Wednesday, 16 July 2008

We Say Goodbye to Princess

After 15 years of sweetness, we unfortunately had to say goodbye to our cat Princess. A number of months ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. The first time, we had the vets remove the cancer but it quickly came back and there was not much more we could do. Over the past few days, she had stop eating and was starting to have problem moving around. Her physical state was getting hard to bear and she was not herself.
Princess joined the family some 15 years ago when she grabbed my wife's hat through the cage as we walked passed her in the pet store. My wife knew at that time that the cat was «supposed» to come with us! Princess was a gentle and sweet little lady but was very shy. She will be missed. More picture of her on this Flickr page and in my Picasa web album (look for Princess the tri-colour persian)

Friday, 11 July 2008

Xoopit Enhancing Gmail's Media Capabilities

Following an article on this blog about Xobni, I was recently invited to try out Xoopit. Xoopit provides a tool to quickly access the multimedia stored in your Google Mail (Gmail) account through a number of ways including either via a Firefox plug-in (it needs an equivalent on IE7 I tend to use both so it is helpful), in your iGoogle page or through their own web interface. Disclaimer: The contents of this post reflects my experience with Xoopit as it occured from May to end June. Therefore some of the information present here may have evolved over that time with fixes and improvements. Also, this post was reviewed by one of the Xoopit co-founders before publication!

Xoopit essentially indexes and copies your Gmail contents via an IMAP interface (for more information check-out this Xoopit blog post ) and it seems to target the e-mails containing pictures, videos and files. The service starts by indexing the context of your account and after a few hours started to present the indexed media it had found. After what seemed like 2 days worth of indexing (my impression based on the increasing count of media index), the power of Xoopit began to reveal itself and that was when I realized what Xoopit is in fact providing. Xoopit gives you a nice interface for quickly viewing, downloading or re-sharing all your media be it by what you have recently received, by association to whom sent it to you or from which platform (i.e. flickr, youTube, ...) or by file type. The index even pulls references to pictures and videos from URLs which was quite interesting: it for example highlighted a flickr picture and youTube video in the May 15th Bruce Schneier Crypto-Gram and if your are subscribed you know that he tends to use tinyurls and references to articles not directly to video or pictures.

Overall my impressions and thoughts on Xoopit are mixed. I really like the ability to quickly view, locate and manipulate media that has been sent to me or referenced to me via e-mail. I was even more appreciative as I am able to link my different Gmail addresses to it (I use one for personal comms and one for mailing-lists, etc). This made it even more useful as I can now quickly locate things from one place instead of having to check multiple accounts. It was also interesting to use for sharing pictures and videos with my different contacts but I admit that I tried the sharing feature to test/try it and I am not sure how often I would get to use it my day-to-day e-mail activity(I'll explain later). Here are some of my other remarks about the tool:
  • You can quickly share videos and pictures, files however are not shareable on their own. To share them you need still need to forward the whole e-mail. I didn't quite understand this part;
  • The ability to locate media sent by contacts is neat, however some of my closets contacts have multiple e-mail addresses and in the Xoopit interface this shows up as multiple contacts... I think that the system needs to try and be more intelligent and match multiple contacts by name as well as e-mail;
  • The plug-in interacts with the Gmail search and shows a search bar along side your search results. So for instance if you search for a contact, the Xoopit plug-in gives you asidebar with all the media relate to that search query;
  • The plug-in works quite well and gives you an easy instant access to the media directly from your Gmail inbox, however one thing that confuses me is that the plug-in pulls the Xoopit copy of the e-mail instead of accessing the Gmail version. My thoughts are that this could be done better if the Xoopit used some form of indexing/referencing instead of creating a copy of the e-mails;
  • There are some other things I would like to see like: statistics, threading or relationships between media/e-mails, and maybe versioning or similar on files.
However & overall, I don't think I am getting the most out of the tool. There is a simple reason for this, I usually don't manage my e-mail contact workflow associated to media. I rarely look for a piece of media that was sent to me by one person or another. When it comes to media, I usually view & process it but then I file it away by putting it in another location (photo album, file server, ...). When I re-share media I receive via e-mail, it is usually then and there so to speak - at the time I first read it. I then rarely come back to that e-mail. The exception to this might be file attachments which I might need to refer back to but again this is a rare occurrence. Xoopit will be a very useful tool for a person spending a lot of time dealing with multimedia e-mail processing which is just not my case.

I admit my e-mail workflow is very much focused on processing via subject, keyword (I use labeling or subject line tagging for this) or even sender. When I am referring to or searching for existing e-mail conversations I typical look for it via subject matter or via the original sender (this is in fact where Xobni is quite useful). Hence my low and in frequent need to access a tool like Xoopit whose primary focus is the media.

My other mixed impressions are due to my ingrained habit as an information security professional. When I look at the Xoopit service, a few things come to mind and they be NO means imply any weakness on the part of Xoopit:
  • HTTPS compatibility in the plug-in: I use Gmail web interface using https for various reasons. When I first tried the Xoopit plug-in, it had a few glitches running under the https instance of theGmail - it would en fact rest the page to normal http. This seems to be corrected now in the latest versions and the plug-in also respect the https protocol when it fetchs data. There is also a setting under your Xoopit account to enforce the HTTPs protocol (nice!);
  • Storage of the Gmail account and password information: this is tough and I realize that today and without a proper API or security key Xoopit really doesn't have much choice. This should not be an issue as long as the data is stored and used in a secure manner. Relatively though, it does want for concern as the Xoopit service uses an IMAP connection to pull the information fromGmail , if its implemented as IMAPS then things should be ok if not then your account information is being sent between both services in clear text;
  • Xoopit shadows the e-mail on its own servers: while this is not really worrisome it does raise my eyebrow concerning data residency and security issues. In the same way that I implicitly trust Google with my e-mail, I need to implicitly trust Xoopit to safely and securely store my e-mail information. The initial thought that I have is that now I need to be additionally concerned as my e-mail information is stored in two separate locations therefore increasing the possible footprint for potential data leakage. It also troubles me personally as I am not inclined to see multiple copies of my e-mail stored outside of my direct control. I need to have total control over my e-mail storage as there certain e-mails that by nature I won't leave even in Gmail and thus I need to be sure that all copies are removed from any online storage. Of course my assumption is that Xoopit have taken necessary precautions to secure the duplicated data like encryption based on an individual account key (I know I would).
    <rant />My initial thoughts on the subject, was why store a copy? Would it not be more efficient and better to build an index of the messages instead, storing the index and references to the files then providing access back directly into Gmail. At least you would not have to duplicate and store the contents of the accounts.
I think that Xoopit however can only do a little more than what they are doing today in great part due to the limited API that is offered by Google for the Gmail service. Jonathan Katzman one of the co-founders of Xoopit confirmed this to me and indicated that they are working with Google to improve on the above:
on both those last points, we take security incredibly seriously and realize the trust users are explicitly or implicitly (depending on the user) putting on us. this is something we'll blog more about soon. suffice it to say we are taking every measure we can to keep data safe.
So despite my view of things, I appluad their solution and wish them the best of luck as they go on improving it. Let's also remember that this is still essentially a beta service (private invites only - I have some to give out). I'll continue to use the service as it is slowly proving to be worthy and useful and I might be a good extension into my e-mail workflow.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Jamais 2 sans 3

«Jamais deux sans trois» is a french expression that basically means that things always come in threes and in most cases you are talking about unlucky things!
Well, today July 3rd aka my birthday, falls right into this expression. If you remember and refer back to last year's post, you may be aware that my home network got electrically fried on my birthday! Well this year it wasn't my home network but it would seem that it was my laptop's turn.
Yep, this year for my birthday, my laptop fried... dead motherboard!
Can't wait till next year I wonder what will happen next!