Tuesday, June 30, 2015

These are a few of my favorite things (apps - that is)

Since apps are generally inexpensive and easy to try out I'm just going to make a list of my favorites as a starting point. You can check them out and judge pretty quickly whether or not you want to try them. PS Photoshop is the most expensive ($10) but it's worth it if you want to do serious photo editing.

I have only used these apps on the iPhone and iPad. I can't be sure they are available on Android or Windows but many probably are. (Note: I'm not a big time gamer - not even a small time gamer!)

WEATHER
Storm, WunderStation, Work Time HD
PHOTOGRAPHY
ImageChef+, Panorama(DMD), Photo Delight, PS Touch (Photoshop lite), FrameMagic, SnapStill
BUSINESS/PRODUCTIVITY
Keynote (presentations), Pages (word processing), EasyCalendar, Microsoft OneNote, Calculator(MyScript), Dropbox
ENTERTAINMENT
IMDb (movie database), TV Guide, Pandora

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Because we can - the curse of modern software - Pt 2

(Part 1 was published in February - read it here)
I was thrilled recently when I discovered our new microwave had one hundred "power levels" - exactly ten times as many as its predecessor - which cooked quite well until it quit cooking. Then I discovered a scary fact: that amount of power was what you would expect from the radiation leak of a medium sized nuclear reactor - a scary thought indeed. Upon further research I discovered that power level 100 (new) is exactly the same as power level 10 (old). Just one of many problems we can blame on Ada Lovelace  (1815-1852) better known as "the first programmer" - yes the first programmer was a woman!

A few decades back when you designed something - a car or a toaster for example - every feature you added required metal or plastic pieces and usually some wiring. read the rest of the story here.
Once the product was created, modifying it was very difficult and usually accomplished by the kid next door souping up a hot rod in a month's long undertaking. For better, but often for worse, things are different today due to the curse of software.

Now a new feature or a modification - like increasing the power levels on a microwave - can be done by assembling a series of ones and zeros (called programming) and these can be injected into your stereo or carburetor with the click of an "upgrade now" button. This has lead to the "Because We Can" syndrome. Programmers are known for their dedication to their task, creativity and long hours. And of course the marketing department adds to the problem by dreaming up new "features" in day long brain storming sessions. These powerful forces combine to crank out millions of zeros and ones (called features) every month.

Is it any wonder most of us can't figure out most things we own that run on electricity. It started with our inability to program a VCR so we couldn't even use it to tell time let alone schedule recordings.
I've previously used the example of "feature bloat" in Microsoft Word which grew by their own admission from 150 to 1,500 commands. Why? Two reasons. Something had to change to sell upgrades over the years and software is incredibly easy to modify.

Now - years after we gave up trying to program our VCRs - we face the challenge of programming our microwaves, refrigerators, smoke detectors, auto dashboards and thermostats and - even more exciting - we will be able to do it from any place in the world. Due to this great advance in technology - willy nilly adding more digits - you can now know precisely to the one hundredth of an ounce how much weight you gained over the holidays!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Help may not be on the way

Raise your hand if you've ever ask a nephew, neighbor or colleague for help with your computer - maybe trying to change a page margin or turn off the bold setting in MS Word. That's what I thought, put your hands down. There are really a small number of "experts" like your nephew - maybe 5% of users. Everyone else just tries to get by and learn as little about technology as possible - "I don't want to study it, I just want it to work" you say - and life goes on. Now, imagine the future Internet of Things where "they" want to connect everything you own to the Internet.

"Everything" includes your washing machine, your thermostat, your blood pressure cuff, your garage door opener and your mother's heart monitor. Now imagine what happens if you really don't understand how it all works. It's one thing to have a not so pretty Word document but what if you decide when you wake up that you don't want the coffee maker to start right away and turn it off with your everpresent smartphone - but accidentally disable grannie's pacemaker. Those darned icons look a lot alike without your glasses. The bigger point is that if you think using a handful of PC programs is hard, what will it be like when dozens of other "things with computers" are "upgraded" with a host of features and commands - just like MS Office. "I need to call Philbert 'cause I can't figure out how to make toast"! I'll continue this topic next month with "Because we can - the curse of modern software".

The Wayback machine

You might think that information on the web stays on the web - but sadly it does not. Quite often embarrassing or incriminating pages just disappear as fast as you can say "delete". Since web resources are routinely quoted for much of our work, what happens when those links are no longer available. Whether it's a class report, a research study or a legal document, the veracity of our work often depends on the sources. This New Yorker report goes into great detail on this very critical topic and the Wayback web archive that hopes to solve the problem.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The future of tablets

It's likely tablets will continue to grow in power, storage and size. If they hope to replace laptops, they will need to be bigger and rumors abound that Apple will introduce a 12 inch model this year. This could be related to the recent agreement between Apple and IBM which is beginning to bear fruit - including their first roll out of business apps.
Speaking of replacing laptops, a good keyboard is a must companion for your tablet and the latest models by Logitech are astounding. I do most of my typing - including this newsletter - on the one shown above at a coffee shop recently. If you want to use a tablet as a productivity tool, you really should get a keyboard. 

What can Samsung learn from Downton Abbey?

My apologies if you are one of the three people not yet hooked on Downton Abbey but there really are striking similarities between the two. DA features the owners of a large English estate governed by a descendant of previous owners. Likewise Samsung is ruled by the grandson of the original founder like many other SE Asian companies.
DA and Samsung are both struggling to find a new business model. In the case of DA they decided to raise pigs! Samsung has lost significant ground in the the smartphone market in the last year due to competition from Xiaomi at the low end and Apple at the top. Their focus at last week's Consumer Electronics extravaganza was not on phones (or pigs) but all the things they could connect to the Internet - the Internet of Things. Samsung still sells more smartphones than anyone - they just don't make much money doing it.
Please forgive me - I never imagined I'd be writing my tech column about a soap opera!

Picture This: Have you tried video/still photography?

For kids, sports and wildlife photography, it's very difficult to press the shutter at exactly the right time for that "special" image. As smartphone cameras improve, you should consider taking action shots in video mode and then extracting the best stills.
Professionals who spend thousands of dollars on a single lens for cameras that can snap ten frames per second and weigh five pounds have the perfect solution - but I only know six professional photographers. For the rest of us a good quality smartphone, a little time to get the best video possible and an app such as SnapStill to locate and save special images is all it takes. The picture at the right was taken on my iPhone originally as a video.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Read this if you're thinking about connecting your TV to the Internet



You can connect a TV to the Internet in two ways. Higher priced new TV sets come with connection circuitry installed and the TV becomes another WiFi device on your home network. The alternative - buying a separate set top box - has the advantage of more flexibility. As this field evolves, you can replace the box - typically less than $100 - and not the TV. Since Amazon announced their new set top box recently, a reporter studied the reviews Amazon members gave to the devices they owned including Apple TV, Roku 3, Google Chromecast, and the new Amazon Fire TV. Here's the report.
To make things even more confusing Google just announced their third approach to connecting your TV - 2010 Google TV that was too much like a computer - keyboard required - 2013 Chromecast is an inexpensive "dongle" that attaches to the TV and has received good reviews and now - 2014 Android TV considered a more direct competitor of Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.

(first published in May 2014 Newsletter)

What do you think of Facebook's psychological experiment?

If you're big in social media, you really should read what Facebook just revealed and decide whether you approve or disapprove. In summary, they manipulated the information users received to see if it would influence their behavior - i.e. what they posted. This article gives a good summary that is well worth reading and here's what ComputerWorld had to say. This situation is unfolding just as Google is starting to censor some of its searches! You can read much more about the "right to be forgotten" here - a landmark legal ruling.

(first published in July 2014 Newsletter)

Samsung tablets? have we got a deal for you - a lot of deals actually

I'm always shocked by the number of people who shoot in the dark when they make mobile tech purchases (remember people, these are real computers and not just $400 toys). They go out to buy a Samsung tablet since a friend had one - with no idea there are 22 different models of Samsung tablets available today. They end up buying one of the four models on the shelf of the local electronics store. What kind of decision process is that?

Here’s what Android fan and guru JR Raphael says about the current bumper crop of Samsung tablets. I'm sure there are many fine tablets on the list but they are not all created equal so just buying any old Samsung tablet is not the answer.

(first published in July 2014 Newsletter)