Friday, August 26, 2011

Checking In On Checking In

It's been a few months since I did my write-up on location-based check-in services.  I've been checking in pretty consistently, and the three main services that I covered have each recently announced changes.

First, my experience:  I chose Gowalla as my check-in app of choice, mostly because I like the colorful and attractive graphics that each category (and often individual spot) has.  Gowalla also has the added benefit of being able to check in to Facebook and Foursquare, and show my friends' check-ins from those services.

Gowalla Items
At each check-in, especially since I auto-post them to Twitter and Facebook, I try to make the post interesting by taking a picture if appropriate, and always adding some sort of comment to give it context and personality.  This works pretty well, but the pictures uploaded to Gowalla are tiny.  I would prefer to be able to take and upload higher-resolution shots.  I would also like to be able to post pictures not taken from the Gowalla app at the time of check-in.  Often it takes a while to find the correct spot, and by that time, the moment I want to capture may have passed.  It would be nice to be able to whip out the phone, take a picture, and then use that with my check-in.  I know you can do this with Foursquare, but Gowalla likes to provide more assurances that you are actually at the place where you check in (though anything can be faked).  I've considered creating a fake camera app that would simply allow you to choose an image to "take" from the existing Gallery images.

Another thing I've gotten into has been Item collecting.  Occasionally when you check in, Gowalla awards you a virtual item, which can be "donated" to a spot that doesn't have too many items, or traded for an item at a spot, after you check in.  This aspect of checking in appeals to the collector in me.  What I ended up doing was keeping those items that had had the greatest number of owners, and trading the others, in hopes of accumulating items with long and interesting histories.  I was doing OK plodding along, but the items don't come too quickly, which is frustrating, and they aren't a very intuitive feature, which means that most of Gowalla's already small user base doesn't do any trading with their items.

Social Apps
Gowalla just announced via their blog that they are going to do away with the item feature entirely in the coming months.  This makes me sad, but I'm hoping that this means they have a clear and innovative vision that would clash with the item system.  The post seems to imply that they have something big to offer in place of item swapping that they are not yet prepared to announce, so I'm hopeful, but I don't know whether anything they do will drastically increase their user base.  Perhaps they have something in mind that will increase existing user engagement; something to do when checking in that they would prefer we do over item swapping.

Perhaps Gowalla could pick up some users from Facebook Places, which is apparently becoming less of a check-in service, and more of a way to tack your location on to an existing post.  I actually think this is a good idea, since most Facebook check-ins are simply a person-place-time data point, and have no user-generated content to make them interesting.

Speaking of making check-ins more interesting, Foursquare recently announced that they are adding events to places, and they aren't relying on users to generate and update the schedules: they're turning to the pros.  This is good news.  Whereas before a typical foursquare user would check in at a movie theater or a concert hall without comment or commenting simply to mention the event, now the app presents them with a list of movies or acts that are currently showing where they are checking in, and they have the option to pick one.  Hopefully this will encourage users to add details other than what they're there for, like what they think of it, or who they're with.

I actually use Foursquare through Gowalla, but this feature isn't available to me, since Gowalla only maps its spots to Foursquare's venues, not the new events.  If Gowalla fails to deliver on their new vision, I might find myself simply using the Foursquare app to check in.  Foursquare allows you to post any picture with your checkin, including one you already took, and the Foursquare user base is much larger than Gowalla, so I have many more friends who use it.  Switching would be very simple for me to do, but I would definitely miss Gowalla's colorful and cartoony icons.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Google+: Impressions So Far

I was able to get an invitation to join Google's new social network, Google+, a few days ago, and I thought I would give my initial impressions.

First of all, it's a social network, which means that you can post content which others you specify can see, and you can see others' content that they have allowed you to see.  In that way it is much like Facebook.  I think you all get the idea, so I'm going to focus on what's different and new.

Google+ Android app
The first thing you'll notice when you sign up is that instead of simply "Friends", Google wants you to categorize your contacts into "Circles", which are sets of contacts.  The purpose of this is so that you can easily share different things with "Family" than "Work"; "Acquaintances" than "Friends" (your real friends), and of course you can create as many custom circles as you wish.

Of course, Facebook has Friends Lists which lets you do the exact same thing, but not many people use them, and almost no one picks and chooses which Friends Lists to share things with on Facebook, whereas the idea is that with Google+, that will be the norm.

I think the most compelling features of Google+ are as follows:
  • Hangouts - You can flip on your webcam and start a Hangout, which you can invite your circles to or post to your profile.  Others who see you're hanging out can join you, and what results is a very easy multi-way video chat.  When someone starts talking, the big video switches to them. 
  • Automatic mobile photo/video upload - People like to take pictures and videos on their phone, and it can be quite a hassle to get those photos and videos off.  You can either plug your phone in to your computer, or you can manually select pictures and videos for upload using an app.  Google+ offers set-it-and-forget-it convenience:  with the Google+ app, you have the option to have everything automatically uploaded to your own private space, from which you can easily share selected photos and videos.  You can select whether to upload over the network, only over WiFi, or only over WiFi while charging, so it doesn't eat up your data plan or drain your battery if you don't want it to.  The online backup feature alone is worth installing the app, even if you never share anything, but once it's already online, why not use it?
  • It's Google - and therefore very conveniently integrated with all of your Google sites, like Gmail, Google Reader, Picasa, and Google Calendar.  Those of us who use these services will see a notification counter and "share" button in the top right hand corner of the page.  It will just be "there" for us to use.
I find it interesting that, at least as yet, there is no way to publicly post a message to another person.  On Facebook, this would be like posting to someone's wall.  On Twitter, it would be @ mentions and replies.  This makes it significantly less social in my opinion:  basically everyone is simply publishing things and sharing and commenting on things that others publish.  You can publish all you want, but no one interacts with your posts unless they follow you.  Even when you mention someone else, only that person gets a notification, not their friends.  The only serendipity is in comments.

I predict that this will make Google+ much less of a content generation space than Facebook.  People will tend more to import their existing streams of content to Google+, rather than using Google+ to initiate the conversation.

I could be wrong.  I hope so.  Then again, I personally almost never post on other people's Facebook walls.  All of my content on Facebook originates on other services, such as Twitter, Gowalla, Posterous, and Blogger.  This makes it easy for me to check a box on those services and send the content to Google+ as well as Facebook, and thus Facebook is not the exclusive holder of my content (this is by design).  But I wonder what the designers of Google+ are intending to do by not implementing such a seemingly basic feature.

They may not have been able to come up with a way to make it work with circles.  After all, if all of your content gets published only to the circles that you pick each time, how can you trust your contacts to pick the appropriate circles with which to share their posts to your profile?  (On the other hand, anyone who can see a post can republish it to anyone else, unless sharing is disabled.)

I don't think Google+ will die or be as obscure as Orkut (or as hated as Buzz), but I also don't think it will become as popular a place to spend time and interact with all of your friends as Facebook.  Google+ is a great personal publishing platform, and it has some useful tools for connecting with friends and colleagues, but it is definitely not a Facebook clone, nor, I fear, a Facebook killer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.: Location-Based Checkin Networks

This post is the second in my series of Android app comparison posts.  Last time I compared two Twitter clients, this time I'm looking at location-based checkin services.

Social apps
There is one thing to be careful of in sharing your location, and that is privacy.  Particularly when I post pictures of my small children, I don't want to make it too obvious to creeps and stalkers exactly where I live.  I also personally don't want my full name publicly associated with my posts.  You'll notice I don't post it on my blog, or on Twitter.  Of course, once these things get imported into Facebook, they become associated with my name, but I have configured my privacy settings so that the association is only visible to friends (and sometimes not all of them), or in some cases, friends of friends.

I'm the kind of person who likes to post things from my phone to share with my friends and the world.  I particularly like to post pictures, but location is another very social aspect of sharing.  Checkin services allow you to post about places such as restaurants, shops, parks, landmarks, transportation, or just about anything else.  It's social because a places are concrete things that other people can experience too.  They might enjoy the same restaurant, or be looking for one.  They might see you check in at a series of airports (or ferries), and get a sense of your travel experience. 

Facebook Places
The most popular checkin service is actually Facebook Places.  I think this is because almost everyone already uses Facebook, so they don't need to sign up for anything new, or connect with a new list of friends to share: they can just share.

I haven't done much with Facebook Places.  It's also the least interesting, at least among my friends, in that most checkins have no comments or pictures.  When I post that I'm somewhere, I usually like to say what I'm doing there:  what I ordered, who's with me, what I'm looking for.  I also like to include a picture.  You can do all of these things with Facebook Places, it seems that no one does, though.

The most popular of the dedicated checkin networks is Foursquare.  Foursquare is where you will be able to connect with the most people who go out of their way to check in.  Foursquare also makes checking in interesting in a number of ways:
Foursquare deal
  • Points: Each checkin is scored, and you can see how well you're doing in the last 7 days against each of your friends on the leaderboard.
  • Badges:  Checking in earns you different badges based on the number and type of checkins you do.  You can see which badges you have and which your friends have, and which you don't.
  • Mayorships:  If you're the one who checks in the most days at a particular venue in the last 60 days, you become the "mayor" of that place.  
  • Deals: Some stores offer special discounts to the mayor, or to anyone who checks in frequently enough.
  • Categories: Foursquare venues are categorized, and each category has a different icon in the interface and can earn you different bonuses.
Gowalla is in many ways very similar to Foursquare, however, they have their own unique twist to checking in at a spot.  (You'll notice they each call it something different: place, venue, spot, location).
  • Stamps:Whereas Foursquare is more of a competition against others, Gowalla promotes itself as a "game" and tends to be more individual.  There is no score, but every place you check in gives you a unique Stamp to collect on your "passport".
  • Pins: Similar to Badges, pins are awarded for checking in, sometimes for a number of times at a number of unique types of spots, sometimes for places (like states or countries), and sometimes for events or special days.
  • Categories: Gowalla has its own category system, similar to Foursquare, but whereas Foursquare's icons (including Badges) are drab monochrome black and white, Gowalla's icons are colorful and bright, drawn in a cartoony style resembling stickers that is very aesthetically attractive.
  • Items:  Sometimes when you check in, you will find a bonus Item.  There are over 100 different kinds of items, and each item has a unique ID number and a history of who has handled it and where.  You can add items to your collection, or you can swap them for items left by others at different spots.
  • Trips: Gowalla has trips generated by users, which are a collection of spots to check in.  Once you have completed the tour by checking in at each of those spots, you earn the pin for that Trip.
Gowalla also has some nice features on their website:  if you check in at a series of airports within certain time parameters, it will combine them into a single trip, showing each airport along the way and the distance between them.

Google Latitude
Another checkin service that I have not used much is Google Latitude.  Latitude is based on Google Maps, and will track your location (and give you stats for your own reference), and share it with your friends who also use Latitude.  You can check in to locations, either manually, or automatically for locations you choose, or you can have Latitude give you a notification when it thinks you might want to check in.

The great thing about all of these checkin services is that you don't need to choose anymore.  Foursquare will update Twitter and/or Facebook, and Gowalla will not only post your checkins to Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook, but it will also retrieve your friends' checkin information from Facebook and Foursquare and display it alongside your Gowalla friends' checkins.  (All of these are optional.) 

The one thing that doesn't get transferred between Gowalla and Foursquare is photos.  Photos on Gowalla are posted to Facebook, but not Foursquare, and Gowalla does not retrieve pictures from other services.

Gowalla tries to match its database of spots to Foursquare's database of venues.  It's not perfect, though.  When there isn't a matching spot, or Gowalla doesn't have it matched, it will still update your foursquare friends, but the checkin won't count for points or towards a mayorship.  

Footfeed is an app that allows you to manually manage which spots match with which (on Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook, Latitude), and then check in to all of them in one fell swoop.  The app is a full featured replacement for any of the other services, with the exception of pictures.

You can report unmatched or mismatched spot/venues to Gowalla and they will add them to their database.  Both Gowalla and Foursquare allow you to submit updated/corrected information, and to manually add missing spots.

Personally, I use Gowalla, but I have the Foursquare app installed, and most of my friends who check in do so on Foursquare or Facebook.  Occasionally when I know that Gowalla doesn't match up the spots correctly (and I'm not posting a picture), I will use Footfeed to check in.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Android: Twidroyd vs. TweetCaster Pro: Twitter Clients

Recently someone asked me about my choice of Twitter client on Android:  why had I chosen the Twidroyd app over the official client from Twitter?  At the time I had also just downloaded, and was trying out the TweetCaster Pro app.

Social apps
I have been meaning to do a series of posts about various categories of Android apps.  Hopefully this will be the first such post.  My goal is to be helpful to others who are curious about what apps are out there, but aren't as adventurous as I am in trying them all.  Come on in, by the way, the water's fine.

The first thing that attracted me to the Twidroyd app was the Posterous Twitter help page, which basically says that if you want to use a Twitter app on Android that integrates Posterous, Twidroyd is your only option.

I have been using Posterous to post pictures, video, and occasionally long-form text from my phone since before I had a smartphone, and I'm still very happy with it.  As such, Posterous integration was a good selling point for an Android Twitter app.

I also at the time downloaded the official Twitter app, as well as TweetDeck, but I didn't find either of them to be particularly compelling.

I should mention that, while Twidroyd is the only Twitter app that integrates Posterous, there is also an official Posterous app, which generates posts that can be auto-posted to Twitter.  This is the way that I end up sending most of my Posterous posts.  The only advantage of using Twidroyd is if I wanted to create a Posterous post, but post it to Twitter with text that is different from just the title of the post.

Another Twidroyd feature that I like is its integration.  Twidroyd allows you to enter your account's API key, and the shortened links will be "yours" and show up on your personal history, where you can track and manage them with the rest of your shortened URLs. What Twidroyd seems to do best is integrate itself well with other online services.  Here's a list:
  • Photos: Lockerz, Twitpic, Twitgoo, YFrog, Posterous
  • Video: Lockerz,, Posterous,
  • URL Shortening: TinyURL,,,
  • Tweet Shortening: Tmi, Twitlonger

It also works with multiple Twitter accounts, though I only have one.

Twidroyd lets you customize its notifications in just about every possible way.  One nice feature that other clients don't have is that it displays the tweet text in the notification bar.  This is something that I'm finding I miss when trying out other clients.

Speaking of other clients, Amazon recently gave away the Premium version of TweetCaster as their free app of the day, so I downloaded it and gave it a try.

The first thing that struck me was that it was very visually appealing. And not only does it look good, the interface is very functional!  Tweets by me, replies, and mentions, are all highlighted in different color gradient backgrounds.  Favorites and retweets are marked with intuitive icons.  Tweets by me have the icon on the opposite side, and for retweets, the retweeter's icon is superimposed on the bottom corner of the original author's icon.  Looking at the settings, all of these things are customizable as well.

TweetCaster also integrates with, but it doesn't use the API key.  It supports the following 3rd party services:
  • Photos:,,
  • Video:
  • URL Shortening:,
The jury is still out on whether I'm going to switch to TweetCaster.  The way the interface graphically communicates so much information is appealing.  I can post photos and video directly to Posterous, and I have yet to post a URL link from my phone.  If I have more than 140 characters to post, I can just use Posterous instead of Twidroyd's integrated text shortening features.

What it comes down to for me is Twidroyd's notification previews vs. TweetCaster's pretty and functional interface.  For now I'm using both.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Atrix Screens

I finally got a screenshot app on my phone that works (and it doesn't require root, which is good since the OTA update unrooted my phone).
This is just my home screens, but this post is also my test of the Blogger app.

Edit: Apparently it scales the pictures you upload. That's unfortunate.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Motorola Atrix 4G

Two days ago I ordered myself a Motorola Atrix 4G!  This is a big deal:  I've been wanting a smartphone, specifically an Android phone, for quite some time.

My contract isn't actually up.  Last February we renewed all four of the contracts on our family plan at the same time.  This, I realize, was a mistake, because while it increases flexibility in that it makes it easier to leave the carrier (two years later when all of the contracts are up), it actually reduces flexibility in that if you have trouble with one of the phones (as it did with my dad's), you are left without the option to upgrade out of time.

Since my current phone is a "dumb" phone, the early termination fee (when I cancel the contract) is not so bad.  With 11 months left on the contract, it will be $98.

The way I'm going about this is to order the Atrix on a new line on our family plan.  When it arrives and I activate it, I will attempt to get AT&T to exchange the numbers associated with the contracts so that my old contract has the new number, and the new contract, with the Atrix, has my old number.  I estimate that I have a 20% chance of succeeding.

I would like to keep my number, so if that doesn't work, I will simply port the old number to Google Voice.  I currently use Google Voice for voicemail and for sending text messages from a computer, and I wouldn't mind it a bit if by default, everything went through it, especially text messages, since I would prefer not to pay for them.  If I port the number, text messages sent to it won't be text messages anymore: they will be data.  I have always hated that the carriers charged so much for delivering messages piggybacking on traffic between the phone and tower that was being sent regardless of whether there was a message.

Why the Motorola Atrix 4G? 

Well, that's a good question, after all, the name is a lie.  The Atrix is not physically capable of actual 4G, and AT&T has even disabled HSPA+ upload speeds on everything but the iPhone 4.  What AT&T offers is "4G download speeds delivered by HSPA+ and enhanced backhaul."  Real, actual 4G is coming to AT&T's network later this year (probably this summer) in the form of LTE.

Motorola Atrix 4G Android Phone (AT&T)
Motorola Atrix 4G
If I waited until my line was eligible for an upgrade in October, there would almost certainly by then have been a crop of new phones introduced, of equal caliber to the Atrix, supporting actual 4G.  Motorola wasn't my first choice in manufacturer.  I have heard nothing but good things about HTC's Sense interface, and nothing but bad things about Motorola's Motoblur interface.  There is, in fact, a direct competitor to the Motorola Atrix 4g:  the HTC Inspire 4G.  Why did I not go with that instead?  It's even cheaper.

HTC Inspire 4G Android Phone (AT&T)
HTC Inspire 4G
There are a number of reasons, of course.  First, despite Motoblur's sordid reputation, reviews and users in forums seem to be saying that it's actually a good experience on the Atrix.  The Atrix is a very fast phone, with a Dual-core 1GHz processor and a Gigabyte of RAM.  The Inspire is no speed slouch either, but, especially coming from a feature phone, I'm not keen on it's size.  I have very good eyes at close distance, and have always liked screen real-estate:  not largeness of screen, but number of pixels.  The Atrix has over a third more pixels in its 4" display as the Inspire has in its 4.3" display.  The Atrix also has four times the internal memory as the Inspire, though both can be expanded with up to 32GB microSD cards. The Inspire has an 8 megapixel camera, but the Atrix has both front and rear-facing cameras, and I don't think that the 5 megapixel snapshots taken by the Atrix will be of any less quality than the Inspire's.

The Atrix accessories have been touted as it's huge selling point, but I don't see much use for them, especially at the prices they're asking.  I would rather haul a netbook around than a phone dock, and I already have a computer hooked up to my HDTV at home, so I don't think I'll need to hook the phone up directly. 

Selling Points

In short, despite the hype about a "superphone," and "4G,"  I find the Atrix to be by far the best phone for me:
  • Despite being small (and pocketable--I'm a guy, I don't carry a purse), it has excellent screen quality and resolution.
  • Because it was made to drive a netbook, it is a powerhouse phone, capable of running any apps I throw at it--and I intend to be a power user.
  • Because it's a flagship product, it gets all the bells and whistles, like the fingerprint scanner, HD video recording, front-facing camera, gorilla glass, etc.
The iPhone is physically a fine product, but it does not interest me, mainly because of Apple's philosophy of control, especially when they see an opportunity to lock down a revenue stream.

Why now?

I suppose I could have waited until October.  As I have mentioned before, AT&T is rolling out their LTE network, presumably with a new crop of top-of-the-line phones, and there would be no hassles with my phone number.  I could just wait.  I was going to wait.

But it was my birthday, and I got "smartphone" money!  Did I mention I had already waited a long time?  I think there will always be something better to wait for, and if you always wait, you will never buy.  Pining for nice things is OK if you actually intend to buy; otherwise, you're just living in a fantasy land, coveting what you cannot have.  The extra expense, to me, is worth the extra time of getting to use a smartphone.

I also found a decent price at Costco's wireless site, which gives you free activation, free shipping and a free accessory kit (including a car charger).  [CarToys has the best price, but no option for adding a line to an existing family plan.]

Besides, come October, there will be three lines on our plan due for an upgrade, and I doubt that all three will want to exercise it just then.  Perhaps if I there's an awesome LTE phone from HTC with NFC and I work things right, I can get that, and pass the Atrix (or my current phone) along to someone else.