Web 2.0 file sharing with Box.net on Facebook

I received an interesting marketing-type email from a Brian from Box.net today, promoting their Facebook application. Ordinarily, I’d ask “why would anyone have the nerve to drop me a message at 6:40 AM on a Friday, other than to tell me my download queue completed?” and “do you know what I usually have to say about Facebook applications, let alone annoying or idiot ones?”

I haven’t written a scathing Web 2.0 review since my Customerforce piece for an intern there; since then it looks like CustomerForce has gone under significant plastic-ification and drastically changed its focus to “social media enabler”. It’d be a perfect story for Uncov, but that’s a different piece for a different time.

I’ll slightly modify part of a comment from my original post on Customerforce, as a preface to how I review Web2 services.

If I can describe your complete business plan in a few lines of PHP and SQL, then it’s not a sound business plan at all. You can’t have a business plan that relies on “SELECT `movie` FROM `topmovies` ORDER BY `votes` LIMIT 5;”. Some sites rely on users contributing the best aggregated content, and then having other friends of these users voting on it. It’s too many steps for the average MySpace click-copy-paste profile whore. Never underestimate the stupidity of users; and never underestimate the concept of “less is more.”

So, does Box.net fall into this category? Short answer: no, but it’s certainly heavy on the Web 2.0 fluff that’s so common these days with anything reviewed by Robert Scoble. Interestingly enough, Scoble just reviewed (read: promoted) the service. Company-wide marketing blitz perhaps?

In any event, someone else will have to tell me what Robert said; I refuse to give into The Streaming Flash Video Service That Could, And Perhaps It Works From My Cellphone of the week when a download link (or even a YouTube video) would suffice. Protip, everyone: Choosing a non-standard place to dump your content does not make you a special and unique snowflake.

What Does It Do, Johnny?
Box.net is a cross between sites like RapidShare and products in the Google Docs suite. Essentially, it’s a file upload utility with granular access permissions. It also has several notable API hooks to connect to other Web 2.0 services, and connect your documents and media to them. They claim traffic of over one million file downloads per day. It sounds like a perfect recipe for a crafty frontend to Amazon’s S3 Storage, or perhaps outsourcing traffic to LimeLight Networks for content delivery.

LimeLight tends to be pricey for startups, and throwing around files online costs real cash money. You also have to have a certain amount of capital around to deal with the inevitable copyright lawsuits and DMCA lawyering that result when people don’t read the terms of service and upload their hastily-obtained copy of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix[2007]DvDrip[Eng]-aXXo so that “they can watch it at work.”

A typical lame file share. Scene is better.

Something for Nothing: Trickier than Getting Free RealPlayer
Unlike most other Web 2.0 services, Box.net doesn’t rely on users being tricked into clicking on Google Ads. This is probably a good thing, because all the ads would probably key on competing services given the site’s ridiculous attempt at search engine optimization:

Box.net - Free Online File Storage, Internet File Sharing, Online Storage, Access Documents & Files Anywhere, Backup Data, Send Files
This is their title tag. Way to make it a great default bookmark name.

Going directly to their site, you’ve got a clear “signup” button:

Plastic. Serious business.

This, as any savvy Web user knows, is a dangerous trap into somehow getting something you don’t want at all. All good sites make the interesting or free stuff hidden in a link inside a paragraph of dull gray text. I’ll save you the disappointment here, though, and spoil things: the narrator and Tyler Durden are the same person, and Box.net has no publically available free service. Your options are respectively 14-day trials for a 2GB/$25/year account; a 5GB/$80/year account; or a 15GB/$200/year account.

Wait – that’s not entirely correct and complete. There are at least two other types of accounts. Signing up for a trial of the 2GB account gave me a billing profile with a 1.0GB BASIC option. What if I’d wanted to try a Plus, Premium or Business account, and not the Cheapskate Special?

The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

But hey! I can upgrade my account right now if I give them my credit card number, as I’m constantly and nauseatingly reminded as I flip through their interface. It’s inescapable. Uploading a file? Look at an advertisement for additional services. On the home page? Fully one quarter of the UI is dedicated to “give us some money, please.”

File Uploads Aren’t Bad
There’s a reasonably snappy interface for file uploads, which gives a progress bar and filesize information. The multi-file Java applet also suits the purpose well. It’s also reasonably easy to share (make public) files as hyperlinks, although directly pointing to them is restricted to premium accounts.

It also appears as if downloads go through an “index.php”-style redirector before being deployed to the browser, presumably for access control and database categorization. Sort of weak not being able to access the actual file directly, but that’s a minor point.

What I’d like to see: for video uploads, embed a YouTube-style FLV player on the Download page so that potential users can preview the file. Hell, even an EMBED tag, done tastefully, would let the end user’s browser try to stream the content.

Overall, I’m actually quite impressed with the file upload functionality.

Integration is Quite Good
I do actually endeavour to test services before panning them, so I uploaded several photos and tried the “Edit photos” application. If anything, this convinced me that before I pay Box.net $25 per year, I should pay Picnik the same amount for premium Web-based photo editing. Their Flash utility for managing photos is really well designed and could easily replace all of the low-end photo editing utilities currently on the market.

Picnik slightly fails it.

If the only negative “well, that’s weak” thing I can find is the above message on replacing an unsaved document, then I would vote these guys the next Google acquisition target.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the integration of Zoho Writer. (It’s the “Create Document” option.) The new browser window suffers from the same FAIL as Ted mentioned on Uncov, and this wasn’t even the spreadsheet that can’t deal with 620KB of data. The following font is NOT Arial.

This is Arial…NOT.

You Said There Were At Least Two Account Options =\
The Facebook application for Box.net offers yet another way to score some free storage, although in a creepy viral marketing “send invites” way. If you want an untethered free account from the start, this may be the way to go. You get 20MB, plus 20MB for each additional friend you invite to the application, probably up to an arbitrary limit (Update 12/29/07: up to 1GB, which would mean you’d have to invite 50 friends to get the full storage. Thanks, Fred.)

There’s also a way to score a year of a premium 2GB account, although it involves completing a “special offer” that will likely ruin your credit rating and sign you up for Video Professor.

It’s essentially a giant Flash blob when integrated though, and for someone running NoScript, the Facebook component looks like this:

Why do you need a giant SWF embed to sign up?

Unfortunately, the revealed version is a horrible mélange of Arial, Times New Roman and imitation Zuckerberg styling. It seems to follow no design rules. Did nobody actually test the application on a Mac running Safari? The main box.net website works properly.

Uh, yeah. Might want to read Facebook’s stylesheet before picking fonts.

Social Interaction: Does It Spam?
More than zero friends on a Facebook developer test account were needed in order to test out the invitation feature and newsfeed functionality. I found that Facebook fails it too when creating a new account:

Create a new account, start typing in a network in this field, then hit Escape.

The invitation process is fairly informative, so you’ll probably only get invites from people who actually want to share files rather than spew Glitter Text all over your wall. Here’s what the invite looks like:

The invite. It’s not Glitter Text, but that’s about all it’s got going for it.

True to form, the promised storage upgrade works properly, but then fails all over itself when it comes to sharing folders with other users. Shared folder notifications take you completely out of the Facebook UI, instead of linking to the grammatically-incorrect “My Friend’s Files” page. There’s also a duplicate notification dropped each time you share a folder or file.

Hard to keep track of all the Goatses.

From a Technical Point: FTP Makes Sense
One of the more convoluted pages on the Box site deals with FTP. I assume it’s targeted at managers and monkey-suit type individuals who have heard that the protocol is “a good way to share files.” As far as I can tell, the only mention of the free 1GB account is on this page:

Box.net offers a free 1GB storage account that you may use for as long as you like. If you are interested in trying one of our pay accounts, you are welcome to try any of them free for 14 days.

FTP is a standard protocol for a reason, guys. I’d love nothing more than SFTP or SCP access to my Box.net account; that way I could upload files regardless of what platform or environment I’m using.

Summary: The Facebook App Fails It; The Main Site Doesn’t
I guess Brian’s intention with his email was to drum up traffic for the Box.net Facebook application. In short, it’s a failure: it looks ugly from the Times New Roman embedded font, seems to unnecessarily use Flash, and doesn’t support any of the external publishing/platform providers that make the main Box.net more worthwhile.

Login FAIL

Would it be that hard to write a Facebook application using a canvas IFRAME and then apply a custom stylesheet based on the source? (Answer: No. I’ve written them.) It also sprays a disgusting SWF on your user profile, whereas a plaintext list of files with links would be much more effective and not require the initial “click to display” barrier.

Fixing it would be reasonably easy, though. Stick to HTML and JavaScript within Facebook. If not possible in Facebook’s implementation of FBJS, use an IFRAME; and maintain consistency across user interfaces. What’s with the 20MB initial cap on Facebook accounts, when the official site gives 1GB? And furthermore, why can’t I switch my accounts easily from my profile, receiving the login failure message above?

I feel for the Facebook developers that have to wade through the comments and reviews though. Idiots that want an “autoplay my MP3zzzz” option should be unceremoniously shot.

I probably wouldn’t block the application with malice, simply by virtue of testing it out, but it’ll have to be improved somewhat before I allow it access to my real Facebook profile.

Box.net, though, as a separate service, might just replace my tested method of creating new drafts from Gmail and attaching files. It’ll be much easier to drop files there for transferring, and with third party integration for services like Picnik, I expect additional interesting ways to work with files in the future.

Updated Yahoo Pipes RSS feeds: Digg Stupidity Filter and The Onion

I got a chance today to update my Yahoo Pipes RSS feeds to reduce some of the content I look at.

Digg Stupidity Filter (run pipe) removes idiotic stories from the general Digg news feed. Specifically, these stories tend to include Ron Paul, marijuana, Mike Huckabee, and meta-stories about Digg itself. I’ve also added a few regular expressions; stories containing all capital letters or repeated punctuation marks (“!!” and “…” come to mind) generally aren’t worth the read.

The Onion (No A/V Content) (run pipe) takes The Onion’s RSS feed and removes all tagged stories with audio or video content.

If you like these ideas, please feel free to check out the rest of my published Pipes. What also has helped my newsreading lately is creating folders in Google Reader, and grouping similar blogs (Engadget and Gizmodo, and Kotaku and Joystiq for example) into meta-categories “Gadgets” and “Video Games”.

More Sony KF42E200A troubleshooting for 1:1 pixel / 720p

I’ve discussed the holy grail of pixel mapping for the Sony E2000-series LCD projection televisions before. With the latest nVidia drivers on Vista, I believe I’ve found the most practical solution to this issue.

First, it’s notable that even using the HDMI inputs, 1:1 pixel mapping doesn’t seem easily attainable from a PC. While the native resolution of this particular TV is indeed 720p (1280×720, progressive), there is still a significant amount of overscan to account for.

My particular solution involves setting two display resolutions. The first is a 1:1 (or approximate) pixel mapped image when at the Windows desktop, set at 1152×648. This resolution is automatically detected in the Windows Display control panel and nVidia resolution list when connected with a DVI to HDMI cable. The second is a full 720p image while in Windows Media Center, which can have its own resolution detected independently:

1:1 pixel mapping and full 720p

To set up this type of display mapping, first install the latest nVidia drivers. Once installed, you should have an nVidia Control Panel option when right-clicking the desktop. Use “Advanced Mode” if prompted.

  • In Windows or the nVidia control panel, change your display resolution to 1280×720.
  • In the nVidia control panel applet, there should be a new “Resize HDTV Desktop” setting at the bottom of the tree view. Select this option.
Resize HDTV menu option

  • The right panel contains a frame for the “Resize my HDTV Desktop” option. Click this option, then click the Resize Desktop button.
Resize HDTV frame

  • When resizing the desktop, size it so that the arrows are slightly outside your HDTV display area. I find that putting the arrowheads offscreen (so that only the bottom parts of the arrows display) is the best setting.
Resize arrows

  • Close the resize desktop dialog and click OK (if available) in the nVidia control panel. Open the Display control panel again and change the resolution to 1152×648.
  • You should now be able to see all desktop contents, in a 1:1 or close to 1:1 display. Try adjusting TV display settings, if possible, to improve the display quality.
  • When ready, start Windows Media Center and run the Display wizard. Select 720p resolution. Media Center will automatically correct for some overscan.
  • Try playing a high definition, 720p or higher video. If there are black borders surrounding the video, you’ll need to close Media Center and repeat this process, but increase the desktop resizing correction. When Media Center closes, verify that your resolution returns to a standard 1152×648 so that the Start Menu and desktop are completely visible.

It might not be a perfect solution, but it’s a significant step up from previous solutions involving third party utilities. Did it work for you, or do you have any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments.

Want a BlackBerry? Now’s never been a better time.

I’m definitely a cell phone/wireless “enthusiast”, which is only really a nice way to say “consumer whore.” In the past few years, I’ve personally had wireless service from Virgin Mobile Canada, Rogers (both Pay As You Go and on contract) and now Telus – and provided support for users on nearly other provider you can think of. One of the websites that feeds this addiction is HowardForums, which I link to every third post on average.

There are a good number of users on HoFo that are just there to piss and moan about their existing provider, which makes very little sense because I’ve yet to see an honest offer of help from a customer service representative to someone who’s trashing the carrier. Indeed, why WOULD you want to help these individuals?

Recently, though, the most popular topic has been wireless data rates and how to get the best possible plan for them. Of the three primary carriers in Canada, Bell offers a $7 “unlimited data” plan on the HTC Touch and both Telus and Rogers offer a $15 “unlimited email/instant messaging” plan on their BlackBerry Pearl models (8130 versus 8100r). The difference is that Telus’ plan can also apply to their HTC Touch and HTC S720, and includes “unlimited web browsing” as well. All carriers require a minimum $30/month voice contract in addition to the $15 email plan.

In effect, unlimited Web browsing on a BlackBerry device, since all Internet data goes through the BlackBerry Internet Service browser gateway, is “unlimited BlackBerry data.” Telus is unique in this regard because they not only assign the BlackBerry Prosumer (BIS) email service, but they also allow Web browsing, through the BIS-B service.

So, if you don’t mind the SureType interface of the Pearl (and some people consider this a deal-breaker), the best option going right now for BlackBerry plans in Canada is the $0 Pearl 8130 with Telus – you’ll get the full experience of the platform for $45 per month, plus service fees. The device is pretty neat since it also offers GPS and EvDO (wireless high speed data) support in a reasonably sized candybar form factor.

Full disclosure: While I work for Research in Motion, this post represents my personal opinions and not those of my employer. I deal with people using nearly every carrier you can think of every day: that’s one of the advantages of having a BlackBerry device in that you’re not limited to a specific carrier to get the same experience.

Winding up and winding down: contract expiry and back to school

I’m going to take a break from posting links to hilarious or enraging stories in this post, and instead go back to some personal items of interest, like I did last January. Most of the links in here will be to previous posts, since quite a bit has changed for me over 2007. To recap:

I started a new business with Dave and Warren, which has so far allowed us to keep things official and recruit new clients. Our operations are slightly unorthodox, but we know what we’re talking about and our clients are typically very impressed with our work. In the new year, we’ll begin advertising for additional personal clients and begin to reposition our company image as less of a student-run computer repair service, and more of a solutions provider for your home, home office or small business.

I also began a position at RIM in May, leaving IBM and my technical writing position. As it stands, both places are really decent working environments – I’d have a hard time choosing one over another. One thing I did pick up from the experience is that not only is it necessary to be proactive when free food is offered, but occasionally the best move you can make is to try and make the best of cheerleading-style corporate events. During my next corporate experience, I’m setting a goal to get more involved in the student events being offered.

In June, I had several technology-related posts. Since then, I’ve cancelled my TekSavvy account because my home phone line has too much interference when DSL traffic crosses it, and I don’t look forward to installing a POTS splitter in the dead of winter. Their service was quite excellent, and when I move out eventually I’ll likely choose them as a primary provider.

I’ve updated Windows Home Server to the final release, which seems to be serving files across the network quite well without issue. The server system now has 2.1TB of disk space, which is currently being used to store episodes of Heroes (another addicting TV show!)

Chris Fitzpatrick actually paid his hosting bill, just in time for the US dollar to let the loonie be the man for the first time in thirty years.

The cell phone and wireless technology in Canada posts got some decent traffic. I’ll have more details on a recent data development with cell providers very soon.

My HOWTO post on swiping music from MySpace didn’t get the attention I’d hoped for, perhaps because the process is slightly more complicated than “OMG, start up Sound Recorder!”

Finally, Facebook applications are still idiotic, although with liberal use of the “X” button I’ve been able to reduce my exposure to their toxicity.

So what now? My last official day at RIM is December 21st, after which point I’ll be returning to Waterloo for eight months in a row to make some additional progress on my Computer Science degree. I’ve received a preliminary offer to return to RIM for my current role in September 2008, which I intend to take up; we’ll see what happens in summer 2009 when my last co-op cycle comes around.

Western Digital disables .avi, .mp3 sharing on external drives

From Boing Boing:

Western Digital is disabling sharing of any avi, divx, mp3, mpeg, and many other files on its network connected devices; due to unverifiable media license authentication.

The support page on the issue effectively notes that the ‘license authentication’ nonsense blocks any type of media from being accessed by anonymous share users.

I don’t own any WD external hard drives at present, but I’m sure as hell never getting one with these ridiculous restrictions, which look like they were penned by a third-world translator. I’ll stick with Seagate, who has decent pricing, good warranty service – and whose CEO is incredibly outspoken:

“Let’s face it, we’re not changing the world. We’re building a product that helps people buy more crap – and watch porn.”