Dropbox

Dropbox is a service that allows cloud file hosting across all major platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows, iPhone, Android, etc.).  In addition to allowing access to my own files anywhere, I am also able to share any files I choose with other Dropbox members.  Dropbox offers 2GB of free storage for first time users.  You can increase your storage by a few hundred MB by completing some actions when you sign up to get used to the service, or by referring friends to the service*.  You can also get significantly more storage by paying a monthly fee.  Rates are available at the site.

At work, I am currently using Unity3D, which works in both Mac and Windows.  By storing my project files in my dropbox, I can open the project folder I was working with in Unity on either platform and be right where I left off regardless of which platform I was using previously.  Additionally, I am hoping to work with a colleague on a programming project collaboratively.  Instead of worrying about securely sharing files in a timely manner, we can simply set up a shared drop box folder so the work is done for us.

I’ve been using dropbox for over a few months now and haven’t had any real problems.  They also have one of the best hiring pages I’ve seen.  Have you used Dropbox?  Any problems?

*If you are interested in getting a Dropbox account, you can use this link:  https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTY1NDE0NTE5, which will give me some extra storage.  If you don’t feel comfortable with that, you can also get a free account from the Dropbox site linked above.

Browser Tab Innovation?

Notsomuch, actually.  Since my post on browser tab stagnation, not much has changed in terms of offerings from the major browsers. However, I have found two services that have addressed some of the issues I raised:  Google Bookmarks and fur.ly.

Google Bookmarks

In my post on browser tab stagnation, I claimed that bookmarking simply wouldn’t solve many of the problems I have with the state of tabbed browsing.  I still feel that way, but Google Bookmarks has helped with at least one of the problems I’ve had with browsers recently; instead of the named groups of tabs I was looking for, Google Bookmarks’ tag feature allows me to see related sites.  Being able to tag bookmarks and keep them consistent in the cloud (rather than having to update them on separate machines) has helped me immensely.  First, if I find a work related link at home, or a link I think would be interesting for a personal project at work, I am able to put them in the same place, with the same amount of effort as traditional bookmarking, regardless of my location.  Second, instead of having to create folders and worry about organizing bookmarks, I can simply tag the bookmarks and search by tag later.  Moreover, I don’t even have to enter the entire tag if I’ve already created it as Google bookmarks uses autocomplete.

Before I started using Google bookmarks, I would generally just bookmark a site and put off organizing them until later (I still haven’t done that since January).  Now organizing is a simple matter of typing the tag.  The tags are especially helpful because they allow me to see what references I have for a specific topic.  The ability to search and the reduction in the amount of work cause me to bookmark more sites for reference.  As an example, I am interested in programming for my phone, so I have been reading up on Android programming.  The problem is, between work and other obligations, I haven’t been able to look into it for the past few weeks.  Bookmark tags allow me to search for anything I’ve added about Android and either remember where I was in the process, or dive in from a different direction.

To use Google Bookmarks, I have added the Bookmarklet from here to each of my browsers.

fur.ly

fur.ly is a URL shortening service that accepts multiple URLs and provides a shortened link.  Upon opening the link provided by fur.ly, the user sees the first page from the list of URLs topped by a small header with links to 1) get rid of the header 2) move to the next link 3) see statistics about the fur.ly link as well as a dropdown menu of all the pages supplied with the original link.  This is a unique service that allows for a bit more focused browsing on a particular subject.  While I would prefer a browser feature that allowed me to save and load multiple tabs, this service at least allows me to share multiple links in a focused way.

Conclusion

Sadly, fur.ly still requires about the same amount of effort as my usual method of simply copying and pasting the links into an email (to myself or a friend/colleague).   Hopefully newer versions of browsers will address this natively.  Also, while Google Bookmarks has been great, it would be great if I could simply name a tag and click a few tabs that could be labeled and saved with that tag rather than having to click and bookmark each tab and add the same tag repeatedly.  Finally, I would still like the ability to control the state of my tabs in addition to having it automated.  I have learned to work around this problem, but I would prefer to be able to have it addressed by the browsers so I don’t have to worry about losing tabs/windows when I close my browser.

New Software: Evernote

As I promised too long ago, I will begin reviewing some productivity software that I have begun using.

Evernote is a program available on nearly every platform (including mobile platforms) and on the web.  Users can make small notes and organize them either in a downloaded app (which will sync to the cloud for uniformity across all versions) or directly on the website.  Notes can consist of websites (in part or in their entirety) through plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome, pictures, and text.

One of the primary benefits of Evernote is the ability to sync notes across all platforms.  This is what makes cloud computing fantastic.  At one point, I was having trouble opening Evernote in Windows 7.  Thanks to the synced online version of the program, I was able to view all of my previous notes and add anything I needed.  Eventually, the program started back up and I haven’t had problems since.  Had this been an offline application, I would have had to resort to other methods on note taking while I found a solution.  But with the Evernote website to complement the downloadable program, I am able to make and view notes if the program acts up, or if I am at a computer without the program.

While there are plenty of ways to use Evernote, I use it mostly to keep my notes organized no matter where I may be.  One of my primary problems with note taking is that I tend to have notes scattered in several locations and media types (home vs. office, digital vs pen and paper, etc.).  This is particularly problematic because I work from home (or while traveling) and not having my notes leaves me trying to remember where I left off.  Additionally, sometimes I need to stay at the office and would prefer to do work on a personal project after working a full day.  Here I am left with the same problem.  Evernote helps solve these problems by keeping my notes all in one place.  I was previously trying to use Google Docs for this purpose, but I find Evernote more conducive to note taking and now use Google Docs for larger documents.

Recently, my boss gave me a paper to proofread just before lunch. I went to my office and put notes in Evernote as I read. About halfway through I went back to the conference room, hit sync and finished taking notes there.  Before using Evernote, I would have had to use a USB memory stick or emailed the file to myself.  With Evernote, I only had to hit the sync button.

I have the Android app for Evernote on my phone, but I haven’t used it much since I first got it.  The only complaints I have with the mobile version is that in order to see all of your notes, you have to search the empty string.  That is, hit the search button with nothing in the search bar.  This isn’t a negative per se, but I only figured it out by trying every option possible.  It would have been nice if that was explained when the program started for the first time.  Also, none of the notes are in their respective notebooks as they are in the online and desktop versions.  These are minor problems, though for an app that is primarily designed to simply take notes on the go.  It serves as a good sidekick to the desktop app.

I’ve been using Evernote for quite a few months now, but I still use it primarily for taking simple, text-based notes.   For this purpose, it has been a great help in providing a single repository for my notes for everything from work to personal projects.  I’ll be sure to post a follow up if I delve into the extra features.

Why Community Can Be More Important Than Quality

Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube all rely heavily on their users to provide the content.  The developers and designers for these companies simply provide a platform for the users to share updates, information, and videos.

Facebook

Facebook has gone through many iterations since its small beginnings.   While most of the interface choices have been acceptable, many users and tech enthusiasts are unhappy with Facebook’s perceived lack of privacy protection. In fact, I refuse to add any facebook apps or games to my profile for fear that my information will be leaked.  I have also decided against linking my interests, favorite books, movies, etc.  I am not this careful with any other sites.

One change I have personally been disappointed in is the lack of profile change notifications in the news feed.  One friend of mine changes her ‘Favorite Quotes’ category often with humorous quotes from her friends.  Even the quotes from people I don’t know are generally entertaining, but I almost never remember to check her profile because the notification that she has changed the quotes is no longer on the news feed.

Even with these problems, though I continue to use Facebook to keep in touch with some friends who I don’t see or talk to as regularly as I would like.

Twitter

In addition to more downtime than any other major site I have encountered, Twitter’s website is lacking so many features that the majority of users use third party developed desktop or mobile apps instead of the website to view and update content.  The most glaring omission to me is the inability to see ‘conversations,’ when two people you follow reply to each other back and forth.  Despite this (and a lack of a clear financial plan), Twitter continues to grow in members and valuation.

I would love if something like Google Buzz actually took off, but the people I follow on Twitter mostly don’t publicize their Buzz profiles.

Youtube

Clocking in with the second most error prone major website I use, Youtube.

I use youtube in four ways:

1.  Watching videos from my subscribed channels.

2.  Watching a video someone links me to.

3.  Searching for videos.

4.  Uploading videos.

This is the order respective of how often I do each of these tasks.  The fact that I can’t sign in and view my subscriptions with the Youtube app on Android is the primary reason I have yet to actually use it more than once.*  Additionally, I am almost positive Youtube has broken its own playlist function.  I recently have tried to set up playlists to watch a few videos in a row only to find that this feature is completely broken**.

The only way to watch multiple videos in the order I want from my subscription page is to add them to the ‘watch queue’ one at a time, in the order I want to watch them.  If I add two at once, they go in on the order they are on the subscription page. While adding a video to my quicklist yields me a text box notification that it has been added, it does not give me a link to get to that page (I am almost positive there was a link there before a recent update).  Instead, I need to go from the subscriptions page to the:

1.  username drop down

2.  select ‘My Videos’

3.  select the ‘Watch Queue’ tab.

Once there, I am unable to reorganize the order of the videos.  I can only remove videos.

There is also no way to ‘line up’ a series of videos (or even a single video) to follow the one you are currently watching.  That is, if I am watching part 1 of 4, there is no way to have part 2 immediately follow part 1.  The only way to do this would be to start a list with part 2 and go there after part 1 finishes, or set up a list with parts 1 and 2, and restart part 1 from your current location.

Youtube has seemingly tried to improve the subscription watching experience by adding a pop-up bar at the bottom of the screen that allows me to go through new videos from my subscriptions.  However, it is missing the fundamental ability to change the order that those videos exist in.

It baffles me that the designers at Youtube/Google could create so many different ways to attempt to get people to use their subscriptions function without understanding that people might want a little control over the order in which they watch these videos.  In addition to problems with advanced usability, Youtube also has some fundamental errors.

When trying to upload a video, Youtube’s status bars (which have changed numerous times over the time I have used the service) have nearly always failed to inform me of how long a video had left to upload.  I understand that with variable uploading rates, an accurate time is not always possible, but seeing the status bar race to 100% and waiting for another 10 minutes to find that the video still  hasn’t finished uploading (with no other heavy uploading occurring) is awful design.  Even with the current design showing which frame of the video is currently uploading, videos often finish without uploading the information I have set (title, description, etc.), and I am forced to edit these fields for a second time.  This is usually after I have waited some arbitrary amount of time and realized Youtube has failed to finish the upload appropriately.  Again.

Another recent update to the mobile site has made it impossible for me to see new videos for my subscriptions all in one list.  Instead, I can see a list of new videos from my subscriptions mixed with highly rated videos, newly added videos, and others.  I can also see what videos my subscribed channels have posted individually.  But I can no longer look at a single list showing what all the channels I have subscribed to have added recently. **

I have no idea how these can be looked at as ‘improvements’.  It baffles me that someone decided that users would prefer to not have a link to their quicklist or queue (the name has changed recently) or that they would not want to see the newest videos from all of the channels they subscribe to.

So why do we continue to use these sites?

Despite some awful design decisions, it is the communities that make these sites worth using.  I can’t tell all of my friends to stop using Facebook and hop on a new site with a better interface and less privacy concerns and hope they will all comply.  I can’t tell all of the people I follow on twitter to find a better site to post links that are relevant to my interests and see a change.  I can’t force all of the channels on youtube that I subscribe to to move to a site with a better user interface.

I guess the only thing left to do is design a better social networking site that everyone will flock to, a better site for posting 140 word quips, and a better site for video sharing.  Shouldn’t be a problem…

*Update:  I was wrong. I can log in on the Android app, but it does not have a ‘new videos’ feature under subscriptions that I could find.  It gaveme errors 4/5 times I tried to access it, though so it may be in there eventually.

**Update: This was true when I drafted this article, but has since been fixed.  In the meantime, the subscription page on the full version of the site was offline for nearly a day.