In today’s technological climate its a shame to see how decentralized we are. Every group is trying to take a new spin on things, but accomplish very little. Granted this is probably the most connected society the universe has known, but it could be so much more. Even with all these connections, the information technology world is fragmented. How many social sites must one keep up with. How many email accounts do you have with how many different services.
Society needs to start looking at communal data that can easily be used for data acquisition. The challenge to this is scale. One company working to make centralized communal data available to the public is difficult. The US government has created data.gov which is a federal database full of great data sets. There are also many fantastic privately run databases such as The Movie Database. I would love to see more consistency in the way the data is acquired, but this would be a monumental effort. Maybe over time you will see these efforts come together.
The data in the Ethernet (the cloud before marketing got their grubby hands on it) is already there. The only problem is that the way we access that data is fragmented. To get social data we use Facebook. For the weather we go to weather.com. The second problem is that our ability to collect data in our lives is still in its infancy. The third problem there is now real way to combine all that data, and make smart adjustments to our lives.
That is why I propose a shift in the American way of life. Where home infrastructure become the norm, and when I say a infrastructure I mean an old computer hooked up in the corner will almost certainly work. The idea is that this computer should act as a sever that is a collection point for data in the home. Essentially, I am proposing a home SCADA system. With small endpoints collecting data in the house hold, that data can then be cross referenced with public stores of data. Then you can have you home system automate choices for you, such as changing the thermostat to an optimal temperature or deciding a more optimal watering schedule for your lawn. Also the nice thing about puling data in from to cloud to be cross referenced locally is that it ensure privacy. There would be no company trying to sell you anything extra, or even sell you like a product. This would both enhance your life and keep it private at the same time.
To accomplish this, there needs to be a paradigm shift. That and the home infrastructure needs to be accessible. Easy to use. Easy to set up. So here I go, off to try and accomplish this feat. Will I succeed? Perhaps. At least Ill have fun trying.
Everyone loves free. Recently Adobe has released their entire CS2 line of products. These 2005 suite of products are hands down the best in class for its era. Now they are seven years old, but they are still quite powerful tools by todays standards.
I recently stumbled upon a new hobby that has been quite an adventure for me. One that requires both technical skills, as well as, creativity to solve problems. You see I have a fascination with system integration, and enjoy finding ways to make systems where you can not tell there is any integration at all. I hope to make a series of articles describing my adventure that will hopefully create a path that someone could use to help them along the path.
The first step I had to take was to jot down the requirements. The first thing I had to think about is what I wanted to accomplish with this system, and what kind of functionality I wanted to get out of the system. Then I looked at what resources I had lying around the house. I have three TVs lying around the house. One TV sits in the bedroom, living room and the kitchen. I knew that in the living room I wanted the full experience. I want it to play live tv, PVR, streamed internet tv, Blu-ray, and some gaming. It also has to support HDMI connections and be ready for a 7.1 surrond sound. For the kitchen and bedroom I would be happy with just live tv and streaming. I also wanted to make sure everything look cool and was consistent across different TVs. I also want to make sure that all the systems work together seamlessly. That when I change programs, I don’t need to change input device. I want to reuse as much as I can. I have an old computer I built back in middle school which has a dated hardware, and couple of laptops. So I figured I would need to pull a lot of different elements from different sources.
Requirements of the System
Personal video recording
Ability to stream from Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and Netflix
Playing local files (movies, music, images, etc…)
Ability to play Blu-ray
Synchronization across many TVs and sound systems
Needs to be intuitive with multiple input devices
The system should minimize the need to change input devices
Gaming should ideally be done with a controller
Has to be high-definition and surround sound capable
Now that I know what I wanted and what I had, It is now time to figure out how I wanted to run all of this. In my early experiments I used the laptop to get a feel for all the software. It was quite convenient since they are quite portable and have built-in wireless, but it wouldn’t accomplish what i had in mind. I decided I would have to build my own HTPC for the living room. Since this is not a full on gaming rig, and I am only planning on playing games that play well with a controller, it only needs to be a solid medium range build. I have also chosen to use Windows 7 as the operating system. This decision is influenced by my desire for gaming and easy Blu-ray.
Now the kitchen and bedroom I would need very little hardware and to have a low profile. Now recently, there has been a release of these Raspberry PIs. These are small computers that cost approximately $50-$60 when all the additions are purchased, and are quite capable to run the software and the videos that I want in the bedroom and the kitchen. On this system I was planning to run the Raspberry Pi flavor of XBMC running on Ubuntu. It is cheaper, easier to remotely manage, and keeps the cost down on these slim featured nodes. Fits the requirements and keeps costs low.
Now there is one final component. A server that helps synchronize everything. The servers duty is to combine all the sources of media and present them to the end point nodes and keep all the information. This server will be expected to be running constantly. Therefore, it is necessary that the server be designed with power consumption in mind. The operating system I have in mind is again Linux because it plays friendlier with all the different operating systems involved. It also keeps the overall cost down and is easier to manage via a secure shell connection.
In terms of software I like to use XBMC. It is quite versatile. It can play all kinds of file based and streamed movies and tv shows. The newest release can play live tv and PVR. Finally, it can run on just about any operating system and platform. There are others, but I like the degree of control and agnostic it is.
So this design centralizes everything in a server then gives you two flavors of hardware to allow you to control costs vs. functionality depending on the expected role. Future articles will go into further detail about each component, and how I built it.
This is a topic that puzzled me. You see this used to be done automatically using Windows Live Mesh, but becuase of many reasons Microsoft discontinued it. Now with the new Skydrive there is no clear way of doing it. To make matters a little more confusing when I attempted to search, everything I saw suggested this was no longer impossible. After pondering about how I would do this I came up with a solution. You see, as long as you have Skydrive on your computer thats all you need to pull this off. The best part is its very simple. I got the inspiration from playing around with fusing Linux and Windows file systems together.
1. First thing you do is open your windows explorer.
2. Navigate to your user directory. This is typically, C:/User/(your username), but it can vary. Then right click on favorites, and select properties.
3. Then click on the location tab and change it to the folder that holds your Skydrive files. Now I have a default installation of Skydrive, and it placed a folder in the same directory as my favorites. It is a matter of repointing favorites folder into a identically named folder inside of the Skydrive folder. It will ask you if you want to copy your favorites over. For the first time say yes.
4. The last step is doing this to all your computers. They should all now have a favorites folder inside the Skydrive folder. So now if you add a link, it’ll create a new link file. Then Skydrive will sync it, and all your computers will recieve the update quietly.
And thats it. As long as you change the locations on all your computers to point to this same directory they should stay syncronized. So next time someone tells you that you can’t do it they are lying, or more than likely just uninformed in the matter. Good day!
For tech junkies like myself, it was delightful to see a new product out for a preview. With the industry trend to move to the cloud this is an obvious push for Microsoft especially in the consumer market. Where businesses are aggressive in implementing private clouds the average consumers have embraced the public clouds. Now Office 365 has been around for awhile now in the corporate world where it has in some regards struggled to kick off. It has always been a solid niche filler for small the medium sized companies. Now they have expanded into the consumer market which is a marriage made in heaven. Now I am in love with Microsoft’s new slogan, ” Welcome to a Modern Office”. On the surface this may sound like some marketing term. Which it is… It’s importance is the idea that stagnation in technology is holding us back, and to grab our traditional ideas. Then advance them with modern concepts as using the cloud is a great direction to be moving in.
Now ideas are great but if execution is done poorly then you’ve accomplished nothing.Lets begin. I started my journey at Microsoft’s Office 2013 Preview. It was a painless experience with your traditional Microsoft Passport login. It downloaded a thin client installer which was quite optimisitic.
I was then greeted with an interesting prompt. I was asked how I wanted my Office to look. This question reinforces my original thought that Microsoft is pushing into a much more consumer focused direction. Even if it is a superfulous feature I like little touches like these. Ask any design expert and they will tell you that little things like these add greatly to the experience one has when looking something. Especially if you are going to be looking at it as much as the typical computer user does.
So after two more screens pointing out the new cloud integration you are good to go and they release you into your new “Modern Office”. The software included in the Home Preview include Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, Outlook, OneNote, and Publisher (I would provide a link, but Microsoft apperently forgot to create a product page for Publisher).
I decided to start things off I would go to the venerable Microsoft Word. Upon opening this application i was greeted by the new splash screen. Which i was pleased to find had a new updated look which was elegant unlike Office 2010’s splash.
My first impressions were quite good. It had a very snappy and quick start. The design of the application still had its Windows 8 elegant style to it.
I went ahead and opened a word document. Again the performance was reliable, quick, and snappy.
Some of the initial changes that I had noticed are your Microsoft Passport picture at the top with your email address confirming that you are signed in, and a new tab called “Design”. The first thing I did was start typing. This is where at first things felt a little weird. The cursor wasn’t snappy like I am sure everyone is used to. Instead of moving across the screen it glides. Now for the average person this will probably move across the screen quick enough that it is just visually elegant, but to a speed typer I can see this being annoying as it almost feels like its struggling to keep up. I decided that for the speed at which I type it wouldn’t bother me as I had to put a concious effort into speed typing to really feel like the cursor wasn’t keeping up.
The Design Tab
At this point I decided to explore this new “Design” tab. It resembles what most people will associate with picking your slide deck design for PowerPoint.
I found this to be a very welcoming addition. There are many features that most people don’t take the time to learn that are great in the newer ribbon based Office Suites. One of my favorites was the “Styles” section. What this design tab does is allows you to save presets of those styles that you can quickly and easily apply to your document if you properly use styles. This is fantastic! With only one click I made the document you saw above look like the one below.
And with only one more click i changed it again to the one below here.
What big differences with such little effort, and best of all. It applied the styles without even skipping a cycle. Very responsive.
Online Pictures and Video
One really neat feature I found is the ability to insert images from many online sources. What clued me off is the new button that appeared under insert.
I was very intrigued at first. I quickly clicked it to only be surprised, and get even more curious. You see I was greeted by a interesting window.
As you can see, now you can insert pictures straight from Bing, your own Skydrive, or the new clip art that features stock pictures much like iStockPhoto.com. Then on the bottom I saw the Flickr logo. You see, if you have a Flickr account you can also search for images there. To sweeten the deal, any image source can eventually have thier service added here making it even easier to pull in images from online sources. It’s almost like they realized most people start searching for images rather than use clip art.
Now if you are more interested in video adding them is even easier than before.
You can add video in much the same way. Even YouTube! Practically any video with an embed code can be used.
Office Now has Apps
The new office suite now lets you have apps that bring in more information without having to leave word. There are only a few at this moment as you can imagine. There are dictionary to encyclopedia apps. Great for doing research and not leaving Word.
This kind of functionality brings all kinds of new potentials to Word. This is a very good example of how Microsoft is focusing on pulling in all kinds of functionality that we all use other services for into Word.
This is one of my new favorite features. Comment has always been around, but its always been a little clunky. Especially when you leave a comment, and your coworker comments on your comment. Then you comment on the comment about your original comment. Then those comments become as hard to read as me explaining commenting in Office 2010. Now its a bubble with a threaded conversation. This is a truely collaborative tool.
PDFs in Word
Im going to make this simple. Here is an image of me opening a PDF.
Here is a picture of me reading a PDF.
Here is a picture of me editing a PDF.
This is me saving that edited PDF.
I have only worked with Word so far and I can say that I am impressed. Lots of people can knock Windows, but one thing Microsoft does well is office productivity applications. It is a big step into integrating with the cloud. They really started creating that bridge. I can’t wait to see what the other products hold. This version is definately something that I will be looking into buying soon after it is released for general consumption.
Lately, I have been thinking alot about the current IT climate and how IT aligns itself with the business. It seems that every day you see new blog posts and advertising from companies such as Cisco, Gartner, SAP, Trend Micro, industry experts, and many more advocating new industry trends that will make huge leaps in the way you tackle challenges. The message they impart is that if your company does not do it then you are silly. It just seems like the industry is turning into one full of lemmings ready to jump into the fire in the pursuit of buzz words. One of the biggest buzz word trends in the industry lately is “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD). Not to say that conceptually it is a bad idea. What bothers me is the way in which it is being pursued by IT departments. It seems these days that vendors come up with new ideas in untapped markets, and push them onto their clients like the greatest thing since sliced bread. It just really isn’t for every company.There is a multitude of support and risk issues that must be addressed that can very easily eat up all the cost avoidance that the project was originally intended to accomplish, and does it truly help the business operations? I am not talking about support services but the actual operational part of the business. Thats why IT needs to ask itself one easy question.
“How does this help my business do X”? Where X is what the company does to create revenue. For E&P companies it would be “How does this help my business drill for oil”? or for a bank it would be, “How does this help my business provide financial services”? I find that question is often forgotten. I am no saint myself. I have caught myself on a number of occasions trying to push initiaties based on what would enhance IT without thinking about how would it enhance the business. It’s an easy trap to slip into.
You see IT can truely align itself with the business and learn the business process it can integrate itself into the business, and truely be able to create a mesurable impact to its companies ability to compete in the market place. Once it accomplishes that, it can start looking ahead and be truely proactive about providing solutions and services, but before then. IT will just be merely keeping the lights on and executing expensive projects that truely won’t make an impact.
So I challenge my fellow industry collegeues to ask themselves that question this next week. If you find that your well aligned great, but if you find that you aren’t. Well… you just identified an oppurtunity to improve.
Here is a collection of free Microsoft e-books.Eric Ligman of MSDN has been nice enough to post them in one easy to see place. It is quite fantastic when this happens. So here you go and try to learn somthing new!!!! Who knows this might be the perfect time to get those skills to make the next game changer.
I was sitting down one day reflecting after a long day of work. I had a conversation with a co-worker that day about visions of past technology leaders, and how many of their predictions were wrong. One quote that stood out was one by a member of Microsoft where he said that technology would become so easy and user friendly that information technology professionals would no longer be needed. Thats a funny statement because if anything it has gone entirely in the opposite direction. Applications kept becoming more complicated, and more people were then needed to support it.
Recently, it has been interesting to see a backlash to that trend. There has been a resurgence of focus in the user interface and simplification of the user experience. This movement gained momentum with the rise of apps. These simple little programs have proven that a feature rich universe of bloated software isn’t needed to draw in customers, but instead one where simple feature slim software that does a few things very well are much more popular. You see the vast majority of people are not nerds. For many, bloated software is quite overwhelming and expensive. These high budget to produce software packages are so feature rich most people that use them don’t even know how to use all of the features in it. Who was the last person you knew that had a working knowledge of ALL the features in Photoshop. Most people just use it to make minor modifications to photos or to use the basic layers, and have to spend hundreds of dollars per update just to get more features that they will probably never use. Since the early days there have been some alternatives popup, but they never truly captures that feel of use Photoshop has.
So with this new look into useability it has made technology much friendlier to the end user making technology cool again. My biggest question is how long until we see the truly nerdy stuff that are used by corporations reach the consumer home. Network monitoring, system diagnostics, ERP systems, email, content management, and many many more. Right now there has been a shift to move things to the cloud, but the cloud is nothing new. Its just the newest buzz word for online content and storage. It used to be known as the ether… hence ethernet cables, but my prediction is one of a personal cloud. One that resides in a home data center. Not one sitting out in the cloud where privacy, security, and ethics are constantly assaulting those providers. Yes, the SaaS model is one that is convenient, but one that requires the user to place much trust in faceless corporations where your data could easily be compromised. It also makes your private data much more target-able. Case in point Dropbox giving user data to the government for trials, or the recent hacking of LinkedIn.
But for such a future to exist there must be much more simplification and appeal to the average person. The technologies have to be simple. They have to start simple. That is why cloud services are so popular. They are dead simple to the user. With steps as simple as make an account, and download the app.
So the big question at this point is what are the advantages of creating a unified personal cloud. Just imagine if all you ever had to do was give your account info to your phone and automatically all of your data was there. In a vendor agnostic environment. Where if a device of yours was ever compromised you could easily cut off its life line to your data. Imagine hooking up a small inexpensive device to your TV, and having all your content organized neatly. Where you can shop prices between different content providers for the same goods. Imagine a world where you can let people have access to certain portions of content while keeping them out of the rest.
Its not a matter of having an app for this or an app for that. Its a matter of bridging it all together into one unified vendor agnostic environment. Its about bringing it all into one system that can make sense of it all. Its about keeping it easy and simple, so the added effort of having a server in the home is a second thought.
So those are my thoughts and ramblings. Many people will disagree with me on this, but who could have dreamed of the way we work and live today back in the early 90’s. The honest truth is we won’t know until we find out.