Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Coca-lization” →

Kevin Ashton published a breakdown of the manufacturing of a can of Coca-Cola and in the process manages to wax poetic about globalization.

The number of individuals who know how to make a can of Coke is zero. The number of individual nations that could produce a can of Coke is zero. This famously American product is not American at all. Invention and creation is something we are all in together. Modern tool chains are so long and complex that they bind us into one people and one planet. They are not only chains of tools, they are also chains of minds: local and foreign, ancient and modern, living and dead — the result of disparate invention and intelligence distributed over time and space.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Remove User Annoyances →

John Siracusa has a Hypercritical post about Annoyance-Driven Development in which he discusses why users are still subjected to seemingly trivial annoyances, and points out that simply addressing those minor issues can reap benefits for your business.

This may sound comically selfish, but true innovation comes from embracing this sentiment, not fighting it. For companies looking to get the best bang for their buck out of technology, this is the way forward. Find out what’s annoying the people you want to sell to. Question the assumptions of your business. Give people what they want and they will beat a path to your door.

It is not selfish to want a company’s product to work the way you wish to use it. If John doesn’t want to watch the opening credits of a television series when he is watching back-to-back episodes on Netflix, then Netflix should attempt to address his use case. Technology is capable of solving this problem, and as John mentions later in his article, while it may be a pain to implement these types of features, the user experience would be greatly improved.

We nerds love technology for its own sake. Indeed, there’s always something to be gained by advancing the state of the art and providing more of a good thing. But the most profound leaps are often the result of applying technology to historically underserved areas. By all means, make everything better and faster, but also find the things that seem like minor annoyances, the things that everyone just accepts as necessary evils. Go after those things and you’ll really make people love you. Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative.

Every time I encounter a person who has changed the way they work or has altered their routine due to some technology that they use, I cringe because that is exactly what we should not be doing to users when we create a new tool. Imagine what would happen with hammers if they required you to reset the head every tenth swing. Some people might continue to use them and simply accept the flaw in the design. However, I can guarantee that far more people would stop using them or look for another solution, and professionals who swing a hammer thousands of times per day would give all of their business to the first company who could make a hammer that didn’t require a reset every tenth swing.

While my example is contrived, I believe it illustrates my point well. Why are people seemingly so accepting of technology’s shortcomings in user experience? Is it because we have been desensitized over the years to accept that cell phone interfaces will be needlessly convoluted and complex? Is it because we desire to watch television so much that we will pay for a subscription to “on-demand” services and then accept watching commercials and advertisements that cannot be skipped because a network dictated it in their terms with the service provider?

There are thousands of user annoyances with technology alone. What we need now are enterprising people who want to address users’ needs instead of adding unnecessary new features and spending millions on marketing those features to an indifferent audience. User experience needs to be given more attention.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Reading More in 2013

I read eighteen books in 2011 and twenty-five in 2012. This is a good increase year over year, but I want a much higher total in 2013. I am shooting for fifty-two books by the end of the year. For a slow reader like myself, that is quite a challenge, but I believe that of I stick to reading one fiction and one non-fiction book simultaneously and aim for approximately 50 pages per book per day, then based on average book length, I should be able to come close to the goal, especially if I supplement with audio books. So far, this plan is working as I have read eighteen books as of March 1st, which matches my total for the entire 2011 year. I am still testing a couple of layouts and ideas, but I should be adding a reading list area to the site at some point this year so I can log what I’ve completed and post reviews when the mood strikes me.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Holidaze

As I relax and watch re-runs of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on Netflix while entertaining my seven month old son, I can’t help but wonder at how spoiled we are by all of these modern conveniences—pre-made plastic toys, televisions, Internet access, streaming video, central heat, dishwashers, and disposable diapers, to name a handful.

First world problems abound, but I wonder how many of these “problems” are caused by our attachment to modern conveniences. Simplifying life will often reduce the number of perceived problems if not reduce the real problems. After all, is a broken dishwasher a problem or a reason to remove it and add some extra drawers, or perhaps it is the impetus needed to remodel the kitchen and learn cabinet-making? That may be a stretch, but you see what I mean.

I love my Kindle as much as the next person.

That’s a lie. I love it more than the next person, but when it, or rather its battery, gave up the ghost, I turned to my bookshelves to use a traditional book for reading. There’s just something about holding a written page…

This holiday season, look for ways to simplify your life, slow down, pull a book off the shelf, curl up with some hot cocoa or an eggnog, and learn how to repair that dishwasher, because the dishes are really starting to pile up, and I’m certainly not going to wash them by hand.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Apple AirPort Extreme

As a systems administrator, I frequently like to tinker with operating systems, software, configurations, firmware, hardware, and anything else that might make me more proficient in using technology to make life easier. In the past, I would use any home computing device at hand to test out a new upgrade or to beta test an application or even to load up the latest pre-release operating system, all in the name of bleeding edge features and getting the most out of technology.

These days, I separate my computing devices at home into production and development categories. While this may sound like overkill, it is not and for good reason. New technology frequently crashes, fails, or behaves in a manner most unexpected, and it will do this at the most inconvenient time possible.

In my younger years, when I felt that I had time to spare, I would take all of the quirks, bugs, and “working as intended” features in stride and start from scratch if all else failed. Now, I cherish every last moment I have available, and the last thing I want to do with my personal time is to waste it fixing yet another technology failure or shortcoming.

With that in mind, I found myself resetting my Linksys E2000 router on a weekly basis to ensure steady performance for all of the wireless devices on my home network. Since January, the AppleTV was getting horrific streaming throughput, my wife’s iPhone was frequently slow to load sites and applications that required Internet connectivity were bogged down. I would also lose Internet connectivity entirely at random times.

I spent loads of time running network diagnostics, re-configuring DHCP reservations, port mappings, and finally, calling Comcast technical support because I thought at this point, it must be their issue. Over the course of six months, I worked with Comcast to troubleshoot these issues and bit-by-bit, they replaced every last cable and device from the street to my home. And the connection loss would still occur until the router was reset.

On one hand, the router very well may have been beginning to fail. After all, my home network is very heavy on traffic, and I had been running that router for over a year. On the other hand, I am at an age where I require anything that is attached to my home network to “just work”.

As I was perusing the web for the best price on a Linksys EA3500, I thought to myself, “There are a lot of Apple devices on my network. Apple makes routers, and I’ve always heard good things about them. Maybe I should try one.” Since I was headed to the Apple Store to pick up the AppleCare+ for my wife’s iPad, I decided to pick up an Apple AirPort Extreme while I was there. Boy, am I ever glad I purchased this router for my home network.

The AirPort Extreme has been and absolute configure-and-forget-it dream come true. Setting it up is the standard for a router. Plug in the WAN cable, any LAN cables, and power cable. Install the AirPort utility on your PC, Mac, iPhone, or iPad and set up your network. Done.

I am simplifying when I say, “set up your network,” but it’s really no different than any other router configuration. All the options are there — from DHCP reservations, wireless security settings, private and guest wireless networks to port mapping and access controls. Once I configured everything to my liking, a simple click of the “Update” button reset the router and made my settings live.

Not only is the AirPort Extreme “just working”, but it is also powerful. At 100% transmit power, the 5 GHz network gives an umbrella that looks to hit portions of the neighboring yards. Since I keep my network locked down to only my devices, I decided this was not only unnecessary, but also impolite to my neighbors since my wireless could potentially interfere with their own networks. I scaled that transmit power back to 50% and am still getting fantastic coverage across my entire house and yard.

Apart from the overall simplicity of administration, the AirPort scored another point (or rather Cisco scored a point for Apple) with the Cisco Connect Cloud debacle earlier this week. One of the worst experiences with the Linksys E2000 router when I purchased it was the included Cisco Connect software. This software was supposed to ease router administration, but what it really did was fence off features depending on your administrative skill level.

If you wanted to run a guest wireless network, you could open up Cisco Connect, give it a name — and password if you wanted to secure it — and activate it. Simple. However, if you also wanted to set DHCP reservations for devices on your home network, you could not do that with Cisco Connect and would instead have to use the traditional web interface for the router administration.

But there was a problem. If you used the web interface and set DHCP reservations, then the guest network was wiped, and if you went back into Cisco Connect and re-activated the guest network, the DHCP reservations were gone again. You could only choose one or the other administration method for the Linksys E2000, so you could either have simple administration and few features, or standard administration with advanced features, but not a simple guest wireless network. This was yet another reason I was glad to get rid of the old router.

Imagine my surprise at reading that Cisco turned the Cisco Connect software into a cloud solution and also made it the default configuration manager for all of their new consumer routers. In the Ars Technica article, Jon Brodkin describes his surprise experience when updating the firmware on his new EA3500:

When the firmware update (which also applied to the EA4500 and EA2700 router models) rolled out, attempting to connect to the browser’s internal administrative Web interface brings the user instead to a signup page for the “Cisco Connect Cloud”…

The service basically replicates all the features router administrators already have, but moves them from your home network to Cisco’s cloud. The supposed benefit is that you can manage your router even when you’re not at home. I can’t imagine many circumstances in which I would need to do that; connecting my router’s administration features to a Web account also seems like a needless security risk (albeit a small one).

In exchange for the convenience of Connect Cloud, you have to agree to some pretty onerous terms. In short, Cisco would really hate it if you use the Web to view porn or download copyrighted files without paying for them.

He doesn’t mention whether or not you can actually have both a guest wireless network and DHCP reservations with the latest revision of Cisco Connect software, but either way, it was not an application that was begging to become a cloud solution. If anything, it needed a rewrite to be more like Apple’s AirPort Utility. Regardless, consumer backlash has apparently given Cisco a change of heart, and you can now opt-in to Cisco Connect Cloud instead of having it forced upon you.

While I applaud the change, it seems to still be too little too late, and quite honestly, even before this happened, Apple had already converted me on yet another piece of hardware that is designed beautifully and functions well so I can use my devices and get things done. This is not to say that I still won’t keep dd-wrt and Tomato Firmware handy for hacking old routers and tinkering on my development devices and network, but from now on, any devices on my home production network need to be capable of fading into the background of my work flows.

I highly recommend the Apple AirPort Extreme if you’re in the market for a new home router. Also, if you have family or friends who would like to have you set up their wireless networks, get them an AirPort Extreme — or the new AirPort Express Base Station which is wonderful if they only need one wired LAN connection — and set it up for them. That’ll be one less technical support issue for you.

Ben Brooks posted about his wireless router issues, and he came to the same conclusion about the Apple AirPort routers.

I have installed DD-WRT on routers. I know, and can vouch for, just how fast non-Apple routers can be. The problem: they require a lot of work, and more than that, a lot of maintenance. I had one router that needed to be reset every time ~10GBs of data passed through it — no really.

I know a lot of people who constantly have trouble with their ’wireless internet’ and after I convince them to get the Apple router I don’t hear another peep from them.

I know these routers aren’t for everyone, but they are for most everyone.

Go get yours, set it up, and then forget about your network for a couple of years.

Indeed.