Free is never free.

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

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…

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

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

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.