Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Digital Cinema Projection

I love going to the movies. And so far, watching movies at home just isn't the same as going out to the local multiplex. I like the big screen, the great sound, being around other people, the popcorn, going on a date with my wife ... the whole idea of making a movie an event.

I also like watching movies at home, and with the large-screen, high-definition TVs, watching movies at home is far better than it was a decade ago, but it's just not the same as the theater.

Despite the latest craze of 3-D movies that have come out, there hasn't been much that has changed at movie theaters in the past few decades, except one thing: digital movie projection. Digital cinema projection has been coming for a long time. It used to be that whenever a movie came out, the studios had to spend about $25,000 per copy to send to movie theaters around the world. Multiply that by a few thousand theaters and you can see where distributing a movie gets pretty expensive.

However, replacing the film projectors with digital projectors was an expense that the local cinemas would have to bear in order to receive something other than a film copy.

Luckily, the economics to both the movie distributors and cinema owners has finally come to pass and many, if not all, of the movies you see in a theater are now digital. This means there are no longer reels of film in the projection booth.

So instead of a movie studio sending out large reels of film, it can send out optical discs, or even transmit a digital file directly from the studio to the theaters.

For you and I, who go see a movie, what's different? First of all, the images will generally be clearer, as there's no film jitter that could be caused by film moving through a projector.

Second, there's far less chance of the inevitable dust, scratch or other artifact on a screen in the middle of a movie.

Third, there's no chance of a film jamming and melting in the projector, as those of us over 40 have probably seen.

The current standard for cinema projection is called "2K," which has a resolution of 2048 x 1080 pixels — high-definition video has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. A new standard is out but not yet fully deployed called "4K," which has a resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels — a full four times the resolution of 2K. See this website for a sample digital cinema projector. As the new 4K movies come out, expect to see higher clarity images that will make our current crop of movies look like old hand-cranked silent movies.

With the holiday season upon us, there is always a vast number of movies to see and always something for every taste.

So, while I will continue to see better and more diverse movie entertainment in my home, I will always want to go out to see movies in the theatre, if not just to enjoy the time with who I'm with, but also to check out the latest bit of Hollywood magic.

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 14 December 2011.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

OK, eBooks and eMagazines Win

When Amazon came out with its Kindle a few years ago, I wondered if anyone — including myself — would truly prefer digital reading over paper reading.

I had no doubt that digital publishing would succeed. My question is whether people would choose digital over paper.

Having been using a number of digital devices over the year, most notably an Apple iPad 2, I have been converted.

Initially, I thought that reading the newspaper or a magazine digitally would not deliver the same — or as fulfilling — experience. True, reading on a digital reader is a different experience. And I prefer it.

We all know the experience of paper publishing, so I won't go into those benefits. Instead, let me tell you what I like about digital publications.

First, the experience is richer. Along with the text and photos that one normally has on paper, there are interactive bits such as video, interactive graphs, the ability to bookmark and even email a story to friends.

Second, delivery is reliable. I know that if BusinessWeek normally arrives in my driveway — yes, it's hand-delivered here in Westport — on Friday mornings, if I happen to be away or it's buried under 6 inches of snow, I can still download it.

Third, I can carry an entire library on a single device. When I used to travel more extensively, I used to take dozens of magazines with me in my carry-on luggage and then discard them when I was finished. Now, I can carry virtually unlimited amounts of reading material — and even use it on a flight when I'm not on the Internet — with no waste at all.

Fourth, it's green. There's less use of trees, printing, shipping and waste. I like that.

Fifth, we're only seeing the beginning to what digital publishing will like. I know the publishing business is a tough one. It's in the midst of a transformation. People expect information to be free, advertising revenues are down. But there are huge opportunities for a successful transformation of this industry. Multimedia is only the beginning. Interactivity and other features we haven't even considered yet will be coming.

Some of the problems with digital versus print publishing are that some companies provide you with free access to their content if you subscribe to their print magazines. Others require you to have two separate subscriptions — one to print and one digital.

I also find the interfaces to the magazines different and somewhat challenging. Where to access the reading applications, how to access the menus and issues, how to enter your subscription information and more. Each of these indicates to me a nascent technology that's striving to find a common solution.

So while I will find myself doing less and less reading of ink on paper, I can't say I'll miss it as much as I thought I would. I predict that within 10 years, our children will think of print newspapers, magazines and books are as quaint as vinyl records.

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 30 November 2011.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Digital Shoebox Redux: iMemories

As the unofficial "family historian" — or at least the person who takes the most pictures and videos in our family — keeping track of all of the photos and videos we have is a nightmare.

Note that my wife is far better at saving the tangible memories from our family, such as children's artwork, report cards, school projects, trip memorabilia and more.

When photographs used to result in prints, slides, negatives, reels of film and more, it was relatively simple to put them into a shoebox — or collection of shoeboxes — to review whenever desired. With the advent of digital technology, the idea of a shoebox is less relevant and far more complicated.

In recent years, I've talked in this column about the "digital shoebox" and how it's evolving. The real problem is storing all sorts of media, whether it be prints, slides, film and/or video. There hasn't really been a way to put it all together.

I've recently come across a website that seems to do it all quite well. It's called iMemories.com.

There are a number of items I like about iMemories.

First, it handles all types of media, including analog — film, for example — and digital. Second, in the conversion process, they can do things like color correct, especially important for film and prints that may have faded over time. Third, they store it online for you forever. Fourth, you can create online methods and physical ways, such as DVDs, to present the materials.

As far as handling all types of media, you can send them just about any type of media you have, whether it be prints, negatives or slides, and they can convert it for you.

If you have movies or video, they can convert just about any format of film of videotape you have.

Once the items are in the iMemories system, you can use their website to sort through what you want to keep, edit them down to what people might actually want to see and then create online videos, slide shows, DVDs or other items which can be made available to yourself, your family, your friends, or anyone willing to watch.

Note that iMemories knows how valuable your media is and so offers more than just a normal package tracking system. They also offer a GPS tracking tool so that if the package is truly missing, it can be located using GPS, not simply "out for delivery".

iMemories also returns your media to you once it's been digitized. This way you always have your original source items.

iMemories stores your media online for $4.95 per month for unlimited storage. Where they make their money is in the conversion of media and producing products. For example, converting a videotape costs $9.99, scanning a photo is $0.49, creating a DVD is $9.99.

These costs aren't too high on an individual basis, but I have probably 100 videotapes of my family. Converting them would cost close to $1,000, not to mention all of the still photos I have.

Luckily, iMemories offers the ability to upload video to its site for free. This is good, especially if you have a fast Internet connection — note that typical Internet access is far faster downloading than uploading — so upload times can take days, if not weeks, if you have lots of media to upload.

But if you are looking for a good place to store your digital assets, I encourage you to give iMemories a try. They appear to have put all of the proper pieces in place to provide a needed service.

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 16 November 2011.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cloudy With a Chance of Coolness

There has been a lot of discussion about "cloud" technology and what that means. In a nutshell, it means that much of the storage -- music, video, spreadsheets, emails and more -- as well as computation are done not on the device you're using, but in data centers somewhere else.

No longer do you have to have all of your data and lots of horsepower on your local computer in order to do what you've been doing for years...listening to music, watching movies, writing emails, working on presentations and spreadsheets and more.

All of these things can now be kept in the "cloud."

For most people, this will be an evolutionary change that takes place over years. In particular, as smartphones get smarter and their connection to the Internet gets faster, there will be less and less things that physically reside on the devices you carry around or keep in your home or office.

Other devices that will rely more and more on cloud technologies include tablet computers, such as the Apple iPad and the tablets that use the Android operating system.

Desktop computers, the ones that sit on the floor or on a desk and aren't particularly mobile, will continue to be used for tasks such as video editing, music composition and large projects that use lots of disk space and plenty of processor power.

Interestingly enough, the work that most of us do daily, such as surfing the Internet, doing email and texting people, is ideally suited for cloud computing.

What has prompted cloud computing's ability to exist is the virtually ubiquitous Internet connectivity. In homes and offices, Internet connectivity is almost a given.

Outdoors, between cable companies providing WiFi as part of their home Internet services and the mobile companies providing Internet services as part of their smartphone services, most places where people go there is some sort of Internet access.

As I wrote last year, more and more airplanes are offering WiFi onboard, for a fee.

So unless you are going hiking, climbing or exploring to remote areas, odds are that you can have access to the Internet.

But cloud technologies do have some limitations. If everything you have is in the cloud, if and when your connection to the Internet -- and hence the cloud -- goes away, your access to your information goes away.

Additionally, if the provider that is storing your data or providing you with the computer power were to go away, you may not be able to retrieve the data. This could also be problematic.

Don't get me wrong. Having data locally on your computer isn't without its perils. If your laptop computer with all of your data goes missing and it's not backed up correctly, the data could be gone, too.

With all of the hype about cloud computing, most consumers will see more subtle shifts of keeping and managing their own data on their own devices to having providers keep and manage it for them. Overall, I see this as a good thing and one which will continue to provide more features that we will find unfathomable to live without.

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 19 October 2011.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Maker Faire 2011 - What You Missed

Sept. 17 and 18 was the second annual Maker Faire event at the New York Hall of Science. It is the East Coast exhibition of people who make things.

On the surface, this may not seem like much, but America was built on the ingenuity of our ability to create things, whether they be tools, cars, technology or other things.

For a variety of reasons, including lower labor costs in other countries and globalization of companies, Americans don't make as much as we used to. Nonetheless, the event is a celebration of the creativity and ability to make things that is still alive and well here in the United States.

The event is also an excellent place for children of all ages to explore science, engineering, electricity, creativity, music, visual arts and more.

Some of my favorite exhibits were the 3D Pavilion where there were demonstrations of devices that work in 3D, including 3D printers that can take a design in your computer and output it in 3D. My other favorite exhibit was the Maker Shed where people can actually build things, whether they be small electronic devices or a marshmallow shooter out of PVC pipe — my 6-year-old son's favorite.

In the video I created, which can be viewed at here, one of the crowd pleasers was the "Sashimi Tabernacle Choir," a Volvo to which the owner attached 250 dancing mechanical fish.

Another crowd pleaser was the electrical performance by ArcAttack, a musical group that wears metal suits — Faraday cages, actually — and interacts with huge bolts of electricity generated by giant Tesla coils. Its performance can be seen at www.arcattack.com.

Along with the exhibits that came in for the two-day event, there were a number of speakers, including Westport's David Pogue, who spoke on iPhone tips and tricks.

What interests me the most is to see the creative people who are keeping our abilities to create alive. I also relish seeing adults and children who see things that spark their interest and curiosity in science, engineering and the fact that they can create things rather than having to always buy things.

At the end of the day, it was fun to watch the families leaving Maker Faire talking about the fun things they saw and did.

I know my own family had to make a trip to Home Depot the following day to buy some PVC tubing and corners so that we could make some marshmallow shooters for my son's friends.

After we brought the PVC tubing home and sat on the steps cutting the pieces to size, my son was quite happy to experiment with his marshmallow shooter, putting pieces together, finding out what configurations worked and what didn't, how he could make the shooter bigger or shoot the marshmallow farther. He then had fun taking the new marshmallow shooters we'd made to his neighbor friends, putting them together and having marshmallow wars in the back yard. I think I have a young "maker" on my hands and we'll be going to Maker Faire 2012 next year.

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 October 2011.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

FairCo TEEM: Where Westport's Tech-savvy Meet

As part of my series on technology in Westport, this week's column is about where many of the tech-savvy people in Westport meet and get to know each other.

One of the newest groups of people getting together is FairCo TEEM, which stands for Fairfield County Technology, Entertainment, Environment and Marketing. The group meets monthly to learn and develop relationships among local businesses and entrepreneurs. Started in 2010 by Peter Propp, John Blossom and Alex Sherman, it has grown from a handful of people sitting at Bogey's to a group with 160 members and approximately 40 attending each meeting and now meets at the Westport VFW building on Riverside Avenue.

Propp has a background in technology from IBM where he handled numerous aspects of its WebSphere software product, among other projects. John Blossom is an expert in content and publishing. Alex Sherman holds a senior position in R&D at Affinion in Stamford. Together, the three have extensive experience in technology, marketing and startups.

So when Peter and Alex attended a New York Meetup event focusing on people and companies in the New York area, they thought it would be worthwhile to bring the model to Fairfield County. A typical meeting consists of mixing and mingling followed by a presentation from one or more local companies regarding what they're doing.

Meetup events are an excellent way for people to connect with each other in a professional, yet social way.

Having attended a few of the FairCo TEEM meetings, they provide an excellent way to connect with local technology people. Members include software developers, marketing people, presidents of local start-ups and people from some of the area's larger firms. Everyone at the meeting seems genuinely interested in tapping into the talent that is here in the Fairfield County area.

Propp said he was invited earlier this month to meet Governor Malloy at a jobs roundtable at the new Stamford Tech Center because the governor wanted to know what the state could do to drive more job growth in the tech and start-up arenas. Propp told Malloy about FairCo TEEM's founding and said there are a lot of great start-up ideas coming out of this state, but the challenge is to connect them with the skills to make them happen and the money to bring them to market with the appropriate backing.

Malloy loved his story on FairCo TEEM, said Propp, who thinks the group has already played and will continue to play an important role in driving innovation to market. Propp further noted the group is "already connecting the dots between the innovators, the builders and the funders who are all critical to creating a start-up ecosystem."

It's this sort of local and statewide attention that will continue to let people in our community help grow our economy.

This month's FairCo TEEM meeting will be held 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 465 Riverside Ave. Visit www.meetup.com/FairCo-TEEM for information.

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 21 September 2011.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Automotive Technology in China

As I reported in my last column, I recently spent 17 days with my family in China celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary.

We stayed primarily in the tourist spots, including Beijing, Shanghai, Yangtze river, Three Gorges Dam, terracotta warriors, Li River and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we did not have time to see many of the manufacturing or other primarily rural areas that I'm sure would have provided even more insights.

It was a great trip and, as always, allows me insights into how other people and countries do things. What I often like seeing is how other people's ways of doing things often take a very different approach and can be quite eye opening.

My expectation of China's large cities was that most of the traffic was bicycles, mopeds and other slow, clunky traffic. Not so. Most of the cities we visited were clogged with automobiles large and small. Despite Beijing's broad streets — sometimes four lanes each direction — it looked like any major American or European city from a traffic perspective.

Shanghai and Hong Kong were much denser than Beijing, with more high-rises, looking more like New York City, but cleaner and much newer.

What did surprise me was the number of electric scooters (mopeds) we saw. Given my non-scientific sampling, it wouldn't surprise me if half of the scooters were electric. Unlike the noisy, stinky small-engined mopeds we're used to, these electric ones were silent.

My guess is that the range of an electric scooter was 10 or so miles, but for most people, that's sufficient to get them where they need and back on a single charge.

Looking at the street traffic, there were quite a few identifiable brands of automobiles, including Toyota, Nissan, Kia, BMW, Mercedes, and more. What surprised me was the number of Buicks that were driving around. General Motors has a strong presence — including manufacturing — in China, and Buick is a brand that has a remarkable presence.

Of course, there were brands I was totally unfamiliar with ... some of Chinese origin and others from India, Korea and elsewhere. Some odd varieties, including the requisite three-wheeled variety that we see so few of in North America.

What did surprise me was the number of truly ancient vehicles still on the road. Here's a link to a video of a Chinese truck that was common there: http://tinyurl.com/ChineseTruck. It would clearly not pass any road or safety standards we have in the United States, but certainly looks easy to maintain and is probably quite reliable.

Unfortunately, I didn't see any "next big thing" from an automotive perspective. It could be that some of the vehicles that we saw were fully electric or hybrids, but they didn't stand out visually or with any badging that would indicate they're anything other than gasoline or diesel-powered.

My take-away from a transportation perspective is that, at least in the Chinese cities, they have certainly advanced from the stories and pictures I recall, and I can understand why their need for oil, in particular for gasoline and diesel fuel, is continuing to drive global demand.

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 7 September 2011.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hello? Great Wall Calling

As you read this, we will be returning from a trip to China celebrating my wife's and my 25th wedding anniversary.

Of course, a trip abroad is always an opportunity to try out some new technology, which we were able to do.

Despite something in our Beijing hotel causing two power bricks for my laptop computer to fry themselves (and having to find replacements), technical issues have been fine.

Of particular fun was sharing some of our experiences with one of my brothers in California. Bill and his wife, Johanna, have two children, both under 12. We thought they'd enjoy seeing the Great Wall when we're in Beijing.

I rented a portable WiFi Internet device for the duration of our trip. These devices essentially put a WiFi hotspot in your pocket while connecting to the 3G cellular service. They're available from most of the mobile companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, although I rented mine from a Chinese company that offers services to travelers.

Along with this device, I brought our iPad 2 which supports Facetime, a video chatting service, not unlike Skype, although Facetime only works over WiFi on an iPad or iPhone.

We tried Facetime from our home in Westport prior to our departure, then tried it again as we were driving out of Beijing. This test allowed my niece and nephew to see the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium as we were leaving town.

When we arrived at the Great Wall, I wondered what sort of cellular service we would have. I was quite pleased when the WiFi device sported five full signal bars, despite us being out in the countryside.

While standing on the Wall, I powered up the iPad and tapped my brother's name in Facetime. About 20 seconds later, our niece and nephew's faces appeared on the screen.

The general cacophony of the people on the wall meant we couldn't hear what my niece and nephew were saying, but we could see them smiling broadly and we were able to show them the Great Wall and surroundings. They later told us they were able to hear us clearly and it ended up being a great experience for both them and us.

It was also funny to see people around us trying to figure out what we were doing. I was holding up and talking to this black tablet thing. iPads are not unknown here. There are billboards advertising them. But they are not nearly as popular as one would see, say, on a Metro-North train.

We intend on sharing some of our other experiences with them as we continue our tour, including seeing the Terra Cotta warriors, Li valley and Hong Kong.

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 24 August 2011.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

3-D: Finally Here?

Three-dimensional (3-D) imaging has been a novelty for decades. I remember wearing the red-and-green glasses as a kid and seeing movies that were 3-D, but without realistic colors.

Hollywood has been trying to make 3-D into a viable medium for the past few years, with some success. Some of the movies out recently look very good in 3-D, beyond the gratuitous water squirting or swords being thrust towards the audience.

One of my favorite 3-D movies was "Avatar" that used 3-D to add quite literally an additional dimension to the movie, where backgrounds appeared in the background and even large landscapes had a real depth.

Some have argued that the primary reason why Hollywood likes 3-D is because they can charge a premium for 3-D movie tickets. I'm sure there's a lot of truth to that.

Of course, as a consumer, the biggest drawback of 3-D is having to wear special glasses to see the 3-D effect. While this yields a good 3-D experience, the polarized lenses end up darkening the screen, so the brightness of a movie is subdued.

Screens that don't require the viewers to wear glasses are coming, but so far the biggest limitation is that the viewer must sit within a very small angle in front of the screen.

All of these limitations will be overcome, I believe, and here's why.

I remember when computer screens were all monochrome (typically a green or light grey phosphorescent glow). When color monitors came out, no one could comprehend why we would need color screens.

I also remember when printers came out. Originally, line printers only print one color. First-generation laser printers also printed only black. The costs of four-color printing, when they started to become available, were prohibitive. Again, very few people saw the growth of color printing as becoming commonplace.

Yet most monitors and printers purchased now are color.

I believe that 3-D displays will eventually become standard on personal computers, TVs and in movies. From a personal computer standpoint, I can see where spreadsheets and even word processing documents could benefit from 3-D, much as they now do from color and different fonts. Business charts in 3-D could be far more informative with 3-D as a component.

From a video perspective, there are now consumer grade 3-D video cameras on the market. As 3-D video editing comes of age, we'll have videos on YouTube and of people's vacations that are in 3-D, much as we have people creating 2-D videos now.

While we're still a few years away from mainstream acceptability and technical capability, I believe in 10 years, we'll look back on 3-D capabilities as an essential part of computing, as we now do color monitors and printing.

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 9 August 2011.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Extra TV for Free

Advertisers have known for years that two things sell: sex and free. Well, this column will only entice you with free.

Tablet PCs, probably best known by the Apple iPad, have clearly made a major foothold in the marketplace. Software applications — or "apps" as they're called — are instrumental in giving these tablets life.

Much has and will continue to be written about the different strengths and weaknesses of Apple's offerings versus the Android operating system from Google and the offerings from HP, BlackBerry and others. This not the column for that discussion.

What is of interest is that if you purchase your cable service from Cablevision and use their Optimum products, there's a very powerful app for the iPad that you may want to try.

Called "Optimum for iPad" and available from Apple's App Store, this app does a handful of things quite nicely.

First, if you are within your home where your cable service is delivered, the app allows you to watch live TV directly on your iPad. This is where the free TV offer comes in. In essence, it turns your iPad into a TV — for free!

Second, the app lets you schedule and manage your Optimum Digital Video Recorders. This means that if you want to record "American Idol," you can do it directly from your iPad. This is a function that does not have to be done from within your home.

There are a few limitations to the Optimum for iPad app that I have encountered.

First, the limitation of the iPad having to be on your home WiFi network and in your home is unfortunate. This is a licensing-of-shows issue, not a technical one. While I understand Cablevision's licensing restrictions, it would still be nice to watch live TV wherever I happen to be with my iPad.

Second, while we can control the DVR(s) in my home with the iPad app, it would be nice to allow the DVR to stream video I've already recorded to the iPad. The current version doesn't allow this. If I want to watch something I've recorded, I have to sit in front of the television to where the DVR is connected. How quaint.

Third, I've found that with the live TV streaming to the iPad, the video frequently will halt, seemingly go back in time about 10 seconds and start streaming again. This seems to be an issue with the app or the service, but something that I hope will be fixed soon.

Optimum also offers an iPhone/Touch app, but it only controls the DVR. It doesn't offer live video streaming. Optimum also offers an app for Android devices, but it currently offers only the features of the iPhone/Touch app. I expect this will change as Optimum's software developers write code. What was pleasantly surprising was how Optimum has done a good job of keeping abreast of mobile technologies when their business is typically based on an inherently fixed (e.g. "cable") service.

For us as consumers, it is freeing us to have the entertainment we want when and where we want it. Life is good.

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 27 July 2011.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Traveling Students

This month, my family is hosting a high school student from Spain. She's here to learn about American language and culture. Of course, one of the best ways to do this is by living with an American family.

It's quite fun that she arrived on the Thursday before the long Fourth of July weekend. What indoctrination into American culture!

Prior to her arrival, we received her email address and were able to email her some photos of our family and even some panoramas of the front and rear of our home from a free tool from Microsoft called photosynth.net.

We were considering doing a video conference call using Skype to introduce her to our family, but that was not something she had available to her.

I was also wondering what technology she would need while she's here. It should come as no surprise that she came well-equipped.

First of all, she brought her own laptop computer. All she needed was access to our home WiFi and she was off and running.

Second, she brought her own digital camera, so she was quite able to take and send photos to her family whenever she wanted.

Third, while we haven't seen one yet, it wouldn't surprise me if she brought her own mobile phone, although it won't surprise me if she doesn't use it for the month she's with us. [Update: She did bring a mobile phone, but is using it only for texting.]

All in all, she came very well-equipped to fit into our home with what is now pretty standard travel electronics.

I do always enjoy seeing computers and other devices which are not in English. While the screens look and feel the same, the names that are used for the various menus and options are typically quite different. It's actually a good way to learn bits and pieces of a foreign language. If one knows what the menus and options are in English, there's typically a one-to-one correspondence between the menus and options in the other language. I've enjoyed seeing our student's Spanish software.

Another aspect that is different is that the keyboards can be somewhat different. Spanish, for example, has a number of character modifications that are simply not part of English. While our computers have the ability to generate these characters, they're usually on a menu or some obscure command somewhere, whereas on the Spanish keyboard, they're important enough to warrant real estate on the keyboard itself.

While this summer, we're having a visitor in our home, I know of many families who are sending their children abroad for some or all of the summer. The best part of the technology that people can carry with them is that it's generally much lighter than it ever has been and keeping in touch for fun or emergencies is easier and less expensive than it ever has been.

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 13 July 2011.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Local Technology: IMOK

Note: Westport is an amazing place. There's a huge amount of creativity in our town. This is the first of a series of columns that highlights what Westport residents are doing in technology. If you're involved in technology — whether it be a startup or a large corporation — contact me about a possible story.

Apple changed the landscape of what a phone is when it released the original iPhone. Although there were other phones that did other things, most notably the BlackBerry, the iPhone brought a whole world of applications (called simply "apps"), functions and a decent Web browser to a portable phone. These new phones are typically called "smartphones."

While smartphones typically started with adults, they are becoming more popular with children. And, with parents' eternal desire to keep their children safe, both parents and children benefit when a smartphone addresses the desires of both constituents.

One iPhone app created by Westport resident Matt Bromberg called IMOK attempts to address the needs of both parents and children.

In essence, IMOK encourages children to check in on their phone to let their parents know where they are and who they're with. IMOK allows this checking-in without the painfully embarrassing phone call home.

"By sharing their location, taking pictures, tagging friends, and telling you what's up, your kids earn points that can be exchanged for things you've agreed to, like spending money or special privileges," Bromberg said. "Getting a text from your kids is fine. But all parents would like to know more about where their children are, who they're with, and what they're doing. By incentivizing kids to share more, the app turns something that was difficult and contentious into a game."

When asked about how he got into this business, Bromberg said: "When I got out of law school, I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer, so I took a sales job at an online business. Later, I spent a bunch of years at AOL in its heyday, and that excitement kind of sealed it for me."

The team Bromberg put together for this project consists of people he's worked with over the years. He credits his wife and supportive family as being instrumental in making IMOK happen.

The project has been funded by investors, including some of his own money.

The app is still in beta (pre-release), but Bromberg encourages everyone to visit www.imok.com to follow the development and release of the software. Maybe it will even help open the lines of communication between parents and children.

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 29 June 2011.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Internet Access a Human Right

On May 16, the United Nations declared Internet access to be a human right. The report to the 17th session of the United Nation's Human Rights Council by UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue has declared that Internet access is a tool to protect people. The full 22-page report can be seen at: http://bit.ly/kNHvvm.

It's clear that the Internet has changed the world. In the United States, it has typically opened up commerce (how we buy stuff) and entertainment (how we have fun).

However, in many parts of the world, the Internet has a more profound effect on people's basic needs and has recently been credited with contributing to the overthrow of undesirable government regimes, among other benefits.

As I heard about the UN's declaration, I wondered what are some of the other human rights? The report by Mr. La Rue includes the following statement: "The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an `enabler' of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly."

Pretty heady stuff.

Further reading of the report indicated some of the key aspects of this human right include freedom of expression and access to unfiltered information. In other words, not having only a single view of information, say from the government. The report is in effect saying that multiple — even dissenting — views are valuable.

For some people, their only source of information are newspapers, television and radio stations which are controlled by the government. The government even controls telecommunications, which includes the Internet in their country, so websites may be blocked if deemed necessary by the people who control the access.

The report also did acknowledge the legitimacy of blocking access to some information, most notably child pornography.

Note that the report did not say that people need to have high-speed Internet connections into their businesses, homes or schools.

I also found an interesting story in the New York Times on June 12 about how the United States government is helping people with "repressive governments" bypass the same sorts of limitations that the United Nations has said should not exist. The article can be read at: http://nyti.ms/jNEFsO.

Right now, I don't see the UN having any power to control or correct any country who decides not to participate in its pronouncement, although now that the UN has declared Internet access as a human right, countries that don't comply may be deemed to violate people's human rights.

While the personal effect of the Internet on our community is far different than the people who will be affected by this declaration, I hope that having this declaration by the UN will continue to improve the lives of people around the world. If that's the case, then the Internet will again continue to amaze me as to the value it brings to the world.

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 15 June 2011.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Social Media Run Amok

We've all heard about social media. In particular Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. We're all aware that people post things online and others comment on them.

Facebook now has the ability to "Like" something to tell others you agree with it in some manner. LinkedIn has for years had the ability to provide recommendations to someone else.

Most Facebook comments are pretty innocuous, saying things like: "I like this" or "Way cool!" or "Can you believe that?"

Occasionally, you'll see something like: "Boy, was that dumb" or "Oooh, that makes me angry."

And then there are the times that people get downright ugly, publicly criticizing someone for something superficial: "Sally really shouldn't wear tight pants with a figure like that" or something more egregious like: "Bobby Smith is the ugliest person in the world."

Chalk some of these up to youthful indiscretion, anger or immaturity.

I recently came across a Web site called Mixtent who's tag line is "Rate and discover the most talented people in your network."

This came to me because one of my colleagues had apparently voted for me based on my finance skills. Since I don't usually think of myself as a financial whiz, I thought I should investigate further.

As with many sites, when you create an account, it asks you for the login credentials for other sites, which I provided only one since I never quite know what these sites will do with my information.

What I was presented with was a list of people I know and I was asked to compare person A to person B and tell Mixtent who I thought was better in their profession.

To date, I have declined to rate any of my colleagues because it's really impossible to say who's better at a particular job than someone else — at least in my book.

While two people may have the same position, each brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. To say that one person is definitively better than another is beyond my ability to judge and certainly beyond my desire to assign such a comparison.

To me, that's like trying to compare two men and say who's the better father or two women to say who's the better mother.

I understand the desire to compare two people based on a third party's interpretation, but without any sort of objective and consistent criteria, the whole idea is fraught with nothing but trouble.

I don't know how successful Mixtent has been. So far, I know that I haven't been rated very much and most of my technology colleagues had expressed a high "ick" factor regarding the site, but I believe we will see more of this in the future.

In particular, I believe we will see software emerging that, much like Google's ground-breaking "Pagerank" where a Web page's relevance was increased as more people linked to it, I believe we will see people be ranked by the number and "quality" of the people in their Facebook or LinkedIn network.

As people continue to have a controlled profile on the Web, sites like Mixtent will provide more and more information about you over which you may have no control.

In order to know what people are saying about you, I suggest that people regularly Google themselves by simply typing in your name into Google and see what pops up. It's really amazing what you may find out about yourself — or quite frequently someone else with whom you share your name.

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 1 June 2011.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Day(s) the Email Went Out

Recently, one of my main email providers experienced three outages in the same week. Luckily, one was from about 6 to 7:45 a.m., so it didn't affect too many people during normal business hours. But the other two outages affected users for four more hours each time.

About a decade ago, I observed that email had become more vital to people than the telephone.

Businesses rely on email for general communications, sending contracts, certificates and other time-sensitive information.

The expectation is that email will arrive in minutes.

So when email stops flowing, things get ugly.

Business can grind to a halt. Stories that were relayed to me included frustrated customers that felt people were ignoring them, interviews that were missed and deadlines weren't met.

The fact is that systems fail. Whether it be an organization, a person or a technology.

Some of us may remember when we had the huge power outage here in the Northeast a few years ago. That's a major system failure.

There are times that dams break or even someone forgets to file a needed document. All system failures.

We expect that systems in place won't fail. By and large, here in the United States, the systems we have work pretty well.

So when a system fails, we have to figure out what "Plan B" is.

But regarding email systems, all of the major providers have had systems outages: Google's Gmail, Yahoo!'s Mail and Microsoft. All provide both free and paid email and all have had major outages.

Having email in-house is also no guarantee of 100 percent up-time. Companies that host their own email still have outages, but also have the ability to create systems that put servers in different data centers and geographies that are customized to their needs and mitigate their risks. Typically you don't read in the press about in-house email systems going down.

Most of us would never think of hosting our own email system. It's too costly and too much work. And, if you have Internet service through a local provider such as AT&T or Cablevision, they include a handful of free email accounts.

So how do you deal with systems that eventually will go down? My suggestion is to have an alternative available. For example, if you're using Gmail as your primary account, also have a Yahoo! or Cablevision account that will let you at least notify colleagues and friends of the outage.

With alternate accounts, although your work may be delayed, at least you will be available and can continue to function if even at a reduced level of activity.

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 18 May 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Living UnWired

It seems that no matter where I go and no matter what I'm doing, I'm always in touch with someone else. Between smartphones that can send and receive email and texts pretty much wherever I am, it's hard to not be available.

As humans, we're all social, albeit at different points on a continuum. But sometimes I like to be left alone.

My last column discussed how we can now obtain Internet service on airplanes, once considered the last bastion of Internet isolation. That has now crumbled.

Many campers and backpackers still find that they can obtain a mobile phone signal in the less-populated areas and that you really have to go far afield before your phone signal is non-existent.

But being connected or disconnected is my choice.

Often for my work, I need to stay connected in order to support customers or other needs that arise outside of regular business hours. Other times, I want to be able to communicate with family and friends. All this is good.

But there are times when I really just want to be alone or with a group of others and not have distractions. No computers, no mobile phones, no texting. Just spend time that doesn't include a glowing screen.

I spent this past weekend at Heifer International's Overlook Farm in Massachusetts. While they had some nominal Internet access, I can't say I tried hard to get it to work and spent the bulk of the weekend with the church group with which I came.

I really liked it.

In talking to one of the other group leaders, we discussed how some communities regularly have "technology-free weeks" where they turn off the TVs, TiVos, Wiis, XBOX 360s, mobile phones, computers and more.

Instead, the families go for walks, play baseball, go swimming, read a book, have dinner together, go for a hike, clean up the house, fix stuff, whatever they do that doesn't involve technology.

While our technology allows us to communicate and connect as we never have before, it also distracts us from ways in which we as humans really communicate and connect -- in person.

It's often easy to disconnect when we physically go to a geography where the services that connect us aren't available. Yet, it is our choice whether we wish to use these services when we're in our own homes.

I, for one, will work with my family to have "technology-free" weekends, even if we're just hanging around the house. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with my family and friends in a way that may be unfamiliar to some, yet rewarding to all.

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 4 May 2011.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flying the Connected Skies

Flying used to be one of the havens where people were disconnected from the rest of the world. No phones, no radios, no Internet connections.

That's all gone.

A recent flight had me try out the GoGo Inflight Internet service (www.gogoinflight.com), which offers WiFi Internet service on airplanes.

What that means is that even when you're flying at 30,000 feet, you can have wireless Internet access.

I tried it and it worked well. I was able to connect to the GoGo service, create an account, sign up for a "single flight" service and start using the Internet.

Everything I tried worked smoothly. I was able to surf the Internet, check and send email and work just as though I was anywhere else where I work.

The cost of the service is $12.95 for a single flight or $34.95 for a monthly plan. GoGo offers a variety of plans, including a 24-hour plan, a 6-pack and more.

I don't travel enough to warrant a monthly subscription, but the single flight purchase served me well.

The speed of the service was pretty slow. It equated to what was essentially dial-up speed, typically one-twentieth the speed of my home or office Internet speed. Certainly good enough for doing basic work, but not enough to use Netflix to watch movies, Skype to make phone calls or other functions that require reasonably fast, uninterrupted service.

Having heard of GoGo in the past, I thought it was satellite-based. In fact, it's terrestrial-based. Instead of having antennas pointed to the Earth, GoGo has towers across the country that face skyward. Electronics on the airplane handle the local WiFi connectivity and transmit the signals to the ground-based towers.

As GoGo is terrestrial based, it only works over land and doesn't work on flights to destinations such as Hawaii where large portions of the flight are over water. The GoGo service is currently domestic (lower 48 states) only.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that once I had purchased a license, it worked on all of my WiFi-enabled devices: my laptop computer and both of my mobile phones.

The only restriction was that I could only use one device at a time. In order to use the WiFi on my mobile phone, I had to log off of GoGo on my laptop then log in on my phone. I can live with that, but it would be nice to have been able to use more than one device at the same time, as I do on the ground.

What I did like was the fact that I could take care of some business and personal functions during the down time of the flight, leaving me more time to spend with the people I was going to see when I landed.

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 20 April 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

LED Lights are Here. Really.

A few years ago, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) arrived on the scene. They are much more energy efficient than typical incandescent bulbs. For example, a CFL bulb consumes about one-third the amount of electricity as an incandescent bulb.

The reduction in electricity consumption is a great boon, and I've seen a reduction in my monthly electrical consumption since I switched all of the most frequently-used bulbs over to CFLs.

What I haven't liked about CFLs is that they tend to be slow to come up to full brightness and their color is a bit too yellowish for my taste.

Oh, and if you want them to be dimmable, the cost goes way up while the usable range of dimming is about half that of an incandescent bulb.

But I've always wondered why light-emitting diodes (LEDs) weren't more popular. Well, they've finally arrived.

In one of my frequent trips to Costco, I saw that they were offering some LED floodlights. If an item is at Costco, it's mainstream. The cost was $40 per bulb, but with a Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P) instant rebate of $20, the cost was only $20.

Of course, the packaging touts how much money the bulbs will save you over the course of the 10 or so years the light is supposed to last, but they are comparing the bulbs to incandescent bulbs, not the CFLs I already invested in.

What I really like about the LED lights is the color of them, their instant on capabilities and the dimming range. All very attractive.

I also like the fact that the LEDs don't have the bit of mercury in them, so disposal is not as much of an issue as it is with CFLs.

What I don't like about the LED lights is that they have very heavy duty framing and supports that can't be easily crushed or apparently recycled. I don't know the reason for this, but all of the LED lights I've seen seem to be very solidly built.

The other aspect of LED lights that I don't like is their cost. Without the CL&P discount, it's hard to justify a $40 LED bulb instead of a $1 incandescent bulb. I'm sure the cost will come down over time, but it's a hard nut to swallow.

With all of the benefits of LED lights, I was ready to invest in replacing all of the recessed lights in my kitchen with LEDs. That's about 13 lights altogether.

Even though the cost would have been more than $250, I really like what LEDs offer.

So, back I went to Costco only to find that the bulbs were no longer in stock, no one could tell me when they'd be available, and I can't find the bulbs at costco.com — or any other online retailer.

I guess my CFLs will have to stay with me until the LED bulbs become more than a one-time sale at Costco.

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 6 April 2011.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Adult Content Domain — .xxx — is on the Way

Last Friday (18 March 2011), the group that sets standards for Internet addresses approved the creation of domains that end in .xxx for "adult content."

We're all familiar with domains that end in .com, .net and .org. These domains encompass many of the companies and organization we know, such as nike.com, redcross.org, westport-news.com and others.

There has been a push for a number of years to put "adult content" — some interpret this to mean pornography — in a separate area of the Internet that lets people access it or not. Part of this push has been to create the .xxx domain.

The decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — ICANN — has prompted both positive and negative response.

Companies whose business is adult entertainment now have a location where they can place their products and services, and people who go to those locations would expect to see X-rated material.

Parents now have a domain they may choose to block from their families' access. Of course, there is nothing that requires adult content to use a .xxx web address, so there's no guarantee that people won't stumble onto adult content.

There's also no strict definition to what constitutes adult content. One person's PG-13 content may be someone else's XXX content.

I haven't yet seen any domain registrar's offering .xxx registrations, but I expect many people will reserve the .xxx domain simply so that it's not used by someone else for purposes not to their liking. For example, I would imagine that all Fortune 500 companies would reserve the .xxx domain to prevent inappropriate use of their trademarks.

My guess is that there still will be adult content all over the Internet, but for companies who create .xxx sites, there will be little doubt about the kind of content to be found there.

At a business or home, Internet access can be configured to allow or disallow access to .xxx sites. This should give people at least a slightly better chance to control access to inappropriate content than we currently have.

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 23 March 2011.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Toughest Job in Tech

Every profession has its difficulties. Technology is no different. But my experience is that the toughest job in technology is that of telephone tech support.

These are the men and women who are there for us when our gadgets and gizmos don't work the way we want. Usually, these people are sitting in a room full of cubicles with others like them answering the phone when people call in.

The challenges these people have to deal with fall into two categories: Technical and personal.

The technical ones usually amount to one of the following items: The device in question does what the caller wants, but the caller can't figure it out (or hasn't read the manual), the device doesn't do what the caller wants because the device is broken, the device doesn't do what the caller wants because it wasn't installed properly or the device doesn't want to do what the caller wants because of a conflict with something else.

On the personal side, the challenge is that people are calling tech support because they're not happy. Their gadget doesn't work. That's an unfortunate way to start a call. Depending on the personality of the caller and the training of the support tech, things can go very well or not.

One of the biggest challenges that a tech support person faces is not being able to know the history of the gadget. In particular, what led up to the user calling in? What has been tried before? Did the user do something (intentionally or unintentionally) wrong?

Over the past few years, remote connections to computers have become more commonplace for support staff and that has helped dramatically when it comes to troubleshooting, but that works well for laptop and desktop computers, but not mobile phones, DVRs and most other devices.

I've done my fair share of tech support. Not in a call center, but for either people in my companies or friends. I have a lot of respect for these people who can do it day in and day out.

For most tech support work, it's a thankless job. There are no greeting cards for telephone tech support people. If the tech support person can find a solution for you, people often are angry that they had to call in the first place. If the tech support person can't find a solution for you, the callers can become even more frustrated.

What I find out works well is to provide them with as much up front information as possible, including screen shots of what's happening or not happening whenever possible. I also try to provide them with the make, model and even serial number of whatever device I'm trying to troubleshoot.

Given our tech world, it's inevitable that you'll spend some time on the phone with a tech support person. When you do, give them as much help as you can and you'll have the best experience that is possible given the reason for your call.

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 8 March 2011.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does the Internet Have an "Off" Switch?

The Internet used to be a quaint thing that only academics and geeks used to know about. Now, it is, for all intents and purposes, a utility, much like electricity and gas. Everyone uses it, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, children just assume it's always been there. Adults have come to accept it as part of their lives. Businesses now rely on it as a way business is conducted.

Many years ago, computer systems were centralized in large data centers and if a data center went offline, that was bad. In fact, it could put our national security at risk.

The Internet was designed to be resilient to attacks by making servers be able to work in multiple places simultaneously and the data communications path to a specific computer be flexible in case the circuit was cut or otherwise unavailable. As a result, the Internet is up essentially all the time.

But is there an Internet "off" switch?

We've seen recently in Egypt that the government was able to shut down the Internet when there were uprisings. Part of the public's ability to mobilize themselves was that they had the communication abilities of the Internet. News reports reached the world because everyone with a cell phone was able to make video and still photo reports and send them — unfiltered — to the world.

Yet the Egyptian government controlled the telecommunications for the country and so was able to turn off the Internet.

China's government similarly controls all Internet traffic, especially what it allows its residents to see outside of China.

I don't know whether there is similar control of the Internet here in the United States, but I do know that the services that we've come to rely on would be severely hampered if the Internet were to be turned off.

Here are some examples of things we now rely on: Telephone service, television service, news and information, weather reports, online business transactions, travel information, medical information. The list goes on.

In another vein, the GPS navigation satellite system that we all rely on is owned and operated by the United States government. It's used globally by motorists, airlines, delivery companies, emergency responders and many other businesses. And, yes, the United States government has said in a time of emergency it would disable the GPS satellites.

This is one of the reasons why the European Union has put together its Galileo project, which is an alternative to the American GPS satellites.

Both the Internet and GPS are now essential parts of the global lives. Let's hope we never have to know if there's really an "off" switch.

Update: Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal about a bill in the United States senate titled "Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011" to provide an official "kill switch" to the Internet: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/02/18/new-cyber-security-bill-kills-the-kill-switch/?blog_id=100&post_id=21955.

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 23 February 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coupons in the Digital Age

Using coupons has been something we've all done at one time or another. Everyone likes to save money or spend a little less on something.

Most of us use coupons occasionally, while others are so good at it that they can spend pennies on the dollar for items being promoted.

Two services that do very well for consumers are www.groupon.com and www.livingsocial.com. Each delivers a deal, typically on a daily basis, that offers about 50 percent off on a product or service through a local vendor.

Some of the local deals I've been offered include restaurants, car washes and outdoor events. Not all of them are something I want, but when they've clicked for me, they've been great. To use the coupon, sign up for the deal, pay the stated amount and you are e-mailed a file to print and use.

In every case when I've used these coupons, the merchants have known of them and there have been no problems.

Another service I use is www.restaurant.com. Their typical offer is a $25 coupon for $10. It's not unusual to see discounts as high as 90 percent. Again, you buy a coupon for a certain amount, then receive a file that you print and take to the merchant.

One service that I've used for years is called www.idine.com. For a few years, they were called Rewards Network. For $50 per year, you register any number of credit cards. Then, whenever you use one of your credit cards at a participating vendor, you receive anywhere from 6 to 50 percent as a rebate on the total cost of your charge — food, beverage, tax and tip. Typical rebates are 10 percent.

What's nice about iDine is that there's no coupon to buy, print or present to the merchant. The rebate used to be issued as a credit to your credit card, but iDine has started sending out rebate cards in the form of cash cards, which I find less appealing.

If you're looking more for traditional coupons, try www.redplum.com for a broad variety of coupons that you can clip.

There are plenty of other coupon sites on the Internet, often appealing to niche interests. Google your favorite subject and include the word "coupon" and you'll be amazed at what comes up.

For me, these discounts — especially at the 50 percent level — get my attention. And I'm pleased with the number of area merchants participating. It's been great to meet and experience some new places — and make doing things with my family more affordable.

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 9 February 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life Without TV

I've been fascinated by the demise of what we call TV. By that, I mean entertainment being delivered to us over the air or more typically over a cable or satellite to our home by major networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC with a schedule that they determine.

While I grew up knowing that my favorite shows were going to be on TV on a specific night on a specific channel at a specific time and that if I didn't see it when it was broadcast, I probably wouldn't see it for months until it was on again as a rerun.

Those days are long gone.

Starting with home VCR, people started being able to "time shift." That meant that they could set up their VCR to record a show when it was broadcast and then watch it when they wanted to. This meant handling lots of videotapes, but it worked remarkably well.

The advent of DVRs, such as cable boxes and most notably TiVo boxes, made it much easier to manage larger quantities of shows. The devices themselves even know the broadcast schedule and you can easily program the devices to record the shows you want.

But the biggest change I've seen is the emergence of sites that deliver entertainment across the Internet. These sites have such names as YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and more. Many of the major networks also deliver their content (mainly the "prime time" content) over the internet at their own sites, such as abc.com, cbs.com and nbc.com, albeit usually 24 or more hours after the original broadcast.

In addition, there is now hardware that supports these and other services, including Roku, AppleTV, Sony's PlayStation and more.

What's interesting is that none of these services use the traditional broadcast methods for delivering content. It's all done over the Internet.

Which leads me — and many others — to ask: Why do we need cable TV?

Virtually every show that is broadcast is available from an alternate source. The usual difference is that it's not available on the Internet until about 24 hours after it's broadcast.

But if I rarely sit down to watch a TV show when it's broadcast, do I care? The answer for many people is no.

With people paying typically $40 or more per month for cable TV service, it's an attractive thought to drop the cable TV service in favor of going with one or more of the Internet-based services.

The question is, is this going to save anyone any money? I don't think it will. Here's why.

Most of the services have a fee. Netflix starts at $7.99/month, Hulu Plus costs $7.99/month, Apple TV typically charges 99 cents per episode.

It's quite possible that by adding up a few services, plus some pay-per-view fees, you'll end up paying more than you do on a monthly basis for cable TV. Obviously, this depends on your viewing habits and for some people they could save some good money and for others this may cost them quite a bit more.

What you won't be dropping is the Internet service to your home. If anything, people will be upgrading to higher speeds that cost more money.

So, while I hear that some people are dropping their cable TV service in favor of all-Internet TV, I can't say that our household is ready to make that move — yet.

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 January 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's Tech Resolutions

The start of a new year is a great time to make resolutions and goals. These goals are typically to improve one's life, relationships, break old habits or somehow make the new year better than the previous one.

Here are a few tech resolutions that you can take advantage of. If you're already doing them, great. If you're not, then here's an easy checklist.

#1. Backup your computer's data.

Always high on people's lists, this has typically been not only a pain to do, but now it's a no-brainer. While there are now 2TB (terabyte) disk drives that you can copy oodles of data to locally, I still opt for the automatic online services such as Mozy and Carbonite that can store your files in a remote data center and let you retrieve your files anytime you want. Cost for this is about $50 per computer per year.

#2. Ensure your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is up-to-date.

While I'm a fan of the Norton products from Symantec, the McAfee and other software works quite well. There's also Microsoft's Defender application that's built into Windows computers from Vista forward. If it's not turned on, turn it on.

#3. Update your operating system and applications with the latest fixes and patches.

If you're a Windows user, go to update.microsoft.com and check for any pending updates. Also, ensure that automatic updating is turned on so that you'll be notified and receive the latest software updates from Microsoft as they're released. They're free and generally improve security and sometimes performance.

#4. If your computer is a couple of years old and seems to be running slowly, consider refreshing your computer.

This can be a complicated process, but it restores your computer to its factory settings, deletes all of the extra — and typically unused — software that has been downloaded. What most people will see is a 25 to 50 percent speed increase on their computer. Note that this requires you to save all of your data and applications that you want to restore, so only embark upon this if you're comfortable performing such backups and restores.

#5. Get rid of some items.

I tend to accumulate too much stuff and not retire enough. Look around your home or office and find items that aren't serving you well. Printers, PDAs, old camcorders. Can you move its function to something else so that you can eliminate one or more items? Simpler environments tend to run with the fewest problems. Strive for simplicity.

Following these few items can be very helpful in providing you with a more pleasant tech environment. Happy 2011!

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 January 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, January 3, 2011

Technology Can Never Replace the Personal Touch

While driving with my 12-year-old in the car the other day, she was helping to navigate by using the maps function of my Apple iPhone. I looked at her and asked: "Do you realize that what you have in your hand is magic?"

She looked at me and asked: "What?"

I responded by saying: "I remember when we used to travel that it was essentially a quiet zone. We didn't have telephones, we navigated by maps and occasionally got lost. If we had a flat tire or our car broke down, we had to rely on the graciousness of a passerby to give us a ride — or fix the tire/engine/whatever ourselves."

I continued with, "When we left one person's home, we'd often times call the other person to let them know we were leaving and kind of give them our best guesstimate of when we'd arrive. However, that person never really knew when we'd arrive. We could be a half hour early or four hours late and they had no way of knowing."

Just to really slam the point home, I told her about what it was like picking someone up from the airport. "We never really knew when the plane would land. Neither did the airline or airport. Real-time flight tracking was something only air traffic control did and they didn't have the time or technologies to let common folk like me have access. This meant that when we headed to the airport, we never know when the plane would arrive — or if it had been delayed, detoured, canceled, or otherwise changed."

Of course, while I was trying to make my point about what it was like when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, she was busy texting her friends and playing a game on a different device. The days of looking at the world around us while we travel are long gone, I guess.

All of this technology discussion is really about how much technology we use not only every day, but especially around the holidays. Everything from how we communicate with our friends and family, how we are able to get together with them (something I hope we never do only virtually), to the numerous technology gifts that are given and received during the holidays.

While I expect that there will be a number of digital gadgets in and around our family this holiday season, the magic that means the most is something that no technology can provide: an event with loved ones, a meal together, a walk on a sunny brisk day, making a snowman, sliding down a snowy hill.

So as you consider your technology gifts, consider how they will help you connect with the people who are important in your life. Will it bring you memories that you can cherish now and in a few years? Will it let you see how people have grown over the years? Will it give someone a smile when they open it and use it in the future?

For our family, the gifts of experiences and memories are the ones we're giving to each other this year — whether they require technology or not.

Happy holidays to everyone.

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 29 December 2010.