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.
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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.
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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.