for it. Let me know if you have any insight into this.

This is also an object lesson in the problems that giant monopolies create. Google is now so big that a user base of close to a million people is not enough to justify its continued involvement. At the same time, that user base is so big that it has swamped or severely stressed the next tier of providers. This is a market segment that has become severely unbalanced, and is suffering as a consequence. Note to self: remember to support the mid-range providers, they might save my business some time.

Anyway, the next few months will be interesting. The wave of ex-Google users has already swept over Feedly to some extent, and they’re about to get another one from TOR. I suspect the InoReader guy is about to go through some version of what the TOR people went through – in fact, if I was him I’d be heading over to The Old Reader’s latest blog post and reading every word carefully, including the comments. Especially the comments.

For myself: I might sign up with one or another of the remaining services, but I’m not going to get attached. Maybe something will shake out over the next year and we can all relax. In the meantime, life is a little less convenient.

Windows Phone first impressions

As per my previous post, I went and snapped up a Nokia Lumia 800 on a postpaid deal. Money doesn’t have its usual meaning in phone plans (does anyone actually pay $500 for $500 worth of calls? in which case, why say those calls are worth $500?) but as far as I can work out the phone ends up costing me about $120 over a SIM-only plan. So, with Jake’s warning ringing in my ears – Jake, tune in in a year’s time to hear me admit you were right – I’ve finally joined the smart-phone revolution with a soon-to-be-superseded version of the least popular platform. Crazy? Read on to find out…

First, I’ll revisit my criteria, in order of importance:

  • Battery life of at least one full day, preferably two
  • Sync to multiple accounts
  • UI that doesn’t get in my way

Battery life
Tick. With light use I get over two days. With heavy mobile data and GPS use I went all of a long day and still had something in the tank.
A word of warning: as shipped the battery life is miserable, but with the automatically applied firmware update it miraculously almost triples. So although you can happily use this phone without ever syncing to a PC – don’t, because you need the PC for the update.

Sync to multiple accounts
Big tick. I like to keep personal email/calendar/tasks separate to work. It took me about five minutes to set this phone up to sync with my work Exchange account, my personal GMail account, Facebook and Windows Live. I get a unified contact list, calendar and task list, colour coded to the source. I can show or hide individual data sources so I can turn off my work calendar when I’m on holidays.

Contact data is merged but still linked back to the original source on a field-by-field level. For example, I’ll get a person’s Facebook photo and status, their phone number from Exchange and their email address from Google all seamlessly displayed on the one contact “card”. When editing a record which is linked to more than one source, I can choose which source I’m editing and only those fields appear on the edit form. When adding, I can choose which service I’m adding the record to, and I can link records from different services to merge them into the one contact.

None of this is flashy or obtrusive – the fact that I’m dealing with multiple data sources is there when I need to know about it, and invisible when I don’t. In short, it works (to my mind) exactly how it should.

As an example of how powerful this is: as part of setting up this phone I had to choose a back-end service for my calendar and tasks. I’ve been using a Palm Zire, so this stuff wasn’t previously in the cloud. The Google task list sync requires some setup on the Google site as far as I know, but I only spent 30 seconds thinking about it because a solution that worked immediately was using the Windows Live task list. So now I’m using Google for mail and calendar and Windows Live for tasks. It turns out I’m also using Windows Live SkyDrive for document storage. But on the phone, all of that is completely transparent – the backend cloud service has become a commodity.

There are a couple of other nice side effects of all this. Firstly, the UI is consistent across all services – it’s the same mail app, task app etc. no matter what back-end you’re dealing with. In fact I don’t even know what the online Windows Live task UI looks like. Secondly, the cloud just stays out of the way. I don’t consider myself a Windows Live user at all – I’m a Google guy for cloud and Facebook for social – so if Windows Live’s aspirations to compete with Google+ and Facebook were even slightly obtrusive that would be a deal breaker. But no, Live just acts as a data store without a hint of an upsell or unwanted notification stream.

Phew, sync is obviously a biggie.

User interface

Tick.
I actually don’t have much to say about this, which is exactly how it should be. The UI should just stay out of my way. It does. It should let me find what I need quickly. It does. The live tile thing is kind of nifty. To my eye the start screen is a little easier to use than the rows of icons on the iPhone. The whole thing has the obviousness and slickness that impressed everybody about the iPhone when it was launched, but more pared-down, more obvious, and even slicker.

I actually think PCs should work like this. Microsoft might be onto something with Metro.

Other stuff

There’s lots of stuff in phone reviews that I couldn’t care less about. So here are those things:

Camera – it works. Compared to a phone camera 5 years ago it’s great. Compared to my DSLR it’s garbage.
Apps – yes, there are some. Don’t ask me what. I’m in front of a computer pretty much everyday. The apps there are much better.
GPS – actually, the GPS is pretty cool. The Nokia Drive app poos all over the Bing version, and I’d even pick it over a dedicated TomTom.
Games – gimme a break.
Music player – it works. Honestly, this is something I care about, but it’s pretty hard to get it wrong.
PC software – almost irrelevant with everything cloud-enabled. Zune looks OK. It could hardly be worse than iTunes.
Screen – actually, the screen looks fantastic to me. Ok, so I’m old and my eyes aren’t the best, but to be honest I can’t imagine why anyone would see the WP7 resolution limitation as a problem.

A different take on the Windows Phone 8 announcement

I must be the only person left on the planet who doesn’t care about compute power on my phone.

I’m still using an old Nokia “dumb” flip phone, for two reasons: a) it works and b) the battery lasts 3-5 days. If you think reason a) is a bit trite, let me tell you about the two different acquaintances who managed to delete the phone app from their android devices…
However, for a variety of reasons, I’m thinking maybe it’s time to join the smart phone revolution.

This isn’t a smartphone comparison, but let me just say a couple of things. iOS devices are just sufficiently off-key in a Windows environment, particularly a non-Exchange Outlook environment, to rule them out. The sync setup just gets too screwy too easily. And heaven help you if a “helpful” friend enables iCloud (don’t ask me how I know). On the Android side, two different family members (no, not the ones who deleted their phone apps) have had their handsets just steadily degrade in the most uncanny imitation of Windows 95 bit-rot. Plus, for me, the Android UI just doesn’t quite gel.

So what about Windows Phone? The UI looks good, the sync situation (according to the docs) is at least sane, but best of all, these guys have a sensible power draw. Single core, limited resolution, 3G only – it all adds up to just possibly minimum bearable battery life.

Then, yesterday – the WP8 announcement. Windows phones are about to turn into multi-core, high-res, 4G power hogs. Sure, process improvements will claw back some of the losses, but man, what I wouldn’t give for an extra day of battery life instead. Don’t get me wrong, I like compute power – that’s why I have a giant desktop rig and a fire-breathing Clevo laptop. But on my phone, I want to be able to make phone calls, and preferably for more than just a few hours.

So I’m going to hoof it down to the phone shop and snap up a WP7 Lumia while I still can. And keep the old flip-phone handy just in case.

Media organizer blues

Both Windows Media Player and iTunes have some fundamental flaws that make them unsuitable for managing my music teacher wife’s music library.

A media organizer is in essence a pretty simple beast. There are some amazing bells and whistles out there, but basically a media organizer is just a way to manage file metadata (I consider playlist membership to be file metadata). Modern OS’s now will rip, burn and perform (some) device synchronization out of the box but still drop the ball when it comes to metadata management, despite having all the required support structures under the hood. If you’ve ever tried to manage playlists using nothing but Windows Explorer and shortcuts you’ll know what I mean.

Fortunately just about every media organizer does a great job of managing playlists. Where the big two fall down massively is in an area that really should be the absolute bedrock functionality, which is the way they interact with the file system.

Filesystem synchronization

Windows Media Player (WMP) as of Windows 7 still does not provide any sensible way to keep its library consistent with the file system. The state of the art is to delete your entire library and re-import it. There are a variety of 3rd party add-ons to do things like directory watching and orphan pruning. If you got the right set of those installed and working together (and trojan-free), you’d have a workable system.

iTunes does a decent job of keeping itself consistent with its own special area of the file system, but you’re on your own if you want to have any say over how your music is filed. You can update the iTunes library by re-importing your set of folders, but on Windows this has one fatal flaw. iTunes will convert any .wma files it finds to some more Mac-ish format (mp4 maybe? can’t remember). Not only does this take forever, but iTunes does not remember which files it has already converted, meaning if you import once a week for five weeks, you end up with five versions of every wma file you have.

So the notion that the media library should actually reflect the filesystem on which it is based seems to be beyond both Microsoft and Apple. It gets worse though.

Title tags

Both of these packages seem to assume that every piece of music you have has been bought in a store and arrives fully tagged with title, artist, album and genre. This isn’t always the case, especially for musicians. There is one piece of “metadata” that every file reliably must have – its filename. Unfortunately this is the one piece that both WMP and iTunes decline to notice. When burning a CD or synchronizing to a device, these packages will use the title field. If that’s missing, they simply number tracks sequentially, so the file “my great accompiment in C major.mp3” becomes “track 17” when it gets to the iPod. Worse than that, neither package provides a way to use the filename to fill in missing title fields.

A solution

No doubt this tale of woe is a well-trodden path and you’re all muttering “Just get [real media organizer brand X] and stop whining, for Pete’s sake”. Anyway, in our case brand X is J. River’s Media Center. Is this the best media organizer? I have no idea. After beating my head against WMP and iTunes I didn’t have the energy to do the full comparison. Is it free? Nope.

It does take a sensible attitude to keeping the library in sync (i.e. it works). It does still have the bad attitude about even a blank title tag being preferable to a full filename, but at least it provides tools to transfer filenames to titles in bulk. Incidentally, the bad attitude seems to be a new “feature”, as I’m pretty sure older versions used to happily use the filename. And it has a strange habit of importing MIDI files into the video section of the library, even though the .mid file extension has been configured as an audio type. Once again, the tools are there to bulk transfer them back into the audio section.

The real solution

This entire problem would just go away if we could do one simple thing – have a file in more than one directory, which is all a playlist really is. The file system structures are all there, only the UI is lacking. My next step (once the blood pressure has subsided a bit) is to investigate 3rd party file managers. I’ll keep you posted.

Windows update firewall issue

Just putting this out there in case someone else is stuck. The symptom is that Windows Update just stops working. You may not find out about this until your PC complains that it hasn’t been updated for x weeks. In fact, depending on your version of Windows, you may not know unless you actually check the date of the last update.

I get a variety of error codes, all of which boil down to some networking problem (check DNS, etc.) and none of which are actually helpful. The real problem is that the windows firewall is blocking traffic from my router to my PC. For reasons that are beyond my discovery, windows update (and microsoft update) generates traffic from my router to my PC. The source of the traffic actually is the router, not just outside traffic passed through.

So, the fix is:

  • Prepare your geek resources. If you’re not comfortable poking around in firewall rules, go out to the forest and capture a geek.
  • Find out the IP address of your router. Often this is printed on the bottom of an ADSL router and will be something like 192.168.1.1
  • Enable logging of dropped packets in your firewall. I’m not going to tell you how to do this as there are too many variations, so you’ll have to look it up. Just a tip, though – if you’re using Windows built-in firewall, make sure you enable logging for the active profile (usually the private profile).
  • Kick off an update
  • Look in the logs for dropped packets with the router’s address as the source address. Make a note of the port and protocol (e.g. UDP port 2048).
  • Add a rule to the firewall (again, use the active profile) to allow that traffic.

The final twist is that the port may change when the router is rebooted. So unless you want to just allow all traffic from the router, you need to keep an eye on this. For a long time I only saw ports 2048 and 2049, but just lately it’s flipped over to 2051.

Not an especially straightforward fix for something as fundamental as windows update. It’s a disturbing thought that for a user without reasonable tech skills, this problem basically just disables updates, invisibly and permanently. I have found absolutely no mention of this anywhere on the net. Maybe nobody else has this problem – but I’ve seen it with two different routers, four different PCs and three different Windows versions.

I’d be intrigued to know if anyone has any insight into the cause. I can only guess there’s some sort of link monitoring, QoS heartbeat or some such going on. I have found port 2048 mentioned in a list of well-known ports as “dls-monitor”, but no luck finding out what that means.

113,800 hours – job well done

This is the first and almost definitely the last time you’ll see me getting sentimental about a piece of hardware.

Not long ago we switched off MESWEB, the server that had been our main web server for ten years, and remained online for another three running legacy software and sites. That’s (you guessed it) roughly 113,000 hours up and running. The server that was bought to replace it four years ago has already been decomissioned – in fact it was decomissioned before its predecessor. These servers are all now virtual, so we will never again know what hardware we’re running, let alone see it or give it a name.

Coincidentally, MESWEB’s lifespan very closely matches my employment with the company, which was also unusually long-lived for our industry. MESWEB was commissioned only a few months before I was hired, and decomissioned a few months after I started my new role with our parent organization, the University of Queensland.

While I’m getting sentimental, this is the end of an era in another way – my involvement with the mighty and sadly defunct Digital Equipment Corporation. Nobody made machines that just kept going like DEC, and MESWEB, while it burnt a few (very expensive, SCSI, hot-swap) disks never had a fault. In fact it’s still in good running order. However, there will be no more DECs, and while carting MESWEB out the door I couldn’t help remembering:

  • The very first program I wrote was about ten lines of Pascal on a PDP-11 terminal in the CS101 lab. Can you imagine a PDP-11 running about 100 terminals? On assignment days the compilation queue stretched out to nearly two hours.
  • My first job was at an aerial survey firm. We were working on PCs (286!) but the survey guys still had their PDP-11 going. I remember the two book-cases of manuals. You want to re-wire the read head on your tape drive? Here’s the circuit diagram. And here’s the assembly code for the BIOS. All that documentation came in handy, as for some reason I got to write the software to read and write 9-track reel-to-reel tapes on the PC.
  • My first job back in the full-time workforce after child-rearing was with a UQ department with a gaggle of epidemiologist’s and a long tradition of hardcore numbercrunching. SAS code makes 8086 assembler look like child’s play! Their DECSystem 10 was long gone but the name plate still hung proudly on the wall, the MicroVaxen sat in the corner desultorily forming quorums, and the new kid on the block was the DEC HX Pentium Pro server. The HX was a couple of model years before MESWEB and had the identical case. With the sole exception that the HX had a power-down on case intrusion “feature” – don’t ask me how I know 🙂

Which brings us back to MESWEB. Lots of memories there. Like the time Scott leant over to look at the back of the server, leant on the UPS power button, and powered down the whole server room. Then spent the next hour putting about eighty layers of sticky tape over the power button. The weeks of research, aided by DEC’s excellent documentation and spare parts service, that preceded installing a second CPU – new VRMs, BIOS and MP kernel included. And the pager. Oh, God, the pager…

So I did the only sensible thing under the circumstances. I brought MESWEB home, along with the external disk array. It’s sitting under my desk in my home office as I type this. I have fantasies of seeing if I can mount modern hardware in the DEC case and use it as my main machine, but I probably won’t – don’t know if I could bear to throw out those VRMs. So it just sits there, and when my i870 gets too cheeky it grumbles a bit and mutters “Ay, but when I were a lad…”