Sad to See Tom Leave

Leo Laporte, the head of the TWiT network, today announced that he is ending TWiT’s contract with Tom Merritt, host of Tech News Today (TNT) and for all intents and purposes the network’s news anchor. I doubt any of us will ever know or understand the details of Leo’s seemingly short-sighted decision or understand the motivations behind it. Particularly given Leo’s weak statements about the remote situation not working. As an audio listener—part of TWiT’s largest audience—I perceived absolutely no difference after Tom’s relocation to L.A.

What I do know is that the TNT that Tom and Becky Worley started at TWiT about four years ago brought me to TWiT as a daily listener. And the evolution of the TNT team and show, though never topping that original formula, yielded a professional and respectable tech news source. Tom didn’t fall into morning zoo antics; he didn’t don an artificial radio voice, smile, and guffaw for the mic and camera; and he didn’t chow down his lunch while recording and on camera. Tom has added a level of professionalism to the TWiT studio that some have emulated and others should aspire to.

Change is hard. I get that. And maybe it’s time for a change for me, too. Maybe for all of us. I’ll likely leave TNT behind and look forward to Tom’s next endeavor—just as so many of Tom’s fans and followers did when he left CNET and dropped a ready-made audience in Leo’s lap. That audience will likely have something new and exciting to look for in the days ahead.

All my best to you, Tom. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

BBB Complaint Filing about UPS Service

UPS: We ♥ Logistics*  [*It's just that sometimes they're not very good at it.]

Over the past week’s time, I’ve had three delivery failures from UPS, each mis-handled and reported differently. Last week, a package was reported as delivered when it actually wasn’t. UPS refused to address the issue for me when I called because it was a package from Amazon. Amazon graciously resent the products at no additional cost, then days later the original (purportedly already delivered) UPS package mysteriously arrived. It was dropped on my doorstep with no attempt to communicate with me, even though I had a clear notice on the door for the UPS carrier to ring the bell and talk with me.

Days later, another package doesn’t get delivered. It’s reported in UPS’ tracking system as not delivered due to “Emergency conditions beyond UPS’ control.” UPS followed up on my rants on Twitter, telling me that, in fact, that status was used because they didn’t have a status to properly represent the actual situation—that they just couldn’t get the delivery done in time that day.

Today: another failed delivery. UPS’ tracking system reports that “the customer was not available on the 1st attempt.” That’s a lie. Someone was home all day. Nobody rang the bell, no notice was left, and this particular package does not require a signature anyway. 

I want UPS to fix the rampant delivery problems they appear to be having in my neighborhood this holiday season. I want the dispatch office and drivers to be held responsible for failed deliveries—not Amazon. I want UPS to stop fabricating false excuses for why they’re not delivering packages on time. “Couldn’t deliver on time” is bad, but it’s better than the fabricated statuses they’ve been reporting.

New Media Thoughts from My Outbox

Five years ago, I attended the Podcast and Mobile Media Expo, witnessing what I suspected was a significant shift in content production and delivery. It impacted me significantly, and I remember returning to my room to share these thoughts with some friends and colleagues. Several name changes, one merger, and many times larger, Blogworld & New Media Expo is alive and well, and the shift is bigger than any of us may have expected: content production and delivery, customer service, PR, and publishing are just a few of the industries significantly impacted by how people can now create and access information and media. And big industry is still trying to figure it all out.

From my Outbox, 2006:

I’m currently at the Podcast & Mobile Media Expo in Ontario, California–and I’m blown away by what’s going on here. I’ve been a podcast listener (and viewer) for nearly a year now, becoming personally familiar with the medium after receiving an iPod last Christmas. I’ve known about podcasts, of course for a few years, but it wasn’t until I actually had a mobile device that easily afforded me the opportunity to subscribe and listen to narrowly targeted content that I personally adopted the technology. And boy, did I adopt. I joke about how my iPod has completely changed my life–but it has. I don’t get my news–be it politics, technology, entertainment, or whatever–from the TV or radio any more. Instead, I catch up on what’s going on in all these and more subject areas on my own time in my own place with my iPod. Taking what TiVo did for television to the next level, podcasting is both time AND place shifting–allowing you to listen or watch what you want when you want and where you want. And I’ve never felt so informed!

So here I am amoungst hundreds of folks who are making this happen, some of them the leaders of this industry. While here, I’ve met Leo Laporte (This Week in Tech, http://twit.tv), and I’ve spoken extensively with Alex Lindsey (MacBreak) and Andrew Baron. I’m really kind of blown away because Leo and Andrew (both keynotes here) are major pioneers in podcasting. These are the guys treading new ground and putting themselves out there in what seems to be the medium of choice for the delivery of targeted content. And they’re…regular people.

I came here hoping to learn about what technologies might make podcasting a viable communication mechanism for large organizations (e.g., government). I’m leaving with more ideas than I can possibly process, and it’s hard for me to understand how more enterprises aren’t doing this already. This is definitely one area where the small, daring, enterprising few are just walking all over corporate and public entities. A few dramatic exceptions (ABC and NBC, among few others, are experimenting) exist, but for the most part, this is still all about the Bob and Sue down the street. And what’s interesting is that they’re both probably going to be laughing all the way to the bank in a few years, while big industry is trying to figure out what hit them.

That’s all I have for now…

I’m at the DMZ

The Digital Media Zone

Looking for something? The Digital Media Zone (DMZ), a tech blog about the products and services available for home and mobile media consumption, is now home to my post about CableCARD and the HDHomeRun Prime. Expect to find future posts about home entertainment and consumer electronics devices there, while The World According to Richard continues to serve as the platform for my rants and perspective on all other things.

Long overdue feedback for the Disney Vacation Club web team

I’ve given up on hoping for a much-needed redesign of the Disney Vacation Club website for (I’ll remind you) PAYING members. But I am BEGGING you to please eliminate the auto-play, expanding, audio-accompanied ad for the Aulani resort. EVERY SINGLE TIME you visit the DVC home page, this ad expands over the page and plays audio. Loudly. It’s obnoxious, it’s unnecessary, and it suggests that your web team doesn’t understand how to design content for the 21st century.

Auto Search 2011

It’s that time again: my auto lease ends in three months, so I’ve been researching and testing for my next vehicle. I lease for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that, as a tech-head, I always want the latest tech stack in my vehicle. With advances in audio, phone, navigation, and driver assistance technology, car tech gets stale pretty quickly nowadays.

The Contenders

While my primary interests are in SUVs for their practical use, I also considered a few sedans this year. In all, I considered and tested the following seven vehicles:

Audi Q5Audi Q5 Prestige. Audi has been leading the pack with its MMI telematics, and the Q5 gets the newest rev of that technology stack. This vehicle is fun to drive, but the Prestige trim is a $7K leap of faith since supplies are short and no dealers in the country stock the Prestige trim to test.

BMW X3BMW X3 xDrive35i. BMW completely redesigned the smaller of their SUVs this year, making it more attractive, more luxurious, and more fun. With all these improvements, though, it still lacks some of the technology and features available on it’s larger X5 sibling.

Cadillac SRXCadillac SRX Premium. Maybe it’s middle age setting in, but I think the new SRX is a hot crossover. The interior is very comfortable, and the tech stack is competitive. It lacks any driver assistance features, however, despite huge blindspots.

Ford ExplorerFord Explorer Limited. The all-new 2011 Explorer makes this SUV icon interesting again. But the severely underpowered, first-gen technology behind MyFord Touch is a deal-breaker.

Taurus SHOFord Taurus SHO. Ford surprised everyone in 2010 with the fit, finish, and tech in the new Taurus. While the vehicle stacks up on paper and continues to get good reviews, I couldn’t get past this thing’s ugly derrière.

Jeep Grand CherokeeJeep Grand Cherokee Overland. Out of nowhere, Jeep introduced its most luxurious vehicle ever with the 2011 Grand Cherokee. Some of the technology seems a bit clunky and dated, but this vehicle is stacked with features.

Mercedes-Benz E350Mercedes-Benz E350 Sedan. This year’s E350 is a complete redesign of this old standard, and the new body style is pretty hot. Unfortunately, the tech options are underwhelming (and expensive), and the drive is…unexciting.

Two cars I would have liked to consider are the as-of-yet forthcoming Audi A7 and 2012 VW Passat. Neither was available at the time that I was researching and testing new vehicles.

The Criteria

I don’t evaluate vehicles like most people do. Engine displacement, horsepower, and MPG weigh lightly in my decision process. Instead, I look at a car along four main criteria: technology, luxury, style, and how fun it is to drive.

Here’s how these vehicles stacked up on these criteria on a one to five scale:

Technology Luxury Style Funness
Audi Q5 5 4 4 5
BMW X3 4 4 4 5
Cadillac SRX 3 4 5 3
Ford Explorer 3 3 4 3
Ford Taurus 4 4 3 -
Jeep Cherokee 4 5 4 4
Mercedes-Benz E350 4 5 5 3

I also have some specific criteria that I’d qualify as “musts”, “wants”, and “likes”. For example, my vehicle must be four wheel drive or all wheel drive, must have navigation with traffic information, a bluetooth phone connection, and iPod/iPhone control. I want it to have keyless entry, adaptive cruise control, cooled seats, and parking assistance. I like having remote start and driver assistance features like blind spot warning and collision detection.

All of the vehicles I tested met my “must” criteria as well as having keyless entry, rear camera, some form of parking sensors, a power liftgate, power seats with memory, some form of satellite radio, and a panoramic sunroof.

My Decision

If I was selecting a vehicle on criteria alone, I’d choose the Audi Q5. It topped the list when ranked by my criteria and included most of my wants and likes. But the Q5 is in high demand so it’s expensive, there’s no incentive for dealers to discount it, dealers have little stock for testing, and nobody stocks the Prestige trim level that I’d want. While I intend to special-order my vehicle, I’m not willing to pay a premium for it, particularly if that means taking a risk on a trim level that I can’t see before ordering.

Ultimately, I chose the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland with a few options. This SUV really surprised me. I hadn’t even considered Jeep as an option until seeing this vehicle at the Washington Auto Show last month. I was impressed by its new look and the interior appointments, so I visited a local Jeep dealer to test it out.

The new Grand Cherokee is surprisingly luxurious. The cabin is incredibly quiet at any speed, and the combination of wood and leather, standard on the Overland trim, gives the vehicle a sense of refinement that balances the plastic-y center console. In addition to all of my must-have and want-to-have features, the Grand Cherokee also offers adaptive cruise control, adjustable height and suspension settings, remote start, cooled seats, rear heated seats, power steering wheel adjustment, blind-spot and collision detection warnings, and an onboard 110 outlet.

The V6 engine amply allows for solid and spirited driving. This Jeep drives more like a car than a truck, but there’s still a sense of power and size, partly from the vehicle’s higher stance. At a 16/22 MPG rating, this thing isn’t winning any fuel efficiency awards, but this new engine does its best to use as little fuel as possible.

The Grand Cherokee’s UConnect telematics technology looks a bit clunky and outdated, but it’s surprisingly responsive and capable. It includes SIRIUS radio and information services, including traffic information. It controls the iPhone 4, it syncs over 1000 address book entries for a connected bluetooth phone, and it allows you to load music and photos on the system.

Do I have any reservations or concerns? Yeah…a few. This automobile’s parking assistance features are limited to rear sensors and a rear camera with distance lines—not trajectory lines. There are no front parking sensors. Coming from a 360-view camera system with all-around sensors, I’m bound to go through some parking technology withdrawal. Also, if the UConnect system feels dated now, I can only imagine how I’m going to feel about the UI in 2014 when this lease ends. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the first American automobile I’ve ever owned or leased. I’ve had Nissans, Acuras, Land Rovers, VWs, BMWs, Volvos, and Infinitis—but I’ve never before had a Ford, Chrysler, or GM vehicle. Does that concern me? Maybe not so much as it intrigues me.

The Specs

Model 2001 Grand Cherokee Overland 4×4
Colors New Saddle/Black Interior Color 

Natural Green Pearl Coat Exterior Paint

Options 3.6 Liter V6 VVT Pentastar Engine 

Media Center 730N CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/NAV

Advanced Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control

Your Opinion

So now that you’ve read my thoughts on the matter, I’m curious about yours. Which of these vehicles would you have chosen?

HomeSeer: Time for a Redesign

HomeSeer is a home control system that’s been around for about a decade. It’s one of the most flexible and extensible systems available for DIY home automation, and it’s very inexpensive at just $220. It can monitor and control devices over X10, Z-Wave, PLC, IP, and a host of other protocols, and it has a significant support community building plug-ins.

All that said, HomeSeer has suffered in usability for as long as I can remember. And with little UI improvement as the product has evolved, it seems quite stale now. Some add-ons and third-party plug-ins have helped in this area, but I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of having to “buy up” to a better user experience. The good news is that an update is in the works. The bad news is that it may be a while before we see it.

Been a Long Time

HomeSeer screen shot

As a do-it-yourself home automation hobbyist, I’ve been using HomeSeer home control software for almost ten years, and in that time the user interface has changed very little. In fact, with the decided elimination of support for a desktop client in the 2.0 product, HomeSeer took a step backward in usability, forcing all users to move to a largely-unchanged web client. Roughly five years later, it still sports the same, stale interface—now looking very Web 0.9. It’s bad—bad enough that I’ve been flirting with switching to other systems like Embedded Automation’s mControl or Perceptive Automation’s Indigo.

Designed by Developers?

With all of its power and flexibility, HomeSeer’s UI has been rough around the edges from the start, sporting a (lack of) design sense that suggested the team simply didn’t include a trained user interface designer. I’d guess that the graphic design work was done by developers repurposing freely available web images and playing around in Photoshop (or an open-source alternative).

HomeSeer's old desktop toolbar

The original desktop client mimicked Outlook’s tab bar interface effectively, but the different views were a jumbled mess of mis-aligned form elements, and there was little consistency to the application’s toolbar icons. The surviving web interface is a hodgepodge of inconsistent fonts, graphics, and colors, with nested tabs, rudimentary form elements, and dozens of objects thrown on pages using complex table “layouts”. The overall look and behavior varies slightly by platform and browser, and most pages require a refresh to show updates.

Original HomeSeer 2.0 Touchpad Interface

Over the years, many of HomeSeer’s paid add-ons have further reinforced my UI design concerns, including a (now years old) plug-in for touch screens that made me cringe, thinking, “are you kidding? HIRE A TRAINED GRAPHIC DESIGNER!”

Data-driven Workflow

User experience is about more than design, though. Workflow is a key element, and that’s another area where HomeSeer’s web interface suffers. Device and event configuration seems focused more around data collection than user workflow. And if the INSTEON add-on is any indication, that weakness plagues the application extensions, too.

There’s a Light…

HomeSeer (the company) was one of the vendors at the Z-Wave Alliance booth this year at CES, so I had an opportunity to speak with them about their product roadmap. There’s good news: HomeSeer 3.0 is in the works. It adopts a new technology platform (again), and it will offer a new AJAX UI and a robust API. HomeSeer claims the new UI will be similar in concept to iGoogle’s configurable portal pages to allow for more user customization. That doesn’t engender significant confidence, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it.

HomeSeer HomeTroller-Mini

We should see an embedded version of 3.0 in a standalone module by this Summer. The device is similar in concept to Universal Devices’ ISY boxes, but it will use a bring-your-own-control-interface approach, so it can support any protocol. It will require no additional server hardware, it will include HomeSeer 3.0 on-board, and you can connect your third-party control interface via a serial connection. The device will also support mobile touch clients (which, today, requires the paid HSTouch add-on), and it should carry a price of just $299.

If you want HomeSeer 3.0 running on your own server, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. The upgrade for the installed version of HomeSeer isn’t expected to be available until the end of the year.

My Advice for HomeSeer

HomeSeer is obviously making strides in usability, but there’s still room for improvement. HomeSeer’s HSTouch interfaces for iPhone and iPad seem to be HomeSeer’s premier offerings now, and while they’re more visually engaging than the legacy product, they’re still a bit clunky: the design is heavy, and they seemingly ignore many iOS UI design standards and best practices.

HomeSeer, I’M BEGGING YOU to focus on improving the user experience in this next release, employing the skills necessary to design and build your new web and mobile user interfaces. One of the strengths of HomeSeer has been its install-and-go functionality. That was great ten years ago, but users expect more now. Design your system around real-life use cases and workflows, and tailor the UX to the specific devices you’re targeting.

Admittedly, the home automation market is a bit of a user experience mess right now with only a few notable exceptions (e.g., Control 4). You have an opportunity to fill a gap in the more affordable market by offering a highly-usable out-of-the-box solution with your next release. Please, please, PLEASE step up to that challenge.

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