Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Off to College

Last week, I had the pleasure of dropping off a great person at his college. While I'm not his father, I've known him for six years and he's entering his junior year at Cornell.

This is his first year not living in a dorm. This year, he has an off-campus apartment with a roommate.

All of my parents worked at colleges or universities, so I grew up in the higher education culture. However, it's been more than a couple of decades since I graduated. And as it's been many years since I had any significant college connections, it was interesting to see how the college crowd lives nowadays and how their technology needs have changed.

I wasn't disappointed.

While I won't bore you with how it was in the "olden days," I will offer some observations of how things are done now.

First, not a chance anyone will have a land-line telephone: Mobile phones are the only way to go. Typically, students keep the phone number they received sometime in K-12. And since most mobile phone plans now include long distance, it doesn't matter what phone number you have, since it won't cost you anything extra to call long distance.

Second, Internet access is key. Even above cable TV, Internet rules. The $50/month is considered a necessary utility. If people in the same apartment can share a single Internet connection, they're all for that. There was much talk of positioning WiFi routers so that friends a couple of floors up could get a good signal. The possibility of stringing a wire into someone else's apartment to deliver Internet service was also a common discussion.

Third, televisions were nice, but not necessary. While there are certainly students with televisions, they're hardly the necessity that they once were. This is because virtually any television show or movie can be watched over the Internet. With computer monitors being upwards of 19-inches, the size of a computer monitor rivals that of a college dorm or apartment TV anyway.

Fourth, textbooks: These are going online, too. Rather than paying $100-plus for a textbook and then turning it back into the bookstore at the end of the semester for pennies on the dollar, many textbooks are being made available digitally, often times "rented" for the duration of the class. We'll see more of this as the book publishers, teachers, schools and students figure out how curriculums become more digital.

Fifth, student communications: E-mail is dead. Even making phone calls isn't as popular. Students communicate more and more with SMS texting, instant messaging and through sites such as Facebook. Have a club on campus that you want to let people know about? Set up a Facebook site and let people become "fans."

Sixth, music: OK, there is one area where I will talk about how it was in the "olden days" - stereos. These used to have a prominent location in any college dorm or apartment. Not so nowadays. Don't get me wrong, music is very important to college students, but with their MP3 players, iTunes and other sources of music, having the large stereo system just doesn't make sense anymore. Even most radio stations stream their broadcasts, so if you want to listen to NPR or the local country station, you can listen to the broadcast from your personal computer.

It was great to go back to college for a day and see how much things have changed as well as how they've stayed the same.

I don't know whether it's helped prepare me for when my 11-year-old daughter goes to college in a few years or scared me.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 26 August 2009.
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Monday, August 17, 2009

When to Upgrade?

I’m not one of those people who likes to throw good stuff away.

I typically keep my cars at least 10 years, my digital camera’s picture counter just rolled over 10,000 and my 4-year-old son is driving his big sister’s electric powered Barbie Jeep.

Part of this longevity comes from my parents’ insistence that I take care of the things so they’ll last a long time. Another part of this comes from my not wanting to spend money unnecessarily.

Luckily, in my business, I have an opportunity to try many of the new technologies without actually having to buy them.

But what happens when a new technology comes along that I really want? And what do I say when people ask me about when they should upgrade their technology? They’re tough questions. In a business, companies will typically lease equipment. When the lease is up, they can either buy out the lease or return the equipment and start a new lease with new equipment. Other than with automobiles, most individuals don’t lease things.

For most home users, a computer will work far longer than any extended warranty. There are two categories of problems people ask me about regarding their computers.

First, it’s too slow or crashes. This is a function of having loaded a lot of software over the years, typically Web downloads that are needed for video, audio, or whatever. In most instances, these downloads are needed for a specific use, but are rarely, if ever, used again. Since they reside on the computer, they can use extra processor cycles and cause confl icts with other pieces of software.

The easiest solution to this dilemma is to back up your data files, then wipe the hard drive and re-install the necessary pieces of software, typically the operating system (Windows or Macintosh) and applications such as Microsoft Office. I know for me, this is a full weekend of work to perform, so it’s not something I take on lightly. In most cases, this will free up 20 to 30 percent of a hard drive’s space, eliminate most software conflicts and speed up the computer by at least 25 percent.

Second, there’s some new software that people want to run that’s incompatible with their current computer.

For example, if someone wants to run the new Windows 7 operating system, there are certain minimum specifi - cations (CPU and memory) that are needed for it to run satisfactorily. If a computer is below those specifi cations, sometimes the software won’t load or, if it does, the performance will be disappointing. In this case, one needs to decide whether the upgrade is worth buying a whole new computer or not. Cell phones are another challenge.

These days, not a month rolls by without a new shiny phone hitting the market, sometimes it seems like there are dozens of new models — BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, or something else. You may ask yourself, do I need another computer that runs applications or am I just looking for something that makes telephone calls?

Most important to me is the monthly cost of having all these extra services. It’s not unusual for a monthly service plan that includes phone, Internet and texting to cost $100 per phone.

It’s clear to me that with the monthly cost of cell phones rising, that’s leading to more and more homes going without a traditional land line.

When it comes to cell phones, I split my loyalties between my business and personal use. I’m far more interested in a full plan for business-related use than I am for personal use, but that can mean I carry two cell phones. Ugh! And, of course, I can’t forget the time I sent my cell phone through the washing machine. That required a replacement.

My digital cameras are the final challenge. Until recently, I’ve had to maintain two cameras: one for still photos and a second one for video. Both performed their jobs admirably and neither did what the other did. This has been a real pain to carry and manage two cameras.

Now, though, with the advent of the still cameras that shoot “High Defi nition” video, I see that digital photography is pretty close to reaching the proverbial tipping point when an upgrade is desirable.

To me, I upgrade my equipment only when it’s preventing me from doing something I fi nd compelling. That point will be different for each person, but I’ve learned that the longer I wait, the happier I am with the upgrade.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 5 August 2009.
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