Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Holiday Madness

Holiday madness has arrived yet again. Black Friday, purportedly the day that many companies go from being financially "in the red," or unprofitable, to being "in the black," or profitable, for the year continues to be a huge marketing day.

Add to that Cyber Monday, which is the day people are encouraged to buy online — also with supposed huge discounts.

If one is in the market, the real question is: What to buy?

From a consumer electronics standpoint, flat-screen TVs continue to drop in price and grow in size. From reading the flyers that appear in my mailbox to the occasional trip through Costco and Best Buy, one would think that any TV less than 50 inches in size would be unthinkable.

But the tablet PC market is growing in size, too. With Apple having a number of viable variations on its iPad now available and with the tablets with the Android operating system growing in popularity and generally lower in price, it's clear the personal computer market — both desktop and laptop varieties — are seeing sales declines.

Heading over to the smartphone department, the Apple iPhone is still the market leader, although the Samsung Galaxy S III outsold the iPhone for the month before the iPhone 5 was released. While there are very good reasons for people to be in the Apple iPhone, Android or even the Microsoft Windows phone camps, there are plenty of very good phones out there to choose from.

Unless you choose an Apple iPhone, the biggest problem with choosing a smartphone is that every month, another great phone is released. Apple has fewer phones and releases them on a cycle that lets people pretty much use their phone for a year or two.

Moving on to gaming consoles, the Microsoft XBOX 360 continues to be a winner, especially because of its Kinect interactivity, but Nintendo has introduced its Wii U this year that includes a second screen. Even Sony's next generation PlayStation 4 is reported to have the new 4K video output — making today's high-definition output look fuzzy — but no date has been announced by Sony, so it won't be on anyone's shopping list this year.

If you're in the market for a digital camera or camcorder, we're finally getting to the point where cameras are good at both and you won't have to carry around two cameras. Mobile phones and tablets do take stills and videos — with remarkably good quality, considering the optics in them. But I'm still a fan of a full-size sensor and dedicated hardware and software for really high-quality images. Depending on how much you want to spend and how much weight you want to carry, there are some great offerings from Canon, Nikon and Sony, to name just a few.

The biggest problem now is choice. There are so many good offerings from so many good companies — at prices that don't scare most people — that choosing what you want can be difficult.

In most cases, ask a friend and read some reviews in magazines or online to see how well the items you're considering will meet your needs. The good news is that unless you have really specific needs, most of the products out there will provide you with good service for a number of years.

Happy holiday madness!

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 28 November 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Can't Watch Screens That Don't Move

For me, television equates to a screen typically sitting in a family room or living room where people plop themselves down and watch whatever shows they want to see.

But, yet again, that's my generation.

This point was brought home to me the other day when my daughter was going off to babysit.

We were telling her that once her young charges were off to bed, she could watch TV or maybe do some homework. We always have to suggest these things.

The response was that she did not want to watch TV on a big screen. Instead, she wanted to take an iPad or her laptop computer so she could use it for her video entertainment. To date, she does not have a smartphone with a screen for web browsing and similar functions.

When I inquired as to why she didn't want to sit and watch TV, it was difficult to elicit a concise answer, but what I determined was that she wanted a few things that old-fashioned TV simply does not offer:

First, it's not interactive. Live TV can't be started, stopped or fast-forwarded.

Second, related to not being interactive, it's not portable. She wanted to be able to manipulate not only the programming, but also be able to flip back and forth between watching video, talking to friends on Facebook, chatting with them using Skype and other functions.

Third, TV doesn't give you the number of options that a mobile device does. Despite cable TV services offering typically at least 100 channels of programming and sometimes upwards of 600 channels, that's nothing compared to what the Internet offers.

In short, the TV viewing experience that I grew up with — and still enjoy to this day — is clearly not what my daughter expects of her time being entertained.

In many ways, I admire the new way of watching TV. It's not just a solo or family experience. People nowadays can be entertained in their own homes while interacting with their friends wherever they might be.

Part of this is very exciting and interesting, but I also often like the down time or being just with my wife and family without all of the other interactions — some may call them distractions — of being part of a larger community all the time.

I fully expect that as I learn from my children how they receive their entertainment, I will find ways in which I will benefit from their new perspective on entertainment.

Until then, I'm going to enjoy television the old-fashioned way ... in the privacy and solitude of my home.

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 November 2012.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Living WITHOUT Technology

On Monday 29 October, Hurricane Sandy swept through the Northeast, including Westport.

For most of the town — over 90 percent — power went out early evening. And the power stayed out for days. In fact, five days after Sandy hit, easily 60 percent of the town was still without power.

So what was it like to live without the modern conveniences?

Relatively speaking, Westport was lucky. While many homes were damaged or destroyed, we did not receive the devastation that many communities in New York and New Jersey did.

Nevertheless, most of the town lost one of its basic utilities: Electricity.

Without electricity, when the sun goes down, the house is dark. Very dark. Batteries in flashlights only last so long.

Without electricity, it's hard to heat one's home. Even if your home runs on fuel oil, it takes electricity to circulate the hot water that results from the burners.

Without electricity, one's computers don't work. Even the batteries on laptop computers last typically no more than five hours. If the computers do work, it's hard to do much without Internet access nowadays.

Without electricity, if you have a well with a pump, you don't have water for bathing or cooking.

In talking to people, the overwhelming utility that people needed was electricity.

What surprised me, though, was that the second utility people wanted was Internet access. Forget phone service, forget television. With the Internet, people could connect to the world — and each other.

While on my block, we lost our power for six days, yet our cable TV/Internet service was never disrupted. Because of our generator being able to keep our cable modem and home networking running, we were connected to the world — and even provided WiFi to some of our neighbors.

The Westport Public Library continued its tradition of providing a great resource for people who were looking for a few basic services: Electricity and Internet access. A warm place to stay was also nice, but the week's moderate temperatures meant that keeping warm was not one of the immediate necessities.

While the need for food, shelter and water continue to be high on everyone's list of basic needs, what has surprised me is how high Internet access has become. Even our first responders are using Internet service to communicate to the community about status updates, emergency services, where to go for needs one has. The Internet truly has become a utility.

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 November 2012.