May 31, 2016 brianradio2016

Artificial intelligence — in the guises of personal assistants, bots, self-driving cars, and machine learning — is hot again, dominating Silicon Valley conversations, tech media reports, and vendor trade shows.

AI is one of those technologies whose promise is resurrected periodically, but only slowly advances into the real world. I remember the dog-and-pony AI shows at IBM, MIT, Carnie-Melon, Thinking Machines, and the like in the mid-1980s, as well as the technohippie proponents like Jaron Lanier who often graced the covers of the era’s gee-whiz magazine like “Omni.”

AI is an area where much of the science is well established, but the implementation is still quite immature. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes — rather, the emperor is only now wearing underwear. There’s a lot more dressing to be done.

Thus, take all these intelligent machine/software promises with a big grain of salt. We’re decades away from a “Star Trek”-style conversational computer, much less the artificial intelligence of Stephen Spielberg’s “A.I.”

May 31, 2016 brianradio2016

Much has been said in this space on the continued attacks on encryption by politicians across the globe. This demonization of the mechanism that holds the Internet together is as enduring as it is inexplicable. As I’ve said before, it’s impossible for anyone who works with network or data security to accept any argument that includes implementing a master key or backdoor in encryption standards.

In general, two sides of any particular issue will have some overlap. There may be discussion and argument on the best method to achieve a certain goal, but at least there’s agreement on the goal. In the case of encryption, however, there’s no common goal. The major issue is the technologist understands that encryption is a binary concept — either an item is unbreakable, or it’s insecure. There’s no middle ground, no gray area. You either have strong, unbreakable encryption … or you don’t. An encryption standard with a built-in backdoor is breakable encryption. It’s insecure by design.

A generational gap seems to come into play here. As I discuss these topics with my father, I note that this concept is as difficult for him to grasp as the converse is to me. I’m as puzzled by his thinking that an encryption standard with a master key is acceptable as he is by my belief that encryption isn’t secure if there’s a backdoor that only authorities can use. It’s an impasse, and I think most of the reason for this stark conflict is generational in nature.

My father grew up in a physical world. In my father’s world, if the authorities needed to find evidence or information on a suspected criminal, they had to get a warrant and execute that warrant in person. They had to obtain physical evidence to prove a crime was committed. This may have included safecracking, breaking down doors, or any other breach of a secured space. As long as the warrant was granted for that space, then the search and seizure was legal and acceptable by society’s standards.

May 25, 2016 brianradio2016

There are two main reasons why you might want to reset Windows 10 and remove everything. One is if a program or setting really screwed up your PC–like that never happens–and you just need to start over. Another is if you plan to sell or recycle your PC, and you want to make sure the next person doesn’t get any of your stuff. Luckily, Windows 10 lets you start over with a few clicks.

I’m going to show you how Windows 10 lets you reset your PC and remove everything–and I mean everything: all of your files, software, and settings.

Just make sure you really want to burn the place down before you do it, because this is it. If you have any doubts, back up your PC or important files before you do this, or watch my video on the milder reset option, which resets just Windows and keeps everything else.

Ready? Okay. Hit the Start button and go to Settings. In Settings, select Update and Security, and in there, select Recovery.

At the top of the Recovery section you’ll see “Reset this PC.” Click the Get Started button–don’t worry, you’ve still got one more step–and then you get to choose an option. In this case, we’re choosing “Remove everything,” and the dialog box reminds you one more time that this means everything.

Now, I’m not actually going to click this button, because that will start the process. Then you just sit back and let Windows do its thing. It may take a while. When it’s done, you should have a fresh Windows installation with nothing else.

Just note that if your PC came with a bunch of preinstalled “bonus” programs, aka bloatware, from the vendor, those programs will reinstall themselves as part of this process. If you want to get rid of bloatware, you’ll need to do that manually.

Windows installs are always an adventure. Tell us your craziest experience at answer@pcworld.com.

May 23, 2016 brianradio2016

For whatever cosmic reason, some industries are sleazier than others. It’s nowhere written that used car salesmen must come off as con men, but many do. Timeshare resorts don’t need to be festering with over-the-top high-pressure sales types, but most are. There are still companies that do door-to-door sales, and their reps often carry a sizable “ick” factor wherever they go. Naturally, quite a few large industries are equally as underhanded, but do a better job of hiding it, like the music industry.

In IT, we generally don’t see this type of business. Big software houses and hardware manufacturers and their sales organizations are generally straightforward. The prices may be high for enterprise-level gear, but the support had better be good or customers will go elsewhere. A large part of IT is so complicated and so often derived from specific niche skill sets that manufacturer support isn’t usually optional, but a requirement — and that’s where these companies make their profits. It’s in their best interests to provide stellar service and support for a solid price.

But this morning I was reminded of an industry within IT that has been cultivating a high sleaze factor for many years now: domain registrars. 

As I made a cup of coffee, I had a call on my home line from GoDaddy, which has called my house no fewer than 16 times so far this year. Many years ago I registered a few domains with the company, and I’ve helped out a few friends that used it for their domains. I still have several active domains registered through GoDaddy, primarily because they were cheap enough to not bother with the hassle of transfers.

May 17, 2016 brianradio2016

Across the world, Android smartphones handily outsell Apple iPhones by wide margins — yet Android devices rarely have significant presence within enterprise environments. Even in the United States, where the market share for the two smartphones is roughly equal, iPhones account for about 70 to 90 percent of enterprise smartphones in use, according to various surveys.

The latest incarnation of Android — version 6.0 Marshmallow — has made significant improvements around security and management, and the leading Android device maker (Samsung) offers enterprise-quality smartphones like the Galaxy S7, as well as a strong security platform that has gained federal approval. But enterprise mobility is still very much an iPhone and iPad phenomenon.

Speaking of the iPad, when it comes to tablets, it’s iPad or nothing at most enterprises. Android tablets have almost no presence among business users, and if anything seems likely to get adoption beyond the iPad, it’s Microsoft’s Windows 10-based Surface Pro.

Today, enterprises can adopt Android as a near-equal to iOS. Why haven’t they? There are three basic reasons, all of which can be overcome if the Android industry decides to do so.

May 16, 2016 brianradio2016

No matter how much of a force a company might seem, all good things must come to an end. That’s not to say that today’s juggernauts will vanish overnight, but the tech world is littered with the corpses of powerful, even massive companies that failed to adapt to changing times and were either marginalized or became the dust of ages — Wang, DEC, Tandy, SGI, Compaq. More recently we witnessed the collapse of Sun into the murky depths of Larry Ellison’s ego. No matter how significant a corporation might become, it is not immortal.

A few have more staying power and diversified well enough that they have a (possibly) longer lifespan than most. IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Apple appear to be in this category.

Apple in particular has been riding a seemingly endless wave of innovation and success, coupled with shrewd business practices that have made it all but unassailable. It’s unlikely that its position would be unseated by a direct competitor in mobile and high-end laptop and desktop sales solely due to the prowess of that rival — Apple would have to screw up repeatedly with major missteps to help that process along.

That may be happening right now. The recent slip in iPhone sales and precipitous market drop is one indicator, as is the symbolism of Apple’s market capitalization dipping below Google’s. Apple is no longer the largest company in the world.

May 9, 2016 brianradio2016

As you may have noticed, I’ve been ruminating a lot about communications recently, specifically messaging and email. I’m not done.

Messaging and email are the most ubiquitous methods of personal communication that humans use today. We send more text messages, instant messages, and emails than we make phone calls. Many of us use these systems more often than we speak face-to-face with our friends and family. And we do so despite the fact that each is fairly broken in its own way, though SMS is probably the most robust of all the methods.

In fact, SMS is now possibly the most reliable way to send small messages to another person — assuming, of course, the person has a mobile phone. Messaging through one or more of the cornucopia of popular apps can easily result in unread notices if the recipient doesn’t have the app installed and running. Sending an email should work, unless it gets trapped in a spam filter or another all-too-common pitfall on the way to the recipient, but text messages generally get to their destination unimpeded.

Except when they don’t. I was recently in Norway, where I discovered my phone would work with data services from Telenor, and I could make outbound calls and send texts, but incoming calls and texts simply didn’t reach me. When I landed in London a few days later, I received all 42 text messages and voicemail notifications I had missed. Technically, SMS succeeded in delivering the message, but a bit late.

May 2, 2016 brianradio2016

We live in a constantly connected world. We can contact anyone on or off the planet in a matter of seconds. We communicate using a wide variety of mediums, from blind broadcasts to specific one-to-one messaging that moves to and from smartphones, computers, tablets, or any other device capable of an Internet connection — my watch, for example.

It’s not always easy. The Internet has brought us amazing possibilities, but it has also brought us massive fragmentation in new areas of communication. The proliferation of instant messaging applications is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Not only are there no universal standards, sometimes there aren’t even standards within the fragments themselves.

Occasionally we’ll discover that newer versions of one messaging app can’t talk to older versions of the same app. Addresses or usernames have no standardization. You might be able to use a third-party client for some services, but not others. You might need to sign up for some massively overbuilt framework simply to send the equivalent of a text message to someone else who happens to use that framework. You might find that your messaging needs require you to have accounts at a dozen different services, with your contacts scattered among them. You may actually have to remember that you talk to one person with XYZ app and another with ABC app. It’s the Tower of Babel.

This is a new development. Historically, we have been able to settle on a single standard for any given form of communication, generally because there was no viable alternative, and the barriers to entry were substantial.

April 25, 2016 brianradio2016

Five years ago, I wrote a column about how the fax machine refuses to die. Five years is a long time in terms of technology, but only a short time in terms of fax machines. Depending on how you define the point of origin of the first method of distributing images or photographs over an electrical wire, the fax machine may date back to 1843.

There was a telefax service in operation between Paris and Lyon, France, in 1865. Transmission of images over wireless radio networks was routinely conducted throughout the early 20th century. The modern facsimile machine as we know it was introduced in the United States in 1964.

Of all of the computing or digital technologies commercially available in 1964, you probably won’t find any of them in a Staples today — except the fax machine. We don’t use dot-matrix printers anymore or CRT monitors or televisions. We’ve largely migrated from landlines to cellphones, and even our landlines are digital in most places these days. The technologies from that era are all museum pieces now, with the glaring exception of this ancient document transmission system that continues on like a zombie, devouring forests of paper and screaming 14,400bps modem tones.

This was brought back into stark contrast to me the other day when I was forced to spend hours on the phone with several health care companies to clear up a problem related to a garbled fax transmission of a prescription renewal.

April 19, 2016 brianradio2016

Apple has had a string of promising technologies lately that have been slow to get real-world takeup. CarPlay, announced in 2012 as iOS in the Car, is only this year seriously showing up in cars’ infotainment systems. Handoff, which debuted in 2014, has gained very little third-party developer adoption and has seen little use even by Apple outside of handling texts and calls across devices. Maybe Microsoft’s new take on Handoff will fare better.

Then there’s the iBeacons protocol that lets a smartphone app get local information on demand by reading the ID of devices called beacons. Each beacon has a unique ID, which an app maps to a database that tells it the beacon’s location or other information specific to it.

iBeacons was supposed to revolutionize retailing, by letting customers get more product details and order the displayed items in their sizes or preferences, as well as allowing retailers to track and engage with customers as they moved about a store. Beacons’ uses transcend retail, of course — beacons could also provide info on museum artifacts, transit options, where vegetables in a store bin were grown, and so on when engaging the real world.

Apple didn’t invent beacons, but its iBeacons protocol opened up a common technology that app developers and those deploying beacons could use. Before iBeacons, a particular vendor’s beacons worked with only that vendor’s software. With iBeacons, manufacturers quickly adopted the Apple standard, even if they also offered their own “enhanced” protocol.