Monday, December 22, 2014

WARNING: Do NOT Get MasterPass

Right now is the "Wild West" of electronic purchases.  This is a time of great turmoil, massive insecurity, and as can be expected, a lot of snake oil salesman.  My bank debit card was part of the Home Depot hack, so I have a very strong interest in purchase security and mobile technology, so when I got a flyer from my credit union that I can sign up for MasterPass (and my constant questions about when will they support Apple Pay are constantly answered "no plans"), I was optimistically hopeful.

First, I called my credit union.  I asked them, it looks like MasterPass is only usable online, and not in stores, is that correct?  True.  So, that doesn't help me at all with my concerns - what I want is a solution where they have thought out the various ways in which people steal your payment information, and prevent them.  This is NOT it.

Then, I asked them the big one: when I make a purchase, does the merchant get my payment information (card number, expiration date, security code, and name)?  Or, do they get a unique transaction ID that can only be used once, and doesn't identify me?  They didn't know.  After about half an hour, going between on hold, and checking sources, he gave me the MasterPass Fraud number, 877-219-5053.

Interestingly enough, when I called them, even they didn't know the answers to these basic questions about how it works - they had to put me on hold, and find out.  That, to me, is an indication that I don't want to do business with them.  But, they did get me the answer.

Here's what MasterPass really is:
  • This is an e-Wallet software
  • It adds layers of security protocols, but no real security, on identifying who you are before you make the purchase.  But, that is not when identity theft occurs - it always occurs after you make the purchase.
  • Then, it transmits your card info to only online retailers.  So, it makes it easier to transmit your payment information - in fact, absolutely no different from how Safari web browser does it.  But, after your payment information is entered into the retailer's system, it can be hacked, and it is copied in however many retailer systems you used.  This is totally non-secure.
  • Yes, they do have this "appearance of security" feature, where you get a text message when someone wants to make a purchase, and you have to verify it.  But, first of all, this is only happening when they make a purchase using MasterPass, and not just using the plain card info.  Second of all, SMS is an inherently insecure system, inherently hackable, and it is so easy to clone phones and have the text messages reach multiple devices simultaneously - your phone, and a clone that a criminal made.  So now, all they have to do is cross-reference your payment information with your cell phone IMEI number, and voila - they have a very simple means of circumventing the appearance of security there.
In this day and age, it is very simple to research before you sign up for any new service.  I am frankly dismayed that this non-value-add thing is made available to dupe the American public that the banks and MasterCard is doing something.  Meanwhile, Apple Pay and the Federal law in October holding merchants liable for identity theft if they don't use EMV POS systems are the only things that are moving merchants and card issuers toward security.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Solid State, Hybrid, and Conventional Hard Drive Technology

Many "semi-geeks" are familiar with the term Solid State Drive, or SSD, because the technology has become common-place.  For those of you who want to understand it more, or who love the details like me, I'd like to lay it out for you, as well as the various options we have nowadays.

The Hard Disk Drive

Starting back near the beginning, when the "Hard Disk" was invented, the hard disk drive consisted of a hard metal platter coated with magnetic particles.  (Fun fact: a Hard Disk is a kind of persistent storage - when the power is turned off, the data stored on it persists until the next power-on.)  This spun around on its axis, and an arm moved back and forth with strong earth electro-magnets.  Electrical pulses then altered the magnetic substrate on the platter's surface to store data - by using the magnetic polarity it could set one of two states ("north" or "south" polarity).  Without a current through the magnet, the magnet passing over the surface "read" the surface by magnetic induction - presence of a North vs. South-facing magnetic field in that portion translated to a "1" or "0" in computer memory, and the data was transferred into powered (also called volatile) memory, or RAM.  The computer then conducted its computations on RAM.

Computers still work exactly the same today as all those decades ago, but let's think about the limitations of a hard disk as I describe above.  First, how small can you make a magnetic particle, so that you can cram more data in a smaller space?  There is a limit.  Second, how long does that stay charged to the polarity, and how susceptible is it to changing, thus producing a difference from what was stored?  Over time, that likelihood increases, and computers use various techniques to introduce redundancy.  That takes some overhead of using some of the storage for that redundancy.  If the slightest bit of dust gets onto the platter, it ruins the ability to read/write on it, so it is sealed in a vacuum chamber.

Solid State Drives

Now, Solid State drives store differently.  They are similar to RAM, in that they use transistors to store 0/1 values, but they are non-volatile (i.e. they don't need a constant supply of electricity to hold their values).  In this respect, they are the same as your Compact Flash, SD, USB sticks, or other flash memory, but with SSD the response speed is much faster than even hard drives.  With no moving parts, they last a lot longer, are more reliable, and of course are much more expensive to manufacture.  (Think about this: the arm holding the magnet used to read/write the data doesn't exist, so it doesn't have to move into place mechanically on a SSD drive before it can read/write the data.  Data is accessed directly via electrical routing through transistors and gates.)  SSD's are interchangeable with hard drives - that is, they have the same plugs and can hook into the same cables, in the same sizes and screw mounts as conventional hard drives.

Another benefit of SSD technology, is because it is electronic instead of electromechanical, it uses a lot less electricity and generates a lot less heat.  But the cost is a lot more, around $0.50 or more per Gigabyte, as compared to $0.05 per Gigabyte.  For some, the speed (massively faster) and energy savings is worth it.

Hybrid Drives

Enter 2 new categories.  The first, is a hybrid drive.  Many manufacturers make, in a single drive enclosure, a compound of both technologies.  They have special circuitry that determines files you use most often, and puts those on the SSD portion of the drive, while files you access less often are stored on the platters.  In theory, this will give you the best of both worlds.  Bigger capacity at a more reasonable price, with better performance than a Hard Disk Drive.

For relatively small files, this is great.  Think about what happens when a hybrid drive "changes its mind" about where it wants to store a file - it has to move it.  A very large file, such as a virtual disk file for a Virtual Machine, may not get accessed for a while - say for a week when you don't use the VM.  But then when you do, the access rate alters, and the drive "decides" to move it.  Then, the whole system slows down tremendously while it waits for the drive to respond - and it can't until it's done moving the large multi-gigabyte file.  In these scenarios, Hybrid Drives are not very good.

The nice thing here, is you are getting a single piece of hardware - a physical drive, but inside it is 2 disks, one SSD, and one a set of platters with read/write head on a physical arm.

Fusion Drive

Just like a Hybrid Drive, Apple has, since OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, supported a software-hybrid drive they call a Fusion Drive.  At the OS level, you create what looks to you like a single drive, but behind the scenes it is composed of 2 physical drives (like a storage array).  I don't know how well this performs in similar circumstances where large files change usage frequencies, and thus have to be moved from one disk to another.  However, I would venture to guess it is not any better, because now the file has to move across a bus external to the physical drives.


If you have a computer with a Hard Drive, and don't care too much about its performance (it is just fine with you), then stick where you are at.  But, if you want it to go faster, I would suggest this order of priorities:
  1. If money is no object, get an SSD with the same size or bigger than the one you have.  Go for broke, you will NOT be disappointed.
  2. If you can squeeze by with a smaller capacity to save some money, stay with a true SSD drive.  For performance, you will NOT be disappointed.
  3. If you are buying a new computer, and have a choice between SSD and Hard Disk, go for SSD.  The savings in time and energy are tremendous - you will get significantly better boot time, things will run massively faster, and your battery will last a lot longer.
  4. If you know you can't afford a full SSD with the capacity you need, and all you deal with are small files, then a Hybrid (or Mac Fusion) drive solution may work for you.  If you deal with large files that sometimes don't get accessed, but when they do, get accessed a lot, stay away from Hybrid.  A conventional Hard Disk will be faster.
  5. If you like my article or blog and consider how much it has helped your life, you can donate to my Imerman Family Technology Fund via PayPal at - we will use it to upgrade our systems, and teach our kids about the technology.
Thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for any donations!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I just got an Android tablet!

SP717 Product Page
Yes, you heard right, the Apple Fanboy got a Droid.  But this is not the droid I was looking for.  It was a freebie.  Why did I accept it?  I plan on using it for app development.  Granted, this is some off-brand, and granted it is a low-end item, but brace yourself, because I am going to review it.  Here goes.


SKYTEX.  This seems to be a company that has targeted the low-end market.  However, at $75 brand new, they have to compete with the Galaxy Tab and Kindle HD which, for a few dollars more, I am certain are much better quality.


While this SP727 review seems to ooh and ah over the unboxing, it is absolutely apparent to me they have never unboxed an Apple product.   The packaging is a very cheap material (cheap grade of paperboard, plastic, etc.), and the design of the internal packaging is an obvious mimic of Apple's packaging - but without the nice feel, and without anything more than the most basic slip of paper for documentation.

Model and Specs

SP717, 8GB RAM, n WiFi, 1.3 GHz Dual Core Processor.  This whole "Dual Core" is all over the box, all over everything - like it is some big deal to be hyped.  Again, I ask you - what does specs have to do with anything?  Who cares if it's dual core - it is slower than snail snot.  Its sluggish performance reminds me of the old iPhone 3G.  The 800x600 screen is pathetic, like a kid's toy (think LeapPad), and the response to capacitive resistance is really sucky, because it responds to any touch, not just your skin (like the iPad).  I am amazed at the huge border around the screen - everything about it screams "I am cheap" - except the price.  By the way, the screen in real life looks nowhere near as great as the picture above on their web site.  Yes, I am comparing the bottom of the barrel to top of the line, but hey.  You are reading on!

The camera - please!  2MP back-end, and VGA front camera.  These are 15-year-old cameras (or more) in a 2014 model.  Pathetic.  They probably got the lot from the supplier for free, because it freed up their warehouse space.  And 8GB RAM is seriously pathetic - no device nowadays should have less than 16, and I applaud Apple's 16/64 jump to the next level up, I expect 16 will be eliminated soon.  True, it has a MicroSD slot, so that alleviates the pain a bit.

Hey, it does have a mini HDMI out port, so that is one nice thing.

The device is quite thick compared to competitors, and feels very cheap and not sturdy at all.  The screen bezel is a sharp corner, and swiping fingers across it, it feels like cheap plastic.  I contacted support, and asked them if they offered any protection plan - they don't.  I wouldn't either, it would drive me out of business!

This comes with Android 4.2 JellyBean (June 27, 2012).  Do you remember that?  From over 2 years ago?  How do I upgrade it?  Answer from support:  I can't.  They aren't planning on coming out with one.  So apps, security, bug fixes - forget about it.  (Remember - fractured market, lots of device manufacturers, lots of versions out there - and mostly none of them ever ever EVER get updated.)  In this day and age, that's inexcusable.

Buttons -  there is such a thing as well-designed minimalist, and this is not it.  This is minimalism taken too far - there is one button - a power button.  All the others are soft buttons on screen, which responsiveness, touch-feel, and everything else make me cringe.  This is pretty hard to use.  At first power-up, it was OK (took a long time to boot), but after sitting on standby overnight, when I re-activated the tablet, it was freakishly slow, took forever to respond to touches, and when it did, it responded to all the touches at once.  Even after reboot, it is slow.

The charger I was frankly REALLY surprised is a proprietary, non-standard very small round jack (1.5mm?), with a HUGE transformer end that plugs into the outlet.  It is not designed for the modern user, for someone who has multiple devices plugged into an outlet or outlet strip.  It does use one of the standard small USB connectors, but only for data, not for charging.  The battery life seems to be pretty poor, as I had it off overnight, and the charge went from full to 66% (this was hard to tell - I had to go into Settings, then Battery to see the percentage, instead of trying to interpret the tiny little icon on screen, which seems to show more than 66% if I look at it).

Let's get into the Apps.  It has the Google Play store, and what?!?  What!?  There is a SkyTex App Store as well.  With "thousands" of apps in it.  (Yes, that's what it says in the manual.)  Hmm.  Anyhow, I was able to download some apps from Play, and let me say - pathetic!  The way it handles app updates, it is up to you to proactively download them.  And find out about them.  I can guarantee any non-geek will not even think to do it.  But then again, look at the OS, they aren't concerned about keeping you up to date.  Or secure.

I was able to easily enough connect e-mail and calendars, but then again, I am using Google accounts.  It should.

They do have a backup service - online on the cloud.  But, there is nowhere I can go to see its status, verify that it did backup, and I have no idea how to restore.  There appears to be no companion app on a computer to download and help manage it, to allow me to back up and restore.  I mean, who would keep this thing any longer than a year or so?

I took a look at the Google Voice app, and surprise - I was sorely disappointed.  It is much easier to use and much more feature rich on iOS than Android.  The LinkedIn Pulse app crashed a lot, was not very responsive, but otherwise behaved the same as iOS.

Overall, I found Android 4.2 to be not user friendly at all.  This tablet - I personally woudn't have paid for it, but if I were so inclined to get an Android, I wouldn't pay more than $50 for it brand new, taxes included.  It isn't even worth that.


I accept that this is a cheap (quality) tablet, an unknown brand, and an old version of Android OS.  However, this is typical of the Android market - a myriad of hardware, a myriad of manufacturers, and forked OS from old versions.

I also accept that this is a bottom-of-the-line model.  It seems like the lowest level of components available as "manufactured new" today was chosen.

However, my overall experience has left me not wanting to use this thing, for gaming, for the Internet, indeed for anything other than what I have to use it for.  Certainly I do not recommend Skytex brand products, and the overall insecurity of the Android platform makes it hard for me to recommend it as a user.  As a developer, the fractured market makes it difficult to target your app development efforts.  Do you go for 4.2, and not take advantage of anything new in the past few years?  Or do you need the newer features, and thus eliminate portions of your target market?  Or, do you simply give up, and author it as a web application, hoping they will go to it from their browser?  Then, you have the myriad of app stores to deal with for one "platform" - and indeed, the lack of thorough debugging, testing, and community involvement tools available.  Frankly, the costs of developing for Android are much higher than iOS, and the reward much smaller.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Progress or the Appearance of Progress?

Recently, I worked with a customer to get our software to work on a Windows 8.1 workstation (for which I warned him it is not certified).  As a Windows expert for 27 years, I found Windows 8 actually quite difficult to use.  The IT expert I worked with found the same.  So, that brought to mind this topic.

With technology, there are I would argue two different reasons why an established, successful product would be changed.  In the first, what I term "Progress," innovation and redesign happens because it adds to the product in some way - it makes it more capable, easier to use, perhaps take advantage of newer capabilities.  However, the other reason would be progress for the sake of progress - nothing new is added (except look - it is shiny, and different - that's new).

As an example, let's look at operating systems.  Yes, Windows 8.0 - 8.1, Windows 10, and OS X 10.10.  For reference, I am using the vendors' own pages that provide information about what the innovations are in the new versions.

Windows 8.0 - 8.1

Why do I show 2 versions?  Because, if you look at the features, there is nothing substantially different between the two.  What is really new in 8.1, is that they fixed the stability issues that the 8.0 users complained about, and added back the Start menu that they took away and everyone found Windows harder to use. 

So, what is new in Windows 8 family?
  • The Familiar Made Better - that's arguable.  What they say, is that it runs your software ( better or nobody would upgrade),  it has virus security (so do all the others, and there is truly nothing new here except a bunch of confusing, annoying hurdles that in reality prevent an IT professional from doing the job they need to do quickly), oh, and they actually say you can use a mouse and keyboard - whoop de big doo doo!  That is innovative!  (sarcasm? what sarcasm?)
  • Start Screen.  This is the only feature, of all of them, that I would call innovative.  I don't think it is a good innovation, but that's merely my opinion.  Personally, I find the metro tiles of different sizes and shapes confusing to the eye - kind of like that newscast where stock ticker scrolls across the bottom, and headlines flash to the right, while the broadcast takes up center screen.  Anyhow, this, truly, is new and I applaud the innovation to try to revamp the interface.
  • Multitasking - very small innovations here come from stealing from other operating systems, namely Gnome Desktop on Linux and OS X.  Not innovative, and they don't add much more than a cosmetic access to your running applications.
  • Search Once, Go Anywhere.  A very small tweak on the Start menu search bar, now searches the Internet.  Meh.
  • Cross-Platform.  They claim that a huge benefit is to have the same Windows on desktop, tablet, and phone.  Listen, Android and Linux make this claim - and what do they end up with?  A developer writes an app - but what paradigm is it designed for?  If it is designed for one, it does not work well on the other.  An app designed for mouse and keyboard, is awkward on mobile, and vice versa.  An app designed for a phone, is shrunk and restrictive on a tablet, whilst a tablet app is crowded and unusable on a phone.
  • One Drive.  This is there anyhow, and anyone who has a computer (be it desktop, server, or mobile) can access One Drive.  How is this Windows 8?
  • Internet Explorer 11.  One area where Microsoft continues to make improvements (how could you not, it was so bad before?).  Meh.  I'm sticking with Firefox on Windows, Safari on Mac.
  • Skype.  Really?  An app, touted as an OS feature?  That rubs me wrong.
  • Windows Store.  It took years I am sure to get it set up, but that is also years behind all the other operating systems in the world - which, by sheer number of computing devices, have outstripped Windows and made it a minority.  I haven't used it, so bravo, Microsoft, for entering the 21st century.  In 2014.
  • Great Apps Come Standard.  Some were always there, while others, new to Windows, have been on other platforms for years.  I mean, like 10 or more years.  Haven't I ranted before on things I couldn't figure out to do, that were so easy on OS X?  It's about time, and still behind other platforms.
  • iPad Vs. Windows.  Very very very interesting here, that Microsoft is trying to tell you how theirs is better than iPad.  Not any other tablet, just iPad.  The very fact that they think they need to compare themselves to that, means you probably shouldn't bother.
  • Cost:  It costs $150 to upgrade to Windows 8.  Worth it?

Windows 10

While the adoption of Windows 8.x has been very slow indeed, and people may be very happy in sitting on Windows 7 and ignoring 8 - you may be surprised to find out that there is a new version coming out.  And it is not 9.  It is 10.  10?  Why 10?  According to  Microsoft, it is so different from previous Windows versions that they had to skip a number, just to show how different it was.  How is it different?  Other than retro, they now have one operating system that works on all devices - computers, tablets, and phones.  That's right - bloat the Windows footprint even more on the device you are using by adding all that junk for the other devices it doesn't need.  Great idea.  Cost to upgrade - meh.  Whatever.

OS X 10.10

In the newest Mac OS, named Yosemite, Apple has changed the look and feel.  A flattened look seems to be industry-wide (as with Windows), plus transparency in app window borders, are the types of non-progress progress I was talking about.  However, here's a feature list new in Yosemite, from which you can plainly see innovation and advancement:
  • Flattened look and feel.  OK, this is a stretch, but while not functionally better, it does give a consistency across mobile and desk/laptop that does enhance the experience across products.  I can see it, I'm not so warm on it.  I like it, don't get me wrong, just not a huge innovation.
  • Spotlight.  This is Apple's search feature, and they extended it to not only search Internet sources (not just Bing or Google, which you can, but also Wikipedia and Wolfram and others).  It also can perform useful functions - like math operations (5*325-83.55=) and others.  It's an enhancement - definitely not original, as Alfred still does more, but hey, it's a base OS improvement.
  • Powerful, built-in apps.  This is where Apple has always shined.
  • Safari.  Let's talk about a few innovations here that really are.
    • Speed and performance, like IE 11, are better than their predecessor.
    • Notifications are way awesome.  Web sites can now allow you to subscribe to push notifications on their site.  This is kind of like getting notifications on your phone, but from a web site to your computer via the web browser.  You get a pop-up when some news happens in the Notification Center, click, and it takes you to the web page.
    • Sharing - you can share between e-mail, messaging, send to your phone - right from the browser.
    • Netflix HTML 5 video, and more innovation that gets more battery life out of your old or new laptop.
  • Mail.  Cool new mail markup features, and these are awesome.
  • iCloud Drive.  Meh, yet another cloud storage, big deal - except it is integrated with mobile.
  • Messages.  The Messages app is now fully integrated with your mobile Messages apps.  On your phone and tablet, both SMS and iMessages can be sent and received from any device including computer, and they are synched almost instantly.  It rocks!
  • Handoff.  Truly innovative, this means that you can start something on one device, and pick it up and continue on another.  E-mails, documents, and more - start editing, and set it down, you get an icon on the other devices (phone, tablet, computer) to continue.
  • Cost:  It costs $0 to upgrade to 10.10.  Worth it?

     So, when you compare the costs, one thing does stand out.  Apple sells hardware.  Microsoft sells software.  Software gets you coming and going - while Apple, you buy it, you own it.  I'm so there.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

HD is the new i

As I've said before, there are trends in trying to monopolize on a letter (or in this case, letters).  HD, or High Definition or High Def, is used typically to describe the new video format used in Televisions and video screens, and is used for resolutions beyond the original NTSC and PAL formats.  I think what happens is Human nature - some new fad comes into style, and everyone wants to be in on it.  Every company wants their product to be known as exhibiting that.  Everyone who touts themselves as an expert, wants to use the new slang so as to be known as, you got it, an Expert.

There was the e-craze.  Everything had to start with a lower case e.  The i-craze we are in full swing - iHome, iCar, iThis, iThat.

Now that's all cool at catchy, you dig?  But let me hit you with this, dog.  HD.  It makes sense for video - and tells you that you have a higher quality of video.  It makes sense for audio, since it is clearer and more distinct tonal ranges than old audio transmission technology.  Apple's new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have Retina HD screens - OK, because they are higher quality pictures than the old Retina, and they already called them Retina.  It's a stretch, but it fits.  But let's draw the line at products that have nothing to do with HD and everything to do with fashion wanna-bes!

This morning, my wife said someone had posted on Facebook that she got new eyeglasses, and she was glad they were HD because she could see so much better.  HD glasses, is it Google Glass, I ask (dreading the answer)?  No.  Just glasses.  (Knew I shouldn't have asked.)  But some wonky eye doctor or lens maker or I don't know what, wants to capitalize on the everything HD trend.  Come on, what's next?  HD toaster oven (it toasts the bread in higher definition, dude!)?  Hon, let's go to Starbucks and get the Pumpkin Spice mocha latte HD.  And why was my alarm clock not HD, darn it all!?

Well, I'm signing off my HD keyboard, and giving it a HD click of the mouse to post this article in full HD.  Glorious!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Turn On your iCloud 2-Step Verification

Are you an Apple customer?  If so, to prevent hacking of your account, Apple has had 2-step verification to log on.  How this works is, you enter your user name and password, then it sends a code to one of your devices, and you enter that code.  You can then opt to trust that device (computer, browser, phone, tablet) from then on, at which point just your name and password are sufficient from that device only.

It is simple to turn it on.  To do so, navigate to 
  1. Click "Manage your Apple ID"
  2. Log on
  3. Click "Password and Security"
  4. Follow the prompts under Two-Step Verification.
What you will need is:
  • Your Apple ID and password
  • You must have your security questions and answers set up
  • Once you turn on 2-Step Verification (and you will receive notification of this on the web site before you turn it on), each app on your phone/tablet will have an app-specific password to access your iCloud.  This makes sure only apps you authorize can get to your account.  Also, you will have a recovery key - a sequence of letters and numbers - that you will need to remember somewhere.  I recommend placing it in your safe (a printed copy), or on a piece of paper in your wallet, or some such location.  You will get it from the web site, at which point you can print it out, then will be prompted to re-enter it to verify that you have it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Credit Cards Reinvented

As a consumer, have you had it up to here with hearing about how your credit or debit cards have been stolen?  How the major retailers where you shop have been hacked?  How Russia, in retaliation for the US' stance on the Ukrainian conflict, is stealing US cardholder info to use against us?

As a retailer or someone who works in retail, are you sick of hearing of it?  Do you live in fear that you may be hacked?

In the past week, my Google Alert has the following (excerpted) headlines:

What if there was something you could do about it - starting today?  Enter Apple, Inc.  That's right - the iPhone company.  The Mac company.  They have spent the past several years, working with American Express, MasterCard, Visa, and the nation's largest retailers, who are in the process of deploying a new system.  This system is called Apple Pay.

While many of us in the public may have missed it, or thought that Apple Pay was simply a trademark on a wireless way to use your existing card to pay without having to swipe it - it is a completely different animal.

What gets me upset, is a couple things.  First, it is the federal government's job to regulate industries to protect national public interests - especially in things like this.  However, they have done absolutely nothing about the massively exploding volume of identity theft.  That last item I pasted, that article does not even begin to address the root cause of the problem - that the payment system itself is inherently insecure, because you a) have to trust the merchant by giving them payment information, and b) have to have a secure means of transferring that payment information to the merchant.  Neither of which are built into the current system.

So, this year as Apple Pay ramps up, I will keep you posted as to how it works.  I have already inquired into my bank how to get the card registered on my phone.  Sound off in replies as to your concerns, or any questions or issues you want me to research.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Apple September Announcement Recap / Why you should switch to iPhone

Why You Should Switch to iPhone

Although it may seem small to the big bloggers, TechGeekJay has passed 25000 page views - it is a milestone.  As I pass that mark, Apple has released the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, respectively, a larger phone, and a tablet-phone (no I won't use that ph-word).  Here's a rundown of what Apple announced yesterday, and how I see it playing out.  If you don't have an iPhone, I have a list of reasons why, if you care about those reasons, you may want to switch.
  1. The new iPhones sport a host of technological improvements:
    • NFC (Near-Field Communications) offers radio-wave technology for nearby events.  Especially, this is to enable the new Apple Pay service.
    • Faster - crazy fast, apparently on the second generation A8 64-bit processor, there are twice as many transistors as on the A7, and it is smaller.  That is crazy.  And yes, more means a lot - more transistors in less space means better energy efficiency, faster processing, and more capabilities.
    • Better screen, what they now call HD Retina display.
    • More LTE antennas, means a lot of things.  First of all, it works with more carriers throughout the world, and second of all, they use new technologies like:
      • Faster throughput over existing LTE signals
      • VoLTE - If you are not familiar with how LTE worked before, it uses LTE for high-speed data communications, but your voice was sent over old 3G signals on the same cell tower.  This means on some carriers (namely Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile in the USA), you couldn't have simultaneous voice and data (can't talk while surfing), and it also means that 3G signals take up more energy than LTE to transmit/receive, so it uses up battery faster.  VoLTE means your voice conversations also take place over the LTE frequencies, so you can do more (yes, those of use with AT&T have been enjoying that for years), at a lower power consumption.
      • WiFi Calling - First with T-Mobile, and then with other carriers, this will revolutionize phone coverage for all of us.  Before, WiFi calling meant if you are on WiFi, and don't have a cell signal, you can make a call (with a calling app like Vonage, MagicJack, Skype, etc.) - but if you walk outside range of the WiFi, you're dropped.  Now, the new iPhone 6 uses a new technology to seamlessly transitions calls between Cellular and WiFi, using whatever is available to provide uninterrupted service.
    • Apple Pay - Lots of people have been touting NFC as a means of paying by waving a device at the cash register.  However, that does not address fundamental issues with the way people pay now, namely security and authentication.  In true Apple fashion, they have rethought (rethunk?) the process from the ground up - and come up with a secure rework of the entire Credit/Debit Card system, and put electronic payments into that framework (of course, with AmEx, Visa and MasterCard on board, plus a whole list of major retailers).  Let me run down why this is so revolutionary, because it may not be obvious at first:
      • First, is the card number.  This is one critical piece, if thieves have, they have a huge first step in being able to use your payment method.  Apple Pay does not use your card number, in fact it is not stored in the phone, nor is it transmitted to merchants for payment.  How do they do this then?  They create unique, dynamic transaction information that is unique for each transaction, so even if thieves do get ahold of those numbers, they can't do anything with them.
      • Security code, again is a thing of the past.
      • Magnetic Strip - as Tim Cook said, is 50-year-old technology, and prone to all kinds of issues.  Gone.
      • Name - another key thing thieves want, is the cardholder's name.  This is also not shared with the merchant at the time of purchase, so your privacy is protected.
      • Authorization - in order to authorize the payment, you scan your fingerprint.  Even if someone does steal your phone, they won't be able to pay with it.  And remember, your card information isn't even directly on the phone.  What is on the phone, is stored encrypted in a special chip that is segregated from the rest.
      • In order to register your card with your phone, you have to scan it, then go to the issuing bank and have them signify that you are the cardholder.  So, even a lost card cannot be scanned and used in this way.
  2. iOS 8
    • iOS 8 is the new mobile operating system.  To say that it sports a list of x00 new features is meaningless.  i-Device users know that iOS 7 was a huge, major rework.  Normal users won't notice this for a while, but I would argue that iOS 8 is a huger majorer rework!  But that rework is under the hood - imagine if you will, if you buy a new car that looks a lot like last year's car, but it has a completely redesigned engine and transmission.  That's iOS 8.
    • What's so new and groundbreaking?  Most if it is targeted at developers:
      • Extensions.  This allows developers to write custom apps that are not just apps, but extend what your device can do.  Custom keyboards, custom notifications (including interaction within the notification), custom file targets (new destinations you can copy files to), photo editing extensions, and more - these mean developers can develop custom plug-ins to extend the built-in functionality of typing, editing photos, saving files, and more.  This is not at all new - Android has had it, and other systems.  However, the way Apple does it is secure, and most importantly secures your privacy.  You can use these Extensions and prevent them from unauthorized access to your private information - in fact, the keyboard extensions don't have access to what you type, so they can't log passwords or sensitive information - and you can restrict their access to the Internet so they can't send data back to a site.
      • Opt-Out of Group Chat.  This, alone, if I were to single out any feature, makes upgrading to iOS 8 worth it.  But not only that, you can set a chat group on do-not-disturb, opt out completely, create a group from the chat, and send text messages to a group.  The chat interface has been redesigned, so there is a Details button now, that gives you an overview of all media in the chat - at a glance, you can see all photos, sounds, etc. in the conversation, and interact with them.
      • Chat cleanup - you know how your free space keeps going down?  Now, photos, sounds, videos, and all those large attachments people send you in Messages will go away after a while, unless you tap Keep.
      • Simple gadgets in Messages to record and send audio or video selfies.
      • Quick access to frequent contacts by double-tapping home button.
      • Interactive Notifications, so you can reply to text messages from your lock screen, remove notifications from the lock screen (so they don't keep buzzing you), and more.  Developers can write their own interactions as well.
      • A new Programming Language.  Apple has used "Objective-C" as the programming language to develop Mac and iOS apps for almost 30 years now.  They have spent the last few years taking modern language developments, and fashioned a new language, Swift, so that developers can quickly develop new apps quickly, reliably, and with whole new ways of developing that reduces development time while improving stability and reliability.  Having had exposure to about 15 different programming languages, and having worked with Swift for a month, this is hands down the best language I have ever worked with.
  3. Apple Watch
    • I have not worn a watch for many years, and would consider myself a non-watch-wearer, because I have no desire to wear one.  However, the integration of Apple Watch with the iPhone is epic, and the ability to use Apple Pay with the watch is truly astounding.  I want one.  I don't need one.
    • Again, not first to market - but BEST to market.  Apple took its time, looked at Pebble, Galaxy Gear, and others, and noted what worked, what didn't work - and what needed to work together.  They have made a smart watch that I actually want for once.
    • With Watch Kit (the developer offering) coming out, the Watch can only get better.
    • Some people wanted round faces - I'm sure that's coming, but hey, this is a first go-round.  The fact that you can swap out options and accessories means you can customize your own watch with ease, and probably never see another one just like it in your life.

My Take

  • Extensability
    • I see this as providing a long-term growth accelerator.  There will be, in the next year or two, an explosion in capability within the Apple universe (yes, like there wasn't already!).
    • Coupled with Swift, we will also see a new class of app developers who can pick it up more easily.
  • Apple Pay
    • Just what we needed!  Don't just do NFC payments, but rethink it - because my jitters over the past few years when people talk about Apple doing NFC payments are solely around having someone standing next to you, with a NFC scanner, while you pay for something - and if they hadn't rethought it, it would have been Identity Theft Heaven (or ITH).  I see this, more than anything, revolutionizing the antiquated credit/debit card system.
  •  Big Phones
    • Apple now has entered the large phone market - and with a bang.  Haven't I said before, they are not the first to market, but the best to market?  This will eat into Samsung and HTC sales.
  • Apple Watch

Why Should You Switch to iPhone?

If you care about any of the following aspects, I believe this is why you should switch:
  • Virus and Malware Protection - Apple has achieved massive percentages of in-use devices on the latest updates, and this is so important.
  • Security and Privacy - although many of us are cynical in this day and age, we are more and more vulnerable to surveillance and identity theft than ever before.  Apple has done more than any one company (or any 10) to fight that - with hardware security, a closed and monitored app environment, and thought out every last detail of everything they enter into.  If you care about your credit cards - transition to this form of mobile payments.
  • Digital Interoperability - almost everything in life nowadays works with Apple devices - including light bulbs, appliances, sprinkler systems, door locks, cars, appliances, and more.  But that aside, if you do give in and buy Apple TV, Airport Time Capsule, Mac computers, and more - it all works seamlessly to provide a robust and modern vision of digital life, one that enhances your lifestyle and enables you to more efficiently accomplish your pursuits.
  • Phone Size - if you are one of those tablet/phone combo people, you no longer have that to complain about.  Get the 6 Plus.  Me, I'm sticking with a more reasonable 6, going on order tomorrow.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Yet Another Apple Product Par Excellence

As you might have noticed, I have become a raving fan of Apple's products (no, really!).  Recently, I purchased a new genre of product from them - the Airport Time Capsule.  This is a WiFi router that has a hard drive built into it, to support network backups.  The Airport boasts the following features:
  • 802.11ac standard, which runs from 433 Mbps up to 2.6 Gbps (this is 1.5x to almost 9x as fast as 802.11n standard)
  • Dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz
  • Optional Guest network (allows friends to come over and use WiFi, without having access to your computers and private systems)
  • Gigabit Ethernet wire ports
Now, as great as that all is, we are talking $299 for an ac router and 2TB backup drive.  I spent $80 for my D-Link DIR-826L, which is the same thing but 802.11n and minus the 2TB hard drive.  This actually is quite reasonable, considering it is a premium brand and current technology - but how does it stack up?


This Airport router is replacing a D-Link DIR-826L, which is also a dual-band router (albeit 802.11n), with gigabit network ports.  Initially, I really liked the D-Link, but found the configuration pages very confusing.  I was also not impressed with their choice of Microsoft ASP.NET as a web GUI configuration platform - and suspect that played into the problems I experienced.  First off, there were a million configuration options.  Having that flexibility is nice on one level, but I found myself having to dig through many screens just to get to the configuration I wanted.  That also means a lot of trial-and-error, and constant reboots to have the new settings take effect.  After downloading firmware updates, and spending weeks on the D-Link forum, I eventually gave up what I was trying to do - bridge to my AT&T network so that my devices using the faster WiFi and media network could also communicate with my TV devices.  I also had trouble routing VPN traffic through the D-Link to my server, and it had replaced a Linksys router that worked great at that.

Second, the performance on the router admin page was atrocious - very slow.

Worse, after a couple of months I noticed that the D-Link router would only stay operational for a few weeks, maybe up to 2 months max - then it would just stop working.  Devices would connect, get IP addresses, but no Internet was available - until I rebooted the router.  There was no automatic scheduled reboot function available, and D-Link support could offer no better solution.  After 18 months of constantly rebooting the router after sudden Internet outages, I finally gave up.

Airport Time Capsule

In true Apple fashion, the Airport router way exceeded my expectations.  And, I was expecting it to behave very well indeed!  Installation was of course easy (how hard is it to plug cords in?), but the configuration was done through a utility built into the Mac operating system.  It seriously could not have been easier - and within 5 minutes I had my personal and guest WiFi set up, bridged to the AT&T network, and running at blazing speeds (all my devices are still n, but ac are coming soon -- boy do I hope the iPhone 6 has ac!).

Note that you must have a Mac or Apple mobile device to configure your Airport product - there is no generic web interface to configure it.  This may be a negative for some people, but I find it reassuringly secure, and greatly simplifies configuration.  Plus, you should switch to a Mac anyhow.

After running for a few weeks now, I am amazed by several things.  First, multiple devices from multiple vendors - Samsung, Roku, Microsoft, Lenovo, HP, as well as Apple just connect to the Airport WiFi quickly, and IP address allocation (via my AT&T router) is also snappy - much faster than the D-Link.

Second, performance.  About 2-3 times a week, I check for my home network performance - a habit I get into, especially when I find a slow web site.  Typically it has been about 12-16 Mbps, with peaks around 18 Mbps (on a service of 18 Mbps).  I have no idea how, but while connected to my Airport router this week, I have noticed speeds up to 24 Mbps - exceeding the bandwidth that I pay for.  I don't know if the bridging as opposed to NAT gives me a speed boost (as I suspect), but definitely life with the Airport router is really nice.

Cloud Drive

One reason why my routers must have a Gigabit Ethernet port, is that I bought about the same time as the D-Link, a Western Digital MyBook Live cloud drive.  This has a Gigabit Ethernet port, and hosts my video library.  Thus, I want streaming from the drive to be fast within my house, and not bottlenecked when we watch shows on 2 Apple TV's and an iPad at the same time (which we often do).  We also use the MyBook Live as a second backup drive (it supports Apple AFP protocol, and Time Machine backups natively).  So, we have redundancy in our backups of 5 computers, and lots of storage space for all those audio and video files.

As opposed to a cloud service (like Google Drive, Microsoft One Drive, Apple iCloud Drive, DropBox, and more), a Cloud Drive gives you access to storage, but on hardware that you buy, own, and set up somewhere.  My WD drive is 2TB, so I have it partitioned into 800 GB for Apple Time Machine backup, and 1.2 TB for media (video/audio library).  I can access the cloud drive via an app on my mobile devices or computer from anywhere in the world, and from home I simply load the media into iTunes on a computer and share it, to watch from a computer, mobile device, or Apple TV.  For a price of $130 almost 2 years ago, 2TB is very nice.  And, I don't have to worry about anyone hacking into it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Get Ready for New Apples ("Wish We Could Say more")

As Fall rolls around, it is Apple season in Michigan.  That means, not only do we get a new batch of delicious fruit for our pantries (2014 is a bumper crop year - and the cider mills are always busy), but we also get a new set of electronics for our digital life (from Apple, Inc. of course).  In case you like Apple products, but aren't a big enough fan to follow all the rumor mills and blogs, here's a quick rundown of what's up:
  • Tuesday September 9 at 10:00 AM PST (1:00 PM EST), Apple is having a special media event - a.k.a. the iPhone announcements.
    • This event will be live broadcast on a special Apple Events channel on your Apple TV.
    • You should also be able to watch the live stream on Apple's web site.
  • Software Update to iOS 8 offers these major improvements, plus much more:
    •  Silence / Unjoin Group Chats in the Messages app
    • Instant access to Favorites and Recent contacts from anywhere on the phone with double-tap Home button
    • Instant record-and-send of selfies, voice messages, and videos from the Messages app
    • HomeKit allows developers to use standard Apple programming modules to develop their own apps to integrate with home automation devices (garage door openers, appliances, door locks, cameras, etc.)
    • Health app - Just like the Passbook where you store tickets and passes in one place on your device, you can now store personal health-related information in one place
    • HealthKit allows developers to use standard Apple programming modules to store and retrieve personal health data from your Health app, so health apps can better integrate with Health app
    • Extensions - Developers can now develop custom apps that not only provide you an app, but extend built-in functionality on your phone.  Custom keyboards, custom Photo app plug-ins, and more are now possible - but in typical Apple fashion, they have thought this through completely, with your data privacy and device security foremost.  This means that these extensions cannot in any way take over your device and perform malicious things.
    • Predictive Text - Again, in typical Apple fashion, they have re-invented predictive text typing.  All other devices, as you type a few letters, it guesses what you want to type based on the letters.  With Apple, you don't even have to type.  It learns from your history of typing, and even whether you are typing in the Messages app versus the Mail app, and to whom you address your messages, as well as word you have typed previously in the sentence - to accurately predict some follow-on word suggestions.  This gives you adaptive predictions for business versus personal conversations, in context of whether you are typing a short text message or an e-mail.
    • Continuity uses a set of features called Handoff that transfer your digital life between Apple mobile devices and your Mac computers.  You can start and pick up e-mail composition, document editing, phone calls, and more between your Apple devices (all supported by the new OS X Yosemite due for public release this fall).
  • Rumors have abounded, and many "news leaks" have abounded as well showing parts from the new device lineup, so many of these rumors are based on some basis in reality.
  • Apple should announce at least 1, if not 2 (or more) new iPhones with the iPhone 6 line.  The following features are expected:
    • Larger screen size options - it is probable the same iPhone 5 size will continue, but also at least one larger option.
    • Apple has signed partnerships recently with American Express and Visa/Mastercard, and so mobile payments via Near Field Communication (NFC) are expected to be included in the phones.
    • Better battery life is pretty much a given, as they constantly improve year over year.
    • More RAM (as you know, in computers your working memory size gives you your speed, so more is better) - this is not your flash storage, but how much memory the phone has to work with while booted.
  • Although this has been a tightly held secret, for years now analysts have expected Apple to enter the so-called "wearables" market (although they already are in it with the iPod Nanos), with a much-rumored iWatch.
    • The iWatch is speculated to be considered at the $400 price point.
    • It is rumored to show you notifications from your phone, like incoming messages, phone calls, etc. and may also have health monitors to integrate to the Health app (pulse, blood pressure, pulseox, etc.)
  • Persistent rumors throughout the years that Apple will release a new line of Televisions are probably false, as there seems to be no basis in reality that they are ramping up production.

Friday, August 8, 2014

LinkedIn Skill Endorsement Etiquette

Users of the popular business social networking site LinkedIn have made use of a popular feature called Endorsed Skills.  Members can list what skills they have, using their own terms - and as you type, popular terms entered by others appear so that you can use the same terminology across multiple people.

Then, people who know you can endorse you for your skills - that is to say, they are signing their name to the fact that you exhibit that skill, by their endorsement.  Of course, nothing in LinkedIn can determine if the endorsement is genuine, whether the endorser really does know if the endorsee has that skill.

So I have noticed an interesting phenomenon with my account.  I have listed the various skills and areas of knowledge that I have acquired in my career.  Many of my colleagues, friends, and family have endorsed me for those skills that they have seen exhibited.  I personally have endorsed many people for many of their skills - but I only endorse skills for people whom I know, and only those skills that I personally know about.  However, I also see complete strangers with whom I connect and establish a rapport, endorse me for skills which I know for sure they have no idea whether or not I truly exhibit.

If this were a single person doing it, I wouldn't be so intrigued.  However, I see many people who are not acquaintances at all, with whom I connected only on LinkedIn, do it.  Also, if they had done it once, again I would not be so intrigued - when using LinkedIn, it gives you a section of the news feed where you can endorse skills for people with whom you are connected.  Maybe they just accidentally clicked it.  But it occurs over and over again, so some stranger continues to endorse me for skills, presumably for which he is prompted to endorse.

And I wonder, why is that?  If, say, a prospective employer were calling you to interview about a colleague who is a prospective employee, and asked you if that employee exhibited skills about which the you had no idea - as an interviewee, what would you answer?  "Yes, he is great at that?"  Or "I don't know, I didn't work with him on that?"  I think the latter.  So how is it different in the online social media?  What is it that has us think it is OK to blindly endorse a skill for which you have no idea if that person really has it, or even more, if you don't even know the person but just "friended" them out of business networking convenience?  Is there something about the "online universe" that social norms about behavior, rights, and wrongs don't apply, or apply differently from our "offline universe?"  Does it occur that a simple click with a meaning, is different from actually saying something with the same meaning?  If so, why?

How many of you have done this, or some analog of this kind of action online vs. offline?  What were you thinking when you did it, or what occurred to you as you clicked?

How many of you have had this done to you?  How does it come off?  Are you bothered by the disingenuous nature of the endorsement?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Power User: Controlling multiple computers from one

Many of us have gotten used to having multiple monitors on your computer - simply drag your mouse off the edge of one screen and onto the other.  Administrators have for years been using "KVM" switches - Keyboard/Video/Mouse switches - to share keyboards and mice across computers.

However, the day finally arrived I have been dreading for years.  The little monitor I've had on my desktop for some 15 years finally died - and I no longer had an external monitor.  So, in searching for a solution that would allow me to use another computer across the network as a monitor, I came across a free, open-source utility called Synergy, that basically makes multiple computers behave like a single one with multiple monitors.  The most beautiful things about this software, are:
  • It works across platform - Windows, Mac and Linux
  • It supports clipboards - so I spent several hours today taking screen shots with Snag-It on a Windows machine, and pasting into Word on the Mac
  • It is fast and reliable
  • A simple setup dialog allows you to control the screen positions (e.g. dragging off the right edge of WIN001 goes to MAC005)
The machine you want to use the keyboard and mouse on, you set up as the server (check Server and then Start).  The others are clients.  You must add each machine by name to the server before you try to connect from it, this provides a bit of security for you.

The project is free and open source, but if you do end up using it, I highly recommend that you donate to support the software.

I did find a commercial utility that allows you to use another Windows PC as a monitor, but that to me seems wasteful - and I do not want more than one Windows machine at home.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Family Dinner: Tradition or History?

Ok, not really a geeky subject, unless you count it under food geek. So I read this story on NPR a while back (with the title of this post), and wondered if perhaps Allison Aubrey is perhaps living in a circle of what I call convenience lifers, or am I living in my own cushy bubble of food geeks? Our family is near one end of the extreme: we actually grow our own food, buy most of it from local farmers, and the food we eat is almost entirely made from scratch with natural raw ingredients (the most complex ingredient in some of our dishes is ketchup - Organic, of course).

True, we know a few people who never cook, or whose idea of cooking is to heat up frozen dishes. However, it seems without having an actual survey, that most of the friends, family, and neighbors cook and eat at least some meals at home. At our house, it is a rare evening that not all 6 of us is at the table for dinner. And we are a busy family. In fact, the busier we are, the more important it is to take the time and prepare meals (and eat them together). 

My wife Lisa often teaches classes on cooking, including the organization and planning of it. With our lifestyle, our meats are bought in quantity and frozen, so we have to plan ahead (and make fewer trips to the store for them). On very busy weeks, we have our "fast food": dishes that are done ahead or quick to cook, that we can hear up from the freezer -- or cook in the crock pot so we can leave them unattended for long periods of time. 

So if this is truly a bygone ideal, then I say that family and cultural traditions are also bygone ideals, and we may as well live like a pack of individual animals.  How about you?  Do you live a modern life of total convenience, where you have become separated from how and where your food is grown, when it is in season, even don't care about the ingredients?  Or are you the veritable pioneer, living off the land, suspicious of any store-bought foods?  Or somewhere in between?   Do you think that social values are disintegrating in this age of convenience and technology?  Or do you strive to make it more relevant?  Respond in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How Good Is Your Backup?

I have covered this before, but it's so important, it's worth talking about again.  I am only addressing this article to any who use a computing device - computer, notebook, tablet, smart phone.  If you don't use any of these things, you can ignore this article!

I cannot for the life of me understand how it is that people put up with mediocrity.  If someone cuts your lawn, and they forget to trim, or leave wisps of long grass because they miss parts as they criss-cross, do you keep them on?  If someone cleans your home and doesn't do the fans, window sills, or corners - do you let them come week after week?  Heck no for me!  So if someone wants me to buy or download their Operating System, why would I even consider it if they don't provide me an easy way to back up my data?  Let's take a look at Windows and Mac.


What should a backup be?  In order to understand that, we need to understand how computers work.  And let me be clear, everything that requires electrical signals nowadays is a computer - from your smart watch to your phone and tablet.  Computers have 2 types of storage - a working set of more expensive memory, that can only hold contents while powered (this is called RAM or Random Access Memory), and longer-term memory for storage of data while it is powered off (typically non-volatile Flash RAM or hard disks).  Let's call the long-term storage a hard disk, for simplicity's sake.

The hard disk stores basically 3 types of files on it, which are used by the system.
  • Operating System files - these are data files, programs, and the like that run your device.  Without it, you have a very elaborate brick.  These may also contain configuration settings that are modified as you tweak the system to your preferences.
  • Program, or app, files - these are programs that you may add, and all the configuration and resource files they use to run and do their thing.
  • Data Files - these are what typically people think of when they think "backup" - your music, photos, documents, etc. that you download, share, create.
Now, in a well-organized system, these files should be segregated into 3 distinct locations.  Why?  Well, if you have 3 people living in the same house, and no drawers to keep their stuff - they can throw their things all over the place.  How do you know whose is whose?  Whose underwear is that?  Whose toothbrush?  Yeah, you don't want to share some things.

Organized systems means it is easy to back up.  Also, it means it is easy to restore - and restore to a different version of the Operating System, to some degree.

Now let's address another important aspect of backing up.  When you back up electronic data, you back it up (typically) to another electronic system - usually another hard drive, could be a tape or something.  This electronic system is susceptible to failure, or some kind of disaster that affects an area like your home or office could affect both the system you care about and the backup system that has its back.  So off-site backup is important as well.

However, here I would say is the great equalizer.  Offsite backup is typically handled by a service, in which case they support Mac and Windows equally.  What wins here is ease of backup, so the more organized your files are, the easier it is to include the right ones to incorporate a full backup.


From a professional standpoint, I have advised dozens of clients over decades that making a backup is great, but it is completely useless unless you actually restore it and make sure it works.  If a backup is not restorable, it is a false sense of security.

Any backup that you do perform, you should immediately perform a Restore to make sure it works.  Best, is to restore to a fresh system - so wipe the system, and restore - and see exactly the results of the restoration.  Did it get you everything you expected?  Was the backup complete?


Is this a rant?  You decide.  Let's take a look at the 3 types of files.  Windows is an Operating System.  As such, it keeps its files in the Windows folder (e.g. C:\Windows).  Under there are a whole mess of things - from the Windows Heap, Registry, Global Assembly Cache, to Windows system programs and configuration files.  But wait, some things are under C:\Program Files.  And if you are on a 64-bit Windows, some things are under C:\Program Files(x86).  Confused yet?  Wait, it gets better.

When you install a program, let's say you install it to C:\Program Files.  Your program goes there (the EXE file) and a bunch of resource files - but many settings get written to the Registry and loaded into the Heap, which is managed by Windows (yeah, what a heap).  Many are copied to the Global Assembly Cache, or other Windows system folders.  So, if you want to copy your program from one computer to another, it is practically impossible to just copy the Program Files folder, and have that work.  Good to keep people from illegally copying your program if you are a developer, but bad for backup.  And, there are better ways to prevent software piracy.

So, how do you back up a Windows machine?  Let's start with the Windows Backup, that brilliant utility that comes with your system, and lets you back up.  First, it prompts you where to put your backups.  This, it says, is where it is going to put the system image.  What is a system image?  A complete backup of your entire hard disk - everything.  This is great if, say, your hard drive takes a dump, and you have to buy a new one, and restore everything.  This really sucks if you say, buy a new computer, and want to transfer everything.  Because the entire hard drive - including the Windows system folder containing all the drivers specially loaded and configured for your hardware - will be transferred to the new system, where they almost assuredly won't work.  Not to mention that a system backup takes up a massive amount of space (good thing I didn't mention it, eh?).

So where do your little data files fit in?  Sure, you can back them up.  And this is good if you lose a file, but it doesn't take care of the important things in life.  How and when do your backups get initiated?  Do you start them manually?  Hopefully you remember.  Do they go nightly?  What happens if you lose something at 5PM after a whole day's work?  Now here's where it gets really insidious that they are so shortsighted.  You know where I talk about all those configuration files spread throughout the system, some for the app, some for Windows - all over?  Those, I would argue, are just as important as the apps to how you use your system.  Things like what printers you have set up, what passwords your system remembers, to all the little tweaks on where you put your task bar, gadgets, and colors and more.  It takes hours and days to restore a "restored" backup to all these little preferences, and you will never get them back if you have to restore a partial backup.

True, you can take a full system image.  True, Windows is better than it was - you can restore the image to different hardware, and let it go through its redetection to fix all the drivers to the new hardware.  However, this is a hack, and not a robust, well thought out solution.

More importantly, how would one go about getting a good backup?  That, to me, is the mystery here.  The tangled mess of files strewn throughout the file system is the first problem.  Let's cut to the chase - the only thing you can reasonably expect to reliably back up in Windows, are your personal data files.  These are, after all, the most priceless part of it.  Apps you can struggle with re-entering license keys, trying to get the vendor to issue you new ones, or just give up and buy it again.  Personal preferences, just give it up - you are going to have to start over each and every time you restore your system from anything other than a system image.  You get what you pay for.

OS X (aka Mac)

Let's contrast a disorganized, eclectic mess with a well-organized, streamlined symphony.  In OS X (and iOS for mobile devices), Apple has organized everything with strict respect to the purpose of the file.  An app, in fact, is a bundled "zip" file containing all the files the app needs to run inside it - the binary EXE, DLL's, text and image and other resource files, and more.  So installing an app is simply dragging and dropping it into the Applications folder.  Deleting it, simply removing it.  Configuration files are kept in well-defined system and user locations.  So too with data files.  This makes it easy to back up.

More importantly, you can back these up irrespective of what version of the OS you have.  You can restore forward and back, with some limitations - of course, config files may not be able to go back to an older OS.  All kinds of preferences - your keychain (where it keeps your stored user names and passwords), printers, graphical tweaks, sounds, etc. are included with the backup.

The Time Machine software that comes with OS X is designed to work the way people work - and the way problems occur (and the way people realize the problem occurred).  It takes hourly backups of all changed files - in the background, as you work.  If you realize suddenly you have an issue with a file, you can scroll backwards in time to find the right version of the file, and restore it.  All from your desktop.  (Specifically, hourly for 24 hours, and daily for a week, then weekly as backup space permits.)

Every aspect of what you consider "yours" is backed up, so that when you restore, your computer is precisely back to the way it was before the problem.  And, it does so as a series of changed files - you don't have to take an entire system image.  Remember, that system image includes a complete backup of the operating system, which you don't need to back up.  That is already backed up on the Recovery Volume.

I personally have done a few system restores from Time Machine backup, and let me tell you, they are so easy and complete I am left wondering why anyone puts up with anything else.  And file-by-file restore is amazing, it is so easy to flip back through time in folders and restore specific files.

Mobile Devices

Yes, as you can guess - what am I going to talk about here?  If you have a Windows phone, you already know what you're in for - more of the same as above.  A mess.  But what if you have an Android phone? Surely they have thought of this more than Microsoft?  Well, you can throw that idea out the window - backups are just as fragmented, incomplete, and haphazard as Windows.  They rely on you to know what files you want to back up - and believe me, on a mobile device that is even more difficult than on a full PC.

Which brings me around to Apple.  Yet again, they have you covered.  If you synch with iTunes on a PC, it backs up a complete backup of all your files (minus the OS), so that you can do a complete restore of a lost or damaged device.  I myself have done this dozens of times (transfer to a new device, or re-stage the device I used for iOS beta testing).  It is absolutely 100% complete and reliable.

But then they go you one better.  If you go to your iCloud settings, with the flip of one switch, you can turn on iCloud backups - which backs up all your personal data (not app/music/etc. purchases which are already on record anyhow through iTunes) automatically, in the background, over the air.  You are 100% covered, 100% of all your data, without having to think about it or spend your precious hours on it - over and over and over like those manual operating systems.  I mean, come on, is this the 1990's or something?

So, if all you ever care about is your contacts and e-mails - then you don't have to worry about backup if you use cloud-based services.  But, if you do anything else with your computer - use apps, pass files around - you can guess where I prefer to be.  Where I don't have to pay to buy backup software, where I don't have to worry because it's covered.


I'm not even going to say anything at this point - you can draw your own conclusion.  Are you willing to put up with mediocrity, or do you value yourself, your time, your piece of mind, and your data better than that?  It is hard to bring a system to market, and kudos to Google, Microsoft, and others who have done so, successfully.  But what I am saying here, is from a consumer's standpoint - the company who goes the extra mile, who gives a complete thought to every aspect of the product, who is organized, has a plan and executes it par excellence - that is the company whose product I will buy.  That is the one I will admire, support, and use.  Think about how important the data you manage with your computer is, and who has the system to best protect you.  The choice is clear.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Apple to Pull Further Ahead Fall 2014

Recently Apple marked the 25th anniversary of the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC).  Its opening Keynote Address is typically the venue for Apple to announce new features of their software - and this year has heightened my excitement to a level never seen before.  Granted, I am an Apple Fan - I admit it (a reformed Amiga fan).  But, that aside, you have to admit what Apple is doing is truly groundbreaking in the aggregate.   Here's a brief synopsis of what to expect, and why I think Apple is leading.  Also, my analysis on why I think Apple will surge ahead in market share in the coming 12 months.

I've said it before, that Apple has accomplished a monumental feat that dominates market penetration, while at the same time maintaining security and reliability for the end-user, but a recent post by Rene Ritchie of iMore I think puts it most succinctly:
"Apple has been working on delivering a comprehensive inter-app communication system for years but they wanted to do it in a way that didn't compromise security or usability. That iOS is as insanely popular as it is, as big a target as it is, and has effectively no malware is a miracle of modern system design. "
Au contraire, monsieur Ritchie.  Rather than a miracle of modern system design, I would say it was intentionally set out from the beginning to be so - engineered by design to be secure.  It is a marvel of modern system design, one that every systems designer should strive to emulate.

PC's (OS X)

In terms of Personal Computers (traditional desktop/laptop/notebooks), I have said for years that OS X is leaps and bounds ahead of Windows in terms of functionality, utility, interoperability, efficiency, and security (a lot of -y words!).  At first during the Keynote, I was not impressed with the new OS X 10.10 Yosemite - it looked like a lot of gloss (endless presenter comments of look how beautiful and elegant it is - wow, we have semi-transparent windows!!!).  However, as the presentation went on, in typical Apple fashion, the meat and potatoes of true enhancement built to a crescendo - but the OS X (PC) side is truly now only half the picture - with the mobile side necessary to complete the full appreciation of the tremendous value of what they have done in outshining Windows, Android, and Chrome OS, and others.
  • OS X 10.9 Mavericks adoption has reached 51% of market penetration - in 12 months (8 months of release, 4 months of Beta)!  Windows 8.1?  A pathetic 9%.  In almost 2 years!!!  What does that tell you?  And the cost to consumers and business to upgrade?  Dude, don't get me started.
  • Window Transparency - true, OS X has finally "caught up" with Windows in providing transparent windows and dialogs (if you consider that an advancement), but to be honest the first thing I do when using Windows is turn off the transparency.  First of all, it slows the performance down (you can see it noticeably even on today's processors).  Second, it is damn annoying and distracting.  After 24 hours of using Yosemite, I am totally a huge fan of window transparency on OS X.  It is subtle, understated and muted - but a truly nice effect (from one who hated it since Windows Vista).  Well done.
  • Safari Web Browser - since Mavericks, Safari has outshined the competing browsers in every aspect.  I have given up using Chrome, and the new Firefox, as nice as it is, is nothing compared to Safari - especially as you take into account the synergy across devices.  Couple that with touch pad gestures, and forget it - I never want to touch another browser again!
  • Apps - especially built-in apps.  Just in the past couple of weeks, I was trying to figure out how to take a picture of myself with my Lenovo built-in web cam - and me, a Tech geek, could not figure it out!  I finally just did it with my Macbook, and transferred the picture via Dropbox.  Give me a break!  But look at the stuff that comes with OS X Yosemite, and it is crazy especially when you look at Continuity (see topic below).
    • Maps - a very nice Maps app, with built-in integration with your mobile device and the OS X operating system.
    • Mail - I have started using Mail sometimes instead of GMail web page, it is good for certain things.  Yosemite extends this further.  The ability of Mail to recognize contact information embedded in the text of a message, and interact with you to add or update your Address Book, is fantastic.  Integration with Calendar makes it work like a dream - as you always imagined the digital world of the future should.  If you didn't see, the image markup capability is truly stunning - I hope they extend that to iOS!
    • Calendar - much better than Outlook Calendar, this integrates with my Google Calendars, and Outlook/Exchange calendars, seamlessly.  I use this as much as I use the Google Calendar web page.
    • Messages - for a while, I have enjoyed using my laptop to participate in texting - but it only worked on iMessage.  They finally extended it to SMS (aka non-Apple) users, and the synch with my phone is seamless.

Mobile Devices (iOS)

I have seen many argue that Apple is way behind, that iPhones lack features considered standard and widely acceptable.  For example, iPhone apps all along have been sandboxed, which limits what the apps can do outside the sandbox that Apple allows (and limits people from tweaking and customizing).  This has led people to either jailbreak the device, or buy a competing product that allows it.  Another example, SD card slots for storage expansion.  I have argued in the past that Apple has been so forward thinking, they have created a day of limitless capacity - you don't have to go buy a stick to throw in the phone, and when that gets too small, buy another!  No, use the cloud - and reduce local storage only to the data you need while offline.  In keeping with that tradition, Apple has kept the focus in mobile devices squarely on the individual user - not on the device and its specs.  (Specs, schmecks.)  Their specs are only awesome in relevance to what it does for the user, not to the geekiness in the spec itself.  (For example, who cares if your phone processor does 8 million gigaflops of operations - if the OS is written poorly, it crashes or runs slowly no matter what processor you have.  iOS is fine-tuned from the bottom up, on a well-organized and well-designed platform.)
  • Security - iOS 7 has been deployed on about 90% of all iOS Devices.  In less than a year!  This is unheard of outside the Apple world.  Android is the other way around - about 9% of the latest OS is deployed, while 91% of Android devices are running OS's multiple years old - and without the latest security protections!  This is a hacker's dream world - so if you support hackers and identity theft, get an Android now.  People, get off Android ASAP, it is a bad deal.  Even Windows phones are more secure.
  • Some may argue these are catch-up, but Apple has been focused on getting it right, not getting it first.   By "right" I mean it functions reliably and is secure, so it puts security decisions in the hands of the users, and clamps down on apps doing things that are patently not secure.
    • Extensibility - arguably one of the areas where Android until now excelled - the ability of one app to do something with another's data, to make "plug-ins" for browsers, e-mail, keyboards, etc.  iOS 8, now extensible - and responsibly so.  Better do it right, than just get it out there and let malware go rampant.  Developers register extension apps as subscribing to certain types of extensions - is it a keyboard?  A picture plug-in?  A browser plug-in?  A storage provider?  And so on - so that it is available in the right portion of your phone, and globally across all apps that utilize those system services.  Users have control of what system resources the extension has access to, and the extension cannot call up some other app in the background - it can only launch an app to the front.  There is no back-end hacking and sending personal data over the Internet, unless the user allows it.
    • Quick contact access from the running app screen - double-tap to access recent calls and favorites (or favourites for our non-American English speakers).
    • Predictive keyboards - yet another example of wait, don't rush - and do it right!  Wow, this makes predictive text on other platforms obsolete.  How they work on other platforms:  You type 2 or 3 characters, and based on commonly used words or common misspellings, it gives a suggested list of words that you may intend.  What's wrong with that, it's an improvement, right?  Except that how Apple does it is more holistic.  What app are you in - Messages, or E-Mail?  Because how you type differs.  Also, to whom are you addressing the message - a friend or business associate?  The language differs.  Finally, what are the previous words?  Without even typing letters, analysis of previous words can give a follow-on word in many cases - simple analytics, that can produce a much more useful implementation of predictive text.


Introduced with OS X 10.10 Yosemite, the iDevices and Macs now support something called Handoff.  This uses Bluetooth Low Energy (LE), which older devices don't have.  So you need a newer Mac, and a newer iDevice.  Further expanding Apple as a visionary company, I declare that what Apple sells is not a myriad of devices - no, Apple sells the "connected digital life."  They are selling an experience, where a bunch of products (some from Apple, some from others like Chevrolet, Kwikset, Philips, iHome, Schlage, and more) work together seamlessly and securely.  So what does Continuity do, with Handoff?  It uses Handoff to transfer work you are in the middle of, seamlessly and in the background between your devices.  You start typing an e-mail on your phone, then lock it, and finish typing it on your Mac.  Start writing a document on your Mac, then have to get up and go to a meeting, so you pick it up and continue working on it on your iPad.  Seamlessly, in the background - you see an icon appear on the lower left of your screen, to allow you to "receive" the handoff from the other device.  As it should have always been, right?

Laying the Groundwork

Apple realizes that any computing platform is only as good as its software, and a single vendor simply can't make all the software that is needed in today's complex environment, so it needs third parties.  In that vein, Apple has done 3 major things that make it a premier development platform that draws developers:
  1. New API Kits
    • An Application Programming Interface is a tool kit that is made available to developers, so that they don't have to write their own code to do some pieces of what they want to do with an app.  For example, let's say you want to zip up a bunch of files - there is a simple API, so with one or two lines of code you can add Zip functionality to your app.
    • From HomeKit to  HealthKit, to Metal - Apple has done 2 things here.  First, they have brought unified kits to their API that allow developers to easily take advantage of functionality provided from within Apple systems.  Second, they have done so in a framework of security and reliability - so that it will work well, will not crash, and will maintain security to prevent hackers and criminals from illegally or improperly using the system.
  2. New Developer-related Functionality
    • From Handoff to Hypervisor, Apple has laid at the feet of developers the out-of-the-box functionality to quickly and easily add advanced technology to their software.  This is both on the iOS mobile platform, and on the Mac PC platform.
  3. New Programming Language
    • As with any technology, if you start completely fresh today with what you learned from the last 10 or 20 or more years working with older stuff, of course you will come out with the most incredible new things - informed by, but unencumbered by, the past.
    • After going through only about 50 iBooks pages of the Swift manual, it is my expert opinion as a programmer that Swift is absolutely the best, most expressive and most concise language on the market today.  Obviously it has taken many years to develop.  Use of advanced programming constructs, coupled with a powerful way of inferring programming intent with less typing, means that you can use the "looser" programming requirements of a *script type of language (VBScript, JavaScript) coupled with the most advanced ways of defining and building a solution.  This allows you to catch more problems in the language before they become a product, as well as make a more modular and extensible solution that you can leverage to develop new products faster than ever before.
It is my prediction that the next 18 to 24 months will see an explosion of application creativity in the Apple product ecosphere.  For those who don't have a Mac now, you'd better start saving up - because the new world will be so compelling, you just won't want to have a Windows box any more.  Linux or ChromeOS, maybe - but just for playing around.