From Desktops and Mobiles to Simply Devices: A Conceptual Shift

For quite a while now there have been attempts within the IT community to shift the way businesses use computers (the thin client is one example) but the paradigm shift from stationary computers that are the center of ones data and work (or at least appear to be) to a more flexible cloud solution have never really taken off. This has not been due to a lack of ideas or effort, but there have been a lot of technical barriers as well as office culture obstacles in the way of the change. As the infrastructure in many companies improve some degree of success has been possible, such as user documents and settings being stored effectively central servers and mobile device syncing, but these are but small steps toward totally untethering people from their sense of connectedness to their desk computer as their real hub and anything else as an accessory.

This has been even more true with home users, who have generally seen a primary desktop or laptop as their hub and anything else (cloud storage, mobile devices, netbooks, etc) as simply add-ons to their hub computer. In the case of iOS devices, this feeling has been very strong as anything from activation to backup of the devices required a wired computer connection. There have been an increasing number of companies attempting to move people out into the cloud and get them to think about their computer as a client and not the centre of their computing universe. Dropbox, SugarSync and MobileMe are a few services that attempted to do this, but none of them really worked in a way that shifted the average user to thinking about the cloud as the base of their computer life. At best those services replaced USB thumb drives and at worst they left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Home users and companies are both getting used to the idea of having their contacts, mail and calendar floating around in the etherial cloud and accessible but that is really how far the mainstream conceptual shift has gone to date. Most people accept that these things just work now and use them daily without really thinking about it. Cloud storage of documents, photos, etc, still tends to require quite a bit of user participation, not to mention planning, software and a variety of services for different uses. This keeps the user in the PC-as-hub-centric state of mind.

Along comes Steve Jobs at the WWDC in 2011, introducing both a service called iCloud and a new concept (to the home user, at least): the cloud as the hub and each device (including PC’s, phones and tablets) as a seamless team to use in your daily life. This relegates the almighty home PC to a role as just another web connected device in your inventory and, as Steve Jobs says, “The truth is in the cloud”. Having apps on both computers and devices manage where documents go and syncing them across devices is a huge conceptual shift from the current pattern of saving anywhere on a PC, often leading to the “I think I saved it in Documents, but it could be the Desktop, or was it on my external drive?” conundrum that many users regularly face. The vast majority of users don’t need to control where they saved a document, they just need the ability to save, share and find a document when they need it. Apple is attempting to shift in this direction with iCloud on iOS, Mac OS Lion and iCloud for Windows. This has already worked very well on iOS and Android devices, and people have generally adjusted to apps controlling how things are saved. Now it might be time to see if the same will work on people’s home computers as well. Of course, for users like myself who use large amounts of data for photos and video a cloud service cannot yet replace the home PC, but could definitely make day-to-day uses go smoother.

For enterprise this type of service will create no small number of headaches in the short term with security and user expectation, but these are not things that cannot be overcome. The truth is that with some modifications to the security and configuration of a system like iCloud it could easily increase productivity and reach some goals that many companies have strived for over the last decade or so. An enterprise service, perhaps an “iCloud Enterprise” could be made to be used within a secure corporate environment and follow their security policy. Once it was up and running it would reduce downtime for users when hardware problems occurred and could help companies that are using hoteling and flexible seating plans. A previous post I wrote last year regarding the potential of a device like AppleTV 2 could easily be realized under such a model. I still believe that enterprise IT and services like iCloud are not quite where they need to be yet for a true revolution in business, but it is definitely getting closer.

Many users have been attracted by the just-does-what-I-want-it-to experience of iOS and Android devices and it is an increasingly growing segment of the market. The desire to be able to just use a device to send off an email, write a document or edit some photos without much effort has always been there but did not really become a real expectation until the mobile device revolution.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if you could have the same experience on your PC when you need to use it for something that mobile devices still don’t do?

Apple is banking on you wanting that, and it is looking like a pretty safe bet. Google is also well poised to follow a similar pattern and will be expected to announce similar services soon. Microsoft would probably be wise to get on the boat and not be left behind like they did with tablets. With the pace-of-change once again increasing, it is not a good time to be left behind.

Backing Up My Digital Life

These days our lives are very heavily documented and there are two aspects of our digital lives: the parts that are documented for us and the parts we document ourselves. In my case, being an amateur photographer I tend to document a lot of things around me using my DSLR, shooting both photos and video. The media I create all resides in the digital realm these days but without a proper system of backups it is as vulnerable as a traditional analogue record. I have always felt that as long as I was doing more than average to preserve my digital lifetime I would not be likely to lose the media I hold precious. In general, I have had backups in two physical locations, usually at work and at home. Although this is a pretty good system, in light of the recent disasters in Japan which had far-reaching effects it really doesn’t feel like enough so I started shopping around.

When looking at a way to back things up there are a lot of things to be considered. A few of the things I looked at are listed below:

  • What do you really need backed up?
  • How much data will that be?
  • How often does that data need to be backed up?
  • What will your future needs be?
  • What are your options for recovery?
  • Can you afford it?
  • Can you afford not to?

In my case, I am using a Mac and have my normal documents in an encrypted sparse disk image bundle with my general photos and video being managed as referenced files using Aperture 3. Any additional media that should be kept private for one reason or another is also encrypted and only opened when necessary. This means I have a bit of a mixed backup environment. The encrypted disk images and loose files with metadata attached do not necessarily work with the same methods of backup. For example, SugarSync is a great idea for backing up loose files and folders and has the added advantage of being able to sync between computers as well as working as an off-site backup, but at this time it can not properly handle encrypted images. Dropbox can handle loose files and encrypted images but it does not have a storage option large enough for the amount of media I have to store (my Canon 5D MKII cranks out photos at over 25mb each). CrashPlan has unlimited storage for a reasonable price, but its backup client take a bit of unnecessary processor power when not needed and is rather slow for large data sets on a laptop that is moved regularly. I could go on, but I will summarize by saying that although there are a lot of systems out there none of them actually meet my requirements in one package.

What to do? Diversify.

After extensive research I have developed a system using several different solutions to give me coverage while not unreasonably impacting my wallet. First of all, I have decided to sync my raw photos and video to Amazon s3, a storage solution that has reasonable prices and only charges for the exact amount of data used. Another advantage is that using Transmit 4 from Panic Software I was able to upload my whole 120gb photo collection to their servers outside of Japan in under 6 hours. This was made possible by uploading 50 files concurrently on the large pipe I have (finally an excuse to push my upload bandwidth to its limits). My server could pull this off with about 35% processor use thanks to its RAID drives and I could watch movies in a different room on my Apple TV while uploading. With my 20gb of unprocessed home video uploaded it should cost me under $15/month to have all of my personal media stored with some redundancy in another part of the world. Add the copies and backup I have here in Tokyo and I should be fairly well covered in anything less than an extreme global catastrophe, in which case I will most likely be more worried about food and survival than about Hawaii beach photos. The second part of my backup scheme involves my encrypted disk images and my Aperture 3 library. Luckily, these are small enough that I can use Dropbox to hold and sync them through symbolic links. That way I can run them locally but also be fairly confident that they will be backed up offsite regularly. I am also considering storing static copies of each on Amazon s3 occasionally to avoid losing everything in the case of encrypted disk corruption but have not decided yet.

So now I have constantly backed up encrypted document images and all of my photos and video off-site with a minimum of effort going forward on my part. Sure, I will have to sync up my photos and video to Amazon s3 when I add or remove a significant amount of media, but now that the bulk of it has been uploaded I should be able to do so easily from now on. It will end up costing me up to $15/month over what I am currently paying for online services, but I would rather skip a few cups of tea at Starbucks a month than lose everything I have ever created in a natural disaster. If I ever need to recover the photos and video from Amazon s3, I have the option of downloading (if I am in a site with decent bandwidth) or sending them a disk and having them load it up and send it back to me. Not a bad way to go. With Dropbox I can download through a computer client or from any computer with an Internet connection and a browser so that should be reasonably easy as well.

It is nice to have one less thing to worry about.

Change in the Soundtrack: My New Bose MIE2i Headphones

Well, I have been back in Canada for about a week now since my temporary status in Japan ran out without me securing a visa. Just a small setback, and one with several solutions. While here in Canada, I have been saving my money and avoiding spending on anything I can avoid buying, but I have caved in and purchased a pair of shoes (since it is very hard to find my size in Japan) and now I have also bought a pair of headphones.

For me, headphones are a staple of daily life. I always try to get headphones that sound nice at low volumes so I can use them at a conversational or lower volume and still enjoy them. To that end I have mostly be sticking to noise isolating headphones, but my last pair had started to give up. Actually, a frayed wire was causing them to cut out occasionally and frequently send small shocks into my ear canals, neither of which add to music appreciation. I still have a pair of nice overhead dj monitors, but they are not the most walkable and are a bit big to keep in a pocket for casual use. Needing a pair of carry-able in-ear headphones I tools look around for sales. There are actually a lot of headphones out there and a lot of them even have nice controls for iPads and iPhones, but most are either too cheap and sacrifice sound or much too expensive for my budget now. I particularly like Atomic Floyd headphones but they are quite pricey and are only sold in the UK and Japan.

This time I decided on some Bose MIE2i headphones. Never really being that impressed with lower-end Bose headphones I was a bit skeptical. They are also outer ear headphones as opposed to noise isolating inner ear ones and definitely let a lot of ambient noise in. Thinking it through, I realized that maybe being less isolated from the world was not necessarily a bad thing, and part of my decision to buy them was influenced by a need to open up more personally. As opposed to making the music a voice-over of my life I have chosen to make it a background soundtrack that permeates it. As for the sound, the headphones have quite a nice range and in a quite environment provide quite rich natural sound. In noisy environments they do virtually nothing in the way of background noise suppression, but that is kind of the point for me at this point in time anyway. They are highly wearable and I do not find them tiring at all. The ears are one of the main portals to the world, and spending most of your time isolating them can make you feel more isolated in general. I will have to wait and see how both aspects of this small change in lifestyle will work out.

Tablets: iOS 4.2 for the iPad

Wanting to get a first crack at the new iOS 4.2 and never being afraid to try new things, I upgraded my iPad as soon as the upgrade was available. I really wanted to get my own impression of it before too much showed up online, and of course it is always nice to be an early-adopter (there are risks of course, but on my personal machines I am not too worried). I found an advantage at work in IT a few times by early-adopting or beta testing new technology or software on my personal machines then being ahead of the curve when it became generally available. This time, as I am between jobs, I am just doing it to keep in practice and because I do enjoy experiments.

Ok, now on to iOS 4.2 on the iPad. After the update I found no problem with my data and had no need to sync all my apps, media and data back after the upgrade so it was pretty painless. It took a total of about 20 minutes to be back up and running. That being said, making a backup of your iPad before any upgrade is a very good idea and I highly recommend it. Time to fire up the ol’ iPad and check out the new features.

Multitasking

This is a big one! Having used my iPhone 3GS with multitasking for quite a while now it always chaffed that my iPad could not do it. There have been so many times I have been tempted to double-click the home button to switch programs and realized I couldn’t. No longer! While writing this blog I have already switched over to Mail to read and respond to a few messages without a hitch. Multitasking on the iPad is much like on the iPhone was in iOS 4.1 but it includes volume, brightness and AirPlay controls. The brightness control is great and makes reading in different conditions much easier. AirPlay seems to be working fine, although it will take and update for the AppleTV before it will be really useful. It appears that the AirPlay control is available in a large number if programs, not just in the Video app or YouTube.

AirPlay

Although AirPlay seems to be available in a variety of programs and is one of the exciting features for me it will not be easy to review until the inevitable AppleTV update comes. Still, it looks to be a great feature and a lot of fun when playing with the iPad at home.

Printing

This will be a really nice one when more wireless printers support it but it also works through printers shared on OS 10.6.5 or higher so it is fine for most Mac users. I am not sure how the support will be added for Windows users. Several built-in programs now have an option to print, with the notable exception of the iWork suite which has not yet received the update it will need to be able to print. I think this will be a huge feature for enterprise, although it seems contrary to the paperless nature of the move to iPad. Oh well, there are still times when one has to print.

Mail, Calendar and Notes Enhancements

These are big. All of the enhancements that iOS 4 in other devices brought are present and very welcome in iOS 4.2 for iPad. Threaded mail, combined inbox and multiple exchange account add a lot of functionality that was sorely missing in the iPad. I personally missed all of those things on a daily basis and I am only using my iPad for personal use at the moment. The calendar also saw a large update, allowing invites and working properly with MobileMe and finally automatically syncing subscribed calendars. The birthday calendar even had a nice little upgrade. Notes was always less useful than it could have been, but with iOS 4.2 it now allows you to easily set and write notes to a variety of services, meaning you can have the notes on your devices synced up through MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo, etc across devices. This one little change might affect many of the 3rd party note app makers on the app store.

GameCenter

Well, I am not big on games but I know that the addition of GameCenter to the iPad will be a very happy enhancement for many users. It seems to work well although it still remains to be seen how much cross device gaming will be possible. I can’t see an reason why it wouldn’t work, but I have not seen it working yet.

Extras

There are a lot of small changes in 4.2, one of the most personally useful being the word search feature in Safari (it is a bit confusing but the search window doubles as a web search and a page search). I am sure that people will be picking apart all of the little changes in thousands of blogs over the next little while so there will be (and already is) a lot of information available.

Issues

I personally have not seen any iOS 4.2 specific issues so far. Battery life, network connectivity and media playback all seem fine so far. I have been using my iPad for over an hour for reading, surfing and blogging while listening to music while on wifi and still have 95% battery left. Not bad.

Overall, I would say that this was a very important update for the iPad, although it will be a bit less dramatic on iPhone and iPod Touch. I would recommend this update to anyone who wants their iPad to work more like you thought it should.

Oh, is that the sound of more netbooks disappearing?

The Internet: Why Flash is fading and Adobe doesn’t care

As a start I will say that I have never had much use for Flash. I don’t really care much for web video in general and I don’t play web games. That being said, I have seen some very creative design, photography and videography sites that did employ Flash. For me, the fading of Flash feels like it has been a while in coming and iPads, iPhones and Android phones were just the last nail in a pre-made coffin. Actually, make that second to the last. What of Adobe, the owner of Flash technology? Surely they will keep Flash going and rescue it in some dramatic fashion?

That simply will not happen. Flash Player, the app that Flash web contents need to run, is simply a marketing tool for Adobe. They give away Flash Player only to make content easily accessible and get content creators buying their creation tools. Flash Player is a piece of software that has to be adapted to multiple platforms, needs constant updates and development work on the part of Adobe. If Adobe had an alternative way to sell content creation tools that didn’t involve all of that extra budget maintaining a player that brings in no direct revenue don’t you think they would drop it? Considering everything they have invested in it they will not do it over night but as HTML5 and other open source code grows traction they will definitely transition towards it. Their Flash-to-HTML5 demo showed that existing Flash content could be converted to HTML5 with reasonable fidelity. This is not proof that Adobe is going to drop Flash anytime soon, but it does show that they recognize the potential need to accommodate HTML5, SVG and other technologies as an alternative.

There is no reason that Adobe can’t create a great web tool kit that can create Flash and HTML5 content in a manner that will appeal to Flash developers and other content developers alike. In fact, they will likely have to as HTML5 video continues to gain ground on the web, now making more than 54% of web video available and gaining ground on Flash video in a rapid fashion. With tens of thousands of games available cheap or free on iOS and Android, web-based Flash games have surely seen their peak. As HTML5 and the other open source tools are not controlled by one company and are in fact being supported by many (including long time rivals Apple and Microsoft) as the new standard, Adobe has to move forward and adapt to a web where their monopoly is soon to end, and I am sure that they will make a go of it.

Maybe it will even end all of the Adobe vs Apple stupidness. One can always hope.