Ruthlessly Guarding the Valuables: Time and Attention

Ruthlessly Guarding the Valuables

Recently, I’ve become starkly aware of how demanding our culture has become. One day last week, within the span of a just a few short minutes, I was randomly assaulted by literally dozens of phone calls and text messages.

I will certainly admit that that exact scenario is very uncommon. But since I was desperately trying to get something accomplished at the time, and since some of those texts and phone calls were from people who had made repeated attempts at reaching me already, I became particularly frustrated. (Let’s just say it’s a good thing there weren’t any sledgehammers, ponds or toilets close by… because my phone might not have survived.)

This isn’t to mention the daily onslaught of emails, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, instant messages and face-to-face interruptions that bombard so many of us today.

In my business, large uninterrupted blocks of time are required to produce the kind of output it takes for our work to get done. I’m increasingly cognizant of the fact that this doesn’t mix well with a culture that expects a response within a matter of seconds, minutes or hours from any given interaction. It’s forcing me to recognize that two of my most valuable assets—time and attention—require bigger and better defense systems today.

Coincidentally, just as these thoughts were taking shape in my brain, I bumped into two very insightful posts today: one on “Pest Control” from Seth Godin, and the other on our “Culture of Distraction” from Matt Mullenweg. These are two of my favorite authors these days, and these posts don’t disappoint.

Matt Mullenweg actually shared a poignant 15-minute video clip featuring a talk from Joe Kraus on this topic. I’m including it here for you to enjoy.

Angry Birds for Chrome: Christmas Bonus Levels Unlock Codes

Latest Update: Since many of the apps we reference in the updates and content below are starting to remove the codes, you can see the codes are available in the comments below.

2nd Update: The Unlock Code for Bonus Level 2 is divided between 4 apps: Elfster, Earbits, Astrid, and Hipmunk.

Update: Unlock Code for Bonus Level 1 is found in the BBC Good Food App for Chrome (more details below).

After playing the December 25th level of Angry Birds for Chrome (with the sequence of Christmas comics), 3 bonus levels appeared this morning.

Some quick searching online revealed that at least one of the Christmas Bonus Level Unlock Codes for Angry Birds Chrome Edition could be found by installing the Google Books app. After installing the Google Books app (which essentially just opens the Google Books website), there was a banner ad running. The ad said an unlock code could be found by reading at least 5 pages of Birds for Dummies. Purchasing the book was not required: I simply read through several pages of the free preview. Suddenly, the unlock code appeared.

Angry Birds for Chrome Christmas Bonus Levels Unlock Code

I entered it several times into the Angry Birds Chrome app on the screen shown here. While previous “guesses” had resulted in an “Invalid Code” message, this time I didn’t see that message. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t appear as though anything had changed. After re-entering it several times, I finally realized that level 3 of the Christmas Bonus Levels had, in fact, been unlocked! Great!

But now… where do we find those other 2 unlock codes?

Keep up with the Twitter conversation by following me: @TheDavidJohnson.

How to Install the Google Books App

  1. From your Google Chrome web browser, visit the Chrome Webstore
  2. Search for the Google Books app or use this link.
  3. Install the App
  4. It should now appear in your normal list of apps when you open a new tab in Google Chrome.

The code contained in the Google Books app is for level 3.

Where to Find the Unlock Code for Level 1

BBC Good Food App: Angry Birds Code Offer

For level 1, you need the BBC Good Food app. Install it the same way you installed the Google Books App (above).

Once you’ve got the app launched, look for an Angry Birds offer in the lower right-hand corner of the main app screen. Once you click it, the Unlock Code for Bonus Level 1 will be revealed.

Where to Find the Unlock Code for Level 2

For Christmas Bonus Level 2, the unlock code is contained in 4 chunks inside each of 4 different apps. Each app has its own trickery for locating the digits contained therein.

First, here are the 4 apps you need:

Hipmunk: Unlock Your Angry Birds Level

I started with Hipmunk. Once you get it installed, you need to login. I chose to use my Google Account (since I’m in Chrome and that’s what I use for Angry Birds login purposes). You’ll see an image of the Hipmunk mascot with a reference to Angry Birds on the home screen.

Clicking that only gets you the following set of instructions:

  1. Click “Start Game!”
  2. Perform a hotel search
  3. Turn on a Heatmap

This seems a little vague and is obviously intended to force you to get to know what the app does a little bit. I ran a search, which was easy enough, but locating how to turn on the heatmap function was a little more ambiguous.

Hipmunk: Where to find the Heatmaps

After playing around with it for a couple of minutes, I finally spotted the heatmaps just above the Google map itself in the upper right-hand corner of the search results screen.

Once you click on one, a massive hover box containing the portion of the code that comes from Hipmunk will be displayed.

Knock on Wood Game: Play Angry Birds for Real!

Each of the other apps has its own methodology. The Hipmunk blog has a post with some additional info. If you get stuck on anything, just post in the comments below.

Angry Birds: Everybody needs a stuffed King Pig with Sounds!
In the meantime, maybe you should pick up an Angry Birds item or two. The “Knock on Wood” Game is a blast… my 6-year-old daughter got it for Christmas. But she doesn’t yet have the stuffed pig!

HTC Evo Shift 4G Problems: Solved!

**Update (October 16, 2011): The process is a lot simpler now than it was a few weeks ago. This thread outlines the new simpler method for achieving root for your Evo Shift 4G. (I haven’t tried it myself, but I’d use it if my device weren’t already rooted.)

A few months ago, I upgraded my HTC Hero on Sprint to the HTC Evo Shift 4G. I liked the Shift because it had a good size and promised a little better battery life than the original HTC Evo. I didn’t need 2 cameras and a couple of the other bells & whistles of the bigger device, so the Shift looked to be a great choice.

And it was… for months. But unfortunately, the latest OTA (over-the-air) update that came to the device in late August / early September created a giant mess. For the first time ever, the Evo Shift started running slow. Every time I would hit the “Home” button to exit an app, the HTC Sense UI would restart. I wasn’t actually aware this was exactly what was occurring, but the home screen took forever to come up and the HTC logo would spin for a while. This was incredibly frustrating.

Rebooting the device didn’t help. Eliminating some apps made no difference. On a couple of occasions, using the device was so frustrating that I was about ready to throw it at the pavement.

Root, Root, Root Your Phone

I’ve written previously about rooting my HTC Hero. That turned out to be the best thing I could’ve done with that device. But I had hesitated to root the Shift. In fact, I hadn’t even looked into it because I was so happy with the device’s performance and really enjoyed the latest version of HTC’s proprietary Sense UI. Sense is a set of apps and tweaks that sits on top of the device’s Android O/S.

My experience with the HTC Hero was that by rooting it, I gave up access to the Sense UI. I liked it enough on the Evo Shift that I hadn’t gone down that road.

But with all my frustrations after the latest OTA update (which bumped me to Android 2.3.3 “Gingerbread”), I wondered what could be done. So… I started to check out the community of Android device hackers.

What I discovered was both delightful and frustrating. First of all, the guys & gals that work on this stuff had found a way to re-install the Sense UI after rooting the device. (This was not possible when I originally rooted my Hero.) Yippee for me! I can root the device and have full control, but still get the enjoyment out of Sense.

The downside — which was a bit frustrating — was that the road to get to a nicely-running, rooted “Gingerbread” (Android 2.3.3) Evo Shift with Sense UI was pretty convoluted.

Essentially, here’s what had to happen:

  1. Backup everything
  2. Gain a “temporary” root (goes away on reboot) on the Evo Shift
  3. Install some code to the device allowing a downgrade
  4. Backup everything
  5. Downgrade to “Froyo” (Android 2.2)
  6. Permanently root the device on Android 2.2.
  7. Backup the device
  8. Install a nice fresh new ROM

Definitely convoluted. Definitely more frustrating than the process on the HTC Hero (when I did it). But the results have been amazing. I’m running a custom ROM called MikShifted-G “Executive” from TheMikMik. It is gorgeous. It is lightning fast. All the “bugginess” from my device is ancient history.

And of course, with a rooted device, there’s no end to what you can do that was locked down previously by Sprint & HTC. All the Android goodness is there… and it gets better all the time!

I’m glad I rooted my Evo Shift 4G. You will be too!

For reference: xda-devleopers is the ultimate resource for rooting Android devices. For the HTC “Speedy” (Evo Shift 4G) running Android 2.3 (“Gingerbread”) this thread in particular will be helpful. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it!

EMR Software: Meaningful Use Incentives for Physicians

When I first launched Epiphany Marketing back in 1998, it was a side venture and a vehicle for handling smaller projects that didn’t require a full-time effort. In 2001, however, I decided it was time to make it a full-time effort and start taking on bigger projects.

One of our major clients in those early days was a software dealer that focused on providing electronic medical records software (and the related hardware like computers, scanners, tablet PCs and so on) to physicians’ practices. The company wanted to expand into Florida and we worked with them to develop and implement what turned out to be a highly successful marketing strategy.

Along the way, I became very acquainted with the ins & outs of the modern-day medical practice. Many physicians were already accustomed to using “practice management software” that handled important tasks like scheduling patient appointments and billing insurance companies, medicare & the patients themselves for services rendered.

Electronic Medical Records Software

However, at that time, it was still a relatively novel idea for a smaller, privately-owned medical practice to be using a system for handling electronic patient records (or electronic health records — EHR — as they have come to be known). Even more novel was the idea that an electronic medical records system (EMR) would be integrated with a “practice management” system so that all the patient data was in one place. At that time, if practices were using an EMR system, it was typically completely separate from the scheduling & billing functions that were traditionally part of a practice management system.

We worked with this software company for an extended client engagement which lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of about 13-14 months. I met a great many medical practice administrators and doctors in various medical specialties from all over the State of Florida during that time period. Some of the doctors that we worked with went on to become friends and even clients of ours in the years that followed.

Since that time, I have remained interested in medical software. In fact, a friend of mine and I started a consulting firm focused on working with physicians to evaluate their own needs and the EMR systems that were being marketed and sold in order to help them make wise decisions and end up achieving long-term ROI (return on investment) from their technology decisions.

But, as time went by, I spent less and less time focused on that world and more time focused on newer clients and growing our primary business. So… I spent some time away from the space.

In the last few months, however, I’ve had good reason to pay a lot more attention. And it’s interesting to me today to see that the EMR systems available now have very little to offer that’s in any way new and improved over the leading systems from 7-9 years ago. In fact, some of the more “cutting edge” systems from years ago were actually further along than where the major players are today. Sadly, many software companies have come and gone — something that seems to be a bit of an epidemic (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the world of medical software.

In fact, the churn in this unique space has created a great deal of reluctance on the part of the typical private medical practice. The doctors who own and/or manage these practices have seen and heard a lot of sales pitches over the years. In some cases, they have invested tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in systems… only to have the software company go out of business or otherwise become unable to provide the much-needed ongoing support that is so critical to a medical practice.

So it’s not surprising when the average physician is reluctant to think about making technology-related changes. To them, it’s about as much fun as a root canal… or exploratory brain surgery (unless, of course, you’re a neurosurgeon… in which case the brain surgery would be fun… as long as it’s being performed on someone else).

Meaningful Use Incentives

Today, however, the government has stepped into the game. Uncle Sam now has a vested interest in making sure that all physicians are tracking patient information (including diagnoses, lab results, prescriptions, etc.) electronically. After all, paper charts have always been incredibly inefficient. And this is all the more true when you have a major role in paying for services being rendered, medications being prescribed, and diagnostics and treatments of all kinds. Aggregating data, keeping track of which physicians are doing what, and which patients are being treated for what illness… these are all reasons to try to force medical practices to use electronic medical records software.

Setting aside the very interesting political and societal ramifications of all this for a moment… what it comes down to today is that government has set up incentives (for now) to reward doctors who can demonstrate “meaningful use” of a qualifying electronic medical records system.

As you might guess, “meaningful use” and “qualifying EMR systems” all have very lengthy (and somewhat bizarre) definitions. But the bottom line is that the first doctors recently got the very first sizable checks from the government to pay out the incentives for using these systems.

On the back side of the incentives is a deadly set of penalties for not adopting a qualifying system within specified time periods. Practices who demonstrate meaningful use early get rewarded. The ones that wait will not only not be rewarded… they’ll actually begin to see cuts in payments for services rendered to Medicare and/or Medicaid patients after a couple of years go by.

What all of this means for the average medical office is this: it’s time to take this seriously. Any medical practices that are using older, outdated systems that don’t meet new government requirements will have to find a new system if their software vendor doesn’t make the necessary enhancements in time. Medical practices that haven’t begun meaningfully using an electronic medical records system at all (you know… the ones still chasing 2-inch thick — or thicker — patient charts around the office) will be forced to purchase and implement a system.

As a patient, you’ve probably begun to see certain physicians taking advantage of technology. Some doctors have welcomed technology quite openly… and you’ll see them carting laptops around the office and typing up visit notes while you wait. Others have dragged their feet and will only begin using technology against their wishes. Some will undoubtedly retire early rather than face that kind of change. Others will be driven out of business by the expense… especially when added to the already high costs of medical malpractice insurance combined with the pressures of reduced reimbursements from insurers and government payers like Medicare and Medicaid (not to mention the high costs of providing health insurance benefits to their own employees).

Regardless, your privacy as a patient is going to be affected. It’s already been greatly reduced in recent years. Pretty soon it’s not going to exist at all thanks to Uncle Sam’s meddling in this game.

On the other hand, the arguments in favor of using EMR systems are substantial. Medical practices that have truly embraced the process and have implemented systems have been able to greatly reduce their operating costs, increase efficiency, increase the speed with which they can access and utilize needed information (very important for you when facing an urgent medical issue of any kind), and even recover from disasters (after all… do you think they had backups of their paper charts?).

The bottom line? We’ll be keeping a close eye on all the issues related to electronic medical records, patient privacy and the economics of practicing medicine in the 21st Century. It’s all about to change…

Facebook Is More or Less Done

Yes, I’m trying out Google+.

No, I’m not yet convinced that it will kill Facebook. (Is that even possible?)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

But the CNN Tech coverage of this week’s big announcement from Facebook gave an interesting air to Mark Zuckerberg’s view of where his pet project is headed.

First: the big announcement. Facebook now has video chat via Skype. While it does seem clear that they’ve been working on this for some time, it’s awfully interesting that the big announcement took place without much drama only 1 week after Google+ announced “Hangouts,” which includes group video chat. (Zuckerberg says group chat isn’t important right now since most Skype users only chat 1 on 1 via video.)

The second big announcement was apparently an afterthought: Zuckerberg confirmed that Facebook now has 750 million users.

But what seems most interesting to me about this coverage was the quote from Zuckerberg about Facebook. The CNN Tech coverage gave the impression that Zuckerberg and his Facebook pals have accomplished their big goals. Third parties will be developing new “features” for Facebook, rather than Facebook itself, Facebook isn’t afraid of Google+, etc.

One quote, in particular, stood out to me. I had to look elsewhere for the entire sentence just to be sure I wasn’t misunderstanding it.

“Social networking is at an inflection point,” he said. “Mostly it was about connecting people and there was still this question about whether social networking was going to be this widespread, ubiquitous service in the world. That chapter is more or less done at this point.”

This is certainly lifted out of context, but really… what does he mean? It certainly left me wondering if Facebook has reached a point where they feel like they can sit back and relax.

If so… all I can say is, “Wow. Great timing.”

Google is coming.

Photo: Guillaume Paumier

WordPress Site Hacked: NoIndex and NoFollow All Links

Yes… You Know Who You Are

This morning I made the startling discovery that an important WordPress site belonging to one of our clients had been hacked.

A Little History

If you’ve heard me speak in the last 5 years, you know that I’m a huge believer in the power of content marketing. We regularly recommend and teach business blogging basics to our clients. We have no desire to turn them into bloggers per se, but we’ve trained them that producing fresh, high quality content is a fantastic way to achieve visibility online and even provide fodder for social media outlets like Facebook & Twitter.

So… one of our clients who hired us to build out their WordPress site and for whom we’ve provided a fair amount of training and coaching for some time now began to experience a decline in search engine rankings. In their case, WordPress is installed on a separate domain from their main website. Their main website was historically not performing well from a search engine point of view (although it was great from virtually every other perspective when it was built), so WordPress was being used as a way to help prop up the main site. And it worked. Really, really well.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this particular site began to drop in the rankings for no apparent reason. Nothing had changed that we could tell. We did a little research and paid attention to what the competitors were doing and could see nothing significant enough to account for the change. It was very much an anomaly, because all of our other clients who were doing what we trained them to do were doing just fine.

So today, quite by accident, we found the culprit.

The WPRef Plugin

We were reviewing a piece of content before it got published when we discovered that a couple of the links had a rel=”nofollow” attribute. The content writer who was working on it had no knowledge of how to manually create that type of link (we certainly don’t train people to do that… especially for links that are created intentionally for search engine purposes!), so we knew something was up.

I inquired a little further to find out where the link had come from, and the answer was, “I copied it from another post.”

Hmmmm…. well… I assumed at first that something had crept its way into an earlier post and perhaps it had been duplicated a couple of times. I wasn’t looking forward to hunting down the original link. As I heard someone say recently, it’s like looking for a needle in a needlestack! But then I noticed that there was more than one link acting that way. So… I used the WordPress “preview” function to take a look at how the new post would look, and decided to “view source code” to see if the changes I’d made were taking effect.

That’s when I noticed this:

Every link within the content had been modified with a and a rel=”nofollow” sitewide.

That would be a problem. The site’s being running for a while and there was a significant amount of content.

Digging a little deeper, I found that a plugin had been installed and given the name “WPRef”

We had backed up and upgraded the site to the latest version of WordPress on February 3rd. So… we checked our backup and found that the plugin was not contained in it. On the server, we found (via FTP) that a file called “wpref.php” had been copied to the /wp-content/plugins folder on February 10th.

Not only had the plugin been placed in that folder, it had been activated.

Checking a little deeper, we discovered that the plugin’s only function was to add a tag and a “nofollow” attribute to every outbound link in the site’s content.

This amounts to a very specific, malicious attack. The only purpose of it can be to cause Google (and other search engines too) to ignore the site’s links.

Needless to say, I was infuriated. We’ve taken steps to harden that particular site. All my searching and other efforts to find evidence that others have encountered a hack like this have turned up nothing. It appears that (at least for now) this is a one-off, one-shot hack job. It’s hard not to believe that this site was specifically targeted on purpose.

The amusing thing was that the plugin added an options panel into the “Settings” menu. Within that, it output a bunch of gibberish, including some Russion domain names.  In the “Active Plugins” area, it purported to have “code.google.com” as its “plugin site” and its author was listed as, “Sergei Brin.” I was so distracted by the infuration and frustration of the whole thing that I failed to recognize that it wasn’t just a Russian-sounding name to match the other Russian references… it’s the (botched) name of the famous Google co-founder.

Humorous.

So… we’ve saved a copy of this little piece of php code. Obviously, we’ve removed it from the site in question and have tested the site out. Our links are back to normal now. Presumably, this client’s search engine rankings will return back to their prior positioning. Actually, since the rankings were declining, we’ve stepped up the game for this client with some additional efforts and so the rankings should actually move higher than ever. So… if this was, in fact, a malicious attack which singled out this particular business… the plan has backfired.

Thanks. Whoever you are.

BarCamp Sarasota 2011

**Update** The BarCamp Sarasota Fall 2011 event takes place October 15-16 at GWIZ. Epiphany Marketing is making presentations there as well. We hope to see you!

I’m writing this from inside an Entrepreneurial Roundtable session being facilitated by locally-based technologist Stan Schultes. The ideas being generated within this “open source” group of people are absolutely stellar. There are folks in the room who have been there, done it, and are looking for an opportunity to share back and forth.

This is just one example of the benefits of having an event like BarCamp Sarasota. This year’s event is being held this weekend at GWIZ, which turns out to be a perfect venue because of their various small rooms that seem ideally suited for sessions like those you’ll find at a BarCamp event. The sessions are on a wide variety of topics — both technology-focused and otherwise. Skimming through upcoming session for today, here are some of the topics on the menu:

  • “Leadership and Community Building, Why Now More than Ever?” with Sara Hand
  • “The Zen of Building Sustainable Technology” with Lorrie Vervoordt
  • “Programming Humans” with  Tracy Ingram
  • “Facebook Marketing & SEO” with Thao Tran

At 11am, we’ll be presenting…

Making It All Pay: Growing Your Business with 21st Century Tools

Yes… technology is great! We love it… but without a comprehensive, written, measurable strategy in place, most every business will find themselves floundering in a sea of unfinished initiatives — nearly all of which have failed to produce any significant result from a business standpoint.

For example… how many businesses have websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc. but can’t point to any new business that they have produced? Or (perhaps worse) know that some business has been produced, but the metrics aren’t in place to identify how much and from which initiatives.

So… we’ll be talking about the strategy piece of the equation… and lining up all the elements in a way that gets you the result you desire. For most businesses, this means new customers, bigger  market share and long-term profitability.

Hope you join us for our session… More reports from this year’s BarCamp event later!

RIP: PayPal Plug-In – No More Single Use Debit Cards

PayPal Plug-In: Single Use Debit Cards

Recently, I received word from PayPal that they’ve decided to discontinue the incredibly useful PayPal Plug-in.

As the final day approaches, PayPal doesn’t seem to be backing down from its impending termination. September 22, 2010 is officially the last day to use the tool.

It’s a sad day. This has been, by far, one of PayPal’s most valuable features.

What Are Single Use Debit Cards?

To anyone who makes online purchases, having the ability to generate a valid, disposable card number is a dream come true. If you’ve ever had a debit card number compromised — either because of bank error, security breaches, or just jerks who get lucky with their random card number software — you know how painful it is to clean up the process. You get to contact the issuing bank, cancel the card, go without usage of it for days or even weeks while they replace it, and deal with the whole issue of getting your money back from whomever may have successfully nabbed some.

What a mess!

It’s like “Identity Theft Lite.”

A couple of years ago, we went through a nasty streak of these problems at my house. On multiple issuing banks, we had several business and personal debit cards compromised. In some cases, there were fraudulent charges (or in some cases, just authorizations). In other cases, we were informed by the bank that there was a breach of security and they recommended immediate replacement.

It’s not a fun situation. Especially when you have meticulous habits (as we do in my house) around using card numbers at reputable sites only, always verifying SSL status before punching a card number in, using firewalls when surfing at public hotspots, etc…

It seems that you can’t be too careful. And even when you’re doing your best, you can get stung through no fault of your own.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered that PayPal was offering a free piece of software that permitted me to generate a brand new card number on demand. There was no physical card attached at all. It was merely a valid card number, complete with its own expiration date (usually about 2 months from the date it was generated), valid CVV digits, and billed to the billing address on my PayPal account. And the best thing? It could only be used once.

So… about to make a purchase from an online retailer that wants to store your credit card information (for your convenience, of course!)? Just open the plug-in, login to PayPal with your password, and in a click or two and about as many seconds on the clock, you’d have a card number that would be approved right away for your purchase… but would forever be declined thereafter.

They even gave me an option of creating multiple use card numbers for recurring billing purposes. Need to be able to track charges from a certain retailer, vendor, or supplier? No problem. Just generate the a multiple-use card number for that vendor, and you’re in full control. You can cancel the number at any time to stop them from charging you… without having to go through the hassle of replacing your physical card and getting stuck without the ability to use it in the meantime.

Don’t have your wallet close by while you’re trying to check out of a website with a purchase? No problem. Just open up another browser window and crank out a valid card number on the spot.

I could go on and on. The usefulness of this fantastic service seemed to grow by the day.

In All Fairness…

The software itself left something to be desired. Originally, I installed the plug-in on my Firefox browser. Over time, as Firefox was updated, the plug-in didn’t get along with it so well. So… I ended up having to install it on the dreaded Internet Explorer. That was a pain… especially since I trust Internet Explorer as far as I can throw it. (Ever tried to throw a piece of software?)

But… despite the rather clunky user interface, and the annoying and odd fact that there was no way to get to your previously generated cards, receipts inbox or the other nifty features of this tool from the main PayPal website (the only way to open that part of their site was to use the plug-in… which took you to that magical part of the site), the tool was still nothing short of invaluable.

What To Do?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m searching for “Virtual Debit Cards,” or “Secure Debit Card Generator,” or “Single Use Debit Cards,” or “Disposable Debit Card” online. Nothing so far seems to be a good match. I’ve found a number of complaints in the PayPal community forums where users like me are publicly lamenting the loss of this tool. There are some complaints from international users that they never had access to the tool to begin with (apparently it was only for US customers).

But nothing that looks like it could serve as a replacement for this valuable tool.

I can’t help but suspect that I’ll be using PayPal less and less. And I’ll probably be more inclined to move any balance in my PayPal account much more quickly into my main business checking account. I’m sure I’ll still use the PayPal debit card that I carry for my business… but probably less often.

Will that hurt PayPal? Probably not much. I’m certainly only one business owner… and I’m guessing that adoption of this tool wasn’t very widespread (otherwise they’d be more aggressively announcing alternative features). So… I’m sure they calculated the risk associated with cancelling the tool and decided it was worthwhile for whatever reason.

But I’ll be moving at least some of my PayPal business once I find a replacement solution.

How to Get a Faster Sprint Hero

Update: On September 18th, a stable release of CyanogenMod 6.0 became available. Details are here. (The post below refers to my experience with the “release candidate,” which is the predecessor to the new stable release.) I updated my phone on October 23rd to the stable release and can attest it’s faster and better than ever! I was happy with the release candidate, but I’m even happier now!

HTC Hero for Sprint: Is There Any Hope?

I absolutely love my HTC Hero. I have since day 1, which for me was November, 2009.

But I’ve hesitated to recommend it to people… primarily because of the frustrations I’ve experienced with the device. It is plagued with significant lag (delays between when you expect something to happen and when it actually happens), some of the Android functions weren’t quite ready for prime time, and its battery life left something to be desired.

Nevertheless, I’ve been so thrilled with the Android operating system as a whole that I’ve personally just looked beyond those frustrations and made the best of it.

But a couple of months ago Sprint royally ticked me off. I’ll explain in a moment.

Cupcakes, Donuts & Eclairs

It may help here to provide a little background. My Hero originally shipped with Android “Donut,” which was version 1.6 of the Android Operating System.

For clarification, “Android” is the name of the open source operating system that is developed by Google (or has been since they acquired Android, Inc. about 5 years ago). There remains some confusion over terminology since Verizon licensed the term Droid from Lucasfilm, LTD. Verizon produces and sells several different devices under the name Droid as a way to brand their family of phones that run the Android operating system.

But any manufacturer is free to develop devices using the Android operating system. And many do. The devices began to take off when Android 1.5 (AKA “Cupcake”) released in early 2009. Google’s “Market” (their version of Apple’s “App Store”) began to explode with fantastic apps and the devices became more or less ready for daily use.

HTC Sense UI

So back to my Sprint HTC Hero. The Hero shipped with “Donut” (the successor to “Cupcake”), and as I said before, I loved it from day one. An important reason for it got so much love (from me and from others) was because HTC (the device’s manufacturer) developed an array of apps, widgets and modifications to the Android operating system that they labeled the “Sense UI” (UI is geek-speak for “User Interface”). Anyone who has used the Sense UI is spoiled.

I didn’t realize how spoiled I was until I picked up a friend’s Verizon Motorola Droid thinking I could use it. It was substantially clunkier and actually quite unfamiliar. I was surprised by the learning curve I had (considering I had owned and used my Android device regularly for months). But most surprising to me was how blazingly fast the Droid was in comparison to my Hero.

It was then that I began to realize just how unhappy I was with all the lag and the other frustrations I was experiencing.

This wasn’t just a case of device envy. I was syncing my Hero to an Exchange server and a Gmail account. I was regularly unable to answer calls because the lag was so long that they would go to voicemail before my phone was ready. Text messages were difficult at times. The browser was clearly powerful (especially when compared to my previous Blackberry and Windows Mobile browsers) but so painfully slow that it was rendered almost unusable.

So… imagine my delight when Sprint and HTC announced the availability of a significant upgrade from “Donut” (Android 1.6) to “Eclair” (Android 2.1) in May. Eclair boasted faster speeds — even on the same hardware (a rare occurrence in the world of hardware/software relations), and HTC had made substantial improvements to the Sense UI.

I backed up all my data (using an app that was readily available from the Android Market) and performed the upgrade. It was painful to watch the process run so slowly, but when it was over, my phone was noticeably more responsive.

But not responsive enough.

And even more painful was knowing that Eclair’s release date was October of 2009, fully 7 months before Sprint & HTC bothered to roll out the update. And also that “Froyo” (Android 2.2) was released by Google right about the time that I was downloading the Eclair update from HTC’s servers.

The Froyo Frustration

So… I said earlier that Sprint had ticked me off. Several things happened all about the same time in the world of Sprint. In June, they announced the HTC EVO… which they widely proclaimed the nation’s first 4G phone. It boasted a bigger screen, faster processor, and a big fat price tag. And even though I’m a Sprint “Premier” customer, I was still nearly 6 months away from qualifying for their “upgrade pricing.”

Another Sprint event: a leak. Word leaked out that although the EVO would be getting an upgrade to Froyo, the Hero (and a couple of other lesser phones) would not.

Whatever the reasons for their decision, here’s how it came across to the community of HTC Hero owners: a slap in the face. Some of them had just purchased the Hero, and in fact Sprint still sells it brand new today.

My wife is eligible for a Sprint upgrade and has been for probably 18 months or so since her last contract expired. No matter how easy to use, there was no way I was going to have her purchase the HTC Hero… because I knew that to a non-techie the problems I was experiencing would be absolute showstoppers.

But given Sprint’s attitude (“We’re not going to provide the software update, just buy our new $500 phone if you want something better…”), I seriously began contemplating a switch to another carrier.

I know, I know… they all screw their customers. And frankly, I’ve had almost no trouble at all with Sprint over the years… nor with Nextel prior to Sprint’s acquisition of it. Signal is good. Billing is accurate. Customer service (on the rare occasion when I’ve required it) has exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.

So… why would I want to switch? It just felt like the decision was made purely to dangle a real expensive carrot in front of customers like me who pay significant fees every month for service.

It also happened that around July I began to face the fact that my dependence upon Microsoft was coming to an end. I’ve owned, managed or leased space on Exchange Servers for nearly 1o years. I’ve synced with a variety of mobile devices (as I mentioned before) and I am an enormous believer in “the cloud.” In fact, when I switched from my last smartphone (a Windows mobile device) to the Hero, my 1000+ contacts and an untold number of emails (even in the 3-day sync window) were synced before I left the Sprint store.

Realizing how good the sync is on the Android platform (including Facebook and Twitter integration), and that Google isn’t going anywhere, I decided to take the plunge and test out Google Apps For Your Domain (“GAFYD”). Holy cow. I wish I’d done it sooner. The Gmail platform (private-labeled for my team) is unbelievably powerful and easy to use. The extremely low cost ($50 per user per year) is an enormous cost savings over using (and supporting) the Exchange platform, and no software (Microsoft Outlook, you know who you are) is required.

So… a number of pieces were coming into place for me. I’m seeing a long term commitment to Google’s platform — including Android.

But man… the Hero was frustratingly slow.

So… last week, I bit the bullet and “rooted” my phone.

To Root or Not to Root

No… I’m not digging around in the soil. And no… I didn’t let it get acquainted with nature in an attempt to get an insurance upgrade (ever known anyone who’s tried that trick?)…

I did, however, void my warranty. At least temporarily.

The Android platform is closely related to Unix. On a Unix system, the “Administrator” (to use Microsoft’s terminology) is called the “Root” user. This user has “root” (the highest level of) access to the operating system.

For reasons that I’m sure are relatively obvious, Sprint (and every other carrier) does not provide “root” access to the operating systems on its devices. Instead, it locks down most configuration options and system areas so that the end user can’t screw things up too badly (and so that rogue apps don’t have the ability to behave too badly). Apple does the same thing with its devices.

Of course, there’s a vibrant community of hackers who will teach you how to gain root access to your Android device… and even provide software tools to avoid the most complicated, error-prone steps.

Why would you want root access? Well… for a long list of reasons, most of which involve gaining a higher level of control over the device. Want to overclock your processor? You need root access. Want to reconfigure your LED? You need root access. Want to do just about anything aside from installing the sanitized apps from the market? You need root access.

Want to install Froyo (Android 2.2)? You need root access.

Wait a minute… you can install Froyo? The same Froyo that boasts 3x-10x speed improvements (yes… on the same hardware) over Eclair? The same Froyo that allows for tethering (providing internet access via a USB cable from your phone to your laptop when not in range of wifi service… a feature blocked by Sprint in Eclair) and hotspot (turning your phone into a wifi hotspot so your laptop and other devices can utilize its internet connection… something Sprint charges an extra monthly fee for on the EVO even though it’s a built-in feature) and significantly-improved multiple Google account support?

Well… officially, no. You can’t have Froyo. You’re stuck with a slow Hero.

But unofficially… once you make the decision to take a few liberties with your device… you can do all of the above.

And let me tell you… the difference is nothing short of amazing.

On Saturday, I decided to take the plunge: root the phone and install Froyo. Of course, there’s no chance of just going to Google’s Android site and finding a download for Android 2.2 that’s going to actually work on your phone. But thanks to the community of developers/hackers I mentioned earlier, there are ready-made distributions available that are tailored to your carrier, device and desired configuration.

Let me be clear: this process is not for the faint of heart. There are portions that are highly technical in nature, and it’s best if you don’t expect someone to hold your hand. The community has produced a dizzying array of blogs, wikis and most importantly: forums, where answers can be found for all manner of technical questions.

I’m personally writing this post to inform some of the non-techies in the world that there are ways to get yourself a much better experience with your HTC Hero on Sprint (or just about any other Android device, for that matter). But I’m unable to provide technical expertise or guidance on this aside from sharing a few details that worked for me and pointing you toward the true masters of this game… the ones who have devoted untold hours to writing code, testing and supporting their work.

To these individuals — the ones who dared to say to Sprint, “Take that!” — I am truly grateful. I have today what amounts to a brand new phone. Yes, the hardware is no different. But how it performs… there’s absolutely no comparison.

So… let me provide a brief summary of the steps I took to get this amazing result.

The Process… Summarized

First and foremost, as with any operation that has the potential to affect valuable data, perform a backup. I highly recommend a phenomenal paid app from the Android Market called MyBackup Pro. Open the Market from your device, fork over a mere $4.99, and you can backup everything from your emails, contacts and calendar all the way to applications and even the layout of your homescreen. It will save to your device’s SD card and, if you choose, upload a backup to the developers’ servers where it can be retrieved later from the same device or from a replacement (if you’re switching hardware).

For me, my emails, contacts and calendar were all synced to Google accounts, so there was no need to actually store that data. But my call log, SMS (texts) and MMS (multimedia messages) and apps were valuable to me. I guess some people don’t see a need to hang on to those, but I like being able to refer back to things in the future. So I backed ’em up.

After you’re satisfied that you have a backup and can restore your phone to its current state if necessary (either because things go badly or because you need warranty service from Sprint because of hardware issues), then you can get under the hood and really start tinkering.

The short version is this:

  1. Gain root access to your device
  2. Download and install a recovery image (provides a boot platform as well as backup and other valuable tools)
  3. Perform another backup using Nandroid (part of the recovery image)
  4. Download and install a ROM that contains the distribution of Android and the configuration you’re looking for)
  5. Install the ROM
  6. Install the Google Apps (Market, Gmail, Maps, etc…) so that you can use the basic functions you’re expecting from Android
  7. Install/configure Launcher software (if you choose — as I did — to go with something different than what came with the ROM you installed)
  8. Selectively restore data from your backup (the one you performed prior to step 1). For me, this meant: call logs, SMS/MMS messages, and apps.
  9. Locate some new apps (as desired) to replace the stuff from HTC’s Sense UI that you might miss.
  10. Experience blazing speeds, better battery life, and overall… a fantastic phone!

I’ll provide a little more detail for you below. But here’s my caveat: this stuff changes… sometimes daily. Whatever I post here will be outdated by the time I hit publish, not to mention by the time you read it.

So… I’m going to point you in the direction of the valuable resources I have found. There are a few major players worth highlighting, but there are countless other players who may not be as visible or noticeable who have also played an enormous role in making this level of customization to your device possible. These are the real heroes, in my opinion. Obviously, Google and the original Android team deserve some major props as well.

The developers who have gone the “last mile” to us end users can be found in the forums at XDA-developers.com. This is where you’ll find heroes like Darchstar — who created the final actual ROM I’m currently using and would highly recommend — and theimpaler747, who is one of many who deserve recognition for their tireless support answering questions from people like me who are trying to wrap our heads around what it takes to get the job done.

So, by topic, here are some important links you’ll need in order to undertake the process. (Note: these links apply — in most cases exclusively — to the HTC Hero on Sprint and may be out of date — see my red ink above. If you need stuff for a different device or a different carrier, then search the forums for your specific situation. Chances are, you’ll find great results.)

  1. Learn about (and download tools to gain) root access to your device here.
  2. Download the ROM Manager from the Android Market (using the Market app on your phone). It will only work after you have root access. Give it “Superuser” permissions and it will install the appropriate recovery image and the other tools (such as Nandroid for backups) to your device.
  3. Reboot to the recovery image and run a Nandroid backup to your SD card. This is a much more comprehensive, system-level backup of your entire device.
  4. Wipe your device. In hacker parlance, this means perform a “factory reset.” This is required in order to effectively install the ROM you’ll need. Alternatively, you can download the desired ROM and install it via the ROM Manager, which will prompt you for the wipe (which you should have it perform in this case).
  5. Here’s where to find Darchstar’s Froyo ROM RC1 for the Sprint Hero. (“Release Candidate 1” means it’s stable enough for you to use, but isn’t officially considered a full release yet as they’re still tinkering). Darchstar built upon the fantastic work of the CyanogenMod community in bringing us Froyo. This particular distribution bears the date of August 15, 2010. I’m sure I’ll be flashing (installing) a newer ROM when it becomes available — either RC2 or a formal release. There are also “nightlies” (nightly builds) available that may have newer features but may also be less stable. I’m not using the nightlies because my phone is something I absolutely depend upon on a daily basis and I can’t afford the luxury of testing at the bleeding edge for now.
  6. Darchstar also maintains a link to the latest version of the Google Apps distribution you’ll need. It’s posted on the same forum topic as his distribution. Grab it. You’ll want it. You “flash” this ZIP file right on top of the ROM (don’t perform a wipe this time) that you just installed. I used ROM Manager to do it, which Darchstar was kind enough to include in his Froyo distribution.
  7. Test, tinker and tweak.

I dug through the forums and decided to purchase the Launcher Pro App from the Android Market (after I synced my Google account, naturally). This brought some of the features of the Homescreen back that I would’ve missed from HTC’s Sense. I also gained some fantastic new features in the process (e.g. more rows for icons, a nifty all-new App Drawer, and some more fun stuff.)

I also decided to download the Dialer One app to regain some of the experience inside the actual phone functions that I liked from HTC Sense. It looks different, but performs very well. You can also turn it off and switch back to the standard Android dialer if it isn’t what you like.

For text messaging, I went with chompSMS. This was something I’d already switched to prior to rooting and upgrading to Froyo. It has a fantastic UI… including popups that appear when you receive an incoming text so you can answer (or not) without interrupting what you were doing. The threaded conversations are fantastic and visually appealing as well.

One of the most noticeable elements of HTC’s Sense UI is the big digital clock with the animated weather icons that typically adorned the Homescreen of most users. While Launcher Pro comes with some options, I ultimately decided to get the Beautiful Widgets app (and pay for the upgrade) from the Market. It has some obvious visual differences, but there are replacement widgets that look as good as (and are frankly more configurable than) the ones that come with Sense.

There are lots more tweaks available. And a few lingering issues are minor annoyances as well. The whole experience has opened my eyes to just how powerful the Android platform really is. At this point, I’m not sure I could ever be talked into buying an iPhone. Apple’s reputation for closing itself off to proprietary platforms is legendary… and ultimately not in the best interests of users. There are certainly those who think Google could be evil… and I’m mindful of the possibility that they could turn that direction somewhere along the line. But their commitment to open source development is clear. And there’s a clear path for getting your data off of their platforms at any point in time if you decide you want to switch.

As for the annoyances, there’s a lag that remains when you bring the phone back from sleep. Some users have overclocked their phone’s processors using “uncapped kernels” (another piece of software you can optionally flash on top of Darchstar’s Froyo ROM if you’re extra brave) and claim to have gotten rid of this. Frankly, I’m aware of it (it’s longer than the lag I had previously with Eclair/Sense), but it’s not a big deal. The blinding speed I get with every other function on the phone far outweighs any complaint I might raise about this lag. But the forums are filled with questions about it (typically the same question over and over), so some people are more annoyed by it than I am.  Occasionally, I uncover some other “missing feature” that I realize was part of Sense. But there are replacements for almost all of these. There’s a bug that occurs when you try to open the camera from inside the gallery (something I did regularly before) that causes the phone to hang. The fix is nifty: you get to pull the battery from your phone in order to reboot it. Not cool, but as with the other issue: it’s something I’m aware of and in this case, I can avoid it!

All in all, I’m so thrilled with my experience that I wish I’d done it a lot sooner. Of course, every day that goes by produces better and better code from the crew that’s working on it. So… perhaps the timing of my switch was good.

Either way, if you own a Sprint HTC Hero, I highly recommend that you root your phone and upgrade it to Froyo. You won’t regret it… and if for some reason you do, you can go back to the configuration you have today (if you really want to) by using the ROM that Sprint/HTC made available when they rolled out Eclair back in May.

This may be the longest post I’ve ever written here. But… what can I say… I’m thrilled with my Hero! And I’m running Froyo on it.

Incidentally, there’s a fantastic thread now running on XDA-developers.com that was started by the aforementioned theimpaler747 for users of any of the CyanogenMod ROMs for the Hero (this includes the one I’m using from Darchstar). In addition to the thread containing Darchstar’s ROM download, this one is highly useful.

I hope this post helps you make the decision to move forward with upgrading your Hero. It’s worth every minute of effort you spend learning your way around and going down the road, as complex as it may be!