If you like Windows freeware, chance is that you stumbled upon Samer Kurdi's website Freeware Genius before.
He is been in hiatus for the most part in the past two or so years, and I wanted to know what he is up to these days, and why Freeware Genius is not being updated anymore.
If you have any questions for Samer feel free to ask them in the comment section below. I'm sure he is monitoring the article closely and will respond to questions that come up.
Without further ado, lets get started right away.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Samer Kurdi. I’m an artist and a writer. You may have heard of my on-again off-again tech blog that I published, Freewaregenius.com. I used to live in Seattle but am now living in Amman, Jordan, where my wife Amanda runs a humanitarian organization that helps urban refugees.
Describe your workspace
These days I work mainly off of my dining room table, which is in a bright and sunny room. My favorite places to work, however, are busy cafes where there’s a lot happening and lots of people walking in and out. The background din somehow helps me focus.
Android or iPhone? What's your preference and why?
Android, for sure. I switched to Android after buying every iPhone from the very first one through the 4S. I made the break because I didn’t like that everything with the iPhone had to be done through iTunes and that most of my media that I had accumulated over the years had to be converted and imported into it. I don’t know if things have changed now -- I imagine not -- but at the time iTunes was this massive, unresponsive, clunky piece of software that despite the flashy cover-art carousels provided a a terrible user experience when it came to interacting with the iPhone.
There was this one time when my wife was taking a plane with the kids she asked me to upload some of their favorite cartoons to her iPhone before she headed to the airport. I realized I had to convert all of the videos first and didn’t have the time. On Android it would have been as simple as dragging and dropping the files onto a USB drive, and that’s when I made the switch.
But generally speaking and despite all the enthusiasm many people have for Apple and the iPhone, I prefer the openness and flexibility that an open source OS such as Android provides. I recently watched the movie “Steve Jobs” and his whole “end to end” concept was being presented as this visionary idea of taking care of the entirety of the customer’s experience from A to Z, or something like that.
In the real world, though, where someone has an iPhone, a Mac, an Apple printer, and an Apple watch, the whole thing seems to be less about taking care of customers than crowding out the competition and killing diversity. I’ve had the same thought that I think many people have, that Apple has turned into the dictator image of their 1984 commercial, sadly; and while I understand that Google and Android aren’t quite a young upstart challenger, I prefer Android for sure.
Windows, Linux or Mac? What's your preference and why?
I have a soft spot in my heart for Linux. Sometimes I get into discussions with people who don’t think it’s lived up to it’s promise, and I will point out that Linux pretty much powers 80% of the internet. I try to imagine just how much more expensive and constrictive it would have been to publish websites without Linux servers – it would have been a completely different world!
The emergence of Linux is of course also at the heart of the rise of open source in general, and so therefore much of the serious free software used on Windows and Mac computers owe a debt to Linux (e.g. titles such as GIMP, VLC, Audacity, Open Office, etc.) What I am driving at is that Linux has almost become it’s own meta-platform used daily by everyone without them even being necessarily aware of it.
But I will say that as an OS strictly speaking I’m most comfortable with Windows, which I know best and feel like I can write about with some authority.
Any gadget you cannot live without that is not a computer or mobile?
My Aftershockz Blues 2 headphones. In the past year I’ve become completely addicted to audiobooks, which I consume voraciously, and as a consequence I’m always running around doing stuff while listening at the same time.
These headphones were my first introduction to “bone conduction” technology, which is to say that the headphones do not cover your ears but vibrate on the cheekbone right underneath them.
I like these headphones because they work fairly well and I can be listening to my audiobooks and podcasts and not feel like I’m cut off from the outside world, and can hear my kids and my wife interacting with me, etc. It’s funny because I never really bought into the idea of ‘wearable technology’ (e.g. Google Glass or Smart watches etc.) until I realized that I am wearing these headphones all the time.
Do you listen to music when you work? If so, what's your favorite genre?
I like alternative rock and my favorite band is Radiohead, but I find I can’t work while listening to anything with lyrics. I will listen to all sorts of instrumental music while working, from classical to electronic, and it will generally help me focus.
But I am intrigued by the promise that music can be a designed to deliver specific kinds of sound waves that help the brain focus or sleep or relax. I recently subscribed to a service called Brain.fm which promises to do exactly that. I like it quite a bit, but can’t help but wonder about the soundness (forgive the pun) of the science behind it and whether the effects can be measured somehow.
Tell us about Freeware Genius, how did it all start?
It started by chance. Before I started publishing I was the kind of guy who would download software and cracks for stress release, without ever actually installing and using any of it. Then one day my wife was away and I was formatting her laptop and re-installing Windows on it, and I realized that aside from the OS, every single software that I installed for her was free.
The next thing I did was buy the Freewaregenius URL and start publishing. This was in 2006. In retrospect I think that there was a writer in me that had been eager to write about any topic of interest, so it was a convenient joining of two aspects of myself (techie and writer).
How was the site received on the Internet?
For weeks my goal that I was focused on was to get to 100 visitors in a day. It seemed like such a distant, unachievable goal, until one day – boom – something happened and I got several thousands all at once.
I can’t remember now if I was linked to by Lifehacker or another site (back then you could expect this sort of thing to happen fairly easily). After that traffic kept growing and growing at a much larger rate than I had ever anticipated, which required that I put more and more effort into it, which I was happy to do at the time.
What happened to the site?
As the site grew it started to claim more and more of my time, so I decided to make a go out of going at it full time, esp. after we left Seattle in 2010. It seemed to be working out for a couple of years until mid 2013, when it was hit with one of the ‘Panda’ Google algorithm changes.
To explain this in plain English: without warning and for no apparent reason the site stopped appearing in the first page of relevant Google search results and was pushed off to the bottom or the second page in many instances. This wiped off 75% of my readership (and income) overnight, and made it impossible to continue publishing as before.
It has been more or less dormant for two years, although I do get a stable level of readership and a passive income on the strength of existing articles.
What did you try to turn things around?
For a year and a half after being hit I tried to figure out what had went wrong and how to “fix” the situation. I updated some of my best and most popular articles, cut down on the the not-very-important brief posts and reviews that didn’t have a lot of value added in them, audited all the outbound links from my site, and did a lot of the recommended SEO interventions with the help of a paid consultant (which I won’t list here because it gives me a headache just to think about this).
SEO is largely voodoo and the whole field should not even exist in my opinion. I was just one guy who wanted to write software reviews and value added content, but Google was forcing me to become an SEO expert and an A/B tester of something that was opaque and unknowable and a closely guarded secret.
It’s like Google says: you have to be a quality site publishing quality content; and you’re like: OK great, what do you consider quality content?, and they’re like: sorry, it’s a secret.
The whole thing is ludicrous and a joke. And unlike my little imaginary dialogue here, there is NO ONE from Google that you can actually talk to; you’re on your own.
In retrospect I think many of the Panda/Penguin updates were simply about giving more prominence to more established sites (and brands) at the expense of smaller sites, which Google viewed as more statistically likely to be spammy.
My site was just collateral damage, nothing personal. In my mind’s eye I imagine a tipping point, a threshold for how large and popular a site would have had to be to survive Panda, and sadly Freewaregenius was smaller than it needed to be to survive. If the algorithm changes came just a year after I think we would have been big enough to pull through.
In retrospect one thing I think I should have done is to band with other tech bloggers similarly hit and with sites of roughly the same size as mine, to create a kind of superblog where each writer would publish their best articles and would have their own ad tags in their posts. At the time it didn’t seem like letting go of all the SEO “goodwill” that had accumulated around our domains was a good idea, so I never took the initiative to contact anyone.
What about a comeback?
I still find myself reading up on materials that would help me write up all these posts in my head that I want to write. I’ve also told many people over the past couple of years that a comeback is in the works; this comeback might happen but honestly I doubt that it will.
For one thing, it was too much work and too much stress to be coming up with well written and value added posts all the time, which at least was the goal if not the reality, and I don’t know that I want to go back to the pressure and stress of it. Another reason is: I think a part of me would love to write, but write about something else other than software and the web. We’ll see.
There’s a quote by Stephen King: “kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” It refers to parts of a writer’s manuscript that he/she has fallen in love with, but need to be removed to create a better book. In my case I wonder if letting go of Freewaregenius is the right thing to do in order for me to figure out what to do next.
Are you working on other projects right now?
I just finished writing a travel guide to Amman Jordan which is published on Kindle. I’ve also been off again on again working on the concept for a web app/research tool, which is intellectually interesting, but which seems like it is not going anywhere unfortunately. I’ve been doing a lot of art (you can see my art at samerkurdi.com) and volunteering my time to help my wife with her organization that assists urban refugees.
Do you have advice for starting webmasters/bloggers?
I would tell them that that it is very hard work, and that it is not easy to develop an audience. However, the reward, of having a global audience reading your stuff from every country can be really worth it.
What are your must have applications?
There are many many. I will mention a handful: Listary (a relatively unknown must have GEM), Everything desktop search, FileMenu Tools (opencandy or no opencandy), Find and Run Robot, and Screenshot Captor.
Actually, I am preparing a big post to be entitled something like “My 100 must have freeware” to be published “soon”.
Are there any blogs that you follow regularly?
Not so much, no. I developed a habit to NOT follow any tech blogs early on in order not to be influenced by what other bloggers like myself write, and in order not to worry about overlapping content. The habit has ingrained itself well. But I will check on some sites, including Ghacks, from time to time.
I tend to read “The Economist” fairly regularly and follow the political stories in Fivethirtyeight.com. I do listen to a lot of Podcasts though, including Radiolab, This American Life, Freakonomics, On Being, Planet money, The Business (Harvard Business), Surprisingly Awesome, Hardcore History (love it!), and Snap Judgment …. to name the main ones!
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