Movie Rental Experience Improves with Redbox

The past couple years, I've not had much time to watch movies, due to having a full-time job and being involved in the People of Praise, among other things. Three or four years ago, I was a Blockbuster member and rented a couple movies every week. I spent about the same amount using Netflix the year after, and it was great to not have to stop at the local Blockbuster to pick up movies. Now that I don't watch movies, though, it's painful to rent movies. I can count on my right hand how many times I've rented movies this year, and that's mostly because I don't want to pay $4.50 to rent a movie. It's just not worth it, plus the last time I rented a movie, the DVD was almost broken and only worked in my computer and not a friend's.

Redbox PhotoOver Thanksgiving break, I was introduced to Redbox. My dad and I walked into McDonald's and requested a copy of Live Free or Die Hard, one of my favorite movies of the year that I definitely don't want to own but liked. To rent it, I just swiped my credit card and gave them my zipcode and e-mail address. The Redbox clearly stated that it was due tomorrow by 9pm. It only charges us $1 per day. And, I could bring it back to any Redbox anywhere if I wanted.

When I got home after renting, I was very glad I gave Redbox my e-mail address. They sent me a nice confirmation e-mail of my purchase and reiterated the information about the rental. The next afternoon, an e-mail reminding me to return it found its way to my inbox as well. And that evening, I asked a friend to return it for me, and later that evening I got a final e-mail saying that it was successfully returned. Oh yeah, and I enjoyed watching Die Hard 4 for the third time as well. (I think my parents enjoyed it too.)

At this point, I was very impressed with the slick service and, of course, the price. But what remained to be seen was their website. If Redbox was going to be cool, it needs a good, functional website. And, yes, the Redbox delivers there too.

Redbox Online Rental and Pick-UpBack when I used Blockbuster, you used to be able to look a movie up online and see if it was at your local Blockbuster location. Redbox does one better than this: you pay for the movie online, and it stays reserved in the Redbox. For popular movies, you could get to your local Redbox and find it's all out of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End. But if you check online, you can find out if it's available and reserve it, so even if those who walk up to the Redbox can't get a copy, there's one hiding inside the machine with your name on it. (If you don't pick it up within a day, it automatically gets "returned".) Now that's the functionality you need on a slick-looking movie rental website. I also love that Rebox's site has attitude, saying "Yes" in about 10 different languages in their FAQ and advising you to "Lean over the keyboard whilst entering your password to foil spies" during login.

There are a few drawbacks, though. Of course, unlike Blockbuster, they only have space for a couple hundred movies in the Redbox, not thousands like at Blockbuster. For this reason, it seems, they limit themselves to fairly new releases. I saw a couple releases from up to a year and a half ago in my local Redbox, but don't expect it to be there if it didn't come out recently. Also, when searching online, it seems that one of the nearby Redboxes is "unavailable" at any given time. I don't know if that means that the local McDonald's don't have a good internet connection or if they bring the online features down when someone is requesting a movie, but it's pretty annoying to not always have it available. (One time last night it went offline while browsing the title selection on their website and the website just stalled for a couple minutes instead of giving me an error.)

My local Redbox is just as close as the local Hollywood Video dive, but for the price and the convenience, I'm going to check first if I want to rent a movie.


Amazon's Kindle: Wireless e-Paper for the Non-Geek

Amazon Kindle with New York TimesLast week, announced its newest big venture, the Amazon Kindle. It seems to be the second major entry into the world of eBooks that are functional and will help develop this potential new market.

First of all, these eBook Readers use a technology called e-Paper, which seems to be something like a computerized Etch-A-Sketch. The machine has black and white pixels, and the reader only uses power to change whether the pixels are on or off. Thus, while reading a page, it takes no battery power; the Reader only needs power to change the content of a page. The only major side-effect seems to be that some readers get annoyed by the process of redrawing (or "turning") the page.

Sony ReaderSony recently launched their second version of the Reader platform, which I had the chance to play with at the local Target store a couple days ago. The product is very small and silver. You add books to the Reader via synchronizing with your computer. The best formatted books are all purchased through the Sony Connect store, but you can upload any PDF and it will work fairly well. Navigation seems to be simple and sleek, with less than a dozen buttons on the device. Priced at $250, it's definitely still for early adopters and bookish peoples, but not a ridiculous amount.

In comparison, the Amazon Kindle has many interesting new features, mostly relating to getting items on your Kindle. The Kindle includes a wireless EVDO modem, which gives you access through an unnamed cell phone provider (for free). This allows Amazon to market to those who don't use the internet much or at all, because they don't need a computer to use the Kindle at all. Plus, with the wireless distribution, the Kindle has a number of other features, such as newspaper and magazine subscriptions to be delivered automatically to your Kindle. (Also, for those snooty bloggers who want people to pay for their content, you can subscribe to enhanced RSS feeds of Slashdot and people like Robert Scoble.)

The Kindle with CoverWith these enhancements come some downsides, I think. First, for user-interface reasons, because you do not have a computer to sync with, the Kindle needs to have a keyboard. And much of the front real estate is taken up with a small keyboard for hunting and pecking. Second, the rechargeable battery get quickly eaten up with features such as the Wireless and mp3 playing functionalities, although both can, of course, be turned off. The user interface seems like it may be a bit clunkier than the Sony Reader, mostly because the selection buttons have been replaced with a small scroller wheel or something.

Most importantly, the Amazon Kindle is selling for a whopping $400. This isn't an Apple product, and with the beige-white look to it and the many, small buttons, it's not winning any great design awards either. I don't expect the Kindle to catch on unless they drop the price in half to increase the adoption of this new device. Still, for people who love to read and want to cut down on paper and bulk in their backpack, this may be the perfect solution.


Why I Like My Mac

Alright, here's the exhaustive list:

  • Intelligent Touchpad: Most of the laptops I've used have very annoying pointing devices. This MacBook Pro has a spacious pointing area and, once you get to know it, the easiest-to-use functionality possible. Want to scroll? Anywhere on the touchpad just hold down two fingers and scroll in the direction you want to go. Want to right-click/CTRL-click? After enabling it in mouse preferences, hold down two fingers and click as well.
  • Zooming: Anywhere in Mac OS X, I can hold down CTRL and use the scroll wheel/fingers to zoom in and out. That YouTube video just too small? Zoom in at it and it'll fill up as much of the screen as you like. The screen pans around as you move the mouse, and it's great for reading things when you can't get up close (or just don't want to).
  • Unix-based: Your file permissions not acting correctly? Open the terminal and look at the permissions via good ol' ls. Install the developer tools off the OS CD and all you Unix hackers can compile your own version of just about anything. Plus, like most distributions of Unix, it comes with all the necessary tools.
  • Dictionary: Mac OS X has an address book and calendar built into the OS for plenty of nice integration, but, of course, why not a dictionary central to the OS? Mac includes a full copy of the Dictionary and Thesaurus, which are available with one click.
  • Windows-friendly: I still run my old computer and even store most of my files on there, and that causes no problems with the Mac. Connecting to Windows and Linux SMB shares works flawlessly, and with the right passwords and the power of Hamachi, I can get my data from anywhere.

Why I Like Mac OS X Leopard

  • Boot Camp: This is the official 1.0 release of Boot Camp, and it was probably the nicest implementation of Windows I've seen on a PC. After setting up your partition and booting into Windows install, just pop in the Mac OS X install disc and install a complete package of Windows drivers. The one Windows install includes an app to switch back to OS X as well as drivers for your monitor, keyboard, and mouse (and it includes all the fun mouse stuff like finger-scrolling). It's like all the nice features of your laptop but still running Windows if you need to.
  • Spaces: The only thing better than having a nice monitor is having two monitors to work on. You can't achieve that on the road with a laptop, but with Spaces, it's the next best thing. Spaces gives me 4 separate desktops accessible via simple keystrokes. I have e-mail/chat in one space, web browser in another, iTunes in a third, and a development environment in the fourth (if needed). There's even a keyboard shortcut that will show all the spaces where you can then move windows from one space to another. Programs can be assigned to a space, and if you switch to an app that is only in another space, it'll zoom over to that space automatically.
  • iChat: It's the little things in the new iChat that I like. I can share documents even with people running older versions of iChat. If someone has a link in their status, iChat now gives me a button to click on. Most of our paint colors at home are too close to skin color, so the backdrops don't work well, but they're still kinda fun.

Google Making Open Source Facebook

Right now, Facebook is probably the most successful and biggest hyped thing on the Internet. Most of it is for good reason, because many people, especially college students, have almost exclusively adopted it as their replacement to e-mail and Instant Messenger. With the release of powerful APIs to hook deeply into Facebook's site, some powerful applications (but mostly really annoying ones) have been created that leverage the social network of Facebook and integrate so well you don't even realize it's a program built on top of Facebook. It's amazing how successful this has been with consumers. But, of course, now that Facebook has aligned with Microsoft, it's time for Google to take a swing.

Google does not want all the social networking to go to Facebook (and therefore the ad dollars to Microsoft), so they released an API package they call OpenSocial. It basically seems that you'll now be able to create Google Widgets that interact with data from social networks. Signed on are currently MySpace, Friendster, Six Apart, and, among many others. The openness of the system sounds intriguing, but we have yet to see how the API matures and what aspiring developers can do.

I think that, of course, it's great to have an open platform. Plus, as TWiT said on this week's podcast, these social application developers don't have to be locked into Facebook's system exclusively or be worried about Facebook taking away their business with a new feature. Plus, Facebook is a very closed system, and the ability to put some of this content on your blog as well as behind the curtain of the Facebook login will be a boon for plugin developers. In the end, a viable competitor in any market is good, and I'm glad that Facebook may finally be getting a handful of viable competitors all supported by Google.

UPDATE: In other Google news, this morning they announced the Open Handset Alliance which is developing a free, Open Source phone operating system. Between Google and Apple, I'm actually getting excited about owning a cell phone, especially a Google OS based on Linux.


.mac: A Follow-Up

After talking to a couple friends, I found that I was assuming my readership knew a bit about Macs and how they work. Some readers thought when I posted .mac: What Is It Good For? that I was saying that I didn't like my new computer. That's certainly far from the truth.

.mac (pronounced "dot mac") is an online service that Apple tries to sell you for $99 per year. They give you a e-mail address, 10GB of storage, and the ability to synchronize settings across your Mac user accounts. What I was saying was that it seems like it'd be worth it if you have a couple Mac machines, but with only one Mac, it's hardly worth it. Plus, I have my own server on which to store data and run my e-mail.

Sorry if I confused you, but I'm glad I was able to clear that up. Hopefully, sometime soon, I'll give a rundown about what I like about the Mac.


FON: Share Your Home Wireless Securely

Some people believe that you should share the wireless signal with anyone, because Internet access should be free. I think that's a swell idea, but it doesn't work well in practice. I like having a secure network within our house because I like to share files and printers between computers. Those two goals don't work together well unless you get a router from FON.

FON is a new company that has the solution. Their routers are made specifically to solve that problem. The router has two wireless access points built in - a secure one for your home network and then a FON access point. If you share your internet by enabling your FON access point, you can access other FON access points around the world via an account. This is much better than just connecting to any old wireless access point, because you know it's a FON router and not a hacker trying to steal your passwords.

What’s FON?

Apparently the idea is so interesting that Steve Jobs himself sat down with the people at FON for a couple hours. Most likely, Steve Jobs is interested in getting more open places for people to browse via their MacBooks, iPods, and iPhones, so it's not surprising that he's coming up with ideas on how to do that. Maybe we will see some similar features in a new version of the AirPort (or a partnership with the creators of the often-rumored Google phone, maybe).


Windows Live Writer: True WYSIWYG Blogging

AftThis post is different.  For most posts to this blog, I just login to the WordPress blog administration.  This one I wrote through a free program called Windows Live Writer, which is currently in free beta from Microsoft.  Here's a bit of the experience: imageimage After giving my blog URL and login, it did some thinking for a minute and dropped me here: image Yes, it looks Vista-rific, but checkout that main pane!  That's exactly how it looks on my blog when it's published!  Windows Live Writer downloads my CSS stylesheet and mimics it to a T so I don't even have to do any imagining or clicking "Preview" to see what the result will be.  Writer is compatible with Blogger, LiveJournal, and just about every major blogging service and software. As far as further features, I just hit ALT+PrintScreen (one of the few functions not built into Mac OS) to get those screenshots and then pasted them into Windows Live Writer and it made them PNGs and added that snazzy drop shadow.  The images were automatically uploaded to my uploads section of my site.  Writer also knew what my categories are so I just selected them from a list at the bottom.  And, as you can see, you can easily insert links, pictures, or even maps and videos without leaving the writer. What's the benefit of having software like Windows Live Writer?  Well, for one, you could write a bunch of blogs and schedule them for publishing while you're on a plane or other place not connected to the Internet.  And, like I said, you have the full "what you see is what you get" interface with your weblog.  Plus, you have a great Windows interface where you can do all the fun stuff like paste into it and it just works.  And it checks your spelling while you do it too. That being said, I probably won't be using this too often.  I rarely write a blog post while not on the web (because I'm often on) and then the draft is only stored on this computer and not on my server where I can access it from any computer.  I don't have this software installed on all my machines, especially my MacBook Pro.  But, it is amazingly nice and well-organized.  Also, I'm a web developer by trade, so looking at HTML code instead of a screen like this isn't annoying at all, and is in some ways soothing because I know what type of HTML code I'll get. There are a number of similar desktop blog editing softwares out there, but this is the first one I've tried and I haven't heard of any this nice and easy-to-use minutes after downloading.


Ext JS: Simple, Full-Featured AJAX

I haven't tried it out myself yet, but this stuff just looks amazing. It seems to perform pretty well, too. Ext JS is a JavaScript library that can easily create some desktop-like window effects. A coworker was demoing it with a table of data and the JavaScript automatically sorted, he could CTRL-select items and you can even drag things around. It seems to be an great open-source application. To get started, check out the documentation which includes some simple examples and the code to generate them. There's also some great examples such as and an entire web desktop. Also, there's a sample desktop app that runs on your desktop via Adobe AIR or Google Gears and a full-function Feed Reader. I was trying to find some sort of cool widget to embed in this post, but I couldn't find something quickly. Tell me what you find, if you're interested.


.mac: What Is It Good For?

In my case, it seems to me the obvious answer is "absolutely nothin'." Am I wrong?

I only have one Mac, this MacBook Pro I recently bought. I have plenty of web sites set up around the 'net where I can store information if I need to. I have websites so I don't need space to put my pages from iWeb, which can only be considered a slight upgrade from FrontPage.

If I had more than one Mac, then I can see .mac being very useful. You can sync files and preferences between the Macs. You can (with the new Leopard) login remotely to your other Macs. But until then, it's not worth it at all, right? What do you use your .mac account and pay the $99/year for (besides keeping Apple's profit margins high)?


Gravatar: The Global Online Icon/Photo

Not too long ago, a client at work was wondering what kind of options they could have for showing buddy icons in their blog comments. I looked around, but didn't really like any of the default plug-ins. Well, one struck my interest a bit, but the client wasn't looking for a third-party solution. What I found was Gravatar, a website that wants to host a visual identifier for you to be used anywhere online. It's a simple concept, but I was of course worried with setting up and managing another service, another plugin for my software, etc. Of course, the second question is whether it will ever be used widely enough to become a standard? At the time, I had never heard of it, but that didn't necessarily mean it was unsuccessful.

Gravatar recently showed up on my radar a couple days ago when looking at my WordPres blog. The feeds from WordPress were mentioning it a number of times, and after a quick look it looks like the folks behind WordPress (a company called Automattic) have acquired Gravatar. They were also outlining how they were planning on integrating it with the services and its built-in user avatar system.

Even more interesting was how WordPress and Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg demoed the simplicity and brilliance of the Gravatar service on his blog. He put the Gravatar icons in his blog's comments with just four simple lines of PHP! WordPress already stores the e-mail address of the commenter in the system, and your Gravatar account is tied to your e-mail. WordPress just sends a non-reversible MD5 string to Gravatar requesting the avatar associated with that e-mail address. There's no e-mail addresses transferred over the Internet, but you still have an icon/photo based on your e-mail address that can be easily used by any blog. Pretty neat!

Another interesting thing about Automattic is that it is one of a handful of recent, open-source friendly companies that has no real headquarters. Companies like Mozilla, Lullabot, and others like Automattic are just a group of developers that have no offices but instead do development from their homes and only meet a couple times per year, if ever. In today's world of instant Internet communication, this is an interesting and potentially cheap way to run a company, I suppose.