Public Wifi – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I took a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area last week for a project. As with any travel, there are blocks of free time. Also as usual, there were many things to do online and almost everywhere had free WiFi available including airports, coffee shops, and the hotel. Since I have so many points on Southwest, they even provided free WiFi on the flights. All the free WiFi hotspots were “open networks.” Those are the networks that don’t have a little lock symbol by their names and you log in using a separate webpage. The airport hotspots had ads, “watch this short video and get 30 minutes of free WiFi.” This was great, it all worked well, but what about security? How public is public Wifi? The lack of security on free public WiFi has been in the news regularly in the past year.

  • Fox News – http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2012/12/08/5-tips-to-stay-safe-on-public-wi-fi/
  • eWeek – http://www.eweek.com/security/slideshows/public-wifi-security-10-things-to-remember-before-signing-on/
  • InformationWeek – http://www.informationweek.com/byte/personal-tech/wireless/open-public-wi-fi-how-to-stay-safe/240149727

These articles are basically correct. Personally, I use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on any Public WiFi while traveling. There are several good companies, some are free, but I prefer to pay for Witopia because they seem to be the most reliable. But Southwest airlines WiFi didn’t work while connected to the VPN. Was it worth the risk to get some work done? Could somebody on my Southwest flight see my email password on this “public” WiFi? This required some complicated research to determine what was really going on technically. Once I returned, I installed a WiFi data capture program on my laptop and  looked directly at the data my iPhone was sending and receiving.

The results were fascinating. The common iPhone apps I use while traveling did actually encrypt the data. Even if somebody captured the WiFi data on the flight, they would not be able to see my passwords. These apps included Mail, Flipboard, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Logging into certain websites with Safari was a serious problem through since passwords were sent over the public WiFi for anybody to see. The only exceptions were websites where the HTTP part of the address was replaced by HTTPS which stands for “HTTP Secure” connection. If I logged into my email through webmail and the address was HTTP and not HTTPS, anybody could capture my password. This was obviously not good.

To summarize, public WiFi is a great convenience, but be careful. It is best to use a VPN connection. Do this by connecting first to the public WiFi hotspot, logging into the hotel or airport website, then once the connection is established, start your VPN software. To find a good, free VPN provider, just do a Google search for “free VPN” before you next trip. You can then enjoy that free public WiFi in comfort and safety.

Creating Your Own IOS or Android App

About a year ago somebody said to me, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there were an iPhone app to do XYZ?” I thought this sounded interesting, so I downloaded Apple’s free IOS app creation software and started reading Apple’s very good documentation. Apple made it clear that I needed to learn Objective C, the app programming language, but that wasn’t too hard. I then started programming and the documentation began to describe the details of IOS app programming: the model / view / controller design pattern, instance variables, methods, message objects, inheritance, encapsulation, ugh. It was about then I realized my brains were pushing my eyeballs out of my head, so I stopped. What was my problem? This was Apple’s “easy” programming environment and tons of people were creating apps. Why couldn’t I?

The answer was that “the easy way” is easy from a programmer’s perspective since writing a program for a modern computer with a multitasking, multithreaded graphical operating system is hard. I researched this. It is hard like rocket science is hard.

Enter the genius programmers over at Buzztouch who decided to make a website to help the rest of us create apps. There are still design challenges, but no messy code. You create each screen of your iPhone app on their website using their “plugins” and then their website creates the complicated code for you. It is pure genius!

They didn’t stop there. The website contains hours of video tutorials, a forum where users can help others users, and a very clever point system that allows “power users” to gain credibility as they help others. More points = more credibility so everybody knows who the real experts are. The experts get exposure for their skills and I’m sure some of them get paid jobs this way. They even have a showcase for great apps and help people promote their apps on the Apple AppStore.

Below is a screenshot of their tutorial app built for a harbor in Monterey, CA. In five minutes, they demonstrated how to create an app that can either provide a map with driving directions to the harbor or send an email to the Harbor Master with a single tap. In all fairness, you do need to watch a couple hours of tutorials to create anything more than the simplest app, but Buzztouch is still a breakthrough. If you need more help, their forums contain thousands and thousands of questions and answers. People are definitely using their product. So if you have a burning desire to create the custom app you have always dreamed about, this is your chance, and you don’t even need to know the difference between a method and a message, whatever those are…

Buzztouch – Buzztouch.com

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Doing What You Love 2 – Kottke.org

As one of the longest continuously running blogs on the web (15+ years!), Jason Kottke has consistently provided the most interesting content I have found in one place. He used to have the tagline “home of fine hypertext products,” but it seems he now has full time work posting semi-random tidbits from the Internet. He is right, the popular appeal of the details of web fonts and CSS technicalities is quite limited, but posts like “Watch this railroad tanker car instantly implode” with a video of how improper steam cleaning can cause an implosion or “Debunking criticism of NYC’s bike-share program” can get a lot of attention online. He says about his site “the editorial direction of the site is all over the place but clusters around a pair of hand-wavy ideas: the liberal arts 2.0 (http://kottke.org/09/02/the-new-liberal-arts) and people are awesome (http://kottke.org/10/10/people-are-awesome).” I think this is just a way for him to create posts about whatever interests him in the moment. He has another site called stellar.io which he says is “a site for collecting and sharing your favorite things.” This is a smart idea since it allows other people to help him feed his habit of collecting videos, tweets, quotes, photos, and other electronic flotsam and jetsam. He is obviously making some kind of living at it since he support a wife and two children. Back in 1998, BusinessWeek did a little profile of him and mentioned he was making around $5,300 / month hosting a single ad on his website. It is not clear how much he makes now, but he does have a single advertisement from The Deck, an interesting concept in itself, which I will cover tomorrow.

The 10 Year Anniversary Video for LinkedIn

Yes, people have differing opinions of LinkedIn, but this video is a beautiful example of how they see themselves. It positively altered my opinion of them, but even more importantly, increased my respect for the importance of social networking. As a part of a structured social networking plan, it can create communities in niche markets that are typically separated by industry and social boundaries. Worth the 1:52 to watch.

LinkedIn: Imagine What We Can Do Together – http://youtu.be/3p9TqRA8APA

Getting Personal with Apple Versus Samsung 2 – The Hangover

I woke up this morning with a technology hangover. I might have overdone it a bit yesterday getting the Samsung Galaxy S4 into a usable state. With the iPhone, it was a very different experience, starting slowly with an iPhone 3G, then a 3GS, then a 4, then a 5. The iPhone relationship was built on time and trust. This doesn’t include the years of bliss with an iPod over 10 years ago that started when I was ready to throw an Archos MP3 player and Musicmatch Jukebox out the window! Here is a link to that blast from the past: The Archos Jukebox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archos_Jukebox_series). With almost 40 GB of lectures and movies, iTunes was the only media software that could handle the load at that time, so that led to an iPod, then a MacBook, then an iPhone, an iPad (cue sinister laugh), sharing IOS Apps on a single iTunes account, and we were firmly in Apple’s digital ecosystem.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an Apple “fanboi” and am mostly platform agnostic. I am comfortable in front of a Mac, a PC, and even have a passable fluency in Linux, but some tools are better for some tasks and Apple arguably has the best experience in the digital media world. So what do I like better about the Samsung Android experience? First, the bigger screen is fantastic. If you love your iPhone, do not, I repeat, do not spend any time with a phone with a larger screen, the iPhone will never look the same again. Next, the widgets are a breakthrough. These  are small programs that run right on the screen of the phone alongside the App icons (see picture below). This is handy for information that is glanced at briefly like weather or a calendar. Why open a weather app when you just want to see quick forecast information? Have a moment and want to see if there is anything interesting new on Flipboard, the widget is perfect for this. There are dozens of other widgets that can be added to the various screens that eliminate steps when doing common tasks like Google searches, reviewing calendar items, memos, traffic status, etc. The widgets come in various sizes also and can be put on any of five “screens.” These screens are like the iPhone’s screens of icons, but on the iPhone only app icons and folders of app icons can go on the screens. This type of customization is what Android is great at.

Widget Screenshot
Widget Screenshot

Maybe to summarize it would be good to explain that the differences in the Samsung Google Android experience versus the iPhone Apple IOS experience are very linked to the company cultures. I know many Google engineers and they are amazing, but there seems to be less layers between their genius ideas and implementation in an Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy S4. I also know many Apple engineers and they are just as amazing, but their ideas get filtered through a couple extra layers of experts on “the user experience” for lack of a better term. Google, to their credit, has done an incredible clean up job in the most recent version of Android. Google Maps are MUCH better on Android than the iPhone version, but in general Google is more of a group of engineers making products for the more technologically savvy who value customization and flexibility over the glossy smooth polish of the iPhone. For people who want a phone to be a phone and use Google products such as Gmail, you will love the most recent version of Android in phones like the Galaxy S4. You can still have music, videos, and games, but contacts, calendars, maps, and the notification system is superior to Apple in many ways. For people who are more “media centric,” who have large music / video / photo libraries, or who already have a significant invest in IOS Apps because of an iPod Touch or iPad, the iPhone is probably for you. For those of you in between, take advantage of the 14 day “trial period” most carriers offer (check those terms and conditions first and don’t believe the sales person 100%). The investment in time will be worth it to find the device that fits your professional and / or personal interests best.