Fewer than 500 words...

Any decent technology concept ought to be something that can be outlined in fewer than 500 words. These entries are my attempt to make that work.

Learning to love Contacts.app

Why doesn’t Contacts work the way I think it should or the way my previous favorite app did?

1. The majority of average users are most interested in KNOWING that their contacts are the same in all locations; desktop, laptop, iPhone, iPad, Web. They want this action to be passive, i.e. not requiring any interaction or knowledge.

2. Some business clients want deeper integration into their workflows - CRM, (Customer Relations Management). CRM solutions might provide additional information like contact history, links to documents, emails, etc. as well as tight integration with a calendar.

3. Data that collectively represents a "contact" is not something easily pinned down. Put any two people in a room and ask them what should be part of a contact record and you're likely to have an argument. Add more people and you add to the size of the argument.

4. Add a variety of logical plans for storage, formatting and syncing of data and we begin tilting toward chaos.

5. Everyone expects moving from one contact application to another to be simple, easy and to properly transfer all data.

The New York Times gets it wrong

In response to this posting at the New York Times, Disruptions: You Know You Can't Live Without Apple's Latest Glass Rectangle by Nick Bilton…

Wow, I don't come close to agreeing... The naiveté exposed in this article is staggering.

Fins on a Cadillac? Nothing functional about the fins changed (because there was nothing functional about the fins, of course). The look of the exterior of a TV as the sole criterion for choosing one? This guy is a world champ idiot.

The operant in the evolution of Apple products over the past few years has been to build at the absolute limits of what is possible and financially feasible at the same time in the consumer space.

Look at the product line over the last, I don't know, decade? Each new model has been built using manufacturing techniques, parts and design that were not possible in the previous design. It takes the market's adoption of a new technique to drive manufacturing and component vendors to rise to the challenge of producing at that level. The one spurs the other and the evolution continues.

On the subject of passwords...

A very public internet figure was hacked. In the end it turned out not be a flaw in his passwords, but actually a social hack worked against Apple, which in a way is worse than the kind of password-cracking we typically mean when we speak of hacking. The full story is here.

But reading about the episode made clear some of the weaknesses of the casual way many of us link accounts and use the same or similar passwords and the basic vulnerabilities that are introduced in the new ways available to control our data. Following are some simple concepts to help govern how to approach security with a bit more cognizance of the weaknesses:

1. Use unique passwords for each online service - Of course we've all heard this one before, however when you add in Twitter, Facebook, Google, Tumblr and all the other options out there, it becomes clear that the online "you" is multi-faceted and it's going to be easier to deal with a single account being hacked instead of all of "you" at once.

2. Passwords to be created by 3rd party utilities - There are many available schemes for creating complex or memorable passwords, but when it comes right down to it you may come up with a good that you then use to violates #1, above. Your passwords protect not only your ability to use your account but also that account's very existence; imagine your entire accumulated identity being systematically wiped out at each service. Deleting an account is simple enough, but recovering it may or may not even be possible. Your passwords should be unique, appropriately complex and handled in a way that still gives you needed access. Applications like 1Password from AgileBits Software make this tolerably easy.

And now we have Flash's death certificate...

A dirty little secret known to those of us who do troubleshooting work is that Adobe's Flash plug-in has long been one of the least well-behaved pieces of "required" software for users. Users insist on having it so they can use content spread far and wide on the web, but it has never been particularly stable, it's a tremendous resource hog (hear the fans spin up on your laptop while you're browsing the web and you can be sure you just landed on a site heavily using Flash content) and there are continued issues with security vulnerabilities. However, it's a deeply entrenched technology, used for everything from coding websites to online games and videos, etc.

When Apple was teetering on the edge of survival it needed to keep Adobe happy, and so Macs shipped with the Flash plug-in installed for many years. Then Apple quietly stopped including it. Finally, with the advent of iOS, the iPhone and iPad Steve Jobs announced in April of 2010 that there would be no Flash support in iOS, and Flash would not be allowed on the platform. HTML 5 would be the only acceptable method of delivering the rich media content that Flash had had a lock on. Jobs went so far as to publish his reasoning in an open letter, Thoughts on Flash.

On the passing of Steve Jobs

My iPhone beeped at me to let me know that AP had some very sad news for me, while I had my MacBook Pro open configuring an AirPort Extreme in the home of a prominent writer and director in Hollywood, and for a moment I was overwhelmed with the following realizations:

The iPhone is from Steve.

The MacBook Pro is from Steve.

The AirPort Extreme is from Steve.

My career is from Steve (and ok, so I had something to do with it too, but without Apple my work would not be in this field).

The writer/director's assistant was using her white MacBook, from Steve.

The writer/director writes on an iMac or a MacBook Pro, views dailies on his iMac, uses his iPhone, all from Steve.

Steve has been famously quoted as saying he wanted to put a ding in the universe. Mission Accomplished.

I don't mean to diminish the work of the thousands who helped shape and bring Steve's dreams to reality, but when we think of the overwhelming spread of his impact it's hard to even come up with a way to wrap one's mind around the idea that it's almost impossible to come up with any area of the arts, science, industry or even sports that has not been impacted by Steve's vision of what's important in this life.

Apple's Lion in the Tall Grass

I know many of you are excited about Apple's impending release of the next Mac OS X version, 10.7 or Lion, as it's called. Lion is scheduled for release this month, but no specific date has been announced.

I'm a registered developer with Apple and I've been using Lion for months and I'm very excited to share it with you, but there are some important considerations that will affect when you update. I'm writing this to help you make a good decision about when you upgrade your Mac(s).

Lion changes some underlying core ways in which the OS works and chief among these changes is that Rosetta will no longer be part of the codebase that makes up the OS. Rosetta was an emulator that allowed code written for older PowerPC machines to run on Intel computers. It's been years since Apple sold PowerPC machines, but some developers have not chosen to update the code for the applications (even though they've had years to do it). What matters about this is that those applications will not function in Lion, and some of these applications may be key to your work.

On not accepting the status quo

The existing order of things is just that, and it's open to change. Here's a quick for instance. I just celebrated my 48th birthday and I've been tying my own shoes for about 45 of those years. So, imagine my surprise when I learned I've been doing it wrong! This video is Terry Moore recorded at a TED Talk (and certainly one of their lighter ones, watch some of the amazing others too):

The idea that I might have reached this age and been tying my shoes wrong all these years was too silly for me not to give this technique a try, and of course Mr. Moore's comments are exactly right. I no longer bother with the double knot I've always tied, my laces don't loosen during the day and it took me perhaps two days to revise my habits.

I'm a smart guy, so naturally this leaves me questioning basic knowledge I've been relying on and that's a good thing. For nearly 300 years starting about 300 BC the Library of Alexandria was the central repository for the collected wisdom of civilization. It was well-funded and collected, some say, more than 500,000 books (papyrus scrolls) and after 300 years of active collecting it was a remarkable collection.

Headphones and Earphones

Uh oh. Longer than 500 words. We're going to have to pretend it's 3 posts.

This evening I pulled out some of the headphones I've collected over the years. Yes, I'm a bit of an audio snob. Yes, my music library is enormous (more than 50,000 songs) and yes, by now I know a thing or two about what I want to hear when I listen to music. This then is a walk through some of the headphones in my collection and my comments on them. Hopefully it will provide a helpful guide, if not in a specific choice then perhaps what to listen for when auditioning headphones.

I'm putting these in order of price, but that's for convenience only. Some of the least expensive are the best, but the most expensive on this list also happens to be the best I've heard...

Creative Aurvana - $108.84 - A good value for very little money. These can often be found for $70. They're smooth, full and have a rich tone. They're light and fit comfortably. They fall apart when you want bass or volume, but the handling of mids and highs is surprisingly solid.

Sony MDR-V6 - $109.99 - If you've got a budget to stick to and can only have one pair of headphones and they need to be clear, accurate and excellent, buy these. They're an ancient model and I'm not kidding, they were introduced in the 1980s! They have such a following that they even have a Wikipedia page! There's arguably no more solid performer available. They lack the firepower of the Monster line, they lack the unbelievable finesse of the Shure in-ear models and they lack modern things like controls for a telephone, but they reproduce music with clarity, precision and detail and they are great for casual and critical listening.

Monster Beats iBeats - $119.95 - The least expensive Monsters may be the easiest to recommend. The sound matches the Monster Beats emphasis on bass and mids, but highs are reasonably clear too and I would put these ahead of the SuperFi 4vi's for sound quality and since they include telephone controls they're equally useful. However, as I've found the SuperFi 4Vi's new on eBay at $25 I can get four pairs of those for the price of one of these, so these are the value if you only want one, but if you're like me and want them available anywhere, the others might be a better choice.

Shure SRH440 - $125.00 - These are over the ear headphones. The sound is the least impressive of all the headphones listed here, and to make matters worse, the earcups are made of a plastic so unwilling to mold to the head that it's actually uncomfortable. An easy no.

Ultimate Ears SuperFi 4vi - $149.99 - Clear and full, these are a very decent pair of 'phones, solid bass and clarity throughout the range. They can get a little thin with more volume, but they are not fatiguing at reasonable volumes and they're physically small enough to be comfortable for long wear. They're an easy pair to love and keep around. I've found these new on eBay for as little as $25. I have pairs in the car, in the computer bag, in pockets of regularly worn jackets, etc. They have telephone controls and a mic, so they're super useful.

Monster Beats Tour - $179.95 - A more sophisticated sound then the iBeats, these simply have more of everything that the iBeats offer. The sound holds together better, has more presence and a more solid low-end, though the iBeats edge out slightly in the highs.

Monster Beats Solo - $199.95 - These are a bit of a let-down. The trademark Monster Beats bass is there, but that's they're only genuine strong suit. Mids are a bit muddy and the highs are pretty much hopeless. These are fine for Hip Hop, but that's about the extent of it. These were revised to the SoloHD and I don't have those to listen to, but my guess from the overall weakness and muddiness of these is that the revisions were intended to address the weaknesses I found in these.

Monster Beats Studio, $349.99 - I enjoy thee very much, they're like a private island of musical indulgence for your ears. I just know my ears are getting a treat when I pull them out to listen to pretty much anything. These have a very distinct sound, it's warm, bass heavy and pronounced and smooth like caramel. Bass and mids are rendered with stunning clarity and oomph. I'm regularly surprised by how well they do with dynamic bass. My primary criticism is with the upper end. First, they strive to get anything much in the upper registers rendered with anything like a matching presence to the mids and lows and what does get out sounds brittle, compressed and is ultimately fatiguing to the ears. If you know Roseanne Cash's song Black Cadillac, it starts with a little bit of her father, Johnny Cash and then the song is hers and his voice is fantastically rendered while the careful and detailed tone of her voice is compressed into a tiny fragment of what it is on other headphones. In the end, I consider these great headphones, but in the end they simply can't be an "only" set of cans. If you can only have one, these won't be it, unless you're musical taste begins and ends with modern Hip Hop and R&B (on which they're fantastic, of course!).

Shure SE400 - $349.99 - (specific model number varies) Little brothers to the 500 series, these are about 85-90% of the performance of their bigger brothers. Instead of the triple driver system of the 500 series the 400 substitutes a dual driver. The difference is mostly found in the clarity of the high end. These are also smaller and lighter than 500s. Considering the quality of these, they're a steal.

Shure SE500 - $549.99 - (specific model number varies) If there's a better private listening device than this pair of 'phones, I haven't heard it. There's no way I can possibly describe the musical joy of these things, they're extraordinary from lows to highs, and everything in between. They use a triple driver system and they miss nothing at all in the source material they're given. If you listen to any piece of music on these and it isn't the single best experience you've ever had listening to that piece, short of hearing it live, then be assured there's something wrong with the recording. Listen softly or loudly, it's all there, they don't strain, they don't tire and they're smooth throughout their range.

Of course there are downsides... They're horrendously expensive, but certainly not the most expensive. The cables run over the ears, they require a snug fit to do their best and as these are in-ear phones, and as is the case with any in-ear, you give a little on bass. But not that much.

There are plenty of included options for fitting to your own ears. Since the seal in your ears is expected to be effective, you won't hear much from the outside world, so Shure includes a device that can be run inline on the cable that allows you to push a button and hear the outside world.

Bottom line? These are very expensive and yet somehow completely worth it. If these are tempting but you need to economize there's no shame in the 400 series, and you get much of what is found in the 500.

Imagining the unimaginable... Your Laptop/iPhone/iPad's been stolen!

It's awful to even have to think about it, but it DOES happen. What if it happens to you? Think about it before it happens and you can at least be ok.

There are three main things to consider:

1. Your device - A small percentage of these items get recovered, but it's a very small percentage and the odds are against you. You might use software on your Mac to locate it while a thief is using it. There are commercial applications that will do their best to help you in this regard - check out GadgetTrak and LoJack if you want to go this route, but be careful to take additional precautions like enabling a firmware password and creating a "honeypot" account to get a thief to log in and encourage use so you have a chance to track the machine. But honestly, don't plan on getting it back. Instead, make sure you have insurance to get your device replaced with as little fuss as possible.

2. Unauthorized access to your data - While you can, imagine the liability you face if your data is "in the wild." You should consider this well in advance so you can either use Apple's File Vault, an alternative, or limited encrypted archives to cover your sensitive data. Do not delay in setting up Find My iPhone, especially now that it's free! This service will allow you to track the location of your iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch and remotely wipe the data on it.

Closing out 2010

2010 is about to become a memory. This is a great time to take stock of your IT situation. Rather than simply a reminder to backup (Please, of course, do that!), this is a suggestion to consider a worst case scenario in your IT world.

I recently watched a fascinating talk in which a hacker discussed what took place after his pride and joy computer was stolen out of his apartment. He was able to track it over the course of the next two years as it crossed the country and eventually wound up in the hands of someone in Las Vegas. All that time his data traveled along with the computer. He is a very sophisticated user and his methods are beyond what most people would be able or willing to do, but the warning should be clear; if your computer or iPad or iPhone was stolen what would your level of pain be?

Let's take a few moments and pretend it's actually happened to your computer or phone. Was your machine backed up? Was your only backup attached to the computer? If so, it likely went with the machine. How accessible is the data on the machine?

Archive those memories!

One of my childhood memories is of the family sitting in the dark around the slide projector watching family history click by, one frame at a time accompanied by the soundtrack of the hum of the fan that kept the bulb from burning out. So what happened to those slides? They live in the basement of my father's house, of course, where nobody sees them, ever.

Recently my mother decided to scan some of these slides and sent out the results. No offense to her well-intentioned efforts, but the results were terrible. Fortunately, I had an option. I begged her to send the slides to ScanCafe to be scanned by professionals. Eventually she did and the results were spectacular!

The procedure is simple and convenient. Collect whatever media you want scanned; prints, newspaper clippings, slides, negatives, whatever you have, go to the website, open an account, and list the quantity of what you're sending. ScanCafe will give you an estimate (generally $0.20 to $0.35 per image, often discounted), create a UPS shipping label for you to print and give instructions on how to box your images. Then you drop the package off at UPS and wait a month for the scanning to be done.

I'm waiting for the Verizon iPhone

This is something heard frequently from savvy smartphone shoppers. The general perception is that Verizon offers the best cell phone service available in the US, and that may actually be true. As discussed previously the difference between CDMA and GSM is such that a wireless provider gets better range and more power out of CDMA towers and phones than GSM. GSM offers advanced features, more simultaneous connections per tower and more conservative power usage for handsets, allowing the phones to be lighter and smaller, all at the cost of reduced range which means more towers are needed to cover the same area.

There are rumors, presented as fact, in a variety of reputable news sources stating that a Verizon iPhone is just around the corner. Stories have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and countless others. They point to release at various times, but generally they seem to be settling on January, 2011. At this point exclusivity on AT&T serves AT&T more than it does Apple and in other markets around the world Apple has already moved to multiple carriers, so it would make sense. But in those other markets all the carriers were GSM...

Simple security camera

No boring details (actually the story is pretty awesome, but I'm not sharing it here) but there was an attempted robbery at my home. The would-be thieves were interrupted and left with nothing, but the entire experience was invasive and unnerving. There are a number of overdue improvements to security that will take place, however, there's no way to stop a determined burglar from victimizing you.

Technology has a response, if not a solution. Given that I can't stop burglars, I can do a bit to dissuade them and I can also do my best to make them more identifiable to law enforcement. I purchased a very inexpensive IP-based camera with a motion sensor and WiFi.

After an easy setup I was able to place it with a view of the most likely point of entry and it now sends me an email alert with several still frames each time the motion detector is activated. It can record continuous video, video on a schedule, video with or without audio, record in near darkness and store this all on a sharepoint on a desktop, a server or a NAS.

It can also be monitored in real time in the house or from outside, via a computer or an iPhone.

The camera I chose is the LinkSys WVC80N, but there are many others that will do this same job, including some with PTZ (Pan, Tilt, Zoom) controls.

I'll be adding a real camera system and DVR to cover the exterior of the house but this is a simple approach that can be added to an office or to monitor a door or any secure area for an investment of little more than $100.

Where should backups be kept?

My house was burgled on Friday. Nobody was hurt, nothing was stolen, the damage was minimal and all in all it was about the best outcome one could hope for, under the circumstances. But it made me consider what might have happened.

As one would expect there's an interesting assortment of equipment in my home that I must acknowledge would have value to some if it were outside my home. But all of that would be fairly easy to replace, whether via insurance reimbursements or simply choosing a newer and better version of this or that piece of hardware. What can not be easily replaced is the immense and growing archive of data; the ones and zeros that make up my digital world are stored here. They're backed up, but the majority of the backups are also kept here and who's to say that with enough time and searching those backups might not find space on Craigslist?

So what to do? Well, first one needs to actually know what one has. Take the time to make sense of what you've archived and backed up. Still have data on floppies? What about Zip cartridges or tapes or any of the other media that has fallen by the wayside? Take the time, now, while you can profit from my misfortune, to assess what you've got, dump what you don't need and centralize the data you want preserved. Will it fit on a single hard drive, a RAID, a NAS? Finally do that filing you've meant to do, collect the data, organize it and get it ready to sit in nice and orderly fashion.

In praise of Time Machine

Of course I do backups and I recommend strongly that you do too. A good percentage of my billable hours are spent on making sure that clients' backup systems are operating correctly and backing up what they're supposed to. Some of these systems can be quite complex, firing off at specific times, moving data from one location to another, even synchronizing servers.

But... most of my "backups" of my laptop were really clones done whenever I got that funny feeling in my stomach (it's a very different story for my servers and desktop). Mac OS X Server can offer a destination for Time Machine backups, and since I keep a server running in my house it's just silly that I hadn't set it up to do the work (and this can be done on a server or on an AirPort or a Time Capsule, even some NAS devices). Several months ago I configured my laptop to use a server-based Time Machine. Of course I assumed I'd never need it and I kept doing clones at the same pace I used to. I assumed I'd never need to worry about that - sound like your thinking too?

AT&T sucks, Verizon is better! Uh, maybe not.

Targeting AT&T for complaints about coverage, or voice reception, or incomplete 3G coverage is accurate, all those charges are true, but the next thing in the argument needs to be compared to what? Verizon's voice is better, but it's not better because Verizon has put more money into their network or because Verizon is modernizing faster. Verizon's voice is better because they use CDMA instead of GSM. CDMA is higher power, uses fewer towers and has significantly longer reach than GSM, but GSM has wildly more capacity, does better at a bunch of lower level things like encryption, and handles data far better. Those commercials where a Verizon user needs two phones to do data and voice simultaneously aren't a joke, that's a real failing and it's not what iPhone users expect.

So, for the initial launch of the iPhone and its maturing AT&T needed the iPhone and Apple needed AT&T, thus AT&T was the only reasonable choice. Verizon wouldn't play ball, AT&T would and continues to, and the other carriers in the US are too small or financially unhealthy to be considered. But now we're past that, right?

Why is the iPhone on AT&T when Verizon is better?

Many people complain that AT&T is the reason they either won’t get an iPhone or that iPhone service is bad. So, why is the iPhone exclusively on AT&T?

When Apple was creating the iPhone the company realized that it would need a partner that would be able to deal with a completely new product. The sales model would be different, the phone would cost more, and the users of the phone would tax the nascent data side of cell communications. Apple couldn't just drop the iPhone on any and all carriers, because at the time of release and as things have continued the iPhone pushes the boundaries of what's currently available and what will be available. Apple could not risk that the iPhone would be with a carrier that wouldn't or couldn't keep up with the evolving uses Apple hoped for the product.

AT&T was willing to essentially refocus their company to match Apple's vision of the future of cell phones and persistent and pervasive data access. AT&T believed that working with Apple would completely change their company and the market they served. They were right, clearly.

Old tech beats new tech

Sometimes it's the old tech that works best. After an incident a client called me to their home to export video from their security system for the police. I don't normally do that kind of work, but they hoped not to have to give the police their DVR and they didn't want to call the security company back in.

I spent a few minutes looking over the control software (PC only, of course) and the manual and began an export of the relevant time period. I gave the parameters in 24 hour time as the entire system used it, but the resulting footage was nighttime and the incident was daytime. I switched to 12 hour time and got daylight, but it wasn't the period I was looking for. Since the first error had shown that time was not properly registering, I wondered about days and exported the time period from the days before and after the incident, but still didn't get what I was looking for.

Finally, I noticed a lamppost... Sure, at night it provides illumination, but by day it just sits there, acting for the all world like...

The value of user interface design

Designing a user interface is something most people who use devices in general and computers specifically don't usually consider, so before we look at what I'm hoping to show, a quick word about how user interface impacts your life.

Think for a second about driving your car on a familiar road. Directly ahead of you a parked car begins to move into traffic! Without needing to think about it, you slam your hand on the center of the steering wheel to honk the horn and alert the driver.

So let's think about honking the horn. I don't know of a car sold in this country today that doesn't have its horn on the steering wheel, and I'll bet you don't either, because that's where the horn is, right? You know the interface of your car very well, and it probably feels natural, normal, and as it should be to find the horn right there.

Good thing you weren't driving a European car. Many European cars have the horn on the turn signal stalk! I'm not suggesting that this represents good or bad user interface design, I'm saying that interface design can become almost invisible to the end user. When you rent a car in another city in the US you have a very reasonable expectation that you'll rent a car that has its horn right where you expect it, this isn't information you'll need to re-learn.

What is the iPad?

So much media attention and fuss has been generated over the introduction of Apple's iPad that it's hard to focus on what the device really is. Many pundits make comparisons with existing computers, and then draw a connection to the price point of the iPad to suggest that the iPad competes with Netbooks in the market. My opinion is that kind of thinking misses the mark.

The iPad is not a traditional computer. It does some traditional computer things, sure, but mostly its about defining a new way of doing the things a computer does, while making the computer part of the equation fade into the background. The iPad doesn't want to be another computer in your life, it wants to be the life in your computer.

Forget about any of the traditional concepts of maintenance on the computer, forget about backups, forget about endless patches and upgrades, forget about incompatibilities, forget about synchronizing data, forget about all those computer things and instead focus on the work and play you use a computer for.

Solutions Consulting - 310-838-5224 or benlevy@rockinbeat.com