Book review: The Sustainable Network

The Sustainable Network

The global network is a nebulous thing that many of us take for granted. What began simply as a way to connect up a few computers has grown into something greater than the sum of its parts. It seems to be an unstoppable force. Could it also be a transformative force? Could our global network enable us to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems? What challenges do we face in realizing this potential?

These are the core questions author Sarah Sorenson tackles in ‘The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.’

Despite its relative youth, the global network (by which the author means not just the Internet, but all of the connections that link together the planet’s computing devices) has already dramatically changed the way humans connect and communicate. Sorenson’s message is that this network, ‘the only global tool we have,’ is also the best tool we’ve ever had to affect change on a global scale, so we must do what it takes to sustain and nurture it.

If you pick this up thinking it’s going to be about green technologies because the word ‘sustainable’ is in the title, you’d be wrong. The network can be a sustainable force in the sense that it connects everybody and everything in the human world, mitigating the need for travel, replacing physical objects with digital products, fostering business across great distances, driving social change, promoting democracy, saving energy, and more. It is, in short, a platform to ‘sustain global development, opportunities, and change’ — the connective tissue that allows us to tackle big problems in new ways. The question, then, is can we sustain this network given future challenges like burgeoning global demand, security threats, privacy concerns, and energy demands?

Sorenson believes we can, if we’re smart about it. Through forty-one chapters sprinkled copiously with real-world examples, facts and figures pulled from various industry reports and news articles, the author outlines what the network is, what it’s capable of today, and the pivotal role it could play in coming decades. Here’s what she concludes:

The network is our best chance to set in motion changes that can be shaped to deliver a 21st-century definition of the greater good. It has all the elements: it is pervasive, reaching across the globe and connecting people to information and opportunity; it can reduce our material consumption and conserve precious natural resources; it can make governments accountable to people they serve; it can level the playing field and lower barriers of entry to the entire global marketplace; it can mobilize people so they have a voice; and it can foster collaboration, accelerate innovation, and spur the development of solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems.

That’s pretty heady stuff, but she makes a good case. Take, for example, net efficiencies. Sorenson details how the network enables technologies such as smart buildings, intelligent transport, and just-in-time supply systems to create efficiencies that could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 15-40 percent. The network also enables individual microloans that improve the lives of tens of thousands of people in the developing world through sites such as Kiva.org. And consider the pivotal role the Internet played in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections; or witness how the network now makes it possible for individuals to deliver boutique products from design to production from the home, all with little to no overhead. The potential and reach of the network to affect change across the spectrum of human interests and activities is truly great.

However, the network will only be able to deliver if it continues to grow in a sustainable way. This leads to Sorenson’s “Sustainable Network Law,” which posits that “the more broadband made available to network users, the faster sustainable network innovation occurs.” Makes sense to me. Witness the effect of increasing smart phone usage on 3G network competition. But Sorenson isn’t just talking about iPhones here. What she’s saying is that user experience derived from better, more robust networks will drive more user demand. This, in turn, will drive more network innovation. This innovation will fuel more user adoption, ad infinitum. It’s an interesting point. The concept of a sustainable network may hinge on this holding true. I read this as an industry call to action to get out there and build more network capacity.

This leads to the question of who this book was written for. For the most part, the prose seems squarely aimed at a lay audience. For instance, a large portion of the book consists of term and concept definitions, and some of the chapters offer up specific ‘steps you can take.’ But at times, Sorenson seems to be directing her pen at the industry within which she works as a sustainability consultant. And then there’s the blurb on the back cover of ‘The Sustainable Network’ that says this book is a ‘call to action for the individual, governments, markets, and organizations to put the power of this network to good use.’ I think that may be a call out to too many groups. While I get the point and largely agree with her, I think Sorenson aims a bit too wide on this front.

That said, this book delivers a good overview of what the network is (and its potential going forward) for people like me who are not experts in this area, although at times I felt that Sorenson used a bit too much ‘inside baseball’ terminology and industry jargon. Yet I couldn’t help but get a little swept up in the author’s optimism: a sense of the potential of the global network to change our lives. Sure, the obstacles are steep. Sorenson acknowledges this in great detail through several chapters. But the upside is that the network is arguably one of the best tools we’ve ever had to deal with a wide range of human problems.

I enjoyed the read, with a few caveats. For one, the book is sparsely populated with images, many of which look like photocopied screen shots. It would have benefited greatly from full-color images, charts, and graphs to help the reader along. Also, some of the chapters felt less like part of a book and more like a compilation of individual research papers. To be fair, this is in no small part due to the subject matter. Given that the network is a global entity that reaches into almost every facet of our lives, it’s surely no easy task to seamlessly cover all aspects of it in 300 pages.

Still, what Sorenson has assembled here is a fresh way at looking at a potentially dry topic. I think many authors and pundits tend to look at the world of technology with a dystopian lens, so I was not put off by an optimistic view of where this connective technology could lead.

I think the book is empowering in that it raises awareness about the potential of the network, and it emphasizes how we all play a role in harnessing and protecting that power. But for the average reader, I think the greatest strength of the book has more to do with fostering network literacy. That’s not a bad thing. I started this book with a sense that I knew quite a lot about the global network, but soon realized I didn’t know much at all about it.

It’s a given these days that computer literacy is no longer just beneficial, it’s essential. Perhaps we should think of the global network in the same way. In this sense (whether or not you share Sorenson’s vision), ‘The Sustainable Network’ is a solid read as a primer. You’ll walk away knowing a lot more about what we’re talking about when we talk about the network.

Why did I just review a book?

In December, O’Reilly Media hosted an interesting promotion on their Facebook page. They offered up free copies of several of their new offerings. For each featured book, the first three people to chime in proclaiming interest in reading that book got a free copy. In return, O’Reilly asked for participants to post a review (not a positive review, just a review) of the book in some online forum. So, you guessed it, I decided it might be fun.

Rethinking Mailplane

mailplane

Following yesterday’s Mailplane post, I received the following comment from Mark Munz, the developer of TextSoap (an app I purchased at full price in 2008 and greatly value):

Mailplane’s price for a year’s usage = $0.07/day. I bought it 2+ years ago, so the cost for me has been less than $0.03/day. We’re all on tighter budgets today. That’s fine. You can wait for another promo opportunity to come around. You can list out missing features that would add more value to the package. Both are reasonable responses. But to just publicly devalue a developers efforts like you did is completely unfair. You apparently want an app that cannot be sustained by the developer long term. Honestly, there is nothing worse than public price whining, except maybe price whining about a relatively low price point.

This really gave me pause to think about what I wrote and how I wrote it. After mulling it over, I’ve concluded that he’s right about the price. If you consider the price of an app based upon daily use, the cost equation looks quite different. And a mail client isn’t an occasional-use application. It’s something that is used all the time. So is $25 too much? What I realize now is that this is the wrong question to ask. What I should have asked is if it’s worth it to me to pay the $25 registration fee. This is an entirely different question, and it leads to the next point.

This should be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision. Not a ‘maybe not now, but I’ll keep using it past the expiration’ decision. I regret that I advocated using the app beyond the trial date. I’m going to make a rule for myself to either delete an app or buy it after the trial period. While it’s true that one can keep using the scaled-back version of Mailplane past the 30-day trial (which, as I said yesterday, is a classy thing to allow and is not at all common), is it the right thing to do? No, it’s really not. The right thing to do is to make a choice at some point within the trial period. If you like it, buy it. If you don’t, delete it.

One can argue that Mailplane is just a Google front-end, or one can argue that it’s a tightly-integrated, feature-full mail app. I think it’s somewhere in between right now. The important point is that I had a lengthy trial to check it out, and now I should choose. For me, I think my last post makes it clear that I really like Mailplane. While I may have come across as whiny about the price, I hope my comments didn’t come across as a devaluation of the developer’s efforts. That was not my intent. I consider myself an ardent supporter of indie Mac developers.

As Mark said, budgets are tight all around. I’ve been thinking a lot today about the effect of low prices in the iPhone/Touch App store (not to mention the glut of bundle deals over the past few years) on evolving perceptions about what Mac desktop apps should cost. Are we starting to expect to pay only a couple of bucks? Did that play into my thinking about the cost of Mailplane? Perhaps so.

What I’ve realized is this: if we all start to expect to pay less and less for Mac desktop apps, we may end up in a place where we have very few indie developers left. That would be terrible. As I’ve noted before on this blog, indie third-party apps are the best part of using a Mac. And that’s another important point about cost that I’m going to keep in mind going forward: paying the registration fee is as much about supporting a particular developer as it is about supporting the community.

So I went back and looked at the features I like about Mailplane: access to all of my accounts in one place, tight OS integration, easy photo resizing, drag-and-drop support, Address Book integration, signature and snippet storage, and UI tweaks that let me make my Gmail accounts look great. Is this worth $0.07 a day to me? You know, I think it is.

So I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to buy Mailplane. I was wrong. Thanks for the comment, Mark.

Mailplane Notes

mailplane I’ve been using Mailplane as my main Email client for a month. I’ve grown quite fond of it. Problem is, I’m not ready to buy it.

Why? It’s expensive. I’m hoping to soon see a promotional discount that drops the price to less than the $25 registration fee. I’m one of many Mailplane fans who think that this retail price is a bit steep. It’s a very nice desktop Gmail solution, but is it worth $25?

In essence, Mailplane is a polished front-end that provides easy access and some OS integration to Gmail accounts. Many of the reasons that I want to keep using it have more to do with direct access to Gmail features, not with Mailplane features. Perhaps in some other time, I’d just buy it. But I don’t want to right now. I’m on a tighter-than-normal budget at the moment.

Given this, I was delighted to find that, today, as my 30-day trial expired, I can continue to use Mailplane.

The caveat is that many of the integration features that make this tool really shine are now disabled. With an expired trial, it’s essentially like a Fluid installation, but it’s still quite a lot better. Here’s why:

I still have access to all of my Gmail accounts from within one pane (with Fluid, I’d have to create multiple site specific browsers for each Gmail account); I am still notified of new messages from my multiple Gmail accounts from the menu bar; I still remain logged in to all of my Gmail accounts; and I can still keep Mailplane as my default mail application. That last point is key: with Mailplane you can set the app to be your default system-wide mail app. New mail messages created externally from this app are handled with Mailplane, OS-wide. You can’t do that with Fluid or other similar browser-based solutions. I assume these privileges are indefinite for unregistered (trial-expired) users.

Now that I’ve passed the end of the trial period, what I lack are extra integration bits that make Mailplane really slick (e.g., ability to drag-and-drop files, resizing photos on the fly, easy capture-and-send screenshots, Address Book integration, iLife media integration, etc.). These features are really nice. I love them. They are handy. However, I think I can do without them for the moment.

I’m not advocating that I and others choose to disregard the Mailplane registration fee. The developer surely put in (and continues to put in) lots of hard work developing this mail client. All I’m saying is that I choose to hold out for a promo for a while longer. And I would like to continue to use this mail client to access my Gmail accounts.

I’m willing to forego some key features until the next discount comes around (assuming there will be one). It’s fortunate, then, that the developer apparently allows for continued use of the app beyond the end of the trial period. It’s not fully-featured anymore, but it’s still functional. That’s classy.

Still, I think the registration fee is too expensive. The last promo, on Dec. 12, offered the app for one day at 50% off retail. I think that promo might be much closer to the right target retail price of Mailplane, given the current feature-set.

P.S. I’m only one day past my trial period. It may stop working altogether in the morning …

Initial Thoughts of a New iPad 2 User

I’ve had an iPad 2 for four days and a Smart Cover for a day and a half. I’m not going to post a detailed review. There have been enough of those.  I will, though, share a few initial impressions as a first-time iPad owner.

First, the Smart Cover. It’s remarkable. As remarkable as the iPad. That’s no small achievement, and it deserves to win design awards. In case you missed the iFixit breakdown of this cover, it’s worth your time to check out the magnetic gadgetry that makes this device work. It’s easy to use. More, it’s a pleasure to use. I love how the iPad instantly turns on when I open the cover. I love the ease with which I can stand my iPad up in two positions.

It doesn’t really clean the glass surface, though. Apple claims that it ‘brightens up your iPad.’ That’s true to an extent. But they also say it ‘gently buffs off any smudges or fingerprints as you move, [so your] iPad always looks good on arrival.’ That’s not quite true. Certainly, the surface looks better than it would without the cover. But the gentle buffing is no substitute for wiping the glass screen with a microfiber cloth.  What I’ve found is that the cover—as I move it to and fro—gently removes oily smudges from the surfaces from the areas where the microfiber makes contact. But the microfiber only hits the glass in the ribs of the cover. Between the ribs, in the creases of the cover that allow it to be easily folded up, there is no contact. The oily residue remains in those spaces, appearing as Zebra strips of smudge over the glass surface. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting that I still need to manually clean the surface.

Another minor annoyance I have with the cover is that it doesn’t magnetically seal when flipped to the back of the device (when I’m using the iPad). It flops around a bit. I imagine that design constraints limit where magnets can be placed within the iPad, and these constraints account for the lack of a magnetic hold when the cover is flipped around to the back of the device. Still, it’s not a big deal. It’s easy to rip the cover off and toss it aside.

My final concern regarding the Smart Cover is that it doesn’t protect the back of the device. I’m worried about scratching the aluminum. I’m not too worried, though. I trust that third-party vendors will soon offer stick-on protective coatings to address this issue. I’d rather go that route than plunge the iPad in a thick protective case. I don’t want the device to be any thicker than it is. I want to hold the thin aluminum back in my hand when I use it. It’s an important part of the tactile experience.

The last thing I have to say about the cover concerns material. I expected that the appearance of the leather model would shame that of the cheaper Polyurethane skin, but found that both models look very nice. In 5by5’s ‘The Talk Show’ podcast, Dan Benjamin described the surface of the cheaper model akin to the ‘Trapper Keeper’ plastic those of us of a certain age will surely recall from childhood. It’s kind of like that, but it’s really much nicer to behold. It’s nice enough that I went with a neutral grey polyurethane model and saved some money. I think it looks great.

As for the iPad 2 itself, I should note that I spent 10 minutes trying out a Motorola Xoom at my local Costco a week ago. This device is, as far as I know, the current ‘best of breed’ alternative. I thought the Xoom was competent, but it felt choppy and clumsy to the touch. A bit half baked. Now that I have spent considerable time on an iPad 2, I can you assure you that there is no comparison. It’s a device that’s living up to my childhood expectations of what 21st century tech might be. 

Is the iPad 2 perfect? No. There’s plenty of room to improve. Is it the best mobile device I’ve ever used? Yes. Interestingly, a minor change made it more so. Based on a tip I read on TUAW, I upgraded to XCode 4, which allowed me to enable some new multi-gesture devices for the device. These gestures enable rotation through open apps with a gesture, a swipe to see all background apps, and a swipe to get back to the Home screen.

These seem like minor improvements, but they are not. They make a huge difference in ease of use, akin to how the Smart Cover makes a huge difference by waking up the device when you flip it open. That tiny convenience of auto-waking the device with the Cover vice having to press the ‘Home’ button makes the iPad that much easier to use. Likewise, these few extra gestures make navigating scores of apps that much more seamless and enjoyable.  I hope to see these additional gestures in the next iOS release. As for the fears that these features hint that the Home button is destined for the trash bin, who can say? I don’t really care. I prefer to avoid using the Home button if possible.

My final note concerns the lack of software keyboard support for Dvorak. The lack of the Dvorak layout on my iPhone is no big deal. The screen is too small to accommodate full-handed typing. Not so on the iPad. I suspect I speak for Dvorak-typing Apple enthusiasts everywhere when I say that a software layout option is very important. Without it, we’re reduced to hunt-and-peck typing on the iPad screen using an unfamiliar keyboard layout, or we’re forced to buy an external keyboard to use iOS hardware Dvorak support. Attention Apple: this is a very simple fix.

in iOS | 991 Words

A Greener Apple?

A bunch of wasted Apple packaging material

I received my iPhone AppleCare warranty extension in the mail this week. Above, you can see the included shipping material and Apple packaging.

The important part of this package is a registration number printed on one small card. This number must be entered on Apple’s Web site to activate the warranty.

Let’s review this process: I order AppleCare for the iPhone online. The only available delivery option is to have it mailed to me. I wait for a week for the package. It arrives in a box. Inside this box, I find packaging material, a printed packing list, and an AppleCare box. I tear off the shrink wrap from the AppleCare box. Inside, I find a small pamphlet containing the AppleCare Protection Plan and a small card. The small card contains a printed registration number and directs me to go online. Once online, I’m prompted to enter the registration number and my iPhone serial number. Seconds later, I receive an email from Apple. It is an AppleCare Protection Plan Certificate. Among other useful information, this certificate contains the AppleCare registration number, my iPhone serial number, and a link to the full Protection Plan documentation.

Hey, Apple: do you see anything wasteful about this?

Apple Feedback | A Greener Apple