Friday Five: Chromebooks

A couple of weeks with one of the Google Chromebooks. Is it right for you?

[Editor’s note: This blog will take a slight turn this year. To be sure, comment will still be offered on the urban condition in Phoenix as needed. But we will be starting to talk about the role of technology in daily life. This post is the first of that new focus.]

Friday Five: Google ChromebookA few weeks ago, my trusty Dell Latitude XT2, whose adventures have been chronicled on this blog several times, decided that it had had enough. This was a sad day because it was probably my favorite computer – a relic from the first time Tablet PCs went around about 10 years ago but one that worked brilliantly.

My main mobile machine is my trusty iPad Air but there are times when it’s nice to have a full laptop. I had been wanting to restart regular writing and I found that my iPad just had too many distractions on it to be useful. But finding a machine that doesn’t break the bank can be a challenge. I had always been interested in the Google Chromebook series of devices, even though I’m an Apple user through and through.

I picked up a refurbished Asus Chromebook C201 for about $140 online a few weeks ago and here are some of my initial thoughts on the device:

The Chromebook is not a home computer replacement. Chromebooks are powered by Chrome OS and the OS has only one purpose: to get to you launch the Google Chrome web browser. That’s it. There are no OS-level offline things except for the system settings and a rudimentary file browser (that has deep integration into Google Drive). It is all handled in the Chrome browser. In this sense, Chrome OS is essentially a thin client – the processing of anything you do is done on Google’s servers elsewhere. If you’re fine with that, then that’s great.

Chrome OS really works best if you’ve gone fully Google. Chrome OS’s web-based applications are tied hand-in-hand with the Google Apps suite (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, etc.). Other online suites do work but bear in mind you’re accessing these through whatever web interfaces they offer. You sign in with a Google Account (be it personal or issued through your workplace or school) instead of a local user account or some sort of on-premises Active Directory credentials. This gets messy if you’re using a password manager with a randomly generated password to manage your Google Account credentials!

Enterprise-level management requires an expensive additional subscription. Whenever I evaluate a piece of tech, I wonder about its integration into enterprise or managed environments. As it turns out, even if you have a paid Google Apps for Work subscription for your business users, you still need to purchase yearly per-device management licenses that range from $30 per device per year up to $250, depending on what the device does. And, unfortunately, navigating these licenses is as perplexing as navigating Microsoft license programs.

Battery life is exceptional. Considering I purchased a refurbished device, I wasn’t expecting too much in the way of battery life. I’m finding I’m getting about 7-8 hours on a full charge. Not too bad, considering the device is always connected to the Internet and therefore has to have the wi-fi radio on all the time.

If you keep in mind what this device is, it’s actually a compelling piece of technology. As a test for if a Chromebook would work for you, ask yourself this: Can you do your task within Google Chrome? If the answer is yes, then this will work. If you need a separate app, then it won’t work. I bought this device to do, really, one thing: provide a distraction-free environment for writing. Google Docs runs magnificently on this.

There are a couple limitations of this due to the nature of this system. First, if you use a separate application on your other machines for password management (e.g., 1Password), you will find that it won’t work on the Chromebook. In the case of 1Password, you’ll have to sign up for 1Password for Families or 1Password for Teams to access your password vaults. The other issue is that as offline support is an always evolving thing, offline access to your data is spotty at best. You have to pin files for offline access in Google Drive, for example, if you want to work on them where you don’t have an Internet connection. But since this device never leaves my home, this is a non-issue.

When Google announced the launch of the Chromebook on its blog back in May 2011, they said, “These are not typical notebooks. … Your apps, games, photos, music, movies and documents will be accessible wherever you are and you won’t need to worry about losing your computer or forgetting to back up files.” That’s true. Seeing how wi-fi has become more and more ubiquitous over the past five years, the potential for these thin clients for the masses is greatly increasing. The hardware is only as good as its software, it seems, and thin client computing is becoming more and more used in enterprise environments.

I’m happy with this device. I don’t expect it to do everything my Mac can do because it can’t.

iOS 8: Hic sunt dracones

Updating to iOS 8 in the morning when it’s released? Be wary but be prepared: for there are dragons.

Are you going to be updating to iOS 8 when it’s released tomorrow morning? I think I’ll wait.

ios8-dragonsThe eighth incarnation of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 8, is set to be released tomorrow, probably around 10:00am Phoenix time (following previous release schedules). The biggest feature set of iOS 8 is its closer integration with OS X; however, almost all of the integration requires the next release of OS X, OS X 10.10 “Yosemite,” set to be released later this year. So because a lot of the integration of iOS 8 requires the next OS X release, this might be a prudent opportunity to let Apple get the bugs out of this “point zero” release and not update.

Certainly, the other features of the operating system are very intriguing. I am looking forward to Safari Extensions, mainly so I can enter in passwords I’ve saved in LastPass much easier than a bookmarklet that often doesn’t work or copying-and-pasting passwords from the LastPass app. Alternate keyboards are certainly welcome.

But those nice additions are overshadowed by the perils and possible dragons of the changes to iCloud: iOS 8 significantly reworks iCloud. (Hic sunt draconesHere be dragons.)

Right now (iOS 7 / OS X “Mavericks”), iCloud data storage is in, essentially, per-app containers. The new version of iCloud, called iCloud Drive, becomes more like Dropbox than per-app containers. Right now, the data I save in, say, Pages, is synchronized to my iPad in the Pages container of iCloud. iCloud Drive data is accessible in all different apps (desktop and mobile), which is a different paradigm than the current incarnation.

If you’re going to update to iOS 8 in the morning, then be sure to select “no” to the upgrade to iCloud Drive option after the update finishes. Your data should still be accessible by apps just as it always has been. If your only entrée to the world of Mac and iCloud is on your iOS device, then go ahead and upgrade.

I’ll repeat: if you’re reliant on iCloud document syncing working between mobile and desktop, then you should probably not upgrade to iOS 8. If you do, then be prepared.

And backup, backup, backup.

Another Day, Another Strikeout

News broke of a local company moving their HQ to farther-north Phoenix. This does not bode well for downtown Phoenix at all.

render_citynorth54thstThe news broke earlier this week that Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market had signed a deal to move their corporate headquarters from near Paradise Valley Mall to the farther-removed and failed CityNorth development near Loop 101 and 56 Street. The new offices will include a Sprouts market. What’s ironic in the article is this quote from Sprouts CEO Doug Sanders: “It also will better reflect the Sprouts brand and our commitment to sustainability.” Yes, because having all of your HQ employees continue to drive to their jobs really is sustainable.

Commenters on my Facebook were quick to point out the usual failed Phoenix logic: “At least it’s still Phoenix instead of another town” was a chorus repeated on several occasions. It was suggested by a commenter that this was OK since Phoenix made a massive investment in the downtown-killing CityNorth project despite, as another commenter pointed out, it being a failed project. Other commenters suggested that we should work with Sprouts to have a grocery store downtown, possibly as part of the new development at Central & McDowell.

This idea that we must have economic activity all across the 550 square miles in Phoenix is killing our city and any hope we have to compete in the 21st century global marketplace that will be based on urban areas, urban activity, and urban economics. It may be very downtown-centric of me but there are two Phoenixes, if you will: there’s Phoenix proper, the urban part that is a much smaller size, say between I-17 on the west and south, SR-51 on the east, and Dunlap Avenue to the north. Then there’s the other part that I do not like to call Phoenix: the suburb of Phoenix that is subdivisions and sprawl, even if it is within the city limits of Phoenix. That other “Phoenix” is sucking all of the life from the Phoenix I know and love. When you’re both a suburb and central city, as Phoenix and “Phoenix” are, this is what happens.

All of the research and all of the trends suggest one thing: Downtowns of core cities will carry cities and regions forward, full stop. Even worse is this idea that Phoenix will succeed if our other suburban cities succeed. In a recent Twitter exchange I had with Jon Talton (@jontalton), author and Phoenix observer (and guest on an early episode of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast), he noted that “‘Regional’” is killing Phoenix. It’s the civic destruction without the entertainment value of Rob Ford.”

Other cities in our metropolitan area are certainly succeeding while downtown Phoenix falls behind. I have frequently praised Tempe for landing the new home for the U.S. national basketball team and State Farm Insurance developing in their downtown. I have publicly lauded Mesa and their former Mayor, Scott Smith, for the work done to bring quality economic development to downtown Mesa. If you would have told me 15 years ago that downtown Mesa would have a world-class performing arts center, light rail, and a nice downtown, I would have laughed at you. Outside of Arizona, we hear of developments moving specifically to downtown environments. California’s Active Network is moving their headquarters with 1,000 jobs to downtown Dallas.

What is the economic development strategy for downtown and midtown Phoenix? I fear to ask the next question, but I will: Is there one? I think it’s admirable that we are trying to have lots of incubator spaces and attract individual entrepreneurs but we need to ask: What is their economic impact compared to, say, the Sprouts Farmers Market headquarters? Or any headquarters for a major or emerging company? The lack of central-city economic stewards makes the downtown development case challenging, especially when the City of Phoenix has adopted the policy (in my estimation) that we need to spread the thin wealth of economic activity and development over the entire 550 square mile footprint.

Another troubling question that needs to be asked: Where have our central-city councilpeople been? Or what about the economic development groups that are tasked with downtown’s growth? My fears are that they were, again, asleep at the wheel. At last year’s overly contentious Phoenix City Council elections, one of the candidates said that they thought midtown Phoenix needed an economic development strategy; perhaps presciently, that same candidate called midtown an “inner city.” Absent an economic development strategy, we will become one in no time.

While we focus on walkability and creative temporary uses for undeveloped land in urban Phoenix, the good quality development—the stuff we want and so desperately need—moves away from here. We can have the most walkable streets and good urban design, if there’s nothing to walk to, then what’s the point?

This needs to be a wake-up call for all of us. We need to do better.

The Greenest Computer?

The greenest computer is the one that’s already there. Let’s focus on repair, not replacement.

marching toward 2014I’m going to take a little break from my discussion of downtown Phoenix issues and talk about another thing that occupies my life (and is, for all intents and purposes, my “day job”): information technology.  More specifically, I’m going to talk about sustainability within technology.

One of my guiding philosophies on computer purchases is this: How repairable is the machine?  In other words, what percentage of that computer’s parts can be replaced by me?  And how easy is it to do that?

Prior to graduating from high school in 2006 and preparing to enter Arizona State University later that year, I received a Dell notebook computer.  That machine is still running strong because I’ve been able to replace the hard drive, the battery, and upgrade the system memory as needed.  The computer will be eight years old in early 2014 and, with Windows 7 installed on it, my mother uses it for her computing needs.

In 2011, I decided to make the leap over to the Apple world and invest in a MacBook Pro — which, at over $1,500, was a considerable investment.  What really pushed me to the land of Cupertino was the longevity of their notebook batteries.  A colleague of mine at ASU received as a high-school graduation present a MacBook and, at 5 years in, that battery was still holding as much of a charge as it did when she received it.  My Dell notebook (the same one I talked about above) was about to need its third battery in six years.

IMG_1065Fast forward to today: the penultimate day in 2013.  I’ve just replaced the original platter-style hard drive in my MacBook Pro with a solid-state drive and about to replace the battery in the machine.  I’m thankful to the crew at iFixit for sharing tips on how to make the battery user-serviceable and for selling batteries.  In the process, though, I’ve been scratching my head.  I’ve noticed that the screws holding in the battery aren’t your normal Phillips-head screws but are, instead, tri-wing screws.  Unless you have a computer screwdriver kit (and I do!), you’ll have to head off to the Apple Genius Bar to get them to install a new battery for you.  Nope; no, thank you.  My MacBook is out of warranty so I’m on my own.

In the process of thinking about this, I’m thinking about how user-repairable computers and other electronic gizmos are.  The worst culprit in this is Apple, despite how they claim their computers are environmentally friendly.  In the historic preservation world of the built environment, we say that “the greenest building is the one that’s already there.”  We can take that phrase and shift it to technology: “The greenest computer is the one that’s already there.”  I will refuse to purchase (or authorize the purchase of) the new MacBook Pros with the high-resolution “retina” displays because of the lack of user-serviceable parts.  A look at these MacBooks shows that if a component breaks down, you’re stuck with having to get a brand new machine.

That’s silly and irresponsible.  Why should I need to purchase or get a new machine just because a hard drive — a part that has been user-replaceable for many years — stops working?  Or if I choose to upgrade the memory?  Or if I need to replace the battery?  I get Apple’s philosophy of having dedicated places to fix their equipment and catering to users with limited IT resources.  But what about those places that have IT departments and oversee a fleet of hundreds of Apple computers?

And then there’s the software side of things.  I was an early adopter of the iPad.  It worked great until I received the third generation iPad (my father now has my original iPad).  Apple made the decision to say that iOS 5 will be the last version of iOS that’s supported on the original iPad.  Was it a performance thing?  My reading of specifications show that the original iPad and the second-generation iPad are really close together in specification; however, the second-generation iPad supports iOS 7.

I get that my viewpoints are certainly in the minority of technology users and that there’s a business to be had in selling computers.  I don’t look at a computer as something that I’ll use for a couple years before I upgrade it; I see it as something I’ll use (and possibly abuse) until I have a technological reason to need to upgrade.  I’ll be that person with the decade-old MacBook out in the wild.  And I’ll be OK with that.

Replay: Living post-password

With a couple edits, one of the things I’ve learned in 2014 is that passwords are evil. Learn how to overcome the inherent problems of passwords.

[Editor’s note: The below post, “Living post-password”, was originally posted on this blog on 2 April 2013. It’s been reposted below with several updates and new insights as part of this blog’s ‘Marching Toward 2014’ series of posts.]

passwordPasswords and passphrases. I (still) hate them.

Yes, I used the ‘h’ word. Passwords and passphrases give people the illusion of safety and security when they are one of the easiest things to crack. I cringe when I come across major banks whose login mechanisms are weaker than, say, Facebook’s mechanisms.

I’ll admit that the inspiration for this post came in November 2012 after reading the story of Mat Honan in WIRED Magazine. The article’s linked but I’ll summarize: Mr. Honan had his entire digital life wiped away because a hacker could defeat his email account password.

Do I have your attention? Good. Because for the next few paragraphs, I’ll showcase some alternatives and addition to passwords and some questions that you need to ask yourself about your own computing practices. Continue reading “Replay: Living post-password”

Computing in 2013: Things I’ve Learned

The world of computers and computing has changed drastically in 2013. What we thought we knew about safe computing has changed: here’s what I’ve learned.

marching toward 2014The world of computers and computing has changed drastically in 2013.  From leaked documents showing how broad a net our Federal government has cast when it comes to observing its citizens’ private communications to high-profile password leaks, what we thought we knew about safe computing has changed.  I’ve learned a lot in 2013 and here are my top five lessons:

1. Passwords are inherently evil. I really don’t like passwords.  They provide a false sense of security to users because they’re used inappropriately and in an unsafe manner.  One of the more popular posts that I wrote this year (and I’ll repost in the coming days) is on why I don’t like passwords and some things to offset the inherent security flaws of passwords.  We’ve read stories in 2013 of major corporations having their password files hacked and distributed to the Internet.  Last year, we even read the tale of WIRED editor Mat Honan having his entire digital life wiped away because of his unsafe use of passwords.

2. You cannot have too much encryption. With documents surfacing that shows how our own Federal government spies on its citizens, we’ve learned that encryption should be used on a wider scale.  We read stories in 2013 of how Dropbox, the popular cloud file storage and sharing service, has been hacked and documents leaked to the cloud.  As free public wireless Internet access points become the norm in places like coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, stadia, airports, and hotels, we should start to heed warnings about how to take charge of what information we share online and when we do it.

3. Backup, backup, backup! Just as you can’t have too much encryption, you can never have enough backups of your data.  My main computer is a MacBook Pro and I have a Mac mini that’s set up as a central server for file shares, iTunes, and Time Machine.  Attached to that Mac mini is an external RAID array for keeping irreplaceable files like my lifelong photo album backed up.  And that is backed up to the cloud.  Paranoia?  Perhaps.  But when it comes to the digital world, one cannot backup their data enough.

4. When it comes to network and systems design, simplicity is key. In the previous academic year (2012-2013), I served as the head of IT for a downtown Phoenix charter school and started to lead that school’s efforts to moving toward a one-to-one system (in which each student has or has access to their own computer or tablet computer).  There were a lot of things that had to be done before the school could get to that point and I determined that we needed to standardize on a few things to make management (the IT department chair’s job) easier.  By simplifying things, we were able to make the computing experience that much better.  As I redesign my home computer network, I’m needing to remind myself that it doesn’t need dozens of complex moving parts, just something that works and can be easily centralized and managed.

"Amsterdam Commute" by stephenrwalli/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)5. The best computer is the one that’s with you. In April, I wrote a post about balancing computing necessities with commuting realities.  My MacBook rarely leaves the house; if I’m taking Phoenix’s streets on bicycle, then it will not be coming with me.  My iPad is the machine that I usually bring with me; as it is constantly in sync with the various cloud services I use, I know that it has a current copy of my data.  In some instances, I’ll bring with my XT2, a tablet PC I acquired as a cheap PC when I need to do more things than my iPad can do.  Sometimes, I’ll even leave the iPad at home and just go from my iPhone.  That’s traveling lean.

Balancing Computing and Commuting

Planning ahead is a key part of commuting and one’s computing needs are something that should be considered in your travel planning.

"Amsterdam Commute" by stephenrwalli/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)It’s no secret that I do a lot of traveling in Phoenix by non-automobile means. I’m one of those crazy Phoenicians who doesn’t have a car. I live within a stone’s throw of one of Phoenix’s METRO stations and I choose places to go and meet that are likewise near a station. It’s called a 20-minute city, which is defined as places to live, work, eat, shop, and have fun that are a 20-minute walk, bike ride, or public transportation trip from each other. (In central Phoenix, it’s sort-of here.)

I also do a lot of bicycle commuting. But unlike a lot of other Phoenicians, my bicycle commuting is done in conjunction with another method of transport, e.g. bicycling to a final destination after taking the train for the first part of the journey. (I’ll write more on that in a later post!)

The point that I’m trying to make here is that when I travel by my usual means, I’m cognizant of what technology I bring with me. My computing/commuting theory is this: Bring only as much technology as you need to do while you’re running errands and nothing more!

My main computer is my MacBook Pro. In addition to being a significant investment that I made, it’s got my entire digital life on it (photos, music, personal & professional documents, and some irreplaceable/invaluable information). Consequently, it rarely leaves the house. If my travels include bicycling, it will never travel with me. If I get into an accident while commuting, what would happen to that machine? Would it be ruined? I never want to find out so that’s why it rarely leaves my house.

To bring some element of computing power with me when I meet with community partners or clients, I have an iPad and wireless keyboard that I bring with me. It can do about 95% of the tasks that I require of a computer when I’m on the road: scribe notes or a document, send emails, preview pictures, and check my finances as well as my firm’s balance sheet. It’s small in form so it fits easily in my backpack or in my bicycle panniers. Also, because it’s designed as more of a mobile device, it’s more robust in its design. That being said, it has a form-fitting case as well as its own bag for additional protection.

There are times when I know that I’ll need to bring a computer with me which is why I recently purchased a refurbished Dell Latitude XT2. While I listed my reasons to purchase it on that post, I purchased it because it is a lightweight computer that I can throw in my backpack or bicycle panniers and not be overly devastated if it gets damaged or destroyed should the worst happen. If I am going to do some longer typing sessions, this is the device that I’ll bring with me. Or if there’s a time when I need a full computer with me, it comes with.

That’s how I commute. What tips do you have for commuting and to successfully balance your computing and commuting balance? Share them in the comments.

Latitude XT2 follow-up post

The follow-up post with observations and data on getting my Dell Latitude XT2 working with Ubuntu Linux.

My Dell Latitude XT2About a week ago, I wrote a post that outlined how I got my new(-ish) Dell Latitude XT2 set up to work as a convertible tablet notebook running Ubuntu Linux. For the most part, it’s working well. I knew a few things would be problematic when I purchased the machine but there are always a few things that appear (or disappear!) once you’ve got the machine in your hands. For instance, getting the machine set up was far easier than I thought! Continue reading “Latitude XT2 follow-up post”

A Facebook cautionary tale

facebook-no-apto-para-padresI think that most everybody has a love-hate relationship with Facebook, undoubtedly the world’s most popular social network. Gosh, a major movie has been made about it! But in amid the positive utility value of keeping in touch with friends and family near and far, it just seems like day after day, Facebook just gets more skeevy.

Some time ago, I worked on a list of what I called the “Axioms of the Internet.” Since I’m reorganizing my file library, I’m sure it’s somewhere. The first of my Axioms was this: There is no such thing as Internet privacy. Yep, Internet privacy joins the list of oxymoronsjumbo shrimpmilitary intelligence, a just war, or a genuine imitation.

A link was shared by a connection of mine on the site (who’s also a friend and colleague of mine) about the latest Facebook scam: those pages that share current Internet memes, random questions, or a post that tugs at one’s hartstrings. It all seems benign and harmless, right? Don’t bet on it. (George Takei’s page, however, is an exception.)
Continue reading “A Facebook cautionary tale”

Linux Chronicles: Dell Latitude XT2

It might seem difficult getting your new Dell Latitude XT2 to work with Ubuntu; however, taken one step at a time, it’s pretty easy.

My Dell Latitude XT2I got a new computer the other day. Well, that’s a partial truth — it’s a machine that’s new to me. (The machine was shipped to its original customer in February 2010.) It’s a Dell Latitude XT2, a notebook computer that converts into a tablet PC with a resistive touchscreen. It came with a neat little stylus that works quite well for being a pressure-activated screen!

I bought the machine from Dell Financial Services’ Direct Sales unit for cheap. With shipping and a one-year warranty, I only spent about $500. By comparison, when the machine was shipped new in 2010, the street retail price started just under $2,000! It was a good purchase for me because as I’m starting to run more and more errands for my consulting, sometimes schlepping around an iPad alone just doesn’t cut it. There are times when it’s important to have a full computer. As I do a lot of commuting by bicycle and public transportation, I also don’t want my MacBook Pro to suffer the wear and tear of my commute…or worse, get damaged or destroyed if I were to get in an accident. The XT2 was a small purchase that, although I’d be sad to destroy or damage this machine, I can afford to purchase a replacement should I need to.

Enough philosophy: let’s get to running Ubuntu on this machine. The machine came shipped with Windows Vista but that was the first thing to go. I replaced it with Ubuntu 12.04.2, codenamed Precise Pangolin within minutes of turning it on for the first time just to make sure that it worked well. I read through several online guides about how to make this machine work and although the steps seemed daunting, I found that they were largely unnecessary and not needed. In simple terms, my steps were this:

  1. Ensure that the system OS is up to date with the latest standard Ubuntu kernel
  2. Update the system’s BIOS to the latest version (at this writing, it’s version A12)
  3. Check the system BIOS to see what wireless cards are enabled or disabled
  4. Install the Magick Rotation utility
  5. Have a lot of fun!

If you’re interested in my steps that I took in greater detail, I’ll go through them. Do note that most all of this is done from the terminal so your typing accuracy has to be spot on. Your results, although they should be like mine, may vary: please make a backup of your data before embarking on this journey (and don’t blame me if anything bad happens!).

Continue reading “Linux Chronicles: Dell Latitude XT2”