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Saturday, July 30, 2016

A special "F U" to Apple

I've never made a secret of my loathing of all things Apple.  But being a good father, I've never tried to force my views on my children.  Despite my recommending otherwise, both of them like and use iPhones and iPads for most of their mobile activities.

We went to Hershey Park this week.  My son's iPhone fell out of his pocket while on one of the more extreme roller coasters.  Fortunately, he had an iCloud account set up.  I figure we can use the "find my iPhone" feature to figure out exactly where it is.  When calling the phone, it rang, so we knew it was still working.

I bring up the iPhone web site on my Android tablet using the Chrome browser and get a message that Apple does not support the Chrome Browser for this feature.  I need to try the latest version of MS Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, or Mozilla Firefox.  Ok, I also have Firefox installed and try that.  It still says not supported.  So I make sure Firefox is upgraded to the latest version.  After a short upgrade, still nothing, same message.  Apparently, Apple will not allow any browser running on Android to use the "find my iPhone" feature.

Since we did not have another Apple device or Windows device in the park with us we were unable to find the device.  By the time we got back to the  hotel that evening, the battery in the phone had died (because iPhone battery life sucks and you cannot buy better long life batteries for the phone) and we could not get a location at all.

By contrast, the "find my Android" feature works just fine on any competing device.  Apple has once again screwed customers that dare to use any products outside of the Apple ecosystem.

I will encourage my son to replace his lost phone with an Android, but doubt he will listen.  For me though, it just adds another line in the already extremely long list of reasons why I will never use Apple products.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Potential of the Internet vs. Copyright

In addition to working in IT, I am an amateur historian, which is probably my true passion. I run another blog called Unlearned History which looks at random stories from history that interest me. I am also preparing to produce a blog/podcast that looks at the American Revolution in detail.

My work in these areas is made easier by access to an amazing variety of resources, many of which come from archive.org.  Some of the major players in IT, including Microsoft and Google, have spent years digitizing books and other works to make them freely available on the Internet.  As a result, I have access to obscure journals, letters, public domain books, and other resources that would have been impossible to access a few years ago without flying all over the country and spending months in various libraries.

Now, I can download all my materials onto my tablet, or store them in the cloud for access whenever I need them.  Archive.org does a great job making the documents available in a variety of formats, including text, Kindle, ePub, and my favorite, PDF.  Most have an online previewer as well, in case you want to look at the book online without downloading it.

If I were going to add some criticism, it would be that the search engine for the collection is a little frustrating, they often have multiple copies of the same work, and multi-volume works do not always list the volume number in the title.  But the amount of access, all available for free, makes me feel guilty for leveling any criticism at all. The site is a treasure trove to anyone interested in history.

Archive.org does more than simply provide historical texts.  It also keeps archived copies of web sites, stores hold movies and audio, and even has an extensive photographic collection of museum pieces and other things.

The big limitation, of course, is copyright.  The site cannot provide access to copyrighted works. Here, I guess lies the basis for my rant today.  Pretty much anything written before 1923 is in the public domain.  Some later works are as well, if they were not properly registered or renewed.  But for the most part, 1923 is the cut-off point.  Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a law extending corporate copyrights from 75 years to 95 years.  Anything already in the public domain (1922 and earlier) remained so.  Anything about to expire, got held in protection until 2019, when the works will (hopefully) begin to fall into the public domain again.

I say "hopefully" because there are efforts to extend copyrights even further.  The primary player in extending copyrights is the Disney Corporation.  Disney's oldest cartoon, Steamboat Willie, dates back to 1928.  If Disney had not gotten Congress to extend the copyright, we could all be watching Steamboat Willie for free on archive.org or a thousand other sites.  We could also enjoy Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and later this year, Dumbo.  Disney is particularly apoplectic that consumers might enjoy their old library of cartoons and movies with out kicking back some cash.

There is certainly a need for copyright.  We want to encourage authors, musicians, and producers to make new works, secure in the knowledge that the day they are released, others won't simply copy them and start selling them in competition.  For this reason, they are given a legitimate monopoly on the sale of the work they created, or purchased from the author, for a limited time.

The key is "a limited time".  At some point, the works need to become available to the public, Copyright hampers access to many works.  Often, the original owner of the work cannot be found or does not care about limits or royalties anymore.  Legacy copyrights prevent many works from the early and mid-20th Century from being made available to researchers or even to people who just want to enjoy older works.

The question then, is how long is reasonable for a copyright?  Disney argues that the longer terms provide greater value and therefore more incentive to create new works.  That argument is nonsense with regard to extending existing copyrights.  When Walt Disney made Steamboat Willie or Snow White, he had a copyright of 26 years, with another 26 year extension possible.  Disney obviously had enough incentive with those copyright terms.  Extending them did nothing to encourage him retroactively.

People used this reasoning to challenge the copyright extensions in court.  Sadly, the Supreme Court upheld the law in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003).  The Court held that it was within Congress' authority to extend the copyright term as long as they did not make it forever.  The Court also said the retroactive increase was reasonable just to keep all terms the same length.  The second  part of that ruling especially makes no sense to me.  Copyright has very significant First Amendment implications, since it prevents people from making use of a great deal of information.  As I already pointed out, extending the term retroactively has zero impact on the incentive to create a new work. The Court should have used heightened scrutiny to look at the First Amendment implications of copyright protections and recognized that retroactive extension was not tailored to any valid state interest.  But the Court did not and we are stuck with what we've got.

There are rumblings that Disney may try to extend the copyright once again.  There are attempts to extend copyright internationally through the much criticized Trans Pacific Partnership treaty.  There will likely be other attempts coming soon.  Hopefully, such attempts will fail.

Copyright law has headed in the wrong direction in many other ways.  Until relatively recently, anyone creating a new work had to register it for copyright protection.  Today, however, everything created is automatically copyrighted without having to do anything.  This means that even works from people who don't really care about copies are protected.  Affirmatively telling people a work is in the public domain is still fairly uncommon.

Also, copyright holders used to have to expend resources protecting their rights.  Copyright violations were not criminal matters.  Owners had to seek out and sue violators for civil damages.  If they did not bother to do so within a reasonable time, the courts would declare the work to be in the public domain.  Today, a copyright  holder need not do anything.  The federal government enforces copyrights through criminal enforcement, with civil suits also still available.  An author need not do anything to protect this copyrighted works though.  The government will do it for him.

Right now archive.org gives me amazing access to resources up until 1922.  My library has pretty good coverage of books going back to about the 1970s.  Anything in that missing 50 years is much more difficult to obtain.  I might be able to find some used books available for sale from that era, but more likely those works will simply get ignored.

With all the potential that is out there to make information available to the world, copyright should not stand in the way.  Copyright has great value in creating incentive for new works.  That right, however, must be limited so that the public can eventually enjoy those works without unnecessary restriction.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

OK OneDrive, You Are Gone!

I am not a big data user on my phone.  I am usually connected via WiFi at home and work, where I spend most of my day.  I don't stream music or video.  Generally I use about 1/2 GB per month when not traveling.  So I was shocked when my Android Phone warned me when I exceeded 2 GB this month.  I'm up to 2.4 GB so far.  It's not a crazy amount of data, but far more than I usually use.

So, I looked into the details to find the culprit.  It was not even close.  OneDrive (Microsoft's cloud documents app) had used 1.9 GB of data.  Even worse, I don't think I even opened the app all month.  I tested OneDrive a couple of months ago, and uploaded some test data to the cloud.  But since then I have not used it. I much prefer Google Drive, which is where I do all my work (less than 0.1 GB used in Google Drive.

Therefore, OneDrive is doing a heck of a lot in the background.  I cannot imagine what it is doing with all that data.  Either it is uploading and downloading the few measly MB of data I have saved on it all day every day, or it is going through my phone and doing heaven knows what.  I also have it set not to upload pictures except when connected to WiFi and plugged in.  That did not seem to help.

Given that OneDrive is of minimal use to me, and the fact that it is sucking down all my data behind my back, I am uninstalling it now.

I am disappointed that Microsoft still cannot get its act together and design quality software that works efficiently.  There was a time when Microsoft cared about such things, but that was long ago, in another millennium.  Changing CEOs has not seemed to help matters.  Microsoft has a reputation for fat, overloaded bloatware.  The new CEO Satya Nadella showed some promise to get back to this. But my experience with OneDrive speaks volumes to me.

Therefore, farewell Microsoft.  You briefly found your way back onto my phone with the hope that you could be useful to me again.  You failed miserably and I have banished you once again.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Do not buy the "best" tablet


Tablet sales are falling.  Some question whether the class is even sustainable.  In my view, the class has become hopelessly muddled which leads to consumer confusion.

Tablets first really captured the attention of the public with the release of the iPad in 2010, followed quickly by Android tablets.  These early tablets were essentially smart phones without the phone, and larger screens.  One could use WiFi or cell technologies to access the Internet and use various apps for limited purposes.

Others had tried to release tablets long before this.  Microsoft announced a Windows XP tablet edition in 2001.  There were some very real hardware limitations that kept these from taking off.  But the real limitation was that manufacturers were trying to jam an entire PC into a much smaller device.

Doing so is possible, but it comes with real limitations.  A full size processor generates more heat and uses up battery power much faster.  Cutting back on processing power makes the OS run much slower and creates a frustrating experience for the user.  No one wants to wait two minutes (or more) for their tablet to boot up, like we tolerate on desktop or laptop.

As a result, tablets come with real limitations with regard to processing power, ram, drive capacity, etc.  This limits what they can do well.  You can still do quite a bit with a well designed low end tablet.  Those limitations are not debilitating.  A low to mid-range tablet probably has better computing specs than a Windows XP PC from a decade ago.  You can read and create documents and spreadsheets, watch movies, look at photos, play music, play video games, etc.  Maybe the highest end high 3-D graphics games would not play well.  Maybe you might experience problems using just the computing power in your tablet.  But then again, you can either do those limited tasks on a real PC, or use a cloud based tablet solution where the computing power is done on a server.  In short, you don't need to have a supercomputer in your tablet.

Microsoft has been an abject failure in mobility despite multiple attempts to break into the market. Microsoft has either tried to jam all of the large and clunky Windows OS into a tablet, or it has created a "lite" version of Windows that it tries to convince users is just as good as Windows (it is not).

For years, I have railed that tablets should be easier to upgrade.  That  has not happened.  I have accepted that tablets, like smart phones, need to be considered cheap devices that are probably going to be replaced every few years.  I break my tablet screens on a regular enough basis that I have become convinced that regular replacement is inevitable

That said, I never buy the most expensive tablets.  If I were to spend $800 on a top of the line iPad or Galaxy Tab, I would be much more upset when I smashed the screen.  Those higher end devices do very little more than the $150 I paid for a 10" Acer Iconia Android tablet.  If I would have been happy with an 8" screen, I probably could have paid half that amount.  But screen size is important to me, so I paid the extra money.

I have used the tablet for six months now and am not at all disappointed.  I don't play many games on it, and those I do are not graphics intensive.  I mostly use it to access my email and Google drive, or read articles.  Sometimes I use it to remote desktop into other computers, control my Chromecast to watch Netflix, or read e-books.  It has done everything I've demanded of it with no problems.  I am so glad I did not spend another $600 or more for a top of the line device.  I just don't see the point.

Microsoft has tried to break into the tablet market with various versions of Windows, or by making laptops that are creeping ever closer to tablets.  When I need a whole computer, I don't want a tiny tablet with a detachable keyboard.  I want my full size keyboard and mouse.  I want a decent sized screen.  I want a whole computer.  I don't mind lugging around my 15" laptop on the occasions when I need to have the whole computer.  I can then use my much smaller and cheaper tablet for the 95% of functions that do not require that full functionality.  When I want to play video games, I don't want mobile at all.  I want a console connected to a 50" TV with surround sound.  Same with movies: I don't want to watch an epic saga on a 10" screen.  I want the large screen experience.

Getting a tablet that is capable of high end gaming or providing some minor improvement in video (no, I don't need 4k video on a 10" screen) seems pointless to me.  I'm much better off with the cheap tablet, and using price difference to by a 50" HD TV.  I'll also feel far less guilty when I want to replace that tablet a couple of years from now.

Granted, there are some really cheap tablets that are not worth the savings.  You can buy some new tablets for under $50.  But even I would be frustrated with the 8 GB drive, small screen, and overall poor performance.  There is some value in spending more than the bottom of the barrel to get something better. But in the $100-$200 range, there is an amazing variety of quality Android tablets that will not disappoint most users.  For most people, paying any more than that is a waste of money.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Microsoft: Upgrade or Else!

You can mark me down as one of the "conspiracy theorists" in a recent Forbes article about Microsoft's latest service pack scandal.  It is no secret that Microsoft has been doing everything in its power short of brute force to encourage users to upgrade their Windows 7 or later computers to Windows 10.

Put simply, Microsoft has decided that support for legacy operating systems is a pain (and expensive). Although the company promised to support Windows 7 until 2020, it is clear that Microsoft would rather not have to do so.  At best, it will do a mediocre, careless, and inattentive job in providing support for Windows 7, Vista, and 8.1 (Microsoft has already stopped supporting 8.0, telling users that 8.1 is essentially a service pack for 8 that they must install for continued support).

Microsoft as the article link above points out, Microsoft has added an update to be downloaded automatically onto computers that it knows will render some computers inoperable.  It simply has not bothered to fix this issue before adding to its recommended list.  Sadly, Microsoft has a long history of pulling stunts like this to force people to upgrade.

For example when Windows XP first deployed in 2001, it ran well on 256 MB of RAM (1/4 GB).  It could even run on half that, 128 MB.  After several years and a service pack, the OS really seemed to require 512 MB (1/2 GB) to run optimally. But after Windows Vista and 7 came out, additional updates shot up that requirement to at least 1 GB.  Today, running on less than 2 GB causes significant performance problems. Whether this was a deliberate change to convince users to get a new PC with the newer version of Windows, or just sloppy coding since Microsoft no longer cared about users with the older computers, the effect was the same.  Technical people like me bought more memory, but most users just decided it was time to buy a new computer with a new version of Windows.

Another example, even though Microsoft goes through the trouble to make new security updates for Windows XP users even today, it does not make them available to the public.  One would think that patching flaws and security holes would be expected.  But Microsoft says no. Imagine if GM decided that problems that showed up in cars after 10 years were the driver's problem and that recalls or fixes to known problems were not longer required or available.  They would not even notify drivers of these problems.  I don't think that would go over very well.

In the IT world this sort of treatment is nothing new.  Apple has ignored its old products and even sent out updates that destroyed them, like the iOS upgrade that destroyed the WiFi antenna in your iPhone 4.

Microsoft, you may argue, is at least giving away its upgrade.  It is not reaching into our pockets and requiring us to spend more to be able to continue using our computers.  But Windows 10 does do away with some functionality.  Further, it allows Microsoft to get a great deal more information about how you are using your computer.  In other words, Microsoft gets valuable marketing data about you.  Microsoft also has not promised not to charge for Windows 10 updates in the future.  Once you are moved to 10, it will be difficult and expensive to go back.  If they start charging a year or two from now, you are stuck.

Other changes Microsoft is making to Windows 7 seems to be increasing the length of time it takes to start one's computer.  Users are also seeing unusual lag times in other areas.  These were not problems in prior years.  Now, however, they are becoming much bigger issues.  Since Microsoft has a direct financial interest in getting you to upgrade or buy a new computer, its hard to give the company any benefit of the doubt that fixing these problems is beyond its ability.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Kindle - Size Matters!

The new Kindle Oasis just released.  It is Amazon's high end e-ink reader, starting at $290.  It is a very nice product.  It comes with a leather case, a battery that lasts months, and amazing back lighting for night reading. There are now four versions of Kindles, all e-ink, starting with a budget $80 model, and moving all the way up the Oasis.  Even the different models have different variations. If you want the Oasis without ads, with 3G, and with a two year protection, you're talking more like $450.  I like that Amazon offers you a wide range of choices and price points so different consumers can get the level they want at the price they want.

You can, of course, simply download the free Kindle App onto your tablet or phone.  That gives the convenience of carrying around just one device. Kindle's e-ink technology, though, makes it much preferable to reading an e-book on your regular old tablet.  It is definitely much easier on the eyes.

Personally, I have tried the Kindle but never purchased one.  Although I like the e-ink technology, and love the idea of being able to have my entire library at my fingertips at all times, one simple thing continues to hold me back.

All four of the current Kindle models, as well as all past models, come with a six inch screen.  That is barely larger than my cell phone screen, and smaller than most mini tablets.  My eye sight is not the greatest.  I would love to see Kindle come out with a larger screen.

Kindle sells its screen size as being the size of a typical paperback book.  But books come in all sizes. If, for example, Kindle eventually wants to be used in schools, it needs to have a reader that can show text, images, graphs, all on a page that needs to be bigger.  Many books simply require a larger page to display the content as the author intended.

I get that the smaller screen makes the Kindle easier to carry around, keeps prices lower, conserves battery life, and makes screen refreshes faster and easier.  I would happily give up all that for a larger screen though.  With four different varieties of Kindles, is it wrong to ask that just one of them comes with a ten inch screen?  I have been waiting for the bigger screen for years, but Amazon keeps knocking out the six inch screens without any variation.

Come on Kindle! Give us a larger screen with an option of larger type on the page.  Millions of old people with thank you!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Samsung Galaxy S7 - A step in the right direction

I am pleased to see some of the changes Samsung has made with the new Galaxy S7.  The best fix was the return of the MicroSD port which was abandoned on the S6.  The S7 comes with an upgraded minimum 32 GB of space, but the MicroSD port allows for an extra 200 GB if you are so inclined.

Unfortunately, the S7 has not returned to the removable battery we enjoyed with the S5.  I like the idea of removing a battery just to be certain nothing is still running on my phone when I want it off completely.  I also like the idea of carrying around a spare battery in case I run out of power, as well as the ability to add higher capacity batteries for longer life.

The S7 did increase battery capacity from 2600 mAh to 3000 mAh.  You can also use a portable USB charger if you just have trouble getting through the day on a single charge.  Still, the lack of a removable battery is disappointing. Fewer high end phones have a removable battery.  I've been looking at the LG G5.  I'm not sure that the removable battery is enough for me to switch, as I do like a great deal of other things about the Galaxy S7.  It is a disappointment though that I cannot remove my battery.

The S7 has also greatly improved its camera.  Major carriers thankfully have ended the focus in increasing the number of megapixels in their photos and started to focus more on the lenses.  The S7 has a larger aperture (1.9) which means you get much better photos in low light situations.  That is where my current phone gives me the most trouble.  The S7 seems much improved in this area.  It also has image stabilization.

Samsung has also improved the water proofing in the S7.  Although I've never had the nerve to take a cell phone into the water, I guess it's nice to have that level of protection.

A new feature on the S7 is the "always on" screen.  When not using the phone, it still displays the time and a few other pieces of information on the screen.  To battery hoarders like me, this just seems like  a drain on battery life.  The "always on" feature supposedly uses about 1% of battery per hour, meaning you could lose nearly a quarter of battery life over the course of a day.  I also wonder what sort of screen burn in I will get from having a clock on the screen always.  Fortunately, it is possible to turn off this feature.  Even with it on, the S7 loses less power in standby mode than the S6.

Overall, the S7 is a very great improvement over the disappointing S6.  Whether Samsung can continue to maintain its dominance in the high end Android market remains a big question.  Many new manufacturers, including Google itself, are beginning to produce worthy competing product.  Samsung is in the difficult position of trying to distinguish itself, without veering too far from the standard Android path.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Supersonic commuter jets: a solution in search of a problem


NASA recently announced the development of a new supersonic jet that can carrier passengers at around 1100 miles per hour, slower than the Concorde, which could go 1400 MPH went out of business years ago.  The great breakthrough with the new jet is that the sonic boom it makes is much quieter than older planes.

The sonic boom was not the Concorde's biggest problem.  The problem was that it cost a fortune to run and did not save that much time.  Lowering the sonic boom might allow the new jet to fly overland. The Concorde was limited to flights over the ocean.  Overland flights, however, don't benefit much from faster speeds.  Right now, a flight from LA to NY is about 2400 miles.  The new jet flying at maximum speed might make it there in 2 hrs, 20 minutes.  A standard Boeing jet in use today could do the same flight in about 4 hours.  But standard jets do not fly at their maximum speed. It wastes too much fuel and increases costs.  Therefore, a nonstop flight will probably take over 5 hours today. There just is not enough demand for the maximum speed.

Any traveler will tell you that the bulk of time spend during most domestic flights is not the time spent in flight.  It may take you an hour or more to reach the airport.  If you are parking, you may need another hour to get to the lot, find a commuter bus to take you to the terminal, then spend two hours in the airport going through security and dealing with the advance time airlines require to load luggage and passengers.  You may spend another two hours getting off the plane, collecting your luggage, getting to your ground transportation and then driving to your final destination.  As a result, you have spent six hours of travel time not counting any time actually being flown anywhere.  So a faster plane can cut your two hour flight to one hour.  You are still spending seven  hours of travel time instead of eight.  That is not a big deal, especially if it means your ticket will be four times the cost.  All of this does not include the common problems of flight delays.  It also does not calculate the fact that you must leave at a particular time which may mean more wasted time on either side of the flight before you make your appointment.

There are many wealthy people who gladly spend more money to save time and hassle.  But they are much better off spending that money on a limo to reduce time getting to and from the terminal, Investing in pre-clearance to get through airport security faster.  The very wealthy may even prefer a private jet which allows flexibility in when they leave or arrive and avoids much of the security delays for public carriers.  Making these changes to your ground strategy can save you possibly four or more hours of travel time, as opposed to an hour or two paying for a faster jet.

The faster jet may carry some appeal.  But supersonic planes are usually much smaller, meaning a smaller and more cramped cabin.  People who paid big money to fly the old Concorde were not impressed with the level of comfort on the plane.  If money is not the issue, a slower private jet would be much preferable.

For these reasons, private companies gave up on super sonic commercial flights years ago.  Without a way to make the faster flights as cheap as current jets, the improved speed is simply not worth the cost to virtually any customers.

NASA may have found a way to eliminate the big boom, but that was not really the problem.  NASA wants $300 million from Congress to develop the technology and build a miniature prototype that can carry exactly one passenger.  Presumably the cost would be in the billions to bring a small fleet into actual use.  While scientific advancements are always nice, paying for them when they have little practical application in the market makes no sense.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Smart Advertising is Still Stupid

The promise of smart advertising is something we should all embrace.  Rather than being bombarded with advertisements that we find dull, uninteresting and repetitive, we will only see ads about things we actually want, when we want, and in a format that appeals to us.  That, at least, is the promise of smart advertising.

As with most advertising, however, what is promised is far different from what we get.  I see targeted advertising all the time.  I can often tell when an ad is being targeted at me.  The problem is that it does a very poor job.

For example, this morning of Facebook, I saw an ad for some power adapters that I had browsed on eBay the day before.  The caption read "take another look!"  The problem with this ad was that I not only browsed the product, I had purchased it.  Why is eBay not smart enough, or more likely not concerned enough, to block ads to products I have already purchased?  Similarly, I often see ads to buy items that I am trying to sell, probably because I looked up finished sales on various sites to determine the value of the item.

It has gotten to the point that when I want to look at a product that will trigger ads, I use my browser's "private" or "incognito" mode in order to minimize the trail I will leave for advertisers.

Smart advertising is in its relative infancy so it will probably get better over time.   Of course that can be scary too as advertisers learn not only what we like but what gimmicks prompt us to buy, and which targets are more or less susceptible to advertising in the first place.  It will become easier to prey on the weak and get into consumer's heads.  We will be more easily manipulated.

We are not there yet though.  For many of the ads that I see, I think to myself: I know where you targeted me for that, and you really need a much better algorithm.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

After several months with Windows 10, I hate it even more

I've usually been fairly reluctant to upgrade to a new version of Windows, mostly because a new version will require me to relearn how to perform the same basic tasks in a different way.  In exchange for this, I get... well nothing.  Newer version rarely add anything useful.  Any new features are usually things that are done better by other third party programs.  Sometimes, I even lose features.

I work on multiple computers, which at this point are mostly Windows 7.  I still have a few running XP because they run much better for some of the games I still enjoy playing.  I've completely avoided Windows 8 and 8.1 because they were just horrible.

When Windows 10 came along, I figured I better start getting used to it.  Sooner or later security and support would become an issue on my Windows 7 machines.  Also, friends and family always assume I can help with their new computers, inevitably Windows 10.  Since I work in IT for a living, it would hurt my cred if I could not maneuver around a Windows 10 computer with ease.

Since I didn't want to risk problems by upgrading any of my existing computers, I got a new laptop with Windows 10 pre-installed.  As I expected, there was a little bit of a learning curve in using it. The new system offered nothing more that I wanted, and I ended up losing a few features, like my ability to play DVD videos without a third party program.  I figured I get used to it over time though. I forced myself to use the new Windows 10 laptop for most day to day tasks (such as writing this blog right now), but still go back to my older Windows 7 computers when I want to get things done quickly and easily.

One feature I really hate about Windows 10 is its obsession with updates.  Earlier today, I was writing a blog post (on a different topic).  Windows decided to pop up in the middle of my work and tell me it wanted to install updates and reboot right now.  I told it no and went back to work.  A short time later, I guess I got distracted by something on TV, because when I turned back to my laptop, I saw it was restarting and installing the update anyway.  I had to sit around fuming for quite some time while it did its thing, unable to stop it and get back to work.  Since it restarted without even letting me save my work, I lost some work as well.  To top it all off, once it restarted and I began my work again, I was interrupted with another pop-up message telling me that the update was unsuccessful and that I should try again.  I said no, but now I'm dreading when it tries to force another update and restart when I least suspect it.

Windows XP and 7 were annoying enough then they took 20 minutes to install updates after I shut down my laptop and was trying to catch a train.  Now with Windows 10, the update annoyance has gone a step further by interrupting me while in the middle of my work.  This is truly ridiculous and unacceptable.

I've always thought of my Windows PCs as my personal computer which I controlled.  More and more though, it seems Microsoft considers my PC as a terminal attached to a giant Microsoft network.  Anytime it wants, Microsoft thinks it is just fine to reach out and take information frrom my computer, and to make changes to it without my permission or sometimes even my knowledge.

I have long avoided the techie geek step of working on a Linux OS.  There are just so many programs made for Windows that will not work on Linux that I've always felt I'd be left without something I  needed.  I've stuck with Windows computers and used an Android tablet as my limited use light and nimble option.  But if Microsoft continues to interrupt and annoy me by treating my PC as a terminal attached to a larger Microsoft controlled network, perhaps I need to consider other options.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stupid Uses of Smart Technology


Last year, the train station I use (PATCO) installed several LCD signs in each of its stations, some on the platform and some down by the gate.  I don't know the actual cost, but they look like pretty hardy all weather devices.  I'm sure the project cost at least several hundred thousand dollars.

Up until this time, PATCO had posted paper schedules at the stations, and also posted paper notices as needed.  Finally, I thought, PATCO was moving into the modern era with new signs.  I had visions of seeing postings of when the next train was leaving, so commuters did not have to run when they heard the train approaching, or unnecessarily hurry through ticket purchases, just in case one came.  I also thought we might look forward to real time postings of delays or other problems.

None of that happened though.  For a while, they posted all the times for all trains, in fine print, making it difficult to find the relevant information.  There was not even an attempt to highlight the next train on the list.  Eventually, I guess they decided the schedule was too difficult to read, so they want back to posting papers schedules.

When there were track problems and major delays recently, no information appeared on the signs.  Commuters had to rely on announcements made by train operators on the decades old PA systems that were often incomprehensible.

Lately, the signs have posted no useful information.  They are simply used to post those meaningless advice ads, like "be sure to keep your bags with you" or "don't take up two seats when you sit on the train."

My point in describing this example is not just to criticize PATCO (though it deserves the criticism) but to make the larger point about how great technology often fails when put to use by users who are unconcerned about getting much out of the technology.  The many benefits of the new electronic signage could have made commuters' lives easier, but the company never bothered to put them to use. They should have saved their money and stuck with the much cheaper method of posting paper signs and flyers from time to time.

Better yet, hire someone who understands how to use technology.  Hire someone who can publish real time information about train times or delays, who can make the signs relevant to commuters' lives.  Make the signs dynamic with useful information that is updated throughout the day.  This is the benefit the technology offers.

Many people mindlessly buy more technology than they need or want.  In my job, I support people who buy the latest iPhones, but never use it for anything other than making phone calls or perhaps occasionally checking email.  I know people who buy state of the art ultra thin laptops but never move the machine off of their desk.  I see companies who go through the time and trouble to build a web site, then never update the content on it for years.  All of this seems a bit like buying a million dollar Lamborghini and never taking it over 55 mph.

I suppose this is inevitable.  Waste is normal in a wealthy society.  People buy clothes that they never wear or wear only once.  People buy more food than they need, only to throw most of it away. People buy a 400 channel cable package but only ever watch the same six channels.  People buy houses so large that some of the rooms are only used on rare occasions.  Why should technology be different?

Still, it seems beyond frustrating when so much money is invested in technology, only to see it wasted because the user refuses to make use of it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cell Phones Are Going To Start Getting Much Cheaper

Since the rise of the smart phone, cell phones have been crazy expensive.  A good smart phone without a contract will cost around $800, more than a decent laptop.  Since these high end phones are actually quite powerful miniaturized computers with cutting edge technology, this has been understandable.  Smart Phones have been at the front of technology's growth and innovation over the past few years

That, however, is going to begin to change this year.  The main reason cell phone makers have been able to get away with such costs is that much of the cost is hidden in your cell phone bill.  Customers have grown accustomed to getting free cell phones if they are willing to go with last year's model or a mid-level smart phone.  Many pay $200-$300 for a top phone, along with a two year contact.  This, of course, means that much of the actual cost of the phone is buried in those monthly payments made under the two year contract.  

Beginning last years, major cell phone providers have begun phasing out discounted phones which are paid through the monthly contracts.  AT&T just announced it is killing off phone contracts entirely.  Instead, users pay one price for their service and another for the phone, which can be paid for in installments over a year or two.  This change is a good thing.  It provides customers with transparency.  They can see what portion of their monthly costs go to the phone and what goes to service.  More importantly, if they choose not to upgrade, they don't keep paying that hidden cost for an upgraded phone that they never got.  Users can save money by holding onto their phones beyond the two year mark.  Once installment payments are done, they just pay for the service.

Of greater benefit to the consumer is that phones will start to become less expensive.  When users received a free deeply discounted phone, they had no incentive to decide if they could make due with something less powerful and cheaper.  Just get the best free phone, or pay a small sum for a top phone, knowing you could probably get that money back as a trade in on your next upgrade. 

When you actually see what you pay for a phone, you may not be willing to pay quite as much. Picking up a new iPhone or Samsung for $800 may dissuade some buyers, even if they know they can pay for it over two years, especially if they find that a $300 phone can do pretty much everything they want.

How cheap can phones get?  Well let's take a look at a very similar technology that has not had the benefit of cell phone subsidies: tablets.  You can pick up the Amazon Fire HD, a reasonably good Android tablet with a 7" touch screen for $50.  There is no reason you could not make a similar device with phone and 4G data for less than $100.  In some parts of the world today, you can buy a cheap smart phone with a camera and Internet for under $30.  Of course, that price comes with some real compromises in speed and quality.

Most of use will want more power and quality than a $30 smart phone can provide.  But I would not be surprised to see some really nice high end smart phones selling in the $300 range in the next year or two.  Even those really highest end $800 phones may fall closer to the $500 mark.  Today, you can pick up the very nice Nexus 5x for under $400.  

There will be some down sides to these price cuts.  The speed at which phones continue to develop will diminish as phone makes focus more on cost savings and less on improving speed and adding features.  But this new phase was inevitable as smart phones move from being "the new thing" to an everyday appliance.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Yet another reason I hate Apple

I've never made a secret of the fact that I hate Apple for a wide variety of reasons.  Most of it comes down to Apple's obsession with obscene levels of profits.  Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with making money.  That is the incentive that drives almost all advancements.  But when a company takes this too far, it interferes with the customer experience and can ultimately drive away many potential customers.

One way Apple attempts to squeeze extra profits out of its customers is by using proprietary technology that either prevents or creates disincentives to use third party products.  One obvious example of this is the charging cable.  When my Android needs a new charging cable, I can pick up a micro USB cable just about anywhere for about $1.  I can also share cables between my phone and a half dozen other devices I regularly use.  When my iPhone needs a new cable, I can expect to pay $10-$20 for a new charger that does pretty much the same thing and won't work with any of my other devices.

Now there are rumors that the next iPhone will do away with the 3.5 mm jack for headsets.  This has been a standard for decades used by all sorts of devices.  It lets me connect my phone to my car stereo, home stereo, any one of a dozen headphone or earplugs, etc.  Apple simply hates such interactivity.  It cuts down on the number of Apple branded accessories that customers must buy.

I saw this change coming the day Apple announced its acquisition of Beats Headphones.  The only good reason for overpaying for that company, which makes a well hyped but technically inferior speakers and headphones, is to guarantee an acceptable headset that can only be used with Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Mac).  This will limit the options that Apple users have in choices of speakers.  It will also mean Beats will start creating "Apple exclusive" speakers and headsets that can only be used with Apple devices.  In short, it cuts down on consumer choice.  You must either go "all in" with Apple, or avoid the Apple ecosystem entirely.  I will definitely choose the latter.  I much prefer Bose to anything made by Beats.

There will likely be adapters or other work around options to bypass this Apple-created road block.  But this just seems so unnecessary to me.  Apple's hostility to standard cross-platform interfaces is just another nuisance for Apple customers to bear.  Sadly, many of them will go along with this and pony up more of their accessory dollars into overpriced mediocre Apple accessories.

An Apple car is rumored in the works.  I wonder whether it can only be driven on Apple roads.