Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Memory of Jean Bartik, Computing Pioneer and Friend

I'm going to digress this week to write a little about a former boss of mine who recently passed away. Her name was Jean Jennings Bartik, and if you look up her name on Google you'll find pages and pages of information about her. That's because Jean was a pioneer in the computing industry. Specifically, she was one of the six women who programmed the ENIAC computer at the University of Pennsylvania. Her story has been told numerous times and she has been honored in many venues. There is even a computer museum at her alma mater named after her. I have provided links below.

However the Jean I want to talk about here is the one I met in 1973. I was a young graduate of Temple University's School of Journalism when I got a job during a very tough recession at Auerbach Computer Technology reports--the brainchild of Isaac Auerbach, himself a computer pioneer. I was struggling to learn about the parts of computers and communications gear, to describe those parts for the update service Auerbach published.

About a year after I came to work at Auerbach, I was brought into a VP's office and told I would be transferred to a department headed by Jean Bartik. This was years after Jean's work on ENIAC in the 1940s and after her stints at UNIVAC and elsewhere. In the 1970s, most of Jean's former accomplishments were forgotten. I thought the move to Jean's department was a bad move and I was upset about it. However,  it turned out to be one of the luckiest career breaks I ever had.

Jean was a born teacher and she cared deeply for the cause of women in the computer industry. While Jean's name is widely known now, in the 1970s the significance of the women who programmed the ENIAC was totally ignored. The glass ceiling was firmly in place, and it didn't matter how good you were at your job. And Jean was great! During my stint as Jean's editorial assistant, she MADE SURE, I understood the technology I was writing about. She drew me diagrams, explained how things worked, and took the time to mentor me in a way no one did before or has since. Jean introduced me to the world of minicomputers and microprocessors and made me excited about this new upcoming technology. I will always be grateful for her extraordinary interest and help. When I left Auerbach to become minicomputer editor at Computerworld, she practically launched me out of her "nest."

I stayed in touch with Jean over the years and know she had to leave the industry at one point. This giant of computing wound up making a living selling real estate for a while. That changed later. The story that she told me is that  sometime in the mid 80s, historian Kathy Kleiman learned about the six women who worked on ENIAC and decided to follow up. Until that time, most people thought that the women in the photos about the historic computer were models, not the people who actually wrote the programs. After Kleiman's intervention, Jean and the rest of the group were honored in many different venues, which gave Jean a platform to advocate for and advance the role of women in computing.

Jean's kindness and help have stayed with me to this day and I hope I've been able to teach the people who followed me, in the way Jean taught me. In fact, my desire to teach baby boomers about technology probably stemmed from Jean's extraordinary way of making technology accessible even to me.  I would like to finish this post with a quote from Jean Bartik about how women in computing were treated in her day. This is taken from the Inventors website.
I was just at the right place at the right time. It was divine providence or fate that selected me to be an ENIAC programmer. Betty Holberton quoted something interesting recently, 'Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, and Work like a dog.' I was told I'd never make it to VP rank because I was too outspoken. Maybe so, but I think men will always find an excuse for keeping women in their 'place.' So, let's make that place the executive suite and start more of our own companies.
Some links for Jean Bartik:

IEEE Computer Society Awards
ENIAC Programmers Project
Top Secret Rosies
Obituary CNN: Computing Pioneer Jean Jennings Bartik Dies
The Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum at Northwest Missouri State University

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When Buying Mobile Devices, Buy the Network First

This week AT&T announced that it was purchasing T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. Whether or not this acquisition goes through, it brought up an issue for me. I’ve been spending my time telling Baby Boomers how to use their iPhones and iPads. What I haven’t addressed is the importance of the network in your enjoyment of these items. It's important to have strong signals and a stable network to power the devices you use. Otherwise, they don't operate well, and you won't like them.

The importance of the network hit home for me last Friday night. I was in Manhattan and meeting my husband and some friends for dinner. I was sitting comfortably at the table waiting for them to arrive. When ten minutes went by, I decided to call, first my husband, then my friends. The first thing that happened is that I couldn’t get a signal at the table where I was seated and there was no Wi-Fi available to use. In a lot of places I have free Wi-Fi through Optimum Online, but not in this particular part of New York.

I left the table to go outside the restaurant to make the call.  There, my phone read that I had a signal, but two attempts at calling my husband ended up not going through. A third call went directly to voice mail. A forth call got a busy signal. I know my husband wasn’t on the phone at this time. A call to my friends also dropped and another went direct to voice mail. I tried sending a text, but that didn’t go through either.

Next, I tried sending an email, hoping that the data network was better than the voice network.  You could see the symbol in the left corner of the phone, indicating that the phone was trying to catch a signal to send the email.  That email was never completed. The culprit was AT&T’s network in NYC, which has been the subject of many complaints. 
This is what my signal indicator looks like. The star shape shows the phone looking for a signal. This was taken inside my house where I have Wi-Fi and a strong AT&T signal (bars)

AT&T is aware of its problems in NYC and continues to upgrade its systems there. Articles have been written about people who carry two phones in NYC, one for voice calls and another for data. However, this doesn’t help you when you are stuck without cell phone service at a crucial time. Luckily, being late for dinner doesn’t qualify as crucial. However when you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on an iPhone or iPad, and you’ve gotten a data plan, you want it to work when you want it to work.

As you know, if the network is a problem you can’t take advantage of all the cool aspects of many of the apps I’ve been talking about in this column. Most of them rely on consumers being able to access a good signal, whether data or voice. Wi-Fi, while available now more than ever,  isn’t always available to help you. Another problem: if you don’t have a strong network signal, your phone keeps trying and trying to download your email etc., using up your battery life.

So here’s the thing.  You all know I’m an iPhone aficionado. I could have switched to Verizon for better service in NYC when Verizon announced they would carry the iPhone. I didn’t, and here is why: my house is in New Jersey and when in the past I used Verizon, I was unable to use my cell phone in my house because Verizon doesn’t have a tower nearby. AT&T, on the other hand, does have a tower nearby and I can use my AT&T phone easily in my house. I know that this problem hasn’t been overcome over the years because visitors to my house who have Verizon experience the same problem. Visitors with Sprint often find their batteries depleted as their phones continuously search for a signal.  

So I’ve chosen to have cell service at home over cell service in NYC.  You too will have to make similar choices. Choose the service that works best for you as an individual or your family as a whole.  Then decide on the tablet or smart phone that is right for you.

 If the regulators let AT&T purchase T-Mobile it will be good for some consumers and bad for others. AT&T users will have more coverage in places like NYC where cell signals are a problem. T-Mobile users will probably lose out on pricing. We will all lose out on choices.  The bottom line remains, when buying your iPhone or any other mobile device, always buy the network first. Of course, as in my case, that doesn't always work out.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How Much iPad2 Do You Need, Boomers?

The March 11 release date for the new iPad2 is right around the corner, but I am not going to buy one, at least not yet. The reason is simple. Despite all the improvements Apple has made to the iPad, I’m still figuring out my first generation iPad. 

Like many Boomers, it takes me a while to explore new technology. My iPad still “magical” to me and delivers more entertainment and utility than one device ought to. I know I’ve groused about some of the iPad’s shortcomings, but mostly, it is a terrific device.

This blog post, however, is for those of you who are going to run out and buy the iPad2, pictured above, on March 11. I know there is pent up demand for these devices. A lot of people waited to buy, wanting to see if the tablet phenomenon was real or if people got tired of the iPad easily.

Recently a friend emailed me trying to figure out just how much storage she was going to need on her new iPad when she got one.  I couldn’t tell her for sure, but judging by my use, going the middle road was a safe bet.  When I bought my iPad I bought it with Wi-Fi and 3G and 32G of storage. I thought I would easily fill it up.

The truth is I haven’t come close. Most of the apps I use just don’t hog the iPad’s space. What takes up a lot of space are my pictures, but even with all of my pictures, all of my music and a few videos, I have plenty of space left.

Here are your options for the iPad2:

iPad2 With Wi-Fi : 16GB $499, 32GB $599, 64GB $699
iPad2 With Wi-Fi and 3G (your choice Verizon or AT&T): 16GB $629, 32GB $729, 64GB $829

It’s easy to overbuy when you are looking at the latest and greatest thing. To prevent this, I’d say, take a look at your computer. If you are the kind of person who runs out of storage on your computer and has to frequently upgrade or offload to a storage drive, then you’ll be the kind of person who quickly fills up the iPad.

If you are a modest computer user, you’ll be a modest iPad user too. What’s nice about the iPad is that if you are wrong, and you do fill it up, you can just select to put only a portion of your music or TV shows on the device, and the rest will stay on your PC or Mac. 

A  post on the Fortune website by Philip Elmer-Dewitt is a very good resource for people who are trying to figure out if they will get Wi-Fi only or 3G enabled versions, or if they will attempt to use the device as a Wi-Fi hotspot tethered to their phone.

Basically, the 3G works for commuters who want to make sure they can access their email on the iPad during their daily commute. It is also very good for those who take their iPads on the road with them and use them as laptop substitutes. And the 3G version of the iPad comes with GPS, something that is not on the Wi-Fi only version. So if you are planning to use your iPad as a navigation device, you might consider springing for the 3G version.

To make things more confusing, Apple will soon allow users to “tether’ their iPads to their iPhones if they use AT&T. That will make the iPhone a personal hotspot for your Wi-Fi only iPad2. You download your data through your phone to your iPad, in the same way you use a Wi-Fi hotspot.

This service costs $20/month, but has the advantage of letting you buy 3G service on an “as needed” basis. I don’t think many Boomers will be interested in the hotspot offering because setting it up each time you want to use it has been described as a painful experience by some who have tried. 

I hope this post has been some help to those who plan to buy the iPad2 March 11 and thereafter. Good luck and enjoy!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tell Google What You Think About Junk Search Results, Boomers

There has been a lot of talk lately about how Google is changing its search algorithm to get rid of some of the “junk” that pops up near the top of the list in many searches. Take a look at this article on CNN or this one on ZDNet. While some websites are adversely affected by any tweaking Google does, I will certainly welcome this change.

After all, Google made its reputation by serving more accurate search results than those other guys. The company definitely needs to keep up with the times and make sure that it delivers relevant results, or people will flee to search engines that will.

Recently, I searched for something and one of the top five sites listed in the results was basically gibberish. Now that Google made the change, I really wish I had saved the search to compare it to the "new" one. The result web site had the keywords I had searched on, but they were embedded in a sea of junk returns. It was just a waste of my time. I bet you’ve had the same experience and wondered why Google wasn’t doing anything about it.

Well, finally it is.

One of the changes Google made is removing results from so-called "content farms" from its lists. I don’t know if you Boomers are aware of the concept of content farms, but here it is. Some bright soul figured out that writers (and in some case robots) could create "news" articles that would rise to the top of the search listings by looking at what people search for, and then creating an article that includes as many of those key words as possible.

The content farm stories have legit headlines, so people click on them. When you get to the web site, you find content that is very low quality and looks like it was strung together from a number of different places. Kudos to Google for taking on content farms and putting them in their place.

But here's the rub: some "content farms" are better than others. Some publish garbage and others take search engine results and popular keywords and actually use freelance writers to create something meaningful. Here is a list of  web sites that were affected by the change in the algorithm according to Sistrix and reported by ReadWriteWeb

Google has taken another step as well.  To explain this, I’ll have to explain the concept of a web browser. When you get a computer, it usually comes with a program you can use to explore the web. Mac users get Safari preinstalled. Windows users get Windows Internet Explorer. Several other companies offer browsers anyone can download for their computer. Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome are examples.

While a browser lets you explore by typing in web addresses, sometimes it comes equipped with its own search bar, powered by a search engine. Most of the time that search engine is Google or you can access Google search by typing in your web browser. Sometimes the preinstalled search engine will be Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. You can get to Bing by typing in  Because Chrome is a Google product, it is particularly well integrated with that particular search engine.

Now Chrome users can get a plug-in, a little program to download from the website, that lets them report back to Google when sites deliver poor content or content that doesn’t match the search query. Derek Gorden says on Search Insiders:

“An important factor in all this is a new plug-in for the Chrome browser that enables users to block sites they feel do not deliver quality content relevant to the search query.  The Personal Blocklist, which is available for free in the Chrome Web Store, shows up as a little red hand icon at the far right of the Chrome browser bar -- one quick click sends a message to Google that you didn't care for the content in a site listed in a search result.”

Certainly, you’ll be doing Google’s work for them, and I know a lot of us think that Google, with its billions, should be smart enough to catch these sites on their own. However, this is a clever example of what is called “crowdsourcing,” getting a lot of data from a lot of anonymous people to improve a product. I think Google’s search can use some improvement. I usually use Firefox as my browser, but I am considering using Chrome just so I can tell Google what I think.

In the mean time, take a look at your search results the next time you use Google. Are they better than they used to be? Are you delighted?  Or are you ready to change to Bing? Go back in time to "Yahoo?" Try out some new search engines like DuckDuckGo?