We are being bombarded with offers of “free cloud storage”

Cloud ClipartThe phrase “in the cloud” just means that computers remote from our own local network are involved. I covered this in a blog three years ago called Cloud Computing, but then I was thinking more of the provision of software in the cloud rather than just storage space for our data.

Today, though, I’m just looking at the provision of storage space. You can avail yourself of free cloud services just to use the storage space – whether or not the service actually includes software. Some of the most popular are:

Google Drive – 15gb space, 10gb max file size
OneDrive (was Skydrive) – 7gb space, 1tb max file size (you’d need to upgrade to a paying service for a 1tb file)
Amazon – 5gb space, 2gb max file size
Dropbox – 2gb initial free space, max file size is the same as available space
Box – 10gb free space, 250mb max file size

Filing cabinet in the cloudsThe free space listed above is what they are advertising today (28/05/2014). There are often special offers. For instance, I was lucky enough to latch onto “Box” at a time when they were offering a whopping 50gb free space. And with the Dropbox service, you can earn extra free space – eg by introducing other users. In fact, if you were to open a free Dropbox account via the link above, then I would receive an extra 500mb space for introducing you and you would earn an extra 500mb space for joining via a referrer (me).

Why would you use cloud storage?

  • It provides you with a “remote backup”. In other words, if the worst happened and all your computers, files, backup drives, usb drives, DVDs, and everything else were all lost in one single event (such as fire, theft, or flood) then the remote copy in the Cloud would not be affected.
  • It can provide a way of synchronising data between lots of devices (eg a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop). True synchronisation is when the data is kept on different devices and they are all kept “in step” (in this case, via a Cloud service). An alternative to synchronisation is to use the Cloud storage as the ONLY copy of the data. In that case, no synchronisation is necessary, but you do have to have an active internet connection to access the data. Most cloud storage services offer the ability to synchronise to your local device.

Why wouldn’t you use cloud storage?

  • If you were very concerned about the privacy of the data you were storing in the cloud. Although the data is encrypted, it has come to light that some of the storage companies could decrypt the data if they had to. All these storage companies will divulge your data in response to legal instruction to do so – eg in response to government agencies demanding legitimate access to the data. How much the most powerful governments can also glean by other methods is, of course, now open to conjecture. You could also encrypt your data yourself before sending it to the cloud so that it has been double-encrypted by the time it is stored in the cloud. This could get messy, though, if you wanted to access the data from devices running different operating systems (eg a mixture of Windows, Mac, and Android).
  • If you have lots of data to store, it may not fit in the allocated space. Also, some services have limitations on the size of individual files. That great Box account of mine has the slight drawback that it will not store files bigger than 250mb.
  • If you have a feeble internet connection then it may be too tedious to upload files to the Cloud.

So why are all these companies competing to offer us a free service?

Clouds on laptop screenNo doubt they are trying to build large customer bases that they will be able to capitalise on in the future. Even now there are usually “professional” versions of the free storage plans that charge a monthly subscription for an enhanced service.

This is exactly where the computer companies want us to go. The likes of Microsoft have realised that it’s difficult to keep selling “new improved, enhanced” versions of their software every 2-4 years. From a marketing point of view it’s much better to get people to sign a direct debit for a small monthly amount that they will continue to pay month after month, year after year. This is the basis for the Office 365 version of Microsoft Office. I’m not quite sure when they sneaked it past us, but if you open Word 2010 on a Windows 8 computer and go to open a file, then the initial (the default) location that it will look for the document is now “OneDrive” (the renamed Skydrive – Microsoft’s Cloud storage service). Presumably this only happens if you actually have a OneDrive account. Nevertheless, I would prefer to have chosen to change the default to a cloud location myself rather than be led by the nose by Microsoft. Maybe this can be changed in Word or Window “Options” but I couldn’t find it.

In conclusion, as far as I am concerned it’s worth using Cloud storage for purposes of synchronisation (for this I use Dropbox) and for storing “remote backups” that I wouldn’t want to lose altogether. I still prefer to think of my own laptop as being the centre of my computing world and I suspect that a lot of other people do likewise. I’m prepared to bet, though, that we’ll allow ourselves to be herded in the direction that the big computer companies want us to go and I think that this is already starting to happen. I think that cloud storage is here to stay and will probably become the norm.

Having a paperless office is now more a question of trusting the technology and changing one’s habits than a question of technical possibility

Panasonic KXP1081 DM Printer

I think this was the first printer I owned – a Panasonic dot matrix – back in about 1984

Way back in the mists of time (aka the 1980s), the “Paperless Office” was some kind of technological Holy Grail. Ironic, methinks, that this was also the time when computer programs used to spew out reams and reams of green and white continuous paper as it thundered through chattering dot matrix printers. There even used to be a car bumper sticker that read “Save trees – murder a programmer”. The IT industry undoubtedly created more paper than it saved.

Things are very different now, and I can think of several good reasons why:

  • With the advent of personal computing (ie the “one on every desk” that IBM used to dream about), the user of the data is much more likely nowadays to be the person who produced it, and that person can see his output onscreen rather than waiting for the office boy to deliver a 10kg printout from the computer room.
  • Word processing and the internet – especially email – have, between them, almost annihilated the printed letter (that was often printed in three copies if produced in an office).
  • Adobe Acrobat Icon

    You may need to buy Adobe Acrobat to create pdf files…..

    The pdf (portable document format) file means that the output of one program can easily be read by anyone having the free software (Adobe Reader) to open it. We don’t need to print something on paper in order for someone else to read it. My own client records system was written (by me) using Microsoft Access. There wouldn’t be any point in my sending an invoice with an email if it were in the Access format as it would be unlikely that the client could open it. By “printing” the invoice as a pdf file, the entire process is completed without paper (at my end, at least – I have no control over the client printing it out and filing it).
  • Following on from the point above, most invoices and other paperwork that we deal with on a regular basis are now routinely sent out by, for instances, the utilities companies, as pdf files attached to emails. We don’t even need to keep most of these invoices as we become accustomed to the fact that our financial history with companies such as the utilities is always available online. I am aware that a lot of people do still routinely print out such invoices and file them away in lever arch files, but that (I submit) is only a matter of habit. If we were confident of our computer backups and confident that the information would always be available online, then we wouldn’t bother with the paper. This confidence will almost certainly increase over time.
  • Programs such as Evernote and Dropbox allow us to synchronise our data across computers and mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) without manual intervention. In my own case, for instance, whenever I raise a client invoice, it is saved in a Dropbox folder that then automatically synchronises with my Evernote database. This data can be carried about with us anywhere on tablets and smartphones for almost instant access.
  • Adobe Reader Icon

    …..but you can open pdf files for free with Adobe Reader

    There are also plenty of other pieces of hardware and software that allow us to scan any pieces of paper into our computers so that we need never hunt down the hard copy original again. The problem with doing this is that you constantly wonder if the effort to scan and electronically file something is ever going to be repaid by saving you time in finding it in the future. For that reason, I still maintain one single lever arch file, where all the “semi important” bits of paper go. Since I refer to it so rarely and there’s so little going into it these days, I don’t even bother separating it into sections. I just bung one sheet in on top of the previous one and I only seem to fill about half a file a year.

As time goes by, we who were born in the days of paper will gradually fall off our twigs. We will be replaced by people who’ve used computers all their lives – people who may never know what it’s like to have a brown envelope drop onto the mat.

Paperless Office - Not

I’m not really getting the hang of the “paperless office”, am I?

All of this came to mind this morning when I received an email from my electricity supplier inviting me to check my tariff. I clicked to follow the link and was taken immediately to a page on their wesbsite where it showed calculations indicating that I was already on the best tariff. I clicked the Evernote icon on my browser and Evernote saved that exact page for me in my Evernote database and gave me the opportunity to file it in the “notebook” that I have labelled “domestic”. All over and done with in a matter of seconds, and not a piece of paper in sight.

You see – there really is an upside to computers.

PS: if you need to create pdf files, investigate before buying Adobe Acrobat as some programs (eg “Word”) have a pdf writer inbuilt. Also, some scanners can create a pdf file direct from the scan.

Are our expectations regarding online privacy changing?

I may be wrong about this, but in the last few weeks I seem to have noticed a weary acceptance from many of my clients that online privacy is now known to be a myth, so “why bother trying to keep private information private?”

Large eye through a magnifying glassThis often crops up when I am installing, upgrading, or registering something online on behalf of one of my computer support clients. When it comes to the impertinent questions asked on web forms, I get vaguely embarrassed. I don’t want to ask the client for the information and I don’t want them to give it up to cyberspace. In the past, the client would often ask things such as “what do they want it for?” or “do I have to complete it?”. This has never been universal, of course. There are lots of people whose attitude has always been “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why shouldn’t I give them the information?”

Nevertheless, I do have a feeling that things are changing from two directions:

  • The client now seems to be more likely to say something along the lines of “Why not give it to them. We now know we’re being spied on by our own and other governments, so why try and keep information private now”. And even if they are not overtly aware of it, I think most people have some vague idea that behemoths like Google are pooling together the data they have on us from several sources and using it for ever more sophisticated marketing purposes. It feels as if we’re losing the battle to keep private information private, so why bother trying?
  • The organisations seeking the data seem to be getting cheekier in what they ask. It’s now becoming common for information such as “date of birth” to be compulsory when filling in forms. Why? What possible justification is there for this? It may be very useful for the marketing departments of these organisations to know exactly what “market segments” to place us in, but that’s just for THEIR benefit. It’s not for the user’s benefit. Unless there’s some obvious reason (such as relevance for medical or insurance reasons), I really don’t see why they should be so presumptuous as to INSIST that this information be provided. As I’ve said before, in these situations I just lie.

I was gobsmacked by the sting in the tail of an offer by Dropbox that I came across recently. Regular readers will know that I am a great fan of Dropbox. I have it on all my computers and devices. It means that a huge percentage of my most important data is always available to me wherever I am and whatever computers and devices I happen to have with me. And being just a tad nerdy (?!), I have been happy to go along with Dropbox’s clever marketing strategy whereby they give extra free online storage space for introducing new users (use this link, for example, to gain extra free space when joining Dropbox. If you do, I will also get some more free space.) and for taking part in other promotions. That’s fine. The nerd in me is quite chuffed that my free 2gb Dropbox account has now swelled to 13.8gb.

So, I followed the link when I recently discovered that if I installed an email program called Mailbox on my iPad and then “joined” it to my Dropbox account, I could instantly earn another gigabyte of free online storage. I just couldn’t believe my eyes, though, when I saw the terms and conditions attached to this offer (see figure 1).

Mailbox Permissions Dialog Box

Figure 1. Give Mailbox (owned by Dropbox) access to all my Dropbox data? I think not.

Are they really saying what it seems they are saying? Are they really asking me to give them access to all of the data in my Dropbox account? All the private, business, medical, professional, and random data that is in my supposedly safe, secure account? I’m staggered at the thought of the implications of giving all this personal information away. I’m staggered at the cheek of Dropbox in asking me to do it. I’m yet more staggered at the thought that they wouldn’t have put this cunning plan together unless they thought that at least some of their users would go along with it.

I think I probably need some kind of reality check, because I’m about as staggered as it’s possible to be while still capable of standing. Is it just me? In the article in which I first learned about this wheeze, there was mention of the condition of opening up one’s data, but no expression of surprise, disapproval or anything else.

By the way, I should just add that I know that all of the above behaviour only applies to computer users over the age of forty. Anyone younger than that seems only too happy to spew all their private and personal stuff out online. That will no doubt end, eventually, when it finally sinks in that this is a very bad idea. It will be too late for an entire generation but, hopefully, the following generation will have learned that something said on Facebook at 12 years old may rule them out from a job interview ten years later.

Or have Dropbox got it right? Are we all – young and old – just going to give up on our privacy?

Not me. I can live without another gigabyte of online storage.

I recently blogged that the computer market appears to be maturing in that there are fewer innovations in the hardware from year to year. All the bells and whistles that nerdy people used to add to their computers are now all built in and taken for granted. The hardware is still getting faster, but there are fewer new goodies to bolt on.

The software side is different. A shift is taking place in the way we do our computing. More and more of our data is being held for us “in the cloud” (by services such as Skydrive, Dropbox, Evernote). In a lot of cases that same data is also held on the hardware we are using, but we needn’t go into all that now.

Laptops in the cloudsThe huge advantage to storing data in the cloud this way is that it is accessible from many devices – even devices that use different operating systems and different versions of the programs and apps. I currently have Evernote and Dropbox available on my Windows 8 laptop, Windows 7 netbook, Macs, iPad, iPhone and Android phone. It’s all a far cry from the days when I had to remember to make data backups from my laptop and transfer them to the netbook before taking the netbook out with me.

All of this “data mobility” through internet access does have a few downsides, though:

  • My long-held opinion that our online data is not secure against prying eyes has now been well and truly shown to be “jaundiced realism” rather than “paranoia” (I am resisting the urge to use words such as “Told”, “You”, and “So”).
  • You are sometimes stuck if you don’t have an internet connection.
  • And, the point I’ve been trying to build up to, is that the very way we access, view, and interact with our data is constantly at the mercy of whoever is providing the service. I’m not suggesting they are unreliable or badly intentioned but they do have the very annoying habit of changing things without warning.

I think the most obvious way that this is apparent is not, in fact, services such as Evernote (that we access via programs or apps on our own computers and devices), but services where the data and the interface with it are both provided directly via a web browser.

The most obvious of these is our old friend webmail. How often have I heard the cry of anguish that Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, have changed the user interface again and now it’s impossible to find anything. This often happens without any warning at all and it can feel like an intrusion into our personal space. We get used to doing something in a particular way. Most people don’t want to consciously “engage” with Gmail: they just want to get at their mail without having to think about it or re-learn how to do it.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it's all changed again.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it’s all changed again.

Just occasionally I’ve been in the vicinity when clients have given vent to the frustration this can cause. Part of me sympathises with my client, of course, but every now and again I’ve tried to offer a different perspective (tactfully, I hope!):

  • The service suppliers get us to to agree to their terms and conditions before we can use the service. No-one ever reads those terms and conditions because they give us no choices and they are, anyway, utterly incomprehensible to human beings. You can be sure, though, that somewhere in those tems and conditions they have told us that they will make any changes they feel like at any time and that we can like it or lump it.
  • Computer software is still a relatively new, and rapidly changing, technology. Advances can only happen by having change. That may be a truism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true! We just happen to live in a time of lots of change. Personally, I like that and, to an extent, earn my living from it. Frustration, re-learning, adapting – they’re all part of the change. Hopefully, we can also sometimes experience pleasure, delight, surprise, and even a sense of fun when engaging with this stuff.
  • The other thing I occasionally point out is that the only way we are paying for a lot of this stuff is in the form of giving away our personal data when we use the service. Most of the internet, including webmail, Dropbox, Skydrive, etc, is free at the point of use. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. If any of us could have imagined the internet forty years ago, I’m sure we wouldn’t have also imagined that it would be largely free (which is not to trivialise the cost of giving away our personal data: this is just the wrong blog post for that particular hobby-horse!).

Heraclitus (c 535-475bce), looking as if he's just lost his internet connection

Heraclitus (c 540-480bce), looking as if he’s just lost his internet connection

So, we engage more and more with the internet to store and retrieve our data, to communicate with friends, family, suppliers, manufacturers and Uncle Tom Cobbly. All of this communication happens via “software interfaces” – be those on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Skydrive – or wherever. As the software becomes more powerful and more “feature rich” those interfaces are going to continue to change.

We’ve just got to live with it.

Apparently, it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said “The only constant thing is change” – and that was two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d think we would have got used to the idea by now.

I’ve done it – I’ve committed myself to Evernote for my digital administration

The Evernote logoFollowing on from last week’s blog, I have started using Evernote to improve my digital organisation. It may be a bit premature to start recommending it, but I think I’m ready to take the risk. It’s a very versatile program, but it’s also one that’s very easy to start using. However, the only way you’ll find out if it will work for you is to “suck it and see”. You may have tried programs like this in the past and then abandoned them for no apparent reason. Actually, in my experience, there is probably one or both of two reasons that so-called “productivity programs” fall by the wayside of the electronic superhighway:

  • You don’t use it for long enough for it to become an established part of your routine (so you soon forget all about it and then, when you do remember it, you can’t remember how it works).
  • There is more effort and/or time required in using it than you get back in terms of the benefits of using it. As my mother used to say, “the game isn’t worth the candle”.

Evernote really helps in both these respects because it’s very easy to get started with it and to start organising your data in a way that is meaningful to you. To use some management-speak, the learning curve is very shallow. Thereafter, there are any number of ways that you can make better use of its capabilities.

Shortcomings

I’m very much a beginner with it, so I don’t know all its shortcomings yet. However, if I list the ones that I’ve found so far, then it may just save you from wasting time if these limitations are crucial to you:

  • You can not “print” a document from a program so that it goes directly into the Evernote system. This is not such a problem if you can create a pdf file from the program you are using (either with Adobe Acrobat or from within Word, for instance) as you can create a pdf file in a folder whose contents are automatically imported into Evernote.
  • There isn’t much encryption available. It does require a username and password to open the entire “file”, but, thereafter, there isn’t much choice. It is possible to encrypt a selected piece of text (and this seems to work well enough), but you can’t encrypt (or hide) complete notes or notebooks.
  • Evernote doesn’t deal in “files and folders” as such, so you can’t just copy Evernote notes around your computer as if they were files available to other programs. They can be “exported” to html files but this isn’t the same thing at all.

Benefits

On the other hand, I’ve already found loads of huge “pluses”, such as:

    • You can designate folders on your computer as “import folders” for Evernote. Anything placed in these folders is automatically imported into Evernote as notes (the original files are unaffected). I am using this to store the maps I keep that remind me of the route and journey time to my clients. This will be really useful for clients that I see rarely as I think that punctuality is very important. I am also using it to import copies of my client invoices automatically. Incidentally, both of these import folders are Dropbox folders, so the data was already accessible from all of my computers and devices. I’m expecting, though, that it will be much easier to access it from within Evernote.
    • You can put shortcuts inside notes – eg to launch programs.
Paper Filing System

Would you like to move away from paper filing systems?

  • You can create voice memos (eg from a smartphone) and include tags so that you can identify and store that voice memo (eg by tagging it with a client code). I am trying to get into the habit of creating a voice memo when I leave a client so that there is a record of the visit. Evernote allows me to do this “on the hoof” with my iPhone such that I don’t need to do any subsequent filing or labelling or anything at all. The memo will just be there if I need it. I will be able to identify it by its tag (client code) and its date and time.
  • When I started with Evernote it seemed as if the “notebooks” were just a “flat” structure. In other words, it seems at first sight as if all notebooks are independent of each other. This could start getting out of hand if there are, say, dozens of them. However, I then discovered what Evernote calls “stacks” (stacks of notebooks). The result is like nesting folders within folders. So, you could have a stack called “Clients” and have notebooks inside it called “Invoices”, “Pending”, “Finished Work”, “Contact Details” etc.
  • You can send emails directly into your Evernote system and automatically file them in the right notebook and with relevant tags.
  • You can send web pages or clips of web pages directly into your Evernote system and, again, specify the notebook and any relevant tags.
  • There are comprehensive search facilities.
  • Evernote supports Windows, Mac OSX, Apple IOS, Android, and Blackberry.

Evernote ItemsI was so impressed within the first few days of using it that I bought the premium version (actually, it’s a subscription – £35pa), so now my mobile devices can store a local copy of the data and the data upload limit goes up from 60mb per month in the free version to 1gb.

I don’t care if I do sound sad for enthusing over a data organising system. This might just be the closest thing yet to having all my work data organised from one place. And that’s important in helping me to provide an efficient service to my computer clients – and it may just be important to you, too.

Sharing a folder with another Dropbox user is easy to set up and administer, but there are a few of points to remember:

Dropbox logo1) Any file in the shared folder that either party adds, removes, or amends is reflected in the other party’s folder. If I put some pictures in a folder shared between you and me then you will have those pictures in your folder as soon as Dropbox has uploaded them from my machine and downloaded them to yours. If you look at the pictures and then decide you don’t want to keep them, then you can delete them. Dropbox will then delete them from my folder as well.

So, if I’m going to share pictures with you, it’s prudent for me to keep copies of the shared pictures (in a different folder) as I can’t be sure that you won’t delete them from the shared folder. Indeed, if sharing things like photos on a regular basis, it would probably be best practice for the recipient to move the files elsewhere as soon as receiving them. That way, the shared folder is kept clean (for both sender and receiver) and the sender knows that the receiver has got them.

2) Another reason for keeping shared folders “clean” (if possible) is that you don’t know how much room the other person has in their Dropbox folder. They may be close to filling their initial 2gb allocation of free space or they may have lots of space, provided by one of the paid Dropbox plans. You have no way of knowing.

Interlocked fingers

Sharing


3) Each of us could have many folders that we are sharing with a variety of people. This can very easily become confusing in terms of who is sharing what with whom. The easiest way to keep track of this is to name the folder in a meaningful way. For instance, don’t call a shared file “Corsica 2013”. Don’t even call it “Corsica 2013 – shared with Jill” as that is exactly the name of the folder that Jill will receive and later on she may not remember who shared the folder with her (unless she went to Corsica with you in 2013, of course). The best way to name it is something like “Corsica 2013 – shared between Fred and Jill”. Long folder names like this can become very unwieldy, so a bit of “meaningful shorthand” might help.

To share a folder in Dropbox:

  1. Go to your Dropbox folder in Windows Explorer (or from the tray icon).
  2. Create a folder inside your Dropbox folder in the normal way (right-click on an empty part of the screen and then click on the “new” and “folder” menu options).
  3. Right-click on the Dropbox icon in your system tray (it is a blue icon of an open box).
  4. Click on the option to “Launch Dropbox Website”.
  5. Right-click on the folder you just created and that you wish to share.
  6. Left-click on the option to “Invite to Folder”.
  7. Type in the email address(es) of the person/people you wish to share with and (optionally) add a personal message.
  8. Click on the blue button called “share folder”

That’s it. The other person/people will then receive an email and will just need to follow the instructions contained in it.

And, remember, if you are currently a user of the free Dropbox plan, then you can increase your initial 2gb space allocation by various means, including referring other people to Dropbox.

If you are not currently a Dropbox user and would like to become one, then just follow this link to sign up to a free Dropbox account.

It’s a whole year since I was congratulating myself on a whole year’s worth of weekly blog posts

2 candles on a calendarSo, what’s the same and what’s changed in the last year? To begin with, an update on the items I mentioned a year ago

Microsoft Security Essentials

I had recently introduced MSE as the antivirus program on my main computer. It’s behaved perfectly in the year since then. No viruses, no dramas, no complaints. It’s free, unobtrusive, and has a reasonable reputation for doing its job properly. I can’t imagine why I would want Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky or any of the other paid-for, bloated, antivirus programs.

AVG Free Antivirus

I said a year ago that I’d stopped recommending this as their marketing tactics (in leading users of the free product to upgrade to the paid product) had become too aggressive. They must have been listening to complaints such as mine as one client asked me this year to backtrack their system from the accidental installation of the paid version, and AVG offered to reinstate the free version that the client had previously been using. This is an improvement. Apart from the their marketing tactics, my experience of AVG Free antivirus had always been positive.

Zen Internet

Zen keep on winning awards for the best ISP. If price is the most important aspect of your broadband provision then I recommend investigating PlusNet as their support is also based in the UK. If you just want the best service and think it’s worth paying to make sure you get it, then I would continue to recommend Zen. In all the support calls I’ve made to ISPs on behalf of clients in the last 12 months I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the likes of BT, Talk Talk, AOL, Virgin, have done anything at all to improve the service they provide when something goes wrong with their broadband service.

What else has changed in the last year?

Dropbox

Dropbox logoDropbox is a cloud-based storage system that allows you to synchronise content between your different computers, access your content from other computers, and share folders (and their contents) with other people. It’s gained a really strong foothold over the last year or two and there are “apps” for other devices (such as iPhones and Android devices) that give you access to the contents of your Dropbox folders on those devices. Plenty of other apps are now also allowing you to share their data between your different computers/devices by using Dropbox. Dropbox doesn’t give you the most free space of the cloud-based storage systems. If you need lots of free space, look at Google Drive or Box or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. It does seem, though, that Dropbox is the most prevalent of the cloud storage services. If the initial 2gb of free space is not enough, you can either pay for more space or “earn” more space by recommending new users and/or jumping through other hoops that Dropbox offer you. Click here to get your free Dropbox account (and you’ll earn both yourself and me more free space if you use this link!)

Windows 8

Windows 8 LogoWindows 8 has just been released. It’s too soon to say how it’s being received but the predictions were that it might just not succeed in combining the requirements of touchscreen devices (such as tablets) with the requirements of a “proper”, keyboard and mouse, system. From what I’ve seen of it so far I think it might be OK.

I was thinking that it might be time to install it on my main machine, so I ran Microsoft’s Upgrade Assistant to see if any problems were anticipated. I was quite surprised to find that Windows 8 claims not to be compatible with Microsoft’s Access 2007 (although other modules in the 2007 version of Office appear to be ok). Life starts to get a bit complicated at this point as Office 2013 is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2013. So would people in my position upgrade to Access 2010 now or wait for Access 2013?

If it wasn’t for the fact that I need to get a grip on Windows 8 in order to help out my computer support clients then I’d let sleeping dogs lie for the time being. Another reason for waiting a while is that iTunes for Windows is not currently compatible with Windows 8. I think that most of my clients would only need to think about Windows 8 if they are going to buy a new machine. At the moment, if you buy a new Windows 7 machine you can upgrade to Windows 8 later for just £15, and maybe that would be the simplest decision to take for now. However, if you are thinking of buying a new Windows 8 machine then I would definitely run the upgrade assistant on your present setup to see if any other software will need to be upgraded or replaced.

The biggest single preventable IT problem that my clients seem to encounter is lost, forgotten, or mis-remembered passwords

PadlockI know it wasn’t long ago – see this blog on passwords – that I recommended writing down all passwords – manually – in one place. OK, I can see the obvious flaw in this advice. However, the practical reality, in my experience as an IT Support Consultant, is that almost everyone needs some simple but rigid discipline to ensure that they can always find any of their passwords.

So why am I bringing it up yet again? Because some online organisations have started taking it upon themselves to force us to change our passwords before allowing us into our accounts. I think I’ve seen it with Apple in the last few weeks and I encountered it with the Dropbox website recently. With Dropbox you can simply re-use the same password (which defeats their aims of improving your security), but with Apple you can’t re-use one that’s been used in the last year.

This development adds a further layer to the complexity and frustration caused by online passwords. Being forced to change a password before you can carry on with what you were doing is just going to increase the likelihood that you will invent a variation of the existing password, fail to write it down, and then get locked out the next time you try to access that account.

Padlock with keyI’ve been trying to think of a way to make changing passwords easier – eg add 2 digits to the existing password that represent the month it was changed. The problem is, of course, that when you come to enter the password you won’t necessarily know when it was last changed so you won’t know what the current password is. It’s also true to say, of course, that any method that makes it easier for you to remember your own passwords makes it easier for someone else to crack them.

I don’t often see written advice on this subject. My guess is that anyone who is going to commit themselves in writing on the subject feels the need to be seen as “responsible” – hence all the common advice:

  • Passwords for all account should be unique.
  • Make passwords at least fifteen characters long.
  • Change them every month.
  • Never re-use them.
  • Always use a mixture of upper and lower case letters, figures, and special characters.

Hand holding keyThe only secure and comprehensive solution that I know of is to use password manager software. I’ve been using this approach myself for ten years or so. The reason I’ve not routinely passed it on to my clients is that its security depends on being absolutely certain that you have access to a working copy of the password program and backups of the data files. Frankly, a lot of people’s backup regimes are not rigorous enough for me to recommend that they put all their eggs in one basket by relying on a password manager.

However, this latest development (forcing password changes on us) has finally convinced me that it’s time to create a practical solution for my clients, consisting of recommended software, installation and training. The solution will need the following features:

  • Installation and training of a recommended password manager.
  • Installation and training in multi-level backup procedures to virtually eliminate the chances of losing the data file (data backups are always, ultimately, the user’s responsibility).
  • Ability to access the same password data whether you are currently using your Windows PC, IOS device (iPhone or iPad), Android device, or Mac.

I know the software to use as I’ve been using the specific software myself for at least six months and other software from the same company for at least five years. At this stage I’m not sure how long the installation and training of such a package will take, but I hope it can be done in a single session of, say, a couple of hours I’ll be aiming for simplicity and flexibility rather than sophistication. Please do let me know if you are interested.

Dropbox stores previous versions of data files (for 30 days) that you thought had long since gone to data heaven

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog on Dropbox, but I’ve recently had a couple of queries from users who know it’s possible, but who can’t work out the mechanics. So, here’s how to do it.

The secret is to remember that your Dropbox files are available in two distinct ways – via the Dropbox folder on your computer and via a website interface. I think what happens is that we get used to using the Dropbox folder just like any other folder and assume that old versions of our files are stored in the local Dropbox folder – if only we could find them. This is not how it works. Only the most recent version (ie the “current” version) is in our local Dropbox folder. All the previous versions are “in the cloud” on Dropbox’s servers. However, providing that we have an internet connection, it’s easy to access them.

If you still have a “current” version of the file in your Dropbox folder, then click on the file to highlight it and then right-click on it. A menu then pops up as in Figure 1

menu for "previous versions"

Figure 1 – Menu for Previous Versions

The options on this menu will depend on what programs you have installed on your own computer, but somewhere on the menu you will see “Dropbox” with a right-pointing arrow. This arrow indicates that there is a sub-menu that pops up when you hover over the option. So, if you hover over “Dropbox” the submenu pops up that includes the option to “View previous versions”. If you click on this option, your web browser will open, take you to your Dropbox account online, and show you the list of previous versions of the file you initially clicked on (see Figure 2):

The List of Previous Versions

Figure 2 – The List of Previous Versions

Select the version that you wish to restore (ie the version that you wish to become the new “current” version). This is done by clicking in the round “radio button” next to the relevant version. Then just click on the blue “restore” button below. Be aware, though, that you don’t get any warnings or confirmations about what is about to happen. As soon as you click on the “restore” button it does just that: replaces the old current version with whichever version you selected to restore. You can, of course, repeat the process to restore a different version if the one you’ve restored is not the correct one.

What happens, though, if you’ve deleted the file?
Obviously, you can’t restore it by right-clicking on it if it’s not there!

  • In this case, launch the Dropbox website by right-clicking on the blue Dropbox icon in your taskbar (bottom righthand corner of screen) and left-click on the option that says (natch) “Launch Dropbox Website”.
  • Navigate to the folder where the deleted file used to reside
  • Click on the rightmost icon in the strip near the top of the screen that looks like Figure 3
Strip of Commands including "Show Deleted"

Figure 3 – Strip of Commands including “Show Deleted”

This is a dustbin, but clicking on it doesn’t throw things out. Rather, it displays the files that have previously been thrown out. In the example in Figure 4, the second file (diltest.txt) has been deleted.

Showing the Deleted Files

Figure 4 – Deleted Files Now Accessible

Click on the filename to reveal a list of versions that Dropbox is holding:

Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files

Figure 5 – Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files

Note that Dropbox can’t offer you the option of restoring the version that was deleted. It can only offer you the most recently saved versions. This may or may not be the same thing, depending upon whether you had made any changes between the last save and the deletion of the file. So, select a previous version by clicking in the round “radio button” and then click the “restore” button.

After all that, you might be saying “why not just look in the Windows recycle bin and restore the file from there?“. Fine, If it’s there, then go ahead and do that, but you may have emptied the recycle bin, or want a different version. The main advantage of having the Dropbox option is that it does keep all these different versions going back 30 days.

I don’t use Dropbox as my main method of backing up files. I’d feel a bit queasy about trusting any outside organisation to be in sole charge of the backups of my important data. However, knowing that Dropbox is adding an extra layer to my backup routines definitely makes me feel more secure about my data – and it doesn’t need me to do anything to maintain it.

Dropbox logoYou can get Dropbox for free. The free version starts you off with 2gb storage space. However, clicking this link to the Dropbox website will get you (and me!) an extra free 250mb of space.

Policeman's helemts and tablets - visual punA few weeks ago, I bought a Sony Tablet, wondering how useful it would be. Click here for my initial thoughts.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Other people will undoubtedly have different uses and priorities, and other tablets may have different strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless I thought it might be useful for any of my computer support clients who are thinking of buying a tablet computer to hear an evaluation from my few weeks of use.

As a Worktool

Plus

  • Much easier to dig out of a backpack and start using than a netbook. Very useful on longer tube journeys to catch up with reading technology blogs and news feeds. These are automatically updated when connected to a wifi or 3g network so are ready and waiting even on the tube. The e-reader is also good for these times as well, of course.
  • Emails and web browsing are much better tackled on a tablet than on a smartphone. I’m now on my third smartphone and have never yet managed to overcome the limitations of web browsing on such a small device.
  • Thanks to “Dropbox” I can easily access most of my important office files – including Word, Excel, pdf, jpg files. It took a bit of working out how to manage OneNote on the tablet (using the same data files as on the laptop at home), but I think I’m there now and just have to train myself to use it properly.This means that I have most of what I need on the Tablet when I’m onsite, providing computer support.

Minus

  • I haven’t yet found a perfect solution for a password manager that has a Windows application (for the laptop) and an Android app (for the Tablet) and that shares the same data file.
  • File encryption and password-protection don’t seem to be very advanced in the Android environment. It’s true that you can set up the Tablet to require a password to access it initially but I like to have another layer of security for sensitive files.
  • I haven’t found a way of reading Access data files on the Tablet. This is no surprise. Databases are very complicated and I imagine it would take a great deal of work to create something useful. My guess is that this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future as it seems that everyone expects to get their programs (“apps”) for free on Android or to pay no more than a pound or two. I think it would be pushing expectations too far to think that a Tablet could cope with Access applications or that anyone would invest a lot of time and brainpower in creating something that the market would only be prepared to pay a fiver for. My own compromise (when I get round to it) will be to define more reports in my Access database that print to pdf files in my Dropbox folder. Those reports will be immediately available on the Tablet and updating the pdf versions won’t be too onerous.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

As a Plaything

Plus

  • Photos look great on the Sony Tablet.
  • Beyond Pod” is a great program that downloads the latest blog postings, news items, podcasts for offline reading/listening.
  • BBC iplayer works fine in “normal” mode. It does stutter a little bit if played full screen.
  • Playback quality of videos is excellent if the video itself is recorded at a good quality.
  • All the little apps are great. Some that I happen to like include live bus/tube/train information, live Google Analytics, BBC newsreader, weather, the online versions of the Grauniad and Indy, documents scanner, pinball games, and loads more.

Minus

  • The screen doesn’t go quite bright enough in strong light.
  • The speakers are very tinny (but you can connect headphones or external speakers – as I do when watching BBC iPlayer in the kitchen).
  • I’m not sure that the battery life is good enough to be able to expect a whole day’s use and, unfortunately, the Sony Tablet doesn’t re-charge via a USB connection. Instead, it has its own proprietory charger and connection (that you wouldn’t want to carry around with you).
  • The onboard data storage is a bit limited. I made a wrong assumption that I could have as much storage as I liked because there is a slot for a 32gb SD card. This is true, but you can’t install programs onto that card and most programs won’t access data from this external card.

    In practice, this is not as bad as it sounds because you can launch video files directly from the external SD card, view photographs, and listen to music (although I’ve only got it to play music tracks on at a time so far). Since video, music, and picture files are by far the largest types of files you would want on a Tablet, this means that the restrictions that apply to the external SD card are not as bad as they first seem. Nevertheless, whether buying a Sony or any other type of Tablet, I would now recommend looking carefully into the storage situation and how you can connect external storage. Another mistaken assumption I made was to think that because the Sony has a USB interface I could connect an external hard drive – not so. It will recognise a “flash drive” (ie a pen drive) but not a hard drive. This is probably due to power restrictions. Again, this may be different with other types of Tablet, so I would recommend investigating carefully when buying a Tablet if these aspects are important to you.

Conclusion: if you like electronic gadgets and/or would like something more sophisticated, versatile, and easier to use than a smartphone, or are considering buying a netbook, then you may be as pleased as I am with what tablets can do and how well they do it.

I wasn’t really expecting it, but I can honestly say that the Sony Tablet has put a lot of fun back into computing for me and it’s useful as well. It hasn’t yet completely replaced my netbook, but it may do so in the next few months. One caveat, though, is that I bought a Sony Tablet. These are good machines that I am sure compare well with the iPad (click here for a review of the iPad 3). I really don’t know if the cheaper tablets offer comparable functionality and value for money.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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