September 30, 2007

Back from vacation

Filed under: fun, photography, rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:30 pm

Two of my favorite pictures:

Wanita reading

No cursing!

See the complete album on flickr, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the North American Sandsculpting Championship in Virginia Beach. Of course, there’s a map.

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September 20, 2007

Facing Facebook spam

Filed under: email, facebook, spam — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:05 pm

One of the things I love about Facebook is that I don’t get any spam through the system. Sure, I get some friend requests from people I don’t really know and periodically get asked if I want to become a Zombie or a pirate.

I was quite surprised to get a friends request from “Sun Startup Essentials,” a fictitious profile setup to promote Sun.

Facebook friend request

Clicking on Sun’s name leads to a profile page touting free software and discounted hardware:

facebook sun startup

It doesn’t seem to be a VAR looking to drive traffic. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that Sun would do something so stupid. But the fake account is in Sun’s Facebook network.

The GPS crime wave

Filed under: fun, gps, satellite navigation — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:43 am

GPS in Zipcar

The AP reports on the rising GPS crime wave. With GPS units falling to a price where many cars have them, it’s led to an easy target for criminals looking to make off with a quick $100-$200.

In Maryland‘s Montgomery County, outside Washington, D.C., 620 portable navigation devices were filched from cars through Aug. 31, blowing past the 189 taken in all of 2006. In downtown Philadelphia, GPS thefts jumped to 88 in the first eight months of the year from 33 in the same period of 2006. …

Even people who take their GPS gadgets off their dashboards when they leave their cars are returning to find windows smashed, as thieves gamble that an empty plastic cradle suction-cupped to the windshield means a GPS unit has been hidden somewhere in the car. …

It gets worse: Taking the plastic cradle off the windshield might not be enough if the suction cup leaves a ring of film on the glass. That alone can signal a thief.

That’s why police in Montgomery County, Md., handed out 1,200 microfiber cloths at a fair last month and told motorists to clear suction-cup rings. Cops in Alexandria, Va., advise using moist towelettes

The prevalence of GPS units makes committing a series of burglaries easy. I found this in the Arlington police blotter:

LARCENY FROM AUTO (SERIES) 06/24/07, 800 block of S. Army Navy Dr. Between 0945 hrs and 1905 hrs on 06/24/07, someone broke into five vehicles in a parking garage. Portable GPS systems were taken from four of the vehicles and a duffel bag containing various items was taken from the other.

Beyond losing the GPS, you also have to deal with the cost and hassle of replacing a broken window.

That’s one clear advantage of factory installed GPS units: they’re harder to take. And if they’re taken, they’re usually covered by insurance, while portable units are not. But that’s probably not worth paying 10x as much.

What’s likely to end this crime spree? My guess is that it’ll only end when GPS units get so cheap and ubiquitous that they’re not worth stealing.

September 19, 2007

A conversation on digital maps

Filed under: gps, maps, satellite navigation, street view — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:14 pm

The Kojo Nnamdi show, a DC public radio call-in program, had a discussion yesterday on digital mapping technology. (RealAudio, Windows Media)

Among the topics covered: mapping refugee flows, Google Street View, mashups, user-generated map data and privacy issues around all of the data being gathered.

One of the panelists was Cliff Fox of NAVTEQ, which provides the underlying street data used by many online and portable navigation systems. He joined the conversation at 16:48.

Some fun facts:

  • Navteq employs 700 people to drive the roads in 69 countries. (I read somewhere that 550 of those are in the United States.) An area like Chicago has 8 people. That’s an awful lot of ground to be covering with a small number of people.
  • Each road segment can have 200 attributes, such as medians, turn restrictions, truck restrictions. Unfortunately, many systems don’t use data like HOV restrictions.

More on: maps, satellite navigation

Meeting your customers face to face

Filed under: customer service, marketing — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:23 am

In the world of blogs, email feedback and focus groups, it’s easy to think you’re getting all the feedback you need to run your business. Very few Web companies bother to meet their customers face-to-face. Two notable exceptions are Yelp and Pandora.

I was at a Pandora Town Hall meeting last night, along with about 99 other Pandora fans. Pandora founder Tim Westergren took the stage to talk about his Internet radio company. It was part of a series of events he is doing around the country. The event in DC was so popular that Pandora added a second session.

Pandora Town Hall meetingThere were no flashy Jobs-style product demos. It was just a conversation among people who love Pandora. When an audience member asked about Pandora mobile, Tim tried to demonstrate it, but his phone was out of juice. A woman jumped up and offered her phone for the demo.

Tim talked about the struggles Pandora has faced: the dot-com bust, running for two years without cash to pay employees, dealing with the RIAA and the proposed changes to the compulsory music licensing fees for Web radio.

The Q&A was no-holds barred. Not once did I hear “I can’t comment on that” or “That’s proprietary.” People asked about the future of radio, potential new features and problems they’ve had with the service. From the tone of most of the questions, these weren’t geeks asking. They didn’t have blogs where they’d pontificate on Pandora. They were just Pandora listeners.

I’m sure that most people in the audience left with a stronger affinity to Pandora, both the product and the company. Tim left with a more energized user base and valuable feedback.

September 18, 2007

The Times unlocks its content

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:50 pm

The New York Times announced that they’re killing the subscription requirement to access their columnists effective at midnight tonight.

It’s about time.

I’ve written before about the absurdity of the Times buying AdWords to promote its content while locking its most link-worthy content behind a pay wall.

Search engines are a key driver of traffic to the Times and a key driver of the decision to make the content ad-supported. The vast majority of readers who visit the Times in a given month don’t visit the home page.

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

A letter to TimesSelect subscribers acknowledges the new landscape:

Since we launched TimesSelect in 2005, the online landscape has altered significantly. Readers increasingly find news through search, as well as through social networks, blogs and other online sources. In light of this shift, we believe offering unfettered access to New York Times reporting and analysis best serves the interest of our readers, our brand and the long-term vitality of our journalism. We encourage everyone to read our news and opinion – as well as share it, link to it and comment on it.

The Times is also unlocking its archives, offering much of the archived content for free. All of the archives from 1987 on and from 1851-1922 will be available for free. Content from 1923 to 1986 may have a charge. The Times has been charging nonsubscribers $4.95 per story accessed.

No word on whether this move also means that the Times will preserve value-added content online. The archived content typically does not include photos, charts, graphs and multimedia elements that appear online.

Recommended reading:

Sprint launches GPS-enabled voice search

Filed under: gps, local search, mobile search, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:16 pm

Sprint has released an enhanced version of its search that allows users to tap into their phone’s location when doing searches. The search feature is powered by Microsoft’s Live Search.

The first time user experience isn’t exactly intuitive. When doing a search off Sprint’s portal, one of the layers that comes back is “Local” clicking again to “Go Local” then asks whether you want to enter a location or “Find Me.” Selecting “Find Me” renders a release authorizing Sprint to give your location to Microsoft. The results that come back after all this (my query term was “Target”) still show ringtones and screen savers above the local results.

Search results aren’t sorted in any discernible order. Usually in local search, results are sorted by distance from the starting point or alphabetically. These are neither.

The authorization to use “Find Me” can be stored for a session, day, 30 days or unlimited, making return visits easier.

A link labeled “Get Precise GPS Location” offers users of select phones the option to download a Java applet. Instead of typing out what you’re looking for, you can speak the name of the business or the category.

Although category names (restaurants, bars, Mexican restaurants, movie theaters) worked fine, business names did not. Of the dozen or so names I tried, only “Cheesecake Factory,” “Target” and “Dominos” returned the results I was expecting. These terms are so common that many data providers treat them as categories.

It seems that the browser-based search uses triangulation from the towers to calculate location, whereas the application uses GPS from your handset.

Despite its flaws, it’s still a significant move. This is the first time I know of that a U.S. carrier has offered location-enabled search for free.

Update: The Java application also can tap into the phone’s address book. If you find a business and want to share it, just pick a name from the phone’s address book and send.

More on: GPS, wireless data

Recommended reading:

September 17, 2007

iPhone dreaming – iPhone + GPS

The iPhone has quickly become the ultimate communication device for many. With a few tweaks, it could easily become the ultimate navigation device.


Creative Commons image by stevegarfield.


  • You get into your car and put the iPhone in you iCar dock. As you drive, music from the iPhone wafts through your car’s stereo system using either a hard wire or FM transmitter (built in to the dock). The track information displays on the iPhone screen.
  • A friend calls. Her picture and number shows on the iPhone screen. The music fades and you’re connected to her over Bluetooth. She invites you to dinner. “Text me the address,” you say. Moments later, the iPhone receives the address and asks you if you want to go there.
  • The iPhone shows you turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps. The music resumes.
  • The Google Maps traffic data show an accident ahead. The iPhone alerts you and prompts you to re-route.
  • As you near your destination, images from Google Street View appear to confirm that you’re in the right place.
  • You arrive at your destination and find parking three blocks away. Snap the iPhone out of the dock and the driving directions automatically turn in to walking directions.
  • After dinner, you take a picture with the iPhone and upload it to flickr. The location data is automatically added and it shows up on your flickr map.
  • You forgot where you parked your car. No problem, the iPhone remembers and guides you back. (OK, this part won’t work if you parked in an underground garage — you’ll get back to the garage entrance, but then you’re on your own.)

Technology-wise, most of what’s needed for the above scenario is already in place. GPS is the key missing piece. You would also want HSPDA to speed up the map data. The connoisseur would want Bluetooth A2DP for the music.

How much will this cost? I’d expect the service to cost $0-$10 a month. Wireless carriers have typically charged about $10 a month for navigation service. Verizon and Sprint have started to bundle navigation services with their high-end data plans.

The incremental hardware cost for the GPS chip is negligible. Apple could tack on an extra $50 and make a killing. Add on early-adopter pricing of $100 for the iCar dock and the $150 is still cheaper than most standalone nav systems.

Portable navigation devices from companies like Garmin, Magellan and TomTom have become hot as prices have plummeted to around $250. I took a road trip last month and a significant percentage of cars had navigation screens hanging from their windshields.

It’s expected that PNDs will become a billion dollar market this year. A GPS-enabled iPhone could rapidly take share in that market.

See also:

More on: Apple, Google, iPhone, satellite navigation

September 15, 2007

Editing photos, as easy as pie at Picnik

Filed under: facebook, flickr, photography, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:05 am

Picnik is part of a new class of Web-based photo editing tools that’s making sprucing up photos easy and fun. Picnik does a lot of the things that desktop photo editors do, but with a lot less work. The basics are all there: cropping, resizing, red-eye reduction. There are numerous effects that can be used to enhance great pictures, rescue bad ones or just to be silly.

Pictures can be pulled in from fickr, Picasa, Facebook, a Web search, URL or uploaded from a computer. It’s easier to select pictures using Picnik than it is on a desktop — unlike Windows, Picnik uses all of the meta data stored with the picture. Type “Venice” and see all of the pictures tagged Venice, instead of having to hunt through the file system.

Here’s a picture from Venice:


What caught my eye that day were the colors of the umbrella. I wanted to highlight them. I added the focal B&W effect. (This really should be called focal color.) I also wanted to convey the sense of gloominess from the high water in the piazza. The vignette effect darkened the edges.

Piazza San Marco

I wanted to highlight the reflection of the umbrella, too, but the focal B&W effect can only be applied once.

Picnik currently offers 19 effects, including sepia, rounded edges, tint, duo-tone. 11 of the 19 are marked “plus,” indicating that Picnik plans to make them part of a premium offering. A cute frog picture next to each effect shows what it does. Each offers an explanation of what it does, plus suggestions of what types of photos to use it on. I’d like to see them illustrate the suggestions with pictures that show off the best uses.

Picnik’s unlimited undo makes it relatively painless to experiment. Right now, this is linear – keep hitting undo to get back to where you were. The undo feature would be enhanced by letting you see the list of changes and undoing ones that you select.

Here’s another picture I wanted to edit:

Josh and Diane Wii box

I cropped it, added some text and doodled on it.

Josh and Diane Wii box

When you’re done editing you can save the picture back to flickr, Facebook, etc. or download it to your PC. The whole process is intuitive and just works.

The hardest part is remembering how to spell Picnik.

Fun with photos

Filed under: facebook, flickr, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:56 am

I’ve been playing with some Web 2.0 photo tools this week and realizing how simple it is to make fun experiences. Here’s a slideshow I put together with Slide.

This took all of three minutes. Select a theme, transition, music, size. Hit Save. Cut-and-paste the code.

I didn’t even have to re-upload the pictures. Slide pulled the pictures from my Facebook account.

Here’s another slideshow with different effects. (If you haven’t been to the Getty Villa, go!) These pictures were pulled from flickr. In both cases, the meta data was also pulled in; I didn’t have to retype captions.

With another click, I could add the slideshows to my Facebook profile.

Unfortunately, music licensing being what it is, you can’t upload your own music. You have to select from the small selection that Slide offers.

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