Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Online Degrees

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I think there are two primary questions that a hiring manager would consider when reviewing a prospective employee’s education: What is the reputation of the institution? And, does this education significantly qualify the application?

As for the reputation of the institution, it serves to note that most online-only schools are not well established institutions. Further, the initial wave of these schools served to sully their own name while they experimented with teaching and business models. As another student said, some of these institutions are known as “diploma mills.”

One particular such institution is also known for aggressive recruiting practices, so much so that they are the subject of a lawsuit that will go forth next year. That same institution has a reputation for extremely low standards for its professors, and not much better standards for the education of its students. While I’ll avoid naming the institution in question, I think that most who read this will immediately know the one which I allude to. If you can guess, then you can be sure that those who would hire you can as well.

However, this is not a phenomenon that is specific to online universities. Trade schools generally share this fate, making them all but worthless for most professions. Traditional universities have been known to fail as well, though they have far more invested and as such far more to lose by such actions.

That is why I believe that online curriculums offered by traditional universities offer the best of both worlds. Such an institution has the necessary legitimacy to function without online education, yet it is extended – and by proxy its legitimacy – to the online arena. I don’t believe that the absence of this precludes online-only institutions from legitimacy, but it helps to explain the prejudice that some may hold against them.

The other side is the student. It is important to remember that a poor student can be offered the best education and learn nothing while an excellent student can attend a terrible university and still achieve their goals. This makes an evaluation difficult, but if you are hiring you do not want to allow prejudice against an institution exclude a great candidate.

As someone in the class mentioned, the motivation of a student is important for online learning. If a student is not self-motivated and self-sufficient they will likely fail. However, I would add that they may not fail their class by this, but merely fail to learn what they should. This ties into the institution, because if an institution has a reputation for allowing students to easily pass then the student without motivation may be able to cruise through. This person is likely not a great asset to your organization.

Studies show that it is easier to cheat with an online-only class. This is a fault with the system, not necessarily the institution or the teachers. Students attending such classes should have the maturity to know that they only cheat themselves and waste their money by doing this.

Beyond that I would mention that it takes the right personality and curriculum to succeed at an online-only program. Some people will learn better through the immersion and focus provided by a classroom. These people may shortchange themselves by attending online classes. That would be difficult to detect when hiring such a person.

Lastly, I think online-only schools lack much of the socialization that is a part of the college experience. Dormitories, classrooms, and other in-person interactions not only build bonds but teach important lessons. Were I to interview a candidate who attended an online-only institution immediately after high school I would be weary of their social skills. They may communicate view email exquisitely, but how will they act during a meeting? After skipping the dorm life, how will they react to the cubicle farm?

I think that online curriculums are gaining much legitimacy. They deserve different questions, but it is my hope that fewer people see them as inferior. Still, there will always exist prejudice about certain institutions, whether they be online or not.

Monday, November 23, 2009


This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I don't backup my computer, per se, so much as I backup important content. Things like photos, videos, and documents I replicate between multiple computers. As much as reasonable I try to also put these files into the cloud using one service or another. For instance: many of my photos are on multiple computers, uploaded to Picasa web, and also uploaded to Facebook. I store almost all of my documents in my Dropbox account, which stores the documents on their servers and automatically replicates them to multiple computers.

I admit that this is not an entirely adequate backup solution, but it's worked quite well so far. Two years ago my laptop died. I was able to recover the hard disk from it, only to find that I didn't need any of the data off of it. Last year the hard disk in my wife's computer died and almost nothing was lost. Even though I've been fairly lucky, I am working to rectify the situation with some more formalized and complete backups.

At work I save everything onto network storage which is backed up using NetApp's SnapVault.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Monitoring Internet Usage

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I'm not against monitoring internet usage in the workplace. I am against ham-handed management of people's communication. Often I find that this argument is oversimplified: You're at work to work, and you can't possibly be working if you're online on an outside instant messenger or checking your email. This argument ignores all other factors, such as lengthened work-weeks and jobs where productivity is held at a higher value. I think that a situational approach and proper management are required, no monitoring technology can replace these.

This boils down to metrics: Is someone's productivity and worth to an organization measured in how much time they spend online? I posit that it is not. You are not paid to not use the Internet, you're paid to perform certain tasks. Depending on the type of tasks and the expectations of your employer, this may preclude using the Internet, but it likely does not. Instead we should judge employees based on their ability to get their job done, only when they fall short of that should we question how they use their time.

Work/life balance is another issue to consider. When employers ask increasingly more time out of their workers’ lives they should expect a compulsion to bring the home life back into the mix to find a better balance. This is especially true when it comes to IM where that communication can be vital to maintaining healthy home relationships. It can also be said that the workplace continually creeps into home life. How is IM unacceptable at work when BlackBerries are required to be on at home? Again, this is about balance and it will vary individually. The employee who works minimal hours has less claim to this than the one who works dozens of hours overtime and some employees allow their home lives to affect their work. Managers should deal with these employees individually and realize that their Internet usage may not be a particularly useful metric to fixing the problem.

Lastly, I will side with employers from a Human Resources perspective. I think this is where monitoring, and even filtering, is important. Employees should know they are being monitored and they should have a few clear usage guidelines for the Internet. It may be acceptable to communicate with your family and friends, but not everything is acceptable to do from work. Companies need to take a zero tolerance stance on pornography, discriminatory practices (take for instance the Human Rights Watch worker that was recently found to post on Nazi bulletin boards), harassment, industry secrets, etc.. Such offenses should be taken extremely seriously and should be actively monitored. Employees that cross the line should be dealt with immediately. Policies like this should be clearly stated, though.

Schools are somewhat similar. I think there, since you’re likely not dealing with adults, you should be a little more proactive in monitoring and stopping abuse of technology. I see most of this as twenty first century note passing. Other content should be filtered, though pretty much any filter can be broken. This is still a situation where filtering and monitoring will not take the place of parenting and teaching. If a child is struggling you might look at abuse of technology as a contributing factor, but it is dangerous to assume that it is the definitive factor and even more dangerous to act on such an assumption without considering how it may effect the child.

With parenting, I think that young children should be monitored closely. This isn’t to say that I’m afraid of what they might see or who they might talk to. It is that they are far more likely not to understand, to take things wrong, and to make poor assumptions about what they’re seeing. I don’t want my child reading a hate website unattended, lest they believe such foolishness is true. I don’t want them to use social networking sites unattended, more because of cruelty like that of the Lori Drew case than worry over someone appearing on To Catch a Predator. The younger the child the more help they need with interpreting the situation Eventually they grow older at which time I would scale back monitoring only to avoid more serious problems such as lawsuits over infringement. Though such things may be a little easier to block than to monitor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Operating Systems

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I have a really funny story about how I crashed the VAX server at my father's work in 1983, but I'm going to spare you. Instead, I'm going to focus on operating systems that I have more direct, coherent interactions with. I'll try to do this in chronological order.

MS-DOS 4, 5 - My first experience really managing a system. High memory, what a throwback.
Windows 3 - I strongly preferred DOS to Windows at this stage, I thought of it as a gimmick and totally unstable.
MS-DOS 6.22 - The high point for DOS. Improved memory management (though I remember we used QEMM) and disk management. Good stuff. Anyone for a modem game of Doom?
Windows 3.1 -That minor revision made a big difference. Also, the business world started to catch on with Windows so more utilities came out. This was about the time I started using the Internet, and compared to today it was absolutely terrible. I still preferred DOS when I could use it.
Windows 95 - It was such a big deal, and it was a huge improvement. I think it was slightly overhyped. Ultimately I found myself still going into DOS for a lot of things.
Windows 98 SE - I think that this high point of the Windows 9x line. We waited until Second Edition was released before we upgraded. It required some initial work to make it run well, but after that it was rock solid.
OS 9 - I helped a few friends that had this work on their computers. It was neat, but I absolutely hated it. It was so difficult to do any maintenance to the system and everything was so slow.
Windows Me - Oh my, what a disaster. I don't recall any useful feature upgrades from 98 SE but it seems that Microsoft tried to do too much with the 9x code base. It didn't work, this was the most unstable and unusable OS I've ever experienced.
Windows NT - I have limited experience with this, as I switched employers and they were on the verge of upgrading to 2000. Still, I used it. It was largely unremarkable.
Windows 2000 - By combining the architecture of the NT series with the better UI of the 9x series, this was a huge improvement over everything out there. I'm less thrilled with 2000 server.
Windows XP - I remember how excited I was that the better architecture of the NT series would be available to home users. On the down side, Microsoft created a highly networked OS that largely ignored all of the security lessons learned in the Unix community, which lead to rampant viruses and onslaughts of malicious software that continue to this day.
FreeBSD 5 - This was the best server OS I've used. It was highly stable, great performance, and Ports is awesome. I was able to do so many various things with this system it's hard to believe. I regret switching later.
VectorLinux - After inheriting a relatively ancient laptop I was able to use this Slackware varient to get it working. It has a tiny footprint but provides little in the way of ease of use.
Gentoo Linux - When it came time to replace my FreeBSD machine I chose this OS. It had more active development and great documentation. Unfortunately it also had days of compiling and eventually dependency problems.
Windows XP MCE - This was the best version of XP. It has a slightly better UI and just the right mix of enabled features to allow the home user to get things done. Specifically, I liked that it had IIS so I could do ASP.Net development without a hack at home.
Ubuntu Linux - This is by far the best that Linux has for the home user. Setup is a breeze and it recognizes tons of hardware. Of course, using Linux can be quirky and this one comes so close to being complete that it's a let down when something that "requires" a Microsoft product forces you to stop using it.
Windows Server 2003 - Good improvements over 2000, I like IIS 6.
Vista - I used this a few times. What I saw was that Microsoft tried to fix the security problems they've had and overshot creating this annoying system of prompt after prompt after prompt. I noticed that after a weke of using this OS most users would dismiss any and all dialog prompts without so much as a glance. They shifted the security problem from systemic to psychological. It was enough to tip the scales for me to buy a Mac.
OS X Leopard, Snow Leopard - I'll admit that I waited a long time to really try out OS X. I knew what it was like from years in the industry. OS X gets so very much right, and with a few tweaks it's an absolute dream to use. Most things in OS X just work, the usability of the OS is great, and I don't have to jump through hoops to get it to work with most of my stuff.
Windows Server 2008 - I only recently started using this. I'm not sure I've seen a huge improvement over 2003, especially in the management interface which I haven't gotten the hang of yet.
Windows 7 - For the first time since OS X was released it seems that Microsoft has taken the lead in usability. The security problems seem to finally be fixed, there's a clear point where you have to tell the system that you want to be an administrator but you're normally just a user. I'm very excited for this and I can't wait for Apple to truly respond.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Which I Pretend to be a Sports Writer...

I wrote this in response to last night's Patriots-Colts game which was decided by a last second touchdown by the Colts. The main points of contention were a controversial coaching decision by the Patriot's coach, Bill Belichick, and a close call at the end of a pivotal play. I originally posted this in a forum, but I like to repost writings I'm particularly happy with.

I had phoned it in on this game. I missed the first part of the game reading to Kevin, and generally trying to convince him that yes, he did need to go to sleep. Then I turned it on and Indy was already pretty far behind and things looked rather bleak for them. For most of the game I decided my time was better spent with the volume muted and me catching up on Google Reader.

I started paying a little more attention in the second half, but I was prepared for it to ultimately be a let down with some sort of controlling performance late in the game by the Pats. I kept the game on, but it was either muted or half-muted the whole time. I keyed in when they scored making it 28-34 with almost 3 to go. Now it was interesting, but for whatever reason I couldn't bear to watch. I figured that Brady would throw a series or short passes then they'd just sit on the ball after a first down or two. So I was surprised when it got to 3rd down. Either the game would end there, because a first down would at least allow the Pats to run out most of the clock, or we'd get to see Peyton's two minute drill.

When the 3rd and 2 pass was almost intercepted my heart raced. I saw the frustration on the defenders face that he had the ball and couldn't complete the pick, which may have been a pick 6 if he had. I said to the TV, "but it doesn't matter because you stopped the pass, so you'll get it back on the next play."

So I dropped my eyes back to the reader figuring I'd have a few moments of uneventful punt return and commercials. I was stunned to see the offense on the field for 4th down. It was scary. That offense is imposing in such a situation. I didn't event think to question the coaching. I was in too much shock at the audacity. I'm not a pro football player, but I can imagine that the Indy defense had to feel some of that apprehension. Two yards of 11 guys versus Brady & Belichick, and I considered the 11 guys the underdogs.

It was close, but I think officials got it right. There are close calls, bad calls, and controversial calls. That was not a bad call. For it to be a bad call there would have to be clear evidence that the official got it wrong. Most of the evidence appears to confirm the official got it right or at least that it could go either way. It wasn't a controversial call, because I think that only a true Pats homer would argue the call at this point (or someone that didn't see it). It was a close call.

There's no point arguing close calls after the time to challenge has passed. The game is full of those and you can count on at least one per game going against you. Pats fans really should never complain about close calls, the team has had more than their share of close calls go their way in the last decade, not to mention that they tend to be on the winning side of controversial calls more often than not as well. In fact, it was the Pats success that is often credited to their luck with calls that led me to realize this about football. Good teams can win even when a bad call, let alone a close or controversial one, goes against them. Good teams also capitalize on calls that go their way. It's the mark of a great team when both of these happen.

What you can't do is try to blame the refs. It's not the refs fault that the Colts were within 6 that late in the game. It's not the refs fault that they had a close call to deal with, either. If the ball were thrown a yard further then it would have clearly been a first down. Most importantly, of course, it's not the refs fault that they went for it on 4th and 2.

The reason why any armchair quarterback was shocked by that is because you know that this is the one situation where it was a terrible idea. The Pats were at their own 28. The Colts were hot in the 4th but not unstoppable. The play would end with the 2 minute warning giving a premier quarterback with a hot offense 2 minutes to cover 30 yards if you don't make the first. It changed the dynamic of the Colts offense and allowed them the option of the run or the pass, which is important because Manning had already thrown two picks that game and there were clearly moments of confusion between he and his receivers.

So the Pats lost.

Now the kicker: If you're a Pats fan, or a member of their organization, your response should be "big fucking deal." The way you're playing now you're in the hunt for a first round bye in the playoffs, and you're surely going to win your division. So, you'll likely see these guys again, right? These guys that squeaked one out on you. These guys who've collapsed several times against you in the playoffs. And you'll be driven. You'll be mad that they stole it from you last time. Maybe they'll be cocky. And it will be the rematch of the year.

Favorite and Daily Use Applications

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

My favorite application is Google’s Picasa. Picasa is a great photo organizer that allows you to effortlessly move photos from your digital camera to the web or print. It has most of the tools needed to clean up an image, and they’re all very easy to use. Yes, I could always open Photoshop, and sometimes I do use it for a particularly troubled image, but normally that is akin to driving a finishing nail with a sledgehammer. Picasa is powerful enough that it works for more advanced users, but simple enough that even a novice can use it with relative ease. That range of usability is extremely impressive.

However, I do not have a need to use Picasa daily. My favorite daily application is Firefox. The best thing about Firefox is that it just works on almost any platform. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my work computer, my Macbook, my Windows 7 machine, or a Linux installation. All of them have Firefox and it works with very little deviation in function. This ubiquity has led me to use more in-browser applications as substitutes for desktop applications, such as GMail instead of Outlook, or Google Docs instead of Excel.

Since I use so many computers, another application I would be lost without is Dropbox. Again, it’s cross platform, and again it just works. Dropbox creates a folder in your profile that it monitors for changes. When you add a new file to that folder it uploads the file to the Dropbox server. Once the file is uploaded, your other computers will download that file immediately if they are online, or upon the next login. Also, you can login to the Dropbox website and access those files from any computer. It’s far more convenient than carrying a thumb drive. Did I mention that it's free for up to 2GB of storage? Well, it is.

Other daily applications include Microsoft’s Outlook (for work email), Visual Studio 2008, and SQL Server Management Studio 2008. At home on my Mac I use Quicksilver, which is basically the best application launcher ever, and I proof most of my work in Pages.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Netflix Streaming: The Holy Grail of Online TV?

I write a lot about online entertainment. I suppose it makes sense, because I'm writing as a hobby and most of my other hobbies somehow involve online entertainment. I also write a lot about Netflix. I really like the company and the service fits me almost perfectly. Are they the best, though?

When I previously wrote about Hulu and ABC I mentioned Netflix. Actually, I tend to use it as the bar with which other streaming sites are measured. It's bothered me since then that I never came back to write a review of Netflix's Watch Instantly.

Netflix was founded with a purpose: Deliver users television and movie content via the Internet. That may go against what you think of the company. Chances are you associate them with mail order rentals. It's true that they shifted to that business model, but only after they realized that the infrastructure for streaming video was not in place in the late 90's. When they finally were able to start offering this service they were neither pioneers nor were they pushing the limits of technology. However, they have a long history of getting things right and they continued that tradition here.

The Watch Instantly service was originally somewhat of a dud. The interface and process was well done, but the content on there was mostly terrible. There were a few exceptions, mostly documentaries, but the majority of that first generation of content was the stuff that doesn't even get late night plays on third rate cable stations. I watched a few movies from that era and I was excited, but I also wasn't worried that I would go over the 17 hours of playback per month they offered.

I think the potential must have been obvious to the studios because Netflix struck several deals and significantly expanded their offerings. Of the 17,000 or so streaming titles in their catalog it's fairly easy to find something you would like to watch. Still, the vast majority is rubbish. That's the way the long tail works. One can hope that as the catalog expands better content will continue to float to the top. Still, this is a stark contrast to Hulu which has a wide variety of first rate content.

When you're looking for that content you can go a few ways about it. What I usually do is browse through the Watch Instantly selection where I can drill down into subcategories, from there I can sort titles alphabetically or by rating. The rating data is useful, but I wish it were more applicable to me - more on that later. This works a little like Hulu's "Channels" and allows me to quickly find new content that I may want to watch. It's not as focused as Hulu is, though, and there's a lot more noise to clutter the decision. The other way is to browse through the catalog as usual but instead of adding a DVD to your queue you either watch the content right then or you add it to a streaming queue. It's kind of nice, you look for something and get a surprise that you don't have to wait.

Once you've decided on a program to watch you get to experience the real gem: the player. Netflix play is great in that it gauges your computer and connection in order to deliver the best possible quality of video with the least interruptions. At first I found this annoying, I wanted to be able to get the highest quality of picture and I was willing to let it cache for longer in order to get that. Now I'm convinced that this is a good way to go.

Why? It seems that Netflix has more shades of gray in their quality settings than Hulu does. With Hulu it's high or low quality (and their standalone player has a medium setting). The difference between the two is stark, the low quality is often unacceptably bad and the high can burn out all the fans in your system in a single viewing. Netflix dynamically pics the right quality setting and only occasionally have I been let down by this. Unlike Hulu, I can watch a show with acceptable video quality without noticeable dropped frames or having to crank the volume because my computer is doing double duty as a furnace.

The down side to this is that every time you skip back and forth the stream is interrupted and the player goes through the negotiation process again. If you're watching a series and you want skip the opening and ending sequence you have to renegotiate. If you missed something and you want to go back 30 seconds you have to renegotiate. Also, sometimes if your connection has a hiccup you'll find it switching to the lower quality setting. A refresh normally fixes this, but that's annoying.

Still, it's a bonus that once you start watching you aren't constantly reminded that streaming content is still playing catch-up to traditional TV. If I were watching this over my TV I'd probably not think about the source at all.

Other notes about the player: I like the interface for skipping around. When the movie loads it loads a series of still frames taken at 10 second intervals. When you skip it gives you a timeline of these and you select one to skip to. It's very fast, but you lose precision. You cannot skip to 3:16, you have to go to 3:10. The other controls are fairly standard. I'd like to see integration with media buttons for the in-browser player, as it's the only thing available for Mac.

It uses Silverlight. I'm not a huge fan of Silverlight, and Flash made some big strides shortly after Netflix committed to the change. Still, I think that Flash is a resource hog and Silverlight may be slightly better.

Of course, Netflix also has the widest variety of available players. They don't have a standalone player for Mac that I know of, but they do have integration in Windows Media Center and that works very well. You can also access this content on a few gaming systems. Plus there is the Roku player and a whole host of other devices that are ready to stream from Netflix. For the sake of this review I'm focusing on the in-browser player. I'd like to do a head to head comparison of Windows Media Center Netflix vs. Hulu standalone. I'll save that for another day. I probably won't be comparing any of the other devices anytime soon. I don't feel particularly compelled to buy any of these TVs or Blu-Ray players that only work with Netflix, being a two trick pony isn't that much better than being a one-trick pony. I think I'd rather buy the Roku player since that company seems to be expanding its offerings all the time.

The elephant in the room: subscription fees. I'm going to ignore this elephant, sort of. If you're not a Netflix subscriber then I don't think you should become one just for streaming. You should become one because the DVD-by-mail rental model is superior to other rental models and the streaming is a bonus. That's my take on it. I've had Netflix since 2002, long before they offered streaming content. When they offered it I considered it a perk, and they didn't charge me any extra. For me this service is essentially free. I'd pay for Netflix even if they took it away. Some may not agree with that, and certainly if you're one of the people who dislikes the DVD rental model they use then you would value it differently.

My biggest gripe: no streaming for additional profiles. As I've said before I'm very particular about the way I rate movies and I have very different tastes from my wife. This really hurts Watch Instantly because I can only access it via my wife's account. Netflix doesn't even have a way to migrate accounts, so if I were to offer to pay them more and have separate accounts. I would have to go back and re-rate all of the movies I've seen, 1400 and counting. When I go into my wife's account I find that many movies I enjoy or I may enjoy are rated poorly. This is because Netflix displays ratings based on what you've rated in the past and how you've rated different types of movies. It doesn't completely kill the value of the ratings shown, but it comes close.

The verdict: Netflix is king of the browser. For all its faults, Netflix still reigns supreme if you want to watch content from your browser. It isn't perfect, but neither is the competition, so I say that it wins. That's just for the browser. On the desktop the showdown has only recently begun. Next up: Netflix Media Center plug-in vs. Hulu Desktop. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Computers and Mac vs PC

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of. While working on this I compiled a list of my computers that I posted earlier.

About 50 hours a week I use my work machine, a Dell Precision M65 laptop running Windows XP Professional SP2. When I’m at home I primarily use an Apple MacBook White laptop running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). Often, I connect into my file server, which is a Dell Optiplex 170L desktop running Windows XP Professional SP3. The file server, which I have dubbed “Kowalski,” is in my office and does not have a keyboard, mouse, or monitor attached to it. Other than hosting copies of my media files, it also serves as secondary desktop and I use it as a print server.

Other machines in my house include my wife’s Lenovo S10 netbook, a Dell Dimension 4700 desktop running Windows 7, and a Compaq Armada 1500 laptop from 1996 running VectorLinux that I saved for my toddler to play with. Roughly 6 years ago I received the Compaq laptop, at the time it was my first laptop, so I worked hard to make it useable again. I’m proud to say that it works well for light internet use and simple games, it even has a working wireless NIC.

As for my thoughts on the Mac vs. PC debate. Well, I find that it’s not much of a debate. Instead you have a majority of people who simply don’t care and a tiny minority of geeks who are passionate about one system or another to a religious extent. Very little debate happens due to this, instead each side focuses on circumstantial issues, biased opinions, and stereotypical members of the other camp. While this is great for strengthening the resolve of the group, it’s terrible at exposing the true strengths and weaknesses of each operating system.
In my opinion, the market leader (not to be confused with the sales leader) changes every few years. It’s about to change back to Microsoft, after Apple has enjoyed several years of superiority with OS X. The problems with Windows over the last several years have been security, polish, and a fear of breaking backward compatibility. Apples issues have more to do with their longstanding inability to attract corporate users [builds familiarity] and software vendors [more tools to get things done] and cost of entry.

Microsoft made a great stride in addressing their issues with Vista, they came close to fixing some of the worst security problems. Unfortunately, Vista is bloated due to the backward compatibility, and it is severely lacking in polish. [For a great breakdown on the polish issue search for “Joel Spolsky Yale talk” on Google.] After some time using Windows 7 it is clear that Microsoft has further refined their security, nailed the polish, and it seems that their implementation of backwards compatibility was taken right from the OS X playbook.

Meanwhile, Apple has mainly rested on their laurels with their operating system. The jump from OS 9 to OS X was huge, and for good reason: OS 9 was terribly outdated and only the staunchest Mac users remained. Since, they’ve further polished the system, and I can say that Snow Leopard has great usability from experience. The only issue that they’ve addressed at all in the time has been entry price, you can get a computer similar to mine for about $900. I did find that there are plenty of software vendors for the Mac world, I only ever need to use a Windows desktop if a site require Internet Explorer or to verify that my Pages document is formatted correctly to display in Word, but I know that plenty of people out there require software that you cannot find for Mac. Similarly, I’ve seen almost no increase in consideration for Mac users in the corporate world. Firefox has done much on the Web to expose the need for platform independence, but little else has changed.

Last year when I bought my MacBook I did so because I was fully aware of the issues with Vista. I did not want to buy a Vista laptop. I knew the Vista Capable debacle. [Though I don’t know what happened to the lawsuit that it caused.] When my Inspiron 6000 died I knew I would have to either buy a Mac or a PC with Vista, and at the time a PC with similar specifications was no cheaper than the MacBook. Ironically, Vista’s issues and the success of netbooks have pushed the PC manufacturers to sell respectable machines for far lower prices. Right now the PC truly is the better deal.

Windows 7 will re-energize Microsoft’s slumping sales. If we can assume that the price of a new PC will remain somewhat flat, or only rise a small amount, then I think they will fly off the shelves. People will be happy with them, and the bleeding in the laptop segment will stop for Microsoft. The debate will still go on, but it’s clear that competition is a good thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PS3 or XBox 360 for Netflix?

Mike over at Hacking Netflix has a brief comparison of the two gaming consoles that can stream Watch Instantly content.

Reliability: The Xbox 360 suffers from the infamous "red ring of death" and is the console with the lowest reliability (23.7% system failure rate), according to Square Trade. Winner: PS3.

User Interface: The Xbox has had almost a year lead on the PS3, so it has a unique party mode feature and Xbox-style UI while the PS3 is slower and has the "generic" Netflix streaming UI. Winner: Xbox 360.

Of course, I have neither of these. I have an old PS2 that is never used. My wife keeps telling me that she wants a Wii, but it seems like a big expenditure for a platform that was aged the day it arrived. I also have my reservations about whether a Wii would be used after the first two months until my son is older.

Of the three companies, I would definitely prefer to support Nintendo. Sony and Microsoft are bullies and I strongly object to their business practices. That would make my decision quite tough. The XBox seems to have more ways to interact with your media while the PS3 opens the door to Blu-Ray. If I were to make a snap decision today I'd probably buy a PS3, at least I'd get a Blu-Ray player out of the deal if we stopped playing games on it, and it doesn't require expensive secondary purchases and online subscriptions to use it for Netflix.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Favorite Websites

This is the first post in a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

Like the vast majority of Internet users, I get my search results from Google. I avoid like the plague. Interestingly, I recently took a blind comparison between the three major English language search engines and found that I preferred Yahoo! slightly over Google. That is not enough for me to change the default search on my phone and many computers.

I use GMail for almost all of my email needs. When I was given I GMail invite long ago I admit that I was skeptical. Ultimately, I think that GMail’s concepts of email conversations and labels were revolutionary. I know they invented neither but their implementation is top notch. I can hardly wait for Google Wave.

Facebook is the unquestionable king of social networking. No site on the Internet is better at helping you find and stay loosely connected to a group of people. Their suggestion data mining is so good it’s a little scary.

Netflix is my favorite site, and my top pick for entertainment. I've been using Netflix for seven years. In that time I've seen the site grow from a simple rental-by-mail service to a community of movie fans. This site has the best selection of streaming content on the Internet, though Hulu is closing fast. I'm also a fan of Bill Scott, the director of UI engineering for the company. I've rated over 1400 movies, according to my Netflix profile, and roughly 500 of them were rented or streamed from the company.

Honorable mentions include: SlickDeals.Net for bargain hunting; Lifehacker for, well... "lifehacking;" and for humor.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I'm a fan of Cablevision. As an addendum to my recent decision to cancel cable again, I want to clarify that it is not the fault of my cable company. I may not like giving them too much of my money, but I'll likely remain a customer of theirs as long as feasible.

Their services are great. I realize that they're a little pricey, but you get top notch service for the added cost. My Optimum Online connection is reliably fast, and I certainly could not do better for the price. At the very least, not without signing a prolonged contract that would surely balloon in cost after some period of time. Their cable packaging is a bit more expensive than Time Warner at the top tiers, but they offer lower tiers that are cheaper than what you can get elsewhere. I'm a little less bullish on their phone offerings, but I think they're good for a cable company. I truly believe that the totality of their services provides great value compared to others in the industry.

The customer service at Cablevision has consistently been top notch. The only unpleasant experiences I can recall involve installation. Like the time that we had to have the installer dispatch four times because they kept installing at a business with a similar address down the street. That happens so rarely that it's pretty much a non-issue. Every time I've called customer service or visited one of their locations the people have been helpful and friendly.

The impetus for this post was a reflection on their customer service during my cancellations. I was never treated poorly. I was never deferred to a retention specialist. There was no push back, no fight, no pleading for me to stay. Each time I was treated with respect and a friendly person helped me accomplish my goal.

These things matter. Service and value are the sign of a good business. More importantly, I can't think of the last time I thought of these things as the strength of a cable or phone provider. Typically, this industry thrives on anti-competitive practices, coercion and cost-cutting measures. I honestly believe that Cablevision has better values than most of its competitors. It isn't their fault my values have changed such that I no longer need as much of their services.