March 31, 2008

Picking the wrong default path

Filed under: consumer electronics, geotagging, gps, product management, ui, usability — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:09 pm

I’ve been using my Garmin eTrex Vista Cx GPS for six months. I use it when hiking and to geotag pictures. I noticed that I haven’t been getting the advertised accuracy level; the accuracy has ranged from 25 to 150 feet.

The Garmin Web site touts the benefits of WAAS:

A WAAS-capable receiver can give you a position accuracy of better than three meters 95 percent of the time. And you don’t have to purchase additional receiving equipment or pay service fees to utilize WAAS.

What a deal! You just don’t get that out of the box — Garmin defaults WAAS to off. Once I turned it on, accuracy improved to 8 to 10 feet.

Garmin isn’t alone in shipping crippled products; many of the products and services we use come to us less than advertised. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Money. Computer manufacturers such as SONY and Dell lard up PCs with crapware like toolbars, trial versions of antivirus software and offers for broadband access. Companies like AOL, Google and McAfee pay for this distribution. It’s the price of cheap PCs. SONY recently received a lot of bad press for offering a “Fresh Start” option, which allowed consumers to buy select laptops without crapware for a $50 premium.
  • Shelf appeal. TV sets are preset to look good on the big, bright showroom floor. These settings aren’t optimal in a smaller, darker environment.
  • Support costs. Despite the fact that they all touted security as a key feature on the box, every wireless router I’ve had has come with security turned off. This isn’t the right choice for most users, but it is the one that will work out of the box and is least likely to trigger expensive customer support calls.
  • Server capacity and operational costs. Gmail offers all users the ability to use a secure version of email, but defaults to insecure. Just go to “” and your entire session will be encrypted. Or use the Better Gmail extension to always force an encrypted session.
  • The right choice for the user. Sometimes default decisions are actually based on what most users would want. Things like language, time display format and currency symbols frequently fall into this category.

It’s hard to tell which of these apply in the Garmin case. Clearly, users wouldn’t prefer data that is more inaccurate, unless there was some downside to having more accurate data. I might take less accurate data if it meant I got more battery life in exchange. The Garmin owner’s manual is silent on this topic, although it does mention other factors that affect battery life such as backlight usage.

WAAS requires more computation, so maybe it makes the unit slower? Again, the owner’s manual is silent on this.

Garmin ignores the fundamental question I always ask when giving users a choice: does the user have the information necessary to make that choice? In this case, clearly not. There’s plenty of space on the Garmin’s screen (see picture below) to explain the impact of turning on WAAS.

Judging from a GPS-fan Web site, it looks like there’s no reason to turn it off:

On the current generation Garmins, there is no discernible impact on speed or battery life with WAAS on.

Which begs the question: if there’s no negative impact, why not have it always on and remove the option?

Disclosure: I was part of the team responsible for AOL Toolbar distribution on SONY PCs.

Garmin eTrex Visa Cx setup screen
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Take me out to the ball game

Filed under: fun — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:39 am

I was out at AT&T Park yesterday for an exhibition game against the Oakland A’s and was reminded why this is one of my favorite parks in baseball. Although I’ve been to the park many times before, in its various incarnations of the Ma Bell reassembly, this was the first time I took in all the features.

(RSS readers, click to the blog to see the embedded slideshow or view it on flickr.)

Among the things I love about the park:

  • The stadium itself. There are great sightlines from most seats in the park. (I wouldn’t recommend the top of the lower deck, though.) You can walk all the way around. If you don’t like your seat, there are plenty of places around the park to stand and watch the game. AT&T Park offers a blend of old and new. In addition to the high definition JumboTron in center field, there’s a manually operated scoreboard in right field.
  • The setting. Of the parks I’ve been to, AT&T Park has the most picturesque setting. You get sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge.
  • The food. Purists may object, but you can get a wide range of food, including burgers, dogs, seafood, pizza, barbecue and Mexican. Among the more unusual items for a baseball stadium: Ghiradelli hot chocolate delivered to your seat. (Which can be important, see below.) You can get a hot dog for under $5 and a bad domestic beer for under $6.
  • The other activities. Again, purists may object, but there’s plenty to do at the park even if you aren’t a baseball fan. You can take a plunge down the 80-foot Coca-Cola slide, walk the promenade or just take in the great views. If you’re truly bored, use the parks WiFi or Internet kiosks. (But I’ll be rooting for your laptop screen to be shattered by a foul ball.)
  • The fan-friendly policies. You can bring in food and non-alcoholic drinks. You can also transfer your tickets electronically to someone else through the Giants’ Web site. Before Major League Baseball imposed StubHub on all its teams, you could also buy tickets from season ticketholders.
  • The fact that it was privately funded. The stadium is a true rarity among sports facilities these days: the public didn’t pay for it. Unlike the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars that some parks get, taxpayer subsidies for Pac Bell were limited to improvements around the site for access.

With all that it has going for it, AT&T Park does have its challenges:

  • The team. Sure, it sold out quite frequently last year, but those stats were juiced with the Bonds draw. Don’t look for a winning team anytime soon.
  • The cold. San Francisco is a bit on the chilly side year around and the park’s location right on the water means you’ll probably be cold at some point. Bring your best football clothing and blankets.
  • The neighborhood. It’s not a bad neighborhood, but it’s a new one and still somewhat plastic. You won’t find the street vendors and party atmosphere that you see at Wrigley, Fenway or even Camden Yards.

March 27, 2008

Dash-ing out of the gate

Filed under: cars, consumer electronics, dash, gps, local search, maps — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:31 pm

Dash PNDThe Dash portable navigation device I wrote about earlier is now shipping. Dash has dropped the price $200 from the initial pre-order pricing.

It’s the first true two-way connected PND on the market, using cellular data for search, traffic and community features. Because I now work on automotive products, I’ll pass on reviewing it. The initial coverage from Walt Mossberg and The Washington Post are very positive. The Post story also goes into depth on how traffic services work.

March 18, 2008

Tellme about St. Patrick’s Day

Filed under: fun, microsoft, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:29 am

Tellmes know how to throw a great party. The annual St. Patrick’s Day party was a jolly good time. Colleagues from Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus joined us in the courtyard for limerick and mashed potato sculpting contests. The winning sculpture? A bust of Steve Ballmer:

Bust of Steve Ballmer

Ironically, on the train ride home I heard a Marketplace report about concerns that a Microsoft acquisition would destroy Yahoo’s culture. Who knows what would happen, but the report did contain at least one factual error: Microsoft employees do get free coffee. Tellme employees also get free cookies.

(RSS readers should click through to the post to see the slideshow.)

March 17, 2008

Occasional reader – Hulu, Tellme, slum tourism, layoffs

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, reader, television, travel, video, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:30 am

Some interesting reads from the past couple of weeks:

  • Hulu: Great Product, Still Screwed (Silicon Alley Insider) – The much-hyped video site from NBC and News Corp. is now out of beta. Hulu offers free access to full episodes from many NBC and Fox shows, plus a few free full-length movies. Hulu has decent quality video, is easy to navigate and does a good job of suggesting related content. (Hulu’s search feature can use a lot of help with its poor indexing and cryptic snippets like “Season 2 : Ep. 10″.) Despite all this, analyst Henry Blodget thinks Hulu will have a hard time making it due to constraints imposed on it by its corporate parents.
  • Kara Visits Tellme (aka A Little Bit of Microsoft in Silicon Valley)! (All Things Digital) – Kara Swisher visited Tellme recently and talked to General Manager Mike McCue (my boss’ boss). The video offers a glimpse of life at Tellme. In another video, Mike talks about trends in speech recognition. (The videos didn’t work for me in Firefox; if you have trouble, try IE.)
  • Slum Visits: Tourism or Voyeurism? (New York Times) – It’s not my idea of vacation, but apparently a new trend in tourism is organized tours of slums in cities like Mumbai and Rio. Are these tours exploiting the poor in the search for profit? That’s a good question. I was surprised how quickly organized tours of hurricane damage developed in New Orleans. I’ve been to New Orleans twice since Katrina and have refused to go on them.
  • How to Deal With Layoffs and Buyouts (AAJA) – What’s glummer than a gathering of AOL employees at layoff time? A gathering of journalists discussing the future of their business. As newsrooms across the country rapidly contract, young and mid-career journalists face tough decisions on whether to continue to play musical chairs or get out of the business altogether. The Asian American Journalists Association held an informative discussion offering advice to journalists on how to cope in troubled times. Although much of the advice is specific to journalists, there is also solid financial advice for anyone facing layoffs.

March 16, 2008

Drawing the short straw

Filed under: personal, Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:55 pm

Fort Mackinac

I stopped growing early. After what I can only assume was a massive early growth spurt, I capped out at my current 5’3″. The picture above was taken before I entered middle school; using mom as a benchmark, I must be near full height.

Being short presents a lot of challenges. I struggle to see at concerts and sporting events. It can be hard to find friends in a crowd. Clothes shopping is a frustrating ordeal. Getting a drink in a crowded bar can take a while (except for the drinks that oafs spill on me).

Being short can affect two other important parts of life: career and relationships.

Numerous studies have shown that shorter men are less likely to become CEOs and make less money than their taller counterparts. Short men who do make it into leadership positions are often viewed as dictatorial and petty, with an ax to grind with with the world.

While it’s hard to say what would have happened in my career if I were taller, it’s safe to say I’ve reached an above-average level of success for someone my age. It hasn’t been by stomping on people; I don’t think the people who have worked for me would say I’m dictatorial or petty.

Relationships are another matter. Being short presents a significant barrier in dating, which isn’t helped by “research” that says short men are more prone to jealousy. A quote from the comments to the story is telling:

I’m a woman and whenever I tell any of my girlfriends I’ve a guy in mind for them, the first question, even before his values, personality, looks, income, job, family, culture etc is always, “How tall is he?” If the answer is not over 5’10 I might as well not bother.

It’s an attitude I’ve encountered over and over. I’ve heard women repeatedly complain about not being able to find smart, successful, caring, honest men while at the same time thumbing their noses at men because of their height.

Looking at it from a market perspective, I know that I have to offset my perceived deficiencies in other ways. Being a jackass won’t help my case. Would I be as nice, as generous or as caring if I were taller? The honest answer: I don’t know.

Unfortunately, the dating market is one with severe information distortion. It’s easy for a jerk to be nice, a miser to be generous, a chauvinist to be chivalrous, a married man to pretend to be single. These things are easily faked, at least for a short time. Short men can’t fake being tall.

It’s tempting to say that women who won’t date someone who is below average in height are shallow, uneducated or ignorant. Tempting, but wrong. These attitudes persist among the most educated and independent women I know.

I’ve heard from some women that they have no inherent objection to dating short men, they just won’t because they don’t want to deal with “short man syndrome.” That’s a huge cop out.

It’s not uncommon for me — even among my close friends — to hear short jokes, the kind that would be clearly off limits if made about race, gender or sexuality.

Hollywood, which is full of short men, potentially could influence this situation. I had a glimmer of hope a couple of weeks ago while watching the pilot of Unhitched. In the show, Kate (played by Rashida Jones) is considering whether to date a shorter guy. All her friends encourage her to have an open mind.

She shows up on the date with a nicely dressed guy who escorts her to front row seats at a Celtics games. He chats it up with the players, who all seem to know him. How’d he get those great seats? He’s the leprechaun for the Celtics. Ugh.

I debated whether to post this entry because I don’t want to be labeled as having “short man syndrome.” If an articulate post about something that affects me deeply means I have a complex, so be it.

Am I short? Yup. Am I angry about it? Only when I read unfair, insulting and sterotypical comments like these.

March 1, 2008

Occasional reader – Jon Stewart, privacy and Fauxbama

Filed under: elections, journalism, media, privacy, reader, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:34 am

Some interesting items from the last few weeks:

  • Jon Stewart’s pre-Oscar interview on Larry King Live (CNN) – This interview is a perfect example of why people like me are watching The Daily Show for news. Stewart is sharper and more analytical than most of the chattering classes on the cable networks and reporters on network news. In addition to politics, Stewart talks about the writers strike and the inanity of the core argument. (Whether writers should be compensated for online usage of their work.) Oddly, the podcast version I saw is 10 minutes longer than the version on CNN’s site.
  • The Anonymity Experiment (Popular Science) – Think you can hide from prying eyes? Think again. A Popular Science writer tries to avoid leaving a trace for a week. The piece looks at the myriad ways in which our movements can be tracked, including credit cards, Internet access logs, phone calls, email, security cameras and toll transponders. With the lack of effective privacy regulations and virtually no punishment for privacy breaches, American businesses have little incentive to protect consumers. All the incentives go in the other direction — collect, merge and sell as much data as you can. The government? They’re just as interested in collecting all these data. via Doris Truong
  • Did ‘SNL’ Go Beyond the Pale With Fauxbama? (Washington Post) – Paul Farhi looks at the decision to use a white/Asian actor to play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels responds that Fred Armisen was the best man for the job; critics counter that it’s ironic that at a time when an African American might be headed to the White House, SNL doesn’t do enough to develop black talent.
    Kudos to for embedding the video instead of making readers guess what is being talked about. It’s the first time I’ve seen an embedded hulu video player. Good video quality with related content post-roll. If you’re in the hulu beta, check out this video for Neutrogena Coin Slot cream. A lower quality version is embedded below. via Kimberly Davis

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


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