Saturday, August 25, 2012

Thought Police

Yesterday I watched a live blog of the reading of the trial verdict in Apple v Samsung. The trial was complex, and the jury had to break down each patent by device. In the end, Apple won the day. They didn't get everything they wanted, but in contrast, Samsung got nothing.

I'm sure there will be an appeal, and this whole mess will drag on for another year or so, but it certainly says a lot about the patent system in this country. After deciding if Samsung had violated Apple's patents, the jury had to answer the question of if they thought those patents were actually valid. In all cases they said 'yes'. By the same token they had to answer if Apple violated patents, and even though they said Apple did NOT violate Samsung's patents, they also upheld Samsung's patents as well.

My personal assessment of all of this is that you had a jury full of regular people, who frankly, could probably have cared less about the mountains of patent law that was presented to them. They saw the stunning visuals of an iPhone next to a Galaxy S, and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, they saw the blatant copying that had taken place, and made an easy decision. The fact that they reached a verdict on a Friday also meant that they were probably quite tired of the whole trial and just wanted to go home for the weekend.

So where does this leave patent law? Even though I think the jury made the correct decision about Samsung copying Apple, I do wonder if we've ended up in a worse place for technology. Many of the technology patents that were disputed in this trial were about "how" something behaves. The way a screen rubber bands when you pull down on it, for example. At a certain point, you have to question if there's a ton of value is securing simple "ideas" like this from duplication.

But yet the flip side to the argument is that if a programmer comes up with a really cool way to do something, shouldn't they get the reward of being the first to financially benefit from it? So perhaps there's a middle ground. Maybe we need a different type of patent system that still can protect creative ideas, but doesn't brazenly lock them down for 20 years.

So here's my simple contribution to the who patent discussion. Let's let technology "idea" patents continue, but let's limit the term on them to 2-3 years. If a company is going to make a windfall on a particular idea, it's going to be as soon as the product hits the market. Let's allow them make their profit,  and then free the idea to all the people who want to copy it after it's 'old hat'.

Maybe it's a silly idea, and things probably won't be changing in our patent system any time soon, but maybe if we're open to some new thoughts and ideas, future generations will take the next step at making things better for innovators as well as people who benefit from cool ideas. Hmm... maybe I should patent my silly 'idea' before it's too late....

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Going native

This afternoon I was pleasantly surprised to see the announcement that Facebook for iOS has gone fully native. Previous to today, the Facebook app has been a viewer to HTML5 based content that was mostly functional, but slow. The old app was adequate, but not stellar. When I fired up the new app I was greeted with a much nicer user experience in regards to smoother scrolling, and cleaner animations. Overall, it was a positive change, although it still does nothing to combat the incredibly content heavy feed that Facebook shoves at your phone. At least I get smoother scrolling while I'm waiting for all my content to take forever to load.

But this all got me thinking about the how far we've come in regards to write-once-run-anywhere promises of the web of the early 2000's. For a big part of my IT career everything seemed to be focused on a movement to make HTML everywhere, a ubiquitous language that could present it's content to all corners of the ever-more-connected globe. But HTML had some serious flaws. First, it's not really an interactive programming language with all the rich features of control structures and variables, so along comes JavaScript to save the day. In fact JavaScript was a huge boon to static web based content, and quickly became the defacto dynamic page language. Perhaps these two together could conquer the world and make it possible to create a single app for every circumstance?

The dream was almost realized fully with Palm's WebOS. Here you had a fully featured smartphone operating system that had as it's core, HTML and JavaScript. For the most part it was a great idea, but it got destroyed by poor hardware, that couldn't keep up with the demands of a fully interpreted system language. Eventually Palm released a native SDK so that developers could go back to writing low level, compiled applications that took full advantage of every possible memory bit and CPU cycle. Native had once again won the day.

Although specialized toolkits such as PhoneGap try to continue to bridge the gap and allow the vision of write-once to continue, even most developers understand that abstraction toolkits end up costing in the end. Especially as an application continues to grow, it usually becomes apparent that, despite their usefulness, toolkits often can't keep up at the same pace as an investment in a native application.

So today once again, native has become the choice for what is probably the most installed app on the planet. The dream of being able to utilize the universality of HTML5 came to a halt, as users breathed a collective sigh of relief, and waiting for Facebook's servers to respond to another smoothly scrolled pull down reload request...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Trial and Errol?

So I've tried to avoid it for the past few weeks, but I think it's time to finally say something about the whole Apple vs. Samsung trial debacle. The trial has dominates the tech news cycle relentlessly for weeks, and it's become so much of a sideshow that it's almost embarrassing to our industry. Between the swashbuckling Errol Flynn antics of the lawyers that finally emboldened the judge to ask them if they were on crack, to the completely idiotic and clumsy Errol the owl (from Harry Potter) arguments and missteps, this trial has ranked right up there with the must-see TV drama of the OJ Simpson glove fiasco.

At the heart of the trial is the notion that Samsung, in it's desire to catch up to the skyrocketing Apple, decided to simply copy Apple's trademarked designs for it's own products, so that they would be more competitive at market. Combine this with the pre-4.0 Android habit of trying to constantly keep up with iOS, and you get the making of a trademark lawsuit that should really have solved itself years ago. By that I mean, duh, Samsung copied Apple and most people simply don't care.

Full disclosure here.... I own many Apple products and like them. When I purchased and used an Android phone I specifically got an HTC since Sense had a unique feel that made it different than iOS. But to even the most novice eye, what Samsung did was blatantly obvious. I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine handed me his Samsung Galaxy phone to look at. It was silver and rounded on the back, with a silver beveled edge... just like the iPhone 3. When I turned it on, it had four square icons at the bottom, just like iOS. Then the complete slap in the face when I swiped through the list of apps... Samsung had completely modified Android so that you swiped left/right between screens of apps, instead of up/down through a long list of apps (which is the Android default). At every turn, this phone screamed "I AM JUST LIKE AN IPHONE!!! LOVE ME!!!" Did I mistake my friends phone for an iPhone? Not really. It wasn't hard to miss the huge "Samsung" imprinted on the front of the screen, or the fact that it had four buttons on the front instead of just one. But was it a blatant case of "me too" copying? Most certainly. Should Apple have pursued Samsung on this? Sure, back in those days it was pretty open and shut.

But we're years removed from that now, and Samsung has thankfully started to rely more on Google's design guidance. The latest Android version (Jelly Bean) is a really cool operating system in it's own right, and Google is starting to differentiate itself from just an iOS copy. The latest Samsung devices are much more unique and don't feel like an Apple device much at all. But yet, Apple decided to push ahead and ask for import injunction, and a massive showboat trial. It stinks of Steve Job's prideful statement that he was going to go "thermo-nuclear" on Android. It stinks of sour grapes. That's not the way I wanted to think about Apple, since on many levels I think their product is still vastly superior to Android on many levels.

So as the trial winds down to a close, I wait for a nice simple resolution. But I doubt I'm going to get one. I'm sure there will be appeals, and new trials, and more silliness. For now I'm going to go back to trying to ignore the whole thing, and hope it all goes away. Maybe they'll be some nice tech news about games or something light-hearted next week... one can hope.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tune in... tune out... tune it up?

The other day I fired up my Apple TV, and BAM! (just like that, seriously my imagination made some serious noise) there was a new button waiting for me to press it. That button had the nice familiar title of Hulu Plus. I've seen Hulu Plus before, but it had been a while, and so I decided to use this new and strange development to re-educate myself on what Hulu Plus has to offer.

Upon first entering the Hulu Plus homepage on my computer I was greeted with a very attrative graphic of a TV showing all of the many shows I could be watching right now if I was only using Hulu Plus. I was starting to feel like I was missing something. Then right below this link was a big green button offering me a free week! A free week!!! I'd be a fool NOT to take advantage of that!! But wait.... can't I first take a look and see if there's anything I'd even want to watch? Sure enough in small... er... small print was a link to a listing of all the wonderful content that was awaiting my account information. So I said to myself... "Self! Don't give them all your personal information which you know that they'll use to just rope you in to an additional month because you'll stupidly get busy and forget to cancel the subscription!" And then I proceeded to look through the listing of what they had to offer.

First, the list was terribly unfriendly from a user experience perspective. It was hard to navigate and resulted in scrolling through page after page of small pics of available content as you look for a diamond in the rough. Second, I think Hulu thinks I'm Japanese. As I'm browsing through the list I saw so many Japanese shows that at first I assumed I had clicked on some regional link that sent me over to their Asian site. But after double (and triple) checking that I was on the US site, I realized... holy crap there's a lot of Japanese programming on Hulu. So needless to say... I didn't sign up for a 1 week trial. There just wasn't enough there to pique my interest and get me to even think about spending a monthly fee. Especially since all the cool content on the main Hulu site (no +) isn't available in Hulu Plus. If I can't get a whole season of Simpsons... what's the point?

So after my near-death-bordem experience with Hulu Plus, I started to think about what exactly I was looking for in a site like Hulu Plus. In other words, what am I expecting from my online media experience? In a couple of words? Choice and comprehensiveness. What I want from an online media site is the ability to choose the content I want, when I want it, and have the option to watch it without having to buy it.

Currently, my online media tools of choice are Netflix and iTunes. I use Netflix to watch old series of shows that I'd never shell out big bucks for, but don't want to time my life around syndication. I then use iTunes for the new stuff, namely their Season Pass product which allows me to get copies of shows the day after they air. Both methods have their downsides. First, Netflix has a vast array of content, but much of it is old, and new content takes forever to show up on their system. Additionally, there are deals in place with the media studios that force Netflix to remove content from their sytem after a certain number of views. So you could see something available to watch one day, but then come back the next day and it's no longer around. Then show up a third day, and boom, it's back to being watchable again. That kind of inconsistancy is frustrating and not the way I want to watch my entertainment.

iTunes is a nice option for getting new content, but it has one fatal flaw. Everything I want to watch off of iTunes... I own. That means that if I want to watch it I need to download it to my hard drive and watch it from there, and no matter how many times I delete it, it's still sitting out in my queue for me to download again if I ever get a hankering to watch it again (which I probably won't). Rentals are great for movies, but for TV series, I'm not sure I really like owning every single season of a show, just because I don't want to spend time getting a TiVO to tape it when it's on live so I can watch it later.

So what would be my ideal solution? Take all the big players right now, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu and yes, even Hulu Plus, and mush them all together in to one super solution. Give me the ability to subscribe to a service that gives me a la carte access to just what I want to see, when I want to see it. You might say, "Why don't you just get cable with a DVR?" That's a fair question, but frankly, cable is so bloated with crap that I have no interest in, that the overblown cost just isn't justifiable. I have no interest in paying $60/month to support 148 channels of garbage, just to get access to the 2 channels that I might have some interest in.

So this is another area of our culture where I think technology is changing the way we view things. For so long we've been caught up in a model where we were handed our entertainment, and we had little choice in what we watched. Now, we've come to an era where we have the technology to give us ultimate choice and flexibility in what we want. Some people might claim that we're spoiled brats, and we just want it our way all the time. But, again I go back to my argument from previous posts, that just because technology allows us to change our lifestyle, doesn't mean it's inherently evil, or making us in to evil persons.

Sometimes the reality of life changes, and learning to adapt to that new reality can be challenging sometimes. It means that we now have the opportunity to exercise freedom from entities like movie studios and record companies that TELL us what we should be watching and listening to, and when. We now have the opportunity, as a species, to allow creativity to be spread and grown on it's own merits, to those that find it appealing. So where others might see an opprotunity to be selfish, I see an opportunity to discover more of humanity's creativity. So maybe I should embrace the Japanese TV that's waiting for me to explore it? Or maybe I should indulge in a bit more Spotify and Pandora to discover music I've never heard before? All I know for certain is that we're alive in a great time, when we can embrace the diversity that's available to us. Even if it's not quite perfect yet, let's not fear the future, but encourge growth to a cool tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kids and cellphones

In a previous post, I talked about my views of technology and kids. However, I wanted to revisit the issue because of a recent story I read on NBCNews.com. This story asked the question "Does your middle school child really need a cellphone?"

I wanted to address this article because I felt it missed the bigger picture in some areas. First, in defense of having a cell phone, a parent is interviewed talking about how they wanted their kid to have a cellphone because it made them feel like they could keep tabs on them wherever they went. However, this viewpoint often is seen as a helicopter parent trying too hard to be a part of every aspect of their kids lives. Although I know there is a trend by many parents to be quite overbearing, I think the idea of a parent wanting to know where their kids are is only natural. Cellphones just happen to be the tool of the day that helps with that problem. More on that in a moment...

The second point in the article is when they interview an expert who claims that under no circumstances should a kid under 12 have a cell phone. His argument is that kids can start to see technology as a "right". I can't help but feel that this is a silly straw-man that has very little basis in fact. The whole "entitlement" notion is certainly a concern with today's youth, but is something as simple as a cell phone an enabler of that?

I guess my biggest issue here, is that I don't see many of our technological advances as things to be feared. I don't believe that society is being corrupted by technology, or that our youth are being swept into a wave of apathy and laziness because we have electronic gadgets to deal with certain aspects of life. In fact I think that we need to start recognizing certain facets of technology as simply "the way things are" nowadays.

Getting back to knowing where your kids were. I remember growing up at a time in the 80s where cell phones simply didn't exist as a consumer product. Despite not carrying a cell phone, I wasn't completely out of touch. I always had a couple of quarters in my pocket or my backpack, so that if I needed to call home from a pay phone, I could. But today when you look around most neighborhoods, pay phones haven't existed for years. So if I were to hand my kid some coins and tell them to call me from a pay phone when they got to their destination, they wouldn't even know what I was talking about.

So my point is that it's not just the addition of technology like cellphones that have changed our lives, but it's the extinction of other technologies that have made things like cellphones make more sense. The beauty of our advancing technology is that it allows us to re-think why we do things, and re-examine the core problem we're trying to solve. Cellphones are just another tool as we move forward, the same as landlines have been in the past.

The core problem that we're attempting to solve with all of this is 'communication'. The telephone was a way to contact people from one location to another. Because of the limits of the technology at the time, we had to utilize a landline based system of cables running across the country. Cellphones are simply an evolution of the concept of communication, utilizing the best tools available at the time. In fact, at some point in the future, cellphones will give way to another new technology. But no matter what the technology is, the underlying principle of 'why' is the same. We want to communicate. I think it's incredible that we live in a time where we're no longer limited to only one or two ways to communicate with people we care about. If I want to talk to someone I know, I have lots of choices now. I can call them, send them a text, instant message them, e-mail them, etc.,. Having the freedom to communicate the way that best suits me at the time and in the context of the situation is a great freedom of the age in which we live in.

So ya... my kids have cellphones, and I'm cool with that.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Twice the factors equals twice the fun

This entry might be pretty basic for a lot of my techie companions, but since we've been talking about security recently, I thought it might be good to do a quick introduction to 2-factor authentication for those that aren't as familiar with it. At it's most basic level, 2-factor authentication is about two things; something you know, and something you have. Most of us are used to working with passwords to authenticate ourselves to various resources. This is the something we know portion of 2-factor authentication.

The problem with something we know is that as soon as someone else knows it... it's not a secret anymore, and not very useful for security purposes. When we add in something we have to get 2 factors of authentication it's no longer just about what we know, but what we have. Then, it's not as terrible if someone knows what we know, because they don't have what we have, so knowing what they know doesn't help them as much, unless of course they end up having what we have, in which case we better hope that they also don't know what we know, because then they'll have what we have AND know what we know, causing people like myself rant in long run-on sentences about having and knowing things that people shouldn't have or know.

So the key with something we have is that we're often able to secure physical 'things' much better than we can secure knowledge. Securing knowledge is tough, because that knowledge needs to be shared with at least one other person... the system we want to access. So even though we might be quite good at keeping secrets, like our login passwords, the systems that we share those secrets with are often not as good as humans at keeping secrets. Usually they try hard, but too often they're the target of knowledge thieves who want nothing more than to force a system to reveal all of it's possible knowledge (ie. passwords) for their own personal gain.

However, things are a whole different story. Things are physical, and since the dawn of man, we've learned how to keep track of physical things really, really well. This is why many security experts tell people that it's OK to go ahead and write down their passwords on a little slip of paper in their wallets. We've learned how to keep track of our wallets since we were young, and we're quite aware of how to protect them physically.

So what are these things we have for accessing systems? In some cases, it could be a bio-metric system, like a fingerprint. Since our fingers are always attached to us (or so we hope), it's pretty easy to secure this 'thing'. If someone finds out your password to a system, but they also need your fingerprint to access it... well, they've just made their job close to impossible. However, fingerprints and retina scanners all require special hardware hooked up to our machines, so a much more common technique is a number generating device.

Many people know these devices by their brand name "SecureID", but the basic principle is the same. You are given a little token that has an LCD screen on it with sets of numbers that change every 60 seconds (smartphone apps that do the same thing are becoming common too). The master system is synchronized with your device, and it knows at all times what your number is. However, the system is never set up to tell anyone what a number is at any given time. It can just answer 'Yes' or 'No'. So a login situation looks like this:

  • A user types in their username and password in to a login system.
  • The login system asks them what their current number code is.
  • The login system then makes a request to a security system and asks "Is Mr X's generated number 12345?"
  • The security system then says either yes or no.
  • If the answer is 'no' then the login attempt is denied and the user has to try again.
So with 2-factor authentication, you are almost always guaranteed that your login is not going to be compromised. Even if someone knows your password they still need your physical 'thing'. If they somehow have your physical 'thing', they still need your password. It's not an impossible situation for a hacker to overcome, but it makes life difficult to the point of not even trying in many cases. There are many systems out there that practice 2-factor authentication, and if you've worked in any number of governmental agencies, or very large companies, it's likely that you've come across 2-factor authentication. But 2-factor is quickly becoming mainstream. A couple of years ago, online games started adding 2-factor authentication to their systems as a way to stop people from having their accounts hacked. Then, in the wake of the recent hacking news, Google's 2-factor authentication for GMail has been getting a lot of press, as a good way to make sure your primary e-mail account doesn't get compromised.

So the time was never better to start thinking more about 2-factor authentication. As more and more of our life goes online, it's important to take all the right steps to make sure that you're not the target of a hack. 2-factor authentication is a great tool in the average users toolbox to help keep you safe online.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hack! Slash! Burn! Crush!!

The big tech news story of the weekend was the hacked account of Mat Honan. As documented in his posting on Wired.com, in the space of a few hours his digital life was in shambles. And as much as we always talk about strong passwords, etc., this was not a case of password failure. It was a case that shows just how our desire for on-demand, cloud based services that are convenient can come back to haunt us.

I highly suggest you go read all 4 pages of the article, but the quick summary is that a hacker wanted control of Mr. Honan's Twitter account. In order to get it, they started with basic social scouting, and proceeded to use all of the built-in tools of Google, Amazon and Apple to gain access to his accounts without ever needing to crack a single password. At Google they discovered what his Apple ID e-mail address was when they did a simple "Forgot my password" query. Then at Amazon, they called up customer service and game'd the system to get access to the last 4 digits of his credit cards he had on file there. Once they had that info, they were able to call Apple and convince the support person that he needed to have his password reset. They had the last 4 digits of his credit card, which was all Apple required to validate the account. At this point they were able to remote wipe his iPhone, iPad and Mac Book Pro. Since they already had his Google account, they didn't need to get his Apple account to find his twitter password, but they destroyed his Mac so that he would be delayed in getting back in.

First, it's important to realize that he made a tremendous error in judgement by not having a backup of his laptop. He lost years and years of data in one fell swoop, and there's only a remote chance that he'll be able to get it back. In this day and age, backups are cheap and easy, and online providers provide a great way to store your data somewhere safe with only a small impact. I HIGHLY recommend going and getting an account at CrashPlan and start feeling safer.

Apart from that faux pas the bigger issue comes in how much data we all have online, and how it can be used to manipulate us, no matter how safe we think we are. In fact, even I was recently targeted with some sort of Skype attack that took over my account and charged up a bunch of international calls before it was caught and turned off. I utilize strong passwords, so I'm not sure how they got in, but my big mistake was letting Skype have a credit card number for no good reason. I almost never use their service for anything but toll-free calls, but I got lazy.

One thing we have very little control over is how businesses handle our account data. As shown in this hacking case, both Amazon and Apple had major holes that only took a phone call to break through. Why do these holes exist? Because companies don't ever want a lost password to impede your ability to spend money. By the same token we don't ever want a lost password to ever stop us from getting what we want. I remember many years ago I had forgotten my eBay password, and despite continuously hitting the "Send me a new password" button, their system was too slow and overloaded, and I missed out on an auction because I couldn't get in to the system in time.

On the flip-side, something we DO have a lot of control over is how much data we let companies, that we do business with, have access to. Sometimes this requires us to give up some speed and convenience, but if it protects us in the long run, isn't it worth it? So here's a couple of tips that you can consider using for your online security. I'll admit that some of them I'm not good at following myself, but even acting on some of these can help prevent getting your digital life compromised.

  1. Have a strong password strategy. If you have a common password you use on bulletin boards and other simple sites, DON'T use it on any site that has access to any of your financial information.
  2. Think twice about clicking the "save my credit card" button. How much time do you really save by not having to enter your credit card every time you want to make a purchase?
  3. Consider using something like PayPal. This shields your bank and credit card information with another layer of access. Many sites, and even iTunes will accept a PayPal account as a method of payment, and you can link your PayPal account to any number of bank accounts and credit cards.
  4. Backups, backups, backups. I know of many people who utilize the Find My Mac feature that allows you to locate and wipe your Mac if it's stolen. This is all well and good, but if you don't have a way to get your data back, what are you going to do then? Seriously. CrashPlan. Get it. 
So there are a few tips to help navigate this new reality that we live in. Even doing a couple of these things can help make your online experience much safer and secure. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

This log was made for rolling, rolling, rolling....

So I promised a blog post about monitoring and alerting in IT systems, so here it is. As with most liberal arts snobs I have a 'personal philosophy' about how to do things the best way. This philosophy is broken down in to three different components, based upon two critera; timeliness and context. Timliness in terms of how quickly an event needs to be acted upon, and the context in which the event is applicable. Therefore, a holy trinity of monitoring allows IT professionals to get the best information possible for any given situation. After all... the more you know.....

First off is the most immediate in timeliness, that of immediate alerting. When a system is about to come crashing down, seconds are of the essence. It's in this context that immediate alarming and alerting allows 1st level responders to get in to a system at the first sign of trouble. With any luck, they can repair and cirvumvent any problems before the problem is noticed by the client. This type of alerting involves alarms about what's going on in the system right now, at this moment. Often it involves monitoring of hardware and networks, and databases. There are lots of different tools that exist in the application sphere to accomplish this type of monitoring, and many also include hooks to ticketing systems and gateways to send texts and pages to appropriate support personnel. This is the type of system that you would see an operator sitting in front of, watching for any sign of trouble.

The second type of alerting and monitoring is what I call mid-term monitoring. This is the type of alerting that helps in a system health context, but is not immediate. When considering this type of alerting questions such as, "How did my system do over the past 3 days?" and "Have there been any spikes at odd times over the past week?" The context is still system health, but the perspective is much broader. The best mid-term monitoring solutions encompass more than just mid-term monitoring, but also integrate log interrogation. These tools help not only keep an eye on system performance over a period of time, but allow for debugging of system logs in ways that are fast and effecient. One of the best examples of a tool in this field is called Splunk, probably the finest log monitoring and indexing software out there right now.

The final level of monitoring is far less immediate, and it revolves around capacity management. In capacity management, we are most concerned with how our resources are being utilized over a long period of time. Statistics need time to gather and be aggregated to be useful for capacity management. A single spike on a single day may signal trouble to the first two levels of monitoring and alerting, but for capacity management you want to see that spike continue before you are concerned. Where as the immediate monitoring moves at the speed of a hare, capacity management is slow and careful like a tortiose.

Combined, these three types of monitoring allow systems to be as visilble as possible to the IT staff maintaining them. Coming up with a good strategy for dealing with each of these levels is key to building a successful enterprise IT system.

Happy logging!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

My how they grow

I've been getting a lot of lessons lately in how kids grow up. My oldest son turned 13 this year, and in combination with his growth spurt, he's growing in to quite the young man in other ways. In this modern era, a father needs to think about more than just kicking their butts in to a summer job. A good geek father needs to start thinking about their 'technological growth'. That growth begins with the most basic of tech needs, that of an email account.

Since I've had my own domain through Google for many years, even my youngest son has his own email account. But what has become even more useful lately is the advent of more and more cloud services. In particular, Google Docs and Dropbox. Since my kids spend time at two houses, having the ability for them to start working on homework at one house, save it to a cloud location, and then continue working on it at the other house, is a tremendous advantage. So cloud storage is a must for children of a geek, especially divorced geeks.

The second question that often comes up with kids as they get older is their involvement in social media. This is one area where a parent obviously needs to keep an eye on things. There are tons of stories out there about bad things that can happen to kids online, but for the most part, those cases are exceptions, not the norm. Just as important as knowing what your kids are doing in social media, is teaching them how to behave properly, and how to maintain a level of privacy, yet allowing them to be open with their friends. Grown-ups usually have a good sense of how to carry themselves in a social situation, which are skills that teens are still learning. So throwing them in to a huge pool of digital social interaction without any guidance, can lead to some ugly situations. In my case my kids haven't jumped much on the social media bandwagon too much yet. A bit of Twitter watching and a Google+ account, but otherwise I'm letting them lead when they're ready for more.

Moving to the physical gadget realm, there's the always fun topic of cell phones. In my case, it became important for my kids to have cell phones because I gave up a land line years ago. Since their mother also doesn't have a landline, cell phone were a must. The question then becomes, dumb or smart phone? In my case I opted for a feature (dumb) phone that has a touch screen, so it feels a bit like a smart phone, and it has a nice physical keyboard for texting. However, one piece of advice I would give, is to go with eBay for phone purchases. You can often find decent old feature phones for really good prices, and the added benefit that you're not locking yourself in to a contract any longer than you want to. Plus, if it gets broken, you haven't just dropped a ton of cash on an expensive Android or iPhone.

Finally, we come to one of the more difficult aspects that I've had to deal with more recently. The issue of money. In this day and age I never write checks anymore, and the amount of time I have actual cash with me is few and far between. My kids get an allowance, and from time to time want to spend part of it. Many times they may not have their cash with them at the time of purchase (meaning dad has to pay and get reimbursed), or even more problematic, what to do with online purchases? Well, thankfully there are a couple great options now. If you're an ING customer, they have a debit card account for kids as young as 13, but if ING isn't your cup of tea, there's PayPal. Turns out PayPal has a student account option for young people, that gives them a debit card, as well as a regular PayPal account. In addition, it has tons of parental controls to ensure that your kids can't spend more than you want in a single transaction, or send money to people you don't know. Overall, it's a great solution in this day and age, and allows me to teach some responsible money management, as well as allow some freedom to grow and learn.

So there's a few of my thoughts and tips about being a geek dad. I'm not rich enough that my kids have their own laptops or anything like that, but with the advent of some nice seven inch tablets, that might be a future growth option....

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wii, wii, wii all the way home

I'm no stranger to game systems, having owned an Atari 2600, original NES, and played on a room-mate's SEGA. When my kids were young we got a Nintendo Gamecube (though it was really for my spouse and I at the time), and as they got bigger we graduated to a Nintendo Wii. My son has a Nintendo DSi, and we now own an Xbox 360. I recount this history, not to brag, since there's people with a lot more credentials than me, but to show that for the most part, Nintendo has been a major player in my gaming experience for a long, long time. Looking at the future though, I'm afraid that's going to change.

Recently, Nintendo announced their new upgrade to the Wii system. However, they decided to choose price-point over innovation, so the new Wii U is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to performance (at least according to reviews). But, the bigger issue seems to be that Nintendo doesn't quite 'get it' when it comes to gaming of the future. First, there's the DSi, which my son wanted for his birthday one year. We picked one up and got a few games for it, but overall... he doesn't play it that much. When I first opened up the DSi I thought this could double as a cool internet device, but was quickly disappointed when it's networking stack wasn't able to connect to my wireless network. It wasn't that I was doing anything wrong with my network, but it simply wasn't a full featured wireless stack.

Then there's the issue that most of the games are cartridge based (physical media), meaning that you need to go to the store and purchase them and when you want to switch games, you need to switch the physical media. Compare that to the experience of an iPad or an iPod Touch. On those platforms that games are all downloaded from the internet, and you can play them on any number of devices that you've linked to your account. Plus, they're usually enabled to receive new content from time to time, keeping the game fresh and new. Add in GameCenter, with the ability to compare your stats against friends, and it blows the DSi away. Not to mention the complete full featured internet device capabilities available in an iOS device.

So is the Wii much better? In it's day, the motion controls of the Wii were amazing, and they adding a cool physical flavor to the games. However, people quickly learned that they weren't as dynamic as they thought, and that simple wrist flicks could produce the same results as a full golf swing. It was a neat innovation, and was something that set the Wii apart from all of it's competition. But what started as a neat innovation stagnated with a platform that just didn't deliver on the 'connected community' front. The Wii store was an interesting idea, but for the most part it just delivered nostalgia. Old games were available, but when it came to DLCs (downloadable content) for new games, there was almost never anything new.

So this past year we purchased an XBox 360. It's amazing the difference that a system like that makes when it comes to being connected. Most games that we've been playing on it have some form of downloadable content available if we want to extend our gaming. Plus, full games that we download are not 'trips down memory lane', but are full games of their own right. The connectivity to the XBox Live community is also second to none, and really adds a great social element to gaming.

What's the point of this Nintendo bashing? Well, it's two reasons. One to say good-bye to an old friend (my Wii is going to my kid's mother's house where her Wii has died), and talk about why I found it to be a great platform. But also to talk about why it's not the platform of the future, and misses the boat in many ways as to how to build a cohesive on-line gaming community. I'll miss you Mario and Kirby, but I think it's time to move on and join the ranks of modern systems that are looking to the future, and not hanging on to the past.