Is Google.com getting a redesign?

Google has been known to continually improve upon the look and feel of their search site, but I just came across some changes that are a bit more substantial than a traditional Google refresh or improvement. This "redesign" includes a blue search button, eliminating the Google Search and I'm Feeling Lucky buttons and more changes on the results page.

The homepage now includes a voice search feature that will automatically use a built-in microphone or one attached to a webcam (thanks to HTML5).

They also seem to be trying a completely new color scheme in the left rail of the search results page, as well as a gray bar across the top.

Another example of a results page with different types of content.

And the line height on some pages just looks plain silly.

There's a good chance many of these changes will never go live. A couple years ago, Facebook redesigned and tested their signup process but it didn't last long.

Why Netvibes doesn't understand the freemium model

Netvibes is my favorite news reader and I've used it for years. It's the best way I've found so far to digest news delivered by RSS feeds on the desktop. But when Netvibes released their premium service last year, I was pretty disappointed to see what it offered:

  • Support response within 24 hours
  • Beta access and a VIP profile badge

And for this, they want $39 a year. I'm sorry, but I'm just not a fan of prioritizing support for paid users when it's basically your only benefit of upgrading. And it's certainly not a convincing enough reason to shell out $39.

Here's where I disagree with the Netvibes philosophy: Support is not a feature. Keeping users happy is a core part of running an internet business and should be top priority. I shouldn't have to pay to get help if I run into a problem that I shouldn't have in the first place.

What's worse is that I've noticed a significantly longer support response time since they released their premium service (average response time used to be 1-2 days; lately it's been 4 days).

And the fact that Netvibes wants to charge for access to beta tests is downright boneheaded. Usually beta tests are given away for free since it's prone to more bugs and can be less stable than a final product.

I should point out that I am more than willing to give $39 to Netvibes for some advanced features I could use. Heck, I'd give them $100 a year. But not for something that should be a "customer right". I would happily pay for an advanced featureset (known as the freemium model, where a subset of users pay for features that not everyone wants or needs). Ya know, like embeddable widgets of news stories I'm reading - like a feed, advanced formatting of feeds, heck, maybe even iPad support (although this was rumored to be coming a year ago). But I would more than likely do it just to support a service I've used for free for many years.

I hope Netvibes continues to innovate and create a better news-reading experience online, rather than relying on users to pay for support to supplement their revenue from enterprise accounts. As good as their experience is at presenting the news, there's still plenty of room for improvement. Netvibes: if you need some ideas, see Flipboard for iPad.

Netvibes needs to continue evolving their product to stay on top. And maybe come up with some features that users will pay for, rather than charging for something that should be free.

Dear internet, please learn to spell.

People. Your spelling is atrocious. And it's getting worse every day.

Far too many people confuse the difference between your/you're, their/they're, to/too, and its/it's - or even worse, they don't even realize there is a difference. There are even plenty of Facebook groups dedicated into setting people straight. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem they've worked yet. And what's even more depressing is that most 2nd graders understand the right usage.

So in an effort to do my part in making the world a better place, I'm providing a little guide of what words to use and when.

Your/You're
You're is a contraction of "you are". If you can't interchange "you are" and "you're" in a sentence, you're using the wrong one.

Their/They're/There
Same as above. "They're" is a contraction of "they are". If you can't interchange "they are" and "they're" in a sentence, you're using the wrong one. "Their" is possessive, when referring to an object of someone (like their car). If it's neither of those, use there (generally speaking). And if you want to use all three in a sentence, it'd look something like this: "They're putting their things over there."

To/Too
Only use "too" in these cases: when it can be replaced by "also", like "I want some ice cream, too." or when it means "in excess" like "Your iPod is playing too loudly." An easy way to remember this is the extra "o" is only used when you're adding more on to something.

Its/It's
It's is a contraction of "it is". If you can't interchange "it is" and it's, then you're doing it wrong.

We're/Were
And although this one is probably more obvious, "we're" IS NOT the same as were. "We're" can only be used when interchangeable with "we are." "Were" is a something completely different.

Fortunately I'm not alone in this pet peeve. This little bit below is taken from postings found across the web:

Let's review:

"Your" signifies ownership or relation, which refers to something owned by someone, a title or friend/relation. Examples:

"Your car is cool."
"Your status is lame."
"Your shirt is ugly."

"You're" is an abbreviation of "you are", which is what you'd say when speaking to someone about who or what they are, be it insult, praise, fact or random statement. Examples:

"You're a moron."
"You're fantastic!"
"You're ugly."

Why people who quit using Foursquare (and Gowalla) are being ridiculous

There's been a lot of news recently about how people are checking in less with location-based services for a variety of reasons: lack of adoption, the task of having to check in everywhere you go, privacy conerns, or just burning out and thinking it's dumb. I think those people are being ridiculous.

I still check in everywhere I go and my check-ins are automatically aggregated to my site whereswatilo.com (a take-off on Where's Waldo, since Watilo - pronounced "waddle - low" - is my last name).

I don't buy into a lot of what Foursquare has tried to do (like giving badges to incentivize check-ins). I just check in because I think it will be cool to analyze the data in the future.

WeePlaces is one such site that analyzes and plots check-ins. The video below shows some of the places I've checked in according to WeePlaces.

I just think people are being short-sighted when it comes to the potential of what can be done with the data.

My buddy Christopher Gooley created Whirlfood, a site that analyzes my food check-ins. It allows me to rate places I've been and shows me suggestions based on my ratings. There are also all sorts of metrics like when I usually eat (apparently I eat out at lunch a lot), my food to nightlife ratio (a lot to very little), and what days of the week I usually eat out the most. It's pretty cool. Check out my public Whrifood profile here.

Some people complain about the privacy issue that comes along with sharing your location. But really, what's the big deal? Did you know that private investigators tracked people down without Foursquare? Turns out, it's pretty easy to find people without all these new tools. And it's not like I have the mob hunting me down anyway. I don't have any enemies and no one I'm hiding from.

I think the benefits of checking into places outweigh any potential drawbacks. Soon there will be even more cool location analytics apps come out. And if you're not checking in now, you're going to miss the benefits in the future.

With Facebook, your email preferences are just suggestions

I keep Facebook email notifications disabled. I just don't need them filling up my inbox. But every once in a while, Facebook will add a new email setting, and default your preference to ON. Even Jason Santa Maria tweeted about this, although in that case, it was a Facebook bug that reset email notifications for users.

But today, I received a Facebook marketing email. Annoyed, I clicked through to Facebook to disable that type of notification. Sure enough, I had already set my preference to NOT email me. But as it turns out, Facebook went ahead and sent me the email anyway.

You see, with Facebook, your email delivery preferences are really just suggestions. If they don't agree with you...well, sucks to be you.

That leads me to another point. If the new Facebook Messages feature is so great, why don't they start spamming me there instead?

My thoughts on Windows Phone 7

Don't call this a review. Call it a critical analysis of a platform I really wanted to like.

I just spent the last five days with the Samsung Focus on AT&T. First off, I should say WinMo 7 will be a great contender in the mobile space...in a couple years. It is reminicent of the first iPhone, which would be okay if this were 2007...but it's not.

The thing I continue to be disappointed about from phone makers competing with Apple is that they seem to follow directly in Apple's footprints. Copy/paste came late on the iPhone. So did tethering, push notifications, multitasking, screenshots, global inbox. And all of those features are missing on WinMo 7 for now. (Although, there is a workaround for tethering.)

If you want to compete with Apple, you need to release a phone that competes with the latest iPhone, not the first one they came out with. Just because Apple didn't release certain features until years later doesn't mean you can do the same thing. It's 2011, and even though you're late to the party, you'd better catch up, because when a consumer goes to compare your phone with the iPhone, it's just not going to compete without certain features.

For the sake of this post, I'll leave out the features listed above, assuming they'll all be coming at some point. Also, keep in mind that I'm writing this from an iPhone user's standpoint, so that's my main reference point. (And I apologize for not providing screenshots. But since WinMo 7 doesn't let you take screenshots, well...)

Things I like about WinMo 7

Facebook integration
WinMo 7 has tight Facebook integration. Not only does it pull in contact profile pictures, but viewing a contact also shows their latest status update. While I usually find this type of thing cheesy, I can see the value in this because status updates can make a great conversation starter when calling someone.

It also automatically downloads all Facebook albums into the built-in photo app, so showing off Facebook pics is as simple as popping open the native app. (It actually downloads album meta data and loads thumbs when you view the album, so the pics aren't actually saved on the phone.)

Profile linking
If I recall correctly, Palm's WebOS was the first major platform to automatically link multiple contact records for contacts from different sources. For example, it will combine phone numbers and email addresses for the same contact that are found in different places like Google Contacts, Facebook, and more. WinMo 7 does this just as well.

Email readibility
Emails look fantastic on this device. The sizing of the sender's name, subject, and text, and the coloring works in harmony to create a really delightful experience. On WinMo 7, I actually enjoy reading email.

Maps
Bing Maps look great in this app. I especially like how, when scrolling to a new section on the map that hasn't been loaded, that section of the map is faded out like a video game map in an area that hasn't been explored. Once the area loads, the map fades in. A simple, but nice touch.

On-screen keyboard
The keyboard feels more accurate and precise than other phones (including the iPhone). I'm a fan. But unfortunately, auto-correct isn't nearly as good. (I'll write about that later.) The keyboard also gives word suggestions which is useful in a few cases. One thing I liked was the ability to highlight an entire word and see auto-complete suggestions for other words. So if you're typing fast and don't realize you input the wrong word, you can just select it and tap on the correct suggestion, rather than using backspace and retyping the correct word.

Marketplace app trials
The biggest thing that bugs me about the iPhone App Store is that you can't try an app before you decide if you like it. I think Google's move with Android Marketplace to allow refunds within 24 hours was genius. I downloaded so many more apps on Android because I didn't feel like it was as much of a commitment; there was a way to "back out" if I wanted to. But I have a feeling some app makers didn't like this, because if you only needed to use an app once, you could use it and then get a refund right after.

With the Windows Marketplace, they offer free trials if the app maker provides a trial version. This is a happy medium, because game makers can offer trial versions, and other app makers can still force you to buy the app if you're not likely to use it on a daily basis.

 

Things I don't like about WinMo 7

Lack of homescreen/tile customization
The homescreen tiles (see screenshot at top) are large, lifeless (the built-in app icons are only one color), and the only thing you can do with them is move them around. You can't change the size of tiles to make three to a row, and if a tile is two tiles wide by default, there's no way to make it half the size. I'd much prefer to see more icons without having to scroll, since the icons show notifications for each app (again, see screenshot above).

Camera (on my Samsung Focus)
There's no other way to put it. The camera is TERRIBLE (keep in mind this is hardware-related, not tied to WinMo 7 itself). It does record HD video, but what's the point if the quality gives away that it was taken with a cell phone?

Transition speed
Transitions on WinMo7 can best be described as a page turn. When you open something, the outgoing page starts to peel from bottom to top. When you exit an application, the entire page flips at the same time.

The transitions are cool for the "honeymoon period," meaning they're kind of cool for the first couple days of owning the phone, and for showing off the phone to friends. But they take a couple seconds to run their course, and I don't think anything is happening in the background (like actually loading the app). I'm pretty sure they're just for visual effect. For me, I'd much rather have a screen load in half the time, than wait for a transition to do its thing, or at the least, an option to disable them.

Email handling
Images in emails rarely seem to work. You have to tap to download an inline image, and when you do, it's really hit or miss on if they'll actually load. (But keep in mind that my experience here may be different than others, due to my email servers.)

On-screen keyboard auto-correct
While I think the keyboard is easier to type more accurately on, auto-correct is far worse than the likes of the iPhone. Sending messages or typing emails ended up being much more tedious because of this. (This was actually the last straw that made me give up WinMo 7. Being unable to type quickly and accurately with the help of auto-correct is a make or break point for touchscreen phones today.)

General lack of consistency
In some apps, pressing the dedicated hardware search button will search within the app. In others, Bing will load, when you're expecting to search within the app. Microsoft should force app makers to use in-app search. For example, in Foursquare, hitting the hardware search loads Bing; to search for a venue, you have to tap the search icon on the screen.

Also, there is a lack of consistent UI. In the text message app and in calendar, the color scheme is white text on a black background. In others like email, it uses black text on a white background. The latter is much more readable. But the reason for the differences between apps is beyond me.

Calendar
The calendar is just really hard to understand. I think this has something to do with the black background on white text. There are also no dividers between events in agenda view. It's hard to see what ties to what. The calendar app could really use some cleaning up.

Bing-only
I didn't see an option to use Google as my primary search site, and that's just lame.

Ringtones
No, you can't add your own ringtones (as far as I see), and all of the stock tones sound exactly the same and are all hard to hear. I missed plenty of calls and texts because the notifications aren't loud enough and don't pierce noisy environments.

Internet Explorer
When fully zoomed out, the text just looks like giant black blurbs. You can't even try to read the text without zooming in. And even when you do, the anti-aliasing isn't great. I found myself only browsing when absolutely necessary. I actually preferred waiting until I got back on my computer over using the phone's browser.

No voice recorder
Maybe I'm being too picky, but I have always found voice recorders on mobile devices to be a necessity. But this one lacks a native voice recorder. I would hope an update would fix this, but I would tend to doubt it as there are paid voice recorders in the Windows Marketplace already.

 

As you can tell from my pros and cons list, the cons currently outweight the pros. I'm sure Windows Phone 7 will get better in the coming months and years - and I really hope it does. I still do like it better than Android, and about the same as WebOS. But WinMo 7 isn't right for me yet. I'm still sticking with the phone that does most things right, my Verizon-powered iPhone 4.

Is PayPal run by a bunch of monkeys?

Last week, I got locked out of my PayPal account "for security purposes." What this means is that I can no longer use my PayPal account until I go through a tedious verification process that will take up to 2 weeks. In the meantime, I can't buy anything with PayPal, and recurring transactions automatically fail.

PayPal's account verification process is senseless, and I will never use recurring PayPal payments for business transactions ever again (and you shouldn't either). Here's why:

PayPal's Account Verification Process

Why did this happen? I created a second PayPal account to use in testing an app. After creating the account, I transferred $1 from my regular PayPal account - you know, the one I've had open for 10 years. Well, this move triggered something at PayPal, and they limited my account. To get my account reinstated, here's what has to happen:

  1. Change my password
  2. Update my security questions
  3. Wait for verification of my location, by waiting 7-10 days for PayPal to send me a verification code IN THE MAIL. (PayPal has an alternate phone verification process, but they couldn't verify my location with that.)

Flaws in PayPal's Account Verification Process

Aside from the fact that I'm annoyed that my account got locked in the first place, I present several flaws in their current account verification process:

  1. If I'm a hacker who is logged into a PayPal account, how it changing my password going to solve anything?
  2. Also, if I'm a hacker, how is RESETTING my security questions going to help?! If anything, I should be challenged to ANSWER them, not reset them. This defeats the purpose of security questions.
  3. If I happened to be out of town for a while, or unable to check mail at the address on my PayPal account, I'd be screwed, since that's the only way to complete their verification process. What if my address were out of date?

Why I will never use recurring PayPal payments for business transactions ever again

You see, when PayPal decides to limit your account, any recurring transactions - you know, any payments that are processed monthly - straight up fail. You'd think if you had pre-existing recurring transactions, PayPal would run them, since they were set up before there was any "suspicious activity" on your account. Nope. Instead, several critical subscriptions for my business have now been cancelled. This includes my Springloops SVN subscription that I use to manage and check-in all of my code, a mission critical service for me (there were others, too). What a joke.

I thought it would be nice to use PayPal to manage recurring subscriptions when it's available, so I could manage recurring transactions all in one place. Instead, this little incident makes me realize that I can't even depend on PayPal for that. As if I didn't already hate PayPal enough, this puts the icing on the cake.

So the moral of the story is, if you run a business and charge recurring payments, don't even bother providing PayPal as an option. You and your customers will only end up getting screwed.