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Colin Devroe

Photographer. Podcaster. Blogger. Reverse Engineer.

Thoughts on the Microsoft Surface event

I’m pretty excited for Microsoft. I’ve been excited for what they’ve been doing as a company, on several fronts, for a few years now.

I won’t rehash all of the nice things I’ve been writing about them, but I can link to how I feel about Satya, the work they’ve been doing in open source and for developers, Surface, and Windows 10.

Yesterday’s Surface event was very good. I really like how Panos makes everything so dramatic. It is just more fun than how so many other tech companies present things. I totally understand if others don’t feel the same way. But I don’t think anyone has ever accused him of being disingenuous.

The updates to the Surface hardware were excellent. I think the 15″ laptop looks very, very good. And while I wish the Surface Pro was more of a direct competitor to iPad*, I don’t have any other wishes for their hardware. It is all very good.

The Neo and Duo products, both coming late 2020, are fascinating products. I have no idea if they will be successful or be hits – but I’m very glad Microsoft decided to make them.

Though I have to agree with John Gruber, they overshadowed the rest of the products that are available today a little. They likely knew they would though. So perhaps they are ok with it.

I have two quick I told ya sos, if I may.

In July Windows Central said they hoped someone at Microsoft was working on a phone, but if they were, they should keep expectations low. I vehemently disagreed with that sentiment. I wrote:

Microsoft was recently valued as the most valuable company to ever exist on planet earth. (Alongside Amazon and Apple.) Keep expectations low? Don’t make a huge bet?

[…]

I say Microsoft should swing for the fences. They should come out with Windows Phone again, base it on Android, call it a Surface Phone and set expectations at Panos Panay levels.

Guess which way they decided to go with Surface Duo?

I was wrong, though, they didn’t call it a Surface Phone. They are avoiding the word phone, which I think we all should as well. My Pixel is no more a phone than it is a book, but I can read and make phone calls on it.

And did they ever swing for the fences! A completely new form-factor, category of product, operating system based on Android. SWING!!!

The only thing Windows Phone was missing, you’ll remember, was apps. And now it will have that. Well, not Windows Phone. Android. Which I think is the right call.

I’d love to get one of these Duo devices, only to support bold vision and the stones to put them out into the world.

A few other random observations

  • Windows 10 X looks interesting. Could that be the new tablet mode?
  • The EarBuds look like a miss.
  • The way the Neo keyboard interacts with the device reminds me of the dial you can purchase with the Surface Studio. Microsoft should double down on this sort of thing. It really makes these devices truly like surfaces that you do stuff on. So, by next year we’ll have a Pen, Dial, and Keyboard. I say make a ton more of them.
  • I sort of think they could allow Android apps to run on Windows, this way Duo could still be a Windows computer. But there must be reasons that I don’t know about why they wouldn’t do this. Or perhaps it is still coming.
  • I think both the Neo and Duo will be very different by launch time. They don’t even have outward facing cameras on them yet.
  • Panos’ analogy of flow using his daughter at the piano is apt. When I’m in flow, it could be while I’m writing this blog post, writing code, editing a photo or video, etc I do feel like everything just disappears.

* Windows 10 tablet mode is simply no competitor to iPadOS in a tablet form factor. I’d go so far as to say it sucks in comparison. But, I’ve seen rumors that they’re working hard on this. So, we’ll see.

Alastair Humphreys on blogging for 18 years

Alastair Humphreys, adventurer, blogger:

I wrote my stories as I cycled around the world and updated my website intermittently whenever I found an internet connection stable enough to send a bunch of text. The screech of dial-up internet and being plunged into darkness by power cuts were regular accompaniments to my early days of blogging. I enjoyed two directly contrasting aspects of writing for the internet: the anonymity of writing for a website with no idea of whether anyone would actually read it, and the slowly burgeoning community of people from all over the world who stumbled upon my words. I remember the excitement of receiving an email from a lady who was reading my stuff from Antarctica. This internet thing is here to stay, I thought to myself, presciently.

Be sure to read his entire post. Subscribe to his blog while you’re at it. I have a feeling he’ll be doing it for a few more decades yet.

Audio: Read the manual (again)

Recorded September 30, 2019

Have you already read the manual for a product you own? After you’ve used it for a while, I recommend reading it again.

Twitter Lists are having a moment

Twitter recently released an updated UI that allows you to “pin” Lists you’ve created to your Home timeline view. This makes it possible to swipe between each List quickly. It is a nice feature – especially for those with only a few lists or for those just starting out with them*.

Since this update was released I’m noticing more and more people mention Lists. So I believe this update is working how Twitter wanted it to.

Here is something I wrote about Lists 7 years ago:

I suppose my favorite part about using lists is that I can check Twitter whenever I want without the feeling that I’ll be overwhelmed and distracted by tweets. I can choose when I want to be distracted. When I want to sit down and catch up on Twitter I can go through a few of my lists depending on my mood.

This remains true today. If I’m in the mood to catch up on some outdoor activity lists – fishing, hiking, kayaking – I can dip into that List and catch up. But if I’m in the mood to catch up on technology – I can scroll through that List. It sort of reminds me of reading a particular section of the newspaper, rather than skipping around the newspaper randomly. It allows me to focus a bit more.

Also, Lists do not suffer from the Home timelines terrible algorithm. For that reason alone it is worth building a List or two.

One List of mine that has stuck around is the idea of a “Scratch” list. Today I call it “Heap”. Call it whatever you want, but this allows you to add random accounts to this List and see if they stick. If they do, it is worth taking the time to categorize them.

Not all accounts fit into a category. People, for instance, tweet about all sorts of things. So I find that my relationship with them ends up becoming the name of the List. And for everything else, I have a List called “Lump of People”. I have no idea where I get these names.

I cannot imagine using Twitter without Lists. So I’m glad they are investing in the feature rather than removing or ignoring it.

If you haven’t tried Lists on Twitter I recommend you give them a spin.

Now, if only Instagram would give me some way do to this same thing I’d use it a lot more.

Bad reasons not to blog

There are a lot of bad reasons not to blog. Here are a few of them and why they are bad.

  • Someone already wrote about this. Terrible reason. You didn’t write about it. And the most important component in the equation is you. In over 20 years of blogging I cannot tell you how many topics I’ve covered that have been covered by so many other people yet still the posts helped so many. I have a few blog posts that have hundreds of thousands of page views.
  • I don’t understand this as much as others. Blah blah blah! The best blog posts are those written by people still figuring it out because they are new enough to a topic to cover them in detail. People that know something well tend to skip over important smaller pieces.
  • I’m not a good writer. Join the crowd. The only way to get better at writing is to write.
  • I’m a perfectionist, I would never publish. Publishing is a muscle. If you do it once, and keep doing it over and over, it becomes easier. Perhaps your tendency to get things just right will actually set your blog apart from others.
  • No one would read my blog. Who cares? A personal blog is less written for other people than it is for yourself. This post, as an example, is a reaffirmation of my own opinions to myself. If no one reads this at least I wrote it and it reinvigorates me to continue to blog. In fact, I would recommend not tracking analytics too closely.
  • Blogs are too complicated. Start simple. If you continue to do it, then you can dig in and make things more complex. Sign up to Micro.blog, WordPress.com, or Tumblr where there is zero configuration needed.

Update: See “I’m not a web developer”.

If you have any desire at all to have a blog and have ever thought that any of the above bad reasons should stop you – please reconsider and start blogging.

See also: My blogging tips.

My personal data sharing policy

I’ve been online since 1994. I’ve shared a lot of information here on my blog, through various social networks, and to different services like Google Maps, Untappd, and many others. That information has often included location, photos, audio and video.

For decades I thought nothing of sharing my current location online. I used check-in services like Foursquare, Brightkite, Gowalla, Swarm and many others. Or I’d share a tweet or a post here on my blog about my current whereabouts.

I’ve noticed, over the last several years, I do less of that. I post photos here on my blog often weeks or months after I’ve returned from where I took them. I share them a bit quicker on Instagram – however my account there is private (supposedly). And I rarely tweet on the go these days.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that I no longer geotag my photos on Instagram or use hashtags that often. Mainly because when I’ve personally tapped on locations or hashtags on Instagram the search results are less than representative of the location I saw and are simply popular selfies taken at the location.

My desire to do a sort of personal data sharing audit has been slowly building. I will read an article about how Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa is constantly listening in, or how our location is being tracked down to the floor we’re on by some apps and I pause, think about what I’m sharing, and sometimes shrug it off because I don’t really care if Google knows where I am. In fact, I like that they know where I am and where I want to go. I hop in my car and Android Auto suggest places it believes I would like to go and how long it will take me to get there. Who wouldn’t want that?

After all, what do I have to hide?

And then I see this ad from DuckDuckGo (which I use) on Twitter (of all places). It talks about the reasons, beyond criminal or mischievous, that I may want to protect my privacy. DDG’s reasons may not exactly be my reasons, but at least they’ve thought about it. So then I began thinking… “Have I thought much about this? Have I really gone through and made sure I have some sort of personal data sharing policy that I follow?”

So that is what I’m doing with this post. I started writing this post without having a personal data sharing policy and I hope by the time I’m ready to publish it I have version 1 of a policy that is right for me. Of course, suggestions are always welcome and perhaps I’ll revisit this topic from time-to-time to keep my personal policy updated.

Here are the main points of my personal data policy as it stands today:

  • Never share my current location publicly. I’m going to be certain my habits do not share my current location in a public way. I’m also going to audit any app or service that attempts to use my location data to be certain it does not share my current location publicly.
  • Download and remove all of my data from services that I haven’t used in over a year. I’ve got quiet an online trail that I’ve blazed over the last several decades. While I’m nostalgic for many of these services, and I hate dead URLs, I think it is best if I remove any of that data if I’m no longer using the service.
  • Evaluate each app on my mobile devices that use location data and read their privacy policies. In other words, make a more informed decision about what apps I share my location data with.
  • Delete any app that I do not use on my mobile devices that could use location or audio data. Believe it or not, many of the small utility apps that exist for free (like, doing fun image editing) have tons of third-party ad network code in them. I have dozens of these but I rarely use them.

Putting this policy in place isn’t paranoia. It is about making more educated decisions about what I’m sharing and with what companies. It is about being less cavalier with my own personal data and how it is used. It is about keeping myself and those around me a little safer – maybe. But overall, it is a gentle push to the companies that would profit off of this data to perhaps be more thoughtful and upfront themselves. And to make it just a bit harder on the scammers.

Audio: My armchair analysis of Automattic acquiring Tumblr

Date recorded: August 19, 2019

Yesterday while driving (sorry for the audio quality) I recorded a quick audio bit to distill my thoughts on why Automattic acquired Tumblr.

Short-version: Automattic sees Tumblr as an entry point for new WordPress.com customers – especially youth. For someone to go from idea to full commerce or publishing success via WordPress.com’s current offering could seem cumbersome and not nearly as hip as Tumblr.

Listen to the audio bit for more details. We’ll see if I’m right in 5 years.

Links relevant to this audio bit:

Automattic acquires Tumblr

Matt Mullenweg, on this Tumblog:

When the possibility to join forces became concrete, it felt like a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have two beloved platforms work alongside each other to build a better, more open, more inclusive – and, frankly, more fun web. I knew we had to do it.

Let’s get a few things out of the way immediately. Matt’s team acquired Tumblr for beans. That alone is a big part of this story. Yahoo! paid just over $1B for the platform and Automattic, reportedly, paid somewhere in the $3M area. In the world of acquisitions, this may end up being one of the most profitable acquisitions made by a tech company. Time will tell but I’d be willing to bet that Automattic will profit on this acquisition in a very short period of time.

Second, the tech stack of Tumblr is going to be replaced by WordPress. This is good for a variety of reasons. It ensures Tumblr will very likely be around in some form or another in perpetuity while still retaining its unique posting UI that its community no-doubt loves. I know I love it. I wish I had the same thing for my WordPress blog. Maybe I will get that now?

It also likely means that Tumblr and WordPress users can move back-and-forth between these two platforms much easier. I remember when I switched The Watercolor Gallery, which began as a Tumblog in 2010, to WordPress. It took me weeks to get everything right. Presumably this will no longer be the case.

And lastly, Automattic is an excellent home for Tumblr. They don’t just throw things out like Google, or apparently Verizon. They believe in building things for the long haul, doing them openly (for the most part), and retaining the ethos of the companies they acquire.

Both Flickr and Tumblr have seemingly found good homes.

I’m cdevroe on Tumblr.

Mike Davidson on working remotely

Mike Davidson:

First, let’s dispense with the easy part: despite what you may read on Twitter, remote work is neither the greatest thing in the world nor the worst. We are not moving to a world where offices go completely away, nor are we going through some sort of phase where remote work will eventually prove to be a giant waste of time. In other words, it’s complicated.

I worked remotely for about a decade. I now find myself working remotely again. A lot has changed since the first period that I worked remotely – as Mike points out in his post – but some things still remain the same.

Things that are improving:

  • Internet speed
  • Real-time chat tools
  • File sharing
  • Video / audio conferencing
  • White boarding

Things that will always be the same:

  • The need to over communicate
  • Distractions hurt productivity
  • Most meetings are terrible
  • People need to see people

I’m going to address each of these quickly.

That chatter that happens in office can sometimes bear fruit. Since these serendipitous interactions will no longer happen you have to create those interactions through deliberate action. Over communicate with your team about what you’re doing, what your ideas are, etc.

I feel there are less distractions working remotely than in an office though I can see how some would disagree. I suppose it depends on experience. In my experience, working in an office is like going to public school – a huge amount of time is “wasted” on chit-chat. Some, but not all, of that chit-chat moves into your chat client of choice. You have to be OK with this.

Meetings do not have to be terrible. There are some simple rules that I like to follow that help them suck less. Namely; Be certain you need an actual meeting, rather than an email or chat. Always give people enough time in advance to prepare. Always have an agenda. Always have action items. Follow up on those action items weekly or as appropriate.

Some people need to see people more than other people need to see people. 🙂 Finding some way to “get together” now and then is really valuable to the entire team.

I’m bullish on remote work. I think it is the way of the future for a large number of jobs though I totally understand people that would not want to do it. I cannot see it slowing down. I only seeing it becoming more and more normal and acceptable.

Google Pixel 4 wishlist

Yes, I know there have been leaks galore regarding the Google Pixel 4. While I’ve seen the leaks I haven’t paid much attention to them. I’ve tried to ignore them so that I could be at least a little surprised when it is announced.

I currently have the Google Pixel 2 XL. I’ve had it since December 2017. You can read my review here. This has been my favorite phone since the iPhone 7 Plus. So I’m eager to see what the next Pixel will be.

As my time to upgrade my phone comes around of course I’m left with a choice to go back to iOS or stick with Android. I’m sticking with Android. I really like my current phone OS. iOS 13 looks like a great update but it doesn’t have anything in it that would entice me to leave Android behind yet.

I’ve given thought to switching phone manufacturers also but there are a few things that keep me from doing so. The first obvious choice would be to go to Samsung. But Samsung’s software – both their apps they preinstall and their flavor of Android – seem subpar compared to the flavor of Android that ships on the Pixel. Also, their updates to Android under-the-hood come months (sometimes 9 months) after they are shipped. I like software updates far too much for that.

Another possible phone would be the OnePlus 7 Pro. This looks like a great phone for most people. Super fast, great display, etc. However, the camera system seems to not yet be what it needs to be for me.

There are other options like Huawei, LG, Xiaomi. But each of them has their trade-offs compared to the Pixel as well.

According to my research, the best Android phone for someone that cares about digital photography and having the latest, greatest software is the Pixel.

The only downside is that it is made by Google. And Google could, on a whim, wake up one morning and decide to discontinue making it. But I suppose I’ll have to live with that if it happens.

Now, onto the wishlist. Similar to my iPhone SE wishlist in 2016, my wishlist for the Google Pixel 4 is very short.

  • Faster – It isn’t that the Pixel 2 XL is slow. But is isn’t nearly as snappy as something like the OnePlus 7 Pro seems to be. I’d be totally OK if Google ships a Pixel 4 with 16GB of RAM to accomplish this.
  • Water resistant – “Waterproof” would be too much to ask, I fear. But a decent amount of water resistance would boost my confidence. I recently hiked 5 miles in a downpour and was very worried about my Pixel 2 XL but – surprisingly – it didn’t skip a beat.
  • Increased megapixels – I know, I know, megapixels aren’t everything. The 12MP front-facing camera in my Pixel 2 XL is extraordinarily good (see examples). But I’d be all for more pixels.
  • Better speakers – In quiet contexts the speakers in the Pixel 2 XL are more than adequate. But in nosier situations they simply do not hold up. And they aren’t good for music really.

That’s it. Faster, water resistant, increased megapixels, better speakers. I’m fairly confident that all of these things will come to be and that none of them are too much to ask. Looking forward to remaining on #teampixel for at least a few more years.