Tech Tips

2017 Will be a Wild Year for Web Hosting – How to be Prepared

If you’re like most small business owners, the topic of web hosting likely bores you out of your mind – assuming you have any idea what web hosting even means. This is understandable. Most business owners are busy running their companies and have very little time to deal with the technical minutiae of domain names, web hosting, and all that goes with it. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this lack of knowledge come to haunt many business owners because not dealing properly with their web hosting can lead to a web outage or worse, the loss of their domain name! The main problem most business people have with their hosting is that they use a faceless, nameless company like GoDaddy to register their domain and host their web site. When problems arise, they must spend a lot of time on the phone explaining the issue and they have no one they can trust to help them. 2017 promises to be a wild year for web hosting, so it is important for all business owners to get clear on their web hosting information sooner than later.

Why will 2017 be a wild year for web hosting? There are a few factors but primarily it involves the evolution of one underlying web technology called PHP. I won’t get into the gory technical details, but the simple explanation is that many developers of web technologies (such as the very popular WordPress) are pushing for a new minimum supported version of PHP. To comply with the new minimum requirement will require many web site owners to perform an upgrade on their hosting provider, but most people will not know how to do that. In my research, this upgrade won’t even be possible for many people who have had their hosting package for several years and will require they sign up for a new one. Again, none of this is insurmountable, but most people will have no idea they need to do this and if they do, they really won’t have a clue of how to get it all done. For those brave souls who attempt to travel this road, they will undoubtedly spend many hours on the phone. Not to mention, if the process is not done correctly there are many opportunities for problems.

What Should You Do?

The first question most people will have is why bother with all these upgrades? The benefits are that the newer version of PHP helps make many web sites run faster. The downside to not upgrading PHP along with the systems that run on top of it are that security vulnerabilities abound. There are stories after stories of web sites that have been hacked because the systems that run those sites were not updated. Not paying attention to your web site is potentially disastrous for your business. So what can a business owner do?

The very first thing is to make sure you have all current information on your domain registration and web hosting, along with e-mail hosting. This means knowing what company holds your domain registration and which companies manage the servers that your web site and e-mail are running. This could be all one company or three different ones. Regardless, know specifically which company or companies hold your online life in the balance. This includes having working usernames and passwords so that you can log in and make changes and/or update billing information if necessary. If you don’t have this information at your fingertips, do what you must to get this information. Talk to your business partner or employees who may have handled it. If you had a company managing your web site for you, make sure you get this information from them. Even if another company is handling it for you, it is in your company’s best interest to also have this information. If you simply can’t find anything, talk to a trusted technology professional to help you investigate. I’m certainly willing to help you out if you don’t have anyone you trust. Just go to my contact page and send me a message.

Once you have the basic information on your domain registration and hosting arrangements in hand, the next thing to be sure of is to determine if you web site is a “traditional” site or if it runs on top of a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or other similar system. You will likely need to ask the person who created or manages your web site now, whether that is an employee or outside vendor. Again, if you don’t have anyone who can help with this, please talk to a trusted technology professional like myself. Doing nothing only makes your company vulnerable.

Once you know if your site is an old-school traditional site or runs on top of a CMS, you have just a few things left to do. First, if your site is traditional, you should consider moving to a CMS like WordPress. I won’t go into all the details here, but the use of a CMS like WordPress can make managing your site content a lot easier and make available to you many advanced web site functions quickly and inexpensively. I wrote an article on WordPress last year that has some more info. If your site is already running on a CMS then it becomes imperative that you talk to a trusted technology professional about keeping the site maintained from the technical side of things, which includes making sure your web hosting is capable of running the latest PHP versions.

Who You Gonna Call?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been setting up my own domain registration system and private web hosting for my clients. This allows me to bypass all the middle men of companies like GoDaddy and deal with issues directly and expediently. My clients can then contact me to handle any issues that may arise, such as the PHP issue I describe in this article, assuming I haven’t already proactively taken care of it for them. Needless to say, all my clients are already taken care of and do not need to worry about their web hosting in 2017. If you do not know of anyone you can trust to manage your company’s domain registration and web hosting, I am happy to talk to you and determine if my services might be a good fit for you. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need help or have questions.

Be Wary of Bad Technology Reporting

When I see I bad technology news story

When I see I bad technology news story

As a technology expert and someone who is a stickler for details, few things get on my nerves more than when I read an article or watch a TV news story presenting a technology topic with incomplete or incorrect information. Often I assume that reporters covering a technology subject are simply confused (as most people are with complicated technology concepts), but sometimes I wonder if stories are rushed to publication with little regard for accuracy. The problem is that most professional news outlets do not employ their own technology fact checkers. Reporters often will cite technology experts in their reporting, but when the story is finished it seems like no one is checking the final work for technical accuracy or rational conclusions. It is very easy for a reporter who is not a technology expert to present some facts in a story, yet arrive at conclusions that are overly simplistic or flat-out wrong. One recent example highlights my frustration.

A TV news story with an accompanying on-line article covering the topic of Geo-Stalking was recently aired on a local news channel. The basic premise of the story is actually informative: it is possible for people to gather information about someone, including where they live or work and the places they visit, by using the data in their social media postings. The story even includes a handful of accurate technology facts and interviews a security consultant. However, the story as presented makes a couple of crucial incorrect assertions and the recommendation made for how people can protect their privacy is more likely to cause grief than actually protect them. I could go into a great level of detail nitpicking the inaccurate sections of the article, but it’s suffice to quickly point out a couple of mistakes.

The story contends that pictures posted on social media have GPS geolocation information embedded in them and that is how geo-stalkers can track others. It even goes into detail describing the EXIF data format where GPS information can be embedded inside a photo file. The story claims that based on a picture tweeted by the reporter, the security consultant was able to read the EXIF data to get the GPS information and know exactly where she was. The problem with the article’s assertion is that while GPS information can indeed be stored in EXIF data, the simple fact is that when posting to Twitter, this data is stripped out. It only took a very quick Google search to confirm this information directly from Twitter themselves: “Twitter does not store the Exif data from your photo. It is not available to those who view your photo on Twitter.

Now it is certainly possible for a user to intentionally tag their location when they tweet, regardless of whether they are posting a picture or not. It then is true that data can be used by geo-stalkers. It is also possible to use other sorts of tools to piece together information to on a person that does not require the use of geotagging data. So the premise of the article is correct that geo-stalking is something people should be concerned about. However, it is completely incorrect to insinuate that EXIF/GPS data is available through postings on Twitter.

The security consultant was quoted, “When you make a post on most social media, you actually embed geolocation.” The way the story is written, it makes it sound like he meant that all posts contain geolocation and/or EXIF data. Another quick search points out that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and most popular social media platforms all strip out EXIF data of the pictures they post. Again, it is possible to intentionally geotag one’s postings on most social media platforms, but this is a very different situation that the scenario the news story presents, which I believe is taken out of context from what the security consultant intended. It borders on fear mongering to suggest that every picture someone posts on social media automatically shares their GPS location with the world.

The story concludes with a recommendation on how to stop sending out geolocation data. It describes how to turn off location services on iPhone and Android devices which would in fact disable one’s smartphone from providing GPS data to any or all apps. Yes, this would prevent Twitter and other social media apps from using geolocation data. However, this advice is overkill in my opinion. First, as I described above, most social media platforms do not store EXIF/GPS data in any photos posted. One must intentionally tag their location on most platforms in order for anyone to have geolocation information about them in a post. Second, by disabling all location services as suggested, this will cripple some functions of a user’s smartphone that most people may want correctly working. Location services are required to use navigation apps for directions or using an app like Yelp to find a restaurant nearby. Plus I believe most people like having GPS data embedded in their photos for their own personal use. Disabling location services stops that from working. I contend that disabling location services would cause users more headaches than actually doing anything to protect them. Therefore the recommendation given by this article is simply not beneficial and could actually be a disservice to their audience.

Unfortunately there are many stories I’ve seen like this from otherwise respected news sources that ultimately are just letting their audience down. Combined with all the hoax stories about technology, there is a lot of misinformation out there that ends up scaring users and dampening their enthusiasm of using technology for their benefit. So what can you do?

When you see a news story covering a technology topic that concerns you, don’t assume the report is completely accurate. Talk to your trusted technology advisor to ensure that the story is factually correct and arrives at valid conclusions. If you don’t have a trusted technology advisor, you would do well to find one, but if nothing else feel free to share that story with me so I can evaluate it for you. At the very least, please don’t share a story until you’ve had it fact-checked as to not contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Also, put pressure on media sources when they publish incorrect technology stories. Let them know you are not happy they are making mistakes and encourage them to consult with a technology expert to review their finished stories before they publish them. I’m certainly happy to help any media outlets fact-check their technology stories before they publish – or else I’ll need to keep fact-checking their stories after they go live!

iOS Update Killing Your Battery? It May Not Be What You Think

iphone-battery-deadIt seems like we go through the same routine every year: a new iOS is released and large numbers of people claim that the new operating system is killing the battery life on their iPhone or iPad. Bad battery life is usually the number one complaint of any new iOS and this year is no different with iOS 10. The difficulty is that for all the reports of bad battery life, they only represent a tiny fraction of all devices upgraded with the new iOS. So usually this means there is not an large-scale battery life problem caused by an iOS update. Occasionally there has been a legitimate bug that affects the battery life of a fairly large numbers of users. Apple is usually pretty quick to acknowledge those problems and has an update released soon afterwards. However, normally there is not a systemic bug that is causing widespread bad battery life issues with new iOS updates. So if the new iOS isn’t directly causing bad battery life, then what could it be? I have a theory that the timing of the iOS updates may contribute to a variety of factors that correlate with people complaining about battery life issues.

Troubleshoot the Simple First, but Avoid Old Wives Tales

If you are experiencing a battery issue after upgrading your iOS, the first thing you should do is to review the guidelines Apple recommends for maximizing the performance of your battery life. The recommendations are pretty simple and likely are things you would have already tried. Still, you should review them in case you’ve missed something. Especially important is to look at battery settings as Apple describes to see what apps are using the most power. Sometimes there may be a rogue app that is running in the background eating up your battery. If that is the case then it is easy to identify by looking at the battery settings. As an aside, usually if there is an app or other process that is eating up your battery you will notice that your iPhone is unusually warm, like it would normally be after playing a game or talking on a long phone call. If you haven’t been using your iPhone, it is unusually warm, and the battery life is suffering, then you likely have an app or background process “misbehaving.”

Part of the yearly routine we go through with iOS battery life issues are the numerous articles that are written about how to “fix” the battery life problems with your iPhone. The problem is that most of these articles are simply re-hashes of the advice Apple gives, or they offer what I like to call “old wives tale” solutions. These are suggestions that may or may not have been legitimate at one time, but now are often pointless or counterproductive. In regards to battery life, some suggestions I would not recommend (except as a very last resort) are to reset all settings or clean install the iOS. Both of these suggestions are fairly intrusive to your productivity as you will need to spend a lot of time resetting all your settings and/or reinstalling all your apps. This is a serious pain for most people and as I will explain, often is NOT the cause of battery life issues. Additionally some articles suggest turning off certain features of your device as a way to save battery life. That’s all well and good but those are really just workarounds. We should not need to sacrifice features of our devices just to get decent battery life. In normal usage, people should be able to leave on all the features of their iPhone or iPad and still get good battery life.

Occasionally, there are some articles that do shed some light on possible reasons why a new iOS upgrade is seemingly causing battery life issues. For example, this article from Forbes talks about reviewing the battery settings as Apple recommends, but then suggests that perhaps the cause for some users may be a third-party widget on the new Home and Lock screen of iOS 10. So it may be that certain new features of an iOS upgrade may actually drain the battery faster, possibly due to a problem with a third-party app. Again this can often be determined by looking at the battery settings so start there.

It May Be Hardware, Not Software

So with all that being said, what do I think might be happening if every year people complain about the new iOS killing their battery life? I think it may be a combination of several things that conspire around the time of a new iOS release. If enough users correlate battery issues with the installation of a new iOS, then the prevailing thought becomes that the new operating system is the problem, even if that is not the actual cause.

First there may be some “legit” issues like an actual iOS bug or third-party apps misbehaving as I described above. Depending on the severity of the bug or the popularity of the third-party app, this might be enough to seem like it is a widespread issue. However, this by itself isn’t the full story.

Allow me to play amateur psychologist for a moment. A lot of us tend not to pay a lot of attention to the technology behind our devices most of the time, but when a new update comes out we may end up playing around with our phone or tablet a lot more while we are testing out new features. This may last for several days or weeks as we figure out the new things we can do with our gadgets and how they work for us. Possibly one of those new features is actually something we now use regularly. The bottom line is that we may be using our phones a lot more than we realize and simply working the battery harder than before. Combine this with the fact that if we start looking up stories about the new iOS and we see that people are having battery life issues, suddenly we may start to pay more attention to our own battery life. We also may start to think that some issues we’ve had with our battery must be the fault of the new system. The more people that complain about their battery life after an iOS update contributes to a snowball of potentially misleading information. This vicious cycle might partially explain the high number of battery-related complaints seen around the time of an iOS update, but again this isn’t necessarily the whole truth.

The real culprit just might be the battery in your device itself. Let me explain a little bit about the technology behind the batteries that power most of our rechargeable devices.

You Might Get a Charge Out Of This

Batteries are rated by the amount of charge capacity they have when brand new. This is often measured in milliampere hours or mAh. For example, the batteries in an iPhone 6S is rated to hold 1715 mAh when new. In reality, this usually isn’t an exact capacity depending on differences in manufacturing, but an iPhone 6S battery should hold at least 1715 mAh capacity when new. As we use our phones and wear our batteries, this original capacity starts to diminish resulting in shorter battery life, even when charged to 100%. So for example if an older iPhone 6S now only has 1600 mAh, 100% of 1600 mAh will result in less real-world battery life than 100% of 1715 mAh.

This is true of devices from all manufacturers and unfortunately there is little we can do about it. Usually this is not such a big deal as most batteries are also designed to keep a relatively high charge capacity for the reasonable life expectancy of the device. For example, iPhones are designed to keep at least 80% of their original capacity for 500 charge cycles. A charge cycle is basically the measurement of a complete charge and discharge of a battery. So in simple terms, the more you use and recharge your phone, the higher the charge cycles go. Practically speaking, 500 charge cycles can be two or three years of usage for many people. So if an iPhone still has at least 80% of original battery capacity after two or three years it should still have reasonably good battery life.

Bad Batteries, One Year Later

The reality is that batteries are not all manufactured perfectly. So it is very possible for a battery to lose capacity faster than it should. Often this is a gradual process and we may not realize that our battery is losing capacity until many months into the ownership of our phone. It is very possible it could take about a year before we start to notice. Now when does Apple tend to release iOS updates? Usually right before the release of a new iPhone, which they usually do around September/October of every year. When do a lot of people tend to buy new iPhones? Immediately at their release or a few months after. So every year there are large numbers of people who are updating the iOS on their iPhones right about the time that their phones are 10-12 months old. If a significant number of people have batteries on their iPhones that have been slowly losing capacity excessively, the iOS update might be just enough to make the problem more noticeable, especially if, as I explained above, people starting paying closer attention to their phones to try out new features.

I can personally attest to this problem as I just experienced it with my own iPhone recently. As many people do I purchased my iPhone 6S last year within a week after it was released, approximately the last week of September 2015. I started to notice a problem with my iPhone battery literally 3 days before iOS 10 was released on September 13th, 2016. If I hadn’t been paying close attention, I could have easily correlated this problem with my installation of iOS 10 a few days later. Sure enough, soon after installing iOS 10, the problems with my battery escalated. Yet I believe that to have been purely coincidental since I first noticed the problem with my battery days earlier. Likely the battery had been slowly going bad for some time and I just hadn’t yet noticed. Lucky for me I was able to convince Apple to replace my phone because I had proof that the battery was going bad as I’ll explain below.

Is Your Battery Healthy?

Unfortunately, while we have a easy way to tell how much battery life we have left before we need to charge our phone again, there is no built-in way to determine the health of our battery (as measured in percentage of original capacity). Luckily there are third-party apps that can measure battery capacity of which I’ll recommend a couple. First I want to mention that ironically with the release of iOS 10, Apple has changed the operating system to no longer allow apps to read as much information about the battery as they could. For example, apps can no longer show the charge cycles of a battery in an iOS device. Fortunately viewing the charge cycles isn’t really all that necessary as compared to viewing the actual capacity number. Also ironic is that as I was writing this article, I discovered that my favorite battery app (Battery Life – https://www.batterylifeapp.com) has been removed from the App Store for the time being. Even more ironic is that the reason Apple chose to remove the app was that users were complaining that the app was “missing” features even though this was Apple’s change, not the app developer’s. Hopefully they’ll get the app back up sooner than later, but in the mean time I found another app that will suffice for now (Battery Care – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/battery-care-check-your-battery/id1130216129).

Whatever app you use, if the capacity of your battery shows less than 80% and your device is less than two years old, likely the battery is not in good health. Hopefully you still have warranty left on your device so you can get a replacement (a good reason to buy AppleCare so you get an extra year of warranty). Take your device to an Apple Store or call the AppleCare support line to have the battery tested. If it is under 80% it should be eligible for a replacement under warranty. If your phone is no longer under warranty, then the good news is that there are many places that can replace an iPhone battery quickly for a reasonable price. Just make sure you find a reputable business or technician as iPhone battery replacement has become a cottage industry and there are many questionable operations out there.

For me, it was not so simple to prove my battery was going bad. Using a variety of apps to test my battery over the course of about a week, the capacity readings were all over the place. I would get readings anywhere from the low 90% mark (which would have been great if that were true) to the mid 70% range. Usually they were just above 80%. At one point I recorded getting 56% capacity and this was when I knew that things were really screwy with my battery. Maybe a 5-10% capacity fluctuation is reasonable given that measurements may not always be exactly precise, but showing a reading in the 50% range I knew was seriously abnormal. So I took my phone to the Apple Store and explained my situation.

Be Gentle but Firm When Dealing with Apple

As I figured would happen, when they tested the battery it showed over 80% capacity so at first they did not want to replace my phone since the battery was reading within operating specs. Then I showed the Apple tech screenshots of the wild fluctuations my battery capacity read over the previous week. I tried to convince her that since the battery was already in the low 80% range after only a year, it was clearly headed towards the replaceable range very soon. While the Apple tech said that she couldn’t officially acknowledge my test results since they weren’t Apple tools, apparently I was convincing enough to get a replacement iPhone. A few weeks have gone by and my replacement iPhone has shown no battery issues whatsoever. I’m VERY glad I didn’t try wiping my iPhone and going through hours of reconfigurations just to prove that the problem wasn’t software related since the problem was clearly with hardware.

In my years of experience helping my family and clients with their iPhones, most chronic battery-related issues that are not fixable with simple troubleshooting steps are in fact due to the battery itself – NOT because the iOS needs to be reloaded or have all settings wiped. The moral of the story is to arm yourself with knowledge and don’t be pressured into extreme measures that will cost you hours of time when they aren’t likely to work. I’ve found over the years that when dealing with Apple, they are usually very accommodating. However, often a little persuasion is needed to convince them to acknowledge a legitimate battery issue. It is best to be cordial when dealing with customer service people in general and Apple is no exception, but simply remain firm and calmly explain the facts.

Does your iPhone or iPad appear to have shorter battery life after an iOS update? Have you checked your battery capacity with a third party app? If your battery shows less than optimal charge capacity, let me know your story by commenting below.

AT&T GigaPower Service Looks Good But Has Strings Attached

gigabit-internetI recently noticed that signs for the new AT&T Gigapower service had popped up in a subdivision near where I live. Simply put, GigaPower is the brand name for AT&T’s new gigabit fiber Internet service. Yes, that is 1 Gbps or 1000 Mbps service! In this area, 100 Mbps is tops for residential service and around 200 Mbps is tops for reasonably affordable commercial service (you can currently pay big bucks for fiber service in our area, but that is usually not something most want to pay for). Needless to say, gigabit service would completely change the game in our area when it comes to Internet service. So I started researching AT&T’s GigaPower service to learn more and I found both good news and … let’s say “questionable” news.

Let’s start with the good news. AT&T is offering unbundled 1 Gbps service for $90/month. Now that is certainly higher than most Internet services in our area, but for 1 Gbps service, it is extremely reasonable. Installation and monthly equipment fees are “waived,” as I would expect, since most people don’t like paying for installation or equipment. To be fair, this pricing requires a 12-month commitment, but a one year agreement really isn’t out of line here so that’s not unreasonable in my opinion. Finally, 1 Gbps is the “maximum network service capability,” and “actual customer speeds may vary.” So it will be interesting to see if customers actually get anywhere close to 1 Gbps service, which will be difficult to measure since few services on the Internet could possibly push 1 Gbps of data to an end-user. Still, even if real throughput is only half (which wouldn’t be acceptable but I’m just using it as a frame of reference), 500 Mbps would still be mind-blowinginly fast!

attgigapower-logo-orange-login

So that’s the good news. Now for the strings. First, AT&T caps GigaPower service Internet usage to 1 TB of data per month and would charge you $10 for each additional 150 GB over 1 TB (up to $100). If you so choose, you can pay an extra $30/month and get an unlimited data allowance or if you bundle U-verse TV service with GigaPower Internet you also get an unlimited data allowance (this bundle requires a 2-year agreement). Now granted, 1TB is an incredible amount of data. So likely most people would not hit that cap. However, people who are willing to pay $90/month for gigabit speed Internet might just be the type of people to eat up that much data, especially if they are cord-cutters and stream a lot of video. Now all that being said, AT&T has announced they will be increasing Internet data caps across all of their services beginning August 21st, 2016. GigaPower users will be allowed unlimited data usage beginning on that date which would eliminate the data cap issues I just wrote about, but at the time of this writing, the 1 TB data cap still exists.

The far more potentially onerous gotcha with AT&T’s GigaPower service is their requirement that you opt-in to a service called “AT&T Internet Preferences.” This service basically allows AT&T to track your web browsing information and target ads according to your interests. If you choose not to participate in AT&T Internet Preferences you will be charged an additional $29/month for your GigaPower Internet service. Now to many people, assuming they even realize what they are opting-in to, this may sound like an invasion of privacy. But it may not be quite so bad. Like most companies, AT&T promises to never sell your personal information to any other companies so really it is just an ad targeting service. If you’ve ever noticed ads popping up for things you were shopping for recently, you already probably get targeted ads when you surf today from Google, Facebook, and other such companies. I personally do not have a problem with targeted ads because I’d much rather see ads that interest me instead of blanket untargeted promotions. This is probably because I’m fairly confident that the technology used does not gather personal information so I feel fairly safe. Yet I think it does set a questionable precedent that your Internet provider will basically charge you if you do not participate in their ad targeting service. Sure, they call it a “discount” but let’s get real. I’d much rather see the “actual” price of the service and then be given the option to discount it if I so choose, instead of being baited with a lower price and then be told that the true price is higher if I don’t choose to participate in an ad targeting service. I have a feeling AT&T will get a lot of pushback from customers as GigaPower begins to see broader deployment, but time will tell. Obviously if you do not like the way AT&T promotes their GigaPower service you must complain so they will get the message.

The final string attached to AT&T’s GigaPower offering is that service areas are very limited – and I do mean VERY limited. From what I’ve read, AT&T is currently only deploying GigaPower to neighborhoods and subdivisions that are already wired with fiber infrastructure. Primarily these are fairly new subdivisions (likely around 10 years old, maybe 15 years on the outside) within certain communities so it is very possible that one neighborhood will get GigaPower service while the next neighborhood over will not. Since many subdivisions do not have fiber infrastructure, they will likely not get GigaPower service for a long time. When I say “long time” it may literally be several years or longer because the cost of laying fiber in a neighborhood is significant. AT&T at this time wants to get to the low-hanging fruit of areas that already have fiber before they invest the capital to lay it in other areas to deploy their GigaPower service. So if you live in a newer subdivision and you are getting GigaPower service, feel free to get excited. However, if you live in an older area, don’t expect to see this service any time soon so temper your expectations. Just because your friends in town are getting GigaPower, doesn’t mean the whole town (or even a good fraction) will be getting it soon. Now that being said, competition from other companies may introduce gigabit services to certain areas so gigabit Internet speeds may still become a reality even if AT&T isn’t providing it.

If you are in an area that has or are getting AT&T GigaPower (or another gigabit service), please comment below if you are planning on getting the service or if you already have it and what your impressions are. Do note that if you are going to get gigabit service of any kind, you must make sure your router can handle the extremely high speeds or else you won’t be getting the full benefit of the service you are paying for. At this time with the limited deployment of gigabit services, there is not a lot of information regarding routers that can truly handle gigabit throughput, so shop carefully.

Your Older Computer Can Be Like New Again!

Supercharge Your Laptop!With new technology that has become affordable in the last couple of years, it is amazing what can be done with older computers to make them run nearly like new. I wrote an article about this last year (“It’s Upgrade Season!”) and you can read the article to get the technical details about the type of upgrades that can be done. But suffice to say that I’ve been very busy lately performing these upgrades on a lot of computers and I can honestly say that every single client has been extremely happy with the results.

I want to put the word out there that if you have an older computer and you would like to make it work faster, you don’t necessarily need to get a new one. Additionally, a lot of upgrades I’m doing are because the computers are starting to have problems. Quite often on older computers, the original hard drives are starting to fail and replacing them can make the computer work perfectly again, saving the cost of purchasing a new computer. Unfortunately, a lot of people have no idea about the types of upgrades available and simply go shopping for a new computer – where of course the salespeople will never mention the full range of their options.

Before you spend money on a new computer, regardless of whether it is simply slow or malfunctioning, let me check it out and determine if adding more RAM and replacing the hard drive with a solid state drive will “supercharge” your computer. Not every computer will be a good candidate (and I’ll be honest with you if it is better to spend your money on a new computer), but many that are up to about 7 years old are – even a couple of years older in some cases. Mac or PC, desktop or laptop, contact me today to find out! And please, if you know people who have older computers and are complaining about them being slow or considering buying a new computer, please share this article with them so that they can at least be informed of their options!

Can You Really Save Money with LED Lighting?

Evobase

This is not your traditional lighting system, but it could save you a lot of money! Read on to find out more about this specific model.

Technology has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Smartphones, tablets, apps, and the rise of social media are probably the changes that are most recognizable to the average person on the street. However, there have been significant advancements in a lot of other technologies as well. We may not notice them as much because they aren’t as dramatic or as “sexy” as the mobile device revolution nor as fun as using social media, but nonetheless they can be very important.

One of the more subtle changes to the technology landscape in the last 10 years has been in the field of lighting. Incandescent light bulbs have been around for over 100 years and only in the last 20 years or so has any effort been made to replace incandescent bulbs in common residential usage. First, fluorescent bulbs, a mainstay of commercial and industrial usage, started to become more commonplace in homes. However fluorescent bulbs themselves are being phased out by new LED light technology in both commercial and residential applications. For years, the main problem with LED lighting was cost. LED bulbs were significantly more expensive than either incandescent or fluorescent equivalents. While LED bulbs have come down in price over the last few years, the fact is they are still more expensive than traditional light bulbs. Plus the stigma that they are overpriced has stuck around. However, it is time to re-evaluate lighting technology because in many instances it may be possible to save significant amounts of money by utilizing LED.

In residential applications, the range of pricing for LED lighting varies dramatically. The key is to find good value in pricing so that you can realize a sufficient return on your investment. Depending on where you are shopping, you may not be able to find LED lighting at a low enough price to reasonably compete with some of the very low pricing of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL). You’ll either need to shop elsewhere (possibly online) or stick for CFL bulbs for the time being.

However, in commercial applications, LED lighting is providing some significant opportunities to save money. I was recently turned on to some new LED lighting applications by Mike Grimes of Commercial Energy Consultants. Mike is an expert in the field of energy deregulation (he literally wrote the book on it) and his company is now expanding their services to include lighting.  According to Mike, the key to understanding savings from LED lighting in commercial applications is that most commercial applications of fluorescent lighting (the traditional “tube” bulb anyone who has worked in an office environment is familiar with) require something called a ballast. People who are familiar with facilities management or maintaining lighting in an office environment surely know that ballasts must be replaced periodically. The problem is that ballasts can be expensive – not only in purchase cost, but also installation. Replacing a ballast usually requires the skills of an electrician so it’s not like simply replacing a bulb. Not only is the business owner spending money to purchase the ballast, they are also paying someone to perform the labor. Commercial or industrial applications can have tens or hundreds of fixtures that all require ballasts so those costs can add up quickly.

Mike recommends retrofitting existing fluorescent lighting fixtures with newer LED technology lighting. Retrofitting a traditional fluorescent fixture with LED lighting provides three main benefits. First, the cost to run the lighting is significantly cheaper. LED lighting can use half the wattage of fluorescent bulbs, so a business can see immediate benefits in reduced power bills. Second, LED lighting can last up to 20 years so replacing bulbs becomes a rare occurrence, saving time and money. Finally, LED lighting requires no ballast, so the expense of purchasing and maintaining ballasts is eliminated. Mike showed me some ROI examples of clients he has retrofitted fluorescent fixtures with LED lighting and they show returns in only a few short years. The more fluorescent bulbs a company has, the bigger the opportunity to save money – especially in applications where lighting is run 24/7 or fluorescent bulbs are controlled by a motion detector.

The first example of a fluorescent retrofit Mike demonstrated for me was a bulb that was a direct fit for a G13 socket designed to replace the common T8 and T12 fluorescent bulbs. Basically an installer simply needs to remove the ballast from the fixture and then directly connect the LED bulb to the electrical mains. The bulb then installs into the existing sockets, although the sockets are no longer providing power, since there is no ballast and the bulbs receive power directly from the mains. The sockets are now merely mount points. Once done, that fixture should not need any maintenance for up to 20 years. No more ballast replacements, far fewer bulb changes, and the energy cost for running the light can be half of the old fluorescent.

The second example Mike showed me is called an Evobase. Similar in concept to the direct fit LED bulb above, it is a fluorescent retrofit application except that instead of being a bulb replacement, the Evobase is an entire assembly, so socket size and bulb form factor are not a concern. Utilizing some simple hinged brackets, an installer can quickly and easily mount the Evobase into an existing fixture and then wire the unit into the electrical mains with simple wire nuts. Once installed, the Evobase should also last up to twenty years so businesses can get the same benefit of eliminating the need for ballast replacements and significant energy savings as with other LED retrofit applications.

The bottom line is that with newer LED technology, businesses are in a great position to save a lot of money on lighting, both in energy usage and maintenance costs. Residential users can also benefit from LED technology, but they must shop around and choose carefully. If you have any questions on LED lighting technology, please feel free to comment below and I will do my best to answer your question.

A Web Site is No Longer Just a Web Site

Website Building ServiceI recently helped sponsor the 2016 WordCamp Conference in St. Louis, an event where people who use, work with, or develop the WordPress platform meet and learn from each other. If you run a business or if you have ever had any interest in blogging or setting up a web site, you have likely heard of WordPress. It is the most popular Content Management System, or CMS, in the world, powering over 25% of all web sites today. Why does any of this matter to you? Because the success of WordPress represents a major shift in the way most web sites are created today and this change requires web site owners to pay closer attention to their web sites – lest they fall victim to hacking, malware, frustrated users, or bad search engine rankings.

The WordPress platform will turn 13 years old in only a few days. When it was released back in 2003, it was just one of many open-source Content Management Systems entering the market. Even as recently as 5 years ago, over 75% of web sites did not use a CMS. Now close to 50% of all web sites use a CMS and WordPress is by far the most popular at 25%. The closest competitor to WordPress is at less than 3%.

Web Sites Are Easier To Use …

I believe the reason WordPress is the most popular choice of CMS is because their focus on ease-of-use generated a large initial following. This large and enthusiastic user base attracted a strong developer community which helped expand the functionality of the core WordPress system to cover nearly any web site need imaginable. The closest analogy I can offer is the iPhone and the Apple App Store. Just like thousands of apps opened up the power of the iPhone, the vast array of 3rd-party “plugins” available allow WordPress users a way to leverage their web sites in many powerful ways. This is all without the need to understand computer coding or hire programmers.

As a technology consultant for small businesses, it was this ease-of-use and expandability that initially attracted me to the WordPress platform as a way to help my clients build great web sites that they could make their own changes to. Several years and multitudes of happy clients later, I am happy to say that WordPress has definitely turned out to be one of the most empowering technology developments for business owners, organizations, or anyone who wants to publish content on the web. However, for as awesome as WordPress is, the change to a web site that is powered by a CMS does require some consideration beyond what most web site owners are used to.

… But Web Technology is More Complex

Thirteen years ago when the first version of WordPress was released, almost all web sites were simply text and graphic files sitting on web server. Web site owners didn’t need to worry about the technology running their sites because the web server was their hosting company’s responsibility. In order to provide the ease-of-use and powerful features that a platform like WordPress provides, a CMS is technically a software application running on a web server. While the web server itself is still the hosting company’s responsibility, the CMS is the responsibility of the web site owner. Like any software application that runs on a server, it is a good idea to maintain that software, including periodic updates, backups, and testing for vulnerabilities. The problem is that many business owners are not even aware that their sites may have been built on a CMS platform, let alone the fact that these platforms need to be maintained. Similar to a car left in disrepair, any software system that is not routinely monitored and maintained is vulnerable to suffering from a variety of problems.

The most striking example of a problem due to lack of maintenance is the now infamous “Panama Papers” incident, in which a Panamanian law firm was hacked and very sensitive information about a variety of world figures was leaked. As it turns out, the attack point the hackers used was a vulnerability in an outdated third-party WordPress plugin. The vulnerability itself had long been fixed by the plugin developer but the law firm did not bother to update this plugin. Lack of attention to a routine two-minute process cost this law firm and their clients dearly. While your business may not work with international heads-of-state, the problems that an unmaintained CMS can cause are still significant. If nothing else, if you care about potential customers finding your web site, properly maintaining your CMS is at the very foundation of good SEO.

Now that you know that your web site might be powered by a CMS, please ensure that your site is being properly maintained. While you should talk to the person or company that created your web site, be aware that not all web site designers have the technical skills required to properly maintain a software system like a CMS. If you have any questions about the operation of your web site, please do not wait until problems site – contact me today for a review of your web site.

It’s Time for Encryption

circuit-lockAs I write this article, I’m approaching the 14th anniversary of launching my business full-time. A lot has changed over the last 14 years in the technology landscape and the impact of technology in society has never been greater than in the timeframe since I began providing technology services to my clients. I could talk ad nauseum about the impact of social media, mobile devices, cloud computing, apps, and so on, but I don’t need to. It doesn’t take a technology expert to see this. You, the user of technology, is well aware of how much technology has changed your life. It is also you who has driven this change, because without the acceptance of the general public, all these technologies would not have the impact they do today. As technology has interwoven itself into the lives of nearly everyone in our society, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: our technology has become a virtual extension of our person. In turn, many of the details of our private lives have become digitized. This digitization offers us amazing insight into how we can better live our lives and make better use of our time, but it also can endanger our privacy if it falls into the wrong hands. The recent public debate involving Apple and the FBI has highlighted the issues that concern many people regarding the security of their most valuable data. While the debate over privacy continues, it has brought the concept of data encryption to the forefront. While to this point in time the topic of cryptography and encryption has been about as arcane as a subject can get, it is now something everyone should become familiar with. The impact of encryption technology will be an incredibly important issue that will affect our everyday privacy and security now and well into the future.

Encryption for Dummies

Simply put, encryption technology scrambles data so that is undecipherable to anyone except to those who encrypted it or their intended recipient. Whether this data stored on a drive or is in transmission, encrypted data is nothing but a bunch of gibberish to anyone who doesn’t have the virtual keys to decrypt the data. Whether it is a nosy neighbor, a common criminal, a corporate spy, or worse, encryption helps protect your privacy from anyone who may steal your devices or attempt to intercept your transmissions. Even major governments do not have the resources to forcibly crack data that is protected by the most secure modern encryption technology commonly available today. With this type of technology readily available, it would seem that we have the capability to ensure our privacy right now. The problem that while this technology is available now, not all tech companies are fully embracing data encryption and even more problematic is that many people do not take advantage of it when it is an option. The good news is that with a little effort, most of us can take advantage of modern encryption technologies on the majority of the devices and services in common use today.

While the variety of options for encryption are far too numerous to detail in this article, I will say that all major operating system platforms offer a built-in encryption option.

  • Apple’s Mac OS X includes FileVault which can encrypt your entire drive, but it is not activated by default (although the latest versions do suggest and offer to enable FileVault during the initial setup or upgrade).
  • Apple’s iOS (iPhone and iPad) by default encrypts all data stored on a device and encrypts iMessage and FaceTime data transmissions.
  • Microsoft Windows contains their BitLocker encryption, but only on their “pro” and “ultimate” versions of their operating systems. It too is not activated by default. There are third-party encryption options available for the “home” versions of Windows.
  • The latest versions of the Google Android operating system do support full device encryption, however, support for encryption varies by manufacturer and device. If you choose an Android device, I highly recommend choosing a device that supports full encryption by default.

With virtually all encryption technologies, you must use a good password to ensure that your data stays safe, as guessing your password is effectively the only way to defeat encryption. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested in using encryption technology to protect your data.

Do it for the Kids

Besides keeping your own data safe, your use of encryption technology will help set a precedent in our society. The more people who use strong encryption – and demand that technology companies fully embrace it – help to ensure the future of data privacy in the United States and the world. As government agencies fight to force companies to adopt encryption technologies with built-in “backdoors,” we must stand up to those who would compromise our ability to protect our most private information and conversations. There is no compromise when it comes to data security. Virtually every single technology and cryptography expert in the world agrees that no encryption technology with backdoors is truly secure, as those backdoors will be easily exploited by criminals and malicious governments. It is one thing for politicians to target the rights of a perceived small group of people who use encryption technology but another thing entirely if strong encryption is embraced by a large portion of the population. In addition to protecting your own personal data, the data of your business, or the data of your customers, your use of encryption technology today could help set policy for generations to come.

What do you think about encryption and privacy issues? Feel free to comment below and keep alive an important discussion!

iPhone Encryption is Unbreakable – As Long As You Use a Password

iPhone_6_SecurityWith all the news about the FBI attempting to force Apple to help them hack into an iPhone used by a terrorist, I thought it would be a good time to touch upon the security of your smartphone and give you some helpful tips.

In case you weren’t aware, since the fall of 2014 (iOS 8) the encryption technology Apple has used in the operating system of the iPhone and iPad is so strong that not even government agencies like the FBI can crack it. In fact, the way it is designed, not even Apple themselves can decrypt the data stored on the iPhones or iPads of their customers. However – and this is very important – that encryption is only as good as the passcode you use with your iPhone. If you do not use a passcode with your iPhone or iPad, anyone can unlock it and get at your data immediately. If you use a weak passcode (like 1234), it makes it more likely that someone could unlock your iPhone by guessing your passcode. Also, simple passcodes like your birthday, your spouse’s birthday, your anniversary, etc., are some of the first things a smart criminal will attempt if they are trying to steal your data. The bottom line is to please make sure to use a good passcode to keep the data stored on your iPhone or iPad data safe. If you have a more recent Apple device with the Touch ID feature (iPhone 5S or higher, iPad Air 2 or higher, iPad  mini 3 or higher) then it is strongly advised that you use a “complex” password with alphanumeric characters and symbols since you will use your fingerprint to unlock your device most often.

Any decent passcode, combined with Apple’s security features to defeat password-guessing attempts (called brute-force attacks), is generally sufficient to stop even the most sophisticated hacking attempts. This is why the FBI is trying to force Apple to help them hack into the terrorists’ iPhone. Even the FBI can not work around Apple’s iPhone security features. They want Apple to create a special security-disabled iPhone operating system that would allow the FBI to initiate a computer assisted brute-force password attack on the iPhone in question. Apple contends that this will threaten the security of all iPhone and iPad owners so we’ll see how this situation plays out.

iMessage and FaceTime Encrypted As Well

It’s all well and good that the data stored on your iPhone is encrypted, but what about communications? Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime systems also encrypt the data being transmitted. So for iMessages, any text, pictures, video, or sounds you send are end-to-end encrypted in transmission. Apple’s FaceTime system also uses strong encryption to protect conversations, whether those conversations are video or audio calls. Not even Apple can decrypt the data in an iMessage or FaceTime call. Note that regular SMS text messages (the green messages) are not encrypted. These messages are sent directly over your wireless carrier’s old SMS system which in theory could be intercepted. Regular phone calls are also not encrypted. So make sure that the messages you are sending are the blue iMessages to ensure they are secured, and make sure to use FaceTime to place a secured call. If you need to send sensitive data, iMessage is an acceptable platform to use, although you need to trust that the person you are sending this data to is using a good password on their Apple device(s) so that the data is safe once it arrives and is stored on their end.

Business Owners Can Enforce Strong Passwords

If you run a business and you want to ensure that your employees are using strong passwords, it is possible to enforce technology policies on their devices, such as the use of a good password, even if they are using their own personal devices to access business data. This is accomplished through a technology called Mobile Device Management or MDM, of which there are many third-party systems that you or your technology staff can manage. The great thing about MDM is that it is relatively simple to deploy and also very easy for the user to remove once they leave the company or no longer want to use their device to access your business data. If you are interested in better managing the security of the devices your employees use, please contact me for more information.

Can the FBI Hack Your iPhone?

Setting aside the political discussion for a moment, if the FBI gets their way and forces Apple to provide them with a hacked version of the iOS operating system, they should be able to crack a 4-digit numeric passcode in less than 15 minutes (10,000 possible combinations with each attempt taking 80 milliseconds). A 6-digit numeric passcode could take just under one day (1 million possible combinations). However, if the password uses alpha-numeric characters, then the time required for the FBI to crack the password could be unfeasible. For example, by my calculations there are 192 possible combinations for each character in an iPhone password – this includes upper and lowercase letters, the 10 numbers, the space character, various punctuation and special characters, plus all the “diacritic” characters such as å, é, ñ, and ü. Even just a 4-character “complex” password comprises 1,358,954,496 (1.3 billion) possible combinations and could take up to 3.5 years to crack using a brute-force attack. Bump that up to 8 characters and suddenly the time to crack that password could take over 4 billion years! If the FBI were to skip the diacritic characters assuming most people do not use them (hint!) it would take up to 85 days to crack a 4 character password (98 combinations per character, 92,236,816 combinations total). However an 8 character complex password without diacritic characters would still take up to 21 million years to crack! So … if you’re worried that the FBI could hack into your iPhone, then simply use a password of 8 or more characters and throw in a diacritic character or two for good measure.

What About Other Smartphones?

Other smartphones, such as Android and Windows-based phones (even BlackBerry phones if anyone out there is still using them), are capable of using strong encryption similar to what the iPhone uses. However, whether or not a specific model of smartphone can use strong encryption or if that encryption is turned on by default depends on the particular model of smartphone and the version of operating system it runs. I would encourage users of other smartphones to consult with their phone manufacturer to verify if strong encryption is available for their phone, how to enable it if it does support it, and then actually enable encryption if their phone can make use of it (note that enabling encryption may cause performance issues on older smartphones).

There are other third-party platforms such as WhatsApp and Viber that are also end-to-end encrypted in message transmission, similar to iMessage and FaceTime. You should verify with any third-party apps that you use whether they employ strong encryption for the messages and data they transmit on your behalf.

Questions?

If you have any questions about the security of your devices, including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even desktop computers, please feel free to ask me a question on my Q&A page.

How to Get Microsoft to Shut Up about Windows 10

Win10-noIf you are like most users that run Windows 7 or 8 on their PC, you undoubtedly have seen numerous notifications from Microsoft about the limited-time free offer to upgrade to Windows 10. As I covered in my last article about Windows 10, Microsoft has become increasingly aggressive about pushing users to upgrade to Windows 10. The constant nagging seems to be working on some users as they have asked me if they should upgrade to Windows 10 just to get Microsoft off their backs. While upgrading to Windows 10 might be something you want to do, you shouldn’t do it because Microsoft has brow-beaten you. The good news is that if you don’t want to upgrade to Windows 10, there is a free utility that can disable the nagging notifications.

GWX Control Panel is the name of a simple software that can disable many aspects of the Windows 10 notification system Microsoft has created for Windows 7 and Windows 8. It can be removed at any time to re-enable the Windows 10 notifications and upgrade process in case you later do want to upgrade to Windows 10. Download GWX Control Panel from this link and read the instructions on how to use it. It is fairly simple to install and operate and it will get rid of all Windows 10 notifications from your operating system. Note that it will not remove the Windows 10 advertisements from Microsoft-owned sites such as MSN.com, which is the default home page for Internet Explorer. Those notifications come from the web sites themselves, not from your computer’s operating system.

To sum up, if you are tired of the Windows 10 notifications, simply use GWX Control Panel to make Microsoft shut up already! Comment below if you are tired of seeing the Windows 10 notifications and used this software to disable them.

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