App of the Week: 1Password

So far today, I've logged into a dozen or so accounts on the Internet. I've logged in from my iPhone, my iPad, and my Macs. I've done some shopping, commented on some blog posts, reviewed RSS feeds, and more. Every one of the accounts has a complex password made up of a random set of numbers, letters, and punctuation. As an expert in cybersecurity, it'd be pretty embarrassing to have my accounts cracked. So, I'm careful. And the most useful tool in my arsenal is 1Password. When you do log into your accounts, how do you do it? Do you use one password for multiple accounts? Are your passwords easy for you to remember? How can you be sure they won't be easily guessed?

While there are a number of strategies for coming up with strong passwords, like this one from xkcd:

there are alternatives in the form of applications like 1Password that simplify the entire process, and given the large set of accounts we all typically have, I highly recommend it.

1Password is one of a set of applications called "password vaults" or "password managers." These applications provide a number of functions related to passwords and related sensitive information like credit cards, including encryption, generation, storage, and retrieval. From my perspective, having a password manager is a critical step in protecting yourself online.

1Password Workflow

1Password provides a broader range of functions than I use every day, and some that I don't use at all, but it is an application that I use multiple times every day on each of my devices. Here's the general workflow:

  • When I visit a new web site and create an account, I use the 1Password icon in my browser to generate a new password. 1Password prompts me for my 1Password master password to unlock the application, then allows me to generate a password with whatever characteristics I prefer. I typically use passwords that are as long as the site will accept, and as complex as it will accept, including upper- and lower-case letters, symbols, and numerals. 1Password will automatically fill in the password as I'm creating the account. 
  • When I submit the new account information, 1Password remembers the new account, including the username and password. It prompts me to store that information into the 1Password database. 
  • The next time I visit the site, I use the 1Password icon to fill my username and password.

The result of this workflow is the following:

  1. I only have to remember one password (hence the name!): the password to unlock 1Password.
  2. The password for the sites are on all of my devices, synced all the time.
  3. All of the passwords are use are long random strings of characters that are for all practical purposes impossible to guess or brute-force crack.

1Password offers a number of methods to keep your database synced across all of your devices, including Dropbox and iCloud. They also offer applications on iOS, OS X, and Windows.

I count 1Password as one of my essential applications, and you should, too.

App of the Week: Evernote

So far, the App of the Week series has looked at two apps that represent the ends of a spectrum from long-term storage of your core content with Dropbox to short-term content collection with Drafts. This week, we're going to look at a category-creating app that bridges the spectrum: Evernote. Evernote includes a web browser interface, PC and Mac Apps, an iOS app, and more. There is also an entire ecosystem of apps that has built up around the core Evernote capabilities that are also worth exploring if you add Evernote to your workflow.

So, why would you use Evernote?

Originally created as a simple note-taking application to sync notes across all your devices, Evernote has evolved into an entire ecosystem of physical and virtual information capturing products. The Evernote Marketplace offers products as diverse as a high-quality stylus and scanner to unique carry bags and device stands. Evernote has also recently added specific features to provide for collaboration using Evernote, including Evernote chat.

However nice those aspects are, they are not why I use Evernote. I use Evernote to capture both text and images that will be archived so that I can search for them later. Everything you store in Evernote is indexed for searching, including images with text, making it easy to later find a quick note that you wrote, a receipt that you filed in it, notes that were on a whiteboard, or anything else. You can also tag items to add an additional set of searchable terms.

Image Text Search

When you upload images to Evernote, the Evernote servers go to work and run OCR (optical character recognition) on them and index the terms that the OCR finds within the image. This is how you can take a photo of a whiteboard and later find that photo by using terms that were on the board. This has saved my bacon more than once.

Workflow

Typically, on my mobile devices I use Drafts to capture text and my camera to capture images, then import them into Evernote. Other times, I'll open the Evernote app directly and use the text editor and image capture that's native in the app. I put the captures into Evernote Notebooks based on the area of my life for which they are useful (for example, I have notebooks for Personal, Speaking, and Writing in addition to notebooks for my clients and other technical and operational aspects of my work life). This allows me to narrow searches, as well as browse historical notes quickly and in context.

I capture notes like coupons, travel certificates from airlines and hotels, receipts from purchases and government sites, and gift ideas for friends and family. I also use Evernote to have notes available in multiple environments, like sharing between PCs I use for specific customers and all of my devices.

Summary

In short, to capture ideas, notes, and other temporal information for archival and retrieval, Evernote is a slam-dunk.

All Clouds are Not Created Equal

After I read about another Google customer losing all of his Google data when Google decided to delete (or at least suspend) his account, I got to thinking about all of the times that Google has made a mistake and deleted user accounts or deleted email for Gmail users, I thought about how the different approaches of the key players in the emerging world require you to make some choices, some of which may be untenable. So, I thought I'd lay them out in clearer form than you will get from the hard-core technical blogs or the companies themselves. At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference this year (WWDC 2011), Steve Jobs and the Apple executive team introduced iOS 5 and iCloud. During his iCloud introduction, Jobs said this: "We are going to demote the PC to just be a device. We are going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud." This is Apple's philosophy: the iCloud is the sync-master for  your digital life. It provides the axle to your devices that are the spokes. However (and this is a vital distinction!), your digital content lives on your devices when you are using it. The iCloud, then, is the master copy, but Apple expects you to have copies on one or more of your devices.

This is in sharp contrast to Google. In Google's world, the cloud is the only place where your data resides. You'll use your browsers (on your PC, your tablet, or your phone) to access, manipulate, create, and use your content. You may even cache some of it locally for performance reasons (for example, caching the first part of a video so you can watch it without "stutters"). However, the content is in the cloud and your devices are simply windows into it from Google's perspective.

...and then there's Microsoft. They want to get in on "this cloud thing," too, but they really aren't sure how to do it. Their business is Windows and Office, so how can they use the cloud and keep those lines humming? What they are doing now is having the cloud be a glorified backup service with some of the capabilities of their apps. The best experience, however, is to use their native apps on a PC and hook them into the cloud for backup and collaboration. This means that Microsoft Office 365 is a different perspective than iCloud (which is personal) and Google (which is all about the data being in the cloud only). It's effectively a hybrid of the two.

Regardless, you will want to make a choice based on these distinctions, because to the cloud you will go, one way or the other.

Microsoft Playing "Follow the Leader"?

The big buzz around tech today is Microsoft's annual financial analyst meeting held yesterday. At the meeting, Microsoft trotted out a line of execs and talked about how rosy their company future is. My favorite version of the proceedings comes from BoomTown reporter Kara Swisher (summed up in her piece today: Slide Presentations From Microsoft's Financial Analyst Meeting). The most stunning revelation for me is that Microsoft seems not to get it at all.

CEO Steve Ballmer touts "slates" and "Windows Phone 7" while saying that Apple has sold more iPads than he wanted them to. His comments about the marketplace make it obvious that he has no idea how to lead or how to innovate. What Microsoft is doing is struggling to figure out which latest craze to follow, and they are now in the middle of a series of utter failures to innovate or compete on a number of products in multiple markets.

For example, their Xbox game system, while beloved by customers, loses money. They have had a string of embarrassments, from Windows Vista to the Microsoft Kin phones that lasted less than 90 days on the market. If it wasn't for their long-term cash cows of Windows and Office, Microsoft would be in serious financial trouble. As it is, they are right where many giant companies before them have been... before those companies either reinvented themselves or died. If it takes Microsoft longer than 24 months to introduce their next major version of Windows, they'll be in even more financial trouble. After all, the cloud may make operating systems virtually unimportant, rendering their big cash cow moot.

Regardless, innovation doesn't come from following others. It comes from imagining what could be, picturing how people would love to live, and then providing products that spark their creativity, imagination, and productivity.

Does that sound like any companies you know?

Competition is good for everyone, especially consumers. If Microsoft doesn't find a way to become a leader again, someone else will. In the meantime, Microsoft management will fight to keep from becoming completely irrelevant, and hurt consumers on their way down. Limiting the innovations of others and creating irrelevant products is a waste of time and energy, but it's the common path of the increasingly irrelevant.

Microsoft, it's time to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

The Price of "Open"

There is a war among geeks and the tech press over "open." The Google Android system is "open" while the Apple iOS ecosystem is "closed." Underlying the conversation is the assumption that "open" is good and "closed" is bad, but is that really the case? This week during the Black Hat security conference, mobile security firm Lookout delivered their analysis of an Android wallpaper app that takes your data was downloaded by millions. Unfortunately, it sends personal information to a user in China and no one knows why.

Given that I have been a standards proponent since the early '80s and a staunch support of open source systems (OSS) since before the term was coined, I understand the value of open standards and open source. However, most people primarily care first about getting stuff done or enjoying their entertainment, not how open the systems are. If this wasn't the case, Microsoft Windows would not be the dominant desktop worldwide.

Furthermore, people prefer that their systems work, that they not introduce threats, and that they don't get in the way.

I have come to realize that there are environments that are especially well-suited to the vast majority of people, and they are those that are fully-integrated systems that are open enough to interact with current and emerging standards in the marketplace. They are not those that allow the user too much freedom, require too much technical skill, or demand more attention be given to the tools than to getting stuff done.

Those are the strengths and weaknesses today, and those are also the reasons why Apple is still on the rise, Google is in second-place, and Microsoft is huffing, puffing, and sweating trying to keep up.

Follow-up: After review, Google has decided that the app is actually OK. There was quite a bit published about this in the technology press, but the points made in this article still hold: There are big differences between open and closed, and you'll need to make your own choices about what the best value is given your experience and expertise and what you want to apply to the environment.

iPhone, Android, or Blackberry?

I wrote the following a couple of weeks ago, shortly after buying my iPhone 4. I decided to wait based on some of the initial reports of issues with the iPhone 4. Following the Apple Press Conference today, I've realized that I let the press's typical bad-news advertising-driven reporting skew my thinking. The following remains the truth, and if you are a business person trying to read through the hype, here's what you need to know:

Which Phone for You?

With everyone interested in the battle of the smartphones, Nielsen released their smartphone analysis. The analysis shows steady growth of smartphones when compared to the overall mobile phone market, with 23% of users carrying smartphones in 1Q10, a 2% increase from 4Q09.

Perhaps more interesting, both RIM's Blackberry market share and Microsoft's various Windows Mobile systems lost 2% market share, and Apple's iPhone and the variety of Google's Android phones picked up 2% each (to 28% and 9%, respectively).

As interesting as numbers geeks might find this, what is the real implication for those trying to make a decision about a smartphone?

Here's the easy version:

  1. An iPhone is the choice if you are looking for a full-featured handset.
  2. If you do not like Apple, or since the iPhone is saddled with AT&T in the US and you will not (or can not) use their network, choose an Android phone.
  3. If you only want to use your smartphone for phone calls and email, a Blackberry may be your best choice. I'd still choose an iPhone for you, though.

...and that's really your answer in a nutshell.

It's hard for most people to remember what phones were like in the first half of 2007 when most of the analysts were talking about how Apple was finally going to make a poor choice and fail as they entered the overcrowded smartphone market. Instead, the iPhone completely changed the face of mobile phones--and the mobile Internet--forever.

As Apple introduces the iPhone 4, they are once again creating a challenge for their competitors. The quality and precision of the device itself sets a new standard for how your phone should feel in your hand. Doing so will make every other phone feel cheap in comparison.

This is simply brilliantly competitive.

In continuing to push for their "intersection of technology and liberal arts" as CEO Steve Jobs has mentioned in two separate keynotes, they are developing technology that is far more natural than its competitors. The fact that Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer said during this year's D8 conference that the iPad is "just another PC" shows just how limited the vision of most technology companies is.

So, unless you hate AT&T--or Apple--the iPhone is your best smartphone choice today.

An Apple Fanboy?

Last week, someone suggested on my Facebook page that my middle name should be "Mac" since everyone just expects that I'll have the new Apple products as they come out. I've been thinking about that a lot, and checking in on myself to see whether I have simply become an "Apple fanboy." I don't think so.

About a year ago I wrote about an experience on an airplane talking about my MacBook Pro (MBP) and my thoughts about the almost religious fervor surrounding much of technology. As the iPad emerged, that fervor has been renewed, it seems, and Apple is reaping the financial benefit of a constituency fed up with the technology status quo.

What does that mean for what I write?

Well, right now, I think that Apple products in general represent the most effective human-centric products available today. As a result, other technology companies are making efforts to improve their products to better address the needs of typical people instead of for the technically-astute minority. In fact, systems and applications have become so complex that many of the technorati are having difficulty keeping up and working with them.

I saw the sea change begin a few years ago when I began to notice that many of those I know in the technology industry were moving from IBM Thinkpads to Apple MacBook Pros. Many of them were not using Microsoft Windows on their Thinkpad computers, either, but were running some form of Linux or Unix. When the shift occurred, they all began to work less on their computers, and more simply using them as tools. That was a big shift in productivity!

Ultimately, that's my focus: your productivity. When I recommend products, it's because I think they will make you more effective. Remember what Peter Drucker taught: Efficiency is doing things right... Effectiveness is doing the right things efficiently. Be effective!

So no, I'm not an Apple fanboy. I am instead committed to what works best for you. You'll read about those products here as I review more... Coming up soon...

Evernote: Notes Anywhere and Everywhere

With the emergence of real mobility as demonstrated by the Apple iPhone, Google Nexus One, Microsoft Windows Phone, Windows netbooks, and now the Apple iPad, we have a new problem: keeping track of our data and making sure that it's available everywhere we might want it. Last week, I wrote about using Dropbox to keep track of all of our files, and it is a key component to the overall system of keeping track of your stuff. Another key is to be able to capture notes, photos, web pages, and even screen shots and have them organized and available wherever you are and whichever of your devices is at hand.

Enter Evernote, the ubiquitous capture tool.

Like Dropbox, Evernote is a system designed from the cloud out, and it uses the cloud for some very interesting functions that I'll discuss more in a bit. First, though, let's look at the basic functions.

Capturing Where You Are

One of the keys to your personal organization is being able to capture your ideas, notes from meetings, white boards, web sites, and your computer screen in the moment wherever you are. Evernote is the tool I use to do that.

Two weeks ago, a prospective client invited me into their headquarters to meet with the CEO, President, two Vice-Presidents, and a member of their board who had introduced them to me. As we sat in the executive suite, I pulled out my iPad to take notes and opened Evernote. I typed into Evernote during the meeting, capturing their concerns, the key outcomes they wanted, the people involved, and the next steps. Then, before I left, I sync'd the note to the cloud. When I arrived back to my office, the notes were already there. They were on my iPhone, too. In other words, I could go to work on the project using my other computers without skipping a beat.

That's how I want to work! Do it once, use it everywhere. Perfect.

iPad App

The Evernote iPad app has even more interesting capabilities that make the overall system more powerful. For example, you can view all of your notebooks and see the number of notes in each:

You can also see everywhere that you created notes, provided the device you were using allowed Evernote to figure that out:

And you can look at all of your notes by tags that you create and assign to your notes:

Cloud Functions

In addition to the synchronization functions, and browser-based access to your notes, the Evernote servers also process your image notes and perform character recognition (OCR) on them so you can search their content. This is especially useful when you've taken a photo of a whiteboard and loaded it into your Evernote notebook.

The servers also organize your files using metadata plus information you enter yourself such as tags and the notebook into which you store it.

Together this creates a powerful storage and recovery environment for text, images, audio, PDFs, digital ink, and attached files (the latter with the premium service only).

Try it and let me know how it works for you.

Files, Files Everywhere!

As I have expanded my usage of multiple systems, from the iPhone to a Mac Pro, my first focus was making sure that whenever I needed files, I could find them. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions for this challenge, and, as usual, I've picked the simplest, most elegant solution, Dropbox. I did try other systems like Apple's iDisk and SugarSync's namesake system, but problems in using either of them in terms of performance and reliability have me avoiding them. Since I decided not to use them, I'll not spend time on describing them, but in outlining my use of Dropbox, you'll see why I like the simplicity better.

Dropbox is free to use as you get started, with a starting Dropbox storage of 2GB. First, you download the Dropbox installer to your Mac or PC. After you install it, you will see a new Dropbox folder in your home directory (on a Mac) or a My Dropbox folder inside your My Documents folder (in Windows). To begin to manage a file or folder using Dropbox, simply drag it and drop it onto Dropbox.

...and that's when the magic begins!

When you drop the file or folder there, Dropbox syncs it with the cloud version of your Dropbox folder. Then, if you've installed Dropbox on other devices, those devices sync with the cloud. This means that everything in your Dropbox shows up exactly the same on all of your systems. This is true whether your systems are Mac, Linux, Windows, an iPhone/iPad, or even a mobile device with a web browser, since the cloud Dropbox is available from any browser anywhere.

As a result, I have migrated all of my active files into Dropbox. The only files that are not in Dropbox are those that are in an archive somewhere. This means that all of my systems always have the latest copy of my files available wherever I am. I even use Dropbox to sync settings between computers so that, for example, my 1password and TextExpander shortcuts are the same everywhere.

I'll mention one additional function of Dropbox in this entry: You can use it to share files and folders with others. This has come in very handy when I am working on projects with others or just want to give them access to a big file. It's easier than using a file sharing service or trying to get it to them by email: I drag the file into a shared folder or into my Public folder in Dropbox and simply right click, copy the link to the clipboard, and email that link off to them.

Check out Dropbox to make it easier to manage your files and keep your life in order between your multiple devices and let me know how it goes.

Windows 7: Should You or Shouldn't You?

Microsoft's newest operating system is officially available today. Windows 7 has long been available for those willing to use beta software, and so many people have already experienced what is likely to be Microsoft's most successful operating system release ever. Since I have been using it for a while both on test machines and on all of the Windows virtual machines on my Macs, I will have a number of blog entries reviewing specifics about Windows 7 new features and altered approach to the user experience. Right now, though, you may want to know the simple answer to the question, "Should I or shouldn't I?"

Windows 7 released today

I'll give you those short answers: If you are using Windows Vista on your computer today, upgrade. Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been but wasn't. It is faster, has fewer annoyances like the intrusive security dialogs, and provides a significantly better overall experience. Besides all that, the upgrade path to Windows 7 is very clean from Vista, so you should have a seamless experience.

If you are upgrading from Windows XP, however, the answer isn't as simple and the path is not as seamless.

First, depending on the computer you're using to run Windows XP, it may not be capable of running Windows 7 with all of its features. Microsoft lists the minimum requirements for running Windows 7 as these:

1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor 1 gigabyte (GB) RAM (32-bit) or 2 GB RAM (64-bit) 16 GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit) DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver

In addition, for some features, Microsoft says that the system requires:

  • Internet access (fees may apply)
  • Depending on resolution, video playback may require additional memory and advanced graphics hardware
  • For some Windows Media Center functionality a TV tuner and additional hardware may be required
  • Windows Touch and Tablet PCs require specific hardware
  • HomeGroup requires a network and PCs running Windows 7
  • DVD/CD authoring requires a compatible optical drive
  • BitLocker requires Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2
  • BitLocker To Go requires a USB flash drive
  • Windows XP Mode requires an additional 1 GB of RAM, an additional 15 GB of available hard disk space, and a processor capable of hardware virtualization with Intel VT or AMD-V turned on
  • Music and sound require audio output

In addition to all of these, Microsoft also says, "Product functionality and graphics may vary based on your system configuration. Some features may require advanced or additional hardware." All of this information is on the Windows 7 System Requirements page. To see if Microsoft thinks your system is suitable to run Windows 7, you can run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor.

The point of all of this is that you want to understand beforehand what limitations you are likely to experience, and whether or not it makes sense to upgrade your existing computer. A better approach may be to purchase a new PC with the appropriate hardware capabilities to best run Windows 7.

The upgrade path feeds into this, since there isn't an official upgrade path to Windows 7 from XP. In fact, while you could upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista and then upgrade Windows Vista to Windows 7, such a path is foolish. Don't attempt it. You're two options are:

  1. Install Windows 7 alongside Windows XP
  2. Wipe your hard drive clean and install Windows 7

While wiping your hard drive clean may seem drastic, for most people who want to continue to use their old hardware, it's the best path. The better path is to bite the bullet and buy a new system, maintaining your old system long enough to make sure you've migrated completely to it.

Windows Backup Made Easy

One of the aspects of Apple's Leopard update to OS X that was so attractive to so many was Time Machine, the transparent yet effective backup system. I recommend Leopard upgrades to my clients that use Macs simply for the value that Time Machine provides. But, backup of Windows machines has been notoriously challenging, and virtually impossible for the typical PC owner. Enter Clickfree, who announce their new Clickfree Traveler and DVD Transformer today. The Traveler is a credit card-sized device with a 64GB capacity. Like all Clickfree devices, simply plugging it into a Windows computer causes the application to run and to back up the selected files. The combination of size and simplicity makes the system usable for any PC owner at home, at work, or on the road.

The DVD Transformer similarly provides one-step backup to the writable DVD or CD drive in your computer without the challenges of typical burning software. Plug the device into your PC's USB port, stick a writable disk into the drive, and it goes to work. You can span disks, and both backup and restore are straight-forward.

Over the next few days I'll have a more in-depth review, but if you have a Windows PC and haven't come up with a clean, consistent, and simple way to back up your files, the Clickfree devices are definitely worth a look.