Macworld Expo is upon us, so we’ll be slogging through the crowds this week to gawk at the latest from Apple and others. In the meantime, we have money and music on our minds. First, Adam explores the PayPal person-to-person payment service and laments its lack of utility for micropayments. Then Travis Butler sings the praises (and some blues) about the Nomad Jukebox MP3 player. Also, Palmtop Publishing has posted a Macworld show guide for Palm handhelds.
Macworld Expo Pocket Show Guide Returns — After an involuntary and unfortunate modification for last year’s Macworld Expo NY, the free Macworld Expo Pocket Show Guide from Palmtop Publishing has returned in full, complete with exhibitor listings, booth locations, and a floor map. There’s also a schedule of events and show and conference hours, organized by day and track. If you’re attending Macworld Expo in San Francisco and have a Palm OS handheld, I strongly encourage you to get this tiny utility (it’s a 32K download and takes up only 67K on your handheld). [ACE]
In all the fuss over the rise and (seeming) fall of commerce on the Internet over the last few years, I never saw significant movement toward micropayments, which many people (including myself and Jakob Nielsen) consider the necessary evolution of payment schemes on the Internet. The idea behind micropayments is simple: as a sustainable business model for Web content, imagine pages with interesting content costing one cent or less (so little that you pay attention only to the aggregate amount over a month, just as with your electric bill or telephone bill). Unfortunately, there remain a number of barriers to adoption of micropayments, not the least of which is a payment service that would accept and aggregate payments and disburse them appropriately.
Although it will undoubtedly be several years before micropayments have a chance (Jakob has been revising his predictions forward for some time now), we’re starting to see some payment services gaining the level of popular acceptance that would help make micropayments possible in the future. Based on sheer community size – which is all-important in person-to-person transaction situations like payment services – the leader seems to be PayPal.
Greenbacks Online — At its heart, PayPal is dead simple – it enables you to send or receive money via email. It’s quite a bit more complex behind the scenes, of course, but using email makes PayPal easy to understand.
PayPal offers three types of accounts, Personal, Premier, and Business. Personal accounts are completely free but are more limited than Premier and Business accounts, both of which offer additional features and charge small percentages for receiving money, mass payments, and daily payment sweeps from PayPal to your bank account. It’s easy to choose which account to use. If you’re an individual and aren’t participating in ecommerce on a regular basis, a Personal account is right for you. If ecommerce is the backbone of your business, you need either a Premier account (for individuals) or a Business account (for businesses).
To send money, you must first sign up with PayPal, which is a simple process of filling in your name, email address, and retyping a set of graphically displayed numbers that help increase the security of the process (since a program couldn’t do it easily). You then receive email with a link to click to confirm your email address.
It’s easy in this age of Internet paranoia to see PayPal as encouraging you to enter your bank account to enable future shenanigans, and if you’re uncomfortable with doing so, there’s no need. If you assume that PayPal is a legitimate business at all (and if not, why work with them to begin with?), though, such concerns don’t hold water. PayPal isn’t alone in the payment processing field, and they have a tremendous vested interest in making their service as safe and reliable as possible – anything else is corporate suicide. When you link your PayPal account to your bank account, that increases the trust level of the entire system (that’s why PayPal refers to the linkage as "verifying" your account).
Misrepresenting identity is easy on the Internet, and stealing a credit card number isn’t all that difficult, but getting past PayPal’s bank account verification scheme would be hard. After you enter your bank account number, PayPal deposits two small amounts under a dollar into your account, and to verify your account, you have to find those amounts on your statement and enter them into PayPal’s secure verification page. If a miscreant had all the information necessary to spoof your account with PayPal, you’ve got bigger problems than just PayPal, so the likelihood that everyone is above board increases with the addition of verifiable information like the bank account (international users undergo a similar verification approach using the credit card statement).
Whether or not you go through the bank account verification procedure right away, once you’ve linked your PayPal account with a source of money, you can send money by filling out a simple Web form with the recipient’s email address, the amount, and a few other bits of information. One note: there’s a confusing pop-up menu asking what type of transaction you’re performing – avoid "Quasi-Cash" when using a credit card for the source of funds since it could result in cash advance fees. PayPal then acts as a trusted third party and transfers the money from your PayPal account (withdrawing from your credit card or bank account if necessary) and deposits it in the recipient’s account. If the recipient doesn’t yet have a PayPal account, they can either set one up (a viral marketing approach that’s worked well) or request that PayPal send them a check immediately. The person to whom you’ve sent money never knows any information about your bank account or credit card; they just know PayPal gave them some money and said it was from you.
To retrieve money from your PayPal account, you can either request a check, which take a few weeks to arrive, or, if you’ve linked in your bank account, have PayPal do an electronic funds transfer into your account, which happens immediately. Of course, you can also leave money in your PayPal account, at which point that money is used preferentially for money you send out. If you’re bothered about the loss of interest, you can sign up to have your PayPal balance invested in a money market fund that earns (at the moment) 5.2 percent interest.
The Check’s in the Email — PayPal doesn’t cut the mustard for micropayments, because the minimum charge for Premier and Business accounts to receive money is 30 cents for transactions under $15 (transactions over $15 incur a small percentage charge as well). But PayPal has been tremendously popular for online auctions, where it’s a lot easier and more reliable than sending checks around. Plus, it eliminates the age-old "you go first" problem of whether you should pay first or the seller should send the product first.
Where I find PayPal most compelling, though, are in small transactions among friends. How often have you gone out to dinner with friends and had to do complex mathematical calculations to determine what everyone owes, especially when some people declare they don’t have enough cash and borrow from others temporarily. With PayPal, instead of maintaining complex tabs with your friends ("You bought me lunch last Thursday, but I still owe you for the ball game the week before"), you can swap money back and forth in the exact amounts necessary. It’s also great for small transactions that would probably otherwise be lost in the noise, such as when I mailed a couple of old books to a colleague with whom I’d worked on them. Although he offered, I couldn’t in good conscience charge him for the books, which I’d gotten for free from the publisher, so he just paid for the shipping via PayPal.
The main downside of this use for PayPal is that you have to remember to go into the Web site and send the money (you can also bill someone via PayPal to remind them). A while back, PayPal had some Palm software so you could beam money from one Palm handheld to another. Unfortunately, although the thought of being able to beam money is tremendously compelling (imagine just walking up to a cash register and tapping a Beam button on your handheld to check out), it was apparently too difficult for PayPal to maintain the software. Now, if you want mobile access to PayPal, you’ll need a Web-enabled cell phone, which can access PayPal’s Web site.
Although I haven’t seen shareware authors using PayPal for shareware payments yet, I see no reason they couldn’t. PayPal has a Web Accept feature that lets you accept payments on your Web site, but it doesn’t seem particularly flexible or tailored to shareware the way services like Kagi are, though it does take a smaller percentage off the top. Nonetheless, if you run a business that needs to take payments online, it’s hard to beat PayPal’s simplicity, not to mention the large number of people who have PayPal accounts for online purchases.
Newly available on PayPal is support for payments between people in different countries. As of 10-Nov-00, people in 26 countries (see the link below for a list) can now sign up for PayPal and send money back and forth with other PayPal users, no matter where they are. Needless to say, due to the increased costs of converting between currencies and other aspects of moving money around the world, sending money from a credit card or withdrawing money from PayPal to a credit card (only Visa at the moment) incurs a 2.6 percent plus 30 cent charge. For frequent use, it probably makes sense to keep a fairly high balance in your PayPal account to avoid the credit card charges. Enough of the details are slightly different for international users that it’s well worth reading through PayPal’s International Account Help Center.
The First One’s Free — In the past, PayPal has worked hard to sign up new users by paying $5 referral fees. Those are still available, but only if the referring account is a Premier or Business account, and only if the new user performs a slew of actions, including verifying a bank account, depositing $100 into PayPal via electronic funds transfer, and signing up for the money market account. Similarly, though I haven’t been paying close attention the entire time, my impression is that PayPal has begun instituting more fees and generally trying to move from a community building approach to turning a profit. I’m sure PayPal was burning through venture capital, and in today’s business environment, such tactics don’t fly for long.
I have no inside information regarding the health of PayPal’s business, and I wouldn’t leave thousands of dollars in my PayPal account, but I would encourage you to check out PayPal’s service. Sending small amounts of money around the Internet via PayPal is so much easier than relying on the more cumbersome approaches of yesteryear. Advances like these are, in my opinion, well worth embracing because they have the capacity to change our lives in small but important ways. My experience is that it’s a bit tough to use PayPal the first few times, but after that, it becomes almost second nature. I even have friends who have started using it as a verb, as in "Shoot, I forgot my wallet. Can you pay for the groceries and I’ll paypal it back to you when we get home?"
I’ve set up a TidBITS PayPal account (using our main public email address of <[email protected]>), so if you’re interested in trying out PayPal, you can use the link below so we receive the $5 referral fee, should you manage to jump through all of their hoops. And I plan to keep a close eye on PayPal to see if they ever change things so they could be used effectively for micropayments.
The MP3 format is revolutionizing our music-listening lives. Unfortunately, for those of us on the go, carrying the revolution along has been a problem – practical portable MP3 solutions have been some time in coming.
If you already lug a laptop, it’s an option – but a heavy one with limited battery life, and your MP3s must compete with your work for limited disk space. You could burn your MP3 collection onto CD-R discs to play on the laptop (and I have); but that often leads to disc-swapping, since the song you want on the spur of the moment is invariably not on the CD-R you have loaded. The laptop approach can work well if you’re already carrying the machine with you, but it’s overkill if all you want is a portable way to listen to music.
Dedicated portable MP3 players have bred like rabbits in the last year or two, with even large retail outlets like Best Buy offering several different models. Almost all use solid-state memory for storage, which has several advantages: no moving parts, small size, no possibility of skipping, and low battery consumption. A year ago, I was given a Rio 500 (which I still think is the best memory-based player), and overall I’ve loved it. However, I probably would not have bought it for myself, because memory-based players have a significant disadvantage: flash memory is expensive, so the playing time of these devices is limited (typically just 30 minutes to 2 hours). I’ve been an apologist for my Rio in the past, but its playing time is a serious handicap for me.
Another portable option is the crop of newly arrived CD-MP3 players, which are essentially portable CD players that can play CD-Rs containing MP3 files. Starting at around $100, they’re cheaper than most memory-based players, and at 11 hours per CD-R you can listen to music for far longer time periods. Unfortunately, the early units have a lot of rough edges. Moreover, since they’re essentially CD players with a hugely expanded per-CD capacity, they don’t enable users to organize and manage their music collections on the fly. And as I noted before, putting your music collection on CD-Rs can result in frustrating disc-swapping. Nevertheless, I probably would have bought one eventually, if I hadn’t received a new toy: the Nomad Jukebox from Creative Labs.
Creative has produced some well-regarded memory-based MP3 players with previous Nomad models. On paper, the Jukebox looks ready to top them all. Instead of expensive flash memory, it uses a relatively cheap 6 GB laptop hard disk, offering up to three and a half days of continuous music. This is by far the biggest attraction of the Jukebox – while 6 GB isn’t enough to hold my entire collection, it is enough for my vocal favorites and a sizeable chunk of instrumental songs. Since it owes its lineage to the computing side of the fence and can read ID3 information tags on MP3 files, the Jukebox can better organize and present information about my music (like sorting tracks based on artist or album) than the CD-MP3 players. Finally, as a product from a major manufacturer (Creative also makes the SoundBlaster line of sound cards and other PC peripherals), one could expect a well-designed and polished consumer product. How well does the Nomad Jukebox live up to that potential?
Queue It Up — The Jukebox’s playing function is built around a play queue; songs are added to the play queue from the various Library search and organization features. The Library has four categories for accessing songs: Playlists, Albums, Artists, and Genres (Rock, Jazz, etc. – all pulled from the ID3 tags). With Albums, Artists, and Genres, you burrow through lists of sub-categories (for example, choosing Genres, then SoundTrack, then Cowboy Bebop OST 1; or Artists, then America, then America’s Greatest Hits) until you reach the individual song you want. You can also use the Search feature to jump directly to a spot in the list, which can help with long lists. Unfortunately, there is no apparent way to get a simple alphabetical list of songs; you must go through two or three levels to see individual songs, then move up a level or two and back down if you’re picking songs from different albums. This is especially bad if you mostly pick up a few songs from each album, as I do, instead of including entire albums. For that reason, I find playlists the best way to work with the hundreds of songs you can load on the Jukebox. If you have Macromedia Flash installed, Creative has a Flash demo for the Jukebox on their Web site that gives you an idea how this works.
There are essentially two ways to create playlists. Once you have filled the play queue, you can save it as a playlist; however, filling the play queue manually is sufficiently tedious that I seldom bother – particularly since there’s a better method. The Jukebox comes with SoundJam MP, one of the best MP3 encoders and players, and SoundJam sports a plug-in architecture for controlling MP3 players (most, if not all, of the Mac-compatible MP3 players use it). The SoundJam plug-in, in addition to loading songs onto the Jukebox, enables you to build playlists – and thankfully lets you work with the entire alphabetical list of songs at once, in addition to organizing by Artist, Album or Genre. Thus, I find the easiest way to play songs is to use SoundJam to make either short, focused playlists I can load into the play queue or long catch-all playlists that the Jukebox can play in random order.
The Speed of Sound — On the plus side, the player sounds great. I’ve listened to it through the wrap-around headphones that came with it, the bud headphones from my Rio (which tend to sound better), a set of amplified speakers, and plugged into my home stereo; to my ears, the sound quality is excellent on all four. Despite using a hard disk (a moving part), I couldn’t get the Jukebox to skip from shaking it, thanks to a large RAM playback buffer. And unlike Mac-based MP3 software, I couldn’t get the Jukebox to skip from program activity, like switching the system settings, searching for songs, going from the song list to individual song details and back.
Unfortunately, performance in other areas was slow, sometimes downright glacial. Turning it on – or waking it up after an automatic sleep – takes a minute and a half on my filled Jukebox before it’s ready to play. This is an eternity in contrast to the instant-on of my Rio – compare the lengthy wake-from-sleep of a PowerBook to the instant-on of a Palm, multiply by three, and you’ll get the idea. I suspect a large chunk of this time is spent reading the song catalog for display: switching to the list view of a play queue with 860 songs takes a full 45 seconds, while switching to a queue of 50 songs is almost instantaneous. In addition, there is sometimes a lag stopping a song or switching songs, and the display often lags behind the player by 1 or 2 seconds. None of these are show-stoppers, but they make using the player considerably more tedious.
Battery life is also a disappointment. The Jukebox includes two sets of four high-capacity 1600 mAh NiMH AA batteries, notably stronger than most over-the-counter NiMH batteries – and the extra capacity is necessary, because even the stronger batteries last for only about four hours of continuous play. The Jukebox can charge NiMH batteries when it’s plugged in with the included AC adapter, but very slowly – four hours with the player off, and a long 10 hours with the player running. I’m glad Creative used standard AA batteries instead of a custom battery pack – I can charge AA batteries with the NiMH charger that came with my Olympus digital camera, and buy alkalines if all the batteries run out away from AC power – but Creative needs to work on power consumption and charging speed.
Sound Fiddling — The Jukebox doesn’t just play music as-is. Creative heavily promotes their audio-enhancement technology, grouping several features under the EAX label: Parametric EQ, Spatialization, Environment, and Playback Speed. Unfortunately, although these features provide noticeable effects, I don’t think they improve the sound, and most of them strike me as gimmicks.
The Jukebox’s volume range is a bit less than I’d like. The scale runs from 1 to 20; however, although 8 to 10 is a comfortable listening range in a quiet room, my office at work needs around 15, and even at 20 the Jukebox is too quiet for me to use comfortably with headphones in a moving car. I’d like to see more volume at the high end, although I suspect higher settings would further reduce battery life.
Finally, there are operational glitches I’d classify as bugs.
When the Jukebox goes to sleep automatically, it doesn’t save your position in the play queue. This can be annoying if you have a long play queue and didn’t manually put the Jukebox to sleep since the start of the queue. Sleeping the Jukebox manually doesn’t always work either; if the battery level is "Low or No Battery" (which can be as high as 60 percent charge, in my experience), it still loses your position in the queue.
The Jukebox has two "mix play" settings: Random, which does "continuous random play," and Shuffle, which is supposed to play each song once in random order. Unfortunately, Shuffle does not work as I’d expect. For the office, I have an 860 song playlist that provides background music, and I want it randomized to avoid too-frequent song repeats. Shuffle seems to be made for this; I would expect it to go through the entire play queue through once without repeating a song, as long as the queue is not cleared or modified. Instead, over a two-week period of playing time, I have some songs that come up fairly frequently, and others that almost never come up. I haven’t used Random as much, but it appears to mix the songs more evenly. My guess is that Shuffle resets its songs played list whenever the Jukebox goes to sleep, and something in its only-play-once algorithm keeps it from randomizing as well every time it restarts.
This list of problems makes the Jukebox sound worse than it is. On reflection, it does perform a competent job of the core task of playing MP3s. Some problems and annoying quirks may be inherent in dealing with thousands of MP3 files; however, I’d have preferred Creative had improved the speed and fixed bugs instead of offering gimmicks like EAX.
Interface and Design — Physically, the Nomad Jukebox is an example of polished industrial design. The case is about the size and shape of a portable CD player, presumably for familiarity, and I find the gently curved design a pleasure to look at and handle. It’s solidly built, and the controls are conveniently located. In addition to the usual Play/Stop/Next Track/Previous Track buttons, the Jukebox has a pair of Up/Down buttons, for scrolling through lists; dedicated buttons for jumping to the library and system setting functions; and a set of "soft" buttons, labeled by the LCD display, which perform various context-sensitive functions. All of the buttons feel sturdy, and you can feel a comfortable click when you press them.
My only serious quibbles with the physical design are the too-large size (the laptop hard drive at its heart is smaller than a pack of cigarettes) and the small LCD display (in song lists it shows only 6 lines of 25 characters – not enough for managing the number of songs the Jukebox can hold).
Unfortunately, the interface doesn’t quite live up to the industrial design. For instance, the Jukebox lacks a dedicated Pause button. In my experience, most players without a Pause button re-use the Play button: press once to play, press again to pause. On the Jukebox, you press the Stop button instead: press once to pause, press a second time to stop. Although there’s a logical argument for this usage, the other convention seems more common and I’d have preferred it. There are other quirks in the search feature: left and right soft buttons move through the letters of the alphabet (something I usually visualize as scrolling up and down), while the up/down buttons move the cursor left and right through the song name. (Huh?) At least the Jukebox’s operating system is upgradable, and I hope Creative will release a version which fixes these irritants.
Nomad’s Land — If I’d had to spend the money for the Nomad Jukebox myself, would I have bought one? At $500 (often discounted online to $450 or less), it’s not exactly an impulse purchase, but I’d probably still buy it if I had the money. The ability to take a decent chunk of my music library with me – and have it instantly accessible – is quite intoxicating. So far, the Jukebox has only one major competitor, the HanGo Personal Jukebox PJB-100, and although on paper it seems to address many of my criticisms above, it’s both more expensive and from a relatively unknown company.
In the end, the Jukebox is not the no-brainer decision that it could have been. The device has strong basic capabilities, but is dragged down by a few serious flaws and other minor annoyances. The Jukebox could have been better – and from a company like Creative, I was expecting something better.