Demystifying the Digital World – Part 5 – For a Chromebook?

The last part of this series ended by introducing two of the most popular options for getting rid of Microsoft Windows: the Google Chromebook and the Apple iPad. I hope you had a chance to watch the video “Is this a computer?” because it provides a brief humorous summary from an expert in the field.

First up is the Google Chromebook because it is probably the most cost effective and familiar option for people who have only used Windows in the past. A Chromebook works just like the name sounds, a notebook computer (aka laptop) that runs the Google Chrome browser as its primary operating system. This fact alone addresses many of the problems that face Windows users. The change is not as jarring because chances are you are reading this post using the Chrome browser (60% of people use it to access the internet). Also, Gmail users already have a Google account that stores bookmarks, contacts, calendars, etc. If this is the case, the switch is very easy and Google even provides a handy guide. To summarize the three steps:

  1. Sign into Chrome on your Windows computer (if you haven’t already). This synchs bookmarks, passwords, and settings.
  2. Back up your files, photos and music. The links associated with each of these will take you to the associated Google service.
  3. Sign in to your new Chromebook and open Google Drive. The files, photos, and music should magically appear.

In terms of software, a Chromebook can run 80%+ of the applications people use everyday including Photos, Music, YouTube, Google Docs (to replace Office), Skype, Dropbox, Netflix, etc. Chromebooks also update quickly and automatically, have built-in virus protection, long battery life, and typically cost a fraction of the price of a Windows laptop.

Does all of this sound too good to be true? Well of course it does! Google wants to make the switch seem as easy and painless as possible or nobody would do it. What are some of the downsides of the Chromebook? First and foremost, you have to trust storing your files in “the cloud.” Google has an excellent track record for storing users’ files, but not having files stored locally makes some people uncomfortable. Related to this is the fact that storing files online means that you have to (mostly) be connected to the Internet to use a Chromebook effectively. In fact, most Chromebook’s only have 32 GB of storage compared to most modern laptops that have upwards of 256 GB. There are ways to enable offline use, but these require a bit of extra effort to setup and maintain. Finally, printing can be a hassle because Chromebooks require “Google Cloud Print” instead of the more traditional USB or WiFi connection.

Despite these drawbacks, Chromebooks still have a lot to offer at a very compelling price, which is why so many K-12 schools have adopted them for use in the classroom. (As an added bonus, this means that tech support is as close as the nearest 11 year old!)

The Apple iPad will be explored in the next post in this series. Is the best option yet to come? Maybe, but if you’re already sold on the Chromebook after reading this post, make sure to get one from a store with a 30 day return policy because despite the higher price, the iPad also offers a lot to switchers, especially considering the popularity of iOS and the iPhone.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 4 – Ditching Windows

All I am saying is that getting rid of Microsoft Windows is so easy, even a child can do it and if you think about it, they already have! In the past few years people who spend any amount of time around children immediately notice that kids are glued to their phones – traditional computers are nowhere in sight. They do everything online through them. They Snapchat, send text messaging, use Facebook / Instagram, watch YouTube, listen to Spotify, etc. all through that tiny screen. What’s more, they seem to use all these apps and services effortlessly. I wrote about this in detail in the recent post, “Mommy What’s a Computer?

Why do children have such an easy time with tech? Probably because their natural drive to explore combined with a lack of fear of the consequences creates the perfect learning environment.  “Oh look, if I click here, then this happens. What does this button do? Oh, that’s cool! That didn’t work like I thought it would, what if I try this instead?” Then they show off their discoveries to others and the learning snowballs. Instead of being embarrassed by posting a silly video, they have competitions to see who will post the silliest. It’s all a game, a virtual world full of stimulation from hundreds of sources. By comparison, what do adults do? “Oh no, I clicked there and THAT happened, now what?! I’ll never understand this crazy computer.”

For some interesting examples of the concepts above, the article, “What younger generations think of their elders online” is a fascinating glimpse into their world view of technology and buried in this article is the fun Buzzfeed post “My Little Sister Taught Me How To ‘Snapchat Like The Teens” where the author, who is only 29 and deeply involved with technology, is floored by the tech abilities of his 13 year old sister.

It might be good to keep these ideas in mind as we tackle one of the biggest projects of this series, ditching Windows. First though, you have to have good reasons to make this shift because there is a fair bit of work involved. For example:

  • Did a Windows update make your three year old computer barely usable?
  • Did you get a virus / malware / ransomware / phishing attack / etc. and pay hundreds of dollars to get your computer “cleaned?”
  • Have basic tasks like finding a recent photo, file, or email become an exercise in frustration?
  • Are you reading this post on your phone waiting for “Windows 10 Spring Creators Update” to install and wondering if you’ll ever get to use your computer again?
  • Does sitting down to do any task on your computer give you stress?

In general, if you are already thinking about buying a new computer and aren’t excited about any of the options available, this might be a good time to switch. Just one encounter with malware is enough to push most people over the edge while it might take several annoyance type problems to make this project worth the effort.

The next part of this series will cover two of the most popular recent options, the Google Chromebook and the Apple iPad. Until then, the recent video “Is this a computer?” is a good, brief summary of these options. Also, Steve Jobs famously introduced the idea of the “Post PC era” in 2013 in this three minute video, equating traditional PCs to large trucks. While it might be fun, do you really need a full sized F-150 to go grocery shopping?

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 3 – Email

I know I promised a brief guide to getting rid of Microsoft Windows for this post, but I recently had an email epiphany and wanted to share an interesting story. The problem was this, somehow my wife and I have ended up with eight domain names, four websites, and about a dozen email addresses. It crept up on us over the past 20 years. First came the domain name for her business, but it was too long so we registered a shorter one linking to the same website. Next was a domain name for my business, domain names for a personal project (.net and .org too!), another business domain name, and another personal domain name. Each domain name has a couple of email address and … well you see how things got so complicated.

Most of these domains receive very few emails so it would be silly to pay $5 / month / domain for hosting plus another $5 / month for email. Therefore we use free Gmail for the non-professional addresses. Gmail has a generous free account and its spam filtering is outstanding but how does one connect all those domain emails to a couple of Gmail accounts?

At this point you might be asking what has this to do with the average person with one (usually Gmail) email account. Even if your online life is much simpler, you might want to consider getting your own domain name for email and starting switching over gradually. Why switch? First, email is more central than ever to our online identities. Keeping a semi-private email out of the prying eyes of hackers is a great way to add another level of security. Second, as the website POBox explains, “Email is never free. Like all other services, it costs money to provide. If you aren’t paying for it, someone else is. Sometimes that someone is the service developer. Most frequently, that someone is advertisers.” Third, if you have ever had to switch away from an email service (remember AOL email?), you can now easily do so if you have your own domain name. Lastly, it is easy to setup, As my other favorite service ForwardMX explains, “Sign Up, Change MX Records, and Receive Your Emails.”

As an advanced tip, I also keep a “throwaway” Gmail account for newsletters / online offers and only give out my personal email for important correspondence. That keeps the spam level to an absolute minimum in my main account.

If you already have domain name(s) registered somewhere else, my favorite way to get the emails delivered to one place is by using ForwardMX. They are fast, easy, and inexpensive. For more complex arrangements (especially if you want to get away from Google), POBox has several tiers of options. For the least expensive arrangement, register a domain name at NameCheap and use their free email forwarding with a Gmail account.

Finally, a few tips for a successful transition:

  • Get a .COM address – Those  $0.48 / per year “.PARTY” domain names look fun, but emails from them often get marked as spam by ISPs.
  • Choose a domain name carefully – If your name is John Porterdorfer, you’re in luck. You can have John@! If your name is Smith, you’re going to have to be creative.
  • Give it time – It took me months to make the transition from the email I had used for years to the new name and five years later, I STILL get a few emails at the old address.

In the long run it is worth the effort. People still smile when I tell them my email address, it looks professional, and is easy to give out since it is based on my own name. Also, my spam folder is no longer overflowing with “Miracle Cure” emails and emails from several domains all come to one Inbox now. Ahhh, email nirvana!!!

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 2 – Background

The next part is this series was inspired by a recent article from Anil Dash, “12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech.” First, who is Mr. Dash? According to his own website, he is “a technology entrepreneur, activist, and writer focused on making the tech world more humane and ethical.” He is also the CEO of Fog Creek Software, a company that has been on the cutting edge of creating humane and ethical tech for almost two decades. I’ve written about Fog Creek’s advanced business practices in this blog.

Mr. Dash’s article, while long, makes several points that are helpful in understanding why the digital world has become so complex. He states, “All of the changes in our lives that happen when we use new technologies do so according to the priorities and preferences of those who create those technologies.” This means that people creating the products that we struggle with everyday are people who live their daily lives in such complex technical worlds that they don’t see the complexity anymore. The engineers who designed that TV remote with 25 buttons don’t see 25 buttons, their brains immediately filter out all but the four they need to operate it effectively.

Mr. Dash also explains that, “Tech is often built with surprising ignorance about its users” which is certainly self explanatory given the need for the thousands of “How To” websites on the Internet. The article goes on to explore several other related topics such as how tech companies make money and how this affects our experiences with their products as well as why understanding these concepts is important to changing tech for the better.  In summary though, the responsibility is on us to balance the usefulness of each piece of tech in our lives with its demands, then taking steps to reach a healthy balance. The first step is deciding which are the most critical projects to tackle.

  • Are 12,000 “precious” photos scattered across 5 computers stressful?
  • Are there 4,328 unread emails split between several email accounts making it impossible to find anything?
  • Are passwords written on dozens of sticky notes stuck to the bezel of your computer monitor?

With so many topics to cover, clearly not every article in this series will be useful to everybody, but we will start the next post with the elephant in the room, getting rid of Microsoft Windows if at all possible. This tech product is the one that seems to cause the most tech-stress in people’s lives. Interestingly, the time is long past for people needing a traditional computer. So “We need to talk about tablets.” Did you know you can get a Chromebook for under $200? There are trade offs of course so don’t go out and buy one just yet, but even these basic models can handle email, documents, photos, web surfing, and other tasks with ease.

Of course, this entire discussion assumes that you did your homework from the last post and recently backed up your computer. If not, go get a hard drive and do it. I’ll wait.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 1 – Introduction

In the last few years, our digital lifestyles have become a major part of modern living. For example, getting a message online used to mean email and “Instant Messages” (aka IMs). Now they flood in through email, text messages, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other sources. These messages used to be accessed from a desktop computer, but not any more. Today most of us have at least a computer and a smartphone while some are “lucky enough” to have a computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and maybe even a smart watch.

Digital photos are another good example. While valuable, they end up stored on computers old and new, hard drives, smartphones, The Cloud, and sometimes combinations of these, creating messy duplicates and lost photos. Other examples include music, digital calendars, digital receipts, bank statements, and the classic problem of keeping track of important digital files. Most of these activities require software, website access, and also have apps for phones, all of which have different user interfaces.

Even when well organized, complexity can lead to things going wrong from time to time. Devices fail, software gets updated, passwords are forgotten, hackers can wreck havoc, or we can simply forget how a certain device works, especially if it is not used often. I’ll bet that 90% of homes have the WiFi password on a sticky note somewhere near the router.

Still not convinced, how about these nagging questions?

  • Television: Why are remotes so complex? Why do we need a list of procedures that looks like the checklist from Boeing 747 to use them? 
  • Computers: Why are they updated so frequently, often “automatically,” and often right when some critical task needs to be done? (Smart phones and tablets fall into the same category.)
  • Printers: Why do they beg for ink for weeks, but keep printing? Or they stop printing for no apparent reason, then spew dozens of pages of gibberish. Ours has a particularly endearing habit waiting ten minutes, then making a loud noise when it “goes to sleep,” scaring us every time.
  • Internet: Why can’t we stay online reliably? WiFi has been around for almost 20 years and routers still look like alien spacecraft.  Here’s an interesting side-note, the term WiFi actually stands for absolutely nothing (which might explain a few things). Other issues include malware and the fact we now need to keep track of passwords for dozens of websites.

After millions of years of evolution during which the most complicated problems humans wrestled with involved agriculture and animal husbandry, how have we so quickly transitioned into a world where complexity seems to be spiraling out of control?

However, grappling with complexity is not new. Confucius was quoted in the 1st century as saying “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The famous concept of Occam’s Razor is the basis for the “preference for simplicity” in the scientific method. This sounds modern but is actually attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar. Some people like to quote Einstein as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” because it sounds like something he would say. It’s a great quote, but it’s not from Einstein (and the source is much more complex). Even the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) was coined by Kelly Johnson, the lead engineer who helped create some of the most complex aircraft ever built such as Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among others.

Of course, reasonable complexity is welcome, but too much can be crippling. Therefore this series of posts will focus on providing suggestions for resolving common problems quickly and efficiently by balancing complexity and simplicity. Along the way, there will be discussions about a variety of topics from the complexity inherent in modern technology systems (for example, what is “The Cloud”) to the scholarly work being done in the field by groups such as Santa Fe Institute’s “Complexity Explorer.”

If you have a particular topic of interest, please let me know. In the meantime as a teaser, the next post will start with a couple of “digital housecleaning tips” that will help you get a jump start on doing some Spring cleaning in your digital life. Until then, if you are not backing up your computer, your homework is to read this article and do it! Remember, “To Go Forward You Must Backup!”