Monday, December 31, 2012

What tablet should I buy?

Image © Copyright Keith Evans and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This could probably have been more timely what with the Christmas season just ending, but I've been working on other projects.  I've been asked this a lot lately, for obvious reasons, and hopefully I'm addressing it soon enough to get to the post-Christmas crowd.

The first question is what platform you want.  The short answer is: buy the one whose platform matches your phone.  If you have an iPhone, buy an iPad.  If you have an Android phone, buy an Android tablet.  The reasoning here is that you're already invested in the app market for that platform, and many (not all) of your apps will be reusable.  Some developers want you to use different versions for different form factors, and so the phone versions won't transfer, but by and large you'll be able to make use of previous purchases.  You'll also understand the little idiosyncrasies of the system better.  Unless you have a specific function that you know only the other tablet has, this is the way to go.

The second question is the form factor.  A 7 inch tablet is highly portable, a 10 inch tablet is magazine-like and easier to consume content on.  If you don't think you have a preference, I would recommend the larger size.  There are more things that it is capable of, and it's closer to what developers are aiming for when they develop for tablets specifically. You should go with the smaller version if you're on a budget and don't need the size.  If you're on a budget but do need a large viewing space, consider buying refurbished.

If you are buying an iPad, you're done now.  The smaller form factor is the iPad Mini, and the larger is the plain ol' iPad.  The newest version of the latter has Apple's "Retina" display, but the older iPad 2 is still perfectly usable if you want to save a little money.

As far as Android, my specific recommendations as of this moment are the Nexus 7 from Google if you want a smaller tablet and the Note 10 from Samsung if you want a larger one.  This information changes quickly, but you're probably safe with anything that's called a Nexus, and Samsung is widely acknowledged to make very good hardware.

Things to avoid:


  • No-name generic Android tablets abound, but you won't save enough on the cost of the Nexus 7 to justify purchasing something cheaper.  They are generally locked to an older version of Android; most of these are on 2.3 or earlier, while Android has reached 4.2 as of this writing.
  • I think buying a 3G or 4G tablet is silly for most people, as the situations in which you'd use a tablet but won't be under wifi are extremely rare.  With a phone, sometimes you'll want to navigate in the car, or take phone calls or text messages while outside, but unless you're going to do a lot of tablet computing in the park you probably don't need the extra expense at the time of purchase, let alone the data plan.
  • The Surface, in my opinion.  It's an exciting prospect in a lot of ways, but buying the first generation of a new Microsoft product is almost always a mistake, and Windows 8 has some serious problems.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Post Office update

Google seems to have made some under-the-hood changes to Chrome that broke Post Office.  It's now updated and appears to be working again, but let me know if you're using it and have problems.

For those who don't know, Post Office is a Chrome extension that I wrote to help manage multiple email accounts.  There's a full description in the Chrome Store, but the gist is that it allows you to selectively send to email links via webmail rather than your computer's default mail client.  I have to maintain a large number of email addresses, which makes this useful for me.  It may or may not be useful for you, which is why it's available on the store.

In case you're curious, NickSimmonds.com now has a GitHub where you can see open source code projects.  Currently, this only includes Post Office.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why not Linux servers for small businesses?

I occasionally get asked why I don't use Linux more often for my clients. I've now spent about ten years as a networking consultant, six of that in the small-to-medium business space, which on the surface sounds like the ideal market for free-license software.  

This doesn't work for many reasons, which differ between desktop and server systems.  Today I'm breaking down the problems, as I see it, with Linux servers in the SMB market.

Time is money. Specifically, my time is expensive.  I work for companies that can't even close to afford to hire me full-time, and if they do have a "computer guy" on site, it's someone's nephew who kind of knows his way around a DOS prompt.  This divides the "computer work" into a few different categories:
  • High-level design and administration.  My bag.  This is fine under Linux, if not somewhat better in many cases.  It takes somewhat more time to build a Linux machine, but it probably takes less support over the lifetime of the device, so that's a wash. This is where the big savings is possible; Windows Server 2012 Standard licenses cost about the same as 7-10 hours of my time for a small business, depending on the number of employees.  Setting up a Linux network with a small number of servers takes longer than a Windows network (yes, it does), but not 7-10 hours longer per server, and you may save on support calls going forward.
  • Mid-level support. This is either done by someone moderately savvy, or by me walking someone through the steps involved.  This is a real drag under Linux, because the people I'm talking to aren't familiar with the interface, but it can be done and probably still works out better overall.
  • Day-to-day tasks. This is essentially impossible for end users to do on any version of Linux yet released without massive retraining.  In order for this to work, Linux needs to offer a desktop that is either as close as possible to Windows so that it looks familiar or is absolutely brain-dead to use. E.g., there's no real "desktop" unless you manually invoke it; you just log in and there are big buttons that say RESTART SERVER, RESTART X SERVICE, FIX PRINTERS (which clears the print queue), etc.
Application compatibility. This is big, and probably insurmountable without a giant push for more open-source software.  There are no good small business accounting packages on Linux (no, there aren't).  There are no truly solid ways of running Windows software, and if there were the vendors wouldn't support it.  Most small businesses are completely dependent on integrated accounting packages like Quickbooks or Peachtree.

That said, this is becoming less of a problem, as these services become hosted.  Most small businesses are now better off with hosted mail, and the fact that there's no Linux-based equivalent to Exchange/Outlook for mail/calendar/contacts matters much less.  These accounting systems are also going online, but as of yet the costs are prohibitive.  As they come down, more functionality can be pushed off site, and eventually most users will just use on-site servers for centralized account management and file sharing.  That's when small business Linux will become much more viable.

Packaged applications. Setting up a Windows server to host a dozen services is brain-dead simple and extremely fast.  No command-line work is necessary any more, everything is GUI- and wizard-based, and the defaults are almost always sufficient to get you 90% of the functionality you need.  Once I'm done designing a network, I can send a much more junior systems installer to handle the rest of it.  And Windows is only becoming better at this (although the UI in Server 2012 leaves something to be desired).

With Windows, one can set up services like DHCP, DNS, file sharing, centralized authentication, and even more advanced systems like VPN and a virtualization hypervisor with the push of a few buttons.  All of these things are available in Linux systems, and in many cases run better, faster, and with less intervention, but the setup goes from something essentially trivial to something requiring expert knowledge even for the most basic services.

Unfamiliarity. Linux just sounds scary to a lot of business owners (barring that small number of technophiles to whom it sounds great).  It's gotten branded as a geeks-only operating system that can't be used by mere mortals, which is a reputation that is only partly deserved, but it is partly deserved, primarily for the reasons outlined above.


None of these is insurmountable, but most Linux flavors don't even make the attempt.  Red Hat is doing very well in the enterprise space, and Ubuntu seems to be aiming at the desktop and tablet market rather than at small businesses.  There is a lot of room to compete with Microsoft in this space, in my opinion, but it can't be an afterthought.  Even a wizard-based GUI-installed flavor of Linux that sets up DHCP, DNS, and file-sharing would go a long way, although to be a real competitor it needs to have an easy-to-use counterpart to Active Directory, and that doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

All of that said, I do use Linux in my practice, but it's a relatively small part.  Linux is great when I've already got an Active Directory server in place and just want to set up a file server (although AD integration could be miles better than it is).  Linux handles certain services far better than Windows, like simple web servers, FTP servers, and firewall systems (although for the latter an appliance is usually the best choice).  And Linux is a great way to re-use dying hardware for non-critical applications.  Even with all of that, though, it's maybe one in ten clients for whom it makes sense, dollar-for-dollar, to set up a "free" OS.

Microsoft escapes the top ten threat list

Microsoft's security team is killing it: Not one product on Kaspersky's top 10 vulnerabilities list - The Next Web: Microsoft products no longer feature among the Top 10 products with vulnerabilities. This is because the automatic updates mechanism has now been well developed in recent versions of Windows OS.
Although, arguably, it has more to do with how very terrible Adobe's products are.  Half of the top ten are Adobe products.  Frankly, internet safety would be in a much better place today if Adobe had never incorporated; the vast majority of the infected machines that I deal with were infected by compromised PDFs or Flash vulnerabilities.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why Does Everyone Hate Windows 8? Should I Upgrade?

Why Does Everyone Hate Windows 8? Should I Upgrade?: Windows 8 is getting a bad rap from a lot of people, but it really does have a lot of good stuff going for it. After all, people hated XP when it came out, too. Here are some of the things people are complaining about, and why they probably don't matter.
Lifehacker has a significantly different view of Windows 8 than I do.  For one thing, I think that the argument that you shouldn't worry about the Start menu going missing because you can download third party tools to replace it is very weak.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paypal pushing users into binding arbitration

You probably just received a notice from Paypal, and you probably didn't read it.  That's okay, I do these things so that you don't have to.  Paypal is binding any users who don't opt out through physical mail to internal arbitration without outside legal recourse.  They've done this before, but without the opt-out procedure it's proven legally thorny for them.

Paypal is, of course, notoriously difficult to deal with, and we'd all like to have legal recourse should it be necessary.  Here, from their agreement, is the opt-out method:
  1. You can choose to reject this Agreement to Arbitrate ("opt out") by mailing us a written opt-out notice ("Opt-Out Notice").  For new PayPal users, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than 30 Days after the date you accept the User Agreement for the first time.  If you are already a current PayPal user and previously accepted the User Agreement prior to the introduction of this Agreement to Arbitrate, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than December 1, 2012. You must mail the Opt-Out Notice to PayPal, Inc., Attn: Litigation Department, 2211 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95131.

    The Opt-Out Notice must state that you do not agree to this Agreement to Arbitrate and must include your name, address, phone number, and the email address(es) used to log in to the PayPal account(s) to which the opt-out applies. You must sign the Opt-Out Notice for it to be effective. This procedure is the only way you can opt out of the Agreement to Arbitrate. If you opt out of the Agreement to Arbitrate, all other parts of the User Agreement, including all other provisions of Section 14 (Disputes with PayPal), will continue to apply.  Opting out of this Agreement to Arbitrate has no effect on any previous, other, or future arbitration agreements that you may have with us.
If everything just went fuzzy on you and you woke up in another room after trying to read that, the gist of the gist is that you must send snail mail to Paypal by December 1 of this year indicating your intent to opt out, or thirty days after you first sign up if you are not a current Paypal user.  It has to include your name, address, phone number, and all email addresses you use with Paypal.  The letter must state your intent to opt out of the Agreement to Arbitrate, and probably should be labeled "Opt Out Notice" at the top.

Here are the requirements in easy-to-digest list form:

  • Labeled "Opt-Out Notice"
  • States that you opt out of the "Agreement to Arbitrate"
  • Signed
  • Sent through physical mail
  • Includes your:
    • Name
    • Address
    • Phone number
    • all email addresses used with Paypal
  • By December 1st 2012 OR thirty days after you sign up for new users
  • Send to:
PayPal, Inc
Attn: Litigation Department
2211 North First Street
San Jose, CA 95131
I strongly recommend that all readers do so as soon as possible.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Windows 8 preview: you will hate it


St Mary's Church, Brome: stained glass windows (8)
St Mary's Church, Brome: stained glass windows (8)
Image © Copyright Basher Eyre and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


This title sums up what I think will be the likely response to the newest operating system from Microsoft, but let me go over a few things:

The good:  There are a lot of changes under the hood:

On the same hardware (Lenovo T420, 8GB RAM, Core i5, SSD), for me, bootup/shutdown times have been much faster.  I get an hour more battery life, which is basically worth the upgrade in and of itself.

The interface is cleaner and the whole experience feels snappier.  Basically all programs that anyone would reasonably use have proven to be 100% compatible; the only things that I use that aren't get really deep into the operating system and do things that you're not really supposed to do but that I occasionally have need of.

Hot corners are implemented better than I've ever seen them before.  If you've ever accidentally moused into the corner of someone's Mac, you know that you can make the whole screen freak out in unexpected ways if you're not used to it.  Windows 8, by contrast, merely pops up an unobtrusive UI element that can be clicked to invoke something without taking over your entire visual field.  Which is good; they'd better be implemented well because you'll be using them a lot.

Skydrive is something whose time has come, and the MS implementation of cloud sync is far, far better than Apple's.  You also get 7GB of online storage for free, a number obviously aimed at tweaking Google's nose. If you're not yet using a cloud sync service, the integration here will gently push you on board, mostly without telling you, which probably sounds annoying but is honestly much better than a default-off option.  I frankly consider this sort of thing to be a social good; legions of unsavvy folks will cease to lose their important documents and pictures when they just start popping on to the cloud.  You still need a real backup solution, but this puts you halfway there.

The bad: no Start button.  This is really going to mess with people. Navigation is all about hot corners, and getting to your applications now requires mousing to one corner or another depending whether you've got it pinned to the no-longer-named-Metro Start interface.  But notMetro isn't robust enough, so every time you go tere you will immediately click the "Desktop" tile to take yourself into real Windows, where you keep all your actual stuff.  No Start button also means no instant text launch, which my SSD-enabled self had come to depend on in 7.  As much as I hate to say it, Windows 8 could benefit from an early-XP style walkthrough of features, which it seems to lack.

The integration with social services, which should be under "the good", is instead half-hearted and Microsoft-focused. Background syncing is terrible, sloppy, and inconsistent, meaning that I'm generally better off going to the actual web app than waiting for the integrated "tile" to update.  The numbers of unread messages, tweets, etc. listed on the lock screen are always wrong.

The built-in mail app is terrible, and one of the few hideous things in the OS.  The only thing I should need to say is that you can't click-and-drag messages into folders. That's unforgivable.  For what it's worth, in the upcoming Office 2013 preview (spoiler alert) you'll find that's also gone high-contrast eye-bleaching white, so this seems to be a theme.

The built-in messaging notMetro app only integrates with MSN and Facebook, which is ridiculous and again unforgivable, especially as Google Talk uses a perfectly open platform and connecting to it is trivial.

The beautiful-but-irritating: notMetro is gorgeous, to my eyes.  I wish the tiles would work, because it's a much better method of catching and displaying all of your necessary information.  The presentation is lovely, if annoyingly tablet-focused, but the latter is almost certainly the right decision.

But it's different, and there's no clear indication of the ways that it's different.  It took me a couple of days to become comfortable navigating it, which means that I have clients who never will be.

I think this is probably purposeful, though.  The way to get people to adopt a new UX style is not to gradually change what they're used to; they'll fight you every step of the way.  The method that works is to go much too far, wait for the backlash, and then back off just enough that you seem like you're compromising.  Microsoft's partnership with Facebook is probably where they learned this technique.


Here is what will happen: Windows 8 will ship but with downgrade rights to Windows 7, at least for a year.  A few bleeding-edgers will purchase Windows 8 machines, and there will be an internet firestorm which will put everyone off of it.  Windows 7 adoption will actually accelerate, and folks will convince themselves that by downgrading they are sticking it to Microsoft.

Threeish years later, Microsoft will release Windows-whatever-9-or-something, with some moderate rollbacks to the UI changes, and it will be hailed the same way that Windows 7 was in the aftermath of Vista.  It will be rapidly adopted, especially as the Windows 7 downgrade window will have closed, and folks purchasing new machines will have to choose between 8 and 9-or-whatever.  The UX changes that Microsoft really wants implemented will become a fact of life.  Also, by this point tablet computing will have completely eclipsed desktop computing, so 9ow will make sense for the average user.  This may or may not give Microsoft a chance to dent the lead that iOS and Android will have in tablet computing by leveraging Office, which is the only truly dominant suit that Microsoft has left.

This sort of wandered out of the field of previewing and into Nostradamus, but still, you don't come here for the usual tech blog stuff, do you?