My Thoughts On iOS 8

The foundation of a great building is what allows it to stand tall. Whether you’re building a modest single family home or a grandiose skyscraper, a strong foundation is imperative to the future stability of the structure.

A foundation is exactly what last year’s iOS 7 brought to Apple’s mobile device software platform. It introduced an array of changes to both the user interface, design language and overall direction of Apple’s products- a change that is still taking place as the company moves some of the same design traits back over to the new version of Mac OS.

With Jonathan Ive at the helm of Apple’s design team, the new flatter icons have been further refined. These flatter, more colorful icons and the shift to the newer Helvetica Neue typefaces are just the minor details in a larger Apple strategy of simplification and modernization- two important design goals that are going to be essential in separating the consumer device manufacturer apart from the competition.

Aside from the interface of the new Apple Pay app, the Skeuomorphic design language brought about by former Apple executive Scott Forstall has all but disappeared. iOS 7 vanquished much of it, and now iOS 8 is putting the last nails in the coffin of this design trend. For the uninitiated, Skeuomorphism is the practice of making computer / phone menus and interfaces reminiscent of real world objects (ie making a calendar app resemble a physical calendar.).

I have a love-hate relationship with Skeuomorphic design. Part of me likes it, because from my experience working with senior citizens and the technology-averse, Skeuomorphic interfaces such as earlier versions of iOS and their glitzy, glossy icons have been universally loved by these groups of people. The simple, easy to recognize software functions made these versions of iOS easy to use even for the oldest of flip phone holdouts that recently have jumped into the smartphone fray. But on the other hand, Skeuomorphism has been a black eye on progress. To some, it’s just plain tacky- it has a way of looking childish and going against some modern design trends- which have made a lot of interface designers move towards what the industry is dubbing “chromeless” interfaces- such as the competing Metro (now Modern) interface on Microsoft’s Windows Phones and the new “Material Design” coming to Google’s Android operating system.

The general trend is to move away from such design practices- and that might not be a bad thing considering that the infamous “desktop metaphor” from the early days of computing is nearly gone after the mobile revolution of the past few years.

That aside, iOS 8 has heavily refined a lot of the sweeping changes brought about by iOS 7. Spotlight search, for one has been revamped in a way so as to be more useful- pulling in more data sources and making better use of screen real estate on larger devices.

Also, they did away with the gimmicky transparent glass on the beloved Control Center. Control center has been a useful, welcome addition to iOS, but let’s be honest- the glossy, glitzy pseudo translucent glass background of it was a throwback to Windows Vista.

If your memories of Windows Vista are anything like mine, they’re probably fond memories of driver corruption, blue screens of death, viruses and poor hardware support- with a massively inefficient layer of ugly transparent glass affixed on top of it. Lipstick on a pig as a certain 2008 vice presidential candidate might say.The new simpler icons along with the new background have done wonders make Control Center much more appealing in my judgement.

Speaking of interface changes, Apple’s mobile Safari web browser has gotten a nice makeover. In addition to refinement of the main tabbed-browsing interface, probably the most sweeping changes were to the tab switching interface. I’m a sucker for fancy animations and the glamorous 3D effects they used here, so what can I say, this was a nice albeit unnecessary for efficiency change. Reminds me of how they introduced “cover flow” first in OS X 10.5 and then later again in the first iOS devices.

Another thing just introduced that you’re only going to see on the new devices is something that Apple is calling “continuity”. Continuity, and its competitors are part of a larger trend emerging in devices called liquid computing- being able to start a task on one device and pick up where you left off on another.

For example, if you’re receiving a phone call or text message on your iPhone that’s sitting on table across the room, you can answer the call with the iPad in your hands right now. It’s a concept in its early stages, but iOS 8’s implementation of it does certainly look promising. Look for the other smartphone makers to introduce competing versions of this soon.

Apple might have you believe otherwise, but they are most certainly not the first to introduce this “liquid computing” concept. Third party apps aside, Motorola’s browser based “motorola connect” offered similar features with their first generation Moto X smartphone- I just don’t like how it’s completely dependent on Google’s Chrome web browser, since it is an extension. Being averse to their data mining practices, I try to avoid Google Chrome. Different stroke for different folks, I suppose.

Playing around with iOS 8 on my iPad Air the past few days, I definitely noticed a bump in performance. Apple loves to brag on how they’ve optimized their software very well for the devices they make- so well that they can perform on-par or better than competing software platforms with (arguably) superior internal components. The update has definitely made performance “snappier” on my iPad Air- however that may not be the story for some owners of older devices.

But I don’t think owners of older devices have the right to get too mad. Considering the track records of competing platforms such as Android, which consistently struggle to support the breadth of devices with major updates to the Android software platform, owners of late-model Apple smartphones have it pretty good. If they have a (recent enough) device, they will be able to receive nearly all of the goodies released with the next major release of software- on the same day as people with brand new iPhone 6s. Meanwhile, owners of a year old Sony Android phone are left in the cold when it comes to the next version of Android.

Consistency. It’s a good thing to have.

Apple shocked us by breaking from this general trend with the woes brought by the 8.0.1 update that was released to correct some early issues in the initial iOS 8 release. Ironically, this update proved to make things much worse- killing cellular connectivity, and messing up a lot of phones. Needless to say, a lot of people weren’t happy- and the news of this right after “Bendgate” didn’t reflect well on Apple in the court of public opinion.

Things like this do happen though, considering the nature of software and its assortment of issues. That is to be expected. It’s also a reason why I don’t install new versions of software the same day that they’re released- you never know if there’s a serious launch day bug that could take your main phone or tablet out of commission and put you in a difficult position.

I’ll give them a pass this time for the reasons stated- but a public flop like this is highly uncharacteristic of the Steve Jobs Apple I used to know. Software issues aside, they did make a number of “under the hood” improvements and tweaks that will be beneficial to software developers- so some new technologies introduced by 8 should see more in the way of apps that tie in to new hardware- such as HealthKit for health tracking apps and now the introduction of HomeKit for home automation platforms. Combined with last year’s iOS in the car introduction, this is a slam dunk for that “vertically integrated’ walled garden approach being created by Apple.

Speaking of walled gardens, you need to be cognizant of that when looking at anything Apple. There’s a reason why Apple’s new lightening cables are proprietary- it’s the same reason there’s only one App Store or iTunes to buy music from. Apple’s modus operandi is for everything to work seamlessly, reliably and consistently- as long as it’s officially sanctioned (Translation: heavily profited off of)  by Apple. That’s why Kindle, Google Books etc. are “second class citizens” on iOS. Apple wants its own offerings to shine. So don’t even think about using that shiny new Apple Watch with your Galaxy S 4, or trying to take advantage of “continuity” with a non-Apple smartphone.

That can turn some people (such as myself) off, but be a boon to others. It’s part of their greater strategy of making a profit, so it’s not like we can blame them too much- the realities of the cut-throat, razor thin profit margin cell phone industry are likely forcing their hand in addition to old-time corporate culture. When everything is working right, their additional level of control can make things run a little smoother, such as updates.

All in all, iOS 8 is another stepping stone on the path to the future of mobile computing. Smartphones are becoming further entrenched in every corner of our lives for better or worse. iOS 8 hopes to blend into the background and make easier (or harder depending on how you look at it) a lot of common smartphone tasks. Is it perfect? No. But the path Apple is taking definitely is more focued and looking to the future than previous releases.

Let’s just hope iOS 8.1’s release isn’t nearly as disastrous as this one. That aside, iOS 8 is a well thought out update that makes things that were good last year even better this time around.


Verizon FiOS’ Smoke And Mirrors

I try not to watch TV for obvious reasons, but while flipping around yesterday I couldn’t help but notice the Verizon’s new attention-grabbing FiOS commercial. Normally, I wouldn’t care so much about FiOS because Verizon still refuses to run their costly fibre optic cables to Lacey. But their new commercial is just plain misleading. (embedded below)

Claim: “Shouldn’t Up Be As Fast As Down?”

This, here is a finely loaded question. When presented in such a fashion via the “smoke and mirrors” of prime time TV marketing, it’s hard for someone to disagree. But in this situation, the telecommunications giant is clearly misrepresenting the facts and realities of the American broadband market. By drawing a comparison in the advertisement to having somebody’s socks match, having eyeballs match and other things, to having the same upload and download speed on a home internet connection, they are twisting reality even further.

Your internet connection, typically, is measured in two different speeds. Your download speed is how fast you can receive data, such as a Netflix movie, pictures or whatever else from the wider internet at large (such as this website). Your upload speed, however, is the speed at which you can send data out to the internet, such as your pictures from your European vacation or that latest company report.

Their primary marketing claim is that competing internet service providers are inferior because they do not provide the same upload speed as they do download speed. But is this really important?

You see, the typical user of today’s broadband internet typically does a lot more downloading than they do uploading. Upload speed only really becomes a major issue and a point of contention if you are running a server- such as a business email server, file server or anything else accessible from the web.

What they fail to mention is that not only is doing so typically against the terms of service of America’s largest internet service providers- the average consumer will not be making enough use of the upload side of things to even notice the difference in speed between upload / download. But also, there’s really no perceived benefit to having such as high upload capacity. When you load up a website, play an online game or other online activities, as long as you have a “good enough” upload speed to send a request to your respective web service, you’re set. I’m not defending “Big Cable” but allocating more network capacity to download speed makes much more sense for the majority of internet users.

99% of  these folks will undoubtedly see much more benefit from having a higher capacity for download speed versus upload speed.  This approach to broadband given current technology and market penetration is what makes the most sense for the most people. By Verizon claiming that upload speed is, in fact more important than it really is to consumers, they serve only to spread confusion. Everybody likes big numbers to brag about, but downstream capacity has, is and will be more important for consumer broadband for years to come.

Much like Samsung’s “next big thing” commercials that have been almost universally mocked, we can chalk this up as yet another desperate attempt to mislead and misinform an already zombified public.

Interview with CIO Magazine

CIO Magazine wanted my take on tips you can take to improve search engine rankings for small business websites. Here’s what I had to say:

WordPress is, in essence, a blogging platform. But many businesses use it as the content management system for a complete website.

Yoast’s WordPress SEO Plugin (free) is a favorite among many SEO experts. “I recommend it to my clients because it allows the automation and easy integration of important SEO strategies,” says Gavin Rozzi, president, Gavin Rozzi Technology.

Drupal and Joomla are two worthy WordPress alternatives, Rozzi says. “These free, open-source content management systems come with an assortment of plug-ins that automate much of the SEO workload.”

Windows: One Mess Of An Operating System

My intense disdain for Microsoft Windows and its cohorts is no secret. Just because it’s the most popular (for now) computer operating system definitely does NOT make it the best, or even close to that. Between the relic that the NTFS filesystem is, the horror that is the error-prone, instability loving Registry and absolute mess that is Microsoft’s new Metro UI.

So where do we even begin? Windows powers the vast majority of personal computers, and I feel that these issues are calling its reliabilty and usability into question when alternatives such as BSD and Linux are becoming more advanced by the day.

First, Windows’ closed-source by nature architecture vastly limits its potential. Proprietary drivers and software don’t allow the end user to see how things work “under the hood”. This is to protect Microsoft’s intellectual property- and give their highly paid team of elite corporate trial lawyers something to do. Granted, the average “Joe The Plumber” isn’t going to want to do things that require permissive access to the underlying source code- but it certainly aids community developers to help build in additional functionality and access the power of newer 64 bit systems more effectively. (Linux and other UNIX-like systems have always dealt with multitasking a bit better.) Open source software not only allows more collaboration and input from the larger user and developer community- it’s also known to be vastly more secure. The majority of websites and other services on the internet, including Google, Facebook and even my own websites all run on two great pieces of open source software, Linux and WordPress. Open Source software is far more extensible, with readily available free and commercial plugins and rapid security updates in addition to a fundamentally more secure theory of operation, such as long-time support for full disk encryption, public key cryptography via solution such as OpenSSL (yes, THAT OpenSSL), and PGP encryption of emails and other files. Linux has support for many of these tools- and more baked right in to popular distributions.

Another area where Linux based operating systems outperforms Windows is scalability. Linux will scale beautifully from a small little 64 MB OpenVZ container instance, all the way on up to almost all of the supercomputers listed on the TOP500 supercomputer ranking list.

Try installing Windows 8 on your grandma’s 256MB ancient grey Dell. At the performance you’ll get on that system, Grandma won’t feel so old after all.

However, the latest version of Puppy Linux, or even LXLE will run perfectly on this rather dated system. And instead of running ancient versions of software due to hardware limitations, such as being stuck with IE8 as the latest version of Internet Explorer that will run under Windows XP, you’ll be able to run a full-featured version of Firefox, or even its lower resource using cousin Midori or Iceweasel. You will NEVER see this level of scalability on Windows, thanks in part to the monster that is the monolithic NT Kernel- a bloated relic of the past.

Another area where Windows falls short is reliability. If you’ve been using Windows based systems for any period of time, you’ll likely have made acquaintances with the fabled “Blue Screen Of Death.” With a mess of third party drivers, incoherent updates and an overall poor architecture, all versions of Windows have been proven to be extremely prone to crashes due to conflicts in software and drivers. In the spirit of fairness, Microsoft isn’t all to blame here for this- we can thank the greedy manufacturers and resellers of computers that shovel piles of crapware, trials and other unnecessary junk onto unsuspecting consumers. You’ll likely find snake oil like Norton Antivirus, trial versions of software you don’t need and other pieces of garbage littering the hard drives of newer store bought Windows PCs.

Quickly becoming one of the most-hated user interfaces on the Desktop is Microsoft’s new “Modern” UI (previously metro). The new user interface introduced from Windows 8 onward has quickly drawn the ire of veteran and new users alike. Why? It makes a desperate attempt at keeping Windows relevant in the age of the iPad and other mobile devices. It was desperately hacked together as a reaction to the iPad and other touch-based computing paradigms. It has no real innovation to stand on its own with. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada! I was one of the first people to purchase a new touch-based Windows 8 system in November of 2012. Even with a touch screen, “Live Tiles” are incredibly gimmicky on both Laptop and Desktop computers. Microsoft is having and identity crisis.

What exactly does Windows want to be when it grows up?

Does it want to be the flashy new mobile OS, to rival the currently dominant Android and iOS? They’ve already tried that, with the massive exercise in futility that was Windows Phone 7, which burned early adopters (such as myself) by denying them an upgrade path to Windows Phone 8 (partially as a result of the chincy processing guts of these devices) , and as a result killed all the early momentum they had going for what could have been a promising new mobile platform.

MSFT blew it again when they had the flop that was the Surface RT. It was such a flop that they canned the VP largely responsible for much of these new efforts, Steven Sinofsky- who himself left for greener pastures. The Surface, again, was another “me-too” product. Instead of offering real value to the marketplace and real innovation, it was another in the long Microsoft lineage of “me-too” copycat products. And the new Windows RT software cut out all backward compatibility (one of the only Windows selling points) in favor of dinkier ARM processors, from NVIDIA, no less. There are almost no popular apps from other platforms on the surface. The ones that are on the platform are often less-functional ports of their respective Android and iOS versions- it’s the red-headed step child of both mobile and desktop operating systems.

The current Windows is a Frankenstein-y mishmash of mobile, touch based paradigms and “old-school” garden variety mouse and keyboard faire. It is a jack of all trades and a master of none, producing a really third rate experience on both ways of using a Windows based computer.

By throwing its users from the griddle and into the flames with this new paradigm, Microsoft is with one fell swoop throwing over 30 years of the “Desktop Metaphor” that many computer users first became accustomed to Windows on. All of this, with no clear instructions of information to help guide users to use the new system. Not everyone is a computer expert, some people need to have their hands held, and Microsoft is not helping them here.

With craziness such as the new Windows “Charms” menu that you have to activate by moving the mouse to the top left corner of the screen, Microsoft has made Windows even less usable and less intuitive, befuddling the minds of many of its users even further.

The poorly placed charms menu has made it difficult for users to even find the hidden “shut down” button on Windows 8 systems. You would think the millions of dollars MSFT spends on usability and quality assurance would have made this a non-issue, but nope!

Don’t like the interface on your Linux system and prefer more traditional taskbars and windows? You are free to choose from hundreds of different Linux distributions, with some coming preinstalled with specialized tools and software, with much more being available for free from the developers. Many free and open source software programs such as GIMP and LibreOffice replicate and even beat many of the commercial software programs used on Windows, such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office- while not needing to be constantly rebooted and patched like Windows systems.

Sadly, most users will be unwilling to make the change to a Linux desktop despite its advantages due to ingrained habits and fears, and also the barrier of technical incompetence and illiteracy. Fortunately, Linux systems will continue to offer a clear and secure alternative to the zombie that Windows has become. Everything that requires some sense of stability and reliability relies on it (seriously, would you want missile defense systems and nuclear submarines to mess up due to a “blue screen of death”.) Sure, Linux isn’t perfect, or perfect for everyone’s needs, but in many ways it makes up for where Windows slacks off.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of my grievances with Redmond’s operating systems, however it is a good start. I will be sure to “name and shame” some of the additional technical inferiorities of these systems as soon as I manage to muster some more patience.

Megabits vs. Megabytes: What’s In A Name?

Internet service providers, network equipment manufacturers and almost any other company that deals in bandwidth and connectivity will need to measure the maximum throughput of their network and equipment.

There is much confusion in regard to Megabits, which are typically used to measure network speed (abbreviated Mb) and how they relate to Megabytes (abbreviated to MB).

The cold truth is, the marketing departments of companies like Comcast, Verizon, T-Mobile or Cisco have found that consumers are more likely to be swayed with larger numbers in advertisements and advertised speeds. That’s why they measure (and advertise) their network speed in what I would call relatively inflated Megabits.

This is an inflated way of measurement, because typically the devices and computers we use measure files in Megabytes (MB). So there is a huge misconception from consumers that end up believing that megabits are the same as megabytes.

They’re not. There are 8 Megabits in 1 Megabyte. Big difference.

Let’s take this into account with Comcast’s new “Blast” internet packages they recently began offering. Their reported “top” speed is 105 Mbps (Megabits per second.)

Since virtually all files are measured in kilo / mega bytes you really are better off just dividing your connection speed by 8 (or multiplying the time it would take to download by 8)

So that 105Mbit connection is actually reall 13.125 Megabytes per second. Not a bad connection at all, but I wanted to dispell this rather large misconception as far as internet speed goes.

Another example we can apply this to is computer hardware. The Serial ATA specification is a group of standards that allow hard drives made from different manufacturers and devices to comply to the same standards to allow for compatibility and interoperability.

The newest specification provides for a maximum data transfer rate of 6 Gigabits per second.

This is actually 750 MB/s.

So what can we take away from this? Manufacturers like to inflate numbers of speeds to impress / woo consumers.

This is akin to measuring the speed of a car in centimeters per hour instead of miles per hour. It grossly inflates numbers, and an uninformed public will eat those claims right from the spoon of the marketing executives. Now you know.


Escaping The Online “Filter Bubble”

The topic of online “filter bubbles” has made a resurgence in light of the recent outrage over Facebook conducting psychological / behavioral experiments on some of its users in partnership with academia. Massively centralized online services whose business models often encroach on user privacy have once again come under the bright spotlight of public debate- with much outrage being shown, but little action taken to stop this behavior.

I recently came across Eli Pariser’s informative TED talk regarding online “filter bubbles”. Essentially, these “filter bubbles” are part of a growing trend of personalization that search engines and social networking sites are using to customize content to their users interests. By doing so, opposing viewpoints to political and controversial issues are often shut out.

For example, if Google has determined you to be sympathetic to liberal issues, you might get news results from MSNBC or The Huffington Post, while somebody on the opposite end of the spectrum would be delivered sources such as Fox News or Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze”.

On hot-button issues, this can be extremely polarizing.

The free flow of ideas and information is imperative to a democratic society- and these trends represent something that could be a very slippery slope. Instead of encouraging rational debate and discussion, this only serves to reinforce already ingrained opinions and dogma- they’re just telling people what they know they want to hear.

Take a look at his talk below- the salient points he raises made me want to switch away from using Google in addition to the other major search engines in favor of more privacy-focused alternatives.

Creepy? Yes. But this behavior crosses the line as something that’s just downright destructive. Despite its popularity, nobody is pointing a gun to your head and forcing you to use Google, or its rather distant second place rival, Bing. I recommend using DuckDuckGo or StartPage for a more privacy-focused alternative that doesn’t try and play mind games with you.

Video below:

Rest In Peace, Windows XP

Today marks an end of an era. After over 11 years of service, Microsoft is finally “pulling the plug” on its popular Windows XP Operating System, which still runs on about 28% of computers.

The past few days have seen many of my clients making plans with me to upgrade, as continuing to use outdated and vulnerable software can put you or your business at risk of viruses or other issues.  I advise anyone still using Windows XP to make plans to upgrade to either a new system or upgrade to a more modern version of Windows to avoid the consequences of XP’s demise.