Location Based Services and Tracking

I remember coming across a blog entry shared by Louis Gray that kick started a number of thoughts on the topic of check-ins. The point that stood out the most was the idea that check-ins are like coupons and that eventually you’d have to pay people to check in. I strongly believe that the hype around LBS will die down a little but check-ins will still happen. The reality is that check-ins really are the geospatial version of tweets, reviews and wiki articles.

There are lot of pragmatic use cases for LBS services especially in the social setting. A check-in is a lot like the “what did you do on the weekend” question except that you can do it in real time. Often times, it’d be interesting to see where people had lunch and it serves as a recommendation of sorts. One of the bigger dilemmas for LBS will be privacy. I don’t always want everyone to know where I am. For example, when my mum was not well, it would have been nice to be able to check in to the hospital as a means of letting my siblings know that I was with her but given that I’m quite a private person, I would probably have wanted to limit it to just my family and friends.

A number of apps allow you to constantly broadcast where you. Google Latitude and BuddyMob come to mind. I would seriously only limit this kind of access to my life to my family and a handful of really close friends. These type of functions are most useful if you have young children and tracking them can be useful. It’s a bit creepier when it comes to adults. The only person I can see having the need to track me is my mum. To my mum, I’m still a young child and so I can live with it.

Foursquare and Gowalla are the two more renown check-in apps today although I think BrightKite is the grandaddy of check-ins. FourSquare made check-ins cool and acceptable. However, I think what makes it most useful is that you can see trending information in a location and that you can leave tips or comments about a place. Some people have made a business out of the mayorships but its pragmatism ends there. Gowalla, on the other hand, has functions like adding pictures on top of leaving comments. You can also build trips and that makes it quite useful and interesting as well.

Plancast really isn’t a location based service in the traditional sense. What it is though is provide you with the ability to tell people where you’re going to be. Still quite useful as it let’s you advertise for an event and try to gauge interest before you go.

The big thing for me is that LBS is really still in its infancy. There’s still so much room to grow and so much more capability to be built on top of this capability.

 

Slacker and mSpot – Music on the Move

As I’m back on transit, finding applications that work offline is quite critical. The ADD part of me will go nuts without anything to do. Like many people, music is a must-have for me. My applications of choice are mSpot and Slacker Radio.

MSpot is starting to be a must-have app for me especially after I ran into a hard drive corruption issue a few months ago. MSpot gives you the ability to sync your music to the cloud from and between a desktop, laptop or android device. I haven’t figured out how to upload from my phone yet. The service is still really rough still. For one, it doesn’t seem to sync updated tag information back to the cloud and synchronization seems quite manual. I do like that I don’t have to hook up my Android to the desktop to sync my music and that I can always access my playlist from the web. mSpot offers the 2GB service for free and then offers much larger storage options for a fee. 

I use Slacker Radio when I don’t know what I want. I’ve never used satellite radio but imagine what it’d be like. Slacker Radio has a number of predefined stations which you can select from. One of the nice things about having a mobile client is that you have the option to cache stations locally allowing you to play it even when you don’t have any internet connection. Like last.FM, it allows you to like or dislike a song but unlike last.FM, it doesn’t try to introduce new music to you that way. Instead, it just increases the likelihood of you hearing that song again or by blocking it, it removes that song from coming up again on that station. It also gives you the ability to buy music from Amazon. The premium version allows you to skip through songs which is nice to have.

Anyone else have any other recommendations for other music solutions?

Google Voice

 

The other app that I absolutely fell in love with while I was in Hawaii was Google Voice for Android. Google Voice is the re-brand of Grand Central which Google purchased a while ago. What I love about it is that it is such a pragmatic and usable implementation of VOIP and mobile. Google Voice comes with all of the basic VOIP features such as call forwarding, dedicated phone number, cheap long distance and voice mail that can be forwarded to your email. It also comes with other premium features such as the ability to send SMS and transcribing voice mail to text. All for the whopping price of free.

 

What makes Google Voice, however is how it’s implemented. Google Voice gives you the option to override your current phone number. For instance, I have a Boston area code as my Google Voice number. When I was in Hawaii, my Google Voice number would be forwarded to the Hawaii number. When I call out from my phone, it shows my Boston number. The reason why this is great is because I typically get a new SIM card on most of my trips to the US. This allows me to provide my parents with one constant number where they can consistently reach me at. Since most pre-paid plans don’t cover long distance, routing my calls to Canada through Google Voice allows me to save quite a bit of money. When I’m back in Toronto, Google Voice is forwarded to my Skype number which is then forwarded to my Toronto number. I like this setup as I’m constantly on Skype and it allows me to intercept a call on my notebook if I’m at my desk. Similarly with SMS, I love how I can send and receive US SMS messages for free.

 

Given that it is a Google service, you can also execute most of these features from the web. For instance, I could call my brother from the web and it’ll connect the call from my brother to a phone number that I’ve preset on Google Voice. This is one of the ways I use to save money calling to the US.  I can also send SMS messages like I would send an email message. You also have the ability to listen to your voicemails from the web page. It’s the way managing telecommunication should be.

 

The only issue that I have with Google Voice is that it doesn’t work seamlessly in Canada. In order for me to use the service, I had to set up my account while I was in the US. There is no means to forward the call to a Canadian number unless you had a legacy GrandCentral number. There’s also a change in FroYo that I can’t validate. It seems like Google Voice is disabled in Canada. It will work if you had Google Voice set up before the upgrade. To enable it, you have to pop in a US SIM card and enable Google Voice over wifi. That being said, it’s an awesome service and I can’t wait to be able to use it fully here.

 

 

Getting rid of our landline

We’ve finally done it. We’ve finally gotten rid of our landline. Even though we rarely use our home phones, there is the mental dependency of knowing that the landline always works. After years of paying for a home line that was rather expensive for calls that we rarely get other than marketers, we finally decided to get rid of our landline altogether. We wanted to come up with a solution that would be cheaper for us in the long run but wouldn’t really change the way we live our lives. There were two things that we had to work around.

1) Our mobile plan
The good thing about our mobile plan was that all incoming minutes are free. It’s one of those “legacy” Rogers Wireless features that we kept. We rarely call out from the mobile phone and if we made calls, we’d make it from our landline. Even so, most of our communications tend to be either IM anyway. However, we had to consider how we dealt with the outgoing calls to family and friends.

2) Not convenient carrying a mobile phone around the house
There is a reason why we have a cordless phone in every room. That’s because we don’t see the need to carry around a phone every where we go.

To solve this problem, we came up with a solution that used a number of technologies. The first is something called freephoneline.ca. It’s a VOIP service that offers free calls to a large number of cities in Canada. In order for you to use it as a home line replacement, you have to purchase an ATA device and the configuration file. Both cost about $50 each. There are a number of nice things that I like about this solution. The configuration file that you purchase also allows you to use it with a software SIP solution like iSIP. The second is that outside of that one time cost, it’s free. With the SIP configuration, I can also bring this phone number wherever I go. In the land line replacement solution, the purpose of this service is to provide cheap outgoing calls.

It’d be rather inconvenient to figure out which phone to use. To solve this problem, I purchased the XLink BTTN. This is a rather neat device that allows you to plug in a landline as well as pair up to 3 mobile phones via Bluetooth. When paired with a phone, it treats it like a headset. It always assumes that the landline call is cheapest and calls that line by default. It then chooses a mobile phone in sequence. However you can override the sequence by pressing the mobile pairing you want (ie 1, 2, 3) and press the flash key on the phone to select it. If you’re on the landline and get a call on a mobile phone that is paired with, the XLink simply treats it like call waiting for a regular incoming call. One of the new software features that the XLink is beta testing out is a Skype gateway embedded in the device which will be another alternative for low cost calling.

What I like about this is that it’s relatively safe. If we were to have a power outage we’d still have the reliability of our mobile phone. Overall, the solution isn’t cheap. Total cost comes to around $200 but we will recoup that cost in about 5 months without compromising on how we live today.

Points: More Together

This is a quick blog about my initial impression of Points. And while I’m an employee of Points, all of the opinions and impressions shared here are mine and do not necessarily reflect that of Points. Now that I’ve got the legal stuff out of the way, on to the blog ๐Ÿ™‚ Although it’s with sadness that I leave Canpages, I’m quite excited to be starting at a new adventure. I’m pretty excited to have landed at Points.com. Points.com is a Canadian start-up that went public (TSE:PTS) in 2004 and is located on Queen and John in downtown Toronto. Although a public company, it still hasn’t lost its start up edge. As an example, I was greeted by Erika, the VP of HR, with mamosas at 10 am in the morning. Granted, it was to celebrate the move to our new office space. 

There were a few things that impressed me before I joined Points:

1) Focus on Quality
A lot of companies talk about desiring quality in the delivery but often times there is little more than lip service to the concept. In all of my conversations with Points, there was a strong emphasis in bringing on senior managers who would advocate quality delivery, which more or less translated to automated testing. I’m a huge advocate of the concept where product quality is not the responsibility of one member or a particular team but rather anyone who is part of the product delivery process. This concept is shared and advocated by everyone of the management team whom I’ve had an opportunity to speak with about product quality.

2) Clear direction
Excitingly enough – there is a five-year plan. I have to be honest here. I was a bit skeptical when I started. Often times in interviews, companies often talk about having plans of some sort but few have actually materialized after I was hired. I was given preview of Points’ five year plan late last week and I have to say that I’m very excited to be a part of the anticipated change. While the details of the five-year plan are confidential, I was particularly impressed with the detail in which it went into.

3) People oriented
The motto of Points.com is “more together.” From a business perspective, it implies that points are worth more when it can be consolidated. From a people perspective, it also means that we can accomplish more as a company of people rather than individuals. Although it’s only been a couple of weeks, there are so many great things from a people perspective here at Points. The first are the simple things such as free pop (or soda for you American folk). I love the fact that there are shower facilities and places to lock your bike up. There is the weekly beer cart that goes around with beer, wine and snacks. This will be the first time in years when I’m not buying snacks for the team out of my own pocket, which is nice :D. But more than that, there are certain HR policies which I connect to such as all my benefits are paid for by Points. I’m more accustomed to having my benefits subsidized and having to pay for the rest. I love the fact that sick days aren’t officially tracked here with the belief that people won’t abuse it. It’s awesome to find a company that trusts its employees because trust is a two-way street. This is especially important to me because in general tech folk tend to work crazy hours. Frankly, I’d rather have a team member take the day off and not worry about using up sick days than coming in and getting more people sick.

Here’s another amazing story for me to tell. I had a special occasion this week with my wife. Being in IT for more than a decade, it’s pretty normal for me to be late and often times even canceling out. My family is used to that. Sure enough an emergency came up, and Dave, the CTO, and I worked through the issue. It took me only an hour longer than I was expected to leave and I still got to my dinner which I quickly postponed. I didn’t think much about it until we got home on Saturday where Dave had sent flowers to my wife apologizing on my behalf. It was a really thoughtful gesture. My wife was quite impressed.

flowers

Another distinct characteristic of the organization is its sense of humour. Everyone who works here seems to have one. Laughter is very common in our scrums and personal interactions.

4) Down-to-earth
Although we have ample space in the building, only a handful of people have offices while everyone including VPs and the CTO have cubicle space and are proud of it. One of the most interesting moments that I had an opportunity to observe was the COO and CTO huddle at the CTOs cubicle to work on something. No one seems hung up on titles and everyone wants to get the job done. People are both passionate and dedicated about their jobs. The constant theme in my conversations with the tech team is ownership. There is the fundamental belief and desire that we own our technology and that we drive our destiny.

Although I’ve only completed my second week here at Points.com, I have to say that I’m looking forward to my time here. The two weeks have gone by quickly and it’s been quite exciting already.