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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Conversations with Siri #12

Monday, June 22, 2015

What's Missing in the Apple Computer World?

In looking at how amazing the Apple computing experience is, I have neglected the dark side - the lack of Apple mainstream use in much of business computing.  While some companies do use Macs, these are typically limited to creative companies, scientific organizations, and the like.  I believe this is primarily due to perception and familiarity, but I would argue that behind the culture is a truism that much software does not exist on the Mac.

While Java and Web have gone a long way to be cross-platform, there is much native software on Windows that has not been developed cross-platform.  One such genre is design and engineering.

Computers are used for a large variety of tasks in the business world.  I believe that the primary use is that of office document processing, e-mail, and web access.  These 3 things, pretty much any computer can do.  While the Mac does it very well, it is hard to justify spending $800 to $1000 when you can spend $500 on a cheap Windows PC (I'm talking with keyboard and monitor) - in bulk, or for a small business trying to make ends meet, I can see the arguments.  It's a hard cost that is up front in their face when they write the check, and not a soft cost that comes by later in productivity or IT support.

However, for engineering software, there are limited choices.  AutoDesk has introduced Inventor Fusion for the Mac, which works well and is a great 3D package.  However, AutoDesk has not been taken seriously in many 3D industries like Automotive or Aerospace (where Dassault, Parametric Technologies and Siemens rule), and has struggled for acceptance in other industries like Heavy Industry and Manufacturing.  They have made some inroads into Consumer Goods, but for the most part have had their strengths in 2D (mostly architecture).

Dassault Systemes has introduced DraftSight, a package that is designed to let users create and edit AutoCAD drawings - I have seen many AutoCAD (the AutoDesk 2D product) customers say they prefer to use DraftSight for its light-weight footprint, better performance, and refreshing take on User Interface.  This is available on the Mac, but I wonder how many people have downloaded it for that platform.

What I see as a big hole, and perhaps a big opportunity, is the lack of high-end, premium 3D design packages for the Mac.  And nowadays, a 3D design package is only as good as its back-end data management system (now called Product Lifecycle Management, or PLM, system) - so not only does the package have to allow designers to draw 3D geometry, but it has to interface with the PLM servers.  So it seems that a significant effort is needed to get a design package to the Macintosh platform.

As an aside, you could imagine that Apple, Inc. has a need to design their products to build (digitally, not by drafting board!).  And, for those designs, they would be made in 3D.  That begs the question, what software does Apple use?  I am not familiar with electrical design software (especially electronics, micro-circuitry, and chip design), but there again the Windows platform has the solutions the industry uses.  Apple designs and builds many of their chips, and so must use Windows to design their Ax chips.  I have looked into that via web searches, and have found some rumors that sound credible.  It appears to be a secret, but I would bet that Apple is using Windows-based 3D software, and it seems even more believable that they are not using it on non-Apple PC's (i.e. they are booting Windows on their Macs).  Now, it would seem that being able to do full 3D design in a Mac-native platform would appeal to them - but of course, Apple is insanely profitable, and doesn't care about paying Windows licensing fees.  But maybe they do care about performance and productivity, and my experience has been that once people use OS X, by and large they tend to want to stick with it primarily, and avoid Windows like the plague.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pulse - Still Beating or No Heartbeat?

A short time ago, LinkedIn acquired Pulse, a web site and mobile app that allows you to browse Internet content of interest to you in one place, in a consistent format.  Blogs, news publications, etc. all can be saved for later reference, or shared, and viewed - and marked as read.

I have been using it since before LinkedIn bought it.  I don't know how many of you caught the Keynote Address at the Apple WWDC 2015, but new in iOS 9 will be a News reader app like Pulse.  Of course, in true Apple fashion, they not only went there, but went there in a big way.  Not only does it conglomerate articles of interest to you, it learns what you like the more you use it - and presents it in a truly elegant and beautiful way.  Content providers can even target their articles using publishing features of the News app - things like fully interactive content, animations, transitions, embedded multimedia, and more - of course, presented in a consistent format across feeds, blogs and web sites.  Just like Pulse, but way beyond.

So, after that announcement, it occurred to me that I no longer have a need for Pulse, and that as soon as iOS 9 is available in a more stable Beta (next week perhaps?), I will perhaps have a chance to ditch Pulse once and for all.  As great as Pulse was, there were a few things that drove me crazy.  Namely, it constantly lost the "read" mark, so I would forget the last publication I read from each source.  It crashed every once in awhile, and that was very annoying because it then didn't remember all the articles I had read.  Another one, you would think that All Things Digital would be a source it would know how to display, but instead each and every publication you can't read the content, and have to use the "View on web" link - and I don't want to view on the web in my phone browser, because it is not mobile friendly.

What are your thoughts?  Have you used Pulse, or some other conglomerator (sounds like one of Dr. Doofenschmirtz's -inators)?  If you own an iPhone/iPad/iPod, would you ditch the others and go with Apple's News reader?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

AARP Enters into the Tablet Fray


Apparently, there must be a huge gap not covered by other tablet makers, that AARP (the retirement services group) feels must be filled.  So they introduced the RealPad.  Obviously, given the organization sponsoring it, the target market seems to be older people who feel slightly alienated by the technology, may have impaired vision, and who want someone to call when they have questions.  Some highlights of this are:
  • It comes pre-loaded with a shotgun of apps (including some AARP apps, of course) that probably cover the gamut of needs for most people (I find it interesting that they list many of the same apps twice under different names).
  • It comes pre-configured with large icons for people needing large, vision-friendly system.
  • Dozens of How-To videos are pre-loaded on the system.
  • It is only $149, great for seniors on a fixed income.
It sounds great, but what are the caveats that you should be aware of?  How does it stack up to the other stuff on the market?  What issues do I have with it, and might those be important to you?  In reviewing the information available on their web site, this is what I have from it.

Caveats

  • To me, one big caveat is it is an Android tablet.  As I have posted before (and here), Android is not complete, fraught with insecurity, and almost entirely out of date from the moment you get it.
  • Indeed, it runs Android Kitkat 4.4, which as of today is already almost 2 years old.  AARP is not issuing updates to the Android OS for this tablet.
  • If you care at all about the hardware, it is severely limited for anything above and beyond what it comes with out of the box.
    • 16 GB of flash storage.  It does offer a Micro SD slot for additional storage, so that does help alleviate that issue.
    • Very low resolution cameras, so this is not something you would trust to use as a high quality camera.
    • The processor that runs everything is pretty low powered, so I expect it to perform slow.
    • The WiFi that it comes with is the standard that was replaced 2-3 years ago, the old "n" standard.  It does not have the new "ac" standard, and so will only operate at the slower speeds on WiFi.  This may be acceptable, especially for a $149 price tag.
  • There is a 1-year limited warranty.  There doesn't seem to be any way to extend that - I know many people enjoy the extended AppleCare warranty for 3 years.
  • It is not clear how many accessories fit this device.  It is manufactured by Zingarr, so you must do your research to see if some cases or other accessories may fit.

Why RealPad Instead of Real iPad?

The iPad, and indeed the Apple devices, are world-renowned top-notch devices that offer settings to help use the iPad for impaired customers.  When it comes to vision and hearing impairments, the "handicapped" people have spoken - they will only buy Apple.  And with good reason.  I don't think a pre-configuration of an Android tablet will convince very many people to get away from Apple, although the $149 price tag may for those who don't care about anything else.

Out of the box, an iPad would have to be set up to be accessible for the particular handicaps for the user.  I think the RealPad comes assuming a moderate visual impairment.  This may be good for someone without access to a local store, or a local expert able to help them configure the device - again, assuming they fit within the "bell curve" of the target market for this device.  But, I see this device, like any targeted at a "price-conscious" market, would be susceptible to any other low-price device that may come along in the future, promising some other nice feature.

Because of all this, I would say that the only reason you would go with RealPad over iPad, would be price.

Why RealPad Instead of Some Other Android Tablet?

Here, there is a slightly more compelling case made.  The fact that instructional videos come pre-installed, plus the pre-configured visual accessibility, 24/7 technical support phone line, and pre-installed apps, this for $149 is a much more appealing offering than many other Android tablets.  Still, I'd wager to say that the Amazon Kindle tablets probably have a better organization behind them in general, although I don't think they target this older, hard-of-seeing, tech-reticent market that AARP is going after here.

What Do I Recommend?

If you are dead set on an Android tablet (in spite of many reasons I give to avoid), and if you fall under this older generation of individuals who is somewhat tech-aware, not tech-savvy, and are looking for a lower-cost tablet, I think this may have some appeal.  Contact AARP, see if you can go somewhere and try it out, or ship it back within 30 days if you aren't satisfied.

For my clams, I'd rather get an Amazon Kindle Fire HD, which is actually $10 less (Kindle Fire HD 7").  Further, assuming I am of that market who is at or near retirement, certainly I would look forward to the challenge of figuring out something new.  That challenge alone keeps my brain sharp, and keeps me exploring, learning new things.  Even if the Kindle doesn't come "all set up" for what I would do, I would want to spend some time personalizing it.  But that's me.  Some people want a car with basic features, just to get from point A to point B.  The RealPad is a little nicer than that, but if you hate having a slow machine that takes a long time responding to your touches, I don't think you are going to like the RealPad.  Just going on the specs, it is about the same as the SkyPad I reviewed last year - and I don't think I've had the patience to turn that thing on more than 5 times in the past 9 months.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat, But Maybe Cutbacks

Growing up, in history class we learned about the Pony Express, and the history of the US Post Office.  When we think of modern society and the integrity we have come to rely upon, there are many pieces (technological inventions) that hold that integrity in place - the invention of time zones so we can coordinate activities, of course all the communication technologies, but to me, it seems the bedrock of that integrity consists of a reliable postal service.

Over the years, the technology involved in delivering mail has become quite massive.  Remember those bar codes that helped the computers scan your letters and route them?  They scan at amazingly high speeds in massive sorting facilities, and that pretty much unerringly routes your mail.  Nowadays the technology is so advanced, it can scan printed and even written addresses without bar codes, and accurately route it (to the tune of hundreds of letters a second).

Banks count on it.  Mail order businesses count on it.  Utilities count on it.  Legal entities count on it.  Indeed, much of the pillars of our economy and society rely on the assumption that, if you drop a letter in the mailbox, it will arrive in a predictably short time to the destination, without fail (except in extreme cases, say if a mail delivery gets destroyed by disaster).

Yes, we all know that, so what? you may ask.  We just recently had a big family event, where we sent out invitations, got back RSVP cards, and sent out Thankyou notes.  This consisted of over 400 individual pieces of mail going back and forth over a few months of time.  And that's just orchestrated by us, one family.  Imagine the load the USPS has to deal with on a daily basis.

Now, with that large of a batch, you may not be surprised to find out that perhaps a letter got lost.  And historically, that has been our collective experience - occasionally, perhaps a piece of mail falls down in the delivery truck, gets missed, and ends up being late.  Perhaps a piece is destroyed, or damaged - but if damaged, the USPS still delivers with an apology.  However, we found that around 10 invitations never made it, and several more were delayed (that's not including the few returned for wrong address).  Several RSVP's didn't make it back (we confirmed by phone), and about 8 people mentioned they didn't receive Thankyou notes.  On top of that, several more local deliveries (anticipating 1-2 days) were delayed by more than a week (8-9 days to deliver). 

Adding that up, that gives around 20 pieces out of 400 that were lost, and several more that were delayed, say 25.  That's 6%.  And when we are used to relying on it to the point where we mail and forget, 6% is a massive number.  Multiply that out by the USPS daily volume.

Now, this is not our first time around the block - we had the same family event 3 years ago, during the exact same time of year, during which it never even occurred to us to doubt the reliability and integrity of the USPS.

When we asked the Post Office about this, we also found out something quite surprising.  All my life, we had known that the USPS operated a huge sorting facility in Troy, MI, where most area mail was routed through.  We found it had been closed for what she said to be almost 20 years, and that even more mail was now routed through a much more remote facility - in Ohio.  And this, she said, was the cause of why it now takes longer to send mail, and it is less reliable.

Unless, of course, you put tracking on it.  In which case it arrives 100% of the time.  And if you expedite, it arrives faster.  To me, this seems a blatant way of holding us hostage.  If you pay the ever-spiraling First Class postage rate, you basically get Third Class service - unless you also pay the exorbitant fees of a swindler to "guarantee" that your parcel gets there.  And let me tell you, we aren't going to do that on 400 pieces of mail.

So, I ask you, where is technology going with this?  Is the sending of physical written pieces of information becoming a thing of the past?  Do we now e-mail, hyperlink, e-fax, text or post what we want to send from now on?  Do we resort to non-Post Office couriers for packages?  Maybe the USPS has mismanaged its public trust, and maybe it's time to let it fail completely.

As a society, do we now rely upon invitation management web sites and e-mail?  What about those family members who are not so Internet savvy, who don't use smart devices, and who don't keep up on e-mail or social networking?  I feel cheated and betrayed, as if yet another pillar of the country and society we grew up loving and admiring is cracking, falling apart, in an increasingly apathetic and irresponsible public.  Is that just a feeling, or is there something to that?

The Truth About Lawn Care

(picture from the NY Times)

I just listened to a voice-mail on my home line.  It says "This is Ryan, we talked earlier this spring about your lawn, and I noticed the weeds growing in your yard.  Give me a call and we can button them up for you."  That had me reflect that a lot of technology in the form of tools, chemicals, and procedures have been developed, simply to keep a single species of grass growing on an expanse of ground.

Diversity or Monocropping?

First, I know Ryan and I didn't talk, because if we had, I would have told him I have no weeds.  My lawn looks a lot like the one above (except it is mowed). So what is a weed exactly?  I have noticed that we tend to throw the word around a bit.  For example, in our herb garden, we have a plant called Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis).  This is a wonderful herb with many properties both tasty and medicinal.  However, it is prolific, and is now growing all over our property.  In the herb garden, it is an herb.  Outside that, it is a weed.  So the definition of a weed seems to be any plant growing where it is not wanted.  Indeed, from Dictionary.com:
  1. A valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.
  2. Any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted.
Now, we get down to it.  For some reason, it seems to have become a widespread psychotic obsession that people will do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, to make sure that only a single species of plant grows on their yard.  Let's think about this from another perspective.

Let's say you are looking for a place to buy a home.  Let's also say you are concerned about the neighborhood you move into - for your kids in which to grow up, as well as for property value to appreciate.  So you see this great house, but the entire neighborhood is all a single type of people.  Let's say they are all white, Christian, western-European descent - every single last one of them, from the exact same religion, who attend the same church.  And, they all work at the same factory down the road.  Now, is this a healthy society?  I'd say not.  I'd say economically, if that factory gets shut down, they are screwed.  Genetically, if a disease strikes that group, it strikes this community hard.  Culturally, they sound pretty closed off, and if you are a black, Ethiopian Jew who works in IT on the other side of town, this is probably not the community for you.

Do you remember the Emerald Ash Borer problem years ago?  Millions of Ash trees were killed in Michigan because of this pest - and why was it a huge problem?  There were entire areas where just Ash were planted.  And how did this come about?  An earlier pestilence wiped out a different tree population, and arborists replaced those trees with another single species, Ash.  Didn't learn from their mistake, did they?

Runoff and Downstream Consequences

Enough of that line of thought.  Let's talk about another fact of life - Unintended Consequences.  Many times, you see something that you think is wrong, you do something to "fix" it, only to find out that the cure is worse than the disease.  This is one case.  We spend billions on fertilizers, "weed" killers, and such just to try to get the lawn down to 1 species.  Does it work?  Yes, for the most part.  However, our yard is not an isolated ecosystem, as much as we like to think it is.  For some strange reason, those chemicals we pour on the yard don't seem to respect the property line - go figure!  They get washed into sewers, go down into the ground and into groundwater systems.  And if you live in an area like mine, we live in the midst of wetlands, so they are washed 2 yards over into the swampy pond (our neighbor's house listings do say "lake front property").  This swampy pond feeds Michigan's vast network of water systems that make their way out into the Great Lakes - 20% of the global fresh water in our "back yard."

So where am I going?  Of course you can tell - the runoff into our lakes and streams causes massive ecological damage that most people either don't think about, or don't care (why not piss in your pool before you go for a swim?).

Another unintended consequence - I don't know about any of you, but I am living on a tight budget.  If I suddenly had a huge raise, I still could find things to do with that money other than dumping it into my lawn.  Why should I bother spending all that cash to fight a losing battle that has to be fought every year as long as I live on this property, instead of, say, paying the medical bill, paying off a loan, or even buying the new Macbook Pro I so desperately want?  I'm sure if I ran a golf course, or were a multi-millionaire and didn't know what to do with all that extra money, might as well get the lawn to look like it is healthy, and still be a monospecies.  But I'm not either one of those.

What Do You Do?

So, my response to Ryan, was that I don't have any weeds (yes, I called him back - he reached out to me on a sales call, I might as well have the courtesy to let him know I'm not interested).  I have dandelion, clover, greater plantain, and, of course, a couple different types of grass.  All in a beautiful mix of healthy plants that give my lawn a beautiful look. Another interesting consequence - good one - is that the greater plantain is better than any store-bought medicine on fighting the itch, pain and discomfort of bug bites and stings. This spring, we are harvesting the plantain to make a balm we will have year round - that immediately stops itch from mosquito bite, and with 1 or 2 applications, permanently.  Get that from a hydrocortisone cream - doesn't even work the first 10 times, and we have to buy it too!

I suggest a shift in attitude, a shift in thinking about our yard.  We live on a planet that is a delicate balance of ecosystems.  If we pollute it, eventually it comes back to us - screw saving the planet, screw saving some species of plant or animal.  Let's save Homo sapiens!  I want to save my ass, and the asses of my descendents.  Learn to appreciate the beauty in diversity - both in plants, and in Human society.  It is a heck of a lot cheaper to do so, and look at all that free time you don't have to spend weeding out that diversity!  What would you do with all that time?

So, it looks like we need a theme, a unifying "brand" identity.  How about Natural Lawn?  In a Natural Lawn, we have a healthy diversity of plants, and when we do amend the soil, we do so with naturally-produced fertilizers (that don't use petroleum in their production, and emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases), minerals, and other naturally-occurring chemistry that works in harmony with the environment of our immediate ecosystem.  We don't have to tell the kids "Stay off the lawn, they sprayed today."  THAT RIGHT THERE SHOULD BE A RED FLAG TO YOU.

What's one unintended consequence of that?  A lot of lawn care product and service companies may have to come up with some creative ways to stay in business.  I'm good with that.