Monday, December 5, 2011

Cell phone dataplans compared

Monthly cell phone charges will get progressively more complex and more expensive and, of course, it's the monthly charges that really add up. That's the reason carriers often give away the phones; once you're hooked, you're hooked. The following chart compares plans from three major US carriers. This information changes rapidly so check current numbers before buying.

Phone bills consist of four components, calling plan (minutes), text messages, dataplan and other fees and taxes. The dataplan can be the most confusing so make sure you don't buy more than you use - you can monitor and check usage with the carriers app or website. Always use wi-fi when available. Don't make the mistake of listening to music or watching video on wi-fi and then wandering out of the wi-fi location. Your phone will most likely keep right on downloading those megabytes over the 3g or 4g connection.

Cell phone Dataplans compared

Computer Glossary

This long promised glossary is not alphabetical since that doesn't work very well for this type of material. It is loosely organized in some logical groupings but it is short enough that the best approach is just to skim the words in the left column to find ones you've heard and wondered about. Often it seems like you are the only one in the room that doesn't know what the "cloud" is but you are not alone. Here's your chance to catch up and get ahead of most of the people you encounter.

Mobile Devices
Smartphones and Tablets are the most talked about mobile devices today. In a word, they are computers that are portable in the extreme. They have processors, memory, operating systems, keyboards and touchscreens for data entry and for displaying the output. Most importantly, to qualify as general-purpose computers they allow user installation of programs (apps in today’s vernacular). Without this last requirement some current refrigerators – and future toasters – would likely qualify as general-purpose computers.
Tablets are at the large end in terms of mobile screen size – typically seven to ten inch diagonal measurement. The other primary difference from smartphones is that tablets generally don’t have a connection to a cell phone network and if they do it’s not used for phone calls – just for Internet activities. There is nothing stopping a company from putting a cell phone capability into a tablet. Two reasons they probably won’t: the tablet war is turning into a price war and every penny they can cut from the cost is a penny they can keep; the idea of talking into a tablet just seems strange and most tablet owners have or will have a cell phone. Nomenclature will be confusing for a while since someone could – and probably will – put telephone circuitry into a ten inch tablet or remove it from a four inch smartphone.
Phone - Smartphone
Smartphones allow users to install apps of their choosing
Phone – Feature phone
Feature phones can perform tasks using the Internet such as email and web surfing. They come with a fixed set of apps – calendar, contact list, etc.
Phone – Cell phone
Simple cell phones are used only for making phone calls.
Cell phone contracts
Many phones receive service from one of the carriers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) based on a contract. Monthly charges are based on four elements.
1)    Number of minutes of call time
2)    Number of text messages
3)    Amount of information sent and received (the dataplan)
4)    Fees and taxes
Dataplans are likely to cause significant confusion in the future since we are using mobile devices more frequently and very few people know how many megabytes are in a video.
Traditional cell phones do not require dataplans. Prepaid cellphones are traditional cell phones that allow you to buy minutes in advance. These are individuals with limited need for a cell phone.
Internet TV
Much of our television in the future will come through the Internet. A simple computer can be incorporated into a TV set or offered as a standalone box. No matter the form, these are real computers – generally with limited storage. Content is streamed from the Internet not stored locally. They use the TV as a display and a remote control or keyboard for input. Some have relatively simple choices while others offer a full web browser on the TV.
An app is just a new name for a program. You used to install programs; now you install apps.
Operating System - OS
All computers including desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets have a program called the operating system (OS). In the past the three best-known computer operating systems were Windows, Mac and Linux. Currently the top mobile operating systems are Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. There are at least ten mobile operating systems today but few are likely to survive very long.
UI – User Interface
Ever since Apple introduced the graphical user interface in 1984 (icons manipulated with a mouse on a “desktop”) the User Interface (UI) has been critical. Methods of interacting with a computer (using a mouse and keyboard) have progressed slowly in recent years but touchscreen technology is changing the UI at lightening speed.
Wireless connections WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.
All of these are just the various types of radio signals that are used to connect devices wirelessly. They’re called radio signals since they were used for radios decades before computers were invented. For a more detailed explanation check out my July blog post.
In the simplest terms the Cloud means storing information and running problems on the Internet rather than your PC. For the professionals it is much more complicated and you can read more in my June 2011 Newsletter.
Internet and the World Wide Web (Web)
The Internet consists of millions of computers connected together. They may be gigantic machines but even your personal computer is an Internet computer when it is online.
The World Wide Web consists of software and files that allow anyone to use Internet computers to store and retrieve information - information that might be text, photos, music, etc.
A web server is one of the most important web programs since it sends files (web pages) to you when you click on a link or type an address into your browser. It sends (or serves) the page to you and then waits patiently in case you want another file – possibly serving thousands of files to other users in the meantime.
Sending and retrieving web files is only one use of the Internet. Email is another. Email uses the Internet but not necessarily the web. This situation is somewhat confusing since many email services are now available through your web browser.
If two computers (or two people) are going to work well together, they have to agree on how they will do things. Often these agreements are called protocols.  Who sits where at a state dinner is determined by the protocol for state dinners. In the case of computers, how they exchange information is called a protocol that is described first on paper – which signals are going on which wires, etc. To be able to communicate both computers must have a program that implements a particular protocol. Basically it’s a description of what characters will travel between the two computers and in what order. You may hear about IP addresses – these are the addresses used by all computers on the Internet (even yours) according to the Internet Protocol.
We all remember making up secret codes at a very young age. Encryption is just the name for a myriad of techniques that can transform a message – text, photo, etc. – so it cannot be understood if it falls into the wrong hands. Breaking enemy codes was a major undertaking in World War II and today any spy agency worth its salt is doing the same thing with information intercepted on the Internet.
Units – Bit, Byte and Megabyte
We’ve heard that all information in a computer is stored as zeros and ones. If you put enough zeros and ones together you can represent a text book or reproduction of the Mona Lisa. If you take an image from your digital camera or off the Internet and enlarge it many, many times, you will see individual picture elements, (pixels or dots). Each pixel is a single color and that color is represented by a number – a string of zeros and ones.
Storage space for a single zero or one is called a bit – just like storage space for a number from 0-9 is referred to as a digit.
A group of eight zeros and ones is referred to as a byte. As a rough approximation a single character of text can be represented by a combination of zeros and ones stored in one byte (a=00000001, b=00000010, etc.)
A kilobyte is roughly one thousand bytes; a megabyte is roughly one million bytes and a gigabyte is roughly one billion bytes. I say roughly because there are two definitions for each of those terms but they are similar enough for most people to ignore.
A pixel is a single point (dot) in an image. A ten megapixel camera can take pictures with approximately ten million pixels. Each pixel requires several bytes of memory to record the color – see pixel depth.
Pixel depth
Each pixel (dot in an image) can represent millions of different colors. The value stored for each pixel indicates the color of that dot. The higher the pixel depth (more bits to store the value), the more colors that a pixel can represent. For example, if you stored the color of a pixel as a two digit number, you could store up to 100 different colors – 00-99. Computers store values in binary but the principal is the same.
Compression (JPEG or JPG for still pictures and MPEG for videos) In practice there are many other compression standards.
Storing a color value for every pixel in an image results in very large files. It is common practice to compress the image by, for example, indicating that a large area of sky is blue with only a few values – the numeric value for blue color and the boundaries of the block of sky. A tiny speck of a bird in the sky might just be tossed out in the process. The higher the compression, the smaller the resulting file and the more image points will be lost or modified.
Videos can have each individual frame compressed in this way but add interframe compression; if two successive frames are nearly identical, only the changed pixels are included for the second frame.
Generally used to describe high speed Internet access with a variety of speeds. Usually contrasted with dialup connections.
The telephone system was originally intended to transmit human voices. When we began sending information between computers over phone lines, there had to be a way of changing zeros and ones to sound patterns (called modulating) when they were sent and then back into zeros and ones (demodulating) at the other end. The device we use is a modulator/demodulator (modem) - one at each end of the line.
If there are multiple computers in your home or office and only one Internet connection, you need a way to keep transmissions separated. Signals from a computer connected a wireless network go first to the router which attaches a numeric code to indicate which computer sent it. When a response to that transmission is received over the Internet it comes back through the modem and then to the router to send it to the correct computer. Today modems and routers are usually combined into a single device that does both jobs.
A file type indicates what type of program created or can read a particular file - .doc for MS Word, .xls for Excel, etc. Files that come over the Internet to be displayed by a browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari use .html or .htm as a file type.
Flash is a type of file often used for video but for other purposes as well. Flash is losing favor as other more modern programming tools are developed, e.g. HTML v5.
PDF files
The pdf file type was developed in response to the many incompatible file types that were causing confusion. The idea was that all computers could have a pdf file “reader” so any document – word processing, spreadsheet, etc. – that could be converted to a pdf format could be read on any computer.
A Uniform Resource Locator is the fancy name for the Internet addressing scheme. You could type an address into your web browser and call it either an address or URL. URL is the cooler term.
Smartphones and tablet computers use display screens that can detect the touch of a finger or special soft stylus. They can be programmed to respond to various gestures – tap and double tap, as well as sliding motions involving several fingers. Cheaper touchscreens require pressure but later, higher quality screens respond to a very light touch. Touch gestures often imitate mouse clicks – double click/double tap, click and drag/tap and drag, etc.
Domain Names
To provide some structure to Internet addressing, the scheme starts with Top Level Domains. These include .com, .edu, .mil, .gov and .biz - called generic TLDs. They are not associated with any country. TLDs also include two letter country codes .us, . ca. ru, etc. New top level domains are just being rolled out now.
Any organization that wants an Internet address can apply for its own name – or – consisting of a specific name associated with one of the TLDs. Needless to say most common words and proper names are already taken.
This is how requests for information are routed around the Internet. is essentially a folder of files stored somewhere on the Internet. One of those files is the home page that will be retrieved if no further information is provided. In most cases, someone might want a specific file and request This is a file in the folder
www, http, https, ftp
A web file usually starts with www (world wide web) but if you leave that out, your browser will generally insert it for you. The Internet operates on Hypertext Transport Protocol - http -but again the browser will often add that to an address. Secure web sites use https and it is important to put that in to access those sites. FTP is the file transfer protocol – not a web service – which at one time required a separate – non-browser – program. But like many other services, FTP can usually be handled by your web browser.
A web browser was once a program with one purpose – to display files ending in htm or html. These programs have been greatly expanded to perform numerous other functions – see FTP above.
Email and web capitalization
Email addresses are NOT case sensitive. Web addresses are NOT case sensitive up to the first slash following the .com, .gov, .us, etc. Following that slash they may or may not be case sensitive so you need to assume they are unless you know otherwise. is never case sensitive but the “file1.htm” in is likely case sensitive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Android phones outsell iOS phones so why don't Android tablets beat up on iPads?

This seems like such an obvious question I'm amazed I've not seen it addressed more often. Android promoters gloat that their "platform" leads in sales but never explain why their tablets don't do the same. I have a theory. When most people buy a smartphone, they are thinking about its capabilities as a "phone". How many minutes do I get? Which carrier do I prefer? Is there a family plan? etc. The "smart"phone, i.e. computer aspect, is secondary. They may never address the operating system or the app stores since they are thinking in terms of replacing an old phone. Starting with that premise, anyone searching for a phone would more likely end up with Android - they are everywhere and many are less expensive than iPhones.

Buying a tablet is a different proposition. Consumers have no tablet experience so they have no natural starting point. This forces them down one of two paths. A few realize they are really buying a computer and investigate all the relevant technology and many are likely to go with Android. Most people though just buy what is available in most stores (iPad) or what their cool friends have (iPad). One of Apple's stealth moves with the first iPad was to place it in major retail outlets last year - Best Buy, Target, WalMart and Radio Shack - in addition to it's own 300+ stores worldwide. This leaves precious little prime shelf space for competing tablets.

If many smartphone purchasers aren't doing much critical thinking as I've suggested - after all they're just buying a phone - the companies may be forced to sell primarily based on price - as in the PC arena. While they may sell a lot of excellent Android handsets, they may not make sufficient profit to survive in spite of the sales figures. And speaking of sales figures, remember the difference between "shipped" and "sold". Sold is what matters; shipped means sent to retailers where they might languish for months before being sold - or returned to the maker.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Android fragmentation - the elephant in the room

If there's one issue that haunts the Android "industry" it's the widely discussed problem of fragmentation. Dozens of companies (Motorola, HTC, etc.) make hundreds of Android models to be sold by numerous carriers, in retail stores and online. There are differences in the phones - different size screens, virtual or physical keyboards, price, etc. Having choices is certainly appealing - with the iPhone it's black or white, literally. However Android choices can be very confusing for someone trying to find the "right" phone - like the potato chip aisle at the quickstop - way too many choices.

Imagine if your one year old PC did not qualify
for the latest version of Windows.

This seems in some ways like the battle between Apple and Microsoft for PC dominance but there is a significant difference. If fragmentation in the PC world had been harmful, Apple would have been the logical beneficiary because there were hundreds of PC manufacturers over the years. But PCs were not all that different - they used the same processors, the same disk drives, the same keyboards, etc. so differences were either minor cosmetic factors or price. Most importantly they all ran the same operating system and most could be reliably upgraded for at least five years. 

iPhone 4S one month later - a Siri-ous new development

I previewed the iPhone 4S last month the day after its introduction and I now have two weeks of actual use under my belt. I used it in my office as well as to give a presentation at an international conference. Yes, you can do a great slide show by connecting your iPhone 4 or 4S to a projector. My draft of last month's discussion actually referred to the iPhone 5. It's pretty amazing that dozens of companies were involved in the development of the device and millions were manufactured and the experts were still guessing at the name until the formal announcement.

Predictions concerning hardware where generally accurate - faster processor, much improved camera, more memory, etc. I received mine October 14th - the first available date - and I along with the overwhelming number of reviewers were thrilled with the device. In particular the camera and camera app are outstanding.

The more databases Siri connects to,
the less searches will be performed on Google..

The other half of the announcement was the new operating system - iOS 5. This free evolutionary OS upgrade claims over 200 new features and runs on all recent iPods, iPhones and iPads (see Fragmentation below). To top it off the biggest announcement of the day was not the phone -

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Photo Editing with the iPad

I've been excited about photo editing with a touch screen ever since I got my iPhone. The iPad and its numerous apps makes creating great images a snap. This does not replace "sturdy" desktop applications for sophisticated photo manipulation - at least for now.  In particular ten inch screens will always be a limiting factor.

Having said that I wanted to show an example of what I did in a matter of minutes starting with a 3MP image taken with my iPhone while strolling along the Mississippi in Minneapolis. I sent the image to my iPad using PhotoSync and used four of the 187 filters in PhotoStudio to create the special effects.

Four Bridges

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Social Media Survey Results Just Released

At two recent lectures on Mobile Technology I surveyed participants on their use of social media. It was a simple eight question survey not directly related to the topic I was covering. Several points concerning the participants:
  • They covered a wide age range with many in the 30-50 year range.
  • They were above average in tech knowledge based on their professions.
  • Some were small business owners and others worked for companies of all sizes in the computer training field.
Three of the four questions ask about their use of Facebook and Twitter. The last question ask whether they owned a smartphone or tablet computer.

General results:
  • Nearly 80% had smartphones but only 17% had a tablet.
  • While two-thirds used Facebook weekly only one-quarter used Twitter that often.
Business application - use of Facebook and Twitter:
  • Facebook was used to communicate with clients by 40% of participants but only 20% used Twitter for that purpose.
  • In a similar vein 33% used Facebook to receive information from companies while 24% used Twitter to do that.
With a total of eight possible responses, a rough measure of "tech savvy" would be the number of boxes each person checked - have a smartphone, use Facebook weekly, etc. etc. Using that measure no one scored the maximum of eight while 26% checked three - typically Facebook weekly, have a smartphone and one additional item. 19% checked four or more but 7% did not check any of the eight boxes.

This was a small sample but I think the results are informative. First and foremost, even though everyone is told they have to use social medial to communicate with stakeholders, a significant majority don't do that at the present. As you might expect the few "heavy hitters" dominated the results and 38% had no business contact at all with others using social media. This is after several years of hearing how Facebook is taking over the world and "everyone" is doing it.

Like most surveys of this type, I made no attempt to assess how well these techniques worked - are people just tweeting and hoping it works or can they measure actual success in product sales or revenue results.

There are many other social media platforms I did not include - primarily to keep it simple. I assumed that a significant number where on LinkedIn but evaluating actual usage would have been somewhat more difficult. Several other lesser known services were considered and will be included in future studies. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Perfect Tablet for Everybody - Now There's a Dumb Idea

How often do you hear someone talk about "what people want?" Whether it's politics or technology, pundits act as if all people want the same thing and they know what it is. This leads to ridiculous criticisms of things like the current smartphones and tablets; notice I'm avoiding the political part!

You hear, for example, "the iPad and other tablets are flawed because people don't like virtual keyboards - they want a real keyboard. The reporter goes on to say "when I write my stories, I blah, blah, blah." This storyline makes it sound like a) they know what everyone wants and b) they represent everyone by talking about their personal needs in the same sentence.

I'm pretty sure "people" don't all want the same thing - whether it's in their computers or condiments on their hot dogs. This is more than just a complaint about the state of journalism - it goes to the core of how computers have been developed over the years.

Real keyboard - you want a real keyboard!

Let's look at automobiles as a starting point. There are several dozen different basic auto designs because "people" don't all want the same thing. There are compact hybrids and nine passenger SUVs and a whole crop of "crossovers". Because PC functionality has been controlled by one company for nearly thirty years, only one version of one product was necessary - the Windows PC. I don't know what "all people" want but I do know that

The Perfect Tablet will include
six card readers, firewire and
USB connectors, a mouse,
a keyboard, SLR equivalent cameras
as well as serial and parallel ports

"some people" would have preferred something different - specifically a whole lot easier to use and less prone to malware. Almost no one claims to use more than ten percent of the functions of Word or Excel - hyperbolic cotangent anyone? The fact that people do not always want the same thing requires that companies build more than one thing - at least if there are any competitors to worry about. Microsoft's only real competitor was Apple and they were not much better. Their product - although easier to use and less prone to malware - was still only one version. It ran MS Office just like Windows. Notice that both companies dropped the easy to use and cheap or free versions of their office software - MS Works and Apple Works. They did have decent alternatives to the gargantuan MS Office but no more.

As we turn the corner toward mobile devices, my hope is that companies will not try to build the "perfect tablet" that meets the needs of everyone. If they do, it will include six card readers, firewire and USB connectors, a mouse, a keyboard with numeric keypad, SLR equivalent cameras (front and back), dual game controllers, as well as serial and parallel ports - hey some people still have that 1995 dot matrix printer to hook up. And of course it must run Excel, Word and PowerPoint using any remote device purchased since 1950.

In the case of tablets the smarter decision will be to either offer several models - one with and one without a keyboard - or one product that has options - such as docks we've used for years or the wireless keyboard approach on the iPad. The primary driving force for tablets is size, weight, convenience and ease of use. I'll be terribly disappointed if they evolve into dinosaurs as PCs have done. Adding layer upon layer of functionality was no problem with desktop computers - users could just buy bigger monitors so there was some place to see the actual words in their document. Ten inch screens, limited keyboards and slower processors that characterize tablets may finally reverse the trend away from mega-applications.

The new crop of ultrabooks notable for their lack of hard drive and optical drive but with the ability to run full versions of Windows or Mac OS represent another change in direction. They are distinguished not by new features but by features that are omitted - what a refreshing change. Now only if the next version of MS Office included a version of Word with five hundred commands rather than one thousand five hundred. The Apple iWork package may indicate the new direction for productivity software.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who's Doing What in Tech Today

There are so many products, technologies and companies involved in the rapidly evolving tech market today, I thought it would be helpful to summarize some important facts in a simple table. I made a list of twenty-four products including computers and a variety of mobile devices and software - then added several service related factors such as shelf space and the cloud.

I created a table with eight leading vendors across the top to see how these vendors competed in the twenty-four areas. I think it's going to be difficult for companies to survive with only a handful of products - desktop PCs and laptops for example. You can click on the image below to enlarge the chart. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

WI-Fi, Blue Tooth, 3G/4G, GPS, NFC - What's it All Mean?

This array of communication technologies can be confusing but the basic idea is quite simple. These are all members of the family of Electromagnetic Waves. Other members of this family include

  • TV and radio signals
  • Microwaves in your oven
  • X-rays
  • Gamma rays (from radioactive decay)
  • Ultraviolet and Infrared rays
  • And the ever popular visible light rays in a variety of colors that surround us every day

The only difference in these waves is their frequency. If you could change the frequency of light rays, they might become microwaves and you'd be cooked like a hamburger when you turned on a lamp to read.

To communicate using electromagnetic radiation we have created devices like radio and TV transmitters coupled with sending and receiving antennas so we can hear or view the signals. Our antennas pick up all the signals and the tuner in a radio or TV set picks out a very precise frequency - 91.1 for example - so we hear a specific station.

Our cell phones have the capability to communicate using the parts of the spectrum listed in the title above. There is an antenna built into your cell phone for each type of signal it can handle. Obviously the 3G phone signal coming from a cell tower is included or it wouldn't be a cell phone. 3G means the third generation cell phone technology; 4G is coming soon. 3G and 4G signals are designed primarily for voice transmission but can be used for data if you don't have a wi-fi connection available. The other signals are designed for data but services like Skype allow voice signals to be be handled also.

Wi-fi signals are generated by a wi-fi router in your home, office, coffee shop or collection of devices in a city-wide system. 3G signals can be transmitted for miles but your wi-fi router only has a range of a few hundred feet. Your neighbor may be able to pickup your signal and use your Internet connection if she is in the right part of her house. Most modern cell phones can receive GPS signals from satellites eleven thousand miles above the earth (see "range" below). The GPS signal is not related to the 3G signals so a cellphone connection is not required.

Bluetooth signals are short range signals used so nearby devices such as a keyboard and computer or cell phone and ear piece can communicate. Even shorter range signals will be used by NFC - Near Field Communication system - being developed now for credit card applications. That signal can only be transmitted for an inch and a half; very low power indeed. Every signal differs from all others in two respects - frequency and amplitude (power).

The range a signal can travel is determined by its power - also referred to as amplitude. There are strict regulations on what frequency and amplitude someone can use to broadcast or transmit. A certain frequency can be used in one location by one radio station. That same frequency can be used in another distant city provided the strength of the signals are set so they don't extend into each others territories.

An entirely new system consisting of thousands of high-powered wi-fi towers is under development by LightSquared. These towers would blanket the US with high powered wi-fi signals for nearly universal Internet access across the country. There is controversy, however, because these wi-fi signals are very close to the frequencies assigned to GPS. and could interfere with navigation. This could be very serious since airline navigation systems are at long last being converted to GPS.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mobile Devices and the cloud

I've been talking about mobile devices for a year and a half and now the discussion is shifting to cloud computing. What is the cloud and how are the two subjects related? First, cloud computing means using computers on the Internet to store and process information which may have been handled by local computers in the past. The basic concept has been around for a long time - anyone remember time sharing? - but it has evolved into a very complex and powerful technology.

Second, the cloud is a natural extension of mobile devices since they do not have huge hard drives or powerful processors. And, since they are mobile, they are not typically attached to a local computer. Anyone with a Netflix account as seen an indication of this trend - you can receive a DVD or have the video streamed (from the cloud) to your computer or an Internet connected set top box such as Roku, Google TV or Apple TV.

The power and complexity of PCs has far outgrown the needs of most people so the combination of small mobile devices combined with available cloud processing and storage is very attractive.

Google has developed a combination browser/operating system called Chrome (not to be confused with the Chrome Web Browser) that presumes everything will be done over the Internet. Chrome computers that effectively operate like a browser for all services have just been released. While the Apple and Google approaches are not directly comparable, they both rely on the cloud. I'm thrilled that these companies do not merely copy what the other has done.

Of course you can't talk about electronics without discussing music. Google will store your music in the cloud and allow you to play it on any device. The catch is you have to upload it before you can do this - a process that could take a long time for someone with thousands of songs. Apple has an agreement with the four major music companies that allows you to stream the songs you own from the new Apple iCloud without first uploading your copies.

In a major change, you will now be able to buy, setup and update an iPad, iPhone or iPod without using a PC or Mac. The computer will no longer be the center of your computer environment: it will just be another device. The automatic backup as well as software purchasing and updating directly over the Internet is a significant change for Apple users. In a related development, the new Apple OS Lion will only be available over the Internet. The features of Apple's MobileMe service will be incorporated into iCloud and MobileMe will be discontinued in 2012.

Questions and Concerns
As with any new technology there are significant issues to address and you have the right to be skeptical at this stage.
Availability - High speed Internet access is not available everywhere and few cloud services will work over dial up. There is a major project underway to increase wi-fi coverage much like cities are already doing. it will be some time before this effort pays off. Concerns exist about interference of this system with GPS which is just being rolled out for airline navigation.
Speed - Even some "high speed" connections can be slow when transferring large files. When these connections are shared among several devices in a home, the problem is worse. Cloud computing as described by Apple includes continuous backup storage and streaming of all types of content.
Charges - There is no question we will pay higher fees to the telephone and cable companies that provide our data services. I will not go into the cost/benefit discussion of the cloud versus the "old" approach we've all been accustomed to. It would be a long discussion and since the cloud appears inevitable - a waste of time.
Reliability - Both Google and Apple foresee most of your information - documents, photos, etc. - being stored in the cloud. The obvious question is will the services be safe and reliable or will you have to keep your own copies as well? There will certainly be cases where duplicate copies are necessary - if you are not going to be on the Internet for a while - but for the most part they will be considered safe. We've been relying on banks and other businesses to keep accurate records for years with no idea where or how they do it. The cloud should be no different if it is to succeed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cool Photo Editing Apps - Part 2

Computers are often associated with numbers and words but the new generation of tablets typified by the Apple iPad brings a whole new dimension to creativity. For those like me who are not artistic in the traditional sense, the ability to manipulate photographs with powerful, easy to use, touch screen apps is absolutely marvelous. Last month, I discussed a number of photo apps with some editing capabilities but whose main strength was taking pictures. This post describes some of my favorite among hundreds of apps that manipulate images although most can start with an available photo or take one using a basic camera function. My usage is limited to Apple iOS devices but many of these apps should be available on other platforms.

I won't spend a lot of time explaining whether the apps work on iPhone/iPods or iPads. That is easy enough to check out at the app store if you are interested. Certainly apps that work on images are most effective when they take advantage of a tablet sized device. However, there are some fun and useful photo editing tools for the small screen as well. Some of these apps are free while others cost $1-4.

Photo Studio, Photo Booth and Finger Design
With this background here are some of my favorites:
Photo Delight allows you to eliminate all color from a picture except selected portions. I've shown examples before and the UI (User Interface) is perfect. There are several others that do the same thing but none I've seen with the elegance of Photo Delight
Dynamic Light provides a number of stunning special effects as shown in the picture of Honolulu at the top right of this blog. Some photographs are meant to record an image as realistically as possible. Now with all the digital cameras we have plenty of "ordinary" photographs so apps like this can be used to create unusual images.
Camera FX (iPhone) and Photo Booth (iPad) offer effects similar to the popular Photo Booth app on the iMac. You preview a number of fun house type images and snap a picture of one (or hundreds!) that you like. (These apps are really in the category of camera apps I reviewed last month but I did not have Photo Booth installed at that time.)

There was a time in the analog age when filters were made of glass and attached to the front of your lens. They came in various colors; polarizing versions eliminated glare and others provided special effects. For large lenses, the filters could be very expensive. Today most of these effects can be provided by software after the picture is taken - polarizing is a notable exception. Not only are software filters much less expensive, you can experiment with different filters and different settings instead of selecting one or two filters and snapping a picture on film - never to be altered again.
Photo Studio (iPad and iPhone) and Perfect Photo (iPhone) are two apps with a collection of filters and other effects.

Photo Delight

Two things you almost always need to do to improve any photo are light adjustments and cropping. There are some apps that perform just those basic functions but many more powerful apps also include those functions.

Auto Adjust is an iPad app that concentrates on these basic functions.
Filterstorm and PS Express provide a much wider range of adjustments.
Photogene on the other hand provides numerous special effects without the basic lighting and cropping features.

For just plain fun, it's hard to beat Framed, Alien Booth and Photogoo. With the latter two you can waste hours making "interesting" pictures of your friends and family. Framed allows you to put your friends on TV, in a museum or on a milk carton among other places.

Finger Design does not process images but allows you to easily make a collage from your photos - original or edited versions. You can quickly select a background and arrange and resize any number of photos for display.

Finally, remember to check out my list of favorite apps and the places you can go to find apps.

How Shelf Space Limits Apple Competitors

On a recent visit to Best Buy one thing was striking in the technology area. Apple signs and Apple products were everywhere. There were iMacs, iPhones, iPods and iPads in several different areas surrounded by accessories of all kinds. As I was about to walk away I saw two competing tablets hidden away on a three foot section of shelf space. One was the recently released Motorola Xoom and the other was the slightly older Samsung Galaxy Tab. I decided to give both of these Android based tablets a try.

The Xoom is similar in size to the iPad and it started up quickly and offered a similar but sparse display. Of the few apps available I selected one of the three games. Upon start up I was told I needed to download a large file so I tapped OK and the progress bar indicated it was downloading. Only a minute later, it stopped and said I needed to start over again. I tried it again with the same frustrating result and gave up.

It's hard to believe but the experience with the Galaxy Tab was worse. It has a smaller but similar screen and when I pushed the start button, a message said I needed to go through a setup process; apparently it had never been used. When I started the process, I heard a sound reminiscent of a modem dialing for a connection and a minute later it reported an error and I had to start over. I tried that with the same result and gave up.

From all reports both of these are great tablets but my experience was discouraging to say the least. I certainly wouldn't draw major conclusions about the devices from this simple test. The fact that these devices were almost invisible among the Apple products was far more telling. These companies and a hoard of other tablet makers have a long struggle ahead to be recognized by the general public as competitors to the iPad and iPhone; limited shelf space at major retailers will be a huge barrier.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Were the Experts so Wrong about the iPad 2?

Right before the iPad 2 hit the stores March 11th most pundits said it was no big deal - a minor upgrade - and thought the demand would not rival the first version that came out eleven months earlier. They could not have been more wrong. Not only did the first shipments sell out within hours but there have been lines of people every morning at every Apple store waiting with baited breath for the next truck. How could the experts have been so wrong?

They tend to overestimate the interest and knowledge of the general public. They believe everyone has the time and inclination to hang on every tweet from every tech vendor and writer. Surprise, surprise most people have real jobs and a variety of interests besides computers. In spite of all the hype about the first iPad a year ago, few people really knew much about it on day one - from the basics of how would it actually work to the more important "is it really suitable for business?" Questions like these prevented the vast majority of people from purchasing the first iPad early in the cycle.

Along the way, three things happened. First, the positive reviews came in and the early adopters showed theirs off to anyone they could corner - friends and coworkers alike. This created the buzz and the associated "cool factor." Next, businesses began to experiment and found that it really was appropriate for many tasks involving their mobile workforce - storage of sales and technical documents for example. Finally, at the end of 2010 many people who decided to buy were advised to wait because the next version would have a camera - or maybe two cameras.

Consequently, when the iPad 2 became available there was a huge demand in spite of the experts suggestion that it was not a major improvement over the original. When you think about it, what would the "experts" have required for a major improvement? It is unlikely in my opinion that any new tablet from any vendor will be considered a major advance over the preceding tablet. Just like the succession of PCs over the last thirty years, each one will be a little faster or have a slightly better screen or camera. The fact that tablets are primarily touch screens with a processor and solid state storage makes improvements primarily a matter of new and upgraded apps. There's not much you can do with the basic tablet slab except speed it up and add a new I/O port or button. I certainly am not saying there will not be better tablets in the future; I'm just suggesting that few new versions will be considered major leaps forward.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cool Camera Apps - Part 1

No subject gets more attention in my newsletter than the apps I review. (Note: in case you haven't heard - "app" is just another name for a program. The term evolved along with mobile technology but is now being used for full fledged PC/Mac software as well.)

I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I use my iPhone camera. It's certainly not a great camera but for many purposes it's "good enough" and, most important, I always have it with me. I divide camera apps into two categories
1) apps that are primarily associated with taking pictures (photography)
2) those that are mostly used for editing pictures (editing)
This distinction is not precise since many apps do a combination of the two. I base the distinction on the primary attributes of the app and what I generally use it for. Some apps modify still and/or video images as they are being taken; others operate on images from the library and some can do both. The following two apps cost 99 cents each.

For the photography apps, you can't beat QuickCam - often described as the camera app that should have come with the iPhone. For general purpose iPhone pictures, I've switched completely to Quickcam. It's easy to use and will start up and take pictures much faster than the standard Apple app. It has a rapid fire mode where you can touch and hold the camera button and take two pictures per second. While you are taking video, you can touch the camera button and take a still picture.

ToonCamera is another favorite. It works on both live and stored still and video images to create a cartoon effect by limiting the number of colors used. This picture of a fox taken in our back yard

Cartoon Fox - original shown in inset
shows the results. If you are familiar with the GIF image format, you get the same effect. GIF works great on art and drawings with a limited number of colors but produces the cartoon effect when used with photographs - like coloring with eight crayons!

Here's a quick list of other favorites in this category (many have free and paid versions)
Timelapse - Set your camera in a window and it can take pictures at regular intervals for a specified time. Then save the results and play them back as a movie - watch a flower grow!
ExternalCamera - Monitor the iPhone camera on your iPad - watch and listen to a sleeping baby or keep an eye on your front door.
CameraFun - Variety of special effects.
SneakyPix - Set the camera to take a series of pictures while you appear to be reading email or talking on the phone - that's sneaky.
CanScan - Use this camera app to snap a picture of a document and automatically rotate, crop and adjust the lighting for a perfect "scanned" document.