Monthly Archives: November 2007

‘Tis The Season to

Black Friday, the perennial classic day of Christmas shopping and crowd control, is almost upon us which means I'll be battening down the hatches, pulling up a warm mug of spiked egg-nog and doing the bulk of my holiday shopping online. is usually my go-to retailer for everything purchased online but this year I'm going to do something slightly different, instead of first going to Amazon I'm going to start at, which in turn gets me right back over to Amazon with a bit of giving along the way. Huh?

The short version is that if you're going to be doing any online shopping this season make your first stop. You pick a non-profit you want to help out and then search one of the many supported stores, including Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Apple Store,, eToys, NewEgg. Once you find something you want you are redirected to the retailer's site and do your normal Amazon (or whatever store you picked) thing, at the normal discounted price, the normal store shipping, safety and security. Only difference is that now you've made a little extra money for a constantly under-funded and overworked organization and hopefully warmed your heart.

The long version is that at it's core is a way to donate to charities and other non-profits (NPO's to those that like to sound in the know) without much more effort than indulging in the wonderful past-time known as shopping. They achieve this by a very clever use of the various affiliate programs that online retailers offer, such as Amazon, eBay and many more. Most affiliate programs offer a commission for every purchase that you send their way and often increase the commission based on how much money you helped them generate. Most individuals or NPO's can't generate enough traffic to push their commission percentage past the base rate and so don't usually see much return and that's where steps in. acts as a single affiliate helping to pool all the purchases, so while a lone NPO may only have a couple of purchases a month Giveness takes the purchases of all the NPO's signed up and those determine what the commission rate is, helping to push it past the usual meager base rate which in turns means a much bigger commission for the NPO than they could usually get on their own.

Oh, besides just being an amazing way to shop and help out Giveness is also a social network, with support for blogs, messages, comments, sharing videos, RSS feeds and recommending and reviewing fav products. They have a very cool widget for sharing your recommended products and also sponsoring your chosen NPO. All wrapped up in a clean web 2.0 UI.

I'm not the only one that thinks Giveness is a great idea either. Amazon has featured them as a success story, so has The Wall Street Journal (back then they were known as Givezilla) as well as others.

The catch here of course is that the system only works if people use it and if people actually buy stuff. So… go buy some stuff! Christmas is the perfect season to both avoid the nightmare of malls while doing some giving along the way. Great thing about Giveness is that it doesn't actually cost you anything to give plus you still get all the same great deals, discounts, shipping, rates and selection your normally do.

Updated ZuneKeys

Awhile back I wrote a wee little Delphi application to mimic WinAmp’s Global Hotkeys in the Zune software, call ZuneKeys. With the new Zune software out I had to update ZuneKeys to work with it so if you’re one of the three people that actually like global hotkeys go ahead and grab the new version from the above links.

For nerds that care I had to change the window class I was searching for from “WMPlayerAppZune” to “UIX Render Window”. Long Zheng over on istartedsomething has some more interesting bits about this whole “UIX” business.

I Heart/Broken Heart Zune v2

Being both an early Zune adopter as well has having been critical of some of the v1 features it’s only fair I weight in on the v2 firmware and software and see how it compares.

Firmware / Device UI

The new interface on the device is clean, stylish and functional and after a little readjustment it’s definitely an improvement on what was already a great experience. The navigation sounds are a little different, the menu style has been brought in-line with the rest of the brand, podcasting has it’s own little home and there are little improvements to navigation and song management that make the entire device experience simple and fun to use.

The best new features are wireless sync, which can either be triggered manually or automatically if it’s docked, and the ability to resume songs which is important not only for long podcasts but audiobooks as well.

Being able to sync as soon as I come in the door means I’ll have the latest podcasts even if I’m just stopping by home quickly before heading out again. It also prevents me from getting sucked into my computer which happens all too often when I’m just going to “quickly” sync before taking a bike ride and before I know it I’ve wasted an hour fiddling on my computer and my bike ride gets pushed to the side.

I hadn’t even attempted to listen to an audiobook on my Zune for the last few months because of the v1′s spotty support of paused tracks. Nothing takes the joy out of an audiobook like having to spend 5 minutes hunting for where you last left off and thankfully the v2 firmware gives us the ability to resume tracks from where you left off.

So, adopting the new rating system I heart the new Zune firmware.


The new software takes a less is more approach, stripping away features in an effort to bring the library browsing and music playing experience into sharper focus and for the most part it has worked smashingly. In terms of style and experience the software blows away iTunes, Windows Media Player or really any other media application. Usually media applications look like nothing more than overblown database browsers and the “creative” is lost in the whole experience.

This has come at the cost of standard media library features though, such as auto playlists, the classic 5 star rating system, ID3 editing and customized views of your music. This will probably create the biggest schism amongst users as it can be jarring for the power user that uses all of these features but for the average consumer I doubt they’ll even notice the features are gone.

What’s been interesting about the loss of these features is an awareness of how I did or didn’t use them. For example, a song’s genre has been greatly de-emphasized, not even appearing in the main ‘browse’ view, and at first this seemed like a glaring lack but it was also a relief. I’ve agonized over how to classify certain bands, are they punk, swing, folk, rock, metal? Usually I’ll either dump them in a generic ‘rock’ category or change the genre three or four times over a month and still not be happy. I end up with either a few huge genres or a ton of small specialized ones thus defeating the genres use.

Another “less is more” example is the new rating system of Unrated/Heart/Broken Heart. With the old 5-star system I found I’d change my rating system over the years, at one time 2 stars meant “I had to be in the right mood” but then it became “this song sucks” at which point I had to ask myself why I was keeping the track. Same with five star songs; songs that were 5-stars one week turned into 4 or even 3 as I got to know the song or 3 star tracks turned into 4 or 5 as an album grew on me. Ironically with all this song rating I never actually used the ratings themselves, except they looked pretty in the software.

Visualizations are for the most part gone, though there is a very cool “wall of album art” mode as well as a very subtle “bleeding” effect on the bottom of the main playing area that is very cool. I’ve never been into visualizations so the loss of them doesn’t even show up on my radar but I’m sure some people will miss them.

This doesn’t mean “less is more” has worked for everything though. The loss of a solid mechanism to find missing album metadata or edit the ID3 tags is a big bummer and I discovered just how much I was using the auto playlist feature to manage my syncing. Compared to WinAmp, Windows Media Player or iTunes the v2 Zune software is going to feel downright naked in terms of ways to view your library and customization but what is there is done very well.

So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the v2 features and feel like there is finally a solid base for the Zune team to build on now that they truly own the experience. I do miss some features and I really hope they add in new ones faster than just yearly or bi-yearly updates but for the most part I find it much improved over the old skinned WMP.