The evolution of the technology we use

Five years ago I wrote that I divided the technology solutions I used into three categories:

  1. Permanent presences, which was (and still is for most of us) a smart phone
  2. Mobile solution, which was the lightest, most portable, fully functional laptop that I could find
  3. Base station (which I said at the time was a desktop)

Well in the intervening years things have changed. The smart phones have got a lot smarter, though mainly in how easy it is to do something. There is not a lot that I can do now on an iPhone or the like that I couldn’t do on my Nokia from back then, but it’s a lot easier now (and the screen is a lot bigger). And with ease of use comes the desire to actually use all the functionality-so watching films or TV on a phone is not that painful now. And this is resulting in a trend in the technology world that I am not convinced by. OK there have been lots of trends that I have been skeptical of, but this time I may actually be flying with the crowd and not against it. The trend in phones is  for bigger and bigger screens. Now, at this point you have to remember my classification of a phone it’s my ‘permanent presence’- it’s the thing I always have with me. Which means that I need to be able to put it in my pocket. 4 inches fits comfortably (stop sniggering at the back) but much bigger and it’s getting a pain to keep it with me all the time.

So why do we need bigger screens? Watching movies, browsing the web, playing games are the things that most commonly are mentioned. All of which fit into a new (4th) category that I now propose:

4. Content consumption

By this I mean the very things that Steve Jobs saw when he released the iPad. I admit that I was skeptical about the iPad thinking that it was nothing more than a blown up iPod. And in a way I was right and wrong; there is nothing (OK, very little) that you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPod touch,  but it is just that bit nicer to watch a film or browse the web on a bigger screen. I mean if it weren’t, why would we all be buying 50″ TV screens?

So now I find myself with a tablet, a smart phone and a honking big base station. I have managed to move away from the mobile solution, but as I am finding as I type this blog entry on a touch type screen, although the content consumption device can be used for content creation, it really isn’t as nice. So I’ll still leave the mobile solution in there. Maybe the extra split is unnecessary, but it seems to fit for now

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What phone do you drive?

My wife asked me a question last night- for a change it wasn’t “Have you locked the front door?” but she was puzzling why anyone would buy an iPhone. Functionally you can get a phone that does almost everything that an iPhone does, but for considerably less.

I was stumped until I posed her a question: “Why would anyone buy a Mercedes?”. And so I sat back rather pleased with myself at coming up with a simple to understand analogy to the iPhone question. I thought about this a little more and realised that I had actually hit upon something- an iPhone really is quite like a Mercedes- it does exactly the same job as a Ford or a Toyota, but it just does it with a little more style, a little more comfort and just the merest hint of a statement.

Which then got me to thinking, if an iPhone is a Mercedes what about the other major players in the phone market? Let’s stick to the ecosystems for now, which limits us to Blackberry, Windows Phone, Android and Apple’s iOS. So if an iPhone is a Mercedes, what does that make an Android phone? I think it’s a GM because the underlying brand is diluted by all the different flavours of the phone makers; just as an Opel is subtly different from a Vauxhall which is different again from a Chevrolet and so on, so is Android just a little bit different if you buy a Samsung, an HTC or whatever else.

So how about Blackberry? All about the business, driven slightly differently? It’s got to be BMW. Business focus? Check. Driven differently (rear wheel drive as opposed to physical keyboard)? Check. We are making progress.

Which brings me to my current phone OS of choice; Windows Phone. What car maker is a Windows Phone? I think it’s probably an Alfa Romeo. No, stick with me on this, think about it: An Alfa looks gorgeous, so does Windows Phone. There aren’t as many dealers and spares are a bit harder to come by, which is pretty much what it’s like getting apps for a Windows Phone. It’s also a bit quirky and you stand out from the crowd (whether you want to or not). Which is just the way with a Windows Phone.

So there it is, a short, sweet analysis of what phone you drive. Here’s to the ones who think differently. And here’s to those of us who have a Windows Phone and BMW 3 series- just how confused are we!

What price privacy?

My last post was written on a Windows Phone and I was wondering what it was going to be like to use and whether or not I’d be able to blog more frequently. Well, I’m still not blessed with vast amounts of free time, but I’ve got time for this one.

There has been quite a lot of coverage over the last week because Google has changed its privacy policy so that your personal information can be shared across all its services. I am not quite sure why people have been so shocked by this- after all even though Picasa, Google Earth and the rest were acquired separately, they are now part of a single company. So why shouldn’t Google be allowed to share the information? As an analogy, if a supermarket chain buys a string of convenience stores and re-brands them; you, as the consumer, benefit from lower prices and a consistent choice of product ranges; they in turn are able to capture your loyalty card profile in all their stores. So why should it be any different for a company that sells information about you?

Well, to me at least, that last point is the critical aspect. How much information do we want other people to know about us? And how much do we want to be involved with the decision? There are good arguments for an organisation that wants to sell advertising space to know a bit about me- after all I am a forty something year old male, so advertisements for female hygiene products are going to be a waste of time, space and bandwidth for all concerned. So it can easily be acknowledged that a little targeting is a good thing. But where should it stop?

Google used to provide a page where you could see what it knew about you- for example it had worked out that I am male, aged between 35 and 45 and interested in technology, mobile phones and a few other things. Google knew that my wife is female, about the same age as me and interested in celebrity gossip. This had all been worked out from our web history. I found this interesting and told a few people about it- not surprisingly it was pretty much spot on for everyone. And although this information had been collected without my explicit knowledge, I could at least see what Google had worked out about me.

And now Google has created a single overall privacy policy and is conducting a charm offensive like no other to convince you and I that we should trust them with our personal information. And to aid in this there is a new Ad Preference Manager where we can explicitly block certain advertisers. This is largely a good thing. I have a mantra that I use in my professional life “explicit by statement, not implicit by omission”- this means that if you are building a system that is going to deliver this functionality but not that, then you should state somewhere that “we will NOT be doing that” instead of just leaving it out. Google are adopting this approach through two methods:

  1. You can explicitly state what interests you have
  2. You can control who you do not wish to see advertising to you (up to a limit of 500 advertisers at least).

However, what one hand gives, the other takes away: it does not appear possible any more to see what Google knows about you. So have they deleted the existing profile? I think not. My best guess is that the old inferred profile will be combined with the new explicit interests and you will hopefully finish up with even more accurately targeted adverts. The question is, do you want this?

The start of this post stated that I had been using a Windows Phone, with an operating system written by Microsoft. Now Microsoft have a huge number of detractors, but as far as I know, they don’t particularly care who I am. They care whether my copy of Windows is Genuine and whether I am using the latest version of Office. But they don’t care about me. Unlike Google. My test of the Windows Phone concluded with the decision that the OS is really nice, the app support is significantly weaker than either iOS (from Apple) or Android (from Google) and the overall price probably somewhere between the two. So you are faced with an interesting choice: it can be argued that Android is the ‘best’ mobile phone subsystem at the moment, but you have to give away your privacy. With a Windows Phone you pay more, get less functionality but keep yourself to yourself. And with Apple you pay even more, you may or may not keep your information private and join the mass of fan-boys.

So what to do? How much more am I willing to pay to keep my information private? And how much functionality am I prepared to forgo for the same aim? And what about you?

Ranting and Privacy

The advent of web sites such as Facebook and Twitter has given people a place to let off steam: A large attraction of Facebook and the sole purpose of Twitter is to publish what you are doing or how you are feeling right now. This is great for friends (real or on-line) to feel as though they are involved in your life, laugh with you at the amusing things that happen and possibly even provide comfort and support should things not be going well.
The only downside to this concept is that the very immediacy of the publishing and the public nature of the internet means that thoughts and words that should, at best, be muttered under your breath or even locked and trapped in the dark recesses of your mind find their way out, into the public  domain and in the best traditions of Pandora’s box, once opened there is no recalling the tweet or status update.
A recent lawsuit highlights the possible consequences of such utterings and there have been numerous cases of people being fired for updating their  Facebook status with ‘God, I am bored. This job sucks. My boss is a complete to$$er’ or something similar.
Now obviously I am aware that only ‘friends’ can see your status on Facebook and you can protect your tweets on Twitter. So you could argue that anyone dumb enough to post something that could conceivably be libellous or even just offensive gets everything they deserve, but other recent events mean that even if you are careful, the privacy police may be after you.
If you apply to work for the city council in Bozeman, Montana you are now required, at the interview stage, to provide the interviewer with your username and password to all the social network sites that you are a member of. This means that your future employer will be able to see your thoughts and actions that were previously only known to your friends.
Alternatively, if you are at school, you may be required (not requested, required) to provide your username and password if members of staff believe you have posted something that may be offensive.
Both of these situations worry me. A lot. Yes, we should have right to privacy. Yes, you are pretty dumb if you post something on Facebook that could offend (even if it is nothing more than ‘Sarah, the Cheerleader has a big fat butt’) but the very purpose of these sites is that you are able to post to your circle of friends and should be unafraid of the
.
I recently had a really crappy day at work. I wanted to post something to this effect, but I was concerned that, somehow, this would become public and my bad day would get far worse. So I didn’t post, I showed the best stiff upper lip I could and got through the day. But I wish I could have vented a little. It could have helped. Maybe

A new empire

Here’s a number of odd things; first up, this is the first post in over two years- let’s see if we can start to generate regular posts and increase readership.

Secondly, I am suffering a bit from single source syndrome. A few years ago we all hated Microsoft- you pretty much had to use their Operating System (in which ever flavour of Windows you wanted); most people were stuck with some form of Office (or even worse, Works) and sitting on top of the heap was Internet Explorer.

Then Firefox came along, OpenOffice made a decent stab at things and you could even get adventurous and try your hand with a ‘consumer’ version of Linux. I have used these alternatives, frequently with a conscientious effort to avoid the Microsoft solution and along the way I came to some conclusions

You can Linux if and only if you never want to try anything beyond basic browsing, possibly some e-mail and the occasional letter that you are going to print out. That is of course, unless you are a total geek and want to get right under the hood. So, Linux appeals to the very top and very bottom of the tech knowledge scale

OpenOffice does apppeal to a wider audience- most people can get it to work. In fact, to many people it looks just like MS Office used to look. Which is kind of the problem. Love Microsoft of loathe them, every now and then one of their usabilty innovations actually works. My feelings on the ribbon are documented but over the last couple of years (and in particular with the advent of Office 2010 and the ability to modify the ribbon) I’ve come to accept the change. What I can’t deny is that non-techy users do seem to like the ribbon approach and it does look more modern than the traditional install of OpenOffice.

Firefox managed to plough the most successful furrow: Now not only do you have Firefox, you have Chrome and if you want to feel like a Mac fan-boy, you can even install Safari. All work well as browsers- in many cases actually better than Internet Explorer and so you can now feel a nice heterogenity. You are not beholden to a single vendor for your complete IT solution. But why is this important? Why should you care? After all there are many, many people who buy everything from Apple. OK, yes we do make fun of these people. But if it works for them, why was there the backlash against Microsoft all those years ago? And why should we maintain a hybrid solution?

The best analogy I can come up with is financial planning and investing. The ‘best’ strategy is to spread your portfolio across a number of sectors, with different investment funds etc. So it is with computers- less so for the fact of making money and more keeping the vendor honest.

Which is why I am currently having such a problem. The world has changed since I last thought about the IT solutions we use, not least of which is the power available in the ‘permanent presence’ category. We are bombarded with advertising to buy the latest iPhone, Blackberry, Android or even a Windows Mobile smartphone. Not so much on the Nokia front, but that’s the subject of a whole other rant.

I honestly can’t justify the cost of an iPhone, Windows Mobile is still immature (I’ll wait til Nokia kicking out some handsets to reserve judgement on that platform), Blackberry costs too much to implement as a (very) small business and Android seems to have all the momentum. Which is why I now find myself with a very sexy little HTC Desire S sat beside my on my desk. It seems to do all the things you need of a phone i.e. make and receive calls and text messages. And it does the smart things too: It plays music, takes photos, allows you to watch videos and keep the world updated with what you are doing right now (even if it is still beyond me as to why you would want to let anyone know what you are doing- though I will be updating that thought process in a little bit).

OK, it is all a little bit more complicated to do all these things than it is on an iPhone, but with a bit of gentle persuasion you can get it to work. The problem is that I feel as though I’ve swapped one empire (Microsoft) for another one (Google). And here’s the thing- Google may profess to doing the right thing, but there’s a number of areas of the phone that really bug me:

  1. Why does the MarketPlace need to submit data in the background? No, if I want to buy something, I go to shop. I don’t want you working what I might need in the backgroun
  2. Don’t link my Facebook account with my phone book and my LinkedIn account. They are separate for a reason; I don’t want my boss to know that when he calls I have replaced his real name (Alan) with my nickname for him (Dylan) because he reminds me of a character on the Magic Roundabout
  3. Oh and if you do link me in, you should make it just as easy to unlink the accounts after, not a some obscure submenu of a security setting.
  4. Why do I need to use some many applications from Google just to listen to a podcast offline?
  5. Don’t put adverts for songs in my music player. As with the MarketPlace issue, if I want to browse for a song on Amazon’s MP3 store, I’ll go there. Don’t suggest new music when I am listening to my old music

There’s more in terms of frustrations and maybe I’ll rant about them later. But what really concerns me is the level of information that Google is receiving about me- and much of it ‘in the background’ or put another way ‘when I am not looking’. I have a  straightforward request, you want me to you send me stuff, tell me and make sure I know exactly what it being sent, possibly each and every time. You want to worm your way into my social, financial and other preferences: SOD OFF!

Change is great (but not for me)

As someone who is paid to update processes, design new applications to support those processes and implement the data structures to store the necessary information I am frequently proposing that a company implement a new system. In many of these situations I am called upon to perform the sales pitch to the existing users to convince them that the new system will be better and their lives will improve. And most times I believe that I what I am saying is the truth; because as anyone who has played with me will tell you, I am a rotten poker player and it is almost impossible for me to convince someone else of something I don’t believe in.

A natural consequence of this is that I am normally close to the front of the queue to try out some new application or another. Most of the time I can work out what to do pretty quickly and if I can’t then it is probably either indicative of a poorly designed application or that I am trying to learn something completely new and I have no clue what I am doing. Yeah, you got me; most times it is the latter of these cases. Furthermore, if I am trying an upgrade to an existing application then I expect there to be little or no learning curve and only the occasional frustration when I can’t find something. I have even grown to live with Vista, though I can’t actually say I like it, I find that if you switch off enough of the new toys then it becomes a perfetly adequate OS. Of course if you leave them all on then it truly is the nightmare that so many others have written about.

So with this background and experience it was quite the shock today when I found myself so frustrated with an application that I was literally banging my head against my desk. Not only can I still feel the bruise on my forehead but it scared the crap out of a co-worker who was sat behind me. What caused this outburst? Microsoft Office 2007 and in particular Excel. I had already gone through the process of turning off the Ribbon and creating my own toolbar when I realised that I needed to control the zoom of the window. Since I started using Excel in 1992 it has been possible to do this by placing a little widget in the toolbar; but no longer. Despite there being 3 (count ’em) different Zoom options it is not possible (as far as I can see) to put the zoom level in the toolbar. No, now you have to look down in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Sure, you can turn off the standard location, but you can’t put it where you want it to be. It was somewhere during the 5 minutes it took me to work this all out that my head and the desk came into close proximity and my colleague jumped out of his skin.

And this is just one of the myriad of changes that has been forced on me by Microsoft. I have read that people like myself make up less than 2% of the users of Microsoft Word, by which I mean that I believe I use it correctly with styles, customisation of the toolbars and personalised templates. So Microsoft, by all means create a UI that is better for the 98% of people who are not using your tools correctly but please Please PLEASE let the 2% who do like to control the look of the application so that it truly meets our needs make the customisations necessary.

All of which is a rant aimed squarely at the designers of Office. I generally like change but in this case I will be sticking with the old versions of your software. So keep making your changes, when they work for me, then I’ll join the party. Until then I’ll keep on being productive in my own way.

What I use (3): Online sync and Backup

A while ago I wrote that I think that best way to access the right computing power at the right time is to have 3 different hardware solutions, I called them ‘Permanent Presence’ (a smart phone), Portable Solution (laptop) and Base Station (desktop/ server). At the time I noted that the downside to optimising the hardware solution is the need to synchronise information between the machines. Although there are various solutions for the large scale enterprise including Groove, I found that the solutions offered to a small business were clunky, slow and frequently simply failed to work.
The advantage that the large enterprises have, and probably the reason why the solutions work, is that someone has actually put some thought into designing an optimal solution. When you are not a storage/ backup professional the temptation is to just let a service provider sell you their latest toy and be happy with it. The problem with this is that you are no longer in control of meeting your requirements- you are reacting to someone else’s belief of what they think you need.
However, having someone do the thought for you is sometimes good and a couple of solutions have come along that allow the design of a fairly good solution. The tools are Dropbox and Mozy; both of which have been around a little while and both have won awards. So I am not some crazy evangelical here, and I am not even at the front of the wave; what I am proposing is that combining the best tools out their with some system design can yield an effective solution for virtually no cost.

So, as I was trying to come up with a better solution the first question that you need to ask is “What information do I need to keep synchronised between the machines and what information do I just need to copy to all my computers?” Examples of the first type of information include the documents you are working on, examples of the second time include photographs or MP3 files. Because what you actually need for photos is not a synchronisation service, and you don’t even want an interactive backup service- most times what you need is cold storage backup. These days even the most basic laptops often come with a DVD writer and the software to burn your photos to a DVD is almost ubiquitous. So burn away and make 2 copies of everything, then send one to some other location so that in the case of a real, biblical scale disaster (we are talking fire or flood here) you can get all your info back.
So, as we go through the files on your computer, the first thing we have done is determine that the vast majority of data (certainly for me) does not need to use a synchronisation service or an on-line backup. This is good because most times you will be charged by the Gigabyte, so saving all this space means that you are now most likely going to be under the free limit.

Next up, because it is the simplest to determine, is what needs to be synchronised. For me, where I work on a number of reasonably well defined projects, this is straight forward: Anything that is associated with a project that is ‘live’ needs to be synchronised. The net result of this is that, if like me, you file your documents according to the company you work at, then you finish up with a folder for the current work e.g. CompanyX 2008 and an archive folder CompanyX. When each project finishes, move the entire project folder into the archive (this approach works for e-mail too, but uses a different technology). So everything that is live gets stored under a special folder, cunningly called Dropbox. What Dropbox does is create a service on your machine(s) that monitors this folder and all subfolders under it; any change to any file is fairly rapidly copied to your private space (up to 1GB) on the Dropbox server. Yes, I know that this has potential privacy issues; so don’t put your medical records in your Dropbox. All your other machines are also monitoring the server (or do so as soon as they get switched on) and recognise that a change has been made and copy the relevant file(s) to their local Dropbox folder. As the blurb says on the web site “It just works” And that is the coolest thing about Dropbox- it just does it. No mess, no worries, it just gets on with ensuring that all the information you need is available on your local machine whether you are on-line or not. And it doesn’t matter if half your machines are Windows boxes and some are Mac’s- the files just magically appear.

You can achieve the same effect for e-mail by simply using IMAP instead of POP to collect your mail and then at a fixed moment, copying everything from the IMAP server to a local file and then manually copying the files to all relevant machines. This requires using the same mail client on all machines which is a bit of a blow if you have a Mac, but not everything is perfect.

Finally we come to the backup solution- now I know that some people like to backup their Program Files to recreate their machine in one go. Personally I think that there it is no bad thing to clear out the junk and garbage by going back to CD’s and reinstalling, so my backup is limited to the Dropbox (because if you do screw up, then you may still need to go back to yesterdays version) and the archive projects (because as a consultant, that archive is in fact your value to the next client). And once again, Mozy just seems to work. Obviously if you have a Mac you can use Timemachine to do this, but I don’t, so I can’t.

So, in summary:
Media: Burn DVD’s
Current documents: Sync through Dropbox, backup through Mozy
Archive documents: Backup through Mozy

I can’t say that I have had to use much of the Mozy functionality, but it does give me a warm fuzzy to know that I could.