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February 25, 2006

A New Home for My Blog

Final Move 

As a "birthday present to my blog", I'm making today the day I write my last post at blogharbor.com.  I was happy enough hosting it there, but I finally chose a domain name, and found great value hosting my blog with Yahoo! Web Hosting.

From now on, my blog will live at:

http://jameselee.alwaysaskwhy.com/blog


It'll take me a while to really do all that I want with Movable Type, the software I'm using to publish my blog, I've still got a lot of kinks to work out, and I'm nowhere near done moving all my content, but it's time to make the move, which I hope will be my last.  I'll leave my old blog up for a while as I continue to migrate/back-fill, but I'll probably take it down in a few months.

Happy Birthday to My Blog!

Hpy Bdy pic

(Thanks to schmitee for the photo!)

It was one year ago today that I posted my first blog article!

I've been a bit surprised to see how much blogging has changed me; finally, I've started writing on a regular basis, something I've been meaning to do for several years.

I'm happy to have made some progress moving to my blog's new home, at http://jameselee.alwaysaskwhy.com/blog, where I expect to stay a while, since it's my own domain name.

I've thoroughly enjoyed this first year of blogging, and look forward to many more to come!

February 02, 2006

We need a standard tag delimiter!

Problem

Various tag-enabled services use different delimiters to separate multiple tags (a.k.a. labels, topics, keywords)

Example of tag delimiter problem

This makes switching between the services inconvenient, and decreases usability for the many people who use more than one tag-enabled service.

Solution

Standardize on a single tag delimiter

I'm writing to ask those who provide these services (and software that uses tags) to start the ball rolling toward standardizing on a single tag delimiter. I know this isn't a trivial task, but now -- while tagging is still relatively "young" -- is the time to invest in improving the usability of the services. I'd argue that Yahoo! has good reason to seriously consider initiating this effort, since MyWeb2, flickr, and del.icio.us -- three popular tag-enabled services -- are all Yahoo! services.

Benefits of having a standardized tag delimiter

  • makes switching between tag-enabled services easier
  • helps people who are new using tags feel more comfortable using different tag-enabled services
  • improves developers' ability to write software that works with multiple tag-enabled services

I know there are often good reasons for using different delimiters; for example, Furl permits spaces in a "topic" (tag) name, therefore, the space can't be a delimiter. By contrast, del.icio.us doesn't permit spaces in tag names. Which approach is best is another discussion -- one I hope will be undertaken by the providers of tag-enabled services -- but I'm sure that with a bit of collaboration, there could be agreement on a good, universal standard. I'll save my thoughts on the need for a universal name for tags (let's just call them tags, not labels, or topics, or keywords) for another post...

February 01, 2006

Mobile USB card reader + memory cards = flexible mobile storage solution


 

SanDisk MobileMate SD with cards

I've recently acquired (thanks, Dave!) a SanDisk MobileMate USB card reader, a 5-in-1 card  reader (SD/MMC/etc.) about the size of many USB "thumb" drives.  As SanDisk says, it's "ideal for memory-enabled mobile phone users and photo travel needs".

I had a chance to use it with my digital camera and laptop while travelling in Europe, and it was a great solution for off-loading pics from the two SD cards we were using in our digital camera, but its value extends beyond that:  A mobile USB card reader + memory card is a useful combination that fits several data storage and transport needs as well or better than a traditional USB thumb drive.  I'm not saying you should throw out your thumb drive if you have one, but if you don't, a mobile USB card reader could obviate the need to get one.

Benefits of the mobile USB card reader + memory card combination

  • Enables you to make better use of the storage you already have - You most likely already have to buy some kind of memory card(s) for your digital camera, mobile phone, PDA, or digital audio player.  Why buy storage twice?  Mobile USB card readers cost ~$25, and allow you to use your memory cards (essentially) just like thumb drives.  So, for a small additional cost, you get to really "leverage your investment" by using the storage you already have for more than just the devices for which you bought it.
  • You get more value and flexibility of use from your storage - Imagine you have a camera, phone, and digital audio player that can all use SD cards, and you buy a 1GB card for each.  When needed, you can dedicate them all to a single device, such as when taking the camera on a long trip.   The mobile card reader makes the storage useful for more than just the devices you bought it for; it becomes a more general resource.   You can load up all 3 cards with vacation pictures and video and take them to share with a friend.  With 7+ megapixel cameras that take video, and 1 & 2 GB storage cards, this is often the most efficient way to quickly share lots of pictures & videos.
  • Enables instant photo sharing  - If you're with a friend and each taking pictures with your own camera, you can transfer a copy from your camera's memory card to your friend's computer, and put a copy of your friend's pictures on your card.  That's something a typical thumb drive can't do.  We did this a few times on our trip, and it's a nice capability!
  • Doubles as a desktop card reader -  Until WiFi becomes more common on cameras, a card reader is a much nicer way to transfer pictures to a computer than connecting the camera via cable.  (If nothing else, it saves your battery!)  If I had known about the benefits of a mobile card reader, I wouldn't have bought the desktop version -- that's part of why I'm writing this.  NOTE: This is not a good solution if your computer doesn't have front-mounted or easily accessible USB ports.

 

Benefits of USB thumb drives

As I said above, I'm not against thumb drives, nor arguing that they're not useful.  Here are some advantages they have over the card & reader combination:

  • More durable - You don't have to worry about removing your memory card from the device, and securing it.  Memory cards seem pretty durable, but I wouldn't want one floating around unprotected in my backpack, something I would comfortably do with a thumb drive.
  • More software features & functionality - Many thumb drives are bundled with software & capabilities such as encryption, authentication (some via fingerprint scanning), running programs, serving as boot disks, etc.  These are often vendor-provided and sometimes vendor-specific, and you're almost certainly paying a bit extra for them, but they can be valuable features for mobile storage.  (There are probably not many technical reasons similar features couldn't be included on memory cards, but I think it's unlikely to happen given the way thumb drives are marketed.)
  • More storage - I don't think memory cards are commonly available with quite as much capacity as thumb drives.  The gap doesn't seem to be widening, though (internally, they're probably very similar technology), and is most likely to shrink.

SanDisk has introduced SD cards that plug directly into USB ports, which are certainly worth considering.  I'm not sure that's likely to be done with mini SD and other card formats (but who knows?), so the mobile USB card reader may still be a better choice.  (Of course, if the price is close, why not buy direct-to-USB SD cards even if you have a card reader?)

I'm sure there are other great mobile USB card readers in addition to SanDisk's.  I just happen to have a SanDisk reader and cards and I'm happy with them thus far, so I used them as an example.  I'm writing to illustrate the concept, not endorse this product in particular.

NFC (Near Field Communication) technology + mobile phones = Interesting potential uses

nokia_nfc_phone.gif

Background

  • Put simply, NFC (Near Field Communication) is a way for devices that are close to one another to exchange information.  RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is a popular implementation of NFC technology.
  • I predict RFID will soon be integrated into mobile phones as commonly as Bluetooth (hopefully faster). Nokia has developed RFID "shells" to add this technology to some existing phones.
  • Wide-spread use of NFC technology + NFC-enabled mobile phones = Lots of interesting potential uses!

 

Uses for NFC and mobile phones

The two articles below started me thinking about how NFC + mobile phones could be used.

  • "The address book desk" - Timo Arnall describes how he embedded a grid of RFID tags into a desk and used post-it notes to label the function they represent.  When he places his RFID-enabled phone on different points on the grid, it takes different actions -- call someone, visit a website, send a text message, etc.
    For the last couple of weeks I have been experimenting with tagging personal space with NFC. This started by embedding RFID tags in my desk, to use it as an information surface for contacts, SMSes and links.
  • "The Microsoft RFID Browser" - Scott P. Shaffer presents ideas for using mobile phones to "browse" the RFID tags he forsees (and I agree!)  becoming commonly embedded in the physical world.  He nails the important idea here:
    Where Google was your search engine for the digital world, a mobile phone w/ the ability to read an RFID tag becomes your search engine for the physical world.

These two articles plus some of the ideas in the comments have started me thinking about potential uses for NFC + mobile phones, so I thought I'd write them down and hopefully spur others to come up with additional ideas.  I know many of these aren't necessarily original concepts, and some are already being prototyped.  I still think it's worth writing them down and thinking about how they could be implemented.  I'll use RFID in the examples, since that's currently the most common/popular implementation of NFC technology.  Obviously, we're not yet at a point where NFC is pervasive enough for these ideas to be feasible now, but hopefully we'll get there soon.

Update: 2006.02.02 - Perhaps we'll get there sooner than I realized; apparently, Nokia plans to be pretty aggressive in promoting NFC + mobile phones: "Nokia Says Look for New Phone, Busy Stores in '06 NFC Payment Pilots".

Ideas for combining NFC technology + mobile phones

ASSUMPTION: Phone has RFID read/write capability and its own set of multiple embedded RFID tags

  • Pinpoint your location without GPS - When you press "Locate Me" on your phone, mapping software ( e.g. Google Local Mobile)  uses the coordinates broadcast by streetcorner lampposts to pinpoint your location and/or plot the route you took to get to that corner.  (I know some phones can do this now using cell tower triangulation, but this might be simpler and a bit more pro-privacy.  Most phones will probably have GPS in the near future, but using RFID for location mapping might be a nice lower power option).
  • Phone as credit card - Securely download the appropriate information from your bank or credit card company to program one of your phone's internal RFID tags and make it work like MasterCard's PayPass cards, which are just credit cards with RFID tags in them.  If you lost your phone, you could send it a text message with a special code to make it erase all stored RFID data.
  • Additional authentication device - Use the secure download & program idea described above, and configure your ATM to require your phone to be present along with your card & PIN.  Some companies are already issuing additional security devices to customers.  This is not as secure, but would be cheaper, and could be an ideal "80/20" solution.  This could be especially nice as a quick way to login to a computer.
  • Museum tour guide - As you walk through a museum, your phone reads the RFID tag of each exhibit, and presents a link to the museum website's audio clip about it.  You listen with your Bluetooth headset and therefore don't disturb anyone, yet you can easily pause & discuss with your friends.
  • Quickly view restaurant menu & wait time - Stand outside a restaurant and your phone displays "Estimated wait for party of 2: 25min, 4: 40 min. Submit name on waiting list? [Yes/No] View menu & specials? [Yes/No]".   No need to push through a throng of people only to wait for the host, nor crowd around and squint at the menu posted outside, or search for the restaurant's website; the menu and specials are available within several feet of the door, and it's presented in a way designed for a mobile phone, since that's how it was accessed.
  • Bookmark, rate, recommend - After finishing a great meal at a restaurant, instantly bookmark (and share the bookmark) and rate it with just a few button presses on your phone; a  modern equivalent to taking the matches as you walk out the door.
  • History teacher - Visit a cathedral in Spain and a website about its history automatically displays on your phone, with links to other important sites nearby.
  • Phone as movie ticket, a la FasTrak - Find your movie on the one of the grids of "icons"/placards outside the theater, put your phone one it, select the # of tickets, and press "Buy" on your phone.   (This is a good use for the grid described above.)  As you walk past the ticket taker, a sensor beeps to indicate you've paid, and the movie you paid for is displayed on his screen.  While you wait for the movie to start, you click on the link to the synopsis & cast info that was automatically displayed on your phone's browser when you bought the ticket.  This could also work for a play and other performances, and would be a more environmentally-friendly way to provide programs.
  • Presence indicator - Your instant-messaging program could indicate "Away" or "Online" depending on the proximity of your phone.  Sensors in a house could be setup to indicate who's home or in what room, if that's your thing.
  • Parking pass/payment - Wave your phone by the gate sensor or parking meter as you enter, and when you leave; if you've set it up to be a credit card, payment is made as you exit.