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Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – The Return

I’ve been using the Surface Pro 4 as a primary machine for the last 3 weeks. A week of that was spent in a bag, because I got fed up with it crashing, and was especially annoyed to find it had run out of battery between being put into sleep at full power, and getting it out on a flight some hours later.

You can read part 1 and part 2 of my review, if you so wish.

A week later, I was ready to give it a last try, and put some power into it, and saw it installed yet another round of updates. To my surprise, it has since stopped crashing on resume.

Windows Hello

I didn’t see Windows Hello earlier (maybe it wasn’t enabled for the SP4?), but it prompted me to configure it this week. It’s a fantastic and simple feature which (assuming it works) dramatically improves device security.

Basically it uses facial recognition to unlock your device, which means you can have a long backup password just in case, and not suffer any inconvenience when logging on. It works in extremely low light and takes just a few seconds – a fantastic feature. And it works every time.

I haven’t tested how it performs with a picture of me; that is a concern, but this is definitely an example of Microsoft being ahead of Apple. Bravo.

Also, Bitlocker Drive Encryption is enabled by default, which makes me very happy. My customers have to be able to trust my ability to keep their information safe, so I am always impressed with devices that feature good security.

Battery Life (or lack thereof)

Now my device can come in and out of sleep reliably, it has revealed a new problem, which is the SP4 has a terrible sleep function. My MacBook Pro, which has 3-year-older Intel hardware, can happily sleep with no discernable drop in battery life, and it supports Power Nap, which means my email stays up to date even when the Mac is sleeping.

The SP4 by comparison drops at least 10% an hour, which makes it basically useless for business travel. Tomorrow morning, I’ll leave home at 5am and get to my first meeting around 11am. The SP4 cannot handle 3 hours of sleep and 3 hours of work on the flight and taxis, and that makes it basically useless.

Folks on Reddit also complain about bad battery (3-4h) and Windows Central have reported that Microsoft are working on a fix.

Keyboard / palmrest issues

The other issue I’m plagued with is the keyboard. When using it, as I am right now, as a laptop, with the keyboard on my upper thighs, you have to be very careful how much pressure you put on the palmrest. If you put too much, it starts doing weird things, like clicking the right mouse button with no finger on the trackpad.

I also had problems typing this article on Microsoft Edge – it was very slow to type, and just switched to Google Chrome, where I found the issue went away. That’s a shame, because I’ve generally been impressed with the Microsoft Edge browser.

Wireless issues

The wireless is problematic too – many of the public wireless networks I used didn’t work. It won’t tether to my iPhone, for example, and it took 5-10 minutes to connect to GoGo on a flight, and I couldn’t get it to connect to a few public hot spots at all. So unless I’m at home, I have to operate off-line much of the time.

Can I survive with the Surface Pro 4?

In short… No. Microsoft have decided to release a potentially amazing device which isn’t fit for purpose. They failed to address the basics and focused on making an amazing piece of hardware.

To Microsoft’s credit, they know about the issues and have openly issued an apology. I understand the sleep issues are hard to fix and will take some time. But in my opinion these issues are so basic that they should have delayed the product launch, rather than try to get a spike in holiday sales.

As for my SP4, it’s going back to the store that it came from. Edit: I found a workaround for the power issue on Paul Thurrott’s site, which is to change sleep to hibernate. The SP4 is quite fast (7 seconds) to turn on from hibernate, so this is workable for me. I’ll give it one more week and see if it’s now usable.

P.S. Shane recommended I try out the Surface app. I’m not sure what it does on the Surface Pro 3, but on the SP4 it has only three options. You can adjust the pen pressure sensitivity, you can do an ink test, and you can provide feedback to Microsoft. I’m just about to do the third.

The rise of the amazing professional laplet

When I left university in 1998, one of the first things I did was to invest in a laptop. They were expensive things back then and my shiny new IBM ThinkPad 770ED cost nearly $8000 in today’s money.

It was really an amazing machine for its time – including a video capture card, 128MB RAM, a 5GB hard disk, and a beautiful 14″ screen. It also weighed 8lb and the palm rest peeled, leaving black dust all over your hands, but anyhow. The point it was just as powerful as the desktop PC it replaced, and that transformed the kind of work I could do on the move.

But from there I found that I needed a laptop every 12-24 months. I’ve had at least 14 laptops over those 17 years (not including replacements under warranty), including the Apple PowerBook G4, Dell Latitude C400, C810, C410, C420, C610, C630, E5510, two E6410s and two MacBook Airs, and my current machine, the MacBook Pro 15″.

Quite often I’d flip between a light, anemic machine, and a powerful, heavy machine. I could never decide the compromise that fitted me best. The MacBook Air probably suited me least, because my demanding needs would mean they overheated and crashed regularly. When I accidentally dropped my Air, I went on the look for a new machine.

I have nothing but incredible praise for what I bought next, the MacBook Pro 15″. I have had on average a laptop a year for 17 years, including warranty replacements, and the Pro has lasted 3 years and is still going strong. It has travelled a million miles, it has a few dents, but the battery is still 5 hours if you are frugal, and it’s still quick. And I haven’t had to reinstall Windows every 3 months, and I’ve rarely had a Blue Screen of Death.

And so my Pro is entering its twilight years, and I’m considering its replacement. The Pro is just 0.5lb heavier than my Ultrabook Dell C400 with its diminutive 12″ screen. I’m usually lugging a few days clothes with me, so I’m not too bothered about the size. I don’t think I’ll be going back to an Ultralight machine again – not least because the Pro is built like a tank, and when you travel every day, not having to service your computer is a big deal.

I’m also scared because I don’t want to go back to a life where I needed IT support. According to IBM, Macs require less support, and my anecdotal evidence supports this. Provided my email, VPN and corporate systems like Time and Expenses work, I rarely contact IT. Nothing against my IT folks of course, not contacting them is a good thing.

But here’s the kicker: wow, there is an amazing choice of machines on the market. At the SAP TechEd keynote in Las Vegas, I recently had a Lenovo Yoga 900 Pro on loan for a few days. I liked it so much, I “accidentally” left with it and had to ship it back to them. It’s a giant tablet that turns into a PC, and weighs next to nothing. Amazing machine.

And then you just have to look at the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, and the Surface Book, to see at how well Microsoft is playing Apple’s game. And what’s more, Windows 10 Pro is a really nice system – the Lenovo Yoga was a pleasure with it. Huge respect to Microsoft for finally taking the leadership in the device market, rather than letting OEMs control it. Judging by the quality of the Lenovo Yoga, this has already paid off.

The Surface devices feature Intel’s latest Skylake i7 CPU and are shipping on November 20th. I assume that Apple also have Skylake MacBook Pros coming shortly (rumors say Q4 2014 or Q1 2015). The current Broadwell MacBook Pro doesn’t excite me because they are only incrementally better than the Mid-2012 Ivy Bridge model that I have. Typically Apple overhauls its Pro range every 3 years, so I have high expectations.

I’m suspect about the Surface Pro, because I actually spend increasing amounts of time in front of the laptop. I find I can create content – emails, presentations, documents, so much faster than on an equivalent tablet, and the keyboard is only OK. Interestingly I liked the Lenovo Yoga most on a plane – you get a full 30 minutes of extra work on takeoff and landing, by flipping the keyboard and using it as a tablet.

What amazing times we live in, where we have such incredibly powerful and portable machines available. Question is… do I switch to a Microsoft device or stick with another MacBook Pro? And will the moniker “laplet” stick? Probably not!

Review: Bose QuietComfort 25 – The Silence is Deafening

It seems odd that there are no good reviews of the new Bose Quiet Comfort 25, or QC25, out there. I hope this helps you – I bought these on the first day they came out and have been living with them for a short while now.

I’ve always been an audio fanatic, right from my childhood. The audio world has changed enormously in the last 15 years. Gone are the days when I would frequently sit at a desk at home with a CD player and listen to music on wired headphones. Gone are the days when I frequently sit at a desk at home listening to music!

These days, I mostly listen to music when traveling, in inhospitable locations and carrying a heavy load. Back in 1998 I bought a pair of Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, which have exquisite sound quality. They’re useless in this post-modern age of commuter flights because they are open backed, which means your music leaks, and the world leaks into your ears.

My last pair of noise canceling headphones were lost and so in early September 2014, I walked through an airport terminal and spotted the QC25 on a shelf. They are understated, subtle, and very compact. I was immediately drawn to them.



Noise Canceling

I headed over to try them on and was somewhat underwhelmed – then I realize that the Active Noise Canceling (ANC) was switched off. I hit the switch and the world turned off. Gone was the loud terminal noise, and I was in a small quiet world of my own. Incredible. I listened to a few tracks of music and realized these would make my long weeks of travel much more pleasurable.

For that is where the QC25 excels: commuters, in planes and trains. It completely destroys hums and groans and aircraft engines and air conditioners. For people and voices, it’s not as strong, but no ANC headphone is. But it is better than any other headphone on the market at ANC. The silence is deafening.


I’ve never been a huge fan of the Bose sound and the QuietComfort25 is no surprise here. The music is “OK” – the saxophone on Dire Straits’ Your Latest Trick comes out nicely, and the coins clink melodically in Pink Floyd’s Money. Turn up the bass a little with Faithless’ God is a DJ and the Bose is in its comfort zone: HiFi, this is not.

But then you sit down in a seat of a plane and flip the switch, and the world turns off again. In that moment, you forgive the slightly brash mid-tones and slightly wooly base. This is a world of trade-offs and the QC25 delivers a wonderful balance.

The crucial point is because it is so quiet in your cocoon, you can turn the music down and hear details that you never hear from regular headphones. They sound much better than they have any right to sound when you are in a public place.

Living with the QC25

The packaging is exceptionally easy to live with, they fit into an 8.25″x5.75″x2″ box which fits nicely in a laptop bag, and it fits an airplane adapter and a spare AAA battery. Bose say it lasts 35 hours, but I’m not counting. One spare battery is enough for a week away from home.

The fit is sublime with a “protein leather” (an artificial, leather-like material that absorbs some sweat) covering. The 6.9oz cans fit comfortably on the head for long periods of time – say a 3-4 hour flight, or a noisy office day.

There’s a replaceable 4’8″ cable with a microphone for phone calls and a volume/call switch, which is useful if you want to listen to music on your iPhone and don’t want to switch cables when a call comes in. You can turn off the ANC during phone calls so your voice doesn’t sound weird.

Bose make a big deal about this because the headphone continues to run even after you run out of battery (unlike the QuietComfort15) but the audio kinda sucks without the ANC, so I’m not so certain how useful that is (unless you want to make a call!).

QuietComfort 15 Owners

I suspect a lot of people who own QC15s are wondering if they should upgrade. I’ve used both headphones – a lot of airlines provide QC15s on long haul flights, and they are most excellent. The QC25s are easier to live with – they are smaller and more comfortable – but if I had spent good money on QC15s, the difference between the two models is not worth the price of a new pair.


One negative I found was that sometimes the headphone can motorboat – it starts to make a weird noise in the right ear. This must be an unintentional side-effect of the ANC technology, and may be a teething problem with the first few pairs. If it continues, I’ll call Bose.

There’s also a slight air pressure thing going on when you wear them. ANC headphones change the air pressure around your ears, and that can be bothersome.


If you are a traveler, commuter, spend time on a plane, or in a loud office, or outside, then go and try these out. They are the gold standard in Noise Canceling Headphones. They trash Sennheiser, Beats (yuck), Parrot and everyone else in this respect.

You pay for that luxury with a slightly mediocre audio experience. But when you are basking in the silence that envelops you with the QC25 on your head, in your own private world where nothing can disturb you, you’ll put up with an average sound. Besides, I don’t know about you but I listen to music on an iPhone, not a $1000 CD player.

But if you listen to music in a quiet place and want audiophile quality headphones, then don’t waste your money on the Bose QuietComfort 25. They’re not for you.

My Consumerization Culture eats your Enterprise Security Strategy

When the company I work for, Bluefin, started out, we were pretty lo-fi. I started working with them when we were in a tiny managed office, with laptops ordered from At the time, we used a small hosting company for email and we used MSN Messenger for Instant Messaging.

We had migrated to Microsoft Exchange for email, Sharepoint for collaboration and were looking at OCS for Voice, Meetings – replacing a bunch of ad-hoc and non-Enterprisey services. We had a Single Sign-On project and all company resources were linked into a single login without username and password.

Messenger used to be a pretty nice tool and it wasn’t until maybe 2007, when we moved to Microsoft’s Office Communications Server and we were around 100 people, that we got rid of it. I was running Bluefin’s IT strategy at that time and I was convinced that Unified Communications was the future.

We planned to use OCS, then Lync, to replace the whole company’s global phone system – using internet to talk, headsets, and cutting our communications costs whilst improving collaboration. Collaboration and social was the future, and we would put Microsoft at the center of this.

What’s happened in the 7 years since then is mystifying to me. I’ve written about this before, but I hate Microsoft Lync. Microsoft frittered away its intellectual property and Lync does nothing well. We still have the office phone system we bought in 2006 (I expected we would do away with this in 2008) and Lync is a very unreliable instant messaging platform that doesn’t work well unless you have a PC with a good connection.

In the meantime, what has happened is fascinating – people have their own devices and they have created ad-hoc processes. In a recent customer go-live, we used WhatsApp as the primary update mechanism to pass control around the world. I was talking to CLP CIO Andre Bumberg about this on Twitter, and this is the point:

In addition to this, we recently implemented Jive, which I happen not to be a fan of. Jive was designed to replace our aging phpBB implementation and SharePoint, but I can’t get to grips with it. With Jive, Document Management is a joke – it’s just a big pile of documents in a community. Analyst Alan Lepofsky commented that Office integration helps this, but I use Jive’s Office integration most days and it is reminiscent of using an Amstrad Word Processor – files are all stored in a big pile with zero structure.

And this causes an unpleasant side-effect. People don’t like Sharepoint, Jive, Lync or any of the main corporate tools available, and when you combine this with the incredible availability of consumer tools and devices, you get a cascading problem. People use whatever they feel like.

I have had communications this week from customers using Google Docs, Dropbox, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, Skype and iMessages. I’ve shared screens using WebEx, and several other providers. Just last week I was participating in an analytics project for a customer, who is concerned about using Cloud technologies for Analytics for a top-secret product. There was concern that their competitors, especially in China, would hack into it.

I did a simple Google search for their product “codename” and found that one of their Sales VPs had uploaded their commercially sensitive internal presentation on it to SlideShare. This was probably because their SharePoint sucked, or Outlook email size limit meant they couldn’t share the document.

Constellation Group Analyst Alan seems to thing that customers are mostly focussed on security, audit and access control – but I’m not so sure this is the right focus.

Instead in 2014, I think that Enterprises need to be concerned about providing user experience even at the expense of internal governance – because if they don’t, then people will use whatever is convenient to them. My cutover chats on WhatsApp aren’t a commercial risk to Bluefin or our customers – but the SlideShare with company secrets was.

In the meantime, we really need something better from the likes of Microsoft. Microsoft had MSN Messenger, which was awesome (but is now dead), and Skype, which was great (but is since a little old-school). There’s no excuse for that IP not being in their new products, and Microsoft is dead unless they can compete with WhatsApp and Viber on user experience. Why is it so hard?

10 iPhone Apps I can’t live without

Some months back I wrote a post about stuff that made my life easier in 2013. I can’t find the reference to this, and therefore can’t remember who asked, but someone asked for me to write a similar article about mobile apps.

For some reason, I do bad things to technology. I’m lucky if a phone lasts 9 months or a laptop lasts 18 months. It’s not that I abuse them, but perhaps it is my travel schedule and usage that wears them out so fast. Whatever it was, my 15-month-old iPhone was dead. The battery was down to a few hours and the camera had stopped working. It was time to replace it.

I’m smart enough to get AppleCare and so Apple replaced it with no fuss. Instead of restoring from an iCloud backup, I decided to start from scratch and only install those apps that I really needed. A few weeks later, here are the top 10.

1) Google Maps

I’m sorry but Apple Maps sucks. It’s totally unusable and doesn’t recognize places. The first thing I did, after driving into a lake, was to move Apple Maps out my home screen and replace it with Google Maps.

2) Twitter

I love the plain vanilla Twitter app. The new version has made messages, interactions and newsfeeds easy to navigate and I’m a huge Twitter fan. I installed this straight up.

3) Waze

Google bought Waze but they haven’t integrated it with Google Maps yet. Where I live, there are a few roads which can get really badly blocked and Waze lets me know and helps navigate around traffic jams.

4) Whatsapp

Facebook bought them today, but this is on my home screen. I use it to talk to people out the country and besides… iMessages sucks. It’s unreliable. Whatsapp works great and it allows for group chats, which I use at work for round-the-world messaging on projects.

5) Polar Beat

I’m trying to lose weight and Polar Beat helps incentivize me. I’ve got a Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor and Stride Sensor. Awesome.

6) Expensify

With Expensify I connect my credit cards and receipts and build them into an expense report that I put into our corporate portal. I snap pictures of expenses and it builds them into a PDF that I submit. No paper expenses any more. And I email expenses to [email protected]

7) CamCard

When I go to a conference, I come back with 50 business cards and CamCard lets me photograph them and turns them into contacts. It’s a great time saver and it works very reliably.

8) TripIt

I email my travel plans to [email protected] and it keeps all my travel in one place. I have TripIt Pro so I get notifications of spare seats, changes to plans and check ins. I’m not that organized, so it really helps.

9) Uber

Uber is your personal driver. You click a button and a few minutes later you have a black car pick you up. I use this most weeks because it integrates with Expensify, and so I don’t need to keep manual receipts for taxis. It’s slightly more expensive than a regular cab but it saves in administration time.

10) Hotel Tonight

Hotel Tonight is my travel friend – I usually don’t book hotels until the day. This way I open the app, it gives me a list of reliable hotels and I click book. I get an email which I forward to Expensify and just walk out the hotel when I’m done.

Final Words

So these are the first 10 apps I installed on my phone. Note that there’s no Facebook or LinkedIn – those are apps that I use primarily on my laptop. There’s no Skype – that’s on my iPad. Are there any other apps that you really need on your phone?

Let me know what your favorites are.

Does the sale of IBM’s hardware business signal the beginning of the end?

These days, the only computer that I personally own is an iPad. This happened because some years back, I developed an unhealthy fascination with unusual computers. This culminated with a purchase of a Digital AlphaServer 4100. It was a magnificent machine.

Alpha Server 4100

Alpha Server 4100

Unfortunately, as it turns out, it would also trip my electricity supply when I turned it on, and cost a small fortune to run, and only fitted in the kitchen, where it was universally unpopular. It had a ton of moving parts to go wrong, and I realized that my fascination with weird computers had to stop, so I donated it to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. I hope they took care of her. If you read this and work there, please let me know!

And so, one of the things that I realized at the time was that UNIX was dying – I realized this around the turn of the century. In the last 15 years, IBM has swallowed almost all of the UNIX market share and some vendors have simply left the market of been acquired: Digital, Silicon Graphics, NeXT, and yet others have lost massive market share: Sun/Oracle and HP/Compaq/Digital, to be specific. I called the HP Superdome as dead as a dodo in 2012 and if you think I was wrong, check this.

As for IBM, they have increased revenue in a declining market, which is in a very similar position to Pearson (the world’s largest book publisher), who are growing in a declining market. IBM’s UNIX hardware sales department is very profitable and ensures sell-on of even more profitable software products, and services to implement those software products. IBM likes high-margin and is an execution machine.

And so IBM sold off its low-margin PC business to Lenovo in 2005, which was an extremely smart move. Lenovo knows how to make good quality hardware at a good price and they are performing well, though at low margins: $584m operating income on $29.57bn of revenue in 2012. Both companies have prospered.

For the last few years, IBM and Lenovo have been dating, discussing the sale of its low-margin Intel Server business. From what I can see, IBM waited too long and only got $2.3bn, when they wanted much more – indeed they would have probably achieved double that, two years ago. The logic is – get rid of the low margin business and focus on the good stuff.

The technology market is a very tough place to be right now, and it’s very tough for a company like IBM to make good decisions. The biggest hardware players in the world now are the big cloud companies like Amazon and Google, both of which build their own custom data centers and don’t buy from IBM or HP.

But I question IBM’s decision. UNIX is a profitable market but a deceptive market. There are mission-critical use cases that use IBM’s System z and there will probably always be a market for certified, bulletproof systems. The thing that worries me is IBM’s middle ground – System p. System p is advocated by IBM as a low TCO UNIX environment, and that, to my mind, is a contradiction in terms. To add to that, IBM have combined System i (more mission critical than p, but not as much as z) with System p, to avoid the cost of developing yet another infrastructure.

Even worse, news outlets and IBM alike have referred to the Intel “System x” business as Low-End. SAP runs its entire business for 55,000 employees on one IBM System x3950 with 80 cores and 4TB of main memory. IBM sell a System x system with 4480 cores and 56TB of main memory. Don’t be fooled – System x starts at low end, but has systems that can solve the world’s hardest problems. I have no doubt that IBM didn’t want to sell this part, but Lenovo very smartly took it.

What I believe will happen is that companies will stop using HP Superdome, Oracle M-Series and IBM System p in the next 10-20 years, because they will move to the cloud – either in their own data centers, or in someone else’s cloud. There is no use case for “fairly” mission critical and whilst IBM is the clear leader in the UNIX market, it is a dying market.

So this leaves IBM without all of the Intellectual Property that made it – in my opinion – the finest Intel server manufacturer and with a declining server play. Lenovo will stop pimping IBM software and services in the medium term.

If there is one thing for which I have the utmost respect for IBM, it is its ability as a company to foster talent and reinvent itself and even when IBM was at the brink of bankruptcy – losing an impressive $16bn between 1991 and 1993, it managed to turn around its business and become one of the greatest technology companies in the world.

In the midst of this, IBM is focussing on its impressive Watson technology as a solution to part of this, whilst SAP HANA platform eats the DB2 database’s lunch. Note, I sell SAP HANA services, but the numbers back me up: HANA is growing in sales 80% year on year to just under $1bn in 2013, and IBM software grew 2.8% last year (they don’t break out DB2).

IBM has just posted its seventh consecutive quarter of decline. I dearly hope that Ginni Rometty has a master turn-around plan and IBM will once again rise from the ashes, because IBM is an incredible company that has survived where others have failed. But I worry that with all the other changes happening in the technology world whether selling off all IBM’s hardware business will be viewed as a mistake. We shall see.



Stuff that made my life easier in 2013

I’m not one of those people who waltzes out of bed looking sharp and organized. It’s an effort, and I have to build a set of systems to keep myself organized. Each year, I try to pick a few painful areas to try to improve a workflow, and sometimes things that just make your life easier fall into your lap.

Here’s a few I found in 2013 – a mix of People, Process & Technology!


Did you ever have that pile of 100 small receipts that you never managed to expense? Yeah, me too. Expensify collects, collates and categorizes your business expenses. You can take photos of receipts (you pay $0.10 per scan and it adds this to your expense report), and it will reconcile it with your credit card statement automatically.

Then, you print an expense report and send it in. I still then have to manually enter my expenses into SAP (hint to SAP, buy Expensify and give the integration away for free), but I can throw receipts in the bin once they are scanned. Even better, it automatically generates IRS-friendly receipts for payments of less than $25 so you don’t have to track small payments at all.

I did get tripped up once I hadn’t done my expenses in a while and Expensify hides expenses older than 30 days by default. This meant I forgot to expense a bunch of things and got in a muddle.


If you travel frequently, you’ll be familiar with the pain of collating travel plans. A single trip can have planes, trains, taxis, hotels and car rentals; this can get extremely frustrating to monitor. TripIt makes things easy – you just email your plans to [email protected] and it builds a trip for you, so you can lookup reservation numbers and keep track.

TripIt has a bunch of other nice functionality: it will keep you informed if the type of seat that you would like becomes available, it will inform you of flight delays, and ensure you get refunds available to you if you don’t fly.

I’d love to see TripIt add trip expense management that integrates with Expensify – this would be the cherry on the cake for me.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

In a world where airlines are either charging ($450 for access to US Airways?!) for access to clubs, Amtrak is not the place you would expect to lead in customer service!

Amtrak Guest Rewards is possibly the best rewards program. You collect points immediately at 2 for each dollar spent, or 500 for an Acela roundtrip, and 5000 points gets you a free one-way ticket. They often do special offers, double points, or right now they’re doing buy 3 get one free.

Then once you’ve racked up enough points in a year (10k gets you Select Plus, which is where you want to be), they start to treat you really well. You get free access to their Lounges (plus United Lounges) and they send free stuff in the mail like companion vouchers or upgrades.

And one of the nicest things is the lounges are often connected to the railway track by lift, so you can sit in the warm lounge sipping coffee, and then take a lift to the freezing track as the train rolls into the station.

Whilst we’re on the subject of web tools, I found to be pretty cool. You connect it to your bank accounts and credit cards and it provides consolidated analytics on spend. You can create rules so it categorizes your spend.

It’s neat for looking for exceptions like making sure you got refunds, plus seeing where you are spending. Some people may not like the privacy implications, but I like it a lot. You may be surprised by where your money goes!


If you’re going to use things like (or in fact any other online banking service) then you should consider Lastpass. It generates up to 100 character passwords which are individual for each website you use. I wrote about it here, because I like it so much.

I’ve also just added a Yubikey, which ensures that the websites that I only want to access from my laptop can only be accessed from my laptop. In this day of internet fraud, you can’t be too careful, especially when careful doesn’t cost you any inconvenience.

Amazon Prime

I have been a huge fan of Amazon Prime. It looks like Amazon have put the price up to $80 per year, have started to use USPS (which isn’t the best courier), and many Prime products are now expensive – so I’m not sure if I’ll be renewing, but it was great in 2013.

Knowing that you can get anything in 2 days, for free: you could reliably order goods on December 22nd and get them on December 24th – is awesome, when you live in the US. I used Amazon for pretty much everything I ordered online in 2013 as a result.

The free lending library and videos sounded good at the time, but I’ve rarely used them, despite there being a pretty good video app.

Sandisk Extreme Flash Drive

This is the first flash drive I have really loved – in the past, you had to choose between performance and price. For $45, you can get the 32GB Sandisk Extreme, which can write files as fast as your laptop can read them. In my job I often copy huge files to pass around the room, and this is a time saver.

Previously, you would have to pay $2-300 for a flash drive this fast, which is crazy money, but at $45, it is very affordable. Well done, Sandisk!

Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor

Anyone that knows me know that I’m a fitness nut and a Big Data geek. I’ve had a few HRMs in the past, and I’ve hated them. In particular, the Garmin Forerunner 400 Series watch, which I bought to incentivize me to run the London Marathon, was a giant paste of money.

Usability is key to actually using technology, and Polar got this spot on with the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor. It connects to my iPhone with and comes with the Polar Beat app, which uses the iPhone’s GPS to plot your location when you’re running. It’s easy to use and it just works and it’s a fraction of the price of a watch.

I also added the Polar Smart Stride sensor, which is handy when you’re running on a treadmill because it calculates how fast you are running but isn’t really worth the money unless you only run on a treadmill.

Apple EarPods

You know, I’ve had a lot of earphones over the years. Noise Cancelling, in the ear, over the ear, through the ear (maybe not). In the end, the new Apple EarPods are my favorite. They’re inexpensive (which is handy when you break them often like I do), the microphone quality is great, and the sound quality is good. Plus they actually stay in my ears.

I wish they would last a little longer, but this is a me problem, not an Apple problem.


I’m going to add WordPress to this list – in a world of horrible platforms like Jive Software, WordPress is a wonderful breath of fresh air. I use a self-hosted blog from Bluehost, who I thoroughly recommend, and I can setup a new domain at low cost in a few minutes, configure it with WordPress, and get started.

It’s easy to add themes, make it look good, and extensions like spam protection are really easy. Blogging and content management is a breeze and I always love writing a blog on this site.

Final Words

Each one of these things actually made my life a little easier in 2013. In a world where we have to do more with a fixed amount of time, anything that makes life easier brings a real smile to my face. Anything which is free, or low cost (and all of the things on the list are inexpensive) is even better.

So thank you to all the companies above that made awesome products, and have a great 2014!

What are your favorites? What should I look at for 2014?

Why does Hackers News have to be so whiney? Open Source SAPUI5

Disclaimer: I’ve been pushing SAP to Open Source their UI platform for some time. So this matters to me.

I found about SAPUI5 finally making it Open Source via whiney news platform Hackers News. SAPUI5 is a general-purpose web framework for application technologies, built on jQuery. It’s not perfect. It’s more than a bit bloated and a little slow, but a bunch of people saw potential in it. In the SAP internal and external developer community, and the customer community.

We also saw that the potential that it had, would be killed by it being a closed framework. So, we lobbied, internally and externally, to make the framework Open Source. Why? For many reasons:

– Open Source can crowdsource product problem resolution and drive the framework forward
– Customers and developers alike can understand the license implications
– SAP can benefit from greater penetration and utilization

In short, we believed that SAPUI5 was a good framework that could become great, and heavily used, by opening up the source to the community. There was no downside, in our estimation.

So, I was sad to read the usual garbage in Hackers News:

“A UI toolkit from SAP, that’s rich.”

“Looks like UI kits from 3 years ago.”

“This looks like ExtJS, but worse than ExtJS.”

“Why is it so slow?”

Alas that’s pretty much what I expected from that website. I really don’t understand why “hackers” don’t see the significance of a company like SAP, that will have struggled hard to make a framework like this Open Source.

This is a really important and good thing for the community. So take a look at OpenUI. If you don’t like something, please contribute. Criticize heavily, from within. Add some value.

But please don’t whine about those people that worked hard, just because it’s SAP.

Three steps to protect your online identity in five minutes

According to Russian businessman Eugene Kaspersky, online fraud costs more than $100bn per annum. The US National Security Agency and UK GHCQ have been spying on your personal emails for years. What do you do about it? Login to your Bank of America account with “Password1”, to find out that someone emptied your account.

Yes, Bank of America allow that password. So do Chase and Citi.

I studied Computer Science at University, where I learnt from Ross Anderson about cybercrime. We knew all about it in 1996 – we estimated that the NSA could easily build a computer to build modern cryptographic algorithms in a few minutes for about $2m. Cybercrime is 20 years old and we don’t get any smarter about it?

So what can you do to protect your money, your identity, your life? It turns out that it takes three steps, and five minutes.

Encrypt your computer

I use a Mac. You click Apple -> System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> File Vault -> Turn on FileVault. That’s it. If you use a PC then it is no harder to enable BitLocker.

If you have a PC or Mac built in the last few years, it will be 1-2% slower. Big deal.

Now, if someone steals your laptop, they can’t access it unless they have your password. Both BitLocker and FileVault use encryption which is pretty hard to get through, though you had better believe that the NSA can still get in. Sorry.

Use a Secure Password

You would be surprised how quickly hackers can crack passwords. They can crack 50% within a few minutes and 80% within a few hours. Remember why you installed the security alarm at home? Mostly, because you want the burglar to break into the house next door? It’s the same with passwords – you want to be in the 20% that hackers can’t be bothered to get to.

Hackers use wordlists that have proper nouns (London), foreign wordlists (mot-de-passe), non-Latin characters (пароль) and substitutions (P4ssw0rd). None of these things protect you. Two things matter – length of password, and number of words.

So choose something which is easy for you to remember, and hard to guess. Make sure it has 4 words. Let’s say you’re a Dickens fan. OliverPickwickChuzzlewitRudge. You are now in the 20%. Why? Read this awesome article by Ars Technica.

But be careful – don’t use phrases from books, especially the Bible. Hackers are now using phrases taken from books to fuel their word lists.

Never use the same password twice

You should never use the same password twice. If your password is stored by one website and hacked, then they can log into any other website where you used the same password. But using a different password on each site means you have to remember hundreds of passwords, right?

Wrong. Meet LastPass.

You enter one master password, and then LastPass generates random secure passwords for all the websites you access. It is so easy to use, there’s no excuse not to use it. And it is cloud based so you can use it anywhere you need it.

It has a handy side-effect that you track the websites that you have passwords stored in. Remember to protect your LastPass master password with OliverPickwickChuzzlewitRudge!

Final Words

These three steps to protect your digital existence take less than FIVE MINUTES to complete. Yes, there are other things that you can do. But these three steps put you in the 20%. Unless you are specifically being targeted – the hacker will go somewhere else.

But take note – no one looks after your privacy. Bank of America certainly don’t – they allow insecure passwords. Neither do Apple or Microsoft – they provide secure functionality but don’t enable it by default or encourage you to use it. If you care about this then you have to take action to look after yourself.

Upgrading my Digital Life – analysis of home Cloud Providers

There was a time, not so long ago, that I had a big computer in a cupboard that stored all my digital life: my movies, photographs, music and documents. This way, when I was home, I could access everything from one of several computers and I would synchronize the stuff that I really needed to my laptop.

This seemed like a sensible approach at the time but the world has moved on, and so have I. For a start, I no longer want a noisy computer in a cupboard. It would cost thousands of dollars to buy, and more money to power. Second, I travel and I want my information available to me wherever I am. Third, the access and price of cloud storage has plummeted. For a few dollars a month, you can get whatever you need.

Like most people, I already use a bunch of cloud services. iTunes Match for my music collection, iCloud for email, Facebook, Flickr. I used to use Mobile Me for file storage but when iCloud came around, that got removed from the service. But in particular, I don’t have safe backups of my music and documents, so I thought I’d spring clean my digital life.

What do consumers need in cloudy digital life?

I feel like the needs are pretty simple – probably yours are similar, but for the detail.

– The ability to upload all my music somewhere, and store the stuff that I want on my Mac and iPhone, and stream the rest. Plus the ability to connect up music players as needed. I’ve consumed a lot of music over the years!
– Safe file storage that synchronizes with my main machine (Mac) and allows me to view and edit documents in the cloud from time to time. I don’t actually have a lot of documents – it boils down to a few GB in the end.
– Storage for large quantities of photographs (100GB) including support for bulk upload, albums, preferably location information and faces.
– Email archive for tens of GB of older emails that I rarely access.

The first thing I realized was that it really doesn’t matter to have one provider, or several, for these services, so long as the overall cost is reasonable. Given the cost of equipment I used to buy, I’m good with paying $100-200 a year for the pleasure. Less would be a bonus!


I’ve been using iTunes Match since it first came out. It’s a pretty nice service in many ways and I uploaded most of my music up there. But now I want to switch from the UK to US iTunes stores and iTunes Match doesn’t let you do this. You have to download all your music, cancel your subscription, move the store and upload all your music again (argghhh!).

Whilst iTunes Match makes it super-easy to move content to the iPhone or iTunes, it is a walled garden and you can’t play music without either iTunes or Airplay. No support for playing from the web on another PC, or via a streaming device like Sonos (without Airplay).

So, I went looking to see what else is out there. Amazon CloudPlayer looked good so I signed up for $25 a year and started uploading my music. Unfortunately I’ve not had much luck with this – it only matches some 30% of my music, which means I am uploading tens of thousands of songs. This is pretty inconvenient! iTunes Match matched about 95% of my songs. CloudPlayer is also based on horrible Adobe Flash technology which means when I pause the upload on my laptop during the working day (it slows the internet), it gobbles up the battery life.

I moved from there to Google Play, which is completely free for up to 20,000 tracks, and then $120 a year, which is very steep. I’m also unimpressed by the very high CPU usage (200%) when uploading music, though it does upload music fast. I’m struggling with the $120 a year price tag, when Amazon and Apple are only $25!

Not sure where I’m going to – but I’m tempted to cancel my Amazon subscription and put up with the pain of moving iTunes Match.

File Storage

Apple’s iCloud offers cruddy file storage – only really supported if you create files within the iCloud walled garden using Apple’s apps. This doesn’t really suit me well and the folder management within iCloud sucks, as does offline availability. Yuck.

It turns out that there are a bunch of GREAT options for file storage management out there. There’s Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox and a hundred others. What’s more, this market has commoditized, so prices are consistent and low.

I tried out Amazon and Google (I’ve used Dropbox in the past too) and I immediately liked Google’s interface the best. You get 15GB free (vs 5GB with Amazon) which means I can store all my files for free. If I need more, Amazon or Google are both around $50 a year for 100GB. Both provide great file synchronization and you just drop your documents in.

But more than anything with Google, the cloud storage management and ability to view and share files is just great. I have to admit I’m concerned about privacy with Google but unless I want to host my own files in a country with very strict privacy legislation, your data is not 100% secure anywhere in the cloud, especially from the Government. Be mindful of what you upload. My only other problem with Google Drive is I do get a lot of “Unable to Sync” errors even when I have otherwise good network connections.


Photos are the trickiest as unlike Music, the cloud provider can’t match them against some existing list of albums and avoid big uploads. You really do need to organize, sort and upload a truckload of images yourself.

Apple provides absolutely no mechanism for this and there is no iPhoto in the cloud. What’s more, iPhoto uses up all the disk space on my Mac with various copies of images for different devices, caches, thumbnails and databases. I have 35GB of images on my Mac and iPhoto uses 70GB. What a pile of junk.

That said, I love the convenience of PhotoStream synchronization between devices, and iPhoto does do a good job of collating my Photo albums.

It’s less obvious where to go to from here and I’m still evaluating options. Yahoo! bought Flickr, and you get a massive 1TB of free image space with them as well as great web content management software. But how do you get all your images up into the Yahoo! cloud? There is a Flickr Uploader and an iPhoto plugin but they are both quite buggy in my experience. Also, how do you get a copy of your images on your PC or iPad, to share with your friends when you don’t have a network?

Then there’s Google Drive. It has support for the Picasa photo management software with integration with Google+, which sounds alluring. Unfortunately the version of Picasa that’s available for the Mac is a horrible old-school Mac app that is slow, clunky and doesn’t work well with the MacBook Pro Retina screen. It does however appear to let you keep your photos in sync with iTunes and Google+ and what’s more, photos less than 2048×2048 don’t use up your space on Google Drive.

I’m still lost here as to a way that will work for me to manage my photos. Guess I need to blog again when I find a workable solution.


I’ve not really got to email yet, but I do have a collection of older email archives that I’d like to keep for posterity. One thing is for sure: Apple’s iCloud won’t be the place I upload my email. It’s an OK location for occasional personal email, but it’s almost entirely unmanageable and the web interface sucks.

It feels like Gmail may be the easiest solution, given I’ve already chosen Google Drive. There is Google Apps Migration for Microsoft Outlook, which lets you upload email and then Google Sync to synchronize with all your devices.


One thing is for sure – Apple’s walled garden of iCloud Apps falls way behind what else is out there in the market and it has pushed me out of the Apple ecosystem. I think the problem is sufficiently bad that I will seriously consider a non-Apple product like the Google Nexus 7 when I come to buy a new device. Unless the new iPad Mini is amazing, of course.

The other thing is that it’s clear that the major players: Apple, Google and Amazon, are trying to compete with each other on land grab for subscribers – free, or paid. It’s also clear that none of them have got it right yet and if you want the best of all worlds, you have to go with different providers for different apps.

Google are a strong contender across the board and Google Drive appears in particular to be best of breed. Google’s desktop app support is lacking and Picasa for Mac really sucks. There is a lack of a consistent interface with Google which is a bit frustrating. However, their web services like Google Drive are the best, bar none.

Amazon are trying very hard to compete but I don’t really feel they are trying hard enough. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber and this gives me no benefits with their cloud apps, which is frustrating enough. Add to this a lack of photo software, and a sucky CloudPlayer and I’m struggling.

Yahoo! seem to want to play in this world with their Flickr acquisition, but their strategy feels confused and whilst they offer huge free storage for both Mail and Photos, the apps leave something to be desired unless you want a pure-play cloud approach.

I’m left feeling I will continue using iTunes Match for music ($25/year) and Google for Documents/Photos/Email ($60/year for 100GB) for a total of $85/year. But mostly, I’m left feeling there must be a better way. Have I missed some obvious options? What do you think?