Free is never free. 0

The iDevice/OS X world is full of free apps. They do all kinds of things from determining the outcome of coin flips to helping you figure out what movie to see.

And you need to start avoiding every one of them.

There are two reasons that you should opt out of “free” apps anytime your finances allow:

1 – They may make money

2 – They may not make money

Both lead to horrible things, and there really isn’t a 3rd option available.

1 – They make money

The business of nearly every app designer is to – somehow – make money from their app. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, and some truly altruistic app developers out there, but they are extraordinarily rare. In 99 out of 100 apps, the goal is to make the developers money so they can make more apps, retire, take over the world, etc.

The problem with free apps is that you’re not paying for them – so who is? Well, the truth is that they’re making money – just not from you directly. That means that they’re going to make money by targeting advertising, or otherwise selling any information you give the application to the highest bidder (you hope). No matter if it is selling ad space or selling email contact lists, in either case you’re paying for the app with something (your attention or your info) and paying a lot more than the 99 cents it would probably have cost if you just bought the app outright.

Or, the app may make money via micro-purchases for something you need to make the app work – or at least work well. Zynga’s games are a prime example of this. Want to make your farm work better? Give up your friends’ information or pay Zynga to get in-game stuff. Neither option is actually free, as one will alienate your friends and the other lightens your wallet.

Alternately, they could just sell the whole app and all the information it gathered to someone all at once. Facebook acquiring Instagram is a somewhat recent example of this. Now, all that info and all your photos belong to Facebook – no matter what they try to do to gloss it over in the End User License Agreements. So, once again, the app developer has made money from you, even if they didn’t take the cash out of your digital wallet directly.

2 – They may not make money
If an app cannot make money from you, and they cannot or will not make money from ads or other means; then that’s a bigger problem. Apps that make no money can’t fund development. They can’t support their developers and have very little incentive to move the product forward. Many free apps from less than a year ago are already outdated, don’t run on the latest versions of iOS or OS X, or have just disappeared entirely. This means no bug fixes, no support, no viability in the long term at all.

Now, there are indeed some free apps that are not making money but are actively supported and developed. They typically fall into two categories:

1 – Apps supported by in-app upgrades or apps that have both free and paid versions. Instapaper is a great example of this, with versions of the app that are clearly ad-supported and feature-restricted; and others that are add-free and non-restricted. You can (and a great many people do) pay for premium accounts to unlock all the features. This allows the developer to make money and still offer a limited version for free. Granted, the limited version is still not quite “free” – but at least they have a legitimate business plan and are not just farming your email contacts.

2 – Apps that are actually part of a larger company or service that you’re paying for. Your bank, grocery store, gym, and comic-book shop may all have free apps. These apps are paid for by you frequenting those stores, with the apps acting as digital access or storefronts. The app isn’t free, you’re paying for goods and/or services from the company that gives the app away. While those companies are still at risk of being bought out and giving up your info, at least that is not their primary goal in producing and supporting the app in the first place.

So, be wary any time you see a free app. If there’s one that’s 99 cents or two bucks, and you can afford it, then go for that app instead. Or, if you are a customer of a business and they have an app that you’re paying for with your patronage, go for that. Otherwise, the app isn’t really free, and the price you pay can be much higher than you’d ever expect.

Wither Microsoft – Part III – How to use Microsoft tools on a Mac 0

Alright, you’ve made it through the first two articles and have decided you need to use Microsoft tools in some form on your Mac. But which form is right for you?

First, determine if the apps you need are even available on OS X. Many Windows-based tools are not, so this could be an easy decision. Here’s some of the more common apps that do have OS X counterparts available directly from their vendors:

Office – Microsoft produces Office for Mac, currently at version 2011. While not every feature set is in the Mac version, the basics are there. You’ll get Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and some add-on features like the Remote Desktop Connection client.

Communicator/Lync – Note that here we’re talking about the messaging clients that are specifically used for corporate communications server systems, and NOT talking about MSN Messenger or Skype. Microsoft does have versions of both Communicator (for Office Communications Server) and Lync (for Lync Server) that are built for OS X and run on Lion and up. Most also work on Snow Leopard, but aren’t officially supported there. You will need to obtain a copy of the software and a license from your company’s IT department, as they are not sold directly to end-users like the rest of the Office suite is.

Cloud applications – Things like SalesForce, SharePoint, and other services are available via web browsers, and nearly all of them work fine in Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. This means that you don’t have to have a full (or “thick”) client software package for either Windows or Mac, and can use these apps on both.

VPN/Security tools – Cisco and other VPN vendors tend to make OS X versions of their VPN clients, but you’ll need to reach out to the vendor to be certain. If they do have an OS X app, then it is highly likely that you’ll be able to connect just the same as with the Windows version (I can vouch for the Cisco VPN app personally). Security tools are another story. Some vendors (like Sophos) do make OS X versions, but many do not properly connect to their corporate server counterparts. Again, check with the Vendor to be sure.

Many other applications used in a corporate setting (like Visio, for example) are Windows-Only, and therefore cannot run natively on a Mac. In some cases, you can find Mac application that has the same features and can read/save to/from the same file formats, allowing you to perform those tasks on a Mac. However, there will be times when an application simply exists in a Windows-only form, and there isn’t any Mac app that can get the job done.

For these times, it’s a good idea to create either a Virtual Machine or a Boot Camp partition to give you a Windows desktop when you need it, but keep out of the way otherwise. Personally, I use both for different reasons, but mostly I use a VM for day-to-day stuff.

Using a VM requires four things:
1 – A VM capable Mac
2 – A licensed copy of Windows XP, Vista, 7, or (for some VM tools) 8
3 – Disk space to hold the VM itself
4 – A license for the virtualization software

Most Macs built after 2009 can run a VM, check with your virtualization vendor (the top two are Parallels and VMware) to see if yours is ready to roll. Once you have that, and a licensed copy of both Windows and the VM software (which you can get from the vendor’s website or from the App Store), then you need some space.

A VM needs disk space to live in, and for most Windows VM’s this is a minimum of 50 GB. It can be on your local hard drive, or on a USB or other externally-attached drive. For something like a MacBook Air, this is the biggest concern, as disk space is at an absolute premium if you’re putting the VM on the local disk. You will probably need closer to 75-100 GB to hold a VM with a bunch of applications on it, so plan ahead.

Once you install the VM software, the tool should guide you through setting up a VM for the Windows OS you have chosen. If you’ve never done this before, it’s like installing Windows onto any other machine, except this machine is actually a window on your OS X desktop. The VM software from both Parallels and VMware will walk you through most of the basics, but you’ll probably want to get some help from your IT team or someone who’s installed Windows on a new machine before.

Boot Camp is another option, this is an Apple technology that allows you to install Windows into a partition (a segment of your hard drive) and boot into either Windows or Mac as needed. Apple has a lot of resources to help you do this, and you can start by reading the Knowledge Base article on the subject, located here.

Boot Camp does require a few things:

1 – An Intel-Based Mac
2 – Enough free space on your hard disk to create the partition (between 50 and 100 GB)
3 – A licensed copy of Windows Vista, 7, or (soon) 8

The major drawback to using Boot Camp is that you can only run one OS at a time. You either boot into Windows or into OS X, and you have to reboot to change between the two. This can be eliminated if you also use a VM system, as the major vendors all support booting the Boot Camp partition as a VM in OS X. This way, you can jump to Windows by rebooting if you need full horsepower, but otherwise use your Windows apps via a Virtual Machine from inside OS X.

So, now we’ve talked about why you might want to use Microsoft tools directly in OS X, why you may not want to or may not be able to, and how to use them on both Windows and OS X on the same Apple hardware. What will you do for your Mac? How will you leverage Microsoft technology along-side your Apple technology? Sound off in the comments, or drop me an email and let the world know your thoughts on the matter.

The Mass Effect Effect – or, don’t piss off your fans… 0

I’m not a huge gamer. Though I am still a fan of a few, like EverQuest (the original one) and play from time to time, but it takes a hell of a lot to get me really into a game. Getting me into a series is nearly impossible. As a matter of fact, since the advent of the Xbox, it’s happened a grand total of three times. BioShock – for all its flaws – grabbed my attention, and I can’t wait for the next one to finally make it out the door. Fallout was another, but I admit that fascination went all the way back to the pre-Windows days when I played a game called Wasteland – the “spiritual grandfather” of the Fallout series.

The third is Mass Effect. Once I figured out how to turn off the stupid film grain so I didn’t get continually motion sick, I was hooked. For those who don’t follow gaming, or don’t follow the Mass Effect series, it had some problems. Most notably, the ending of the trilogy didn’t go so well. You can read some of the details (with minor SPOILERS!!) here.

I will not go into the details in this post, as I have no intention of spoiling the storyline. I will, however, outline what happened:

Mass Effect came out, bringing a true role-playing aspect to Space Opera Fantasy gaming. The concept has been tried before, but something in Mass Effect clicked and the game took off like a rocket (or a Mass Effect Starship).

Mass Effect 2 took that concept and rammed it into overdrive. The depth of characters, story lines, settings, and events was immense. The studio in charge (BioWare) not only created a successful sequel, they created one that far surpassed the first chapter. With a galaxy-spanning storyline that was directly (and sometimes radically) changed not only by the characters basic choices, but by the very way they interacted with he galaxy around them. Moral, ethical, and logical choices all changed the way you played through the entire game.

BioWare wasn’t done. After a bit of a wait, they launched Mass Effect 3 to a now rabid fan-base. As the series was always meant to be a trilogy (the future games have been hinted to have totally different storylines/characters), ME3 was going to be the end of the story. No one was unsure of this, and everyone from fan sites to the creators themselves had accepted that everything would be brought to a close.

Most of the game was spectacular. Yes, there were hiccups – there always are. Yes, some things might have been done better – they always can. However; the story itself, the characters and their trilogy-spanning development, and the epic nature of the game made it amazing to play.

Right up until the end.

Long story short, the publishers of the game – who will remain nameless in this article – forced the developers to rush the game out the door. So a major mechanic of the game, one that literally determined the fate of the galaxy, fell flat. Suddenly, gamers who didn’t really like multi-player found themselves forced to play that aspect of the game. Secondary methodologies for avoiding multi-player ran into massive technical difficulties – when they worked at all.

Secondly, the developers – no doubt feeling immense pressure to launch – basically phoned in the ending sequences. An epic story that spanned an entire galaxy and three in-game years ended with a whimper at best, and a kick to the genitals in many cases.

The fans – understandably – went to grab pitchforks and torches and raised a holy uproar the likes of which is seldom seen in the gaming community. Everyone complains about games, but getting that many gamers to all complain about the exact same thing is remarkable. To have them do it loudly enough to worry a media giant is unheard of!

Eventually, BioWare saw the error of their ways (and/or got tired of constantly deleting hate emails) and created a free DownLoadable Content (DLC) pack that corrected the majority of the issues. The requirement for using multi-player or half-assed mobile apps was removed, and the endings were given a proper treatment. While many gamers still found the ending to be missing something, I found it to be a fitting end to the trilogy, and exceptionally well done.

So, what can we learn from this that we can apply to using Social Media effectively? Quite a lot, actually.

First, don’t do things half-assed if there is any way (including delays) to avoid it. If you’re going to build a community, you have to see it through. Deciding you will just push things out because you’re pressed for time can be worse than making people wait a little longer. While the developers managed to dodge a lot of the backlash by fixing things, the media giant of a publisher left a horribly sour taste in the mouths of consumers. You know, the people who actually buy their stuff.

That brings us to the second lesson. If you make a mistake, own it. Apologize, make it right as soon as you can and make it good. BioWare took a publicity hit over this, but managed to win back most of their fans (and many of the most vocal ones) by creating the DLC that satisfied them. They didn’t plan to, but the public outcry was so severe they needed to do something, and they did. Responding to the needs of your followers, especially when you do something that gets them angry with you, is a sure way to turn a follower into a fan, and someone who likes your product into a true believer.

Of course, you try not to make mistakes. They do, however, happen. Avoid them whenever you can (especially if they can be avoided with slight delays) and apologize when you can’t. Your fan base may not be as big as BioWare’s, but that’s today. Tomorrow you write a new chapter, and who knows how far your influence will reach. Gain it carefully, own it well, and never leave the masses on your doorstep with pitchforks and torches.

Unless, of course, you actually have a Mass Effect drive and can safely get the hell out of the building.

Wither Microsoft – Part II – Maybe Not 0

Last time, we talked about why you might want to use some of the Microsoft software technologies on your Mac. This time, let’s talk about why you may want to avoid – or at least segregate – them.

Microsoft tools are not perfect, I think we can all admit that. In all fairness, the Apple tools have their own issues, so Microsoft is not alone, but we’re Mac users and therefore we’re hoping to look for more faults in other peoples’ software =) I do want to point out that I use Microsoft products myself, both on my Mac and elsewhere. I also do a large amount of work with Windows servers, and love the OS and everything I can do with it. I simply prefer Mac as my desktop platform, and therefore have found lots of opportunity to explore mixing and matching.

So, why might you not want to use Microsoft software on your Mac?

– Incompatibility: This is the top reason I’d have to list as to why Microsoft tools may not be the best choice for you. As an example, if your company uses Exchange Server 2003 or earlier (and I know quite a few that do), then Outlook 2011 won’t connect to your Exchange Server at all. You’ll have to run a compatible version of Microsoft Outlook for Windows in a Boot Camp partition or VM. Be aware, won’t connect to Exchange 2003 or earlier either, so sometimes you just don’t have any choice.

– Less Mac-focused: A purely subjective argument, but one I can’t deny. With the Ribbon and other Windows-centric interfaces, the Microsoft apps for OS X are simply not the same in terms of look and feel as their Apple counterparts. For most folks, this isn’t a big thing, but if you’re totally in love with the interface of Pages, then Word for Mac probably won’t get you all that excited.

– The apps are slow and crash: Again, not bashing Microsoft here, but many of the Windows apps for OS X do tend to perform worse than the Apple apps that do the same thing. Outlook on Windows, for example, is in no way the most stable application I’ve ever worked with, but compared to its Mac counterpart (Outlook 2011), it’s a streamlined race car. Outlook on Mac is very slow to start up with a large mail database, freezes for several seconds at a time for no reason, has trouble regaining focus if you click on the wrong area of the screen, etc. The user groups are chock full of complaints on these and many other subjects. Word for Mac and other Office apps have similar issues, and Communicator for Mac (for those of us not on Lync Server yet) is a world of hurt all its own.

– The apps are not the same as their Windows counterparts: While Microsoft has taken great pains to try to make the OS X apps as feature-complete as the Windows versions, they didn’t manage to get everything in there. For example, Outlook 2011 has no support for Social Connectors, and just barely managed to get support for some more basic things like recurring tasks/reminders into a recent Service Pack update. If you happen to need features that are just not implemented in the Mac versions of these apps, then they won’t work for you.

As you can see, the arguments for not using the Microsoft tools for OS X are about equal to the reasons you should use them. Luckily, there are ways to get the best of both worlds. Next week we’ll talk about the different options for using Microsoft software on your Mac, including segregation using VM’s or Boot Camp.

The work/life balance 0

Social Media has invaded just about every aspect of our life. From keeping up with friends and family on Facebook to tracking potential job opportunities on LinkedIn, we’re constantly tapping into our Social Networks. How do you keep work and home independent? Should you do so?

The short answer is that for nearly all of us, you should indeed keep your work Social Networks and your home interactions independent of each other. Your business colleagues don’t want to see what you had for lunch today, and your friends and family probably don’t care that you’ve connected tot he VP of Whatever at some company. That being said, having two Social Profiles on each site can lead to some challenges, but help eliminate others.

First, how do you keep everything straight in your head? With a huge swath of Social Networks to choose from, you probably have accounts on five or six at any given time – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, App.Net, etc. etc. etc. The problem isn’t that you’re on too many networks (though that may very well be true) but that you need to send different updates to different accounts on different services.

For me, I limited myself to only a few Social Networks. I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Anything else MUST connect to one of those three, or I don’t actively watch or update it. This isn’t as hard as it seems, as most Social apps do indeed connect to one of those three, and therefore I can post updates to a limited number of places, and have them distributed to a full spectrum of social tools.

Then, I created and maintain two accounts for each of those services. One for my own non-corporate streaming (those are the links above) and one for anything I do for the company I work for. This way, I can tweet or post whatever I want to on the personal sites, without worrying that it’ll show up on my company profile. Granted, you still need to not post anything that you’d be ashamed your grandmother saw, but this method gives you a bit more latitude.

By digitally segregating your personal and work accounts, you can keep your work/life balance in balance by simply shutting off the site/client for your work account when you’re not actually at work. I tend to keep mine on, just to allow me to keep tabs on replies and DM’s, but many folks do shut that part of their online life off at the end of their business day.

Secondly, how do you deal with ownership if you choose to have combined accounts? In many cases, any account that posts on behalf of a company can be considered to be “owned” by that company. This means if you use the same accounts to share info about both work and private life, then if you should leave the company, they can keep your accounts. While this is still being run through the court systems, and there hasn’t been enough case-law to set a precedent yet, the issue is going to come to a head soon. In all likelihood, the employment contract you signed says that if the company dedicated resources to something, they own it, so it’s unlikely that the end-user will win when these things finally do make their way through the court systems in the US and elsewhere.

Because of this, keeping your private life segregated from your work life on Social Networks is a very good idea. This way, even if you do leave your employer and have to give up your company-focused accounts, you still have your contact lists and timelines from your own accounts to take with you.

Splitting your Social Media life between work and “other” is never an easy thing, but it’s vital to do so if you intend to leverage Social Media for work purposes. Doing so will let you define a better balance between your work life and social life, and will help to ensure that your tweets, posts, and blogs remain truly your own, no matter what.

Basic Data Security and You 0

[Editor’s note: Sorry for the hiatus on my blogs recently. I’ve gotten swamped by work, and ran out of pre-written posts just before the holidays here in the US. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that I’m posting this particular column =) ]

When you go online and post, blog, tweet, DM, etc.; you place information about yourself out there in the Internet. Granted, that’s the whole point to Social Networking, but many of us have seemingly forgotten that the Internet is an open community, not a private telephone line.

So, here’s a few “rules of the road” to follow to help keep yourself safe;

1 – Know what you’re clicking on. These days, it is unbelievably common to see posts that contain links to websites. The vast majority of these are perfectly safe, but some are actually phishing or attack sites that can make your life miserable very quickly. The good news is that many Twitter, Facebook, and other Social Media tools will allow you to preview a link before you click on it. In fact, many now allow you to auto-expand the URL of a short-link (like a or jmp link) so you can see the URL of the actual destination site. Just hover over the link to see where it leads to. If you don’t know what the destination site is, if it doesn’t apply to the tweet or post, or if you have no idea why you’d be getting that message to begin with – then don’t click.

2 – People can be impersonated. Feel like you want to share something personal in a DM to that person who’s been making conversation with you? Think twice. While the majority of people online are who they say they are (though some of us use pen names of course), there are folks who are scam artists who will try to get you to give up personal information, money, secrets, etc. Don’t be fooled, make sure you know who the person really is first.

3 – People can also be hacked. Twitter and Facebook and many other Social Networks are constantly trying to improve security and help folks not get hacked, but it still happens with alarming regularity. Not following some of theses rules is a sure way to make it happen, but sometimes it’s just a really good hacker finding a way to get into someone’s account that they shouldn’t have access to. When you get an odd DM (“Hey, what are you doing in this video”) or something seems amiss, it very well could be someone else pretending to be a friend you know. DM back and confirm that it’s really them BEFORE you give up any information or click on any links.

4 – Don’t post it if it isn’t public (no, not even in a DM). I’ve said this one before and I’ll keep saying it until everyone gets it. If you wouldn’t shout it out at the top of your lungs while standing in the middle of Times Square in New York; if you wouldn’t want your boss and your grandmother to both read it; then do not post it. Anything you put online – even if it seems to be in a private message or DM – can, and eventually will, become public. Save yourself a lot of embarrassment now and avoid posting anything you don’t want the world to see.

5 – Be careful what services you use. Many socially-integrated services can gain information from your profiles and timelines. The majority clearly spell out what they’re going to be seeing and using, but you still need to be careful. Every time you authorize an application, carefully read the authorization page to be sure you know EXACTLY what it will have access to, and what it will do with that access. If the app doesn’t have a web page explaining what rights it needs on your Twitter or Facebook accounts, and more importantly WHY it needs those rights; don’t use that app. Vote with your wallet and find a different app that is up-front about what it needs access to and why.

6 – De-authorize any apps you no longer use. Companies get bought out, are acquired, or merged, or otherwise change their ownership. Companies also change their policies and procedures over time. If you’re no longer using a particular socially-integrated app, then go to the settings pages of your various Social Networks and de-authorize or remove that app. This way, if the owner of that app changes companies or policies, you can be sure that they no longer have access to your data.

7 – Use all security features. Many people don’t know that Google and Facebook both offer forms of two-factor authentication. Once turned on, you cannot log into your Google account or load Facebook in a new browser or on a new device without putting in a pin that Google/Facebook sends as an SMS text to your phone. Using features like this (or similar features on other networks) can help secure your account even further, with a minimum of extra work for you day-to-day. Take advantage of them whenever they’re available!

Stay sane, stay safe, and remember that it’s a wild worldwide web out there.

Wither Microsoft Part I – Why you may want it. 0

[Editor’s notes:
First, sorry for the hiatus in my postings. I’ve been swamped with work, and ran out of pre-written posts just before the holidays here in the US. But, now that I’m back on track, you can expect a return to regular, weekly posts from here on out.

Secondly, the title of today’s column has nothing to do with Microsoft losing marketing share. Those of us who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will quickly see I’m using the conjunction form of wither, meaning “where to or wherever to” instead of the more common meaning.]

While many of us in the Apple community may wish to believe that we can totally live without any Microsoft products, there are simply too many reasons why you might find you need them. This is especially true if you use your Mac for work, or a combination of work and home life. This first article of three will discuss the reasons you might want to include Microsoft technologies into your Mac life.

Those of us who use our Macs for corporate stuff often find that the business world is an inhospitable place. If you are lucky enough to work for either a company that mostly uses Macs, or one that has an IT group that uses and supports Macs; count your blessings. Most enterprises do not rely primarily on Apple technology and – aside from a few cases where iPad apps are officially sanctioned – don’t want anything to do with them. This makes actually using your Mac and native Mac apps to access company resources a challenge at best, and a nightmare at worst.

Using some of the Microsoft tools (both on OS X and in Windows on your Mac – more on that later) can make life easier for those of us who have to talk to corporate data systems regularly. Systems like Office 2011 can give you native Outlook, Word and Excel features, though generally with a feature set and file formats that are a few years old. However, even with these legacy formats, the native experience can be much easier to deal with when working on company documents and files that were built with the Office applications on Windows machines originally. Granted, Pages and other Apple apps can do these things, but may (and probably will) have formatting and function frustrations along the way.

Also keep in mind that if a native Microsoft app like Outlook 2011 is having problems, the corporate IT staff will have far less of a hard time troubleshooting it. These apps typically use the same connection systems and functions as their Windows counterparts, so especially if the problem is server-side, you’ll end up not taking the blame for something that isn’t your Mac’s problem in the first place.

There are some very non-technical reasons to use Microsoft apps or a Windows VM as well. These days, most companies have a very strict policy when it comes to data and security and information ownership. If a system holds company data, the company owns it, no exceptions. In these cases, even though you *could* use to connect to your company’s Exchange Server, you probably don’t want to. Keeping your work email independent from your personal email means not having to worry about which account you’re sending from, what signatures are being used, and who owns the content of a particular email database. I find this method invaluable – all my work email is in Outlook, my other email is in – no confusion and no mistakes.

Of course, the biggest reason you might want to consider using Microsoft apps on OS X is if you recently converted to Mac. I know that Outlook 2011 isn’t the same as Outlook 2010 or 2013, not by a long shot. However, it is much closer to its Windows counterpart than combined with Address Book and iCal. If your entire user experience has been based on Windows versions of MS Office up until this point, then using the Office for Mac applications is going to make for a much easier transition.

Next week, we’ll talk about why you may NOT want to use Microsoft software on your Mac, and then we’ll finish up in the third column describing ways you can use Microsoft tools, either on your Mac in OS X or segregated into a VM or Boot Camp partition to keep them on their own.

A day for thanks 0

Today, here in the USA, we take a day to remember all the good things in our lives. We give thanks – each in our own ways – for whatever gifts we’ve been given in this world. We also eat alarming amounts of food and then collapse in the living room to watch TV; which is apparently the evolution of the original meal shared by some of the first European settlers to the North American shores.

I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all my readers on and Thanks for being part of my blogging, and for sharing your feedback and help over the years. I’m still writing, and the blogs get better and better over time thanks to your input.

Never underestimate the power of communication. Digital, verbal, and all the other types that our out there change our lives – usually for the better. Communication can bring the world together, topple dictators, end wars. It can also discover new technology, cure diseases, and keep friends and family close no matter the distances between them.

Simply writing thoughts down on physical or digital paper transforms words into permanent things. Conversation – when shared between two or more people – alters our very lives.

So today, I’m thankful that we live in an age with nearly unlimited communication. We can share information, break down physical and language barriers, and trade ideas with anyone, any time, in any place on the planet and beyond.

Thanks again for inviting me into your browser each week. From everyone here at, may you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Third party keyboards 0

Any Mac user tends to get very used to the standard keyboard layout that you get with the included aluminum dealie you get with your new iMac or can buy with a Pro or Mini. While it does work for a lot of people, I found the layout to be a bit too compressed over time. The lack of a number-pad and dedicated home, insert, delete, and other keys become quite annoying to boot. So, I went on the lookout for other keyboards I could use instead, and ran into a problem.

I prefer ergonomic keyboards, but the few available specifically for Mac were outrageously overpriced. Now, I chose that word purposely. I’m not against shelling out a reasonable amount of money for an expensive, but great, keyboard that doesn’t forget the fact that I’m going to be banging away on it for hours every day. This means that I’ll probably have to replace the thing about once per year as I wear the text off the keytops and possibly jam one or more of them over time. Asking me to pay well over two hundred bucks for any keyboard – no matter how ergonomically designed – is just price gouging.

This left me with two choices, a non-ergonomic Mac-specific keyboard, or an ergonomic wonder that’s not designed for OSX, but rather built for Windows or even Linux. I tried out both, and they have their plusses and minuses.

First, the ergonomic boards for non-OSX machines. I looked through about a dozen choices available on major shopping sites and in stores, and settled on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, as I had been very happy with it when I was still on a Windows desktop, and the vendor (Microsoft) claims Mac compatibility. While they were not lying, there were some problems to be found in this approach. First, there’s no dedicated Command key (⌘). When you plug in or connect any new keyboard that isn’t made by Apple, OSX first asks you to identify which keys are to the left of the Z key and spacebar, and then figures out what your layout looks like. This maps the Command function to the key immediately to the left and right of the spacebar. Typically this means the Windows key gets remapped to Command, leaving Alt (Option on Mac keyboards) and Control unchanged. You can alter all these mappings in your keyboard options if that doesn’t work for you, but the defaults are pretty workable.

All in all, it was an acceptable and workable solution, but there were definitely problems with long-term use of a non-Mac-focused keyboard. First, there’s no native media keys. This may sound like a fiddly little thing, but when you get used to instant media and volume controls, and suddenly have none, it’s annoying as all get-up. Microsoft has their Intellitype software package that can make the media keys on their keyboards work for iTunes, but not for any third party applications. As a regular user of Muse and Musicality, it got even more annoying to hit pause, and find it left the Muse application playing and started playing iTunes on top of it. The same goes with the loss of one-click access to Spaces and the Dashboard, which I use quite often for a variety of reasons and apps. Once again here, Microsoft’s software can compensate for some of these keys, but not all of them (though, see below for a way to overcome the Spaces issue).

Next, I went looking for a non-ergonomic keyboard built for Mac. There’s are honestly not a lot of choices out there. Logitech has a couple, but most manufacturers either make Windows keyboards or generics. After quite a search, I found that Das makes a couple of them. They are most definitely not cheap, but they are about half the price of some of the competition and are very highly respected by the tech community. For those who’ve never heard of them, Das makes keyboards that have the distinctive key-click and overall layout found on older IBM keyboards from the dawn of the modern computing era. The tactile feedback of the key clicks and spacing of the keys makes them very finger-friendly for those of us who type a lot and want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome; the theory being that the click causes your fingers to ease up on the pressure and not slam into the hard stop at the bottom of the key.

The Professional for Mac was the one I went with myself. The Mac-specific key layout and full media key support was exactly what I was looking for, and I have indeed found that typing stress is reduced when using the clicky keys. It also helps that they keyboard is wired – which is a major thing for me. I find no reason to use a wireless keyboard, as the travel distance of the keyboard on my desk is so small that any cord can easily accommodate me. So I don’t want to have to swap out batteries every week when the keyboard isn’t mobile in the first place on my desk.

This isn’t to say that they keyboard is without fault. There’s still no Dashboard or Spaces keys, but I can use Control + Right and Left arrow keys to flip between Spaces, including the Dashboard. The keyboard itself is also incredibly noisy, and can be heard when I’m on my telephone handset or headset as I clack away taking notes on the call.

I suppose, unless you’re ok with the native keyboard that came with your system from Apple, there will always be some trade-offs. The choice is between ergonomics at the cost of full hotkey functions; hotkeys but no ergonomic layout; or spending a ton of cash on a keyboard that isn’t really any better than the lower-cost alternatives in terms of build quality.

Experiment, ask for recommendations online and from friends, and if at all possible; try out a few in a store before you buy. See which combination of look, feel and functions you think will work best on your desktop. Remember, you’re going to be typing on this thing – a lot – for quite a while, so it’s best to find one that works for you instead of the other way around.

Metadata can be a pain 0

We deal with metadata every day of our lives – often without ever realizing that we’re doing it. Metadata is simply the file attributes, geo-location tags and other items that get stuck to other data; like files and emails. For example, whenever you send an email, there is a ton of metadata that is invisible to you unless you tell your email client you want to see it. In the background, your client and the email servers that handle the mail along its route tag bits of information to the email package. Things like where it originated, what servers it is relayed through, if it has been tagged as spam or suspect, etc. Normally, metadata is harmless and in many cases even necessary. Sometimes, it becomes a major problem.

The problem was illustrated earlier this week when Oprah Winfrey tweeted that she loved her new Microsoft Surface tablet. Granted, the tweet itself wasn’t all that shocking or special; but the metadata exposed that the tweet wasn’t all it appeared to be on the … well.. surface.

In essence, the metadata stuck onto the tweet by the Twitter software Oprah used to generate the message let everyone know she had actually sent the tweet from an iPad. So the further notation that she’d bought twelve more to give as gifts was undermined by the fact that she wasn’t using one herself, and the claim of it being one of her famous “#FavoriteThings” was somewhat hollow.

In this case, the metadata was embarrassing, but (with the exception of the marketing implications for Microsoft) not harmful. In some cases, however, metadata can be far more problematic. For example, in addition to tagging tweets with the client you are using, your twitter software most likely sends along your physical location co-ordinates as well. This feature can be turned off in the client and on the twitter website, though many people forget to do so or acknowledge and allow it without realizing they’re doing it. This means that you can say you “just arrived at work” and your tweet might betray that you’re actually across town. It also means that anyone who views your tweets can track where you are and where you’ve been. Certainly not good news for those who value their privacy.

Twitter isn’t alone in having metadata that can be more problematic than most realize. Nearly all Social Media tools have geo-location available, and will tag your posts with that data unless you tell them to do otherwise. Email encodes the route that the email took between sender and receiver, along with time and date at each hop across the Internet. This can become a legal issue if you’re claiming that an email was sent on a certain date, but the metadata (in this case the header information) shows that it wasn’t. Cameras will tag photos with anything from the settings used to take the photo (commonly called EXIF data), to the date and time of the snapshot, and even location if your camera has a GPS feature. Even mobile devices can be problematic, as the carrier can track where you’re logging in from at any time. Even when the phone or mobile device’s GPS is disabled, carriers can get an approximate fix on your location by figuring out which cell towers you are transmitting to and from.

Now, this is not to say that metadata is a bad thing in and of itself. EXIF data is extremely helpful in photo editing, and phone GPS/geo-location systems can help save your life if you are in an accident or have an emergency situation. Foursquare uses metadata to identify where you are in the world, and the whole purpose of that app is to let people know where you are. Knowing what tweets, posts, and emails are replies and forwards/RT’s is extremely useful, and it’s all held in tags. Metadata also helps track spam, organize files on your hard drive, and control the spread of malware. It really is a neutral technology that can be used for good or bad purposes, depending on the situation.

Be aware that metadata exists, and question what metadata is being attached to tweets, files and anything else you do in the digital world. Turn off geo-location anywhere and for any app you don’t want reporting on your whereabouts; and ensure that your cameras, mobile devices and other gear aren’t storing (or broadcasting) data you don’t want them to tag to your photos, posts and files.

Metadata isn’t a bad thing, but it can be used for unwanted purposes. Know about it, control it, and try not to tweet about a particular tablet from a competitor’s platform.