Monday, October 27, 2008

iTunes Genius Review

Over the past few days, the Genius feature introduced in iTunes 8 has been getting a lot of attention from me. I have a very high bar for a digital jukebox, and when it comes to iTunes, my evaluation of features is that much more critical because of my affiliation with the Zune PC client. With this being said, I am known to give everything a fair chance; read this with a grain of salt if you must.

On the whole, Genius is a great addition to iTunes. The idea of automatically generating "mashed up" playlists isn't a new one. I was first introduced to the idea via Predexis Music Match in Winamp a few years ago; right off the bat, I thought the idea of building playlists of similar songs from my library was way cool. Pandora was the natural evolution of the playlist mashup idea, and in my opinion, Pandora has revolutionized the way people listen to music. My only gripes with Pandora were that I had very little say in how Pandora picked the songs for me, and songs would repeat way too often. My patronage of these top-notch services meant that Genius had to exceed a high quality bar to win my approval.

Genius is pretty unobtrusive and simple to use - the EULA for Genius is short and clearly states that it transmits information to iTunes so that it can build playlists of similar music for you. All of this dialing back home purportedly stops when you disable Genius, so at the outset, this isn't a privacy nightmare. It appears to me that the Genius client within iTunes is very spartan - the iTunes server does the heavy-lifting of analyzing songs in the library and provides hints to Genius on how it can thread seemingly unrelated songs into playlists. As the iTunes server gets better at connecting songs to one another, everyone using Genius gets better recommendations, and as Genius feeds this information back to iTunes, the service gets better at making recommendations. All-in-all, this is a great feedback loop that constantly improves the system.

While this sounds good at first, the fact that the server does a lot of the processing of the library, it becomes the single point of failure in the system. If for some reason, I don't have access to the Internet, there is a good chance that Genius will not generate playlists for me. While using the feature, I also realized that some basic use-cases haven't been implemented. For instance, when I add a new song to the library, Genius doesn't incrementally update its database of recommendations for the new song added. This has two major consequences:

1. Clicking the Genius icon while playing the new song results in a message that informs me that the iTunes server needs to be contacted.
2. The new song doesn't appear in my current Genius playlist even if it is obvious that it is related to the playlist's source.

This is an easy fix for Apple to push through to users, and in general, Genius has made a good start. Here are the few things I really liked:
- The playlists it builds mostly contain related songs
- I can save a Genius playlist in my library, and can continue to refresh it (like a smart playlist). As Genius gets better at recommending songs to me, my lists can be refined. YAY!
- I can sync a genius playlist to my iPod
- Creating a new Genius playlist is EZ

Here are things I would improve moving forward:
- Adding a new song to my library should trigger a Genius update in the background
- Genius recommendations become dodgy after the 20th song in the playlist
- Genius should be extended to a more generic recommendation engine. Like Youtube recommends "Similar Videos", the iTunes store recommends "Similar Songs/Artists", and some Podcast directories now have the "Similar Podcasts" feature. The part about Podcasts is key, because they are hard to find to begin with. It's great when a friend recommends a Podcast, but getting such a recommendation from Apple too would add more meat to that suggestion.

If you've used the Zune's genius-like feature, please share your thoughts with me. Most importantly, mash your library up!!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Google, welcome to the world of OS and client software development

Just days after the T-Mobile G1 smartphone went on the market, a group of security researchers have found what they call a serious flaw in the Android software from Google that runs it.

One of the researchers, Charles A. Miller, notified Google of the flaw this week and said he was publicizing it now because he believed that cellphone users were not generally aware that increasingly sophisticated smartphones faced the same threats that plague Internet-connected personal computers.

Mr. Miller, a former National Security Agency computer security specialist, said the flaw could be exploited by an attacker who might trick a G1 user into visiting a booby-trapped Web site.

The G1 — the so-called Google phone — went on sale at T-Mobile stores on Wednesday.
And they thought this would be a walk in the park...

Friday, October 24, 2008

You Must Run Windows Update

If you are running Windows, please run Windows Update ASAP. Without applying this :patch:, your machine is at risk of being exploited by a worm like the Slammer/Blaster worms of a few years ago. Here is the executive summary from Microsoft's website:
This security update resolves a privately reported vulnerability in the Server service. The vulnerability could allow remote code execution if an affected system received a specially crafted RPC request. On Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003 systems, an attacker could exploit this vulnerability without authentication to run arbitrary code. It is possible that this vulnerability could be used in the crafting of a wormable exploit. Firewall best practices and standard default firewall configurations can help protect network resources from attacks that originate outside the enterprise perimeter.
Love the situation or hate it, you must update your computer and restart!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sitting cross-legged on my couch

NPR playing in the background, the light from the kitchen lamps glowing yellow behind me, I sit alone in my living room pondering about everything and nothing. Highs in the upper 50s tomorrow, right now 46 degrees in Seattle, and I have not done anything to write home about this past week. Mind you, if mountains could be moved with thoughts, I'd be in the phone book under "Mountain Mover". I want to take off during lunch and run on the asphalt all the way to the Lake, but I always find a way to stay inside instead. Maybe tomorrow is the day when I also open my investment account; in my defense, I did call my brokerage firm to help me with this but didn't get a call back. It's interesting to note that human inertia is the reason that businesses both thrive and perish. More validation for the aphorism, "one man's food, another man's poison."

Talking about the duality of inertia, my thoughts wander to the stock market. You must be wondering about my decision to invest in this market. I don't fault you for thinking that I've gone bonkers. It's almost impossible to be affected by the dire musings of today's economists - the global economy is in crisis; it's like we're in the Titanic and a collision with an iceberg is inevitable. Most people who were heavily invested in the stock market have witnessed the devouring of their nest egg. The worst is yet to come according to the analysts - most corporations are soon going to feel the pinch resulting in layoffs for some and little to no pay-scale increases for the rest. Small businesses have started going under, retailers are reporting that shoppers are no longer shopping for anything more than the essentials, and it looks like it's going to be a black Christmas. All of this without any respite from increasing commodity prices. Isn't it odd then, sinister even, to see some folks seize the opportunity and find as many ways as possible to turn a profit in this down market? I see the emergence of more and more debt management companies, almost anything can now be rented, condos are being turned into rental apartments, and the biggest surprise - people like me who have waited for this exact moment are now ready to invest. I don't think there has been a better time to invest in the market - the smart investor invests when the prices are at their lowest, when no one else can buy because they are out of funds, when the others are facing a crisis. I promise I'll invest with a heavy heart, stay away from technology stocks, and commiserate with the loss of others around me. You, the one reading this - have some money to spare? Invest it already! If you make a profit, do the right thing and donate some of it to a local shelter...

Friday, October 17, 2008

In the words of Mr Buffett, now is the time to invest!

I know almost nothing about the stock market, like so many other aspects of life. Early in my life, I learnt that I don't need to know everything (probably because I can't) - it was far more important to identify an expert in a particular sphere and factor that person's better judgment in my decision making process.

I am not alone in saying that when it comes to stocks, there is no maven bigger than Warren Buffett. Here is what he says about investing in today's economy:
You might think it would have been impossible for an investor to lose money during a century marked by such an extraordinary gain. But some investors did. The hapless ones bought stocks only when they felt comfort in doing so and then proceeded to sell when the headlines made them queasy.

Today people who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn’t. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. Indeed, the policies that government will follow in its efforts to alleviate the current crisis will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash accounts.

Equities will almost certainly outperform cash over the next decade, probably by a substantial degree. Those investors who cling now to cash are betting they can efficiently time their move away from it later. In waiting for the comfort of good news, they are ignoring Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

I don’t like to opine on the stock market, and again I emphasize that I have no idea what the market will do in the short term. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the lead of a restaurant that opened in an empty bank building and then advertised: “Put your mouth where your money was.” Today my money and my mouth both say equities.
Not only is the man rich, he's wise and very eloquent. After reading words like his, there should be no guessing what I'll be doing starting Monday and the rest of next week.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How can AAPL defy analyst expectations in this economy?

The effects of the current crisis can be felt in every sector - no scrip has been spared, everyone's portfolio has suffered. In the technology sector, AAPL's stock nose-dive has been talked about as much as the stock's dramatic ascent over the last year. Analyst are in agreement that AAPL can't meet market expectations because its products are for the discretionary customer that is in the market for luxury items. The abysmal state of finances has translated into a huge shift in consumer spending patterns - luxury goods retailers are reporting historically low sales figures whereas the wholesale chains' profits are soaring (Costco today reported increased sales and profits). Is there a way for AAPL to defy the analysts' predictions?

In recent months, Apple's reputation has taken a hit too. It's "I'm a Mac" campaign has begun to grate on people's nerves because of the elitist nature of the commercials. Contrary to what anyone would have conceived, the PC guy in the commercials has emerged as the underdog, thereby winning the hearts of consumers and critics alike. Steve Jobs' health has become a major issue, and though there are more iPhone sightings today than any other phone, the iPod's popularity is now waning. Unless Apple has a new trick up its sleeve, the next year is going to be doubly difficult for the iconic company.

I don't have a product concept that Apple should bring to market to fill the void left by the iPod. I do believe that Apple can re-establish its position as the darling of consumers and resurrect its reputation of having its ears to the ground if it does one simple thing - slash the prices of its products. And by slash them, I don't mean the sticker price. I am talking about doing something like GM's employee pricing gimmick; the difference would be Apple's spin on the plan. If Apple's marketing whiz-kids can figure out a way to project to the consumers that Apple is willing to bleed with the rest of the country, to take a financial hit so that people's basic needs for computing are served, it's money well spent (profit well unearned). Yes, the reduced earnings report has the potential to send the stock down further, but given the current market situation and analyst downgrades, who is to say that the stock will rebound? By offering the discount, Apple will have, in essence, conveyed to the consumer that it sympathizes with their financial hardship, and is willing to share the burden. Though subliminal, that's a powerful message that is sure to win the hearts of consumers everywhere. And with Christmas around the corner, a tug at the heart's strings is sure to loosen the purse's strings...