Archive for category Tech

Cutting the (Cable) Cord Part 2: How I Did It

In Part 1, I described your options for cutting the cable cord. Here I disclose which option I went for and how I have it all set up.

But first, a couple of minor changes and additions to Part 1:

I’m sorry if you went to Part 1 looking for your options on how to cut a (literal) umbilical cord, post-childbirth. . . . Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sorry. That post is way fucking cooler.

On a more serious note, there is one piece of equipment that I forgot to list in Part 1: An HDMI Adapter for your handheld devices and Tablets. It’s a last resort in case you are unable to stream to TV and absolutely must have it on your big screen TV. I’ve included it here.

Let me list a few of the goals I used to help me focus on getting this all right:

  1. I wanted a “whole home” solution, with the least amount of inconvenience. I wanted to eliminate or minimize switching TV inputs, and I wanted to access all entertainment in the same way on both TV’s in the house. Accessing the entertainment on devices was actually secondary for us.
  2. I wanted to minimize or eliminate the number of shows lost.
  3. I wanted to keep costs down by using equipment that I had on-hand where I could. I’ll have a cost list later in this post.

Here’s what it all looks like. Click here or click on the picture to see it Full Size:

GUACPostPart2

 

The List

Here’s what I eventually needed to pull this all off. Descriptions and links for these can be found in Part 1. Here I will be talking more about setup and the cost for each in rounded numbers (we’re not launching a rocket to fucking Mars here). You can also take a look at the Visio Diagram (above) I’ve provided:

  1. [Living Room] HDTV Antenna (Cost – $90.00) – You’ll have to experiment with the best location. Outdoors is ideal, the higher you can mount it the better, and line of sight to your most important stations is how you’ll want to aim it. This will take some experimentation. I had to mount mine indoors, which wasn’t ideal, but that’s the down side to renting. You’ll need to read your TV’s manual to figure out how to scan for stations.
  2. [Living Room] Coax Amplifier and Splitter (Cost – $50.00) – Why I needed this was due to an issue I encountered while implementing #3:
  3. [Living Room] Tablo PVR (Cost – $229.00) – OK, if you are going to detract from what I’ve done, this will probably be it. The Tablo (otherwise known as “TabloTV”) is what we’d call in the IT field a “Version 1.0 Product”. Not only is it Version 1.0 (new to market), but the phrase “Version 1.0 Product” is a euphemism in Software Marketing that means, “Please don’t expect all this shit to work.” If you’re ever in a meeting with a software vendor, that’s a red flag. I’m not saying it’s a dealbreaker, but it’s a red flag. Anyway, Tablo Support sucks, and their Android App crashes incessantly. However, it has three things going for it. (1) The PVR is flawless, (2) its Roku App is intuitive and enables live viewing of the HDTV Antenna in multiple rooms and (3) its iPad app is solid. To their credit, TabloTV sent a recent update (all I had to do was update after a prompt), and it seems more solid now. One issue I ran into was that the TabloTV app on Roku is 4-10 minutes behind Live TV. So I bought a Coax/Amp Splitter to go to both the RF input on the TV and one into the Tablo to record shows. To watch Live TV in the bedroom we have to use the Tablo App, and I guess we’ll get those important news updates 4-10 minutes later than everyone else.
  4. [Living Room] 300GB Sony USB Drive (Had on-hand) – USB Drive attached to the Tablo Set-Top box, for recorded shows. I know that isn’t much space, but I’ll scale up when I have to. We purge it all the time. 40GB is taken up by the Channel information, the rest is for shows. I read somewhere that an hour HD show takes up about 6GB. No idea if that’s true. Never checked. Running out of room on your DVR is quite the First World Problem so . . . zero fucks given really.
  5. Cheaper ISP (Cost – $50.00 a month) – I went with a more local-area Internet Provider. $125 Cheaper than Comcast.
  6. [Living Room] Roku 3 (Cost – $100.00) – Pretty much the most important part of Cutting the Cord. This brings it all together. This provides for Internet-based TV and is very convenient.
  7. [Living Room] Chromecast (Had on-hand) – Internet-based TV/Entertainment provided by Google but there are a lot of Chromecast-enabled Apps, even on the iPad/iPhone.
  8. [Living Room] Wireless Extender (Had on-hand) – Extends internet access to the Tablo.
  9. [Bedroom] Roku 2 (Had on-hand) – Brings everything together onto the Bedroom TV. Like I said, through the Tablo App we can watch Live TV or Recorded TV in the Bedroom. Everything else we can get through the Roku Apps, just like in the Living Room.
  10. [Living Room] iPad HDMI Adapter (Had on-hand)  - Last resort in case we must have streaming apps on the TV that can’t be done through the previous methods.

Cost Breakdown

I am not including a Cost Breakdown for OTT Services like Amazon Prime Movies, Netflix, and so on since we were already paying for them previous to Cutting the Cable cord, therefore they had no influence on “Money saved”. I also assessed the cost of anything I had on-hand as $0.00. I was also lucky enough to get an $86.00 rebate from Comcast:

Cost Numbers for Cutting the Cord

Cost Numbers for Cutting the Cord

 

As you can see, after about 3 months, it’s money in our pocket, a savings of $125.00 a month.

I recommend highly you do the numbers before jumping into this. If it’s going to take 10 years to get your return, then perhaps this isn’t for you.

Hope this helps.

 

 

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Cutting the Cord Part 1: Your Options

I recently joined the ranks of an exclusive club (well, sort of exclusive) and officially “cut the cord”. If you are unaware of the concept, cutting the cord means you get the satisfaction of telling your overpriced Cable provider to “go fuck yourself” and save some substantial cash in the process.

I won’t go into the details of the nightmare that Comcast . . . yeah, you saw that coming didn’t you . . . has been over the past month, but when we moved to our new apartment we “upgraded” to the XFinity X1. We were told about how awesome the new X1 “platform” is and that it would be $15 cheaper a month.

It was bullshit on both accounts and I should have known better. I probably don’t have to tell you how Comcast doesn’t really give a fuck about you, and that when I called them to disconnect, they didn’t even try to keep me as a customer. It is my hope that more people join the ranks of cord-cutting and will force Comcast and companies like it to stop screwing people with unnecessary and exorbitant fees and crappy service.

Here, in Part 1, I will list the options I found for cord-cutting. In Part 2, I will describe what I went with, and I plan on having cost numbers, a parts list, and hell . . . fuck it, I’ll even make you a Visio diagram.

As a bit of a teaser, by cutting the cord, we are saving $125.00 a month. After the initial expense, doing this pays for itself in about three months. After that, it’s money in Bryan‘s pocket.

So first, some thoughts and advice, having gone through the process:

  1. There will be an initial cost of implementation, and you’ll need to do the numbers. Do an ROI and see if it works for you. Cord-cutting isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have the hardware on-hand, you’re looking at about $350.00-$400.00 as a one-time capital expense for this project. You’ll need to think about the initial investment and long-term monthly costs, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, the cost of Movie rentals, etc. If you already have those “Over the Top” services (OTT, it’s a thing, trust me), then you’re ahead of the game, as it were.
  2. Everyone in the household will need to have patience and may need to make small sacrifices. Some of this will be trial and error mixing and matching the most optimal setup. My wife was phenomenal through this as I had to try a few different setups to get everything right.
  3. You’ll need some technical knowledge. Wi-Fi in particular is crucial to pulling this off.
  4. You may not be able to get all of your shows, or at least you may have to watch them after everyone else has. If you’re the type who circle-jerks over Game of Thrones during its real-time Twitter feed (not even sure people actually do that), then maybe cord-cutting isn’t for you. See #2, above.
  5. Finding a DVR/PVR (if you need one) will be a big challenge.
  6. Streaming the same shows and entertainment in all rooms (called a “Whole Home” solution, in cord-cutting parlance) will also be a challenge.
  7. You will still have to pay an ISP for internet access.

The list of options that follows is by no means an all-inclusive list. Everything depends on what shows you watch, what shows you may be willing to give up, your technical knowledge, and how to get everything all through the house. I also tried to keep costs down by using equipment I had on-hand (more on that in Part 2).

My disclaimer here is that there are a myriad of ways to do this and I am always open to ideas. Just remember when you start typing your smart-ass, telecom-nerd comments, I don’t claim to be an expert at this shit. I am sure in retrospect I could have saved myself $100 or so by being more resourceful, but isn’t that the way all home improvement projects are?

Live TV

  1. Downgrade to Basic Cable and Decline to Use their [Shitty] Equipment- It’s an option. Where cable companies get you is by charging you a monthly fee for “use of the equipment”. You don’t have to use their equipment. You can get your own, as you’ll see in the next section.
  2. Use an HDTV Antenna – This is what I would call the “balls deep” option for this section because other than the one-time cost of the Antenna, these stations are free. These HD stations are in local areas, but your success in using them will depend on your location and your line of sight to the Station Signals. You can check channel availability for your location here. This gets you the mainstream channels, such as ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. And for some reason, no matter how you tune the HD Antenna for optimal reception, at least 5 Christian Evangelist stations. Options: AntennasDirect Clearstream 2V, Mohu Leaf. I went with the Clearstream; as to why and how, I will disclose in Part 2.

DVRs/PVRs

This may prove to be your biggest challenge, and possibly the most expensive. Cable companies and the telecom industry make it difficult to have an open market for DVR’s (ownership of content, limiting options to consumers so the cable companies can charge for their equipment, and so on). The challenge I found was not in finding a DVR. The challenge was finding a DVR with an RF jack that can also be accessible throughout the entire house.

  1. TiVo – Not a bad option, but for a whole-home solution, you’ll need multiple TiVo devices and there’s a monthly fee (last I checked $14.99).
  2. Other PVR/DVR Set-Top Boxes - Something like the Mediasonic HomeWorx line of xVR’s (can’t vouch for it and I’m not including a link because xVR’s have a tendency of going defunct). You’re looking for an RF interface. But, getting recorded shows throughout the house is the challenge with these.
  3. Tablo – I will be talking about this one in more detail in Part 2. Despite it’s flaws, it has RF support, PVR, and the whole home solution all wrapped up in one Set-top box.

Whole Home Solutions

Next is getting everything throughout the house, and the solutions here are diverse. Many of which offer the ability to stream to any device. I will tell you that having a Smart TV will help you tremendously here. I don’t have any Smart TV’s, so I had to use another solution.

  1. Tablo (see above).
  2. Slingbox – Great option but does not include an xVR or RF interface.
  3. HDHomeRun – Also, great solution but does not include an xVR and requires an ethernet connection (I will disclose my work around to this in Part 2).
  4. Roku – IPTV through your WiFi (Roku 3 now includes an ethernet connection).
  5. Chromecast – IPTV for Chromecast-supported apps.
  6. AppleTV – Apple’s IPTV product.

Other Equipment You May Need

  1. WiFi Extender with Ethernet Connections – Many of the whole-house solutions listed above require an ethernet connection. My house isn’t fucking wired for ethernet, so it’s frustrating when I want to bring everything centralized into the main living room and these asshole set-top box makers (as above) require an ethernet connection, like a bunch of dicks. I suppose I don’t have to centralize it that way, however the HDTV Antenna had to be placed in the living room and I wanted to bring everything in there.
  2. Multimedia over CoAx (MoCA) – In retrospect, I probably should have used this.
  3. Coax Amplifier/Splitter – Due to a complication with the Tablo (more on that in Part 2), I had to split the signal to have seamless Live TV. My advice is to spend the money on the amplifier. Don’t ever just split the signal.
  4. USB Drive – Depending on the xVR you buy, you may need to purchase USB storage for the recorded programs.

TV/Movie Replacement Services (OTT Services, previously mentioned)

This is where you’ll have to be careful. These costs can get away from you. Again, the list here is not all-inclusive, and I am sure there are some out there of which I should be taking advantage. I’ll just be listing the major players here. I did not give a description for most of these because if you don’t know about them, then you have been living under a rock, most likely, or Amish, in which case, you won’t be reading this anyway . . . Sorry, to all my Amish readers:

  1. Netflix
  2. Amazon Instant Video – Your Amazon Prime membership will come in handy here.
  3. Google Play Music/Movies/TV
  4. Hulu Plus – Fine Comcast, I’ll throw you a bone.
  5. Pandora Internet Radio
  6. Plex - Access your music/photos/movies anywhere.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when I detail what I chose from the above and I’ll give you some tips based on what I did to make it all work.

 

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NERD ALERT: The “Cloud Computing” Phenomenon

Cloud ComputingThis one goes out to all my geek peeps. Word to your mutha.

For about a year now,  I have been hearing/reading the phrase “Cloud Computing” shoved down my throat flashed unashamedly from top vendors everywhere: Microsoft, Novell, VMWare (particularly VMWare) and Cisco. As a matter of fact, it’s hailed as nothing less than revolutionary, kind of like, as John Stewart has humorously referred to as, vendors “talking about it while hiding an erection.”

Let me give you the best definition I have seen of Cloud Computing, and believe me, I’ve seen a bunch:

Cloud Computing – An approach to computing that leverages the efficient pooling of on-demand, self-managed virtual infrastructure consumed as a service.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but I have really struggled with this Cloud Computing thing since I first grasped the concept.

The struggle for me is that I didn’t think it was a big deal (I still don’t . . . sort of). I kept asking myself, “Am I missing something?” Cloud Computing, to me, looks conspicuously like a fancy-schmancy phrase for virtualization, which is nothing new. I have been using virtualization professionally for a little over 4 years now. So, I just don’t understand the hype.

I am not alone in this. Most of my peers have felt the same way, and they just wave their hand at it and affectionately tell me to STFU about it and move on. But, me being the analytical type, I have been on this quest, until recently, to find out what the hype is about Cloud Computing.

In my profession I go to a lot of vendor events. I run into company insiders all the time. I have asked Vendor Engineers (who shall remain anonymous) to give me an example of Cloud Computing. Goes like this:

ME: Can you give me an example of Cloud Computing that makes it different from Virtualization?
Vendor Dude: Sure. You can pool resources together for instant scalability.
ME: That’s virtualization. I’m asking about cloud computing.
Vendor Dude: (looking perplexed) OK. You can utilize your SAN for centralized storage of Virtual Machines for ease of provisioning.
ME: That’s virtualization. I’m asking about cloud computing. What makes cloud computing different?
Vendor Dude: Hmm. Not sure what you mean.

/facepalm

I recently came to a revelation about it at the most recent VMWare Forum I attended.

I’m not fucking missing anything.

Cloud Computing = Virtualization

Now, that isn’t completely true when I say that; I did find a minor difference, but not enough that it isn’t going out on a limb to say that.

Now that we’ve established that, here’s my take on Cloud Computing:

  1. I know I’m bragging when I say this, but the reason why I didn’t see the significance is that I am ahead of the curve in my career. Those of us who have been doing virtualization for a while, have already been using cloud computing for a long time now. Hence we’re so close to it we don’t see the difference.
  2. Cloud Computing is mostly a mind shift in how IT is designed, not a new technology. Most of the technology behind cloud computing has been around for years.
  3. “Cloud Computing” is also a marketing term for CXO’s who don’t understand virtualization. I think vendors got so sick and tired of trying to explain virtualization, they had to change their marketing approach. We all know how much CXO’s love cheesy catch phrases. Think about it, have you ever tried to explain enterprise virtualization to someone who doesn’t even understand the basics of how an Operating System works? But put it into a cheesy catch phrase like “Cloud Computing”, make the symbol for it look like the internet, and talk about the business benefits like, “Instant scalability without additional cost” and they’ll start listening.

But, there are a couple of subtle differences between virtualization and the ultimate goal of cloud computing, meaning virtualization as a means to an end to bring about:

  1. A change in how an “Operating System” will function. It is my prediction that in 5-8 years, what we currently know as an Operating System will be vastly different. OS’s will be far more special purpose, suited to the Application that runs on it. This is already accomplished through pre-built Virtual Machines, but we’re going to see that become far more streamlined. Or, applications will run as detached from an underlying operating system.
  2. User self-management. Currently, setup is done by admins at the request of users. We get a list of all the shit the users need called a “User Requirement Document”, we then go into some dark room and build the infrastructure accordingly. Instead, with cloud computing, we’ll pre-build everything and have it “lie dormant” so to speak on a set of virtualized servers somewhere (hint-hint “the cloud”), provide the users with a web-based interface, and they’ll tick off check boxes of the features they want, click submit, and the cloud will enable these features on the back-end in an automated fashion. That’s the software-as-a-service (SaaS) part of Cloud Computing.
  3. Further ease of large scale deployments. This is more of an evolutionary concept than the previous two points. This is already accomplished through a bunch of pretty technical concepts like primary data deduplication on the SAN, and automated deployment tools. I have seen enterprise environments that can roll out 500 virtualized desktops and the user accounts that go with them in 8 minutes. This will become a lot more mainstream as the technologies mature.

So there you go, you now have some cool catch phrases and acronyms with which you can impress people at parties. Don’t ever say that GUAC isn’t informative. :)

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Bryan’s One Word Game Review: Bioshock 2

Meh.

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More Than Just Twitter

A female CEO of a company twittered that she was having a miscarriage during a board meeting. I am a man who thinks nothing is sacred but many thought that this went too far and… well… that nothing is sacred. So be it. What do we do about it? Simple. We create offshoots of Twitter to accommodate all occurrences. Yes, even miscarriages. Think of Twitter as the country and the following as states (of being?) within said country. Don’t expect 50.

The first state is Shitter and is for the announcement of bodily functions (even miscarriages). Here you can boast of notable bowel movements (of unusual weight, shape, or size), urination lasting for more than one minute and five seconds and anything else that has been known to leak or propel itself out of the body. I know what you’re thinking and the answer is, yes. Vomiting is included. As well as menstruation. But let’s not get mesmerized by volume, weight, and duration. Don’t forget color. If something is normally a certain color or hue and comes out totally off color, you’ll need an outlet for sharing this news. Say your urine is normally a boring pale yellow but one day welcomes you with a day-brightening lime green Gatorade color, you’ll need to share this with the world and post it on Shitter. Mind you, when it clears up, no one cares about that. This is only for if you continue to piss a plutonium based discharge.

Shitter also encompasses other aspects of humanity. Other things more than suitable to be listed on Shitter are: any information regarding a reality TV show, any information concerning Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, news of a United States financial institution, anything Barrack Obama says (or does). Speaking of Barry we might as well include anything that hyena Oprah Winfrey says, and last but not least something like hot tips about Jennifer Aniston, and the co star she’s doing from her latest film. Unless of course it’s a female co star, then it should be listed on Twatter and not Shitter. IF she doesn’t “go all the way” with a woman, then it’s listed on just Titter and not Twatter.

The other states and examples of the information they should contain are as follows (in no particular order):

Bitter: An outlet for the gay community, women’s movements (but not bowel), Democrats, any of my ex-girlfriends, fans of the hit show The View and cast members of said hit show.

Bit ‘er: If you have a woman into rough sex or you are a woman into rough sex.

Critter: Pest control, small penises, scary looking children.

Clitter: for women who have an unusually large erogenous zone at the top of the vagina. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that you think it’s bigger than more or a little plump. I’m saying that if it looks like she has a pink baby carrot between her legs, we’ll need to know and on Clitter is where we’ll look.

Did ‘er: a place to list the names of all the girls you’ve banged and for West Virginian males to chat about their sisters, daughters, and mothers. Also, for Bill Clinton to list information on his current roomy Jewish intern.

Fitter: Anyone who weighs less than Kirstie Alley. 93% percent of NFL players qualify to use this service.

Flitter: a site for gay men.

Git ‘er: for West Virginian males with stubborn sisters, daughters, and mothers.

Hitter: The Violent Sports Talk Network. Messages posted about soccer are punishable by death.

Itter: Here is a place for the linguistically challenged who cannot properly pronounce a B through Z plus the –itter.

Jitter: for guys who think they cum an exorbitant amount.

Kid ‘er: a place to list diplomatic responses to questions she asks like: Do I look fat in this dress? Is my sister hotter than me? If you weren’t dating me would you do my friends?

Litter: Information on people we should throw away. Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Chris Brown, Jon and Kate from “Jon and Kate Plus Eight”… in fact we could probably get rid of three of those kids and no one would care. Then they’ll probably launch the new hit show “And Then There Were Five” so the dipshits who watched the original show would have something to look forward to. With that in mind, let’s throw the eight out as well.

Mit ‘er: a place for guys in the South to state where they hooked up with their current significant other: “I mit ‘er at the Chuck and Puke on Route 11.”

Nitter: for those whose balls are made of yarn.

Pitter: birth announcements, as in pitter patter (of little feet).

Quitter: for the pussies who stopped drinking and/or smoking because their doctors told them it was no good for them and/or their wives or husbands wanted them to stop.

Sitter: a place for guys to share fantasies about the college girl who watches their kids. If a woman has such fantasies, please use Twatter.

Spitter: Now, one might think that those who choose NOT to finish a certain job (hint: the wind does this) would be listed in Quitter. But I don’t think so. The job IS complete but the doer of the action (aka the subject of the sentence) chooses to hock out the creamy prize like it’s a loogie during flu season.

Don’t confuse this with those women who complain: “I’m not putting that in my mouth. You PEE from it!” Yes, sue me. I pee from it. But you pee from your lovely little pink Venus Fly Trap too but yet I still find the courage to lick it like the wallpaper at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. Don’t I? Yes. I’m asking you to sing karaoke with a flesh microphone and you’re asking me to stick my face into a large piping hot pepperoni pizza. But don’t get me started on this.

Vitter: the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Fitter” board

Yidder: Jews only. Which is to say everyone who works in the entertainment and or publishing industry… you’re free to post here.

Zitter: self explanatory, for those with a bad complexion and also the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Sitter” board.

Racist: for all white people. No buts and no excuses. If you are white, you’re guilty as charged. You’re a racist. Get used to it.

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Google and Apple and Schmidt, Oh My

google-apple-schmidtThere was an interesting article by Tom Krazit on Webware today.  In it, he directly addresses the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, and calls for Schmidt to step down from his seat on the Board of Directors at Apple.  While some in the comments became hung up on the delivery of the message, found an opportunity to take a shot a Microsoft, or talked about the Google conspiracy of stealing all of your secrets, I read more into the meat of the article.

The quick background as to why Krazit wrote his article is because Google announced today that they will be releasing a new product called “Google Chrome OS” next year.  The OS, or Operating System, is the “root” of what runs your computer’s software, modern mobile phone, GPS and just about anything else.  In the PC world, there are several, most notable are Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX and many flavors of Linux.  Google already had a web browser, released last year, called Chrome.  The big deal here is Chrome OS is it’s own operating system that sits on a Linux kernel.  The main focus will be accessing the web, and that’s it.  Because it cuts out the idea of native applications (apps that are installed locally and thus take up system resources), this OS can be stripped down to the bare minimum, and be extremely fast and versatile.  Anything that it runs will be web-based, which means anything that you can access now online will run on it.  Google explained further that it will be available, initially, on netbook computers starting in the latter half of 2010, a year from now.  You have to start some place, right?  Oh wait, they already did!  Google acquired the mobile phone software company, Android, back in 2005, and created (along with the Open Handset Alliance), the Android mobile phone operating system, which was installed on mobile phones starting last year.  People who use it like the phones, although the hardware itself gets more of the negative press.

We’re in a world of technological change, and that change is happening faster than anything we have ever seen before.  It’s not only because of the big companies and their big software.  A lot of the driving force now is from the small developers.  Apple opened the iPhone/Touch App Store to any developer, and allowing those developers to set the prices.  At last press release in June, Apple stated there were over 50,000 apps in their Apps Store.  Research In Motion, the manufacturer of the Blackberry phones, created their own App World with the same concept back in April, and already has over 2000 applications.  The Android Market boasts the same for Android users.
Another aspect of this drive is something called “open source”.  Basically what it means is the code is free to the public to alter, update, fix and enhance, collaboratively.  This has been around for a long time, and is what the Linux OS and it’s many flavors is based on.  There have been many open source applications available for essentially all platforms, and most of that software is free.  Because it’s run by the community, the support is usually excellent and fast, if you know where to look.  Never is the support for an open source program outsourced to someone not speaking your language who has no knowledge of what you’re talking about, and is simply running through a prepared script.  Well Google stated that Chrome OS will be released to open source later this year.  The myriad of “new eyes” will optimize the code, make it more secure, and concentrate on web coding standards that the likes of Internet Explorer abandoned and manipulated for their own purpose in years past.

Innovation will be the end result of all of this.  Innovation driven by independent coders.  They will continue to see the opportunity to build a business for themselves, take part in something they love doing, or take pride in making something better for others.  Innovation driven by competition.  Microsoft, the behemoth, has been slapped around in the browser wars lately because faster, less bloated, and more standards-compliant browsers have been released by Mozilla (Firefox), Apple (Safari), Google (Chrome) and Opera.  It has forced Microsoft to go back and do things differently.  Internet Explorer 8, released in March, is faster and more standards-compliant than it has been in a very long time.  (Still not good enough for me to go back to, but that’s a digression.)  That’s good.  Apple and Linux OS releases have also hurt Microsoft’s Windows foothold and gained ground in the install base.  No small feat considering the market share Windows has enjoyed.  Granted it’s partly because of Apple’s rebirth, Linux becoming more mainstream-friendly, and in no small part Vista’s horrendous launch and subsequent 2-1/2 year marketing damage control efforts.  We’re hearing from many locations that the new version, Windows 7, is better than all previous releases.  That’s good.
If they push each other, if the coders push on each other, and consumers push via our money… we win, as innovation happens.

Getting back to Mr. Krazit’s call for Schmidt to step down from Apple’s board, I agree.  Government regulators have come down ridiculously hard on Microsoft regarding their anti-trust practices.  Was Microsoft practicing hard-handed anti-trust?  Of course they were.  But some regulators have taken it far enough to stifle some of Microsoft’s innovation, and in some areas it seems Microsoft is playing catch-up.  Regulators have started paying more attention to Google because of their increasing size and scope.  If the CEO of Google, who is now in the business of application development as well as operating system development, is also on a Apple’s Board, who also develops applications and operating systems, these regulators will pay even more attention.  More attention may lead to government intervention, anti-trust issues, extensive costs, and less innovation.

I use products from Microsoft, Linux, Apple and Google every day.  I do love them, but I want them to be better.  I’m selfish.  I want innovation.

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Online Storage with Dropbox

I have a few computers at home. Some are for practical use, others I’ve peiced together for experimental gadgetry. They’re generally used by different people (my wife, my daughter and myself). Right now I don’t have a common shared storage location among all of the computers, and my main computer (which doubles as my gaming rig) is where most of the working data resides. Yes I back up that data several ways, so I don’t need that lecture. What I’m talking about is if I want to work on a file that resides on the main system, and my lovely wife is either updating her blog, recording her podcast, or most likely enthralled in Facebook or Twitter, I can’t easily get to that file to work on it unless I kick her off of that system. If I do, I can copy the file(s) to a portable drive and sneaker it over to my laptop, or I can email it to myself and get it on the laptop, or, or, or. Get it? It’s kind of clunky.

So what I started looking for is some storage in the cloud. The cloud? That’s the Internets, baby! A bunch of companies have been offering free or paid storage where you can upload your files to be able to retrieve from anywhere. People have been wanting these things for a long time, and years ago there was even a plugin that worked with the large amount of space that Google offers for GMail users. It allowed you to store files essentially in email messages. Microsoft has SkyDrive for their Hotmail and Live users. They offer 25 gigabytes of storage, which is huge, but in playing with it, it seemed kind of slow, and if you want to share anything, that person has to have a Hotmail/Live account. AOL (remember them?) had Xdrive, but it was closed down last year. Box offers three tiers of storage and collaboration, but the lowest tier (5 GB of storage) is $7.95 per month. There’s also ElephantDrive (aimed at small businesses and online backup), Mozy (again, focusing on online backup), and FlipDrive (online backup and other services), which all offer their services for a monthly charge (in fairness, Mozy does have a free 2GB plan, though). There are more, but are you seeing a pattern here? I haven’t tried them all, but I’ve done some reading on the various costs and offerings by a bunch of these services. I just wanted something that would let me easily access files from any computer that I may be on… something simple, not a full-service backup and life-altering solution, and free!

dropbox_logoThen I was listening to my friend Paul Muller’s podcast, Caffination, and he mentioned that he’s loving the online storage Dropbox. I looked into it myself and found that it was exactly what I was seeking. They offer 2GB of storage right off the bat, for free. Cool thing is, if you refer someone else, you AND the person signing up gets an additional 250MB of space. So yeah, if you click my referral here, you and I both get more space for free. There’s a few ways of accessing the files, with the simplest being that you go to the website and sign in. Your folders and files are there right on the screen. Folders? Yes, you can create folders to organize your files just like you can on your computer. From the website you upload files from your computer. Need to share one of those files? Copy any of them to the supplied “Public” folder, and it will create an individual web address that you can send to others, and the file will open right in their browser. Damn convenient feature.
Keeping with sharing, you can share any of the folders that you create, simply by clicking on a dropdown ‘Share Folder’ link. You then enter email addresses of other Dropbox users, thus forming a collaboration tool. Need a backup .zip file of the contents of one of the folders? It’s there with a click. What else? You can also undelete files by showing any deleted files in a folder. There is also what amounts to an audit trail called “Recent Events”, which will list what events occurred, when, on what computers, and by whom. Convenient when you want to know who to blame for adding “Buy a Vespa” to your BucketList.doc file.

There is a “Photos” folder, where, if you upload a bunch of pics of your kids, dogs, alpaca fur collection or places you’ve visited in your own home, you can create a view of the pics right from the site. Next time you visit Granny, log in with her computer that she’s been pirating all those movies and music with, and proudly show her all of your pretend girlfriends (Jessica and Angelina will love you for it).

So that’s what the web site has. But one of the most powerful aspects of the service is the synchronization tool. You download an executable (14MB in size for the Windows version) that you install on your computer. The download is available for Windows, Linux or Mac systems. During setup, you fill in your account credentials, and where you want the shared folder to appear on your local hard drive. Once installed, anything in this folder is synchronized with your online Dropbox. They appear just like any other folder on your hard drive, with an exception: you have the ability from your computer’s file manager to share, create new folders, move files around, etc. just like a local file location. That is exactly what it has become, a local file location on your own hard drive. When you installed this utility on your computer, your files synchronized locally, direct from the Dropbox servers. The icons on your local view have a check mark placed over them when they are fully synchronized. So my collection of political figures throughout the ages that I’m Photoshopping myself in with? I can now do that from my gaming rig, my laptop or the kids’ computer, without interrupting my wife from seeing the latest rumors on Justin Timberlake.

If you’re a real tech-head looking to get the most out of a service like this and do some crazy stuff, there’s a wiki with some awesome tips and tricks. They also plan on more enhancements in the future, with an iPhone app, performance improvements and more. If you find it a great service, and need more space than the free account offers you, then they have two paid tiers of 50GB and 100GB, with both monthly and discounted yearly costs.

Now, not all is perfect, and I’d be remiss if I did not include my negative experience with Dropbox. My problem was unique to my setup, but the online community was there to help me fix it. My laptop is running Vista, and I have a “Standard” user account that I use for everything, which is the more secure way of running anything in Windows, instead of using an “Administrator” account. The Dropbox installation hiccuped because of Vista’s permissions settings, and there is not graceful way of getting out of it, getting not-so-happy “Access is Denied” messages. You have to install as the Administrator (like most Windows software), but because of other folders being involved, Vista limited access to that location, even with specific user permissions being set in Vista for the folders. I went to the Dropbox forum boards, searched existing issues,  and posted about my problem. From responses, it appeared that Dropbox developers were not aware of the problem, but other users experienced the similar issue. One user stepped up and offered the workaround, and it worked for me, and I haven’t looked back. To my knowledge this only happens with Vista, and only if you’re running from an account that is NOT an administrator on the system.

The convenience is there, it’s free (unless you need some serious online space), and it offers the simplicity of file synchronization without the need of the overhead complexity of a full backup solution. I’m happy with this solution.

Are you using another solution? Let me know. Have the same Vista setup and want to know where the exact solution is? Let me know, I’ll point you there. What’s that? You want the link so you and I can get that extra 250MB of space? Well, here it is.

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Apple and the State of Biased Tech

OK, here’s the background on yours truly.  I’ve never owned an Apple product, until the iPod 3rd Generation (first non-Mini with the click-wheel).  Now we (my wife and I) have a total of three Apple products.  I have my iPod (and use it every day for my podcast and audiobook absorbtion on my commute), an iPhone 3G as my phone, and my wife has an iPod Nano.  I’ve always owned, and built, PC’s based on Windows.  In my years working in IT (over 20 now), I’ve never come across an Apple computer that I had to support.
apple-iphone-3g-sSo as can be assessed by this little bit of information, I’m in no way an Apple fanboy.  My iPod changed the way I ingest media, as I no longer carry CDs in my car, I listen to a bunch of podcasts and also listen to audiobooks on my 45+ minute commute each way.  All of our CDs are boxed up in the basement.  My daughter sleeps to music every night, and until recently listened to “kids music” on CD… then she became a Beatles fan.  We have The Beatles: One, and she asked for the CD to listen to… it took 20 minutes to find the damn thing!  I almost considered buying her an iPod, but her radio doesn’t have an input jack… but I digress.
My iPod changed the way I listen to music, and more importantly to me, how I get entertainment in my car.  My iPhone changed the way I use my phone.  Admittedly it’s the first true “smart phone” I’ve ever had.  I played with a few PDA’s in the past, but they lost their luster for me quickly.  They were either clunky, feature-poor, or just not a good user experience.  My iPhone is the first device where I have my phone, email, gaming and the full Internet on one device, right in my pocket.  Never have bathroom breaks been more enjoyable!  This is the second generation iPhone, not the original one.  I wish I were an early adopter, but to be honest, I can’t afford to be one.  Instead, I rely heavily on unbiased consumer opinions moreso than the mainstream tech “pundits”.  I consider myself a smart consumer as a result, mostly out of necessity… I personally can’t drop hundreds of dollars on an unproven piece of tech, no matter how awesome it may seem, and more to the point, how much I may wanty.  For me, it was just good timing all around.  My three-plus year old Motorola Razr was literally falling apart (one of the two hinges had a piece missing, so I had to be careful with the flip of my flip phone), I was “eligible for an upgrade” (one of the biggest pieces of bullshit anti-consumerism out there, but I won’t talk about it right now), and the iPhone 3G was just released.  I was interested in the original iPhone, but it wasn’t until the advent of the iTunes “App Store” that really had me excited.  The fact that any developer could create applications for the iPhone was huge, and iPhone (and iPod Touch) owners were no longer just tethered to the limited number of applications that come pre-installed… well that was the selling point.
In the eleven months that I’ve had it, I’m amazed at how many practical things I’ve been able to do with it, look up on it and help me make decisions with it.  It’s a computer with Internet connectivity, and it happens to have a phone built in.

So what prompted all of this is last week was the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, where historically, Apple will announce new and updated products.  As expected, they announced an updated iPhone, the ’3G S’ model.  It’s faster, has a better camera, a new magnetometer, larger drive, but most of all, the updated operating system, version 3.0.  The phone itself comes out today, June 19th, but they made the OS available to us existing iPhone and iPod Touch users on Wednesday.  It’s an incremental update, and includes a bunch of features that should have been in the device from the very beginning (cut, copy & paste, a universal search ability, a voice recorder), but the Apple fanboys rejoice and jump around like it’s the coolest tech in the world (despite other devices already having those things).  I know that fanboys exist in anything related to tech and where “sides” can be chosen.  I’ve always been of the side of where it works best, regardless of who made it.  I mean, who really wants to get in a debate over whether a PC or a Mac computer is best?  Who really needs to throw barbs as to how the iPod is superior to the Microsoft Zune? (maybe a bad example here)  What person needs to belittle another over the “fact” that an XBox 360 pwns the PlayStation 3?

I don’t get it.  I’m thrilled that there is competition, and it drives the others to release better, more innovative products.  I’m a PC, but I love the fact that Mac is gaining market share… Windows 7 is looking great so far as a result.  I wonder how hard Microsoft would have pushed their R&D if the Nintendo Wii didn’t come from left field and take market share, mostly because of their innovative new controllers.  Microsoft announced Project Natal at E3, a full body controller (I wrote about it in a previous post).

Taking sides?  I choose innovation, over ANY side.  I want things to be better, stronger, faster.  I want my gaming, online and media experiences to wow me.  If it edges in that direction, I win, hell we all win.  I’ll choose the direction of my purchases based on the honest opinions of the reviewers out there.  If your review has high praise, and there’s a single “but”, I’ll take you seriously.  If you do nothing but praise and love and buy a product simply because it has “Apple”, “EA”, “RIM” as the manufacturer, then take your review and shove it.  You’re a putz not worthy of my read, simply open your eyes already, will you?  You’re an elitist, congratulations… now bite me.

I’ll sit down and tell you WHY I bought a product, and if I realize that I made a mistake after the fact, I’ll admit it.  I won’t, though, sit down and tell you why I’m right and why you’re wrong… and don’t try that with me.

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