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Tech Transitions Part 4: Heading into the Cloud

March 4, 2015

This is the fourth and final entry in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions.This one tackles the transition from local to cloud storage and applications. Earlier posts dealt with the transition from fixed to mobile computing, the transition from scheduled broadcast to on-demand media and the transition from analog to digital.

I find myself relying more and more upon computer storage and services hosted on remote server farms in “the cloud“. While I still have massive amounts of data stored and accessed locally, I use the cloud to synchronize (and thus effectively backup) essential data for work and I find myself sharing data through cloud services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive. I’m also using more cloud applications, ranging from the simplistic but sometimes adequate Google Drive spreadsheets and word processor to the online versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint through my $99/year Microsoft Office 365 Home subscription.

Storage Space

Too much stuff!

Too much stuff!

Our consumer society means that most of us keep accumulating items, veering off into collecting and hoarding on occasion. I see many folks parking their expensive cars out on the driveway since their garage is filled with junk they seldom use. I’ve managed to avoid that trap and keep my garage clear for vehicles by throwing worn things out and donating gently used items to Goodwill. But the cabinets and closets and shelves of Meador Manor are stuffed with seldom used items, and the edges of the garage are filling up too, so this summer I plan to do a massive purge.

The problem of too much little-used stuff also plagues my digital life. My desktop system in my home office now has a one-terabyte primary solid state drive along with two older one-terabyte spinning hard drives which I now use for backups. Over in the living room there is a 1.25 TB network storage drive attached to my 4th generation Apple Airport Extreme router, along with a 0.5 TB external drive attached to my old Tivo HD digital video recorder. Whenever I have a big chunk of data files which I really don’t think I’ll ever need, such as television series which I purchased on iTunes and don’t plan to re-watch, I shove that over onto the network drive. I know that someday that big spinning drive will crash, but I probably won’t miss it when it goes. I originally bought that network drive to access files via my 3rd generation MacBook Air, but I seldom use that functionality.

Here is a breakdown of the data I’m storing locally on my primary computer drive and online, ignoring the various backups and omitting software and overhead:

File type Primary Local Drive Cloud
Work documents 100 GB 89 GB (Dropbox)
Photographs 150 GB 43 GB (Flickr)
Audio files 160 GB
Video files 180 GB
I love the Dropbox cloud storage service

I love the Dropbox cloud storage service

I only infrequently backup my primary drive to one of its spinning cousins in the desktop computer, and backup about twice a year to a portable drive which I store offsite. That isn’t the frequency of backup which professionals recommend, but was enough for me back when I was running two local hard drives in a RAID 1 mirrored setup. I eventually abandoned RAID 1 because system support for it was problematic, but I switched to solid state, which should be quite reliable and immune to crashes.

But the cloud is what truly eases my concern about adequate backups. All of my crucial documents are stored in my Dropbox cloud account. I spend $99/year for that service, plus an additional $39/year for their “packrat service” that preserves every previous version of a file. Dropbox started out with less capacity, but now my account allows for a full terabyte of storage. I can have specific Dropbox directories synchronized to any desktop or laptop computer as needed for convenience, and I can access any file on Dropbox via the web browser or app on any desktop, laptop, tablet, or smart phone.

Limited upload bandwidth has kept me from syncing everything onto Dropbox

Limited upload bandwidth has kept me from syncing everything onto Dropbox

Thus you may wonder why I don’t simply shift everything I’m storing locally onto Dropbox. Bandwidth is one reason: my CableOne home internet connection’s upload bandwidth is only three megabits/second, plus there is a soft bandwidth cap of 300 GB of data transfer per month on my account. I use between 50 and 100 GB per month already, mostly downloads at 50 megabits/second for home video streaming of movies and podcasts, plus internet surfing. So it would be problematic to try and upload another 700 GB of data to my Dropbox unless I spread that out over several months.

I have considered shifting my audio files onto Dropbox, but those thousands of audio files are managed via the cumbersome iTunes, so shifting their storage location would cause some hiccups and trigger a long rebuild of the iTunes media library. Plus, the theoretical upload time would be about five days and overhead will make it still longer. However, the cloud helps me out in this area even without using Dropbox. Any MP3 files I purchase from Apple’s iTunes or from Amazon are always available in their respective cloud libraries, and I pay $25/year for iTunes Match so that all of my iTunes music, including the many songs I ripped years ago from my former huge collection of CDs, are available in the cloud. My infrequent local and offsite drive backups are sufficient to protect the old ripped MP3 files in my collection. I don’t worry much about my video files, either, because that collection seldom changes much. I’m relying more these days upon streaming video from Amazon for movies, and any movie I really want to hang onto I already own on Blu-Ray or DVD.

Finally, my photographs used to take up much more space, but I now use JPEGmini to optimize their compression, almost halving their size. All of my edited photographs are already on the online Flickr service up in the cloud, so I’m not worried about the infrequent local backups for them, either. Overall, the cloud has brought me a great deal of convenience and peace of mind on data storage and backup. While I’ve never lost any data over the decades, I have suffered through many disk crashes, and I’m very glad to now have solid state local storage plus cloud storage.

Computing in the Cloud

drive

Google Drive is a great free service

Google has long been associated with cloud services. I have used Google Docs, now re-branded and expanded as Google Drive, for many years. We’ve kept our science department curriculum maps there for convenient access and editing, and I’ve long maintained a spreadsheet about my day hikes using that service. I maintain a number of websites using Google Sites, since it is easy to update and customize without going overboard, and I’ve long enjoyed making custom Google Maps.

An Asus Chromebox has been a great machine for my mother

An Asus Chromebox has been a great machine for my mother

Google’s extensive cloud services have even made it possible for it to market Chromebooks and the lesser-known Chromeboxes. These units are really not much more than a web browser, but with cloud services from Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, and others, that is good enough to do a lot of basic computing tasks. Their huge advantages are low costs and maintenance. A decent Chromebook laptop only costs a few hundred bucks, and I bought an Asus Chromebox for my mother for only about $175. I hooked it up to her existing monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and she now happily does her web surfing, email, word processing, and spreadsheets on that simple unit. Her Google account includes 100 GB or more of storage on Google Drive, compensating for the extremely limited local storage on the Chromebox, which is used for buffering and offline access.

What is particularly nice about her using a Chromebox is that she is now virtually invulnerable to viruses and malware. Her last desktop machine, a refurbished Dell unit, was heavily infected by malware, which prompted me to consider the Chromebox as an alternative platform for her computing needs. Even if she somehow managed to get malware onto her Chromebox, which doesn’t seem likely, it is simple to wipe the system clean and start over, because all of her settings and files are always up in the cloud. That means I can access her files as needed, from Bartlesville or anywhere else, by simply logging into the appropriate service with her credentials. Since she is effectively using a web browser to do almost everything, I can see in my browser pretty much what she sees via her Chromebox, making it easy to troubleshoot and help her out with any issues. All of this is so much easier than trying to use Windows Remote Assistance to take over her computer remotely or paying for an expensive service like GoToMyPC.

Microsoft OneDrive is now quite compelling

Microsoft OneDrive is now quite compelling

Mom uses the free Microsoft OneDrive service, rather than Google Drive, for her productivity software needs. She was already using the traditional desktop versions of Word and Excel, and OneDrive gives her access to online versions of those applications, which do everything she needs, and includes a free 15 GB of storage. I’ve been paying $99/year for Dropbox for both her files and the ones generated by my father on his Windows 7 desktop machine, but they only have 4 GB of files on there. So when their Dropbox plan expires, I will just shift everything onto their free OneDrive and/or Google Drive accounts.

I’m actively using both my free school cloud-only version of Microsoft Office 365 along with home version, with its downloadable local Office 2013 applications. The service is well integrated with Windows and makes sharing PowerPoints and other documents a breeze. If I only used Word for word processing, I’d be tempted to just do everything in OneDrive and consider dropping Dropbox, but I still use WordPerfect for most of my student handouts (I greatly prefer its interface and model of word processing to that of Word), and I need to experiment to see if OneDrive would work easily with WordPerfect. Plus I like the Dropbox apps on my iPad and iPhone and the extensive integration of Dropbox with a variety of iOS apps, and I haven’t experimented to see how well OneDrive works on those platforms. Finally, Microsoft has re-branded and re-jiggered its cloud services so many times (Windows Live Folders became Windows Live Skydrive became Skydrive became OneDrive) that I want to be sure they’ve settled down into a steady and reliable mode before shifting my allegiance.

The Future

Chromebooks and Chromeboxes make more sense for schools than iPads

With our limited resources, Chromebooks and Chromeboxes make more sense for our local schools than do iPads

A Chromebox or Chromebook can do most things a student needs to do at school, so I am very glad our district is finally piloting some Chromebooks next school year. I hope we can shift to using Chromebooks and Chromeboxes in most classrooms and non-dedicated laboratories in the coming years. They would be far less expensive in capital costs and maintenance burden, although I expect we’ll still need traditional Windows machines for the business computing labs and science labs which use probeware. The biggest challenge may be training teachers to use cloud services instead of traditional desktop applications, but I expect students won’t have much trouble with that. If our district is ever going to reach the 1:1 student:computer ratio to revolutionize instruction, Chromebooks seem the best way to get there. We simply can’t afford that many iPads, and from what I’ve seen, managing iPads in the school setting can be difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating.

I'll probably eventually replace my MacBook Air with a cheap Chromebook

I’ll probably eventually replace my MacBook Air with a cheap Chromebook

As for my own personal use, I love the iPad for use around the house, but I don’t find it as useful or compelling for meetings. I no longer use my MacBook Air much, and as it ages into obsolescence I am likely to replace it with a cheap Chromebook. That would be far less expensive and the maintenance-free aspect is very compelling. I can’t imagine not having a desktop machine for my work at school and at home, but my increasing reliance on cloud services means it will be that much easier to use a Chromebook for meetings and presentations.

< Tech Transitions, Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2015 in technology

 

Tech Transitions Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing

February 19, 2015

This is the penultimate entry in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from fixed to mobile computing. Earlier posts dealt with the transition from scheduled broadcast to on-demand media and the transition from analog to digital.

BIG IRON

The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The cabinet-sized and larger mainframe computers of yesteryear earned their nickname of Big Iron. They never moved and were often tended by a priesthood of COBOL programmers. The behemoths began to shrink in the 1970s with the advent of the mini-computer, but into the late 1980s I was interacting with various University of Oklahoma’s mainframes through dumb terminals, seldom actually seeing the hulking units behind the scenes. I worked at Scholars Programs and remember when the boss switched from a dBase III database stored on a personal computer to one on a university mainframe. The mainframe could easily handle large data sets, but it was inflexible in its programming and input and output design. There was the advantage of being able to access the database from multiple terminals, but that advantage disappeared as personal computer networks arose.

The personal computer revolution had begun in the 1970s, and they were far more mobile; sometimes I would haul around what came to be called desktop systems. And It didn’t take long for laptop computers to appear, although I didn’t own one for almost 20 years after my first desktop system. We still have BIG IRON these days, but more in the form of server farms operating cloud services accessed by a variety of desktop, laptop, smart phones, and tablets.

I went mobile 30 years ago, but not with a laptop

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

I used my first desktop computer in 1978, and six years later I bought my first mobile computer for $120 ($275 in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t a laptop, but instead a souped-up calculator: the Tandy Pocket Scientific Computer PC-5, programmable in BASIC, sold by Radio Shack and a clone of a Casio machine. It only had a single-line text display, but you could program in complex computations and even some primitive games.

The TI-86

The TI-86

I used that calculator and a successor model until 1998, when I replaced them with TI-86 graphing calculators, which also had a version of BASIC. Over the years I’ve worn out three different TI-86 units and have stuck with them, despite their age, because I can’t transfer their BASIC code to newer models. I use them to do the complex calculations on student labs when I am grading, and am grateful for their portability. I have bought some newer models, but I keep going back to the old 86. In fact, as I edit this post, I just finished coding some simple BASIC code on a TI-86 I bought on eBay, since my copy of one old lab program wouldn’t migrate off a failing unit. The TI-86 is dead! Long live the TI-86!

Laptop computers

I didn’t purchase a laptop computer until 1997, finally lured into paying for the luxury of a fully capable computer when on the road and at work. A laptop computer was a requirement in my master’s degree program in 1999, and I was grateful I had already invested in that first laptop ($1,900 in 2014 dollars).

Technology always races ahead. The table below shows the progression of the various laptop machines I have purchased for myself:

Year Computer Cost Then (and in 2014 dollars) Weight RAM Storage
1997 Toshiba Satellite Pro 430CDT $1,300 ($1,900) 7.4 lb 48 MB 1.26 GB
2005 Averatec 3270-EE1 $950 ($1,150) 4.5 lb 512 MB 60 GB
2008 Asus Eee PC 1000H $464 ($510) 3.2 lb 1 GB 160 GB
2010 Apple MacBook Air $1,420 ($1,530) 2.4 lb 4 GB 128 GB

Notice the continual decline in weight and increase in RAM. Storage capacity dipped a bit at the end, but I was switching from hard drives to my first solid state drive, with a performance and price premium. My use of laptop computers actually peaked in the early 2000s because my main machine at school was a laptop computer for some time, although I almost never moved it, and my use of truly mobile laptops peaked in the late 2000s, when I was making frequent solo hiking trips and would use the laptop to process photos and post to this blog. The biggest project I ever burdened a laptop with was in the early 2010s, when I edited a bunch of video on my Apple MacBook Air to help a colleague craft a state Teacher of the Year video from multiple interviews. I was amazed at how capable the tiny computer truly was, even with a more limited processor, because of its tremendously fast solid state storage.

Smart phones

A smart phone is a leap downward in size and weight from a laptop, and I remember the excitement eight years ago, in January 2007, as I watched Steve Jobs’ justifiably famous keynote where he said Apple would be introducing a widescreen MP3 player with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device, repeating that again and again until the realization dawned that those were all aspects of a single computing device: the iPhone.

I had owned limited-function cell phones for some time, and waited until the second generation of iPhones to buy one in the summer of 2008. I’ve bought a new iPhone every two years since then:

Year iPhone Model Screen Size (diagonal inches) Storage
2008 3G 3.5″ 16 GB
2010 4G 3.5″ 32 GB
2012 5 4 64 GB
2014 6 4.7″ 128 GB

Here we see increasing storage size as well over time, but unlike my shrinking laptops, my iPhones keep getting larger screens, for which I’m grateful since that helps with my presbyopia.

Apple, of course, didn’t make the first smart phone. But its breakthrough interface and design, followed later by Google’s Android phones, helped spur a huge rise in smart phone sales. Note in the chart below how desktop sales flattened as folks adopted laptops (notebooks) and then smart phones:

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

The use of smart phones continued to grow until they dominated other cell phones types by 2013:

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

I’m in good company in my preference for Apple’s iPhone, and its market penetration is remarkable. Consider that only a few models of iPhone rank right up there with countless models of Android phones:

Smart phone operating systems

Smart phone operating systems

And though we see the typical generational differences in smart phone use, notice how all age groups are rapidly adopting them:

Smart phone ownership by age group

Smart phone ownership by age group

Tablets

But these days my most frequent mobile computer use might well be my iPad tablet computer. After my first iPhones, I was increasingly interested in a large-screen version of a similar device. But the devices on sale were too limited and I longed for Apple to step into that market. When they finally did that in 2010, I immediately sold off a bunch of old media to get the funds to buy the first version of the iPad. I later bought an iPad 2, then a 3rd generation iPad, and now use that 3rd generation model at school while at home I use an iPad Air 2. Over the generations, the screen size has remained stable at 9.7 inches, with me eschewing the iPad Mini’s 7.9 inch screen when that series of tablets launched in 2012.

Tablet computers have taken the public by storm; in only three years the percentage of U.S. adults who owned a tablet computer shot up from 3% to 34%:

Tablet Ownership

Tablet Ownership

Worldwide, smart phone adoption is still surging ahead, while the more expensive tablets are unstandably less popular but still growing at an admirable pace, while the traditional personal computers, a category lumping together desktops and laptops, is in decline:

Computing device sales in the early 2010s

Computing device sales in the early 2010s

vector.jpg

My desktop computer is 5 years old and still going strong

The very nature of mobile computing, with greater device wear and tear, means I replace my mobile devices more frequently than my desktop or laptop. At this writing, I’ve owned my latest tablet for about a month, and while my phone is only 6 months old, my MacBook Air laptop is over four years old, and my Windows desktop is over five years old. In fact, while I’ve owned my current desktop I’ve bought four generations of tablet computers and three generations of smart phones. And my desktop computer, enhanced with a huge solid state disk and after a power supply repair, is still going strong and shows no need for replacement.

Due to the nature of my work and my photography and website development hobbies, I will need both desktop and laptop computers for the foreseeable future, but I can see why some people can make do with just an iPad or even just a smart phone. I’m more skeptical, however, or wearable computers such as the “smart watches” now appearing on the scene. First there was the Pebble, then various Android Wear devices, and next month we can expect the Apple Watch to go on sale. I don’t have sufficient income to justify buying a smart watch that will be obsolete in a couple of years; I already spend quite enough on regular replacements of my iPhone, iPad, and Kindle devices. But it will be interesting to see people putting the new smart watches to use. Back in 2004, a student’s iPod convinced me to purchase one, and I never regretted that decision. We shall see if and when I succumb to replacing my trusty old Timex with something smarter.

The final entry in this series on technology transitions addresses the transition from local storage to the cloud.

Tech Transitions, Part 4: Heading into the Cloud >

< Tech Transitions, Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to On-Demand Media

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in technology

 

Tech Transitions Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to on-Demand Media

February 6, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from broadcast to on-demand media. Here’s the earlier post on the transition from analog to digital.

Cutting Cable TV

Tools to Cut Cable TV

Tools I use to cut cable TV

I gave up on cable television back in 2008 and now stream most video on-demand, catching only snippets of news and the occasional PBS show in broadcast HDTV via my chimney-mounted antenna. Folks are catching up, with video on-demand streaming growing over 49% in 2014, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

Most of the streaming video I watch consists of technology podcasts and NPR audio, plus the occasional movie I’ll rent for Wendy and me. I used Netflix DVDs and Blu-Rays for years, and still have a one-disc-at-a-time account with them so I can get movies not available for streaming and enjoy Blu-Rays which have commentaries and other features the streaming services still omit. I have used Netflix’s streaming service some, but limited selection and hiccups back when I had a slower connection (buffering…) led me to prefer pre-downloading movies from Amazon onto my venerable Tivo HD.

My old Tivo HD

My old Tivo HD

That old Tivo is starting to show its age; it now crashes every week or so, forcing me to pull and re-insert the power plug and wait a long time for it to reboot to get it to work. I have a very large hard drive attached to it to boost its storage capacity, and when I have some time I might tease out the right cables from the tangle behind the console and yank that drive off there to see if that helps. I seldom watch recorded shows anymore, so I won’t mind the loss of capacity. When the Tivo finally dies, I doubt I will replace it. If I watched television regularly, however, I’d be happy that my cable service has gone to Tivo set-up boxes with their ability to easily record, pause, and fast-forward.

Amazon's Fire TV Stick from late 2014

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick from late 2014

The aging Tivo and a balky old Apple TV led me to purchase an Amazon Fire TV Stick (normally $39, but I did a pre-order special for $19). I’ve had a Google Chromecast stick for some time, but I threw it in my travel bag, thinking I might use it on the road. Hotel internet portals made that too difficult, and I haven’t used the Chromecast more than a couple of times. I should get it out and try to use it more, comparing its performance to the Amazon stick. Amazon’s stick is quite responsive and has been streaming movies without a hitch; it also has apps to let me listen to the music I’ve bought from Amazon, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and more. The Chromecast can likely do similar things and would support whatever music I have from Google Play, but I keep and manage all of my music in iTunes. I’ve bought quite a bit of music from Amazon over the years, set to auto-import into iTunes, so having access to those songs on the Amazon Fire stick is nice.

My Apple TVs

My Apple TVs

As for the balky Apple TV, longtime readers may recall that I bought an original Apple TV back in 2007 and have been using a 2nd-generation unit since 2011. I still use it to sling video from my iPad or iPhone to the TV via the AirPlay service, and I sometime shuffle music off my desktop computer’s iTunes music library, but anymore I watch most podcasts on the iPad, and the Apple TV interface is dated and slow compared to the Amazon one. Far worse, for several months my Apple TV has begun rebooting after I start playing something. It works fine after the reboot until another session on another day, but it is a real pain to start playing something, have the unit crash and reboot, and then have to re-select what I was playing. It wasn’t worthwhile to upgrade to their 3rd-generation 2012 unit, and Apple is long overdue for an update to this product, presumably with a new interface and more support for games and apps. I’m not sure I’ll upgrade, especially if I can figure out an easy and cheap way to access my computer’s iTunes library via my Fire TV Stick or the Chromecast. I don’t want to export my huge music library to Amazon and then pay $25/year for their cloud music service for access via the Fire TV Stick since I already pay $25/year for Apple’s iTunes Match. I presume Google has a similar plan, but I’d prefer just to stream files over my home network than the internet. I may read up on on the features of the latest Roku, which is still the most popular streaming video and apps unit in the U.S., as shown below.

U.S. Market Shares for Streaming Media Devices

U.S. Market Shares for Streaming Media Devices

Still purchasing, not streaming, my audio

I’ve been buying MP3 files for years, and completely transitioned to the format back in 2010, selling over 350 CDs after making sure all of them were ripped into MP3s in my iTunes library. MP3 killed the CD, and now streaming audio is eating into MP3 sales. Comparing 2013 to 2014, album sales were down almost 15% for CDs, but after years of growth, digital album sales dropped over 9%, and digital track sales dipped about 13%. Vinyl albums actually surged 52%, but comprised less than 4% of album sales. On-demand audio streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are surging, with over 60% growth in 2014 from the prior year. Over 164 billion songs were streamed on-demand through audio and video platforms in the U.S. in 2014.

The chart below shows streaming audio services revenues as the brown-hued bases of each column, CD sales in red, vinyl that little greenish wedge in the middle, and MP3 album and single sales the purplish tops, capped off by Synchronization.

audiosales

Falling MP3 sales over the past two years worries artists, labels, and sellers like Apple, Google, and Amazon: the profit margin on CDs is larger than on MP3s and the profit margin on streaming audio is even less. The switch from MP3 purchases to streaming had led Apple to respond with iTunes Radio and by buying Beats for its streaming service. Meanwhile, streaming services like Spotify are booming, but not generating the desired profits.

I would certainly discover more new music if I used Pandora or tried Spotify or other streaming services, but that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me when I can instead readily access my collection of over 13,800 digital audio file via iTunes on my iPhone 6, iPad Air 2, or the 2nd Generation Apple TV. My 2014 Camry makes playing MP3 files from my iPhone in the car relatively easy via its wireless Bluetooth connection and convenient controls on the steering wheel, although voice control with the car’s own system is hopeless and the phone’s Siri voice assistant is better but still too frustrating.

I have set up a Pandora account I’ve used a few times, and I’ve sampled iTunes Radio a couple of times. But when I’m planning at work I won’t use streaming services, since that is not a proper use of the school’s bandwidth or service, and my cellular data plan couldn’t afford it. At home I’m usually busy with other things and just set my music collection to random play; I’m so busy and focused that I am reluctant to use Pandora or Spotify or iTunes Radio, fearing that random unlikable songs mixed in with a few catchy new ones might be too distracting, rather than just a pleasing musical background for my work.

When I do somehow stumble onto a new song I like or someone recommends a tune, I am more likely to play it via YouTube or an iTunes sample and then, if I like it, purchase the MP3 from iTunes or Amazon. I’m just not into the radio-play model anymore, either broadcast or streaming. My new Camry came with a trial subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio with a plethora of channels, but it was like cable TV to me: too many choices to navigate and all pretty mediocre. So I seldom listened to it and did not explore its many stations much, allowing the subscription to expire at the end of the trial period. Sirius XM has hounded me ever since via email, snail mail, and, worst of all, annoying cell phone calls. I guess they got my number through the car dealer. Such jerks! I would never recommend them even if I liked their service. So in the end, I listen to NPR on the radio, not music stations, and I stream podcasts, not music, with my mobile devices.

What next?

When school work is less hectic, I’ll experiment more with the Google Chromecast to compare its capabilities and performance with my Amazon Fire TV stick. I find myself relying more upon Amazon for on-demand video than anything else, and I’ll still buy occasional Blu-Ray discs if the film is superb and the disc includes great commentaries and features like the wonderful Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. As for music, I’m so deeply invested in Apple’s iTunes that I’m reluctant to bother with Amazon or Google’s competing services.

My next post in this irregularly scheduled series on technology transitions tackles the shift from fixed to mobile computing.

Tech Transitions Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing >

Tech Transitions Part 1: Analog to Digital

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in music, technology

 

Tech Transitions Part 1: Analog to Digital

January 17, 2015

My experience is that my habits lag, sometimes considerably, behind the relentless improvements in technology in which I am immersed. As one of the the long-time experts in computer technology in my school district, I provide a great deal of support for teachers transitioning to new ways of doing business. Yet it is not surprising that younger generations who grow up with a new technology embrace it more quickly than those of us who already have built our lives around older models of productivity and entertainment. I am starting a series of posts to outline my progression through technology transitions, comparing that to general trends. This is the first of a projected four posts: analog to digital, broadcast to on-demand media, fixed to mobile computing, and local storage to cloud. Here I’ll look at my analog to digital transitions in video, audio, reading, and recordkeeping.

Video: VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray (and later the cloud)

Physical media for home video

Physical media for home video

I witnessed the videotape format war in analog home video back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sony’s Betamax eventually lost the battle with the inferior but more popular VHS videotape format: being better and first is no guarantee of success. I backed the winning side in that war, but only because by the time I could afford a player, Betamax was clearly the loser. (Almost 30 years later, Sony would win the high-definition optical disc format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD; I wasn’t so lucky in that conflict, investing first in a HD-DVD player and several discs, but then having to switch to Blu-ray.)

In the early 1980s, I was in high school and started college, and home video players were still too expensive for me to purchase. Instead, I would go to a video store and rent both the player and the movie. Since I had no credit yet, I’d have to put down a deposit of several hundred dollars for the player, but it seemed magical to be able to watch any of dozens of movies after growing up with only broadcast television and eventually cable TV.

I still use Kereluk's videotapes

I still use Kereluk’s videotapes

That history of renting the technology, plus the low quality of VHS recordings, meant that I seldom purchased analog videotapes. But, after I could afford a home player/recorder, I did record a few shows off broadcast and cable television. I still have a number of those tapes, and I still play an analog videotape most weekday mornings! In 1993 I began doing aerobics in the morning with Cynthia Kereluk’s Everyday Workout show, and over the next four years I filled up 13 tapes with extended-play recordings of it. I’ve been doing those 130+ workouts for over 20 years now, cycling through the tapes, hitting PLAY to work along with a tape each morning for another installment. I’m surprised all of the tapes have lasted this long, and Wendy, my sweet girlfriend, painstakingly converted all of them into digital movies for me so that I could have them even after the tapes wear out.

Now, why in the world don’t I give up on those decades-old tapes? Newer isn’t always more convenient. Having those shows on optical disc would require that I remember which episode I’d just completed, since my Blu-ray player will only remember where I left off on a disc under certain conditions. Watching them via my Apple TV or some other connection to my networked storage would require thumbing through episode listings to find the next recording. I don’t want to hassle with that when, with the old analog tape, I can always start right where I left off by just re-starting the 10-episode tape; the only inconvenience is having to rewind the tape after 10 shows and switch to the next tape on the shelf.

Video format changes from 1998 to 2008

Video format changes from 1998 to 2008

The above graph shows how the transition from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray went in the 2000s. The lower bar chart shows how video-on-demand, both downloaded and streaming, has skyrocketed in the 2010s, but it generates less revenue for the industry than physical media. Analog video is now completely dead as a revenue source, but physical media still provide the bulk of the U.S. home entertainment industry’s revenue in our country. I’ll analyze this issue in more detail in my next post in this series, the one on broadcast vs. on-demand technologies. On the home front, I still buy or rent some Blu-ray discs to access director commentaries and special features, but many of the movies Wendy and I watch are downloaded or streamed.

Home Video Revenue, 2006 to 2013

Home Video Revenue, 2006 to 2013

 

Audio: Vinyl and tape to MP3 (and later streaming)

Analog and digital audio media

Analog and digital audio media I once used

In junior high and high school I amassed a collection analog audio recordings, with dozens of 45 rpm singles and 33 1/3 LPs on vinyl. I even had a few awful 8-track tapes (shudder). Then digital compact discs came along. My transition from analog to digital music dates back to the late 1980s, about 20 years ahead of my transition from analog to digital home video. I remember a Christmas party at my house back in the mid-1990s when students commented on my “large” CD collection of about 40 discs. That would eventually grow almost ten times larger, filling up wall cabinets in my living room. In my cars, digital also replaced analog. I once had some big cases in my cars, filled with cassette tapes, and made and shared mix tapes with girlfriends. However, I never used a portable cassette player much.

All of that changed ten years ago when I bought my first iPod for $500. It was an amazing device, allowing me to quickly access any of a thousand songs, anywhere. One of the happiest moments of my life was a hike on a glacier on Mt. Rainier in Washington State, skipping along to Hanson’s bouncy and infectious MMMBop from 1997. That 2004 iPod was quickly succeeded by iPod Nanos in 2005 and 2007, and then a biennial series of iPhones beginning in 2008.

The iPod led me to eventually abandon CDs for the MP3 digital file format. Ripping my CDs and buying MP3 led to a collection of almost 14,000 MP3 files in my iTunes library by the end of 2014, having finished my complete transition to the format back in 2010 when I sold off over 350 CDs to fund the purchase of my first iPad tablet.

Below we see how the rest of the country also shifted from analog to digital music before 2010, with plummeting revenues as CDs gave way to lower-paying downloaded MP3s.

Music revenue sources, 1973-2009

Music revenue sources, 1973-2009

Album sales also declined, with a tremendous rise in lower-revenue digital singles in the 2000s:

Albums give way to singles

Albums give way to singles

I’ll close this section with a summary of music revenue over the past three decades, where we see the industry still heavily reliant on CD sales, even at this late stage, with digital downloads comprising the biggest portion of revenue. But, as I’ll show in more detail in a later post, digital downloads declined for the first time in 2014 as on-demand streaming continued to grow. Vinyl record sales have surged in recent years, thanks to hipsters, but they are the smallest fraction of total revenue.

Music revenue, 1973-2013

Music revenue, 1973-2013

 

Reading: Magazines, Newspapers, and Books to Internet Tablet and e-Reader

I have always been an avid reader. Back in 2010 I also sold off about 1/5 of my roughly 1,000 books, but I still have two-dozen shelves of previously-read books in my home office, with two more shelves of books I’ve purchased but not managed to read. And that is just my remaining analog collection. I bought the first Amazon Kindle e-Reader back in 2008 and have purchased and enjoyed four more of the electronic-ink units since then, and am currently paying off my latest Kindle Voyage. I have bought over 250 electronic books for my Kindles since 2008.

My early Kindles generated more comment when I was out and about than any device I’ve ever owned. Tablets like the iPad have somewhat more market penetration than e-readers, but electronic ink is still easier on your eyes for long-term reading, and much more readable outdoors. Sales of electronic books are projected to keep rising, but print books will still be dominant for years to come.

The dominance of print books continues in our own school. As we prepare to finally adopt new science textbooks in Oklahoma after a disgraceful nine-year wait, I wish our district could transition to electronic textbooks, but we lack the funding to supply each student with a device. I certainly look forward to the day when backpacks and sling bags loaded down with heavy textbooks are a thing of the past, especially since I use textbooks only sparingly in my own teaching.

Book revenues by format

Book revenues by format

I'm reading far fewer books these days

I’m reading far fewer books these days

Since 2008 I’ve read over 250 Kindle books and uncounted additional print ones, and from 2009 to 2012 I listened to dozens of audiobooks on my day hikes. But in the past three years, my personal book reading has fallen off sharply while my audiobook listening has stopped completely. Part of that is my increasing use of a tablet to read online articles along with my decision to subscribe (and later this year, probably unsubscribe) to the print edition of The New Yorker magazine. A heavy workload has also taken away much of my evening leisure time this school year. But the biggest reason for the decline in my book reading in the past few years, and also why I’ve stopped listening to audiobooks, is the welcome change of dating Wendy. On the weekends, we spend a lot of time together at home and out on the road, so I don’t need audiobooks to keep me entertained when I travel, and naturally I’d rather spend my limited leisure time with Wendy than with my Kindle.

Most of my reading these days is news via my iPad, with a morning ritual of reading the Tulsa World along with top stories from USA Today and Bartlesville Radio. I should read the local Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise in the same way, but haven’t made that transition from analog to digital yet, and I’m paying for it. As my reading habits have shifted to virtual and digital media, stacks of unread newspapers have repeatedly built up in my dining room. I’ve tried to switch to digital-only on the E-E, but was told I had to make a phone call to an out-of-town service to make a complete switchover. Having to do that via a voice call seems rather ironic and calls into question the sophistication of their digital provider, but I need to get that done before I drown in newsprint. I like the local news the paper affords me…but what do I call it when it is no longer on paper? Hmmmm…

I'm down to two print magazines

I’m down to two print magazines

As for printed media other than books, I read two weekly print magazines: Time and The New Yorker. I’ve subscribed to Time for almost 30 years, while I’ve only taken The New Yorker for a few years. Too many editions of the latter pile up, unread, despite my love for their higher-level long-form articles. So I’ll probably let that subscription lapse, hoping to spend more time with books.

Recordkeeping: Checkbooks to Spreadsheets, Paper Bills to Online, and Analog vs. Digital Gradebooks

Analog vs. digital checkbook registers

Analog vs. digital checkbook registers

I’ve kept an Excel spreadsheet of my monthly household finances for 30 years, tracking all of my bills, spending, and income. But, out of habit, I have always kept paper checking and savings account registers to help me manage my budget. I did start using my bank’s iPhone app last year, and that lets me review transactions and conduct transfers more quickly than through their website, and now I can even deposit checks by taking a photograph of them with the phone. For 2015 I’m going to try making a complete switch to digital bookkeeping by using an online spreadsheet to track my checking account. Up until now, the paper registers were more convenient since they were always handy, not requiring me to sit down at my desktop computer and fire up an Excel spreadsheet. But now I can use Google Drive or Excel on mobile devices. Since I have a personal Microsoft Office 365 subscription which lets me use Office on up to five computers, five tablets, and five phones, I’ve finally switched to using an Excel spreadsheet for my account registers.

The ecological argument for paperless billing

The ecological argument for paperless billing

I’ve had direct deposit for years, and some time ago our district finally stopped issuing paper checks and paystubs in a cost-cutting move. My own cost-cutting move was to switch to electronic bank statements since the bank started charging for paper ones. That has worked out okay, so as part of my accounting modernization, I’ve also finally given up on paper utility bills. That’s a huge change for me, since I really didn’t care about the ecological cost of paper billing, and I haven’t seen any companies passing the savings from paperless billing directly to participating customers. My bank, you’ll notice, used a stick, instead of a carrot, to get me to switch. Up until last year, I had a copy of every utility bill I’d ever received, a pointless collection of paper that I finally culled, prompted in part by the derision of my more modern girlfriend. Now I’ve signed up for paperless billing for almost all of my utilities, which should be fine since I’ve had everything on automatic payment plans for decade. The only holdout is the city, since I couldn’t find online a way to switch to paperless billing with them, even though my payments to them are already automated.

Again, Wendy’s all-digital bookkeeping helped prompt my move, although I’ve refused to give up the paper credit card bill nor paying that bill via old-fashioned checks. Keeping my card fully paid off is a point of pride for me, and I need to see how well I do at keeping up with paperless utility billing before I consider any changes on the credit card, which is not set up for automatic payments. Looks like about 1/4 of bills and statements nationwide are now paperless:

Paperless billing trend nationwide

Paperless billing trend nationwide

Why are bills and account registers some of the last things I’ve switched to digital formats? First, because an oversight or mistake can have costly consequences, I’ve been reluctant to alter tried-and-true habits. Second, because the digital formats were slightly less convenient. Paper bills have been physical reminders to keep up with my accounts, and the paper register was instantly accessible and editable, even though it required use of an old desktop calculator. Hopefully emailed reminders and the accessibility of spreadsheets on mobile devices, with instant retention of changes to the cloud and automated calculations, will make the switch worthwhile. I would hope the utilities would just email me a statement as an attachment, but more likely I’ll have to login to each service and click things to see the statements, which will a pain. The username/password system used across services is a dumb model which we desperately need to update with biometrics and other simplifying measures.

My analog vs. digital gradebooks

My analog vs. digital gradebooks

On the work front, I link to online digital versions of all of my assignments for students who lose a paper, but I still hand out and grade only paper copies of assignments. That won’t change until our school eventually provides students with computing devices.

I’m also still very analog when it comes to classroom record-keeping. I’m no Luddite on this issue: I like the feedback our online gradebook provides to students and parents, and I do take full advantage of its flags, comments, assignment links, reports, and so forth. Few of my fellow teachers have all of their assignments digitized with links already set up in a digital library in the gradebook; I create the district’s user manual for online gradebook, have provided trainings on its use, and gradebook questions in the district are often routed to me. So colleagues are shocked when I reveal that I still keep a paper gradebook. Why in the world would I do that?

I maintain a paper gradebook for three reasons. First, I am a stickler for tracking attendance and tardies, and the PowerTeacher program at school isn’t designed to help me keep close track of that at a glance during my hectic class time. Second, I hate scrolling up and down or mousing about in a digital gradebook to put in grades. So after I grade a set of papers, which I sort by the seating chart since lab groups sit together in my room, I manually write the grades into my paper gradebook. That lets me quickly type them into PowerTeacher using a numerical keypad. Finally, I like having an analog copy of the gradebook so that I never have to print nor save a digital copy of the gradebook in case of a database disaster or data breach; I always have that analog copy on hand just in case.

A Bonus Entry – Photography: Film to Files

I gave up on film photography back in 2000, as detailed in my All My Cameras history.

Assessing My Analog-to-Digital Transition

Video: Still playing daily workouts in analog format, but otherwise fully digital for many years; currently a mix of physical media, digital files, and streaming services

Audio: Completely digital by 1994; no physical media as of 2010

Reading: Printed books still preferable for some visuals, but whenever feasible I prefer a Kindle e-book; most of my reading is digital format on an e-reader, tablet, phone, or computer and soon I’ll be down to only one printed magazine and no printed newspapers

Recordkeeping: 2015 is my transition to almost entirely digital and online accounting, but classwork is still analog and I use both analog and digital grading records

Photography: Entirely digital since 2000

Will all of these areas go completely digital? Even highly visual printed books may eventually give way to high-resolution mobile screens. In my next post in this series I tackle another technology transition: broadcast to on-demand media.

Tech Transitions Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to On-Demand Media >

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2015 in books, education, music, technology, video

 

Going Solid State

August 17, 2014
Tubes gave way to solid state

Tubes gave way to solid state

When I was a small child, I would climb up onto the top of the black-and-white television in our living room. It was warm up there, and I would peer through the vents down into the television. Its innards were lit by the dim glow of vacuum tubes. I figured out those tubes were part of the reason why there was a long delay between turning on the set and getting a picture or sound; until they began to glow red hot, Mr. Magoo would not appear. Eventually I would clamber down and sprawl on the floor to watch the flickering gray images. I also remember being bewildered by that stupid lying NBC peacock, which would spread its feathers and proclaim the next show would be in living color…it never was.

My parents finally bought a Zenith color television around 1973, an emblem on its front proclaiming it as SOLID STATE. I wasn’t sure what that meant, except that the warm glow of the tubes was gone and the picture and sound came on very quickly. The peacock was proud and colorful.

Solid state circuits with transistors revolutionized electronics, and now solid state drives are changing local storage on our computers.

Hard disks vs. solid state drives

For decades we’ve relied upon the incredible hard disk drive first introduced by IBM in the 1950s. For years every decent personal computer had one or more of these spinning drives, with their steadily increasing capacity and decreasing cost, as I outlined in my previous post. But in 2010 I bought a laptop computer with no hard drive, a second-generation MacBook Air. I knew its 128 GB solid state drive meant it would boot up very quickly and perform admirably despite its somewhat dated microprocessor, but I was still startled by the performance increase it gained by dispensing with an electromechanical hard disk.

Solid state drives are now commonplace in our smartphones, tablets, and some laptop computers. But it has taken much longer for them to creep into our desktop systems because the old hard disks have so much more capacity and are far cheaper. I finally took the plunge this month of buying a one-terabyte solid state drive for my five-year-old desktop computer, and this post is about my experience of installing and using it.

Cleaning up my system

I debated doing a fresh installation of Windows 7 on the new solid state drive and then re-installing, one-by-one, the various applications I use on my desktop machine. That would clear a lot of cruft from the computer and its registry, but it would mean a lengthy process of locating, re-downloading, and re-installing software packages. Back when everything came on an optical disc, re-installations were fairly straightforward, but now many of my applications are downloaded from the web and I’d have to find download links and locate emails with their registration keys to get them back up and running.

That was too big a hassle for me, but I also wanted to make the image of my existing disk as clean as possible before cloning it onto the new drive. So I used Control Panel > Programs and Features to list the dozens of applications on my system and began working my way through them, uninstalling anything I thought I would not use. Over its five years of use, I have installed on my desktop machine many different video and photo editing applications and accumulated various utilities I needed once or twice and then never again. In the end, I wound up uninstalling over 40 different programs. After a reboot to ensure clean-up from the uninstalled programs, I was ready to install my new solid state drive.

My Crucial M550

My new solid state drive and installation kit

My new solid state drive and installation kit

I had ordered a Crucial M550 one-terabyte drive with a SATA interface from Amazon for $432. I also purchased a $24 desktop installation kit which provided a SATA cable to connect the drive to the computer’s motherboard, an adapter bracket to fit the laptop-sized 2.5″ wide drive into a desktop’s 3.5″ bay, and Acronis TrueImage HD software to help me migrate my system from my one-terabyte hard disk to the solid state drive.

Thankfully Windows 7 is new enough to know how to handle a solid state drive; if a new drive had meant moving to Windows 8, I would have refused. I hated Windows 8 when I previewed it back in the spring of 2012 and the few times I’ve used it since have convinced me to stick with Windows 7. I won’t get a new desktop computer until after the successor to Windows 8 is released; I often skip versions of Windows and have never regretted it.

Installing the new drive

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

I unplugged the power and all peripherals from my CPU and opened it up. I had two one-terabyte hard disks; one was the primary drive and the other for backup. Both were connected to SATA ports on the motherboard and to power cables from the power supply.

Four screws that came with my installation kit secured the tiny solid state drive into the wider adapter bracket. The drive is only 7 millimeters thick, which makes sense for a laptop computer, but looks comically thin compared to my system’s hard disks. The bracket then was supposed to be secured in a drive bay by four more screws that came with the kit. But my bay is not easily accessed on one side, so I was only able to easily screw in three of the four screws. It seemed sturdy enough, and solid state drives are much less susceptible than a hard disk to vibration damage.

The new drive installed in my computer

The new drive installed in my computer

Next I hooked one end of the keyed SATA cable which came with the installation kit to the new drive. The other end keyed into an empty port on the motherboard. I found an unused SATA power cord coming out of the power supply and hooked that in. With that, the hardware installation was complete. It was time to tackle the software side of things.

I needed to clone my boot hard disk to the new drive, tell the computer to start booting from the new drive instead of the old hard disk, and then tweak some Windows settings to help prolong the life of my solid state drive.

Cloning my disk

I closed up the computer and hooked everything back in. I flipped on the power and inserted into the optical drive the Acronis TrueImage HD disc from the installation kit. I was fast enough that the machine booted up in Acronis instead of Windows.

The Acronis software listed the new solid state drive and both of my hard disks. I instructed it to clone the boot hard disk C: over to the new solid state drive, which it had labelled as F:. It took 2.33 hours for the 772 GB of data on the hard disk to be copied over to the new solid state drive. I then exited Acronis and the machine rebooted.

Changing the boot settings in the BIOS

Pressing the DEL key repeatedly as it booted up interrupted the boot sequence to bring up the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) menu where one sets boot options and the like. I changed the boot sequence to first try to boot from the CD/DVD drive, then each of the four USB flash drive slots on the front of the computer. This would allow me to easily bypass Windows if I needed to use a disaster recovery disk or a utility like Acronis. Next in the boot sequence came the new solid state drive, then the hard disk I had been booting Windows on, and finally the hard disk I was using for easy in-the-computer-case backups. (Yes, I also periodically make backups to a portable hard disk which I store off-site.) I saved the settings and exited the BIOS, and hoped that Windows would come up on the new drive.

It worked like a charm, with Windows 7 Home Premium booting up much faster than I’d ever seen before on my machine. I checked in Windows Explorer and verified that I had booted from the solid state drive; it was shown as drive C: while my backup hard disk was now drive E: and the hard disk I had been booting from previously was listed as drive F: (the optical drive is drive D:).

Making sure Windows 7 is being SSD-friendly

I’d noticed that Windows had installed some device drivers when it booted up, and one was for the new solid state drive. I hoped that meant Windows had been told to no longer try to defragment the boot drive and to use TRIM. Hard disks can be defragmented every so often to consolidate files spread out across the disk and speed up the disk’s performance; this was much more important in the old days than it is today with our enormous hard drives. But you should NOT defragment a solid state drive, since the resulting reads and writes simply waste rewrite cycles of the memory without improving performance to any meaningful degree. TRIM should also be enabled on a solid state drive; this changes how deleted files are handled to help preserve the usable life of the drive.

An article at Lifehacker helped me check that TRIM was enabled (it already was) and that defragmentation was disabled on the solid state drive. Older articles had urged disabling the SuperFetch service, relocating the Windows Page file to a hard disk, and the like. Other articles said those changes were not all that important, but I did them anyway, including implementing some more tips from ghacks.net.

The results

The new drive dramatically improved the boot process on my machine, which had become very slow and tedious with the hard disk maxing out as Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox and other services did their thing. Here’s a comparison:

Boot item Time after boot from hard disk (minutes:seconds) Time after boot from solid state drive (minutes:seconds)
“Starting Windows” screen 0:26 0:26
Windows password prompt 1:15 0:46
Desktop background appears 2:06 0:53
Desktop icons first appear 2:37 0:53
Windows logon sound 2:38 0:53
Desktop icons fill back in 4:20 1:02
Networking icon shows ready (most start-up services running) 6:40 1:08
Dropbox shows ready 16+ 2:08

As you can see, it was taking forever for my machine to fully boot up – a major reason why I invested in the solid state drive. For years I’ve examined the disk activity via Windows Resource Monitor and seen how processes associated with Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox, and sometimes the disk indexing service and iTunes, were maxing out my hard disk’s throughput.

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

I had used various online tips over the years to tweak various services and settings, but they didn’t help much. Eventually things would settle down, but sometimes that would take 15 to 20 minutes, during which time my system was very sluggish. So I almost never rebooted my machine, and dreaded when a security update or the like would force me to reboot.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The two graphs at right illustrate how much nicer things are with my solid state drive. On the left is a graph of hard disk use 19 minutes after a recent boot-up, when the hard disk finally settled down, transitioning back to more normal behavior after continually reading data as fast as it could. The right graph shows the solid state drive’s use less than 3 minutes after boot up; notice the change in the scale of the y-axis: the drive has already read all that was needed for the various services and is just doing minimal background tasks.

So thus far I’m extremely pleased with this upgrade. It will make booting and using my five-year-old machine much more enjoyable and hopefully allow me to stretch its useful life out for a few more years.

I have some nostalgia for that old tube television from my childhood; I remember the glow of the vacuum tubes, the comforting heat they generated, and the smell of hot dust as the television warmed up. But I will never be fond of my memories of the interminable boot times and sluggishness of my desktop computer before I installed the solid state drive. In this case, I’ve gone solid state and won’t look back.

UPDATE: One of my students this year told me that I needed a SATA III port to get the most of out of drive. My 2009 motherboard only has SATA II ports, which have less throughput. So eventually I might invest in a SATA III PCIe card. That would improve throughput even more, although still not reaching the level available on a motherboard-based SATA III port.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in technology

 

Slimming Down Before Speeding Up

August 17, 2014
Decades of data

Decades of data devices

I’ve been working with personal computers for over 35 years, so I’ve endured seven types of long-term computer data recording and storage:

  1. cassette tapes
  2. floppy disks
  3. hard drives
  4. ZIP drives
  5. tape drives
  6. optical discs
  7. solid state

Each had its pros and cons, and this post was prompted by my plan for another transition in primary storage: switching my five-year-old desktop computer from hard drives to a solid state drive. But first let’s revisit past transitions.

Cassette tape to floppy disk

My first computer was from Radio Shack: a 1980 TRS-80 Color Computer with 32 kB of RAM. It used a cassette tape to store and retrieve programs. At 1500 baud, the data transfer rate was about 4 million times slower than the transfer rate of the new solid state drive I’m planning to install in my current desktop computer. So it took a long time to record or load even the tiny programs of that era, and sometimes a cassette load would fail, meaning I had to fiddle with the volume on the tape player and try again.

My CoCo used cassettes

My CoCo used cassettes

The same technology was available for my 1983 Tandy Color Computer 2, but I convinced my parents to invest in a series of 5.25″ floppy disk drives to improve data capacity and transfer rate. The first drive was made by Radio Shack and the single-sided floppy would hold about 140 kB of data after formatting, which is about 7 million times less storage than my new solid state drive. I learned I could save money by cutting a notch in a floppy disk’s outer jacket and flipping it over to use the other side in the drive. Later I upgraded to a couple of double-sided drives for almost a half-megabyte of readily accessible storage.

First floppies

First floppies

Floppy disk to hard disk

My first hard drive was 10 megabytes in my Tandy Model 2000

My first hard drive was 10 megabytes in my Tandy Model 2000

The first time I remember using a hard disk drive was in the summer of 1985. I was working at the Oklahoma Department of Tourism at the state capitol as a minimum-wage office assistant. At one point I was plunked down in front of an old dedicated Wang word processor terminal. Next to me was a noisy 10-megabyte hard drive about the size of an apartment-size washing machine. But that was a government office, so the technology in use was already obsolete. Hard drives were making their way into personal computers, and I would add a couple of them to my next personal computer.

My 1985 Tandy Model 2000 started out with two 720 kB floppy disk drives, but later I spent $1,700 to add an internal 10-megabyte hard drive to it. Compare that cost of $170 per megabyte, in 1980s dollars, to the 0.043 cents per megabyte I paid for my new solid state storage, or better yet the 0.0057 cents per megabyte I paid for my latest 2 TB portable hard drive.

That was the beginning of an uncounted chain of hard drives I have owned, in capacities leaping from that initial 10 megabytes up to 2 terabytes, a 200,000-fold increase in capacity. Data transfer rates improved over time, with the 1-terabyte hard drives in my latest desktop computer, spinning at 7200 rev/min, reaching as high as 142 MB/s. But the solid state drive I plan to install should at least triple that transfer rate.

Backups of all sorts

The ZIP Drive

The ZIP Drive

Hard drives are great, but their inevitable mechanical failures mean you have to make regular backup copies of the data. The floppy drive was the basis for my portable storage and backup for years, first with 5.25″ floppy disks ranging from 140 kB to 1.2 MB of capacity. Hard drive backups on those floppies were a real pain, with me having to repeatedly swap dozens of 5.25″ disks to make a backup. Eventually hard-shell 3.5″ floppy disks took over, but their typical capacity was only 1.44 MB.

The nightmare of disk swapping led me to the ZIP 100 drive, a specialized floppy disk system which could hold an amazing 100 MB of data. I later upgraded to a 250 MB ZIP drive system. But hard drive capacities were rising so fast that it still took a lot of swapping of expensive ZIP disks to back up my computer.

Tape Backup

Tape Backup

So I went back to the beginning: using magnetic tape for storage. Tape backup cartridges had immense capacity and were much faster than my pitiful old cassettes from the early 1980s, with gigabytes of storage possible on specialized units like the Ditto Easy 3200. I could pop in a tape and let it run unattended during a long backup. But tape backup was noisy and sequential. It took a long time to recover just a file or two from a tape backup, and I always worried about a faulty backup recording or broken tape.

For awhile I used recordable optical CD and DVD disks to backup some data, but they were slow, and my recordable DVDs topped out at 4.7 GB. With my hard drives reaching tens of gigabytes by the 2000s, I needed something easier and faster.

Hard drives can backup hard drives

Hard drives can backup hard drives

So I switched to the kind of backups I’ve been doing for over a decade: backing up my primary fixed hard drives with portable hard drives. I still have my first portable hard drive, a 30 GB Backpack unit. Later I used 80 GB, then 120 GB, and finally 1 and 2 TB portable drives for backups.

And for years I relied upon dual hard drives in my desktop machines in a RAID 1 configuration where one drive was constantly mirroring the other. That way when one failed, the other could take over without a hiccup. Well, that was the theory. While my RAID 1 drives did indeed prevent any data loss when one failed, sometimes it took a lot of work and head-scratching to recover from a drive failure. RAID 1 is not very popular in personal computing, and it is now rather difficult to buy a computer outfitted for it, and the tools for doing it yourself are somewhat arcane.

Nowadays I use Dropbox to keep my most useful data readily accessible and synchronized on my various work and home desktop computers, laptops, tablet, and smartphone. But I don’t want to pay for a terabyte of more of online storage; my 100 GB Dropbox account has about 65 GB of data in it, which is less than one-tenth of the data on my primary hard drive. So I still have to manually backup a lot of data if I don’t want to risk losing it.

Compression

As hard drive capacity increased over time, so did my data storage demands. In one generation of hard drive after another I would begin bumping up against a drive’s capacity. I would try to prune obsolete files and then have to use the Windows Disk Cleanup buried at Accessories > System Tools to regain space, sometimes even uninstalling unused Windows components to regain space. For awhile Windows had built-in data compression software, and that let me stretch the use of my 1993 desktop system all the way to the year 2000. In my next system I avoided using the disk compression, instead adding a second hard drive when I needed more room. But it was a pain to keep some data on a separate D: drive from my boot C: drive.

My Desktop Computers’ Maximum Hard Drive Space

CPU Year Max. Capacity (GB)
1985 0.01
1990 0.14
1993 1.6
2000 85
2004 750
2009 1000

My last big leap in main drive capacity was the terabyte system in 2009, with two mirrored RAID 1 drives. Since then both of those hard drives have failed and been replaced, but it was proved difficult to get them reconfigured for RAID 1 mirroring. So now I have a 1-terabyte C: drive, a 1-terabyte D: drive I use as an in-the-case occasional backup, and several 1 or 2-terabyte portable drives I use for offsite long-term backups.

JPEGmini busily compressing my photos

JPEGmini busily compressing my photos

By mid-August 2014 the one-terabyte C: drive had about 275 GB of documents, 225 GB of digital photographs, 185 GB of music, and 200 GB of miscellaneous files and applications. That data horde is what remained after occasionally offloading data I didn’t expect to need again onto a 2-terabyte shared network drive which I don’t bother to back up. With formatting overhead, I was down to about 50 GB of free space on my desktop’s one-terabyte drive. 5% free space is not a good place to be. I certainly could prune some more data, since some documents date back to 1988 or earlier, but the big unified categories of data capacity usage were my huge collections of photographs and music. I’m not inclined to discard any of my photos, and my music is already-compressed MP3 and AAC files.

So when I heard about JPEGmini on the Home Theater Geeks podcast this week, I quickly tried out the utility, was suitably impressed, and bought it for $20 to optimize the JPEG compression settings throughout my digital photo collection. That has reduced the total space dedicated to photos from 225 GB to around 130 GB. So I have enough space to keep going with my five-year-old system without bothering with a drive capacity increase.

But what has really irked me is the hard drive speed bottleneck in my desktop system, even with fast 7200 rev/min drives. I have plenty of fast computer cores and lots of RAM, but after 5 years of use my Windows 7 machine takes forever to boot up and frequently bogs down because of Microsoft’s disk indexing services and the like. A lot of cruft builds up in a computer system when you install and use various programs and utilities and lose track of things, but even a clean install of Windows 7 and the applications I currently use would be limited by the data transfer rates of my hard drive. It used to be that adding RAM was the best way to speed up an older system, but now the best thing to do is to switch over to a solid state drive.

Hard disk to solid state

My MacBook Air introduced me to solid state drives back in 2010

My MacBook Air introduced me to solid state drives back in 2010

Solid state long-term storage first appeared in the form of USB keys. I’ve used a bunch of them over the years, and have some truly tiny ones with 8 GB of storage. But they were never my primary backup method; I just used them for portable storage. My introduction to the incredible speed and reliability of a solid state drive as the main drive was in my 2010 Apple MacBook Air. It remains my personal portable computer, and I am still surprised by how quickly it boots up and how it remains quite snappy despite its terribly outdated 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo microprocessor with 4 GB of RAM. That pales in comparison to the Intel i7-920 microprocessor with four 2.66 GHz cores in my five-year-old desktop computer with its 8 GB of RAM, but the MacBook Air seems brisk because of the speed of the solid state drive. And while I have backed it up a few times, I’ve never really worried about its data. Someday the solid state drive will reach its end of life and become unreliable at retaining data, but I’m pretty sure the computer will be so obsolete by then I will have already abandoned it.

Until now, capacity limits and costs prevented me from considering switching my desktop computer over to solid state storage. My MacBook Air’s solid state drive is only 128 GB, and I do not want to hassle with a solid state drive for booting, applications, and often-used data coupled with a separate spinning hard drive for the rest of my data. I want everything on the same drive, and I need a terabyte of storage to pull that off.

On a recent This Week in Tech podcast, guest Allyn Malventano mentioned his reviews of solid state drives and said that prices had fallen and Crucial had a one-terabyte solid state drive that was a good bargain. I verified that report and ordered the drive, along with an adapter kit to fit it into my desktop machine since it is sized for a laptop computer’s form factor.

In the next post I report on buying, installing, configuring, and using that drive in my 2009 desktop computer. As you have seen in this post, it is the latest link in a long chain of data leading back to my childhood. I’m hoping it will extend the use of my 2009 desktop computer for several more years.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2014 in technology

 

Mobile site design tips

August 1, 2014

Browsing on small screens is a challenge

Browsing on small screens is a challenge

In the previous series of posts, I have outlined why the increasing number of mobile browsers being used on our school district websites led me to develop a new mobile website for the district. My next target was to build a similar mobile website for the high school, but my previous post described the problems our district has had with inconsistent websites, so I was determined that the two new mobile websites avoid those problems. I also needed to think about how to structure the high school mobile site to duplicate the functionality of the regular high school site, which is more complex than the district website, while keeping navigation easy and mobile-friendly.

In this post I discuss the deliberate design differences between the two mobile websites, features on the mobile site which helped address the complexity of the regular site’s navigation and content for small screens, the issue of when and how to redirect visitors to a mobile site, and designing alerts for the mobile site.

Similar but different

I needed to walk a fine line on how to make the two new mobile websites similar but different. I couldn’t make the high school mobile site look just like the district site, or users would become confused as to which site they were using. But I also did not want the shift from one to the other to be too jarring.

For the homepages, I used the same color scheme to unify the designs. But I used a different background color for the headers and adorned each homepage with a different upper-left corner graphic. I also used a different style of search and back buttons in the headers for the two sites.

UPDATE: Later I changed the styling of the upper right header icons at the high school site to resolve some issues with title text.

If you play “What is different?” you should also pick up on how I deliberately inset all of the main buttons on the high school website, whereas the district site’s buttons extend across the full width of the mobile screen.

The most obvious difference was how I included on every page of the high school mobile site, including the homepage, a horizontal button bar at the bottom of the header. It matches the primary entries in the regular site’s top horizontal button bar with its entries for News, Bulletin, Calendar, and Contact. While having these functions always readily accessible is nice, I was really more motivated by how that would distinguish the high school site from the district one, which has no recurring button bar in its headers.

A button bar in the header distinguishes the high school mobile site

Different header colors and buttons distinguish the two mobile sites, along with the high school site’s header button bar

That way, no matter where you are in either site, there are several distinguishing characteristics to help keep you oriented. The limited screen size meant I did not want to expand the header to include more than a simple title on each page. People are always reluctant to scroll, so it is important to keep as many buttons visible as possible on the initial pageload. Below is a comparison of pages situated one level deep at each of the sites; note the various subtle changes.

Different headers and buttons help distinguish the two mobile sites

I also used full-width buttons on the district site versus inset buttons on the high school site

When visitors did scroll down far enough to hide the header, I still wanted visual clues as to which site they were using. The inset buttons on the high school site were my solution, plus a different color scheme and button style for the footer. Since the footer concludes a page, I felt free to add “Bartlesville Public School District” to the district footer below its discrete buttons, but felt that adding “Bartlesville High School” to the high school footer’s button bar did not blend well with its rectangular design. So I put “BHS” on the central button itself.

UPDATE: Later I discovered how to keep the header visible at all times and opted to do that, although I kept the high school site’s button bar out of that always-visible header.

The footers of each site are also quite different

The footers of each site are also quite different


Navigational differences

Resources page links appear only on the homepage of the BHS mobile site

Resources page links appear only on the homepage of the BHS mobile site

The comparison of the two footers also points out a navigational difference between the two sites. The high school site includes in its footer a direct link to the district’s mobile site, but of course the district site doesn’t return the favor.

Instead it just has a little information button which gives me credit for the site, provides an email link for feedback, and provides brief instructions for converting the mobile site into a homepage icon on iOS and Android mobile devices. That same information is more hidden on the high school site; it appears as a “Website issue?” entry in the Frequently Asked Questions nested lists in the various Resources pages.

Those Resources pages provide specific sets of links for students, parents, staff, alumni, and visitors. They’ve been a part of the high school site since 2009 and are thus carried over to the lower part of the mobile site’s homepage. They are a good example of the space dilemma one confronts on a mobile site, which does not concern me much on a regular site with plenty of screen real estate. While on the regular site you can always see those resources links along with several other sets of links, the mobile site steadily displays only a select group of links.

More complex navigation at BHS

The high school’s regular site has three main navigation areas: key functions in a top-of-page button bar, links to specific programs in a “Life at BHS” left sidebar, and the audience-targeted Resources links below that on the left sidebar. This is considerably more complex than the navigation at the district’s regular website, where everything is sorted into six areas with a single horizontal button/menu bar below the header (plus groups of links buried way down in the footer).

The more complex navigation layout for the high school’s regular website reflects the great quantity and depth of information on it; in some cases the links nest into one another four levels deep. For example, information on facility additions made in each decade are shown under:

About BHS > Facility History > Campus Additions > 1990s, etc.

To keep people from getting lost down there, selecting “About BHS” reveals a second left sidebar for that link’s entries there. Picking one of those links then reveals a nested button list of additional choices. I like using vertical sidebars for this because it keeps the various choices visible while also providing a continual reminder of where you are at in the structure by using boldface list entries, nested bulleted lists, and > signs. This is more powerful than simply displaying a linked chain of nested choices, a la “About BHS > Facility History > Campus Additions > 1990s.”

Multiple left sidebars on the regular BHS site keep visitors oriented in the deeper levels of the structure

Multiple left sidebars on the regular BHS site keep visitors oriented in the deeper levels of the structure

All that has worked fine for the regular site, but a mobile site doesn’t have that luxury. No one wants to click on tiny text links which are always displayed; you want whatever you are looking at to be the main focus and to rely more on scrolling than anything else to stay oriented.

So on the mobile site I dropped all of the visible left-sidebar links; you have to go back to the mobile homepage to reach another “Life at BHS” area or access a different audience-targeted Resources page. But those links are always just one click away using either the Homepage button at the top left or bottom left of each page. Notice how they are both on the left side; consistency is important to website visitors.

I used thumbnail list buttons for photos

I used thumbnail list buttons for photos

And sometimes I just didn’t try to convert things into mobile format; the high school site’s extensive entries on school and facility history have no mobile equivalent. If you select them from the mobile site, it just plops you back in the regular site. The message is that if you want to read all of that text, go get a bigger screen. But for more visual items, such as the collection of facility photos, I did take the time to build out an elaborate set of pages with a link to every photo. And each of those links includes a thumbnail view of the photo it links to. That lets users select based on the photo itself as well its description. Selecting a photo link displays the photo, with a caption, in a pop-up window resized to the device display. That avoids creating another page and is visually and operationally more simple than using an accordion list, a feature discussed below.

Choosing what to include and what to omit

I also took the time to create full mobile versions of the faculty and staff listings, both the long alphabetized list and a departmentalized one, with the latter adding thumbnail photos and buttons for email and web links. Again what you include depends on your goal and the screen size: someone using the long alphabetized list is probably just searching for an email link, so don’t lengthen that list with thumbnails and big buttons. Just include a job title to help reassure them they have the right person.

Someone looking at the departmentalized groups is likely more interested in things like a photo and web links. Also note how the email buttons in the alphabetized list have labels showing the person’s email address username, reflecting the focus of that listing, while the departmentalized groups go for easy navigation with a big “Email” button. The limited screen size meant that the buttons in the alphabetized list had to be smaller so that long usernames could fit without line-wrapping an entry; for a long list you want to keep the entries a consistent size for easier navigation.

The long alphabetized list omits the thumbnails and buttons shown in the shorter departmentalized groups

The long alphabetized list omits the thumbnails and website links shown in the shorter departmentalized groups


Accordion lists

So what else does the mobile site use to tame the navigational complexity? One trick I used a lot was expanding “accordion” lists. Those are single or grouped buttons which don’t load another page when tapped, but instead open up to reveal information or another set of links. That allows the mobile site to have fewer pages while keeping a page from getting too long. You expand the page only when asked, plus when someone opens another area in the same accordion group, the previously open area closes as a new one opens. That keeps the page from expanding again and again to awkward length and speeds up navigation. The user can scroll just outside of the currently opened item to quickly select other items above or below it, and also scroll more quickly to the header or footer.

All that is well and good, but the user has to realize how it works. So you want the accordion list to be clearly different from a regular button that goes to another page. jQuery swaps out the usual > icon at the right edge of a button with two different icons on the left end of accordion buttons. A + icon appears on closed items and a – icon on open ones. That is pretty clear guidance as to what is going on.

jQuery also automatically insets accordion lists, but on the high school site I was already insetting entries and I didn’t like mixing full-width buttons with inset accordions on the district site, so the insets wouldn’t help distinguish the accordions. Thus I chose, on both mobile sites, to emphasize that accordion lists were different by changing the colors of their buttons. I made them blue so that when an item opened up, the blue buttons of the neighboring accordion items would form obvious borders to the opened content. That would help folks realize what was going on when they scrolled out of larger opened items.

Accordion lists are a great tool for mobile sites

Accordion lists are a great tool for mobile sites

The FAQ accordions use smaller buttons to fit more questions on the screen

The FAQ accordions use smaller buttons to fit more questions on the screen

The screenshots show I used accordion lists both for sets of links and textual information. On the right is an example of a nested set of accordions; a large “Sponsored Student Activities” entry is part of an initial accordion list, but when you open it you find another set of accordion entries for the various organizations. That lets you build a lot of information into a small display space without requiring endless scrolling.

A variant on the nested accordion is the FAQs on each resource page; I used the “data-mini=’true'” option there to fit more of the FAQs onto the screen. The smaller button also reduced the size of the button text, allowing me to squeeze more question text onto each button.

Form select menus

Another trick I used to squeeze more onto the screen was form select menus. Website forms include various functions such as text input bars, radio buttons, checked items, sliders, toggle switches, etc. But the select menu is what interested me. A form will then display, using the operating system’s own formatting if you like, a list of items the user is to pick from. This is best used for a list of closely-related items which is too long to comfortably fit on the screen.

I used this type of input for state report cards on the district site, since there are so many different groups of them and every group had the same list of school sites. Accordion lists were not a good choice in that case because one expanded entry would look just like another: a long list of the same sites. You could easily get confused as you scrolled back and forth.

By using a select menu, I could keep more of the different groups of reports cards visible and let the device’s software provide the most convenient method of selecting an item. For example, opening a select menu on an iPhone produces the three-dimensional illusion of a scroll wheel of items on its small screen, whereas opening the same menu on an iPad produces a text box of entries for you to pick from on its larger display. The iPhone’s styling makes it easy to scroll and select an item with your thumb as you hold the phone. The iPad is likely used two-handed or while propped on something, so tapping with a finger on an item in a smaller text box is more practical on it than on a tiny phone.

Form select menus render differently on iPhones versus iPads

Form select menus render differently on iPhones versus iPads


“Go Back” buttons and a deliberate inconsistency

The homepage swaps the go-back button for an escape hatch

The homepage swaps the go-back button for an escape hatch

Another important navigational feature of a mobile website is the “Go Back” button, which displays the previously viewed page. In an environment with limited navigational controls, users often want to return to where they just were to select a different item or re-orient themselves. Nowadays many mobile browsers, such as Safari on iOS, maximize the screen real estate for a webpage by hiding the usual address bar and forward/backward web navigation buttons. That meant I chose to include a “Go Back” button at the top right of every page of each of the mobile sites to make that an easy option for the user.

But that isn’t quite true; there is one page at each site which lacks a “Go Back” button…the homepage. Why did I create this obvious inconsistency? Because the homepage is special; it is the anchor for all of the site’s navigation. You can go back to the homepage, but then you are not allowed to easily “Go Back” to a different level in the webpage’s structure. That emphasizes that the homepage is the starting point and also prevents someone from tapping the “Go Back” button repeatedly and having page-load latency mean they start looping wildly through the site.

So on the homepage I replaced the “Go Back” button with a large labeled button that takes you to the regular website. That killed two birds with one stone: it got rid of the “Go Back” button on the homepage while replacing it with an important feature for that page: the escape hatch. I will soon begin redirecting anyone who visits the regular websites’ homepages on a small screen to the corresponding mobile homepage. Below I’ll explain why I’m being so pushy, but I also know that anytime I force someone down a different path, I had better provide an escape hatch in case they didn’t WANT to be redirected.

Sometimes people don’t want to be on the mobile site; they want the regular site even on their tiny screen. So a mobile site should always include an escape hatch on every page; I included it not only at the top of the homepage but also in the footer on every page of the mobile sites.

Will that mobile user really be happy about the redirect?

Will that mobile user really be happy about the redirect?


The controversy on mobile site redirects

Informed people argue back and forth about whether someone trying to access a regular website on a mobile device ought to be redirected to the mobile-friendly site or not. Since many people will not discover the mobile-friendly site on their own, and it improves the web experience so much on tiny browsers, I think folks should be redirected to it when they are using a small screen. But you have to include an escape hatch in case they prefer the regular site, get confused, or somehow the redirection occurs when it shouldn’t.

Once I decided I did want to redirect, the next question was when and how. Web browsers include in their page requests information about the viewing screen size, the browser make and model, and the device. Any of that information can be falsely reported, but it does let you detect when someone reports that they are using a certain browser, device, or screen size. So when do you decide to force a redirect?

Some people argue that you should only redirect specific devices. For example, redirect iPhones but not iPads; redirect iOS and Android devices, but leave alone less popular devices which may not properly display the mobile site. Others argue that you base the decision on screen size, and I agree with that view.

I cannot take the time to maintain code to test for the latest and greatest in the blizzard of devices coming onto the market. And the whole point of the mobile site is to make things easier on small screens. So I wanted the redirects to occur when the screen size was smaller than a tablet’s typical resolution, thus targeting smartphones.

As for how to accomplish the redirect, the simplest choice seems to be this bit of Javascript code in the webpage header of a regular site’s page:

<script type=”text/javascript”>
if (screen.width <= 720) {
window.location = “mobile/default.html”;
}
</script>

If someone loads the page while on a device with a display that is less than 721 pixels wide, they’ll be redirected to the mobile website. I plan to activate this code on the homepages of the respective regular websites, but I did not want to do that without warning. No one likes big surprises, especially the average joe who is not overly familiar with web interfaces.

Of course redirection really isn’t as simple as the above code snippet. If that were all I did, then problem a) would occur: someone using the link on the mobile site to see the regular homepage would just be redirected back to the mobile site again. That has to be prevented, along with problem b): someone on a mobile device selecting the regular homepage, navigating elsewhere on the site, then returning to the homepage only to be redirected again to the mobile site. Problem b) is fairly common merchant sites, even large operations, and it is very annoying.

I could alter the links to the regular homepage throughout the mobile site so that the redirection code is disabled when they are used, but that would only fix problem a). Setting a session “cookie” that requests the regular site instead of the mobile site is a better solution. (A “cookie” is a bit of information you ask the user’s browser to remember for you; session “cookies” only last during a given session with the browser, while permanent “cookies” are stored for use in future sessions.) I might also use a “landing page” approach where small-screen users hitting the regular homepage are always asked if they prefer to see the mobile or the regular site before proceeding, with a timer that eventually kicks them to the mobile site if they don’t respond. I’m not used to doing any of this, since the only redirection I’ve used previously is a simple timed or immediate redirection to a new page when someone visits a page that has been superceded by some replacement located elsewhere.

A mobile link was added to the header of every page on the regular site

A mobile link was added to the header of every page on the regular district site

All of this complexity meant that when the mobile websites launched, I did NOT include the redirect at first. Instead I mentioned in the news announcement about the sites that in a couple of weeks users on small screens would be redirected, with an immediate reassurance that a link back to the regular website would be available on every page of the mobile sites. That provides a sense of fair warning. Meanwhile, I added a mobile link to every page of the regular sites so that folks could trigger the mobile site if needed. And I made sure the various links between the regular and mobile websites matched up: the mobile button on the regular search page takes you to the mobile search page, while the regular-site button on the mobile search page takes you to the regular-site search page, and so on throughout the sites. This helps users recognize that every page has an equivalent on the other site and access it more readily..

The high school site header bar also got a new mobile link

The high school site header bar also got a new mobile link

I decided to not include a redirect on pages other than the homepage. I did not want to drop someone into the mobile site willy-nilly; a forced redirect only occurs on the homepage. That way if someone uses a link to a sub-page on the regular site, they’ll always see the same thing. I don’t want links to sub-pages to give varying results; that sows confusion. And if someone is going to save and distribute links to sub-pages, I want those to go to the regular site, not the mobile site: the mobile site is NOT suitable for a large-screen display. Someone on a small screen who follows a link to the regular site can always invoke the mobile site with the links I’ve included in every regular page’s header.

UPDATE: When I implemented redirection for both of the mobile sites on 8/14/2014, I used a script installed only on the homepage of each regular website. The script checks the screen size and if it is less than 721 pixels it displays a dialog box. The visitor chooses “OK” to be redirected to the mobile site or “Cancel” to stick with the regular site. The script is smart enough to notice if the visitor just came from the mobile site’s homepage and in that case suppresses the dialog box and displays the regular homepage. This approach avoided having to modify every link to the regular sites on the mobile sites to include a cookie and then having to check and clear a cookie to avoid redirection loops. I think visitors can tolerate the minor inconvenience of the dialog box appearing when a visitor tries to visit the regular homepage on a small screen.

Alerts

BHS Mobile alert page

BHS Mobile alert page

Another precaution for the forthcoming redirection of small screen users is that I put a “New mobile website” alert button on the mobile website homepages. That provides an explanation for when the redirects begin and for folks who stumble into the mobile site on their own. Alerts are important for these sites for notifying visitors of inclement weather closures, vital deadlines, etc. I use blue and red-bordered text boxes for alerts on the regular high school site’s homepage, and a scrolling marquee on the district site’s homepage. Those elements simply disappear if no alerts are in effect. For mobile, it was obvious to put a big yellow button for an alert right below the header area. But then what?

Should the alert button link to a pop-up box? How about a separate page, kept in its own file on the server? Neither of those options worked out, although I tried both of them. I thought a pop-up box made sense, but when I implemented it in jQuery Mobile 1.2.0, closing that pop-up box was a problem. Sometimes I fumbled with the close target on my iPhone, and I noticed that re-invoking the alert made closure even more difficult. Also, while I had used pop-ups to enlarge photographs on the site, they are problematic for text. What if the text exceeds the screen area? Do you really want to scroll a pop-up? That isn’t intuitive.

So I gave up on pop-up alert boxes and tried invoking a dialog box loaded from a separate server file. That also suffered from the hard-to-close problem and the scrolling-box issue, and also meant I’d have to edit both the main mobile HTML file and a separate alert HTML file for each alert. That was too much work, especially since some alerts need to go up ASAP.

So I finally just had the button link to another internal page in the main HTML file, but coded that page’s header with a yellow theme, eliminated the usual header button bar on the high school site, and included a dedicated button at the bottom of the alert text to return to the homepage. Each of those changes would emphasize that an alert was important, different, and fell outside the usual navigational structure of the site.

That wraps it up

That wraps up my five consecutive posts on web development:

If you are a school district patron, I hope you enjoy using the new mobile websites. A lot of thought, care, and time went into their design and development; I sure hope it pays off for you.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in technology, web design

 
 
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