How To Subscribe To a Podcast (Without iTunes)

I'm a contributor to a couple of podcasts, and I've appeared as a guest on a couple of others. Whenever I mention that fact to most people, the first question I usually hear is:

What Is a Podcast?

A podcast is like a cross between a radio show and a blog. It's an audio program that is published over the Internet like a blog is.

There's a broad variety of kinds and formats of podcasts. Some are short, some are long. Some are daily, others are annual. Some are pre-recorded and edited, others are recorded live on-air. Some are only audio, some come with a video version.

The one thing that all podcasts have in common is the way they're distributed: through RSS.

What's RSS?

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication". And it is really simple. The vast majority of blogs and other websites use RSS to publish their posts.

As a user, such as yourself, the way you use RSS is as a "web aggregator". It's a tool that allows you to bring all the new posts from your favourite websites into one place, sort of like an email inbox, that lets you  read them without having to visit each website individually.

To do that, you need an RSS reader - an application that you use to subscribe to RSS feeds, and displays them for you. Although there are a lot of RSS readers available, my favourite is Google Reader.

Just paste the address in the Subscribe box
You can subscribe to a feed in Google Reader by pasting the address of the website you want to subscribe to into the Subscribe box. Google Reader will find the feeds associated with that site, and you're away. If you are visiting a site with an RSS feed, and you see an orange RSS button somewhere on the page, clicking that button will take you straight to the feed you want, and you can just copy the address from your browser's address bar into Reader's "Subscribe" box, if you want to.

Look for the RSS logo.
You can sort your feeds into folders, and you can share the items you like directly to Google+.

(Most other feed readers work in much the same way, although not all of them are as easy to use as Google Reader)

How Do I Subscribe To Podcasts In Google Reader?

All you need to do is subscribe to the podcast's RSS feed. When the podcast's creators publish a new episode, it'll appear in your Google Reader with a little audio player box, so you can listen to it right there in your browser.

Listen in your browser or download the file.
If you prefer to download the file and listen to it later, there's a link to the original audio file right below the player box. Easy as that.

How Do I Listen To Podcasts On My Phone?

If you've got a smartphone, or other phone that allows you to play music, you probably already know how to get your music onto the phone. Podcasts are MP3 files, just like your digital music collection, so you can copy them to your phone the exact same way.

If you have an Android phone, there's an even easier way: Google Listen.

Google Listen
Listen is an app you install on your phone. It accesses your Google Account, and then creates a new folder in your Google Reader called "Listen Subscriptions". If you move one of your podcast subscriptions into that folder, Listen will automatically download new episodes and have them ready for you to listen to at your convenience.

You can easily manage how often it checks for new episodes, when it downloads them (you might want to tell it to only download via WiFi, or it'll cost you a fortune on mobile data charges), how many episodes to store on the phone and so on. It's simple, elegant and easy to use.

If you don't like Google Listen, there are plenty of other podcast apps available with more powerful tools, most of which work together with your Google Reader account.

Is That It?

Yup, that's all you need. If you have an Apple device (an iPod, iPhone or iPad) there's another way of subscribing to podcasts using iTunes. But since I don't use Apple products myself, you'll need to find instructions for that elsewhere.

If you'd like to subscribe to the podcasts I contribute to, click here to add them to your Google Reader.

If you have any questions, please drop them in the comments below. I'll do my best to answer them for you.


What Is Android?

As an Android fan, I get asked this pretty often, even moreso nowadays. People have noticed the Android billboards that Cell C have put up around town, but it's still not obvious what Android actually is, let alone what anyone might want it for.

What Is It?

Android is an operating system for mobile devices. Now before you go to sleep, let's explain that.

An operating system is a piece of software that runs on every computer, including the one you're using to read this on. Most desktop and laptop computers run the operating system made by Microsoft called "Windows". Computers made by Apple run a different operating system called OSX, and a few geeks use an operating system called Linux (which comes in many different flavours - the most popular of which is Ubuntu, made by Mark Shuttleworth's company).

Cellphones are computers too, and they also need operating systems. Most tablets (like iPads) are essentially giant cellphones, and use slightly modified versions of the same operating systems their smaller cousins use.

Phones and tablets made by Apple (iPhones, iPads and also some iPods) use an operating system called iOS. BlackBerry devices run the BlackBerry operating system, and Nokia devices could run one of several different operating systems, usually Symbian or Windows Phone (Microsoft makes aversion of Windows for phones too).

Android is an operating system for phones and tablets that isn't limited to one manufacturer. Like Windows, if you buy a smartphone made by a manufacturer other than those listed above, it's probably using the Android operating system (with a few exceptions).

Most of the devices made by manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, Sony, Motorola and LG run on Android.

Android is a version of the Linux operating system (the one geeks use on their computers) made by Google specifically for phones and tablets.

Why Isn't It Called A Google Phone Then?

That was a decision Google made early on in the development of the Android platform. They've made Android "open source", which means that any manufacturer can use Android on their devices for free, can change it how they like, and can even exclude all of Google's services from it if they want to.

The most popular Android devices do have the Google services built in though, and some of them will even have a little Google logo somewhere on the device, to show that Google themselves have approved it.

Why Aren't the Android Phones Called "Android Phones"?

That's another marketing choice. Each manufacturer chooses to brand their devices differently, and most don't see the need to reflect the Android name in their branding. Some do: Motorola brands some of its Android devices as "Droid", and a few others use clever names that hint at the Android-ness: the LG Optimus and the Nexus One for example.

But what that means is you can't walk into your cellular provider shop and ask them for "The Android phone." like you could for the iPhone. There isn't really one.

Galaxy Nexus
But every generation of new phones includes one put out by Google themselves, designed to be the "pure Google experience" device. These ones always have the word "Nexus" in the name, and their version of Android will always be unaltered by the manufacturer. The current one is called the Galaxy Nexus (called that because the device is actually made by Samsung, who brand their Android phones and tablets with the "Galaxy" name).

These Nexus devices are the closest you'll get to something resembling the Android phone.

Why Would I Want an Android Phone?

One of the most important benefits of choosing Android is choice. If you choose Apple, you get one iPhone - no choice. BlackBerry gives you four or five to choose from. Windows phone gives you one or two options in the South African market.

But Android gives you dozens of different devices to choose from, with a dizzying variety of options to suit what's important to you. Do you want a slick-looking device? Try HTC or Sony. Do you want the best specifications? HTC or Samsung. Want something inexpensive, but still a good smarthpone? Samsung or Hauwei. 3D camera and screen? LG all the way.

Android also offers variety when it comes to tablets. Instead of Apple's one iPad or BlackBerry's one Playbook, you can choose an Android tablet that suits you. There's a whole array from the Samsung Galaxy Note tablet-phone (sometimes called a "phablet") all the way up to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 - and that's just Samsung!

There's also clever things like the Asus EEE Pad Transformer that lets you turn your phone into a laptop!

But What About Apps?

You've probably heard that Apple devices have more apps available than Android devices. Once upon a time that was true, but no longer. Because Android is now outselling Apple just about everywhere, app developers are spending more time developing for Android than they are for iOS. Android also gives you several different app stores to choose from: Google Play, Amazon, Getjar and network app stores, as well as allowing you download apps over the web and install them manually. You can't do any of that on an Apple device - it's iTunes or nothing.

Apps optimised for tablets are still lagging behind a bit. Android tablets might be selling quite well here in South Africa, but overseas they're generally not doing very well compared to the iPad. That's changing, but it means that apps for Android tablets aren't always as nice as their iOS counterparts.

What About Data Plans?

The thing about smartphones is they need data.

In the South African market, BlackBerry still holds a corner on the market of unlimited on-device data usage. With the exception of one special offer by Nashua Mobile for a handful of Nokia devices, you can't get unlimited data for your non-BlackBerry device (either Android or iPhone) in South Africa yet.

That's probably why BlackBerry is still the top-selling smartphone in SA (despite the fact that it's not doing very well in most of the rest of the world).

But that will change. Mobile data is getting cheaper all the time, and it's just a matter of time before unlimited plans are extended to other devices.

What's All This About Honeycombs and Ice Cream?

You might have heard Android fans talking about things like "Gingerbread" and "Ice Cream Sandwich" and been completely baffled by it. That's understandable, but it's not really that complicated.

Every time Google releases a major update to the Android operating system (which they do once or twice a year) they give the update a code-name. The names they choose are in alphabetical order, and they're always named after a sweet treat, because that's more fun than version numbers and whatnot.
The Android Garden at the Googleplex

  • Version 1.5: Cupcake (the third version of Android to be released, but the first version to use the naming convention)
  • 1.6: Donut
  • 2.0: Eclair
  • 2.2: Froyo (short for "frozen yoghurt")
  • 2.3: Gingerbread
  • 3.0: Honeycomb (this version is only for tablets)
  • 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich (for phones and tablets)
As of right now, if your Android device is running anything older than Gingerbread it's pretty out of date. It's time to ask your manufacturer for a software update (which should happen automatically) or to start thinking about upgrading your device. It's not the end of the world, but some newer apps might not run properly (or at all) on your device.

Rumour has it the next version will be codenamed "Jelly Bean".

Should I Get An Android Device?

Yes, I would recommend it.

iPhones are a good choice too, even if they're technologically behind Android and a bit overpriced, they are beautiful. When you pay extra for that iPhone, you're paying for the Apple logo.

BlackBerry is also a good choice, especially for students. The unlimited data makes it worthwhile for a lot of people, even if the hardware is a year or two out of date.

If labels aren't a big deal for you, and you're okay with adding a data bundle to your cellphone account, Android is the way to go. You won't need to compromise on anything, not even the beautiful design.

Need help deciding on which Android device to get? Drop me a comment below!


Oh Noes! They Changed [Insert Service Name Here]!

I'm sure it's happened to you, probably recently: You're surfing the web, minding your own business, and you log into some or other website that you use all the time (like Facebook, Gmail or Twitter)... horror of horrors! They've changed it!

The world is upside-down, nothing makes sense anymore! How are you going to get things done? How will you know when your friends' birthdays are? How will you tend your virtual crops? Why, Internet? WHYYY?!?!

It's a reality of the Internet that the services we use online (especially the "free" ones) will change from time to time. It's not only necessary, it's a good thing. They're trying to make their services better for you. Yes, you.

The companies that offer those services usually make money using an advertising model, meaning that you "pay" for using the service by being exposed to ads down the side of the page. The better, nicer and more useful they can make their products, the more likely you are to spend time on their site, looking at those ads and, perhaps, buying something from time to time. They know that making you happy is good business for them.

Because of that, those sorts of products are almost never "finished" - they're perpetual works-in-progress, constantly adding new features, tweaking the interface and enabling you to do more and more things.

But that can sometimes be a scary thing. A familiar place where you spend a lot of your time is suddenly different - it's enough to make you feel nervous, overwhelmed or even completely lost. Here's how to deal with those changes.


Douglas Adams' words are very relevant here. When you log into Facebook and things are different, the first thing to remember is to keep calm - they've changed it for a reason, and things are probably a bit better now. Just give it a few minutes to explore, and you might just find that you like it better this way.

Another important thing to remember is that they usually don't remove features. If there was a button on the front page that you used all the time, it's probably still around somewhere. They might just have moved it to a drop-down menu or something in order to make way for other, more popular features.

I had a moment like this when Google+ changed its front-page layout a few weeks ago. I was always comforted by the little "Send feedback" button at the bottom-right corner of the screen. It meant that if I was having trouble with the site, I could send them some feedback, and they'd hopefully be able to fix it. I think I only actually used it once or twice, but it was good to know it was there.

Little button in the corner

But when the new layout came, I used it happily for a few days. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. I spotted a problem I was having with the site, and when I moved my cursor down to report the problem, I couldn't find the button!

I took a deep breath, and spent a few seconds looking around. I soon found that the button had been moved to a drop-down menu at the top of the page, along with a few other items that probably don't get used that often.

In a drop-down menu

These guys are very clever, and they monitor things like click-rates for various buttons. If a button that's taking up some valuable real-estate on an important part of the page isn't getting clicked very often (on average - some users probably use it more than others), it makes more sense for them to move it elsewhere to make space for something else.

What if they actually have removed a feature?

Although they'll seldom actually remove a feature, it does happen from time to time - a specific feature just isn't popular enough, or works in a way that it interferes with other, more popular features, and they decide to take it away. Or sometimes they change the way it works in an important way. It can be a bit frustrating if you were one of the few users who were using it for a specific purpose, but can't do it that way anymore.

When this happens, they'll seldom drop you in the deep end. Most of the time, when a feature is removed, they'll generally offer you a different way of accomplishing the same thing. It might take a little more work from you to do it, but it should, in theory, be possible.

This happened to me a month or so ago when Facebook made a change that made my life a little harder. I belong to a local community with a shared interest, and we have a Facebook Group that we use for various things. One of the things we used it for was to create Facebook Events and automatically invite everyone on the group.

About a month ago, Facebook removed that auto-invite feature. At first I was furious. How dare they take away this feature that I relied upon so heavily? It actually took me a few weeks to get over it (I don't use Facebook that often, so the time-scale for these things can be pretty long). I eventually saw that it was still possible for me to invite all the group members to the events we were creating, even if it wasn't possible to invite them all with one click.

For us, this change means we have to now manually invite everyone in the group who might want to attend, rather than spamming everyone in the group (about 300 people) most of whom aren't interested. So although it's an added burden for the group admins, it does make sense.

What if they change it so much that it's completely useless?

Sometimes that does happen. From time to time one of these changes will make it so you can't use the service for what you were using it for before. What do you do then?

The nice thing about the Internet is that it's really, really big. For any given service, there's probably at least one other service out there that does the same thing just as well, or better.

When Facebook changed their group events feature, the first thing I did was look for alternative services. I found two that seem to work pretty well: Meetup and Plancast. Neither works exactly the same way (and Meetup isn't free), but both are probably close enough to be useful.

A little bit of Googling (and usually a visit to LifeHacker's archives) should help you find an alternative that's close enough to what you need.

How do I protect myself from these changes?

Having learned the hard way, I think it's important to guard against becoming too invested in any given product or service that could, potentially, be changed or removed in the future. To that end, here are a few tips:

  • Check for portability. A good online service will provide a way for you to export your data any time you want. Google is particularly good with that sort of thing, and Facebook provides those services too. Ask a geek friend to check a service for "data portability" for you before you get too invested.
  • Don't spend too much time on it. If you find that you're spending more than 20 minutes customising or setting up a service or tool, that's probably 20 minutes you've wasted. Most of these things need you to customise them a little, but be wary: the more customisation a tool needs, the less likely it is to survive. Try to stick to the "vanilla" experience as much as possible.
  • Think like a geek: learn your way around. Spending a few minutes exploring the menus and settings screens will help give you a bit of insight into the logic behind a service's design. If you understand that logic better, it'll be that much easier for you to cope with changes intuitively.
  • Try new things. If you hear about a new product or service that does something similar to one you already use, give it a go. The more you try, the more alternatives you'll already know about if one of them is changed. Also, these services tend to work with each other (especially Facebook), so your exploration might reveal some fun or useful new ways of interacting with services you already use.
Dealing with change is not only part of the online experience, but it's part of the human condition. But if we're prepared for it, we can make the most of it.


Getting Organised in the Cloud: Google Calendar

I've found that the easiest way to get organised is by having a truly powerful calendar at my disposal. A good calendar should be everywhere you need it to be, customisable to your specific requirements and easy to access for yourself and anyone who needs to book time with you.

Generally speaking, on this blog I try to remain ambivalent on exactly which tools I recommend. In most cases, for any given problem, there are bound to be a variety of different tools that solve the problem in different ways. The choice of which one to go with depends largely on what your specific needs are. That's not the case today.

Today I'm going to break that rule and recommend a specific tool, Google Calendar, because I have yet to come across another tool that's as powerful and versatile. Nothing else I've seen comes even close.

What is Google Calendar?

As the name suggests, it's a personal calendar tool provided by Google. At first glance, that's all it seems to be - a calendar not unlike the one you would find in Microsoft Outlook.

A fresh, clean Google Calendar

If that's all it is, what's all the fuss about? Why do you need another calendar when you've already got one in Outlook (that's probably synced to your smartphone)? But when we take a slightly longer look, we start to see how powerful Google Calendar really is.

Google Calendar Is Everywhere

Google Calendar lives in the cloud, on Google's servers. Although the best way to interact with it is from the web interface at http://calendar.google.com, Google provides a suite of syncing applications that allow you to bring your Google Calendar into just about any other place you might want to work with it: your smartphone, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, iGoogle, embed it on a website or work with it through third-party services like Tungle.me. Everywhere you go, Google Calendar will follow you. And changes made anywhere else are synced back to the cloud, so all your other devices are updated as quickly as possible.

All of Your Stuff is in Google Calendar

If you're experienced with Microsoft Outlook, you'll be accustomed to the idea of keeping separate calendars. You might have one for your work appointments (that you share with your team) and another for personal stuff (that you wish you could share with your family or friends, but can't because they're not on your company network). Google Calendar takes this to the next level: you can create as many different calendars as you like. You can keep them private, share them with other people or even make them public for the world to see.

For example, I keep my own calendar for all my appointments, personal and professional. I've given full editing rights to my wife, so she can make appointments on my behalf if she wants to - by just adding them to Google Calendar on her end. I've also given a few close friends limited viewing abilities to the calendar, so they can see when I'm available for social outings and whatnot.

In addition to that, I've created a calendar for my Star Trek fan club. I've given viewing access for the calendar to all the club members, and I've nominated certain members who can create and edit events on that calendar too. We've also published that calendar on our website, so visitors can see what we've got planned.

One step further, I've created a calendar for my public appearances - if I'm scheduled to do a talk or attend a public function, I'll copy the event from my personal calendar to the public one, which is published on my personal blog. If people want to know where they can see or meet me, they need only look there.

All of these calendars are overlayed on top of each other in my Google Calendar view, colour-coded so I know which calendar a given event belongs to.

But there's more. In my Google Contacts I've added birthdays and wedding anniversaries to most of my contacts. By enabling the "Contacts birthdays and events" calendar, I can see them all overlayed on my Google Calendar view. Same goes for Google Tasks: if I've assigned a due-date to a task, it appears on that day in my calendar, giving me a daily to-do list.

And expanding beyond the Google-verse, I've added special calendars that display my Facebook and Plancast events, Twitter history, Foursquare check-ins and even my phone calls (clicking those links will take you to places where you can learn to add those things to your Google Calendar too). This I found very useful when I was filling in a weekly time-sheet - if I couldn't remember what I was doing at a given time, I could check back to see where I was and who I had spoken to around that time to help jog my memory.

All of that stuff combined gives me a super-useful, festive-looking calendar with tons of useful information I can glean at a glance. With a little tweaking, your Google Calendar could also look like this:

Pictured: productivity

Other Cool Stuff

Google Calendar has a bunch of cool tools to help you get and stay organised:

Interesting calendars - in addition to being able to create calendars that you can publish, you can also add public calendars other people have published. If you know the address for the calendar you want, you can just click the "Add to Google Calendar" button, otherwise you can browse the "Interesting Calendars" catalogue. The sorts of calendars you're likely to find include public holidays for your country, religious holidays (for you or your team members), sports team fixtures, weather forecasts and, my personal favourite, the Stardate calendar (created by Google's geeks in honour of the 2009 Star Trek movie).

Appointment slots - this tool allows you to book sections of your calendar as being "available", and then publish that availability on a dedicated web page. If you want to share your availability with someone, just send them a link to the page and encourage them to choose a slot that suits them. That appointment then gets added to your calendar (and theirs too, if they also use Google Calendar). It's a lot like the pre-existing service, Tungle.me. Tungle still does a slightly better job of it though, so it might be worth using that until Google Calendar's team catches up on Tungle's functionality.

Colour-coding - not only can you select a different colour for each of your calendars, but you can select a second colour for individual events, allowing you to catagorise them by type or importance.

Labs - Like Gmail, Google Calendar has a bunch of extra fun tools available in the Labs section of the settings. These are new, experimental tools that you can try out before Google makes them part of the official tool. Ones I particularly recommend are "Event Attachments", "Event Flair", "Smart Rescheduler" and "Who's My One-on-one With?".

How Do I Get It?

Google Calendar is a free service (yes, completely free) that comes with every Google account. Just go to the Google Calendar homepage, sign in with your Google username and password, and you're up and away. If you don't already have a Google account, you can sign up for one right there - it's also free. If your organisation uses Google Apps, you'll have a Google Calendar for that account too.

It can look a little confusing at first, but give yourself a chance to play around with what it can do. And don't be afraid to look through the excellent help pages for guidance. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to post them in the comments. I'll do my best to come up with an answer for you.

Happy Googling!


Syncing to the Cloud - What For?

In previous posts I've taken a look at using cloud computing services for fun and profit. Today I'd like to look at the whole notion of cloud computing, and exactly why we, as end users might want to use it.

(For those who aren't up to speed, "cloud computing" is a term used to describe services that store your files and other data on a remote server, and allow you to access it via the Internet)

Probably the biggest convenience-related aspect of cloud services is that all your different devices have the same data all the time.

"But I don't have lots of devices!" I hear you say. Maybe so. But if you have a computer for work, another for home and a cellphone, that's already three devices with data to be synchronized. If you're not syncing them directly, then you're probably doing it manually, by taking a phone number in your work address book, entering it into your phone's contact list, and then saving it again on your home computer. Sound familiar?

In the old days (like three years ago) your computer acted as the central hub for all the syncing. If you were syncing at all, your syncing situation probably looked something like this:

With your main computer in the middle, and all your other devices syncing off it. If you had a second computer, you would have to sync via a third-party cloud service, like Microsoft Exchange or something to keep your stuff updated.

But here's a hypothetical situation (that you may actually have come across): let's say you have a meeting set up on your second computer. While you're sitting at that computer, you change a detail (say the venue). A few minutes later you need to change another detail (say the time), but all you have with you is your cellphone, so you update it on your phone's calender.

So now what's happened? The second computer accepted the change and synced it up to Exchange. Exchange then sent the change to your main computer. So you go home that evening and sync your phone with your main computer... the computer tries to update the event in your phone's calendar, but it sees there's already a change in your phone's calendar (the time is different). It doesn't know how to resolve the conflict, so it creates a duplicate event. So now all your devices have two copies of this meeting, one with a changed time, the other with a changed venue. Weeks later, on the day of the meeting, how do you know which is the correct one?

There are three problems with this picture:

1. There are too many steps between different devices. More than one step leaves you open to errors.

2. Too many of the syncs have to be activated manually, usually by you actually plugging one device into another and pushing a button to make it happen. This means that the syncing between two devices at opposite ends of the chain could take hours or even days.

3. Everything is dependent on the Main Computer. If that gets stolen or damaged, the whole process breaks down, and you have to start again from scratch!

But everything's changed now. With the right devices and cloud-based services, you can now have a picture that looks more like this:

With all your devices syncing directly with the cloud, your central storage location is safely protected by a cloud services company. All your devices can sync directly with the cloud, updating it and each other via the Internet, and in real time! You don't even have to push a button to make the sync happen anymore (unless you want to) - as long as they're connected to the Internet, these things all sync themselves!

Plus you can add or take away devices as you see fit. Laptop gets stolen? No problem: just get a new one and carry on where you left off. Want to sync up your tablet computer, smart TV or car? No problem: just log them into your account and away they go.

And it's not limited to just calendars and contact lists anymore. Any of your content: documents, presentations, photos, videos, music, podcasts you name it! Even certain applications can be synced to the cloud!

In future posts we'll look at exactly how to get syncing set up between your devices and the cloud. Don't be scared though, it's a lot easier than it sounds. And keeping organised will be so much easier when you're there.


Latitude vs Foursquare

Latitude Check In
A while back I wrote about using location-based social networking tools for business purposes.

In that post I cited Google Latitude as an example of Live Location Transmission (a tool that sends an approximate location of your phone to your friends) and Foursquare as an example of a check-in based tool (that requires users to manually inform the service that they have arrived at a particular location).

About a week ago, Google released a new Check-in feature for Latitude, which effectively turns Latitude into a hybrid of both kinds of services. I've spent about a week playing with Latitude check-ins, and I thought it might be useful to do a comparison between it and Foursquare. Probably the best way to do that is to highlight where the two services are different.

The most glaring difference between them is their catalogue of locations you can check into.

The Database

Add a new venue in Foursquare
When using Foursquare, if you want to check into a place, but you can't find the place you're sitting in the Foursquare system, you can create it yourself. It allows you to either enter the address manually, or pick up your coordinates from your smartphone's GPS, give it a name and then catagorise it (is in, it's a gym, or a restaurant, or an office building or what have you). Once you've added the place to Foursquare, other users can check into it too.

The advantage is that you're not limited by the existing contents of the database. The drawback is that it relies on humans to create the content... and humans make mistakes. You'll soon see that many places are mis-spelled, named incorrectly or in the wrong location. Only the person who originally created the place can change the listing, and if they don't know how to do that, then you sit with bad data in the system.

Latitude works differently, however. It draws its list of locations from the Google Places database. While Places is an enormous database, it's not complete, so you'll often find (especially in South Africa) that the place you're looking for isn't available.

While the data that's in the system tends to be well managed and curated for accuracy and that sort of thing, adding new places to the catalogue is kinda difficult. (In South Africa it seems impossible to add a place unless you're the owner of it)


Since Foursquare launched two years ago, they've made a constant effort to make their service available on as many different smartphone devices as possible. As it stands, I've yet to find a smartphone that isn't supported by Foursquare in some way or another. There's even a Chrome extension that lets you check in from your desktop. Foursquare also allows other application developers to connect to their service, so you can check in from other apps like TweetDeck.

Latitude check-ins, being a brand-new service, is still only available in one place: Google Maps for Android. I have little doubt that it'll be supported in future versions of the Google Maps for Mobile applications for other smartphones, and maybe even for the Latitude desktop view, but as of right now they're not yet available.


A popular feature of Foursquare has been the ability to re-post your check-ins into your other social-networking sites. By default, it allows you to immediately post into Twitter and Facebook. If you've set up your syndication properly, you can send your posts from there into other services like LinkedIn or Google Buzz.

Latitude also allows you to send out your check-in alerts, but so far only allows you to send them to Google Buzz. This has its advantages, as you can configure Buzz to have your Latitude check-ins only appear in certain people's feeds, but the down side is that not everybody uses Buzz yet. If you want your check-ins to appear in Facebook or Twitter, you have to use some kind of third-party syndication app to make it work - which is a bit of a pain.

Unique Features

Latitude and Foursquare each have some features that have no analogue in the other. Let's look at a few of the most notable ones:


  • The gaming component: In addition to being a social networking tool, Foursquare also has a built-in game. Each time you check in you earn points, and you compete against everyone else in your city in a weekly contest. You also earn badges for your activity, and if you check into a given location more than anyone else, you become the "Mayor".

    With the exception of a few establishments who offer discounts and specials to their mayor, the gaming side of Foursquare is basically just for fun.
  • Tips and To-Dos: When you check into a place, you have the option of leaving a tip. Something like "Try the bacon and salami pizza!" for example. When someone else sees your tip linked to a place, they can add it to their "ToDo" list, and a reminder will pop up when they check in reminding them to try the bacon and salami pizza
  • Check-in History: Foursquare keeps a complete history of all your check-ins, and even allow you to export that history in a couple of different formats. My favourite is the way you can import it into your Google Calendar as an overlay - I've found it useful in reconstructing my movements for things like timesheets. (Latitude does keep a history of your movements and gives you some fun visualisations, but as far as I can tell your check-ins aren't included in that yet, and you can't export it to anything)
  • Ratings: Latitude check-ins live in the same place in the Google Maps for Mobile application as Google Hotpot - a service for sharing ratings and reviews with the world at large, and your friends in particular.
  • Automated Check-ins: If you frequently visit a particular place (your favourite coffee-shop, or your office building, for example) you can set Latitude to check you in automatically when you're in range on that place. This saves you the annoyance of having to thumb through the app checking in manually, and also saves you in case you forget to do it yourself.
    (I haven't tested this bit thoroughly yet, and I'm curious about how sensitive it is. For example, would it check you in if you're just driving past a place? I'll keep playing with it and let you know)

Wrap Up

All in all I'd say that Foursquare is probably still in the lead between the two - it's a more mature service with a more established user-base. However, if Google manage to solve the few problems with Latitude (and I predict they will), it will likely win out over Foursquare as the leading location-based social networking tool of 2011.

I've personally pretty much stopped using Foursquare now. I haven't removed the app from my phone yet though... I may change my mind again in the future.


Email in the Cloud

A few weeks ago I wrote about using cloud-based backups.

(Just to bring you up to speed: cloud-based services are tools that run via the Internet on a server hosted by somebody else like Google or DropBox)

Today we'll be looking at another very important tool that we should consider moving into the cloud: email.

Now some people may be a little confused about that. After all, email is part of the Internet right? Doesn't that mean it's already in the cloud?

Well yes, kind of, but not always.

If you're using your company email account, odds are it's not cloud-based. Most medium to large companies keep their own email server which runs on their local IT network. If you pop down and visit the boys in IT, they could probably show you the email server. When you access your work email from inside your office, you're probably accessing it over the local network, not the Internet.

Your email server probably looks like this

There are some good reasons for doing it this way, mostly so that your email server (which is probably running Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino or something similar) can talk directly to the other servers on your network and exchange information with them freely.

If you use the email account your Internet service provider (ISP) gave you, that's not quite cloud-based either. Their email server will likely sit in a server room with all their other various servers. When you connect to that server, you're doing it through your service provider's network, not technically through the Internet.

In both these cases if you've set up your laptop or smartphone to connect to that email account, that connection will generally happen over the Internet, so I suppose you could say that they're cloud-based in a way, but that's not really the kind of thing we're talking about here.

So What Are We Talking About?

If you've been on the Internet for a while, in that time you've probably come across (and maybe even used) two services: Hotmail and Gmail. They are the leading cloud-based email providers. In both cases you can only connect to these services via the Internet, and therefore the cloud.

But Why Would I Want That?

One thing you've probably noticed with your work or ISP email service is that there tends to be a fair amount of down-time. It may go down for hours, even days at a time during which you're stuck without email. The reason for that is that your company or ISP has a relatively small staff of engineers and technicians, and they're tasked with keeping an eye on a bunch of different servers at the same time. Not only that, but they often can't afford "fail-over" servers (backup servers that take over immediately if the main server goes down). So when there's a problem, you usually have to wait for those techies to fix it, which will sometimes take a while.

Proper cloud-based mail providers aren't limited by that. Gmail and Hotmail have colossal server farms dedicated to nothing but provide their email service. If one server, or even one whole datacentre, goes down, there are others that pick up the slack and keep providing the service with little or no interruption to you.

The redundancy these guys use is so robust that it takes a pretty rare and severe problem to cause any real interruption of the service. These things do happen, but not often. In 2010 Gmail recorded an average of 7 minutes' down time per month. Just to give you an idea, that's 46 times more reliable than your average Microsoft Exchange server.

Cloud Storage

As is the case with cloud-based backup tools, cloud-based email stores all of your old emails on their server, which means you can access it from any computer. And since Hotmail and Gmail offer you quite a lot of storage space, you can keep a much longer history of emails than you could with your corporate or ISP email account. So much so that you will probably never have to delete an email (Gmail didn't even have a delete function at first... they only introduced it later because the users really wanted it).

Gmail in particular puts that extra server capacity to work in a number of ways for you, one of which is the ability to send much larger attachments than with other services. You can now send attachments up to 25MB in size via Gmail (for context, your average Word document is less than 1MB).

But I Like Outlook!

If you've been using Microsoft Outlook or some equivalent email application for a long time, you've probably grown accustomed to it. Although the web interfaces for Gmail and Hotmail are quite intuitive, some people just don't like having to change to a new application to do the same old thing.

Fortunately both Gmail and Hotmail allow you to connect up to your Outlook or other email clients, so you can use your email the way you've always done it and still be working in the cloud! Of course there are limitations - you'll still need to log into the Gmail or Hotmail website to search your archives for very old messages, but you probably won't need to do that often anyway.

(Connecting your Gmail or Hotmail to Outlook can be a bit tricky. Although there are helpful guides on how to do it, you might want to ask your local IT-savvy person to help you with it.)

But I Have Too Many Email Accounts!

If you've been online for a while, odds are you've accumulated quite a few different email accounts over the years, many of which you might still be using. One of the advantages of an application like Microsoft Outlook is that it lets you plug in a number of separate email accounts into one application.

Fortunately Gmail lets you do the same thing. Gmail has connectors that let you link up to your Yahoo Mail account, and both Gmail and Hotmail have a built-in POP3 client (POP3 is an email protocol that's supported by most email servers) that let you pull your various different email accounts into your Gmail or Hotmail Inbox and archive. Unfortunately they don't yet support Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino email accounts - for those you'll still need to use your corporate software.

But I Use Email on my Smartphone!

Gmail for Android
No problem. Most smartphones will allow you to connect multiple email accounts just like Outlook does, so you can use Gmail or Hotmail alongside your work email account on the same device.

In addition, most smartphones also have Gmail and Hotmail apps available that allow you to send and receive emails, as well as search your vast archive right on your mobile device.

So How Much Does All This Cost?

Nothing. That's right, it's free. You "pay" for the service by looking at the ads on the page, but you don't even have to buy anything.

Both Hotmail and Gmail have corporate equivalents that allow you to have your whole company, school or other organisation using cloud-based email instead of a local server - and those generally aren't free. But they are competitively priced, and worth considering if your company has had trouble keeping its local email server up.