Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Some of my favorite travel apps

I'm way behind on app reviews so now it's time to catch up - or start to catch up anyway. We just returned from an eight day road trip with seven planned stops along the way and I'd like to tell you about my favorite travel apps. Of course I use a traditional map app for much of the travel and I prefer Apple maps since it continues to show the route even if you lose Internet service which we did on two occasions. You can also use Google Maps or Waze for navigation and each has its own benefits.

Most of the following apps fall into my FuF category - free or under four dollars. I use them on my Apple devices  so I can't guarantee they work on other platforms but certainly the most popular ones should.

iExit travel app
• To start with there's one "must have" app if you do much interstate travel - iExit. This easy to use app available on both Apple and Android shows a scrolling view of upcoming freeway exits and the services available there - hotels, restaurants and service stations including the price of fuel at many of them. This makes it a snap to decide whether to stop at the next exit or go a few miles further to one offering different services. We use it frequently to find a hotel and it also shows rest stops for those of us who are always asking "how many miles did it say to the rest stop?" No reason to take an exit if all you need is a rest stop.

• Before we left I used PinPoints
to plan the trip. You enter the stops in the order you want to visit them either with an address or by tapping on a map - maybe just a city name. The app will show a driving route and provide a list of stops with time and mileage from one to the next. It's easy to add, delete and rearrange stops and you can open any segment in the Maps app for navigation.

• I used BatchGeo
a web app (no download required) to store and display information about each of the stops along the way. You enter any information about each stop into a spreadsheet - name and address - along with other items you'd  like to recall - phone numbers, confirmation numbers, etc. Then copy and paste this spreadsheet into the BatchGeo website and see a map with pins at each point. Click on one of the pins to see information from the spreadsheet.

Other travel related apps include
• OMG Transit
for bus schedules and

• FlightAware
for tracking flights (app and website) and

to outline map areas and calculate perimeter and area.

• Finally, CityMaps2go
let's you download maps to use if you don't have an Internet connection. GPS does not require Internet access to display your location on a screen. However, your location will just be a small dot in the middle of a blank screen unless you have a map coming from the Internet or preloaded in your device.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

All tech companies are not created equal

We often compare tech companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung without realizing they represent two significantly different types of businesses. Apple and Microsoft are the "purest" of the group; they both have a relatively small number of related products; they began in the PC era and evolved to embrace the current mobile craze. Their  fortunes are in some ways easy to predict based on how the "PC sector" develops  . Samsung and Google (now officially called Alphabet) represent entirely different models.
As a business, Google is primarily an advertising company - most of its revenue comes from selling ads that show up on searches and YouTube videos. The company uses a lot of technology but does not sell much of it. In addition it has a vast array of experimental projects including self-driving cars and balloons to deliver Internet service around the world. It's possible some of these will eventually go into production and make money but many - likely most - will be cancelled. Their free Android operating system for mobile devices is intended to get Android based phones in as many hands as possible so - surprise, surprise - ads they sell will pop up billions of times per day. Google cannot control much that happens on Microsoft or Apple devices but Android is another story. The image above shows the complexity of the Google structure.
 Samsung most closely resembles a "conglomerate" a collection of unrelated companies - hospitals, construction companies, smartphone maker and chip making foundries to name a few. It diverges from what most people consider a traditional corporate structure and operates more like a hereditary monarchy. When the founder died his son took over; that elderly son has been incapacitated for two years and his son is planning to take the reins when he dies. It's not as simple as it seems because the intrigue as the shift occurs resembles the power struggle in the Saudi monarchy more than a mere passing of the baton.
 It is important to understand these changes since many people are wondering who will be the next Microsoft. As large as some of these companies are some will gradually diminish in power as others become dominant. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Self Driving Cars - the missing stats

In January I described the results of my December survey on autonomous vehicles and the next day another surprising report came out on this topic. Google - a major promoter of this technology - often mentions that their cars have been involved in a tiny number of accidents and the majority were not serious or the other driver's fault.

It turns out there is a more important metric that was recently reported - how often did the test driver have to take control when the car "requested" or the driver decided on their own to do it. Companies reported many such incidents but  there is no way to know how many avoided accidents but it is safe to assume this some of them did. It is important to remember that Google's big change in this area was to switch from cars with driver controls to ones that are completely autonomous - no steering wheel in sight. They decided it would be impossible for most ordinary drivers - not the test drivers in their current vehicles - to be sufficiently alert to respond to emergencies.

We know that airplanes can and do fly themselves much of the time but there is still a pilot in the cockpit. These pilots are highly skilled and take their jobs more seriously than the average human cruising down the freeway. In spite of these unique circumstances, there is growing concern that airplanes are so automated that even a conscientious pilot may not react properly in an emergency.

As a side note - much of the research in this area is focused on tech enhancements that improve the driving experience and safety but stop far short of autonomous operation. These changes range from self-parking technology to adaptive cruise control that alters speed based on the vehicle ahead.

This Forbes report is a good read on this topic.

Two mobile photo apps that will help you get to the next level

It's been a while since I've taken a "deep dive" into photography so I think it's time. If you want to take your smartphone photography to the next step, you should get two types of apps. The first will help you take better pictures; the second will help you understand how images are captured so you can go back to step one and take better pictures.

There are many apps that will do these things. I'm going to describe Shoot and Exif Photos for the iPhone; DSLR Camera Pro and JPEG Exif Viewer for Android appear to be similar although I have not used them.

Exif Metadata shown on the left
It's easy to "point and shoot" with any camera today but if you wonder why your pictures don't look as good as you think they should, these two apps will help. The camera app in your smartphone can be replaced by many others that you download. I really like Shoot that allows you to control exposure settings like you would with "real" cameras. If the scene is too dark and you can hold the camera steady, you might slow the shutter speed below 1/15 Sec - the default value for Apple's camera app.

Second, you should install an app like Exif Photos that lets you see the metadata - the information about a photograph - after it's taken. In addition to date and location, you can then see why a picture was bad - or maybe good! If it looks grainy, you could see that the ISO was very high; if it's blurry, you might notice the shutter speed was too slow for an action shot. Remember there are really only three settings that determine image quality - shutter speed, ISO and lens opening (aperture). By using these apps, you can learn the basics of how a camera works and gradually improve your own images.