Sunday, January 27, 2013

Do you really want to log in to all sites with your Facebook ID?

Nowadays, it's easier to stay anonymous in your local grocery store, than online. I kid you not. I have patronised my grocer since 5 years. I estimate that I spend upwards of Rs. 24,000 per year with him. I doubt if he knows my full name. If I did not ask for home delivery, he would not know my address. He does not save my mobile number and he has no way of hounding me if I never visit him again. 

These oases of anonymity are rare to find in modern times. As a user, have you noticed that on any news site or ecommerce site, you are being urged to sign in with Facebook, Twitter, Google or some other platform where you are an existing user?

In the old days, every site would required us to sign up individually, and we did it cheerfully, because we really needed those sites. And let's face it, there were not so many sites. I recall maintaining a dog-eared notebook with a handwritten list of user IDs and passwords on different sites - Yahoo!, YouTube, ICQ, Rediff, GeoCities and a number of different forums. 

Then social networks entered. Then e-commerce sites entered. Then suddenly, every site, too many sites were demanding that we sign in. Life became too complex. We chose to use sites anonymously, and many sites started allowing us to do that, trying to at least get more visitors and page views, than put us off by forcing us to register. However, they lost out in doing this - they were unable to profile users beyond rudimentary facts like IP address/ country/ browser. Meanwhile, sites like Facebook and Twitter had amassed tons of rich data on people's interests, social networks and activities, data far richer than any site would get by simply taking your email address, date of birth etc. 

Then the concept of Open ID was born. Open ID is a simple but brilliant idea of 'sharing' your basic information with sites without compromising your privacy. New sites that you want to register for can access the basic information from a site you use and trust (like Facebook). The idea was that a user can control and decide how much information he/she shares through Open ID. 

Open ID has evolved over years. 'Social login' is used by many news sites to track the stories you read on Facebook and recommend them to your friends. Many sites have even enabled social login for commenting on blog posts/ articles, in order to reduce anonymous trolling. 

Yet I have remained uncomfortable with the idea of using a common facebook or twitter login, across the web, for a simple reason. My Facebook ID is the 'real me', and it's different in my head from Nisha the blogger, Nisha the managing partner of Bright Angles, Nisha on LinkedIn and Nisha the anonymous user of many forums. The fragmentation of identity on the web is real and Google + 'circles' capture it best - there are things you will share about yourself in different circles, and this compartmentalisation needs to be maintained. I do not want to respond as a commenter on sites using my facebook login. I would rather take the time to identify sites that really need to have my information (primarily e-commerce sites) and sign in separately. In all other places, I am ready to take the trouble to create an account, but I want to share just what information is necessary, than the 'bare all' stance of giving my Facebook ID. I am not even coming from a concern about security, but from a concern about  identity. Several tech bloggers and developers have concurred with this view, notably Marco Arment, creator of the Instapaper App.

So, I was very pleased to see recently that TechCrunch in a recent post titled Commenters, we want you back!, has discontinued Facebook comments and replaced it with LiveFyre, noting that Facebook killed a lot of valid participation from genuine commenters. 

My stance on social media and social login has always been - act on the assumption that everything you say in public domain, will stay in the public domain. However, as a user, I do want to choose which public identity I assume in which domain. I do prefer to avoid using a Facebook or Google login where I have an option.

What is your stance?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Aeropress is in India, coffee lovers rejoice!

When I learnt from a tweet that Aeropress had launched in India last month, I immediately went to their ebay store and picked up one for myself. I have been coveting an Aeropress since the past two years, but to purchase it from Amazon would have entailed paying shipping and import fees that equal the price of this $30 product. At Rs.2000 in India (plus Rs. 200 shipping), it is a steal, for a simple reason.

This non-technical, non-electric, not-at-all-gadgety, deceptively simple plastic contraption makes a remarkably good cup of coffee. Way better than the Rs.2000+ electric drip coffee makers, arguably more consistent than my temperamental espresso machine, and light years ahead of the stovetop mocha maker and french press. And it does not require skill or proprietary technique (though if you are technique-oriented, you will find dozens of Aeropress techniques on the web). It takes less than a minute to press out a smooth, rich and flavorsome coffee. I am disappointed to confess that anything so basic works better than a gadget, but it does. And if you don't believe me, read the reviews at coffeegeek or Amazon.

The real power of an Aeropress is that it puts the power to make great coffee in anyone's hands, at a budget price. Literally in your hands, because it is a hand operated device. I should also add, at any place, because it is completely portable. You can take it to work, or to your friend's party, or on a long distance trip and enjoy good coffee, wherever you are. 

I tried out three newly launched coffees from Blue Tokai Coffee in the Aeropress. I loved the smooth tones of the medium roasted MS Estate Plantation A Coffee. When I compare the same coffee brewed in the espresso machine vs. Aeropress I was really able to get the difference. The Aeropress enhanced the subtle flavor of the coffee and totally eliminated the slight bitterness that is always present in espresso. It brews milder than the espresso machine and it takes a little extra coffee powder to get it to a strength that I like. I put the extraction from an Aeropress closer to traditional South Indian filter coffee than to a French press, but the taste is truly unique and different.

 I strongly recommend that every coffee lover should have an Aeropress at home.

There's tons of reviews and videos of brewing techniques that you can read up online, or if you want entertainment you can visit the World Aeropress Championships website and see how passionate people are about Aeropressed-coffee, around the world. I'm not going to add to the load of literature on the web created by better informed people than me. Instead, I'm leaving you with some pictures:

My nicely packed Aeropress arrives home!

The attractive packaging carries rave reviews from users

What came out of the box

paper filters for the Aeropress, in the box

The aeropress on my coffee mug, ready to use

Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz and why young crusaders are needed

I did not know Aaron Swartz but he represents all the ideals that we value in youth, across cultures, nationalities and races. Keen intelligence which led him to co-author the RSS 1.0 specification when he was just 14 years old. Idealism and strong sense of values which made him an untiring crusader for the cause of Open Access (free access to scholarly research materials through the internet) and SOPA. It was in support of Free Access that Swartz  undertook to download millions of paid research articles from the JSTOR archives which he intended to circulate through free P2P networks. Rare openness and honesty, manifested in his willingness to talk about his struggle with depression.

A selfless, intelligent young individual who is unafraid to stand for what is right - is this not a person we would all value?

So, it surprises me, when I plow through the many tech sites (all of which are carrying copious and generous tributes to Aaron), that the comments of readers are notably lacking in sympathy. Some feel that he got what he deserved in exchange for 'stealing' documents, others think that it is unfair to blame the government or institutions for prosecuting him when the problem at the crux of his suicide was depression. Many, who claim to be students, do not agree with his notions of 'copyright' and believe that profit motive is important in academics/ information, as in all things in life.

And for myself, I worry that there are so few Aaron's in the world. Youth is a time to be fearless in asking difficult questions, to be insanely and effortlessly brilliant, and yes, also to be idealistic and crusade for change. Time enough to become a money-worshipper when you are tied to a job, and a desk for a living. 

I worry that kids today will grow up without understanding the democracy of the internet. Without understanding why the open source and open access movements are important for the future. Grow up thinking torrenting and cracking software passwords is cool (because it makes corporations look stupid) without questioning why there are not more free alternatives for people. Grow up thinking there is nothing higher than flashing an iPhone or iPad at their less fortunate friends and pestering their parents to buy them one, rather  than trying to build their own phone or tab!

Governments, authorities and the establishment in general, are a little in awe of all movements and protests that are youth centric, rightly recognising that the voice of the future is demanding change and reform. If we want a truly democratic and free internet to co-exist with the commercial internet, then we need young people to fight for it. Even in his short life, Aaron inspired real change, with JSTOR not only dropping charges against him, but also making many of its archives free to access. 

I cannot begin to describe how bad I feel that so brilliant a man, chose such an untimely death. I can only think how much more he would have achieved by living, fighting and inspiring others. As his death has brought back into focus the issues that he has fought for all his life, I hope that many others will choose to carry the fight forward. The world needs many more crusaders for a free internet.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Two new smartphone operating systems which are truly different

Android and iOS have hogged the headlines and market share in the mobile space this year. With 1.1 billion smartphone subscribers worldwide by end 2012, and a projected 2 billion users by end 2012, the smartphone sector still offers a lot of potential and promise for other platforms; something Microsoft with Win Phone 8 and RIM with the upcoming launch of BB10, are surely hoping to capitalise on.

But is there space for even more operating systems, or will the market share pie get divided between just three big players, as many analysts have been predicting?

Two interesting contenders have emerged in the smartphone space in end 2012. Neither have launched in the market yet, but both are based on years of development effort. Both are built off the open source Linux platform and therefore enjoy popular support among the geek and tech community. Both are focusing their initial efforts on the emerging Asian smartphone markets. Both promise that they can run on ARM and x86 (Intel) hardware, bridging the divide between PC and smartphone. And both offer features that no other smartphone operating system has been able to deliver to its users.

The two aspirants to enter the smartphone market are Canonical (Ubuntu) and Finland-based Jolla (Sailfish).

Canonical has developed the world's most popular, free-to-use Linux based operating system, Ubuntu. Praised for its simplicity in installation, stability and huge user-based community which contributes to development, support and troubleshooting, Canonical is one of the few open source companies which has managed to cross the chasm between geeks and regular users. Founder Mark Shuttleworth pointed out that the Ubuntu brand has huge recognition in China, where it ships pre-installed on 30% of PCs, and in India, built through partnerships with OEMs like Dell and Lenovo. Not surprisingly, he also considers these emerging smartphone markets as his first target. Enterprise customers (many of whom already use Ubuntu on PCs) are also considered as an important user base for the new smartphone OS.

Ubuntu's compelling proposition is  that it the ability to turn your phone into a computer that can run programs, be programmed by the user, and deliver a true desktop experience on mobile. The Ubuntu Phone page touts the device as a 'superfone that's also a full PC', claiming that 'in every dual core phone, there's a PC trying to get out.' From what the company has shared till date, it appears that a phone running Ubuntu OS can run like a full PC when it is 'docked' with a keyboard, screen and mouse. It can run programs, and replicate the full desktop PC experience.

Ubuntu smartphone OS is built on the Android kernel, offering a unique functionality - the phone will run on Android OS when you use it as a phone and on Ubuntu OS when docked, with perfect integration between the two. It is similar to the dual-boot premise on which Ubuntu or other Linux distros get installed on many Windows PCs.

The first phones with Ubuntu OS installed should enter the market by end 2013.

Jolla's journey to a smartphone OS has been different from Canonical's. The company was founded by ex-Nokia product engineers who worked on the MeeGo OS, a Nokia-Intel open source partnership aimed at developing the operating system of the future. Nokia strategically shifted its bets when it partnered with Microsoft in 2010 and threw in its fortunes with the future of Windows 8 smartphones. The MeeGo team was disbanded and received support from Nokia to start up their own business.

Jolla has worked to evolve MeeGo into its current avtaar, a Linux based, open source platform which promises to be flexible, inovative and offer superior multi-tasking abilities. An additional advantage is that it will support Android apps from the beginning, solving the daunting challenge of building a massive app ecosystem, a problem that even a giant like Microsoft has been struggling with.

Like Canonical, Jolla will target device manufacturers in China first, but the ultimate goal is to build their own smartphone. The company will work closely with device manufacturers who customise the operating system to ensure that updates will be issued in a timely way, avoiding the main issue plaguing the Android ecosystem - fragmentation caused by phone manufacturers who are unable to upgrade handsets even as Google releases several newer versions of Android. A final and functional version of Sailfish should be available for preview sometime in Q1 2013.

Sailfish and Ubuntu are of special relevance to us in India, given that both are targetting the Asian markets rather than the mature US/Europe markets. Well, they are targetting China more than India, but it's just a hop, skip and jump for the handsets to make their way here - there are 150 + Indian companies that import Chinese mobile hardware - feature phones and smartphones. It would be great to have more options (especially among budget and medium priced smartphones) which will offer a smooth, polished and truly differentiated user experience. 

CnetMIT Technology ReviewTechCrunch

Saturday, January 5, 2013

SOS and emergency app: ICE for Android

When I read this morning that Mumbai Police are launching an SOS App for emergency situations I was delighted. Such apps have been around for some time, but have not been actively promoted or recommended as a way for people on crime scenes to summon quick relief. It's great that Mumbai Police have teamed up with KPMG and NASSCOM to speedily launch this app in the wake of the Delhi gangrape case and growing concern about the safety of women in our cities.

You can download the free app called ICE - Mumbai Police from the Google Play Store. Currently its available only for Android devices but will soon be launched on BB and iOS platforms too. You should be able to use most of the functions in the app even if you are not in Mumbai but the pre-listed hotline numbers may be different for your city.

Start-up screen

Homescreen of the ICE App
Three types of actions are possible from the app home screen that you see above:

1) Access to general information

You can read useful information under the sections 'Family Emergency Kit' and 'Essentials for Emergency Kit'. Possibly put together under the guidance of the police, these sections give you a checklist of things that you must maintain for emergencies - a first aid box, a utility kit, emergency rations, scanned copy of all important documents in the cloud etc.  The section "In case of emergency' gives you brief instructions on what to do in a variety of situations including fire, flood and terrorist attack.

2) Access and call emergency phone numbers

You can use the app to make one-click calls  to public Mumbai hotline numbers including Ambulance Service, Police Control Room and Women's Helpline.

Click the phone icon to call emergency services

The app uses GPS to list nearby hospitals. Alternately you can access a city-wise directory of key hospitals in any part of India. Again, phone numbers have been given for all the hospitals.

List of nearby hospitals with approx. distance from my location

The app has Google Maps in-built, allowing you to navigate to the nearest hospital. 

Use Google Maps to navigate from your location to the nearest hospital

In addition to the pre-defined emergency numbers, you can also enter your own list of emergency numbers, categorised into various fields like doctor, family and local police station. This is a useful resource for the user, or anyone who is assisting the user in distress as they can easily find your key contacts and notify them.

Enter your personal emergency phone numbers

You can input personal medical information on blood group, medication, allergies etc. into the app which is helpful to doctors treating you in case of emergency.

Fields to enter life-saving medical information

3) SOS Function

This is the raison d'etre and most crucial functionality of the app. ICE will send an SOS Emergency message to a pre-defined list of contacts, at the press of a button. It DOES NOT send SMS directly to the police (and it ought not to, otherwise their energy might get diverted in investigating accidental or prank summons).

When you first run the app, it will ask you to add at least one SOS contact, and will remind you each time till you do this.

To set it up, you need to add contacts under the SOS Field (only SOS contacts receive an automatic SMS at the press of a button). There is no limit on the number of SOS contacts that you can set up, and you can enter upto two mobile numbers per contact.

Use the 'contact' button to import numbers from your contacts

I set up three emergency numbers - my dad and two friends - and tested the SOS function. To activate it you need to press and hold the red SOS button in the top right hand corner of the screen. Hold it for 10-15 seconds and it will trigger a loud alarm sound which lasts for a count of 30 seconds. The alarm is REALLY loud and bound to attract attention.

Press the red SOS button to trigger a loud alarm and send automatic emergency messages

Simultaneously, SMS messages will go out to your SOS contacts - I checked this and it works perfectly. The location information gets automatically included in the SMS.

This is the text of the SOS SMS that your emergency contacts will receive

On a personal note, I am happy to review and promote this app. Like many Indians, I have experienced a lot of anger, sadness and introspection after  the Delhi Gang Rape. I deeply desire a safer world for us to live in. And I think any initiative that helps us to protect ourselves, help others, or help the police, is a valuable one. I urge everyone who reads this post to download and try out this app. It's a small step, but it's a good one. In an emergency, even small things can make a big difference.

Update on 08 Jan 2013 : A KPMG spokesperson informed me through Twitter that the app will be released for BlackBerry and iOS platforms in two weeks time.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The basics of good coffee - in pictures

My quest for home made espresso started with a Gaggia Espresso Color from ID-Gourmet, Mumbai.

Shortly afterwards, I realised that the pressurised baskets that come as part of the deal won't cut it for real espresso. So, I spent Rs. 1500 extra to upgrade to these real filter baskets which allow me to get the 'real' crema on my espresso. 

Next was the realisation that unless coffee powder is compacted with sufficient pressure, the espresso is not thick or rich enough. Resulted in the purchase of a Rattleware 58 mm tamp from Amazon. Well worth it to replace the flimsy plastic one that Gaggia includes in the box.

Ironically, the most crucial purchase came much later. This is the Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder from Amazon which added the most amazing dimension to my espresso experience - the sweet smell of freshly ground coffee.

And since it's from the US and it's NOT dual voltage, it needs a step-down transformer (100W). Here is a picture of that indispensable little device, purchased from an electric store in Bandra West.

Keeping equipment clean is important. These are the Camlin art brushes that I bought from a local stationary store to remove troublesome particles of ground coffee that get lodged inside the grinder blades.

No budget left for expensive shot glasses! These cute little cups cost Rs.50 each, from a roadside pottery shop opposite Shoppers Stop in Bandra

Big Bazaar supplied this pretty pair of glass jars in which I store ground coffee (never for more than a day, though I am lazy, it's important to grind and brew fresh). The jars cost just Rs.150.

And if you are serious about coffee, you need to make space for it, which is not an easy proposition in a small Mumbai flat. My coffee gear occupies most of my counter.