Google Music: The revolution you’ve been waiting for is (still) not here yet

A month or so back, Google announced its new plan to take over the world: Google Music.  No one was really sure what it did, but it was made by Google and it had something to do with music, so it had to be good right?  Oh, and there was something in there about syncing your Android devices…whatever that means.

Just like when Google said “hey, we’re going to give a whole bunch of people some of our brand-spanking-new ChromeOS tablets that haven’t actually been built yet,” or when they said “hey, we’ve got this new technology called Wave…we’re not really sure what it does, but we want you to test it for us,” I put my email address in the box to sign up for the beta.  Last week, I got my invite.

Here’s what Google Music (presumably) does:

You upload your music to the server (up to 20,000 files for free).  Once there, you can access, stream, and play it from pretty much anywhere.  The application is web-based, so it’s not platform specific (except for the Music Manager tool which runs on your desktop computer and handles the uploading part).  The interface is sparse bordering on unfinished.  The features are limited.  It’s sort of like a simplified iTunes if iTunes was what it was circa version 1 or so.  To be honest, I’ve barely used it, and this is why.

The first problem I had was that I couldn’t sign into the Music Manager application.  It said it didn’t like my password and locked me out.  I decided that this was most likely because my Google Apps password for my email address was different than the password I used for the same email address that I used for my Google identity everywhere else.  However, knowing this didn’t fix the problem.  Eventually, I found a bit of a hack/workaround by using my YouTube screenname (jazzs3quence) and the same password I use for my regular Google identity (which is also used by YouTube). This worked and it turned my YouTube screen name into a Gmail address ([email protected]) — an interesting trick.  A couple days after I figured this out, I got a response to my reported issue to Google saying that it was because my Google Apps account hadn’t migrated over to the new version yet.  I more or less ignored this piece of useless information since I had already managed to get it working.

The second problem may only be a problem for me, which is the 20,000 file upload limit.  Presumably when this thing launches, you’ll be able to upload more for a fee.  I have between 30-40,000 music files, so 20k doesn’t really cut it.  The Music Manager program far from lives up to its name, not really providing a place to manage your music — it does what pretty much every other program of its ilk does, which is let you specify where your music files are stored (or import via your iTunes playlist).  However, if I’m limited to 20k, I’d like to be able to pick what gets uploaded and what doesn’t — the Music Manager doesn’t really offer a good way of doing this other than drilling down your directory tree and individually adding each folder.  Since I let iTunes handle my files, that means I have a separate folder for every artist (as well as artists iTunes doesn’t have a clue about and dumps in Unknown Artist).  Doing that for the equivalent of 20,000 files would be a glorious waste of time.  Once uploaded, you can delete songs, albums, and presumably entire artists from the Google Music interface, but I’m unconvinced that doing so would have any influence over whether that artist got uploaded again after it scanned your collection again and realized you had music by them.   Say I don’t plan on listening to Dizzy Gillespie on the Android device that I don’t actually own, if I delete Dizzy from Google Music, how do I know that Dizzy won’t get uploaded again before, say, Trent Reznor since it exists alphabetically sooner?  The only real way to be sure would be to exclude the Dizzy Gillespie folder, which, as I’ve pointed out, isn’t very manageable with a huge number of artists.

The biggest issue for me, though, came as I was trying to do work.  The Music Manager was chugging along in the background, up to 10,000-something of 30,000-something files, I was listening to iTunes (not Google Music) and trying to code.  I say trying because even though the Notepad++ application I use for coding is tiny, it was straining to do anything.  Alt+TABbing forced me to wait several minutes, and I was increasingly getting the Windows 7 gray screen of death on various windows.  When I finally manged to pull up Task Manager, I found the culprit: Music Manager was sucking up over 90% of my CPU resources.  This is essentially like the midget flame-eater telling the ring leader to step aside, he can take the show from here — screw the clowns.  Once I killed that process, my computer happily went along doing its normal business as if nothing had happened.  It even seemed to flip through windows perkily, like I’d finally been able to find that irritating itch that had been bugging it.  Granted uploading 10,000+ files is fairly excessive, and granted that uploading files at all can be fairly resource-intensive, why a program designed to run in the background can be allowed to use that much of my system resources is astounding.  I started wondering if maybe I had downloaded a virus — instead, the only virus I downloaded was Google Music.

The only positive thing I can say about Google Music is that, after picking your favorite genres from a ridiculously-simplified list of possibilities (for a musicophile like me, anyway) is that Google Music will come pre-loaded with some selections from those selected genres.  However, for the reasons mentioned above (namely having more than 20k files to start with), this really isn’t that helpful, especially considering the inclusion of artists like Cab Calloway (in the Jazz category) and C-40 (in the Hip Hop & Rap category) whom I have little-to-no interest in whatsoever.  (Also included in Rap was Kriss Kross which could be considered a keeper if only for novelty value.)  Meanwhile, checking on my Music Manager informed me that it had made its way to my collection of downloaded audiobooks, which I have absolutely zero interest in actually having on the site when every file counts.

Considering I don’t have an Android device, Google Music has nothing to offer me.  Even if I did, the platform is unappealing and without any features that I would consider essential.  Moreover, there’s nothing that Google Music is doing that couldn’t be done for at least five years or so with a little open source web app I discovered called Ampache, which you could use — with some configuring — to turn your desktop computer into a web server and stream your entire music collection to any device (assuming it could handle Flash, Shoutcast streams, or playlist files).  And since the debut of Ampache (which I discovered sometime around 2005 and it had been in development for several years before that), other things have cropped up that allow you to stream your music (or other files) to various devices like Wiisic, Orb, and dot.tunes, which take care of the server side of things to make it even easier to set up.

So, sorry Google, maybe you’re winning someone over, but I’m unimpressed.  Now get your stupid Music Manager the hell off my system and stop sucking up my processor power.  Thanks.

Going Google-less – A Week Without Google

A week ago on my blog, I posted my pledge to go one week without Google.  It was inspired, in part, by the Google/Verizon proposal for the future of high speed and wireless internet that was devised in closed-door meetings, in secret, while the same discussions were being had with the FCC and other major players that Google and Verizon were also a part of.  This sort of self-serving duplicity, as well as serious concerns about the end result for consumers this proposal would have if enacted, put a serious damper on my ongoing Google-love.  How dependent on Google, specifically, was I really, and could I actually live without using a single Google service?  As more and more concern about Google and their agreement with Verizon poured in, I wanted to find out.

I actually started early in my week without Google.  Friday night, after deciding to do this experiment, I set out right away to converting the stuff I use on a day-to-day basis to be without Google.  The first step was Gmail/Google Apps.

I use Google Apps for my primary email address.  While I have a Gmail account, I haven’t used it since getting my own domain name for my blog at jazzsequence.com, and I just forward everything sent to my Gmail address to my jazzsequence address.  (While, technically this could be considered still using Google, I’m not considering forwarded email from an unused email address to be really “using” Google services).  The process of switching my email away from Google Apps was pretty easy, so I had to go one step further to make it more complicated.

I’ve also played with the idea of migrating away from Microsoft Office products in favor of open source projects that support collaboration and open standards.  Switching to OpenOffice is easy (although I am skeptical now that Sun (and, in turn, OpenOffice) was acquired by Oracle).  In fact, last time I had to reformat my computer, I tried to install Thunderbird and use that for email but for some reason I couldn’t get it to play nice with my Google Apps email.  I didn’t have the patience for it and Outlook picked up the right settings right away, so I just gave up reluctantly and have been using Office ever since.  This time I stuck it out, since the Gmail/Google Apps problem wouldn’t be an issue and managed to get Thunderbird to play nice.

The other reason I’ve avoided moving away from Outlook is because I’m hopelessly dependent on the Calendar and Tasks features.  We use these internally at Arcane Palette to send each other projects or tasks for projects to work on and manage our workflow that way.  We’ve tried other project management applications, but using the one built right into Outlook it so much easier than having to log into a third-party application, especially when said application doesn’t necessarily send said emails.  Thankfully, Thunderbird has Lightning, the new Calendar and Task extension by Mozilla.  That’s two down, and that takes care of my email.

Next was switching from Chrome to Firefox.  I’ve been using Chrome since the late beta period, and have grown so accustomed to it that it’s second nature.  The web developer tools have become an invaluable resource when I’m working on a website, and I’ve foregone heaps of integrated functionality in favor of bookmarklets, plastering them all over my bookmark bar.  However, migrating to Firefox was relatively painless as well.  I just needed to export my bookmarks as an .html file and was able to import said .html file directly into Firefox and then move all my bookmarklets to Firefox’s bookmark bar.  I then focused on making Firefox more lightweight by uninstalling some plugins I wasn’t using and installing a couple plugins that would add some of the Chrome functionality I had grown used to, in particular, Taberwocky, which I use primarily to be able to duplicate tabs.  Since I’ve been using Glue, I finally got to install the Glue plugin and experience the web the way Glue wants you to, and I installed Firefox’s personas just for fun (which is Firefox’s version of Chrome’s visual styles).  I use Hootsuite for Twitter, and with Chrome, I was doing this by creating an application window for it, so it runs as its own standalone app.  Mozilla has this, too, in a project called Prism, and I actually like Prism more because it allows you to customize the icon, which Chrome’s application shortcuts don’t do.

I also switched search engines.  This was harder than it sounded.  You don’t realize how used to typing google.com into an address bar you are until you try to do something else.  I also realized I’ve become dependent on Chrome’s auto-fill technique of allowing you to search a site by typing the domain and hitting TAB.  I’ve yet to find something like that in Firefox.  On the other hand, Firefox has Search Engine add-ons for a variety of sites (including Wikipedia, which, along with YouTube and Amazon – both of which have Search Engine Add-Ons – was what I was using most frequently), which made it easy (easier, anyway) to switch over to Bing as my primary search engine.

The setup took me through the weekend, so by Monday I was ready to start my work week without Google.

YouTube was difficult to avoid.  It’s so ubiquitous for video sharing that you can choose to not watch viral videos, or you can suck it up and watch things on YouTube.  YouTube was acquired in 2006 by Google for $1.65billion from a couple of ecstatic developers who built it, and since then, Google has both added advertising to videos and started doing video ads with their AdSense service.  This was one thing I cheated on my Google-less week for, although that’s more a result of the decision of content creators to use YouTube rather than another service like Vimeo.

On Tuesday, I needed to send an invoice to a client.  I paused and thought hard.  PayPal has a higher processing fee, plus I have a bias against them since they screwed me once.  That said, in a lesser-of-two-evils decision, PayPal, at least, isn’t trying to take over the world (or, if not the world, gain more control over the future of the Internet than the government organizations assigned to regulate it and keep it free from corporate interests).  So I put my boycott on PayPal aside and sent out an invoice with a PayPal-linked button rather than a Google Checkout-linked button.  This was probably the hardest switch to make not because PayPal is inherently more difficult but because both companies, in my opinion, are crooked.

I suppose it should be said that I’m addicted to the web developer tools built into WebKit (and therefore Google Chrome), in particular the Inspect Element context menu.  I use it every day and I knew going into this experiment that this would be something I was missing.  I’ve become so accustomed to using Inspect Element that I’d completely forgotten how to use the much more elaborate Web Developer Tools plugin for Firefox (though I still had that installed).  In the end, for web development, I used Safari so I could get the benefit of the Inspect Element option.  To be honest, there was no specific reason for choosing Firefox over Safari as the browser of choice and by Wednesday I started considering just switching.  Most likely it was simply ubiquity and the fact that Firefox was what I was using before switching to Chrome, though, in retrospect, Safari is just as solid.

On Thursday, I realized that the database backups I schedule to automatically send every week to a specific email address weren’t coming.  After a second, I realized why; I never set up the email address when I was moving my mail over to my webhost.  While it’s just as easy to set up mail through your host as it is to set up Google Apps to handle your mail, it’s worth remembering that if you do decide to switch back (or switch any host or email provider), any email addresses you have set up will need to be recreated on the new host.  It’s a simple enough task, but just as easy to forget, especially if you have forward-only addresses like I do.

Another thing you forget about Gmail is how good the junk mail filter really is.  It’s been years since I really thought very much about junk mail.  I get so little of it, that I don’t even notice the problem.  Only after moving my email away from Gmail did I start to notice the junk come in, many times it was the same piece of junk mail.  Outlook has some built-in controls for that (which, of course, I’d forgone in favor of Thunderbird), and Thunderbird does as well, although, for the most part, it relies on you to mark things as spam to learn what to filter and what not to.  Thankfully, many webhosts have server-side spam filtering (using SpamAssassin or something similar), which I was happy to find on my host when I realized that was what was going on and looked for the possibility of a server-side spam filter (note: it wasn’t turned on by default, as they often are not, so if you find yourself inundated by spam, it’s a good idea to see if your webhost has the option and turn it on, if necessary).

The point of this experiment was not to take my one-man boycott and stick it to The Man.  I knew I relied heavily on Google services, and wanted to see how deep the ties were and how difficult it would be to avoid them.  Most people use Google by default, without thinking.  Are we wrong to do this?  Google has not made a secret of taking our information and using it to supercharge their other apps, like AdSense and search.  Facebook does this too.  But the difference between Facebook and Google is that Google is also asking you to host all your documents with them, to use their phones (bundled with their services) with your mobile service, to take control of your calls with their VOIP service, to own your conversations with their messaging service.  Does this mean that behind every corner, with everything you do online, you have a Google bot reading your messages, your emails, your documents, and assimilating that information into their vast grid for future use?  Are we okay with that?

Even putting Google and Verizon’s recent bid to determine the future of broadband and wireless internet aside for a minute, it can’t go without noting that Google is a huge corporation.  They may have started out as two guys in a garage, but those days are long gone.  Have we forgotten that Apple and Microsoft had similar beginnings?  Google isn’t the underdog anymore, they are the behemoth, and they want your data.  Internet pioneer, Richard Stallman, has some choice words on the sorts of cloud computing technology Google has led us toward with Gmail and Apps.

The real meaning of ‘cloud computing’ is to suggest a devil-may-care approach towards your computing. It says, ‘Don’t ask questions, just trust every business without hesitation. Don’t worry about who controls your computing or who holds your data. Don’t check for a hook hidden inside our service before you swallow it.’ In other words, ‘Think like a sucker.’

We can choose to not be a sucker.  We can look for a hook.  There was a time when people distrusted large businesses simply because they were large.  In this economy, where many of the little and smaller companies have crumbled, we should be even more wary of those left standing, not less.  When a company starts making rules for the government, that’s when I start tuning out.

The answer to the main question of the experiment, can you survive without Google, is: yes, of course you can.  Gmail is great, but by no means is it the be-all end-all email solution, and by no means is Gmail’s junk filtering the only answer, either.  Other cloud computing apps should make you wary at the very least – if the world ended tomorrow and those servers went down, would you be okay with loosing that data?  Neil Gaiman mentioned that some documents from 2007 stored in Google Docs were missing and that he may have lost a story.  I find this, for a writer – a bestselling one, at that – to be absolutely unacceptable, and proof that your data is not guaranteed.  And the only way to truly secure your data is to don your tinfoil hat and start keeping hard copies.

We’re so reliant on the web we don’t even think about it.  I don’t retain a printed copy of my tax return unless I absolutely need it.  Why should I?  Printer companies gouge consumers on ink refills for cheap printers enough that I no longer own a printer.  I have a pdf copy and I file electronically.  Personally, I retain all important data on a home server that maintains weekly backups on an external NAS server, but most people don’t.  The point is, we’ve become so used to going paperless that the idea of going back makes us sound like some relic from the 1950s (no offense to relics from the 50s).  Likewise, distrusting cloud computing, Google, Facebook, any company that hordes our data, makes us sound paranoid.

The answer to the followup question to the experiment, will I continue to live without Google services is: probably.  I was dissatisfied with using Firefox for all my browsing, and enjoyed using the Glue extension for Firefox that I was never able to use in Chrome, but as an experiment, I went to Glue in Safari and found an extension there as well.  Which implies there may be other extensions available for Safari that I didn’t know about (although, really, there weren’t many I use daily in Chrome, and one of them is a Google Voice extension).  Moving forward, I plan on switching over to Safari for my browsing as a replacement for Chrome rather than Firefox.

My email is already switched and I have no intention of switching back.  I’m now using free software (free as in freedom as well as free as in beer) to manage my email via Thunderbird, and I’m quite happy with it.  I was already growing apart from Google after my new mobile carrier (Sprint/Nextel, via CREDOMobile) doesn’t support Google Voice entirely, and text messages sent to my Google Voice number forward to my phone even when the setting is disabled to forward texts (as a way to save on individual text messaging charges).  Bing is not as good for search as Google, but it’s passable, and in many cases where I was looking for something specific, a site search gave me the result I wanted.

When I started this experiment, Nico, from Ten Times One, commented on my blog, saying, “Google is good for business.”  As a small business owner, sure, Google helps, but the only Google service I was using as a business was Checkout.  We experimented with AdWords only to find that it was a lot of money for no real result.  I haven’t used up the rest of my $100 credit, and we currently advertise via BuySellAds.  Google will always color how we think about search engine optimization, but Google is trying to enter an enterprise market with Apps where Microsoft has dominated for more than a decade and those types of markets aren’t often subject to radical change.  It will be a steep hill for them to climb to try to sell their wares to corporate businesses.  Even for business, Google is not the only answer, nor, in many cases, the best answer.  And increasingly, their dominance over the advertising market will decrease as Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook become more relevant players.

The first step in changing the world is to change yourself.  I’m not trying to change the world, but it’s also terrifying to me that we let ourselves be subjugated by corporate interests without being aware of it.  So, I encourage you to think about the online services you use, whether they’re Google, Facebook or other, and think about the data you’re giving them.  Could you live without that data?  Could you live without that service?  Could that data be used against you?  Do you trust a multi-billion dollar multi-national corporation with that data, whether it’s a search query or sensitive medical documents?  Does it make any sense at all for a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation to truly have your interests at heart?

___________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.

everything’s better in the cloud

image source: gawker
image source: gawker

since google’s big chromeOS unveiling last week, i’ve been left thinking a lot about cloud computing and chrome as an operating system in particular.  while i failed to be enamored about chromeOS, i do think the concept of cloud computing is an exciting developing technology.  chromeOS felt half-assed and not-fully-developed (the latter of which, at least, was true).  and it’s banking on a technology that is not yet widely adopted for which there aren’t a lot of equivalent technologies to what we are used to on our desktops and standard laptops.

the idea behind cloud computing (and the concept that chromeOS is founded on) is that most of what we do these days is done online, and that our most used applications are things that really just interface with the net.  even things that we think of as applications that run locally of our computer — like word processing or spreadsheets — can be taken to the cloud with microsoft’s new Office Live which was introduced to rival google’s own, longstanding Google Apps.  the few things you sacrifice by using a more simplistic user interface with less options (theoretically the stuff you don’t use anyway), you make up for in having permanent, secure, online data storage that follows you wherever you go, no matter what computer you’re on.  it doesn’t matter if your computer crashes, or your whole office crashes — if all your documents are online in Office Live or Google Apps, they’re safely tucked away in microsoft’s or google’s data warehouses.  and the chances of google’s or microsoft’s servers going down are about as high as snowflakes in the mojave desert in august. nvidia’s RealityServer and the independent OnLive show us ways that gaming can be taken to the cloud — and that is a glorious thing.  imagine not ever having to buy a graphics card ever again, and yet, still be able to play the hottest new games available at breathtaking resolutions that would have you staring at your screen in awe.  by taking all the heavy duty graphics and physics processing off your computer and crunching the numbers on a vast server cluster, the only thing you’d need is a fast enough internet connection to stream the audio and video.

cloud2it’s true, it’s beautiful up in the cloud.  the heavenly connotations are not entirely unwarranted when given access to unlimited data storage, unlimited processing power, unlimited games, unlimited music, everything you do and say and think lives in the cloud, you just need a conduit to tap into it.  all this constant upgrading your computer to the latest fancy technology to make it go faster is unnecessary.  you can access the cloud on the laptop you threw in the closet 7 years ago and forgot about. but wait…what about everything we’ve ever known about computing technology?  about how processors are constantly getting faster, data storage is getting bigger and faster and cheaper.  if you can access the cloud with any old thing, namely, if you can access the cloud with a chromeOS-powered netbook that does nothing else other than access the cloud, wouldn’t that sort of put a wrench in how hardware is developed, and do we even want that? because with cloud computing, nothing is local, all (or most) of the processing is done in the cloud.  at least, that was what google was presenting a few days ago.  you don’t need a fast computer, you just need something that can run their software.  (and google kind of has the corner on that market: one of the things they announced was that you would be running chromeOS on a specially-designed hardware device built to run chromeOS.)

a netbook is either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited local storage.

this is where i get stuck.  it doesn’t make sense to me: why use a netbook to access stuff that only lives on the internet if it can’t do some of the things i can do on a regular computer?  okay, so it’s only task is to access and manipulate apps that live online, but so does a smartphone.  a netbook is, pretty much by definition, either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited (or no) local storage.  this is the future of computing?  really?

the cloud also throws a wrench into our concept of ownership.  i mean, sure, i can say that i own all my documents on Google Docs, but what does that actually mean to me if i don’t actually have a file i can manipulate myself.  or, more to the point, what happens to the music collection i consider to be mine if it’s not actually stored on any hard drive i have physical access or proximity to, but rather, is part of a membership service i am subscribed to?  we saw this summer how easy it was to take away digital possessions thought to be the property of the purchasers when amazon pulled 1984 and animal farm off their (digital) Kindle shelves and, subsequently, out of the Kindle users’ collections.

aw_snapthe cloud is great at some things, but not so much at others.  netbooks are a hot, cheap solution to do some basic daily tasks, but they will never be able to do everything you can do on a regular computer.  rather than forcing users to settle on a good enough, cloud equivalent for what they want to do, let’s embrace the differences between netbook computing and desktop (or laptop) computing.  what i’m thinking is web apps that behave more like desktop apps and desktop apps that behave more like web apps.  so much so that the only distinction between the two is whether an app is web-exclusive and therefore can be run on a netbook with no local storage.  as an example, let’s say i’m using something like a video editing program that eats up a lot of memory, disk space, and cpu cycles.  rather than having to go out and buy a supercomputer that can handle the load, let’s offload some of the memory consumption, processing, and temporary data storage to the cloud.  the app still lives on my computer, i still have to go to the store and make the purchase (or download it online and install it on my computer), but it leverages the cloud to enhance the user experience.  my video editing app can use a server cluster in mountain view to handle the video rendering so that task can take minutes, or even seconds, rather than the hours it would take me to render the same video on my computer.  then i’m limited only by my bandwidth, which is pretty much universally accepted as necessary to make cloud computing — and the environment in which chromeOS can truly live — a reality.

is chromeOS really anything more than a cheap ploy to generate more ad revenue?

granted, google told us that this was not a release, not a true unveiling.  merely, it was a chance to look at what the operating system does and how it’s different than what we’re used to now.  but, if you’ve read the chrome browser propaganda, none of this is really new territory other than the fact that, in the future, there will be chrome devices that only run chrome.  with chromeOS, google is banking on a technology whose time hasn’t yet come, and it’s a hefty gamble.  and are google’s intentions purely benevolent?  if google is working towards bringing about a world in which computing is done entirely (or at least mostly) online, gee, doesn’t that mean there will be more opportunities for their text ads to appear while we go about our normal workday?  is this really anything other than a cheap ploy to plaster more google ads across more things you do, by bringing the things you do online?

when applications can intelligently use the cloud to boost performance and take the load off of the local host computer — as i see it, the best of both worlds — then i will be a true believer.  until then, google’s cloud lives in that same utopian dream that the Agents in The Matrix told us failed the first time they built the Matrix.  we kept trying to wake up.