Friday, October 30, 2015

Is The Ability To Find And Secure Your Misplaced Mobile Device Important?

Apple mobile devices (indeed, computers as well) ask you to turn on location broadcasting when you first set it up.  That is, it broadcasts its location to your cloud account, so when you log in via the mobile or web app, you can locate your devices.  Further, on their mobile devices, this also enables a feature called Activation Lock.  This means, your hardware is prevented from any kind of system reset or reinstall, without first entering your cloud account password and device password, or removing it from your cloud account.  This prevents unauthorized people from, for example, swiping your device, and reinstalling it, and selling or using it like a new device.

So, the other day, my daughter walked home from the bus stop - got home, did her normal thing, had dinner, and after dinner, said "Dad, have you seen my phone?"  With an iPhone, the normal procedure is to log onto iCloud, and tap "Play Sound" on the lost device - which, it shows on a map where it is.  (By the way, if the battery is dead or it is offline, it shows the last known location when it was still connected to the network.)  The sound plays even if the phone is turned on silent, so they thought of that, of course.  She couldn't hear it, and apparently can't read maps well either.  It showed on the next street over, on the way home from the bus stop.  Sure enough, it actually showed which side of the street it was on, to an accuracy of inches.  I pulled the car over, at night, and walked to the spot on the neighbor's lawn, and voila.  There it was.  (By the way, the phone locations have been so accurate, that I have been able to look at the map, and determine if it is in the front or back side of my house.)

It occurred to me, if someone had an Android device, what would they do?  Android enthusiasts claim you can do anything and more on an Android device that you can do on an iOS device.  Is this true?  Well, turns out, not quite.  First of all, they do have a rudimentary location capability, but it has to be enabled, and it isn't by default.  It doesn't prompt you to do so on a new device (at least, not yet).  Once you enable it, you can locate it, but only if it's online, and that's all you can do.  If it is on silent, you can't play a sound.  Do you know how many times this has helped us find the iPhone or iPod that slide behind the couch cushion, or been hidden by the mischievous little brother?

Further, Android has very loose security - if someone does steal your device, they can easily root it, reinstall the OS, and voila, they have a phone or tablet they can sell or use as new.  How's that for protecting your investment in their product?  I find it disgusting.

And, what about computers?  With a Mac, it becomes much more difficult to protect from theft, as the hardware is made to be swappable and replaceable.  So a simple hard drive swap, and it's gone forever.  But, at least barring that, you can locate and possibly recover your machine if it is connected to the Internet.  Assuming the location services for IP address isn't spoofed, and works well.

So, Apple at least has a basic protection on their computers, while they have an awesome well-rounded solution on their mobile devices.  If you are angsting betwixt the fruit or the dessert brand of devices, I'd say the fruit is much healthier.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Increase Security by Removing Old WiFi Networks

With your computing device (that's the generic term for anything with a processor, memory, operating system, and software - including phones (smart or dumb), tablets, computers, set top boxes, gaming consoles - heck anything nowadays, even your toaster!), chances are if you move it around, you are joining various WiFi networks.  What happens when you join a WiFi network?  The "computer" stores the configuration for connecting to that WiFi in the future, and automatically reconnects when something with the same name is available.  For example, let's say I buy a Linksys WiFi router for my home, and I leave the default name or SSID "linksys."  I join my laptop.  Now, let's say I drive out somewhere, park my car, and fire up my laptop to work on a Word document.  If someone nearby also owns a Linksys router (any model) and left it on the default name, my computer will connect without asking me (thinking it is a recognized network).

Why is this bad?  Let's say a hacker knows this, and sets up a network called that, or called "AT&T WiFi" or "Starbucks" or any myriad of commonly-used SSID names.  Many devices will connect to it automatically, and voila, he can watch the traffic going across his network, and possibly even hack into that device (computer, phone, etc.).

Are you worried yet?  You should be.  There are things you can do, however, to help limit the chances of this happening.

  1. Pay close attention when you are joining a new network.  Some devices show a different icon if the network is a normal WiFi router, versus a mobile hotspot (in other words, using someone's cell phone to set up a WiFi hotspot would show as a different icon).  If this is the case, and you didn't intend it to be a personal hotspot, then don't join it.
  2. Verify with the store or hotel you are at, what their WiFi name is.  Maybe there are several listed that are spelled similarly.
  3. Frequently review the list of saved WiFi connections you used in the past, and delete any one you think you will never use again.  Below are instructions for how to do this in various devices.

Windows

In Windows 7, 8, or 10, go to Control Panel, Network and Sharing Center, and click Manage wireless networks (one way to get there is to click on the network icon in the tray, and pick "Network and Sharing Center" from the pop-up menu):

Then, select the network from the list, and pick the Remove button:


Android

For Android devices, go to the Settings app, go to WiFi, and simply tap the network in the list, you will have a Forget button to remove it from your list:

Apple Mobile (iOS)

For iOS devices, go to Settings, WiFi, and tap the little Info "i" button next to the network name.  There will be a "Forget this Network" option

Apple Macintosh (OS X)

For a Mac, go to Network Preferences (you can get there easily from the WiFi logo on the system menu).  Make sure to unlock the preferences for changes, and then click Advanced:
Finally, locate the network or networks you want to delete (hold down Command to select multiple), and pick Remove.  Confirm with the dialog to remove them, and click OK.

Finally, don't forget to click Apply to save your changes.

Note that you will have a similar thing for Apple TV, Roku, or any various TV devices, although you may not travel with them, and therefore probably don't join networks.  But if you do, think about it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Credit Card and Identity Theft - Are You Doing What You Should To Be Safe?


In a recent Credit.com blog article, a Canadian analyst firm released a study that showed hackers are more and more looking to hack into online accounts, and not as much for credit cards.  This is because online accounts are more persistent - that is, your credit card may change, but the updated card (as a new one is issued) will be registered to an account.  (Yet another reason to use a service like Apple Pay or Samsung Pay that does not give your card to the merchant.)

And, in an earlier news article, NPR indicated that you are probably doing your online security all wrong - that IT and security experts place top priority on using a password manager to manage very long, randomly-generated passwords.

So, how do you manage your passwords?  Do you have a handful that you can remember, that you use everywhere?  If so, as the ZDNet Ashley Madison password analysis shows, you are doing it wrong!  Chances are, your password is very easily guessable, even if they don't have access to an unencrypted copy of it.

Why should you care?

  1. America is the single biggest target in the world of cyber attacks.  Why?  We have the money, we are the most known country, and there is a lot of ill will against us for many political or economic reasons.
  2. Each year, about 100 million American identities are hacked and stolen - from online purchase sites, from big stores (you swipe your card at the register, it gets stored in the database, and the database is hacked), and even from the Federal and State governments.  (Do you trust anyone to manage their systems for your security?)  To make matters worse, it may be months or years before a hacked institution even discovers the breach.
  3. As the cost of stolen identities and fraud mount, the brunt of those costs are initially borne by the companies or governments that are hacked - but those costs get baked into the cost of the goods and services, and we end up paying more for them.  Credit cards already have a percentage of fraud built into them - that is going up, and we pay in terms of fees and interest rates.
  4. If your own identity is stolen, the thieves can do a large variety of things.  They can open up accounts as you (cases have emerged where people suddenly got bills for houses they never bought, phone lines they never ordered, and credit cards they never opened).  They can use your card without even physically stealing it - they can create a duplicate.  Your credit history can be ruined, and indeed you may have to spend countless hours, months, or even years fighting in court to fight charges and clear your credit.
If you don't care about these 4 points, then stop reading now.  If you do, then what can you do about it?  Use a password manager.  DO NOT use a spreadsheet or some document, either electronic or written, to store your passwords.  Use an encrypted manager software, like MasterLock's vault, 1Password, or LastPass.  Personally, I prefer the last 2, because they have apps that integrate with Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android - so when you are in an app, you can use the password vault to enter your password.  A few other tips:
  1. Constantly keep up to date on any OS updates.  This is true for your computer, as well as all your devices.
  2. Use AVG Privacy Fix app on your mobile devices to review and tighten your privacy and security settings throughout your social networking apps.  Stop giving games any access to your Facebook or other profile - this is just asking for trouble.
  3. Switch to the password managers (e.g. LastPass or OnePassword), and generate new, random 16-digit or longer passwords for all your accounts.  LastPass has a security challenge analyzer, that analyzes all the stored passwords, and lets you know which ones are used for more than one site (a big no-no), and gives you an overall score you can use to increase your security.
  4. Be very very aware (and wary) of joining WiFi networks
    • Many hackers set up fake WiFi networks that look like real ones.
    • Hackers can also join public WiFi networks, and "sniff" the traffic going across it, to steal wide-open passwords (passwords transmitted as plain text, instead of being encrypted), or even financial data.
    • Typically, many devices show a different icon for a mobile hot spot vs. a permanent WiFi router.  Pay attention to small details like icons.
    • Set your devices to not ask to join available networks.  You should only join if and when you need to, and only the networks that you choose at the time.
    • Review your device and computer joined networks, and delete the ones you think you should never use again.  I will provide a future post showing how to do this.  Meanwhile, e-mail me if you have questions, or post in the comments below.
    • In Windows, you can use the security profiles Home, Work, or Public, to set some sharing options that may help keep you safer.
  5. If you care about your security, make sure to use a secure platform.
    • Apple computers and mobile devices, un-jailbroken, are agreed upon by security experts to be the most secure platforms.  As many recent exposures have shown, Android is the least secure, and Windows has long been known as the biggest target (and therefore least secure) laptop/desktop platform.  The unified operating system across desktop/laptop/tablet/phone for Windows and others, means you increase your exposure to a virus, malware, or exploit because one that targets one device type, makes all vulnerable.  Apple notoriously produces a separate Operating System for each type of device: computer, mobile, automotive, watch, and set-top-box.
    • Apple has the most comprehensive offering across devices, that safely and securely integrates your data and operations across their ecosphere (and many other compatible devices, such as HomeKit-compatible home automation appliances).
    • I cannot recommend any other platform for mobile devices, as I have not yet seen any that measure up.  Unless you want to get Blackberry, but I wouldn't recommend that nowadays.
    • Linux provides an excellent platform for desktop/laptop/server computing, although you may find a lack of support for many end-user software packages, and mobile devices.  For general computing, if you are looking at a Chromebook, then I'd say where do you put your trust - in an Advertising company whose primary income is generated from targeted ads (who develops ChromeOS for free)?  Or in open-source Operating Systems from a reputable company who makes their money from services and premium offerings (ala Canonical)?  Personally, if I were not inclined to get Apple, I would put Linux on a home or business machine.



Stack Exchange - the EveryGeek's Resource

If you are in a technical career, chances are you have come across one of StackExchange's hundreds (if not more) communities.  Built on a web application engine that is solidly useful and self-managing, it provides a framework for people to leverage each other and answer each other's questions.  About what?  About anything.

First, let's take a look at what it is they do that is so special.  Basically, it is a way for people to ask questions, and have the community answer them.  There is nothing new about this, in fact it has been going on (electronically) since the 1980's with Newsgroups on the Internet.  When the World Wide Web hit in the early 1990's, Newsgroups morphed to become fora (forums).  People post a question, and a discussion ensues.

What makes StackExchange so groundbreaking, is:
  • Involvement from the community.  Many people get instantly involved in the discussion, Q&A, to evolve or produce an answer.
  • Credibility - StackExchange has developed a system of self-management, where users gain reputation for their various activities.  If you ask a question that someone else votes up (likes), you get +5 reputation.  If someone else dislikes it (votes down), you get -5 reputation.  Same for your answers - likes and dislikes.  For various other things you do, you also may earn badges.  All add up to a reputation score, and as your reputation builds, you obtain more privileges.
  • Self-Managing - the reputation score arises as a result of your interaction with the community.  As you develop, you gain more privileges - you become able to help moderate.  So as you earn badges for activity (my favorite badge is Necromancer - you answer a question that has been sitting around for more than 6 months), you gain the ability to review and approve other peoples' edits, make your own edits on other peoples' posts, and so on - all self-managed by other users with abilities similar to or above yours.   The community wisdom emerges.
  • Topics - StackExchange is divided up into communities (you can join multiple, and your reputation is separate in each).  Communities are also websites - so StackOverflow deals with computer programming, SuperUser with all things computer (admin and usage), AskDifferent with all kinds of questions on Apple products, Academia for all types of professional academic topics, Android Enthusiasts...you get the point.  There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of communities.
  • Immediate Gratification - I have asked many different questions on many different topics, and almost always get an answer the same day.  The communities are very active, and not trolled by people who just love to get angry at some perceived slight and go off on a rant.  It works, and it works very well.  In fact, anyone who does behave like that, I would imagine, would be losing lots of reputation.
Of course, there is an Inbox across all of StackExchange, where you can receive personal messages from others, as well as notifications concerning posts you responded to.  Each post can have a comment thread - so a Question can have comments posted, and can have Answers, each of which can have comments.  One answer can be accepted by the Questioner as THE answer, although usually one answer among multiple will receive most of the up votes, and thus rise to the top as the community's accepted answer.

Try it!  Join any community you are interested in, and see how quickly it will become an invaluable resource.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Is Cheap Really Cheap?

Throughout history, there have been premium products from manufacturers who care about only one thing - the best quality they can produce.  And their prices, traditionally, reflect that.  (Everyone says about such a product, "it is the Cadillac of...")  For example, when I was young, I bought a pair of Fila shoes, and thought they were very expensive.  However, they lasted in excellent condition for 10 years, at a cost of about $12 per year, while the "cheap" shoes at $25 per pair lasted about a year, so about twice the cost.

But somehow, in this day and age of instant, global commerce, we have somehow seemed to adopt an idealistic attitude that, manufacturers can sell direct and cut middlemen, and therefore we can get great products for cheap.  That global competition sharpens the product quality, keeps prices low - and lets the consumer win.  However, that seems to have been taken to the extreme, way beyond reality.  I grew up with my parents repeating, "If it's too good to be true - it probably is."

Monoprice is one example, and the one I am highlighting.  I have read several blog posts touting the amazing quality and prices of Monoprice.  I ordered a couple of lightning-adapter USB cords when we started our transition of devices from the old to the new Apple adapters.  And initially, they seemed to be fine - with the exception of one cord that broke immediately, and Monoprice replaced it promptly.  To be fair, I have found exactly the same results with cheap products ordered from Amazon and eBay, but I am picking on Monoprice because a lot of tech-savvy people seem to think it is God's gift to consumers, and I want to dispel that myth.

I have since ordered 6 cords, and without fail, each and every one of them eventually (within the first year) broke, and stopped working.  Monoprice replaced 4 of them, no questions asked - but those again broke.  Now this particular product type, it is quite common I have found, for non-Apple-branded lightning cables to fray and break, even with careful use.  Additionally, I added Sugru to both the fraying, and new, cables - but that prevented neither from failing completely, and quickly.  What broke, was the cord where it entered the collar that encases the lightning connector - the cord wrap frayed and split, and the wires were exposed (bare and fraying), and eventually stopped working altogether.  Sugru failed to prevent or repair the fray, and failed to prevent the failure of operation.

In addition, I ordered 10 LED light bulbs in our project to replace the bulbs in our house with energy efficient ones that would last.  I had 1 DOA, that they replaced promptly, and then all 10 failed in the first year (most within the first 6 months).  LED bulbs, by the way, are supposed to last about 20 years.  I asked for my money back, and they refused, offering to replace the bulbs.  However, replacing them with faulty ones is not acceptable to me (at 100% failure rate within 12 months, I don't trust the product quality).  What's the point if I keep replacing them, and eventually they will stop replacing them for free?

I have bought other things - mobile ear buds, USB car charging adapters, and more.  Without fail, each and every product I bought from them was inexpensive, felt cheap and chintzy, and broke or failed.  To date, after 2 years, I have two remaining USB car chargers that works (out of several) - and that is the only Monoprice product I still use.  These 2 USB car chargers, by the way, are the only remaining Monoprice products that I have still in use, still working.

Now, let's examine the cost.  Did that save me money?
  • USB cords - these were about $8 for a 6-foot cord, as opposed to $29 for the Apple 2m cord.  However, our Apple cords have, without fail, lasted us 3 years - and are still in excellent shape.  And, I added Sugru to them to strengthen the ends and ensure continued durability.  If you have to re-purchase every 6 months (about the length of time they lasted), that's $16 a year, or after 2 years, $32, or $48 for 3 years.  That costs even more than the Apple cord.
  • Earbuds - same thing.  Boy, talk about chintzy - it is quite clear that Apple (expensive though they may seem) are all about quality.  The plastic earpieces don't sound hollow, and deliver excellent sound quality.  Microphones pick up sound with amazing clarity.  But, they have lasted.  I actually still have earbuds from my old iPhone 3G and 4S, that still work.  Monoprice?  After a year, I can't find one of the 6 or so I bought (as replacements for the lost kids' ones).  They all were uncomfortable, or broke, or stopped working - and were promptly thrown in the garbage.  What a waste.
  • Light bulbs - they were about $7 per bulb.  Inexpensive for LED bulbs, but not exorbitantly so.  Feit bulbs on sale at Costco are actually less, with no shipping costs.  And, they have a better temperature tolerance (for outdoor fixtures).  And, the ones I bought 4 years ago, still have not needed replacement, in a house where incandescent and CFL bulbs both get replaced on an annual basis.
In fact, in not a single instance have I found Monoprice products to be of anything even approaching mediocre quality.  So beware - cheap is not cheap (as we have found across the board).  Expensive is not always cheap either - unless the product is of excellent quality and workmanship.  When we moved into our house, we replaced the cheap contractor electric stove with a Dacor dual-fuel stove, that cost quite a bit of money.  We then continued to pour money into it (about $400 per repair after the warranty expired), until after about 11 years, the control panel completely disintegrated.  So in that case, we spent a lot of money on a well-rated product, but the quality was not there.

Is an Apple computer cheap?  As I've said before, the amount of money you put out for an Apple computer is reasonable, and not inexpensive - but the value you get is measurably much higher than that of a non-Apple computer.  Same for their mobile devices.

To be fair to Monoprice, they are making lots of money selling "cheap" goods, and their customer service is excellent.  However, the quality of their products is so bad, that no amount of customer service (e.g. sugar) can cover up the stink of the quality (e.g. shit).  And, I would be wary of any other claim to be cheap - because cheap is not usually cheap, it is usually much more expensive.

Usually, if it's too cheap to be believed - if it's too good to be true - it probably isn't.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Would You Eat Here?

Y'all know how much I love tech, right?  But even more than I love tech, I love food.  A recent article by NPR is on an automated "restaurant" - which commenter Lencho stated: "That isn't a restaurant. It's a glorified feeding trough."  Dude, I'm with you!  Others point out this is nothing new, as they had automated food vending/dispensing machines back in the 1940's-50's.  However, the concept is slightly different, that "food" (or what they call food) will be served without any Human interaction (or even Humans visible).

Let's take a look at what food is.  First of all, let me be totally clear - much of what we call "food" and is available in a grocery store, is not food.  And, I need to take yet another step back, and take a look at what is a Human being, because food is what sustains us.

A Human being is not, as we are so wont to think of ourselves, a single organism.  We are, instead, a colony of billions of organisms, hundreds (or thousands?) of species living in a symbiotic relationship.  What!?  What's that?  You didn't know?  It's true.  In our mouth alone is over 100 species of bacteria, whose healthy mix begins the digestion process and keeps our mouths disease free.  Think of this - the single point in our bodies that is designed to constantly accept stuff from the outside world in, so of course, it must have the best immune defense designed into it.  And you thought mouthwash was doing you a favor.  Our digestive tract (or gut) contains many more species of bacteria and viruses, all responsible for the final breakdown of food particles, and the beginning of the distribution of nutrients throughout our bodies.  Our skin, as you may have seen, is host to various little microscopic creepy crawlies that keep things - you guessed it - healthy.  Over millenia, Humans have developed fermented foods and diets to repopulate these germs in our gut - beers, wines, pickles, breads, chocolate, and more.

So, food too is a living thing.  Foods that do not decompose, are not foods.  They are simply organic matter that are not fit for Human consumption (yes, that's right, I do not trust FDA designation "GRAS").  Let's look at it this way - if the normal agents of decomposition (bacteria, oxygen, little critters) won't touch the "food," then it is toxic, and you shouldn't either.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, what does food do for us?  There, we could spend an entire book!  Food sustains us, it keeps us going.  More than that, the nutrients we get are directly responsible for our development (or lack thereof).  If we don't get the right nutrition as infants, we can get sick and die, or develop into very severely negatively-affected adults.  That we know.  Food is the single biggest impact on health, bigger even than smoking, exercise, or environmental exposure.  But that is not all, oh no, that is not all (to quote the Cat in the Hat).  We have come from a long line of families throughout the ages, who have attached religious significance to certain foods.  Up until modern times, Mankind has placed huge reverence on people with the skills to prepare foods, grow foods, cook foods, and handle foods.  Food has given us a sense of being, belonging, family, tradition, religion, and more - a place in the universe.

Now, if we take out everything about food that makes it food - and leave behind a vending machine that gives you prepackaged food-like substance (it doesn't immediately kill you, but will over years and years), where does that leave us?  (Yes, while there may be a person behind that facade, it is still a vending machine, but with Human parts.  How's that make you feel?)  And if we don't care about where the food comes from, who brought it to us, and what standards they have in growing and handling it - then what DO you care about?  You don't care about yourself, obviously - as like I said, food is the single biggest factor in our health.

So, get your cameras out folks - and if you capture a (unretouched) photo of me sitting in one of these types of establishments, eating - I will personally pay you $1 million.  And know that, in that case, it is because the apocalypse has arrived, and I have found this place to scavenge because it is one of the few remaining places to get something to eat to get me through the current day - so the million dollars I have I found in an abandoned ATM.
Now tell me - does this restaurant remind you of any science fiction movies or stories you may have heard?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Little-known Usage Tips for iOS 9

With iOS 9 being released publicly next week, the Developers have been testing it all summer.  A lot of new features have been talked about on the blogs, but there are a couple that everyone seems to have missed, and I came upon either by accident, or by reporting it as a bug (and having Apple support say no, it's not a bug, here's how you do it).  So let's share!
  1. Searching Contacts for names not yet in your contact list
    • When you launch your Contacts app, you can search at the top of the screen by any data in the Contact card - name, title, company, e-mail, address, etc.  However, now, searches go through your messages and e-mails as well.
    • When you tap on the contact that you found, you can add it to your Contacts, or merge with an existing Contact.
  2. WiFi Calling - as I posted earlier, Apple has deployed iOS-wide (carrier-independent) WiFi Calling support.  This means, when you have a cell signal that is too weak for a good connection, but have a WiFi connection, the phone (and cellular system) will automatically route the call over WiFi, and back when the cell signal becomes good enough.
    • In my initial testing with AT&T, I did have an issue where incoming calls with this feature turned on, would not allow callers to hear me.  I called AT&T support (611), and they did a refresh of the device on the cellular network, that fixed the issue.
  3. Flight and Tracking recognition - you know how when you get text, say in a Test Message or in an E-mail, how some text gets underlined and you can click on it to see more info?  For example, an address is texted or e-mailed to you, and it shows up as a hyperlink.  Now, iOS recognizes flights and package tracking numbers.  You can simply tap the text to see the package or flight tracking right from the source.
  4. Adding Reminders - to an E-Mail.  When you are reading an e-mail, you can tap the Flag button at the bottom and pick Notify Me... - but this will alert you when there are replies to the thread.  What if you want to come back to the e-mail at a later time, and be reminded to do so?  While reading the e-mail, hold down the home button, and tell Siri "Remind me about this" and give it a location or time, and it will add a reminder that links back to the message.  Now, I asked they add a menu pick, because who wants to talk to Siri while in a meeting?  But perhaps you shouldn't be checking your e-mails while in a meeting... 
  5. Decline incoming call from Lock screen.  Although it is not obvious at all, when you receive an incoming call while your phone is locked, it seems the only thing you can do is answer it.  You may have noticed that tapping a volume button silences the ring.  Apparently, if you double-tap the power button, it will decline the call.  This is good to know, and hopefully Apple makes this more intuitive.

Earlier, I reported that iOS 9 had several important improvements, and these are a few more that make it really useful.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What I Want To See in the New Apple TV

On September 9, Apple will unveil to the public the new iPhones in its annual fall event, along with the new iOS (9).  On 09/09.  Yes, I'm sure the coincidence was not by accident.  Meanwhile, credible rumors from the production lines have surfaced that a new Apple TV will come out, on the heels of sales data showing that Apple TV lags behind Roku, Chromecast, and the newly introduced Amazon Fire Stick.

While at this point we have no idea what the new Apple TV will have different from the older boxes, it has been surmised that it will have a faster processor, more memory, and an App Store (that is, developers can now target apps for Apple TV, and more memory to download the apps to).

However, I am truly hoping they took my suggestion of a couple years ago into account.  As I've said before, I think the Apple TV is the best streaming platform for many reasons, not least of which are performance and interoperability within the Apple world.  What it is sorely missing, is to become the center of a Home Entertainment System.

I suggested to Apple on their feedback page (of which of course, you never hear anything after you submit it), that they make a video input on the Apple TV, and sell an external video switch box accessory that can be controlled by the Apple TV remote (and remote app).  Thus, with one remote, you can control your video source on the TV, and the Apple TV.  But more, if they also release a standard that video device manufacturers can implement, the Apple TV remote could also control the switched device.

Imagine this scenario.  You want to watch a Blu Ray, so you switch input to the Blu Ray player.  Because the Blu Ray player you have is "MfATV-compliant", the Apple TV remote also controls the Blu Ray player, moving the cursor around and selecting elements from the disc menu, pausing, etc.  Volume controls, and now you could hook up your MfATV-compliant Cable TV receiver, and use the Apple TV remote (or remote app on your device) to control your cable tv receiver as well.  All integrated, all with Apple TV at the center.

And we have seen the talk about Apple TV being at the hub of the HomeKit that allows you to securely control the Internet of Things around your house (garage door opener, door locks, alarm system, thermostat, and more).  This really begs for a new name, no longer Apple TV, but Apple Home.  And that's what I want to see.

(*)Three Remotes for the video boxes,
Seven for the various streaming players,
Nine for the TV, switch box, games and stereo doomed to die,
One for the Home Owner on his throne,
In the land of Suburbia where the Tech lives,
One Remote to rule them all, One Remote to find them,
One Remote to bring them all, and in the basket bind them
In the land of Suburbia where the Tech lives.
Thus goes the legend...

Here's an excerpt of the screenplay for the scene where they discover the true identity of the One Remote.

Frodwin:  Gandmorph, how do you really know this is the One Remote?  Certainly, it is a great Remote.  It gives me much power over all my devices.  It is precious to me.  But the One?

Gandmorph:  (Snatches the Remote from Frodwin's hand, and tosses it in the fire)

Frodwin: (Gasping) No!!!

Gandmorph:  Wait!  Look and see - the flames touch it, but scorch it not.  The buttons are still the same shape, the brushed finish unmarred.

(The Remote is a burnished, chamfered aluminum-like finish.)

Gandmorph:  (Fetches it out of the fire with a stick, and picks it up in his hand.)  See!  The heat has not made it hot to the touch.  And look at this fiery script now visible on the battery compartment.

Frodwin:  What does it say?  I don't recognize the language.  (Shudders)

Gandmorph:  It is an ancient tongue, spoken only by those who live in the land of Cupertino.  It says, One Remote to rule them all, One Remote to find them.  It is part of the ancient verse... (Reaches out the window and grabs Samwham, lifts him into the house by the ear.)  Samwham Gammer, how long have you been listening at the window?

...

Is your Internet Service Provider lying to you about your speed?


When it comes to Internet Speed, it may seem like this is a cut-and-dry measurement of "how fast am I?"  However, the deeper I dug into this, the murkier the waters became.  I started out pretty happy - and let me warn you now, if you want to stay happy, don't read any more.  Let me lay out for you my journey, and I will add clarity to how Internet speed is tested, and how it should be tested - and what and why my favorite speed test web site is what it is.

The (Internet Super)Highway To Now

This is the road I took, in the post-dial-up modem world.  I had Comcast as my cable TV and Internet provider, and this was tons better than the dial-up modems I had been using before.  But, eventually (read: years later) I had reliability issues - reliability of the technology, that led to my problems with the reliability of their Technical Support technicians showing up at scheduled times.  And the "I'm so sorry, I'll credit you $20 - oops, we already credited you $20 this month" didn't cut it when I had to call several times a month, and several days each month I had no Internet service.

So, I switched to AT&T.  Now, with AT&T, things were great - for about 18 months.  Speed was the same as Comcast, but customer service was awesome.  Then, it broke down - something went wrong.  The customer service remained great, but after a dozen (literally) on-site visits, fixing and replacing every piece of equipment inside the house and out to the main street drop - the speed just wasn't the mere 18 Mbps that I was paying for.  And by that time, Comcast had zoomed past that performance - and UVerse had absolutely no public plans to boost their speed.

So, I did it.  I split my communications providers - AT&T for TV, and Comcast for Internet.  During this period, I relied heavily on 3 web sites that provide Internet Speed Testing:  Ookla speedtest.net, SpeedOf.Me, and TestMy.Net.  I used these tests to help me determine when I was having issues, and how severe they were.  During the UVerse time, I noticed that AT&T used Ookla's software (and presumably their infrastructure) to test Internet speed.  And, the 3 speed sites gave me slightly different results, which I chalked up to different servers used for computing the speed.  However, the results were similar enough at 18 Mbps, but I noticed a big difference at 50 Mbps.

The Speed Test Difference

So, to me, the way I would think to test, is to throw some data across, and time it - see how long it takes to send and receive.  Further, I would try to "flood the pipe" - fill it with as much data as you can push, and see what its limits are.  That seems simple enough, right?  Ookla uses a Flash-based app embedded in your browser to test speed, so that didn't work from my iOS devices - but they do have an iOS app.  Since I was concerned that Flash may skew results because of its overhead and lack of performance, I searched to find a non-Flash alternative, which led me to SpeedOf.Me.  The great thing about these is the test on demand, but then the problem I had was intermittent speed slowdowns, which was hard to show if I had to go to a web page and click to start a test - over and over, all day and all night long.  So, I searched to find a speed test that took samples over time, and came across TestMy.Net.  The best of both words - non-Flash, and you can set up a repeated sampling every hour for as long as you want.

Once I switched back to Comcast for Internet, however, the disparity in testing between the 3 sites became apparent.  On a 50 Mbps service, I was testing 58 Mbps, 60 Mbps with Ookla, 53 Mbps with SpeedOf.Me, and - get this - 39 Mbps with TestMy.net.  Why such a huge discrepancy?

Ookla SpeedTest.net results

SpeedOf.Me results

Conglomeration of TestMy.Net results over time

Now, we get to testing methodology.  Remember my assumption that a speed test is simply dump some data, see how long it takes?  Turns out that is not how Ookla does it.  And, AT&T and Comcast (as well as many other ISPs) use Ookla as their testing software.  Furthermore, when you search on the web to find places to test your speed, Ookla shows up at the top.  So, here are the differences in their testing methodology:
  • Ookla methodology uses what I would call a statistical hack.  They do the speed test, divide the results into 20 "slices" - and discard the bottom 30% and the top 10% of speeds.  Further, it "multistreams" the data - which means, it runs multiple, simultaneous parallel transfer streams to fully utilize your bandwidth.  In addition, they have servers that are closer to you (mine was Troy, MI), so that it can test with fewer "interference" issues introduced by longer chains of connections.
  • SpeedOf.Me methodology uses a multistream test as well, but it does not discard outliers.  It uses a few servers (mine was Dallas) to more closely simulate what you would get in a real world scenario, but still uses Point of Presence (PoP) servers because, for example, you don't want an Internet test to show the speed between you and halfway around the world.
  • TestMy.Net methodology by default uses a single stream, and does not discard outliers.  If you want, you can change the test to Multistream.  It uses a few servers (not hundreds like Ookla).  The huge advantage here was, you can set up an automated test, and as long as your computer is on and your browser tab left open to the auto test page, you will get a test every hour for as long as you request, with the results stored in a database for your analysis.

Analysis of Methodologies

Statistical Outliers

Now, I don't know if you remember from your college Statistics class about discarding outliers, but there are times in which you discard outliers because they skew averages.  Let me explain, that this is not one of those times.  When you are downloading files (say the latest OS update that is 4.2 GB), you really don't care what the trimmed average speed is going to be.  You care how long it will take - for real.  So the real speed is the size of the file divided by the actual time it takes.  In total.  Without discarding the fastest and slowest portions.  So in the case of testing Internet speed, discarding outliers is actually misleading.

Further, the skewed way in which they discard outliers is totally outright scandalous!  Why discard the slowest 30%, and only the fastest 10%?  It should be even, whatever it is.  In discarding a larger portion of slower data points, you ended up with an inaccurate result that is skewed toward reporting a faster-than-reality speed.

In other words, OOKLA IS LYING TO YOU by fiddling with the results, to make it look faster than it is.  And Ookla is the default speed test that all the cable companies use on their web site, and their techs will tell you to go to it to test the speed.  Does that sound like nepotism?

Threading

In computing, "threading" is the method of taking these vast resources we have of computing power and network speed, for example, and splitting them so multiple things can happen "at once".  I say at once in quotes, because in nanosecond timeframes, they are still happening only one at a time, but in our perception, it is so fast that it appears to happen in parallel.  Threads seem to go faster, and thus better utilize the resources because the bottleneck is in the management of the data, not in the processing of the data, so you can push parallel "threads" at the "same" time and achieve an economy of scale.  Indeed, web browsers and other Internet communication software makes use of these parallel threads to achieve better performance over the same connection.

So, if you use the Internet in a multithreaded way, it seems that the testing should show that usage, and how fast it is.  If you were only to use a single thread (for example, that's how we used to do it in the old days of dial-up modems - a single phone connection, and a single data transfer going on over it), you would only effectively use a portion of the bandwidth.  And indeed, this is what is shown by TestMy.Net's single threaded test - 40 Mbps vs. 53 Mbps.  I argue, that tests should simulate actual usage - and, more importantly, should make use of all available bandwidth to tell me "what's the best possible scenario" for the line I have.  So a Multithreaded test is the only way to accurately test your bandwidth.

Server Location

TestMy.Net argues that having servers located near you, on an Internet backbone, is not an accurate test of how we use the Internet, because when we go to a given web site (or other service endpoint), it could be located anywhere.  True, I do understand this reasoning.  However, I have to take issue with it, because when we run a network test, we don't want to see the actual bandwidth to an endpoint - we are already seeing that by going to that web site and downloading!  No, we want to see, what is the total available bandwidth to the backbone, because when I am doing a speed test, I am trying to determine where the slowdown is.  Is it in my house?  Is it in the ISP?  The Internet backbone? Or is it the remote endpoint server that  I am connecting to?  So, a speed test should tell me what's the fastest my connection is running, to the backbone, right now.

Data Collection Over Time

All things go in cycles - and a lot relies on the diurnal cycles of the Earth's rotation, including Internet traffic (tied to our sleep/wake cycles).  However, when we have intermittent issues, it is difficult to trace down those causes without data taken over time, and we can see patterns if we collect data over time.  Further, in the interest of troubleshooting, we can disconnect equipment to isolate issues, and run tests over time.  However, it is critical that these data be collected at regular intervals.  Perfect for a computer - and here is where TestMy.Net shines.  Set up an Auto Test, 24 runs, and you have a 24 hour period of data collection.  You can see the graph, download the graph, or download the raw data and do your own analysis.

Ubiquity of Ookla

After reading the above, you may have come to the conclusion that I think Ookla has us hoodwinked.  You are correct!  However, here is where it gets really insidious.  To further skew what we, the public, find out about our Internet speed - it seems that Ookla has garnered contracts with all the major ISPs to provide their speed test results to consumers.  A Flash-based software, that discards outlying data points in a skewed fashion, and uses questionable methods to report a speed skewed towards fast - I would call that misleading.

We all know how Google searches work - and indeed any search engine.  Those who pay more money, get their results at the top.  And Ookla shows up at the top of speed test searches.  So even people who don't use their ISP's speed test, still use Ookla from the company's web site.

What Do They Have To Say To Me About This Article?

In writing this article, I solicited comments from the Tech Support departments of Ookla, TestMyNet, and SpeedOfMe.  Ookla said they will not, under any circumstances, provide us users with raw test data (only the pruned data), and they politely refused to review this article and respond to these accusations of collusion and misleading.  SpeedOfMe and TestMyNet were gracious enough to review my draft, and agree that I have a good grasp of the issues.

While I like SpeedOfMe because it is Flash-free, I find that hands-down, TestMyNet is the best overall speed test site.  You can use it from any device, choose whether to use single- or multi-threaded testing, and schedule repeated testing over time.  All 3 sites can store your data under a login so you can collect data over time.

What Do We Do Now?

Definitely, stop using Ookla for speed tests - they are lying to you anyhow.  If you call your service technician, and they tell you to go to their page for speed test (e.g. http://www.att.com/speedtest or http://speedtest.comcast.net/), pay attention - you will see Ookla's logo in the graphics.  Complain to them that Ookla is inaccurate and misleading, and that they should not use it for speed tests.

If you are so moved, write a letter of complaint to your ISP that they use Ookla, who skews the results to look faster than they are, and that they are lying to their customers.  And, if you can think of anything else that concerned Netizens should do, post it in comments below.

iOS 9 - Should you upgrade?

With fall (and September) comes the new Apple stuff, and of course, for those of you staying with your existing equipment, the new Operating System.  I have been testing iOS 9 for several months now, and I think there are some very compelling reasons you will want to upgrade:
  1. Security - As NPR reported, IT experts all agree the number 1 method to ensuring computer security, is to apply OS updates as soon as they come out.  You need to stay ahead of hackers, and this is the best and easiest way to do it.  NEVER forget, your "phone" or tablet is a full-fledged, desktop-class computer.
  2. Low Battery - one great feature of iOS 9, is that if your battery gets low, it switches to low power mode.  In this, it turns off all the non-essential parts of your device, so that it lasts longer.
  3. Low Memory - iOS updates take room to download and install, and on devices with smaller memory, you may not have had enough to update.  The remedy until now has been to download on a computer with iTunes.  But now, iOS 9 will determine which apps it can delete to make space, delete them, and restore them once the update is done.
  4. WiFi Calling - to me, this is a GREAT feature (for those of us not on T-Mobile).  AT&T added me to their WiFi beta testing program, and working in areas where I get a low cell signal, but have great WiFi - I have been able to stay on phone calls with absolutely perfect clarity and no dropped calls.  This is awesome.  The phone automatically switches as it becomes necessary.  The one caveat in the agreement to turn on WiFi calling, is that they cannot use location information for enhanced 911 location.  So you have to register an address when you turn on WiFi calling, and you can change it at any time, that will be sent to 911 if you place a call on WiFi.
  5. Frequent Contacts - before iOS 9, you access frequent contacts (as an option) at the top of the app switcher screen.  With the redesign of app switcher, they moved it to the "swipe right" from home screen.  And, it only shows the last 4 to 8 contacts.  To me, this was a big beef.  I personally asked them to restore the contacts on the app switcher screen as an option, but so far they have vetoed the request.  If it makes it to Live in this manner, and you were used to using the contacts feature, you will (like me) have to get used to going to Home, swiping right, and only getting the last few on the screen.  Not as intuitive, not as accessible.
  6. Better Battery Life - at the June 2014 WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference), Apple introduced Metal, a new "lower-level" closer-to-the-chip graphics programming engine.  Designed to replace OpenGL (which is cross-platform, and not optimized for the Apple OS and hardware), it allows, for example, game developers to write games that take full advantage of the graphics hardware, and do it in the most efficient way possible.  That was iOS 8.  In iOS 9, Apple has rewritten their Core Graphics libraries, upon which all apps (and all of iOS) are built, using Metal.  This means that, after your upgrade, your device will run faster, and use less battery power for the same tasks.  As an aside, I have been really enjoying the introduction of Metal to OS X (the Mac OS) this year in El Capitan, where it has made my 6-year-old laptop run even faster, and the battery last even longer.
  7. Faster - even on older devices, the Metal rework has made the entire OS faster.  You would think you wouldn't notice it on a 64-bit iPhone 6, but it was noticeable even on that platform.
  8. Very stable - I have been an iOS Beta tester for 4 years now, and this release has been extremely stable.  In fact, only in the first couple of releases did it crash, and then only at night while I was sleeping.  I knew because when I used TouchID to unlock it, it asked for my passcode.
Now, there are many other enhancements, including more capabilities with Siri - but I'd say those are the top big things you will notice.  Many under-the-hood changes are for developers, and will accelerate the capabilities of apps, so you will see newer kinds and better apps come out soon.

Monday, August 10, 2015

iOS 9 Supporting WiFi Calling - Not Just for T-Mobile

With today's release of iOS 9 Beta 5 (and Public Beta 3), Apple is now allowing us to select "WiFi Calling" in the Settings app for carriers like AT&T.  However, AT&T mobile users are presented with the message "Wi-Fi Calling isn't yet available in your area, but check back soon."

The WiFi Calling feature allows you to make and receive phone calls - via your standard cellular account - if your phone has WiFi coverage, but lacks a cellular signal.  This means, for example, if you are at the doctor's office and don't get a signal, but they have a guest WiFi that you can connect to, your phone works 100% just like an iPhone (and not just for texting and apps).

AT&T has made this feature available to users in some areas - and mine was lucky enough to be one. After using it all day, it has been totally flawless.  I highly recommend it, and if you are in an area with good WiFi, but bad cellular - upgrade to iOS 9 as soon as you can.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What good is your mobile device if you don't use it?


For many years, Apple has claimed (quoting third party research such as this recent one) that, while they have a much smaller market share in devices in peoples' hands, the vast majority of usage comes from their devices.  As Clammr now reports, that usage gap extends to podcasts as well.  I find it interesting (and telling) that the other mobile operating systems don't even appear on the report - Windows, Ubuntu, Simbian, Blackberry.

So, if it is true that internet browsing, on-device purchases, and now podcast consumption are completely dominated by the smaller market (relative to Android) of Apple i-device owners, that begs the question, what are all those non-Apple device owners doing with their devices?  From my extensive user survey (conducted completely in my head of over 2,000 imaginary people), I have gathered the top 10 uses for non-Apple devices:

10.  To finally fill that last HDMI port on your TV (non-Apple TV).
 9.  Taking photos.
 8.  Accessing the Google Play or Windows App stores.  Just for browsing.
 7.  As a burner phone for a spy or criminal.
 6.  A flashlight, to light your way when times are dark.
 5.  A toothpick.  What?  You can't do that?  Innovation, time to invent!
 4.  To replace the GPS navigator that doesn't update its maps.
 3.  It looks so sporty (and non-Apple) on my hip / cheek / purse / car holder.
 2.  There's something else you can do with it?  How much does it cost?  $1?  Forget it.

And number 1?  Phone calls and text messages.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Major Android Security Flaw Allows Hackers to Take Control Without You Even Knowing

As reported today by National Public Radio, all a hacker needs is your phone number, and they have complete control of your device.  What the article doesn't make clear, is whether this only applies to phones, or tablets as well (assuming tablets can get text messages).

The way the exploit works takes advantage of the ability to secure videos using what is called a Coder/Decoder (CODEC) routine.  This is a bit of computer software that provides a way to encrypt and decrypt the video, so that video producers can secure their own content.  However, a CODEC is simply a bit of software that frankly can do anything.  Because the video the thief texts you specifies the CODEC it needs, as the video is received by the device, the CODEC is downloaded and installed as well - this all without any security checks, and without asking the user. The fact that Android allows any CODEC, gives it full access to the entire device environment, and does this in the background without your authorization or even your interaction, I find to be absolutely unacceptable.
I've said it before, and again, and again, and again, and again...Android is an inherently insecure mobile OS, because security is an afterthought, and wasn't built into it by design, at its core, like it was in iOS.  If that isn't bad enough, to make matters much worse, the Android ecosphere is a mishmash of hardware manufacturers who have their own fork of Android that deviates from the main Google trunk.  This means it isn't up to Google to get the update out for each device, it is up to the manufacturer.  You can probably trust companies like Samsung, HTC, and LG.  Probably.  But how much, and how well will they do?  And, if you have some other manufacturer, I can't even begin to say.

If that isn't bad enough, it has been proven that Android users typically go around with 2 year old OS (or older), and never download updates.  That's right, you can have a brand new Android device, but the manufacturer forked Android 2 years ago (at the beginning of developing that hardware), and so the security you have is already 2 years old, out of the box.  Another NPR article in the past week entitled "Trying To Keep Your Data Safe? You're Probably Doing It Wrong" states that tech experts have completely different priorities on what it takes to keep you safe from hackers, than the average non-expert.  I completely agree with this article on every level - from the fact that the priorities are different, to the fact that tech experts put number one priority on system updates (from the OS manufacturer) as the primary bastion against hacking.  Nothing is even remotely as important as downloading the latest OS updates - whether for phone, computer, tablet, or car.  (If you followed that last link, you found that Chrysler vehicles from 2012 onward with UConnect have an Internet IP address, that hackers can use to gain control of the vehicle - and do anything they want, including shut the engine off.)
In this day and age, I find it ABSOLUTELY INEXCUSABLE for any product company, especially Google, to release a product that is so wide open to hacking, it fails to incorporate the most basic and accepted computing precautions like firewalls, code signing security certificates, forcing communications over SSL, and the like.  All of which, and more, both iOS and OS X (Apple's mobile and desktop operating systems) take into account, and have since the beginning, as they were designed into their core from the beginning.  So if you want to know why I support Apple so much, for security alone, that is why.  I find it also a case of criminal negligence for a company like Chrysler to produce a motor vehicle (the single most deadly type of machine in mass operation today), and make it vulnerable to such attacks.  This when the computer industry has plenty of security experts, and Science Fiction films have provided plenty of scenarios in which a more connected life can become more vulnerable to hackers.
So, now we know about the UConnect vulnerability - what about all the other vulnerabilities that we don't yet know about?  Here's a scenario that is not farfetched at all.  Imagine that you are driving to the Tigers' game.  On the way home, you stop to get gas, go out to dinner, or some other activity in Detroit.  Unbeknownst to you, some guys with a specialized Internet scanner detect your car, push a button - and malware is uploaded to your vehicle, and boom - the engine quits as you pull out onto the street.  You are mobbed by people who mug you, strip your vehicle, maybe even kill you because you hesitated to give them your wallet.  Science Fiction?  Maybe, but I think it's not at all farfetched, and I wouldn't put it past the people designing the computer systems in your vehicle to neglect basic security like I say above.

Further, recent news stories indicate Apple has hired several thousand employees with Automotive experience, on a top secret project.  Rumors abound, but most likely is they are either working on aftermarket automotive systems, or a new electric vehicle to enter into the automotive market.  I cannot think of a better company to make cars incorporating computer technology than Apple.  Who best to take into account computer security, than one of the companies who helped create computers in the first place?  And who best to lock that security to your digital world of smart phones, tablets, and notebooks?  And who best to make it work seamlessly?

If this scares you, it should - you have a pulse.  Do your research, and take action consistent with your findings.  If it doesn't scare you, then go head and tempt fate.  But when it comes crashing down on your head, and you have to jump through hoops because your credit is shot, your bank accounts raped, passwords stolen, and your entire real life ruined by the digital access to it - you only have yourself to blame for your choices.
Now, here's what scares me about the whole thing.  People go around, buying devices and services, without researching or understanding this whole world they are getting into.  But believe me, thieves sure do understand this world, and how to exploit its vulnerabilities.  And legislators are so far behind, they still think they can pass a law that will fix security issues.  The only way to fix the issues, is at the OS and software developer level.  The OS manufacturer should have security built in as a central tenet of the architecture, and their development kits should make it easier for app developers to make secure apps, than to make insecure apps.  The fact that Android is the most prevalent mobile OS, and Windows the most prevalent desktop OS, means that people just don't get it.  But the growth of Apple, means they can learn.  Realize that you (even I) know very little about security in the online world, and that it can impact your real world in many more ways than just money or inconvenience.  You can actually be killed by a security hack.

(As an aside, if you are an Apple developer, iOS has done simple things like provide access to advanced technology through Kits - or libraries that give developers functions to call that makes it easy to write apps to do advanced things.  But the Kits are secure, and allow the device user to control which apps have access to which functions - the camera, microphone, photos, Internet, etc.  And, by default, apps cannot connect to insecure Internet connections, they must use encrypted SSL connections.  If the app needs to do an insecure connection, the developer has to "jump through hoops" by adding exceptions to the app for specific web addresses, so that only those addresses are allowed to be communicated with over insecure, non-SSL sockets.)

What can Congress do about this?  Nothing.  As you are well aware, Congress is a set of selfish, greedy lawmakers who have lost all touch with their constituency, and are at the behest, beck and call of lobbyists.  If they do eventually get around to doing anything, all they can do is pass a bill - and nothing they could do would have an impact, as it would be too little, too late.  This technology is out now (has been for years), and the vulnerabilities exist now.  It's up to you to safeguard you and your family.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Massive Misnomer of the Smart "Phone"


Back in the good old (pre-iPhone) days, we used to call these pocket computers that organized your life a PDA (or Personal Digital Assistant).  With the Palm and Blackberry devices, the convergence of PDAs with cellular phone technology began.  I began with what was called the Palm Pilot, later the Pilot, then just simply "Palm" - had that for many years, and when Samsung came out with the I-300 Palm phone, I was all over it.

And, as is now cliche, along came the iPhone and everything changed.  In fact, I was constantly searching for apps for my Palm and downloading them, but the availability of apps was severely limited (especially as compared to today's App Store and Play Store).  And, I noticed that the plethora of people who had Blackberries and Palm phones, called them a pretty evenly split combination of Phone and PDA (a few called them Organizers).  With iPhone, and I suspect related to the product name, it seems we have abandoned the somewhat wonky and clunky "PDA" for the simpler, but less descriptive, "Phone."  When I want to take a photo, and have to look for my device, I say "Have you seen my phone?"  When I need to check bank balances, travel itinerary, play a game, or the myriad of non-phone things I use my "phone" for the vast majority of its usage time, I call it my "phone."  Kind of interesting.

Although these devices are computers, calling it one is also clunky, because it doesn't take into account the communications and mobility aspects, as well as confusing it with all the non-"phone" computers (desktops, laptops, notebooks, and tablets).  Interestingly enough, the kids constantly say "I want a TV in my room," to which I reply, "You have TV's that you can put anywhere, including in your room."  With Netflix, Watch ABC, PBS Kids, the UVerse app, and more - you have these computing devices that are, by all definition, televisions.  Tablet, by the way, is a great name.  But phone is terrible.  We could go with a Trekky "communicator" - but when you unlock it, you will be forced to change your unlock sound to that of a communicator when Kirk whips it out and says "Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will see people who have only ever known a "phone" to be a fully-capable, desktop-class computer with a small footprint and touchscreen interface (i.e. a "smart phone"), and when you say to them "pick up the phone please, it's ringing" - they will stare uncomprehendingly at your cordless handset, wondering what it is, what it does, and why you have it at all.  I mean, all it can do is make and receive phone calls - how useless is that?

Sitting right now in my recycle bin, in fact, is a thick book with the letters "YP" on the front cover.  I have no idea what it is for (other than as a platform for advertising - like there aren't other more useful ones built into my iPhone???).  I mean, it is filled with business names and phone numbers.  Really?  Where are their web sites?  If I want to look up a business, I am going to ask Siri, or type it into a web or map search.  The section on private individuals is totally gone, and rightly so - how could a publication hope to stay on top of peoples' contact numbers?  Maybe this book would be good to use as kindling to start my charcoal chimney, except that I have tons of newspaper for that.  Maybe it could be a paperweight - like I need that.  I have a million other things that have other uses that can also weigh paper down on the patio table when we chill outside.  Obviously there is a segment of people who use these books, but I can't imagine who that is besides senior citizens who don't have a smart phone (a very small segment indeed).  Maybe it is simply a bunch of people working in an office, where over the past 10 years most of the employees have been laid off, and they are desperately trying to hang onto their jobs.

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.