For $200, the Kindle Fire should scare Apple (and delight most everyone else who doesn’t have an iPad)

The Fire has one thing that an iPad has never had: A comfortable price. I’m not the first person to posit this, but I think Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is going to be the first non-fruit tablet to succeed in the marketplace due the the “bang for the buck” factor. After playing with my Fire for a few hours now, I must say that I find the experience very enjoyable. Here’s a rundown of what I think up to this point:

The Good

  1. Amazon’s custom Android interface makes perfect sense – Unlike some reviews I read earlier today, I like Fire’s interface. It makes sense to me. It doesn’t look like any other Android interfaces I’ve seen, but I find the stripped down version the Fire employees to be more agreeable.  Furthermore, I think it will appeal to non-technical people like my Mom who will like the fact that everything she wants to do will fit neatly into a few categories that she can easily find every time she visits the home screen. I think the lack of sub-categories inside each of the built-in categories (Books, Apps, etc) may be a problem once I load the Fire up with more content, but with the universal search, I don’t think that will be much of a problem.
  2. Fire is fast enough, especially for the price – I think the Fire is fast enough. So far, I’ve looked at books, magazines, and webpages, and each task was perfectly acceptable. The book reader app works just like the Cloud Reader and I think it will do nicely for reading in the dark. (Although, I think my Kindle Keyboard is still a better reader, provided you have enough light.) Magazines look better on the iPad’s larger screen, but the pages turned and rendered smoothly. When I did a flick-to-scroll anywhere on the device, content zooms by smoothly and give you a smooth inertia-driven feel.
  3. The Amazon App Store interface is FANTASTIC – I LOVE the way the Amazon App Store for Android  is setup. In one screen, it gives you the top 100 Paid, Free, and Rated apps in a very digestible 3-column layout. The layout has the iTunes Store beat hands down. (For the record, I have always despised the iTunes store. It’s too cluttered and requires too many clicks to see more than 3 of anything.)
  4. The built it speakers are loud and clear – While pursuing the selection of freely streamable Prime content, I realized how clear the Fire’s speakers are. Whereas most portable devices I’ve ever played with have sounded either muffled or weak, the Fire sounds fairly rich. The bass isn’t exactly thumping, but the overall sound quality from the speakers is great.
  5. The mail app is solid – Amazon did a good job crafting the mail app. I’m not at all worried about the lack of a native Gmail client now. The app has a clean interface and is really smooth (judging from my experience with it so far).
The Bad
  1. I want physical buttons for volume control and Home – The lack of a couple buttons is a disappointment for me. I don’t want to have to click 4 times to turn down the volume. And, what’s the one thing you do on a tablet more than anything else? Go to the home screen to launch stuff. The Kindle Fire 2 needs to have hardware buttons for these functions.
  2. The built in apps are lackluster – I did say that the mail app was solid, but what I mean here is that the included apps don’t really do anything that makes me go “Wow!” The Facebook app isn’t even an app: It’s a shortcut that opens the mobile version of Facebook in the Silk Browser. Ugh!
  3. The Silk Browser is way overhyped – I can’t really tell that Amazon’s much-touted hybrid browser has done anything to speed up my mobile browsing experience. The Fire supports Mobile Flash, but all the Flash videos I looked at were a mess. (Downloaded mp4s look great, though!) All the pages I visited loaded just like they do on any other mobile device, which means that either Silk doesn’t do squat or that the Fire’s hardware can’t handle browsing on its own. Either way, as of right now, Silk has left me unimpressed.
The Fire Compared to the iPad

The Fire and the iPad are kind of a like a boat and a car: A car and a boat are both get you from one place to another, but they are for totally different uses. The Fire isn’t a content creation device but its cloud-accessible content is second to none. The iPad is undoubtedly more powerful overall, but to some users (like myself) it’s debatable if the iPad is $300 more powerful. The Fire is much more portable and easier to deal with one-handed, while the iPad’s big screen wins for reading full-color material. In short: Which device is better depends on what you want out of your tablet.

My Bottom Line

I really like what I’ve seen out my Fire so far. For $200, you get a very smart, well-connected media player, with media meaning text, audio, video, and apps. If you like Amazon (which I do), you’ll love owning a Fire. Is it perfect? No. Is it mass-market friendly? You bet. If you’ve been putting off getting a tablet because of price, go ahead and get a Fire. There’s more than $200 worth of goodness in this simple, unassuming package.

How to Install Your Own Custom Apps on a Kindle Fire

Well, folks, I have my Kindle Fire in hand. So far, I think it is more than worth its $200 price tag. I’ll be posting more about it later tonight after I’ve had more time to take it for a spin.

One of the first things I wanted to know was could I load my upcoming web app on it to test (which I have discovered is called “side loading”). I tried connecting the Fire via USB to my computer and copying the APK that way, but that doesn’t work.

Not to be deterred, I did the following:

  1. I went into the Kindle settings by tapping the cog in the upper right hand corner of the screen, then tapped More > Device > and turned “on” the Allow Installation of Applications from Unknown Sources”
  2. I uploaded the APK to an accessible folder on my website.
  3. Then, I went to that folder in the Silk Browser.
  4. Once the download was complete, I went to the download manager by clicking on the orange Kindle label in the top left hand corner of the screen.
  5. I then tapped on the name of the APK and it asked me if I wanted to install the app.
  6. I told it yes, at which point the app was installed (and is working quite nicely).

That was easy and now I can test my own app on my own device. I’m a happy early adopter!

Android App Web Color Prototyper Sneak Peak

A couple weeks ago, I alluded to an Android app I’m writing in conjunction with Mike Bryant. As requested by some friends wanting to know what the app does, it is meant to help web designers prototype color schemes quickly.  You set colors for various parts of a sample page and get to see an instant preview of what the colors will look like.  When you’re done, the app will email you the sample page (and more importantly) the CSS that creates the previewed color scheme.

Here’s a screenshot of the app in progress (codenamed WebIris) running on an Android 2.3 tablet emulator (which not-so-coincidentally is setup in a Kindle Fire configuration).

(Click for a larger view)

Remember, this is an early preview. Not all the bells and whistles are represented in this preview ;) We are targeting the app for Android 2.3 devices and beyond. Stay tuned!

Kindle Fire Uses Android 2.3 (API Level 10) Gingerbread as its SDK

I preordered a Kindle Fire a couple days after it was announced. At $200, I figure I couldn’t go wrong. Besides, Amazon has impressed me greatly with my e-ink Kindle: I’m sold on their ability to please.

One of the things that most excites me about getting a fire is that I can start developing an Android application. Sure, I could have been developing in an emulated environment, but I want to have a physical tablet to actually test my app on. The affordability of the Fire was the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.

Oddly, Amazon waited a bit before providing developers any details on the Fire’s development target. Earlier this month, they finally spilled the beans: The Fire is built on Android 2.3 Gingerbread (API Level 10). Since the Fire has stripped-down hardware, the use of the older API makes perfect sense. For the app I’m building, 2.3 provides more than enough functionality. If all goes well, I should be able to release my little app (more on that later) in a couple weeks.

Let’s not forget Dennis Ritchie

While Steve Jobs’ death has been covered extensively by the media, I think it’s important that the world learn about the death of a man whose contribution to the information age is so immense that it is beyond measure. On October 12, 2011, Dennis Ritchie was found dead in his home at the age of 70. Ritchie is the inventor of the C programming language and a co-inventor of Unix, the father of all modern operating systems. The man was, without a doubt, brilliant. His contributions are what every nerd should aspire to.

Why is the C programming language so important? Because C was the perfect bridge between man and machine. Before C was invented, programmers had to write the code that runs operating systems (and most everything else) in assembly, which is just one step above binary. Assembly, while powerful, is also extremely cumbersome. Writing even the most trivial of programs is very time consuming. Ritchie’s C language put the development cycle of operating systems and applications into overdrive, allowing programmers to crank out innovation quickly and easily. On top of this speed and power, Ritchie gave his newly-minted language away for free to universities, who were free to do with it as they wished. C has since been used on nearly every system imaginable, from super computers, to PCs, to Macs, to video game consoles.

Nearly every programmable device in existence today owes its ability to be useful to Dennis Ritchie. Without his brilliance and willingness to give that brilliance away, we would still be in the dark ages of Information.

An easy fix for iTunes 10.5 (x64) that won’t install on Windows 7 64 bit

I just downloaded iTunes 10.5 and tried to install it on my Windows 7 64 bit machine. What I got was an error message that said:

There is a problem with this WIndows Installer package. A program required for this install to complete could not be run. Contact your support personnel or package vendor.

The fix that allowed 10.5 to install correctly was very simple. Simply go to Control Panel > Uninstall a Program. Right-click on “Apple Software Update” and choose “Repair.” After that, iTunes 10.5 (x64) should install with no problems at all. Apparently the Apple Updater can get messed up and cause the new version not to install. Imagine that.

If only all Windows errors were so easy to fix!

Happy Birthday Super Nintendo!

August 23, 1991 is a day that would eventually change my life. It was on that day, 20 years ago, that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)was launched in the United States. I didn’t get one until that Christmas, however, if the system hadn’t came to be, I wouldn’t have so many good memories.

I had good times with the system playing alone, but more importantly, I had a blast playing SNES with a lot of friends and family that I’ll never forget.  Without a doubt, I probably spent more time with Jeremy Akers next to the SNES than anyone else. I’ll never forget the night we fought each other in Mortal Kombat 2 for 250 matches so we could unlock some character (either Smoke or Noob Saibot…who knows). It was a hoot. Jeremy also crashed at my house where we played Donkey Kong Country for several days when Christmas break was greatly lengthened by a big snow storm. We played other games together too, but those two stand out in my mind more than any others.

My uncle Duck’s boys and I had a ton of fun huddled around an SNES. The week the SNES came out, Duck picked one up for his boys. They invited me down a few days later where I actually got my first look at the SNES. James and Tim had beaten the first couple areas and had just unlocked the Top Secret Area. I remember going into the first ghost house and Tim says, very seriously, “He is so not ready for the ghost house…” He was right, but I did learn to fly in there. (I remember we eventually took a break to let Daniel play Ultraman so he wouldn’t tell on us and we’d have to quit!) For the next 3 Thanksgivings, we all sat in Granny’s back room in front of an 11″ TV and played the game du’jour. One year, it was Mortal Kombat (which we beat) and another year it was NBA Live ’94. We teamed up and beat a 48 game season to win the championship!

I can’t forget the summer my cousin Jennifer spent a lot of time at the house and we played Super Mario World like it was going out of style. One episode I remember vividly is when Jenn got all worked up over Star Road and swore several rather nasty oaths. My mom heard and made that noise she makes when she hears cursing. When mom walked off, we cracked up laughing.

The game I’ve probably played most in my life is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I love that game! I spent hours and hours hulled up in my room navigating Hyrule all by myself. I’ve probably beaten it from start to finish at least 10 times. (Thanks to my horrible spatial memory, its almost like a new experience each time. I know what’s in the game, but I usually have to wander around a bit to find everything. It’s the only advantage of being so forgetful.) The other game I probably played the most was Ken Griffey Junior Baseball. To this day, it is the funnest arcade-style baseball game I’ve ever played!

In case you can’t tell, I don’t think any other system will ever hold such a dear place in my heart.  Happy 20th Birthday SNES!

A PHP Script to automatically clean files affected by the the eval(gzinflate(base64_decode…) hack

In late April, my server got hacked. Most of my php files had code that looked like this placed at the top:

eval(gzinflate(base64_decode('DZZFssRYokOX... long string of gzipped-base64-encoded php code);

I’m not sure how the bad guys got in, but I changed all my passwords and updated all the software on the server. Then, like any obsessive programmer, I set forth making a script to clean up the mess programatically. My solution was a two-step process. I used GNU find command to find all my php scripts with the code “eval(gzinflate” in them. I chose to search by this code because I can’t think of too many legitimate reasons to do this, and it matched all the infections I found manually. The full command I used for this was:

find /full/path/to/public_html -name "*.php" -exec grep -li "eval(gzinflate" {} \;

This command finds all php files then uses grep to look inside each file for “eval(gzinflate”.

I copied the results of this command to a text file called fullInfected.txt .

After I had a list of infected files, I wrote a php script that’ll go through each file on the list, do a search, and remove all lines with the infected code in it. I saved the script in the same directory as my fullInfected.txt file. You can get that file (with a few sample supporting files) here: CleanEvalBase64_decodeHack script.

There are two variables that can be set at the top of the file: One for the name of the file with the list of infected files in it ($listOfFiles) and another for the text to search for ($findWhat). I uploaded the script to the server and ran it via SSH:

php clean.php

When the script runs, it will log a list of which files were cleaned.

This script is released as-is, with no implied warranty whatsoever under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Make a backup of your server before using this and test this very thoroughly on a small sample of infected files.

I’m sure there’s more efficient ways to do with with shell commands and/or regex, but I didn’t know how to do it that way. Good luck getting cleaned up!

Browsers, browsers, browsers!

Nerds of the world: rejoice! The browser wars are ablaze for the first time in over a decade. Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Apple, and Opera are duking it out, feature-for-feature and there’s no clear winner. For the record, I don’t want anyone to win because competition makes software better since developers have to work hard to keep and maintain their market share. While the four major players volley for our affections, Netizens all over the world win! As I mentioned in a recent post, most of what we do with computers is moving to the net. Therefore, the availability of quality browsers is a big deal for techies and Luddites alike.

The First Browser Wars

The First Browser Wars ended around 1997 with the release of Internet Explorer 5. At the time, there was IE, Netscape, and (to a much lesser extent) Opera. When Microsoft decided to unload its war chest in 1995 with the intent of destroying Netscape, it was a matter of time before the boys of Redmond stomped Netscape into the ground. In the span of 2 and a half years, the battle was over.

In 1997, I was just learning how to make web pages. I couldn’t have been happier that Internet Explorer was the winner since that meant I didn’t have to work so hard trying to make my pages look the same on both browsers.  I still tested my sites in Netscape Communicator, but IE was the only browser I really worried about. Life as a budding web designer was good.

My happiness was ill-founded, though, because without competition, Microsoft stopped updating Internet Explorer after the release of IE 6 in September 2001. It would be seven and a half years before Balmer and company decided to release a new version. During IE 6, there were security threats uncovered at least every couple months. While it was nice having only one platform to worry about, it was frustrating and scary to have to worry about security every time you visited a page. Opera never went away during this time, but it never gained much traction in the U.S. at the end of the First Browser Wars

The Second Browser Wars and Beyond

A spunky upstart named Mozilla arose from the ashes of Netscape after Netscape’s Gecko source code was released in 2000. In 2004, Firefox 1.0 was officially released. I honestly never thought Firefox would gain as much traction as it did, but it turns out, FF 1.0 was the scout that signaled the beginning of the Second Browser Wars.

Fast forward 7 more years since FF 1.0 was released and Google has entered the market with Chrome, which shares common roots with Apple’s Safari (via the Webkit engine). It’s apparent that all are scrambling for more market share if you consider that the browser version numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. While some of the version incrementing is for marketing purposes (because we all know higher version numbers mean a better product…), the browsers really are getting better from all the vendors.  Here’s my quick breakdown of the strengths of each browser:

  • Internet Explorer 9 – Microsoft has gone out of its way to make IE safer to use for everyday surfing. It automatically checks for phishing attacks, warns users if it detects so much as a mouse fart on a website, and integrates with MS Security Essentials. While it’ll take awhile to shed its reputation as the insecure kid on the block, Microsoft is trying hard to prove otherwise.
  • Firefox 5 – Firefox is my favorite because of its vast library of plugins, especially plugins that make life easy for web developers. Mozilla keeps making Firefox faster and has taken an aggressive stance toward security since version 3.5.
  • Chrome 12 – Google’s brainchild is the fastest kid on the block. It’s super clean interface and seamless updating architecture has appealed to millions since its debut in late 2008. Google is showing its serious about being the one and only browser folks turn to for their Internet needs.
  • Opera 11 – The underdog of the roundup, the Scandinavian wonder invented tabbed browsing in 1996 and continues to set the bar for standards compliance, and it manages to be incredibly fast as well. The only browser found on the Wii, Opera can also be found on PCs, Macs, iPod/iPad, and mobile phones. Opera is the most hardware-agnostic of the bunch.
  • Safari  5 – Admittedly, Safari is my least favorite, however, it is by far the best mobile browser in existence, as it renders pages on the iPod Touch and iPad perfectly. Safari is what all mobile browsers should strive to be.

I hope the Second Browser Wars rage on for a long time and we, the consumers of Internet goodness, continue to reap the benefits of the battle. Unlike the First Browser Wars, the current struggle is being fought on technical merit and security. Neither Microsoft nor anyone else can crush the competition strictly with wads of money. No matter who you choose as your browser, I wish everyone happy surfing!

Re-Register Apache and Mysql as Services After Moving Zend Server Directory to a New Computer

I recently got a new Toshiba A665-S5183X Core i7 laptop and I really love it.  The only thing about getting a new computer (especially if you’re a geek) is transferring files and settings from the old machine to the new one. I used Windows 7’s Easy Transfer to move over all the usual documents (pictures, papers, etc), and I also transferred about 15 GB of programs that are not registry dependent. One of the folders I transferred was my Zend Server CE installation. Zend Server includes the Apache Web Server as well as Mysql Server. I wanted the two installed as a service, but I didn’t want to have to reinstall, since I had customized many settings in several places in the installation and didn’t want to start over. So how hard is it to reinstall the two servers as a service? As it turns out, not hard at all.

First, open an Administrative Windows Command Prompt. The rest is as easy as follows.

Install Apache As a Service

cd into your Apache2 bin directory and type

httpd -k install -n “Zend-Apache2” -f “C:\program files (x86)\C:\Program Files (x86)\Zend\Apache2\conf\httpd.conf"

This command will install Apache 2 as a service named Zend-Apache2 in  your services.msc service control utility (where you can start/stop your Apache service). Additionally, it will tell the service to use the specified httpd.conf file (which can be anywhere you want). The service installer will even be nice enough to warn you of errors or warnings in your specified conf file.

Install Mysql As a Service

cd to your Mysql bin directory and type:

“mysqld” –install MySQL-Zend –defaults-file=”C:\Program Files (x86)\Zend\MySQL51\my.cnf”

As above, whatever the word you type after the install directive will be the name of your service in services.msc. The defaults file represents the path to your Mysql cnf file.

Happy web developing with Zend framework running as services on your new box!