Category Archives: Pursuits

Looking for the best Google Reader replacement, don’t forget the plumbing

the feedly rss reader app on androidGoogle is shutting down Google Reader, its RSS feed collector, in July. Google’s bare bones reader web site was never the greatest way to actually read your RSS feeds, automatically updated collections of all your blog post subscriptions. There were plenty of alternatives for that function — I was using Reeder on my iPad and Press on Android, for example. But Google did provide a couple of essential behind-the-scenes functions and it provided them extremely well.

While I’m not going to miss the bland web site, I will miss Google’s ability to quickly and reliably update blog feeds and, maybe most of all, synchronize my reading history across all my devices. Even though I might read a few blog posts in Press on my Galaxy Nexus or with Reeder on my iPad, it was Google that kept track of which articles I had read and where I left off. Quite a few RSS reader apop makers have promised to build their own replacement back-end but there’s still a problem for omnivorous gadghet users like me — most of the app makers stick to one platform. So if Reeder and Press each start offering their own back-end to sync RSS feedss, that won’t help me because Reeder is mac and iOS only and Press in Android only.

That has me searching for a multi-platform reader replacement, much as I switched to Postbox for my email and 1Password for, well, passwords. So far, the only one I’ve found that I like is called Feedly. It works on the web, iOS, Android and Kindle. It’s also beautifully laid out and designed. I have my RSS feeds split into topical folders. As you can see in the picture above, Feedly lets me know there are fresh posts in a folder by showing it with a bright color. Folders with no new posts are grey. I also looked at Newsblur, which covers the web, iOS and Android. But it costs $24 a year if you follow more than 64 feeds and I didn’t think the apps were as good looking. It also has some social sharing features that seem a bit too intrusive to me.

Right now, Feedly is still running using Google’s back end, so I just had to sign in to my Google account and Feedly grabbed all my feeds and kept my whole folder structure intact. Phew. I also changed one setting. By default, Feedly shows you a sort of spread out, magazine-style view of the latest posts in your feeds, much like Flipboard, but I prefer a simpler list view. So I went to the app’s settings, tapped ‘advanced settings’ and changed the default view from Magazine to List.

It remains to be seen if Feedly, Newsblur — or anyone else — will be able to replace Google Reader’s plumbing with as reliable and speedy a service. I have my fingers crossed but I’ll report back as soon as the new services start coming online.

For additional coverage and suggestions, TheVerge had a good rundown of possible replacements, as did Lifehacker.

It’s not about the specs – dumping my fancy pants camera

relectFor the past year or so, I’ve been taking pictures with one of the most well-reviewed and highly spec-ed out digital cameras on the market, the Sony NEX-7. It didn’t come cheap and a couple of additional lens added to the bill but this was supposedly one of the great cameras out there. Considerably smaller and lighter than a D-SLR, the mirrorless NEX-7 had a largest-in-class sensor to pick up tons of detail, a real view finder, extensive video capabilities, a built-in flash and a highly customizable array of dials, buttons and other controls.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to get it to take the pictures I wanted. Despite the accolades and endless list of killer specifications, the Sony was a beast to actually use — more like a complicated, poorly thought out computing device than a camera. Too many of the dials and buttons were poorly placed leading to frequent accidental changes in settings. Otherwise, the whole process slowed down as you hit a button to lock our changes, then unlocked the lock out to make changes, then locked out again. The video button was a particular villain in this regard. There were other significant issues too, especially the lack of great, affordable lens. That amazingly detailed sensor cries out for great glass, but Sony was deaf to the need.

So the other day, I put the NEX-7 up for sale on eBay. And, after a ton of research, I bought a much simpler camera that hardly compares on paper with the Sony, a Fujifilm X-E1. The Sony has a bigger sensor with way more pixels, higher ISO range, more autofocus points, more video settings, a larger and higher resolution LED screen on the back, weighs less and on and on. But the Fujifilm is one well-designed mother fucker, no two ways around it.

Instead of covering the camera body with a bevy of blank-faced, multi-function, programmable doo-dads like Sony, Fuji chose to have just a few dedicated controls on the X-E1. On top, set the shutter speed and exposure compensation. On the lens, set the F stop. Done. Both dials also have an automatic setting, which means no more messing around with “aperture priority mode” and “exposure priority mode.” And because the dials are labeled, you can see with your own eyes instantaneously how the camera is set for the next picture. I feel like I am taking pictures again, not trying to remember how to work some crazy-complex gizmo. It doesn’t hurt that the camera came with a great prime lens and a fast zoom lens, neither of which were available for the NEX-7 (at least in my price range).

And, as you can see above, now I can take the cool pictures I always wanted to get with no muss and no fuss — and I’m having fun doing it.

Simplification disaster: The Case of Shafer v Civilization

How does it happen that a shining success fades into failure, that a popular series falls out of favor, that a great product line drops off into obscurity? Those are the questions I’ve pondered for the past few years after my favorite video game series, Sid Meier’s Civilization, went completely off the rails at version five. Ultimately, I think it comes down to losing touch with customers.

Although I’ve never been a big video game player, I’ve somehow been a fan of the Civilization series since it first appeared back in about 1991. Game designer Sid Meier knew how to appeal to my pattern-seeking tendencies and lure me in with his strategically-oriented creations. “Just one more turn, just one more turn,” became a mantra which kept you up deep into the night. Civ begat Civ II which led to Civ III and, by 2005, the pinnacle of the form in Civ IV.

Then came Civ V,  a radical departure from all that. Many, many beloved features were watered down, simplified beyond recognition and even tossed aside. Entirely new concepts and metaphors were added, some of which didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Much of the refresh was said to get rid of the boring, micro-managing bits of the game. But in the end, it left a game with too few choices, too few options and too weak a connection to all that came before. My overall opinion of Civ V? YUCK!

The other day, the lead designer of Civ V, Jon Shafer, posted a long retrospective on the game’s development process. One of Shafer’s worst sins appears to have been that he designed the game for the style he liked to play, or perhaps thought was the best way to play, when in fact Civ’s great strength had always been the multiplicity of strategy and tactics that could lead to a fun gaming session.

Take Shafer’s decision to eliminate players’ ability to allocate resources between scientific research, cultural expansion and commercial development. He thought it was “boring busywork” but, of course, it was also one of the most important ways to change tactics, to prepare your empire for war or try to leap ahead in science.

I’ve always found fiddling with sliders in strategy games to be boring busywork, and in that sense I don’t miss them. But the sliders also had a hidden value that I didn’t realize until later – they gave players the ability to shift directions at any time. I’ve written at length about the importance of adaptation in strategy games. Unfortunately, once the sliders were gone players were basically permanently locked into their past economic choices. There was no way to sacrifice research in order to upgrade your army, for example. Rewarding long-term planning is certainly a worthy endeavor, but you still need to provide tools to allow players to change course when necessary.

Following another of his personal preferences, a lot of Shafer’s changes made it all but impossible to build a vast, overarching empire – surely one of the most popular ways to play. Now, he seems to realize that was a mistake, too:

It was virtually impossible to build the large, sprawling empires which had always been a feature in the series and served as the entire point playing for many people. I still believe that there are ways to make smaller empires viable, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of those who enjoy expanding. Penalties should be challenges to overcome, not an insurmountable wall to be frustrated by.

In the post-Steve Jobs era, it’s quite popular to affirm the brilliant visionary view of the world – Shafer caught the attention of Civ’s makers initially with his brilliant game mods for earlier editions. Jobs famously claimed that Apple did no customer research and made products he and his team wanted to use. But I think that ethos takes you only so far. Sometimes it’s better to listen.

Post PC Vacationing: kids, cameras, iPads but no laptops

Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Just back from a short family vacation to San Francisco where much fun was had. We traveled light, or at least light-ish, for this wired day and age. We took smart phones, digital cameras and iPads but we didn’t bring a laptop. For the most part, everything went well. The iPad makes a great travel companion, whether it’s providing maps for driving around the city, instant web searching for cool spots to eat or an ebook or movie for entertainment during down time at the hotel.

Apple has thankfully worked to make the process of using an iOS device the iPad without a computer easier and easier. We downloaded apps and music right to our iPads and never needed to sync anything to anything. Email is all “in the cloud,” so we could access important messages with our travel confirmations from any of our devices. It was all very smooth.

On our first day tooling around the Bay Area in our throwback, sky blue Crown Victoria, we wanted to find Bette’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley. An iPad 3 with built-in LTE and GPS proved a trusty navigational aid taking us over the Bay Bridge and right onto 4th Street, Berkeley’s more swich shopping district away from the UCal campus. My wife, Whitney Connaughton, is an expert at parking honking large vehicles so we nimble-y parallel parked despite crowded conditions. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the wait at Bette’s (which really does have the world’s best pancakes) was over an hour. So we had to make due with the excellent Mexican style Cafe M around the corner. I was snapping photos mainly with my Samsung NX200, a relatively pocketable mirrorless digital camera that takes very fine shots. Later, we checked out the college campus, grabbed some amazing doughnuts in Oakland and headed back to San Fran for a burger and shake dinner.

When I wanted to review my pictures for the day, I grabbed the iPad and attached the SD card adapter from Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. You may be familiar with this trick — you can import photos directly into the iOS photo gallery off your camera’s memory card. Once I had the pictures aboard, however, things were not quite so great. You can only do a few, limited things with pictures like upload to Facebook or post to Twitter. Upload to Flickr or post to App.net? See you later. With my laptop and Adobe’s fabulous Lightroom program, I have plug-ins to send my pictures to all the services I choose. I tried using some of my other services’ iOS apps, like Zenfolio, but it choked and crashed without uploading my pictures.

treesThe next day, we traveled down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an amazing place-out-of-time wilderness area with huge stands of Redwood trees, many more than a thousand years old. On the way, we discovered a limitation of navigation by iPad. Driving up into the mountains where cell phone signals are sketchy at best, the iPad’s maps app lost track of where we were, couldn’t download maps and generally left us blind. We thought we’d be okay since we’d asked the app to get the directions list while we still had a good signal. But we stopped for lunch and let the iPad screen go blank. Logging back in, we discovered that the directions hadn’t been saved, even though no other app had run. Luckily, we were near the park at that point and a few helpful road signs were all it took. Inside the park, iPads stayed in the trunk of the car and we enjoying the gorgeous and lush Redwood forest unwired. If we’d gotten our directions the old-fashioned way (from Google maps on a laptop web browser), we’d probably have printed them out back at the hotel, avoiding the out of service issue.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family, the iPads and phones were plenty suitable for reading and writing emails, Facebook posts and future blog entries. I kept up with the sports news back home via BostonGloble.com, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of Chowhound.com and almost finished the latest ebook in Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series.

At night, back at our hotel, everybody wound down with a little technology. Watching video on the go can be an a problem with our 3G and LTE-enabled iPads, however, and we had to be very careful. Sitting in your hotel watching a couple of episodes of the “House of Cards” series on Netflix, for example, can burn through more than half of your entire month’s  broadband usage allowance. And downloading a movie for rent from the iTunes store will actually use up the whole pie and send you into the land of overage charges. Hotel wifi was expensive, slow and limited us to one connected device per room per 24 hours. Ugh. I keep a gazillion movies on my laptop and an accompanying external drive but we didn’t have access to that bounty on this trip.

Golden Gate BridgeNo one among us took any pictures with their iPads, thankfully. Casual snapshots were all iPhone and Galaxy Nexus and I used my Samsung camera for the important stuff. As I mentioned, it’s quite light and — with its pancake 30mm lens — even pocketable in my jacket. It does suffer from a lack of truly great lens, a problem for almost all sub-DSLR size camera systems. That meant some of my low light shots didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped and I didn’t get the kind of mind-blowing semi-focused photos a great DSLR can take when paired with a great (yet still affordable)  lens. I used to rely on a combination of a relatively tiny Canon S-100 and a bulky, full size Canon DSLR. Sometimes the tiny camera let you down, but as long as you didn’t mind carrying around the bigger camera, amazing photos were easy. After this trip, I’m rethinking my switch the middle ground and its lack of upper-end greatness.

The iPads also served ably on the airplane trips out and back. No need to worry about power. Unlike a laptop, an iPad easily lasts for a full cross-continental flight, even showing videos the whole time. That’s a big relief when JetBlue’s multi-channel video system is showing reruns of Seinfeld and movies you don’t want to see.

In the end, I’d call our Post-PC vacation a success with just a few minor hassles. No need to lug that laptop around the world with you anymore. An iPad can set you free.

Yikes, Microsoft’s Time Machine clone leaves out tons of important stuff

(Updated to include a way to unhide files and add them to a “library” for backup)

Basically, this post is a warning to anyone using the new File History backup program in Windows 8. The program is severely limited because it will only back up files in a few preset locations that can’t be expanded. If you have almost any third-party program that saves its own data, File History is leaving you exposed. There is a fix, but it takes a little mucking around.

In my case, for example, I have gazillions of email messages stored by the program Postbox. The mail is kept in a huge folder in my personal Windows user folder under PostBox’s own folder in the application data area. None of the stuff that your applications have saved here is backed up by File History — none. And you can’t add it, either.

Update: As several commenters have noted, there is a way to get this data added to the backup set. In the Windows File Explorer, navigate to your personal directory and under the View section of the ribbon bar, click for a check in the box called “hidden files.” Then a folder in your directory called AppData should be exposed. Right click on the folder and choose “Include in library…” and add the folder to one of the libraries which is backed up by File History. Phew!

All that File History will save by default are “files that are in your libraries, contacts, favorites, Microsoft SkyDrive and on your desktop,” according to Microsoft. That is a huge hole, especially if you don’t rely on the My Documents, My Pictures and other “library” folders set up in Windows. Even if you do, third-party programs that store their data exactly where they are supposed to will not benefit from File History unless you use the trick above to add them.

That’s a shame because File History is supposed to be Microsoft’s version of the drop-dead easy to use Apple backup program Time Machine. Both work behind the scenes to back stuff up on an automatic schedule without the user having to remember. And both give quick access to old versions of files within the File Explorer/Finder program. But you can set Time Machine to backup anything from just a few files to your entire disk.

Putting a close on a great 2012, blogwise

As 2012 winds to a close, I’m looking back at another year on Gravitational Pull dot net, my eighth writing this blog. This year, I suspended my experimental commentary blog, The Orange View, in an effort to write fewer and better stories here. Some months worked out better than others — I had no posts in January, a bunch in February and March, none in April, few in June and July (took a long European vacation in there) and then decent productivity for the rest of the year. Traffic was up 54% from last year and more than double 2010, according to the unique visitor count on Google Analytics, though still far short of what I’d need to do this full time, sadly.

What were people reading about in 2012? Here are the 10 most popular posts I wrote in 2012:

  1. One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store
  2. John Gruber spills 2000 words on the importance of pixels and typography and the awesomeness of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display without ever mentioning that most apps look like ass and relegating to a footnote that the fifteen inch laptop size is a jack of all trades master of none that fits few people’s needs
  3. Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny
  4. A Mac user’s travels in Ultrabook land
  5. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times: Tough to buy a new Mac
  6. History will show journalists missed the big Amazon story today: ebook discounting is back
  7. The great Google storage price hike of 2012
  8. A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon
  9. Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required
  10. A Day in the Life: iPhone versus Nexus

I’ve excluded from the list my fixed pages as well as the ever-greens, like Review: Top 10 reasons why Civ V is awful (updated), written more than two years ago but still drawing plenty of traffic (and grouchy comments). Lately, a bit of research I did about which parts of the 2010 Facebook movie, The Social Network, were accurate and which less so has drawn a lot of traffic, too. Overall, though, traffic from search engines suddenly dropped quite a bit just in the past month or so for unknown reasons — maybe Google tweaked their algorithms?

You can also see the rise and fall of various operating systems in the visitor data from WordPress. After many years as #1, Microsoft Windows saw a sharp decline in its share of visitors and was surpassed by those using the Mac. The Mac usage share actually also declined, but much less than Windows. And iOS? It’s share doubled and now equals almost half the share of either of the desktop OSs. Crazy. Android’s share almost doubled but from a much smaller 2011 base so it’s lagging well behind iOS.

Best apps for Amazon Kindle Fire tablets

Looking for the best apps for your new Kindle Fire HD tablet? Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t give you easy access to the Google Android app store with its hundreds of thousands of offerings. Instead, you get just what is in Amazon’s much more limited store, missing plenty of good stuff especially Google’s own apps. But there are still many solid choices. I’ve had the 8.9″ Fire HD for about a month now and I have some recommendations for great apps. I’ve provided links to Amazon’s online web app store when I could find them but some apps can only be downloaded from on board the Kindle Fire itself.

Kindle Fire HD tablet

You may have purchased a Kindle tablet just to get easy access to Amazon’s pretty good collection of free and rentable video selections but there are also apps to access video from other services you may subscribe to, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. If you have any movies on the Hollywood studios Ultraviolet system, you can watch them using Flixster. For music, I had no problem matching my entire iTunes library to Amazon’s excellent Cloud Player — Apple, for the love of god PLEASE copy Amazon’s simple “cloud/device” interface — but there are other options including Spotify, Rdio and Pandora.

Among games, our family is currently obsessed with the brain teaser Flow Free, which requires that you draw lines or “pipes” to connect dots on various size grids. Sure, it starts easy but it gets harder and harder. Race against the clock and then hand off to someone else in your family to get the adrenaline pumping. On a different note, the latest version of Need for Speed lets you race around the world in exotic cars while pushing the Kindle Fire’s graphics capabilities to the max. On a more relaxing note, I am zoning out with the “Zen like” puzzle game Quell lately, on sale for 99 cents. Finally, I really don’t need to go through the motions and give you links to Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Words with Friends and all those other super popular titles you can easily find yourself, right? Well, I do love Sudoko.

There are gazillions of weather apps, not surprisingly. I prefer Weather Bug Elite (it’s $2) for the full featured interface and ease of switching locations. Weather Geek Pro ($3) is also cool, offering the real weather symbols and some simplified models used by meteorologists so you can track storm systems and make your own predictions.

On the finance front, I’ve noticed that more and more of the big banks have converted their apps to work on the Kindle Fire including Bank America, Wells Fargo and Chase. It took me a long time to find a good stock tracking app, though. A lot of the apps are junked up with distracting backgrounds to misdirect you from noticing the limited functionality. One clean and simple app is Wikivest HD. It can import your current holdings from dozens of firms or you can enter stocks yourself and it has simple charting and news functions.

I’m a new junkie so I have plenty of apps loaded up to keep me informed. I use the Pocket read-it-later service and their free app is excellent. There is an official Twitter app but it’s not particularly great in any way. I have switched around a couple of times, starting with Tweetcaster, which is a little busy for my taste, before switching to Tweetcomb, which is only available from inside the Kindle Fire’s own app store. For my Google Reader RSS needs I have gReader and for Reddit, I use the popular Reddit is Fun reader app, $2 without ads. I am also trying out the more tablet-y BaconReader Premium, also $2, which seems to do better in landscape mode. There are also apps from the big players in news and I especially like NPR and the Huffington Post. ESPN Sports Center is here, of course, but I am also using ScoreMobile for its sports blogging links. My employer, Reuters, has no apps here yet which is a real shame.

Speaking of work, I rely on Evernote for work writing, blogging and generally keeping track of any scrap of important information in my life. I am also a big Google calendar user so I bucked up and spent $6 for the versatile Calengoo app. You can also just sync Google Calendar to the built-in Kindle Fire calendar app for free. Astrid is an excellent and free to-do list manager syncing with Google Tasks. I also sucked it up and paid $15 for the full version of Documents to Go, which I have been using on different portable devices for what seems like a decade to read and edit Microsoft Office documents. You can also use it to read PDFs and for your Google Docs. The official WordPress app works great as a blogging tool.

Some popular apps available on iOS and Google Android have yet to reach Amazon’s app store but there are unofficial substitutes. Instafire lets you access your Instagram photo flow. It’s $3. The Chrome Browser is not here but Chrome Sync will bring your Chrome bookmarks over to Silk for 99 cents.

I’ll update this post as new apps arrive and impress me. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments. Thanks.

Amazon is discounting ebooks, whenever it’s allowed to, unlike Apple

Some really silly journalism covering the ebook marketplace today. It starts with this really bad, no good article in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. The headline gets off to a completely wrong start — “Little Sign of predicted E-Book Price War” — and it goes down hill from there, as Streitfeld asserts there was going to be a “ferocious price war over ebooks.” Who was ever saying that? Of course, it was the made-up nightmare scenario that publishers were screaming about after they got sued for illegally conspiring to raise ebook prices. Streitfeld never explains that and actively seeks to mislead the reader, writing those expectations were “fueled by Amazon.” It’s a bad set-up that only gets worse.

Next, he asserts that prices have “selectively fallen but not as broadly or as drastically as anticipated.” No data, not a shred, is offered to back up this bold assertion, not even the usual misleading average price of all best-sellers publishers have sometimes cited in the past (an average which included all the sales of 99 cent independently published ebooks). Even a brief look at Amazon’s prices compared with the high price leader, Apple, makes it pretty obvious that a ton of discounting is occurring. It is limited because two of the big six publishers are still banning discounts and another, Penguin, just settled and is not yet allowing discounts, either. But on ebooks where Amazon can discount, it is doing so to the tune of 15% or more.

Compare, for example, ebook prices of the New York Times fiction best-seller list on Amazon and Apple. On four of the top 10, both carry the ebooks at $12.99. And, no surprise, in all four cases the publishers are still banning all discounting. Another older book is priced at $9.99 on both and, again, discounting is banned. On the other five, Amazon is discounting every single one, with the average price $10.93 versus $12.19 for Apple. It’s the same if you go deeper down the list or look at non-fiction.

The biggest laugh-out-loud line comes next:

“The $10 floor that publishers fought so hard to maintain for popular new novels is largely intact.”

See the old switcheroo there? Publishers hated the $10 price — the whole point of their illegal, price fixing scheme was to kill the $10 price. They weren’t trying to maintain a $10 floor — they were trying to push the “floor” up to at least $13 to $15. And that effort has failed. Amazon itself wasn’t trying to get below $10 for best sellers. In fact, even before the illegal price fixing, Amazon often priced best sellers between $11 and $12, just like it’s doing now. Jeff Bezos was going around back in 2009 and saying he intended to make a profit on ebooks as a stand alone business. And that’s right back where Amazon is pricing. Not to mention that we still don’t have a true free market for ebooks as even publishers forced to allow some price cutting retain the ability to limit the amount of overall discounting. Also left out of this narrative is the massive growth of independently published ebooks at prices well below $10. The price fixing conspiracy certainly fed the growth of this part of the market and gave Bezos plenty of cheap offerings for Amazon customers looking for bargains. That wasn’t true back when the Kindle first started.

Streitfeld then picks the one book on the best seller list that’s discounted the least by Amazon as his example. Prices of the other discountable titles are all cut by more. Lame. My favorite example, if we’re going to cherry pick, is JK Rowling’s new novel, A Casual Vacancy, which the publisher was selling for $18 as an ebook, now cut to $12.74 by Amazon.

Then come a couple of wacky theories to explain the lack of discounting, which obviously have to be pretty wacky since they are meant to explain a non-existent phenomenon. It’s the slow down in ebook buying growth rates. It’s the demise of Borders (a true WTF). It’s Amazon holding back. Blah, blah, blah.

I love the next bit where Streitfeld cites an ebook market forecast from two years ago as “typically ebullient.” It’s James McQuivey calling for $2.8 billion of ebook sales in 2015. Crazy? Insane? Hmm, maybe right on. Ebook sales last year hit $2.1 billion and up some 34 percent this year, according to Streitfeld, thus reaching — wait for it — $2.8 billion.

The finish is, of course, the most wrong: “this might be as cheap as ebooks will ever be.” That’s pretty unlikely given that Penguin is about to allow discounting again and Macmillan is being prosecuted in court for its recalcitrance.

A second, slightly better piece from Laura Hazard Owen needs a few corrections, too. She buys into the data-free assertion that prices haven’t fallen and the headline is off-base. But she’s correct to point out that not all ebooks were sold at $9.99 before the wave of price fixing in 2010 — though I’m pretty sure she has previously gone along with publishers assertions that Amazon cut everything to $9.99 in the bad, old days (I’ll have to double-check). And she explains that Amazon’s ability to discount now is still limited, as I explained above.

Ironically, it’s the element of competition that she seems to get wrong. Apple isn’t discounting to match Amazon. It’s sticking with high prices. So whereas when Amazon was the only major player, it used $9.99 as a kind of promotional advertising, a psychological sweet spot, now it has a simpler task of undercutting the actual prices of the competition. No need for psychology, there’s a whole ebook marketplace consumers can see. And in the new market where Apple likes to sell for at least $13 when it can, a discount to $11 looks pretty enticing.

But Owen doesn’t get it as she writes: ” These retailers have all shown themselves willing to match Amazon’s price drops on ebooks. The prices aren’t always exactly the same across stores, but they are at least close enough that there is little incentive to switch retailers if you’re already using a platform you like.”

That’s the chuckler in her piece. Prices are not that close. And there’s less platform lock in than ever — it’s easy to switch around. Amazon offers free ereading software for almost any platform including the iPad, iPhone and Mac. Ironically, it seems to be the higher-priced competition that’s having the biggest impact on Amazon’s pricing, creating a price umbrella that has eased the pressure to price at $9.99.

Online storage prices come down slowly — Apple still the max

Drastic price cutting has hit the online storage space, or so you may read. But, unfortunately, most of the price cutting is for big time corporate users not us little guys. Well, that’s not completely true. There have been some serious price cuts on online storage for us ordinary users since I last wrote about this back in May.

That was when Google switched from super cheap prices to only sort of cheap prices — and you had to sign up to pay monthly instead of paying once a year. Big drag. Google’s prices remain unchanged, starting at $1.20 per GB per year (excluding the free space you get).

But, the competition is heating up some. In July, Dropbox effectively halved its prices by giving you 100 GB, not just 50, for $99 a year. Excluding the 2 GB they give you free, that’s 99 cents per GB per year. And ahead of the updated Kindle Fire tablets, Amazon made a similar move, halving the price of its Cloud storage to around 56 cents per GB (excluding the 5 GB you get free).

Sugarsync has not reduced its prices since May and still sits at $2 per GB per year for starters, falling to $1.02 if you buy the maximum 250 GB plan $1.58 if you buy the maximum 100 GB plan. Apple, too, remains stuck at the high end, charging $2 per GB for additional space on iCloud (excluding the 5 GB free) — and up to a maximum of only 50 GB.

So, slight improvements — I’m not complaining — but not the all-out-war that’s taking place in the enterprise online storage market.

Finally, I’ll add that I have sampled services from Dropbox, Google Drive and Amazon Cloud on Mac and Windows computers as well as on iOS and Android devices. And I’ve used iCloud on Macs and iOS. I like Dropbox best because it just works so reliably and in the manner you expect. But there are benefits from the more integrated services. Dumping photos into my Amazon Cloud drive as a back up and seeing them sync automagically into my Kindle Fire’s photo gallery app is pretty cool. And you retain more control, or a finer level of control, over the process than with iCloud’s photostream and other Apple syncing practices.

UPDATE: Here’s a table comparing the major services

Service Free (GB) Added data (GB) Prices per year Price/Gb/year
Apple 5 10/20/50 20/40/100 $2/$2/$2
Amazon 5 15/45/95/195 10/25/50/100 $0.67/$0.56/$0.53/$0.51
Dropbox 2 98/198/498 99/199/499 $1/$1/$1
Google 5 20/95/195 30/60/120 $1.49/$0.63/$0.61
Microsoft 7 20/50/100 10/20/50 $0.50/$0.50/$0.50
SugarSync 5 25/55/95/245 50/100/150/250 $2/$1.82/$1.58/$1.02

Notes: “Added data” and “Price/GB/year” exclude free space. Prices have been rounded in some cases. Amazon and Google offer even higher data plans up into the terabytes.

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.