The Coolest Features Apple Did Not Announce This Week

Ok, I’m admit to using a twisted headline.  I should have called this post “The cool features I wish Apple announced this week”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited by Apple’s launch of a slew of new products – iPhone 6S, iPad Pro, Apple TV, and updated iOS and Mac OS X, but there are definitely a few things I wish they had also considered:

Bluetooth Mouse Support for iPad Pro – I definitely will be getting a new iPad Pro.  One of the things I do with my existing iPad is run a remote screen connection to other systems.  I connect to my Mac Mini and several Windows computers.

The huge screen on the iPad Pro will work great for this.  However, when connecting to a desktop or laptop remote system that relies on traditional keyboard/mouse user interface, the iPad is not optimal.  Yes, there are touch gestures and command/key equivalents, but if I could just use a Bluetooth mouse it would be so much more natural and easier.

Maybe the Apple pencil (stylus) will do the trick.  We won’t know until the iPad Pro ships and updated versions of remote control programs (Microsoft Remote Desktop, iRAPP, etc.) are available that try to support it.

Camera for Apple TV – the Apple TV would be an excellent video conferencing system that could replace expensive/dedicated hardware from both very well known companies and smaller startups.  The one thing needed, and still not provided by Apple, is a camera.

Sure, this is a “corner case” and probably not mainstream, but I know the “failed product graveyard” is littered with “Grandma VideoCams” that worked in conjunction with TV’s and they were actually a good idea.  Just too early (video conferencing on a dial-up 56K modem is simply too slow) and too clunky (good UI design still trips up many otherwise interesting startup products).

 

Dedicated to the Jerk at Best Buy That Tried to Sell Me Gold-Plated HDMI Cables for $100

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I’ve been wanting to write this for a while, all HDMI cables are the same.  Unlike analog stereo cables, there is no difference between inexpensive and high-end HDMI cables and all the marketing BS does nothing except try to push overpriced cables on uneducated consumers.

I am happy to simply link to a respected author at a respected blog/website to make the case for me.

This is dedicated to the jerk at Best Buy that simply wouldn’t listen to scientific explanation and insisted I should buy their super-expensive HDMI cables because he uses them himself at home with his “gaming rig” PC.

www.thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-hdmi-cables

So What’s The Deal With Force Touch Coming To The iPhone?

I think Force touch will be evolutionary and evolve to be incorporated into all Apple devices. It is probably not a deal maker (i.e., I would not buy a specific product only because it had force touch), but it will simply add to improving the overall experience.

There is a life cycle with new hardware features. First, the operating system is enhanced to use the new hardware and that is often the only software that can use the new hardware when it first ships. Then, early adopter developers tweak existing apps or make new apps that use the new hardware. At this phase, one will often hear things described as “cute”, “cool”, or “interesting”. Then mainstream apps will begin supporting the new hardware and soon users will be using the new hardware capabilities as second nature and not really thinking about it. Lastly, we take the new hardware feature for granted and simply expect it to be in every product and get upset when some models still don’t have it.

You can see this life cycle with touch id and retina displays. I didn’t buy a new model of iPhone just to get touch id, but when I got the iPhone 6 with touch id, i really liked it. Now, I’m getting frustrated that my iPad Air does not have touch id when I hadn’t cared about that at all a year ago when I first got it.

Last summer I got a Mac mini and hooked a decent monitor (non-Retina) up to it and didn’t give it a thought. Last fall I got a iMac Retina 27″ and was blown away. Now I hate using anything without a Retina screen and and looking to replace my Mac mini with something else once I can justify it, but I won’t get the Apple external monitor (the only external monitor Apple currently makes) because it is not Retina.

So for me, touch id and Retina have become essential features that creeped up on me that I never consciously went out of my way to buy but now I can’t live without them (figuratively speaking, “first world” problem.)

Microsoft OneNote Notebook Backup Considerations – Don’t Get Caught By Sneaky Shortcut URL

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Note:  This post in an fairly technical detail about using Microsoft OneNote.  I’m not writing this as a tutorial or step-by-step guide, so if this seems esoteric or incomprehensible, don’t worry and just move on.

On the other hand, if you are an avid user of Microsoft’s free OneNote program, as I am, and don’t use EverNote or other wannabe note taking apps, this might help you so keep reading.

Microsoft OneNote is a free note taking app that is free of charge and available for Apple iPhoneiPad, and Mac Computers; PC Computers; Android phones and tables, and online as a web application at www.onenote.com.

OneNote has built-in sharing and collaboration, so a common usage scenario is to store the OneNote files (“notebooks”) in your cloud storage for easy access.  Typically, one would be using Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) since you probably are running OneNote on at least one Microsoft platform.

I found an obscure issue with how OneNote operates.  Unlike every other app or program, it is “self-aware” that it is running through the web/cloud storage and doesn’t actually store the notebook file as just another file in a folder that happens to be in your OneDrive.

OneNote stores the notebook in a hidden folder in OneDrive and puts a visible file in your folder with the same name as the notebook that is actually a special “web-shortcut” URL that will auto-magically re-direct to the hidden file when you open it to access your notebook.

Normally, this behind-the-scenes logistics can be ignored, but there is one case where it can be a problem and therefore is something you need to be aware of.

In my computing setup, I use multiple PC’s, Mac’s, iPhones, and iPads so I have a diverse computing environment spread out among multiple physical machines and devices.

For convenience (or should I say sanity), I keep all my documents/data files synchronized between all the systems by using  Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage.  (Since I have a paid subscription to Microsoft Office 365 which includes 1 terabyte of free cloud storage, this is the simplest/easiest choice for me.  Discussing cloud storage options is a another topic for another day – someday.)

I don’t use the local “Documents” or “My Documents” folder on my PC and I don’t use the “Home” folder on my Macs.  (Well, not completely true – I let the native documents folders hold temp files and application data files that are automatically placed there that I don’t care about or will have copies or backups in other locations.  It is just too much trouble to try and re-direct or reconfigure every app to not use the local or temp folders that they want to use.)

I have one top-level folder appropriately called “OneDrive” and everything is stored underneath.  I have a general subfolder called “docs” that keeps all my primary files that are platform neutral (example, text, pdf, jpg, word, excel, powerpoint, etc. files that can be opened, with the appropriate app or tools on any device or system), and I have subfolders “pc docs” and “mac docs” for files that are platform specific and should not be opened on a different platform (without great difficulty or potential corruption).

Microsoft OneDrive apps on the PC, Mac, iPhone, and iPad synchronize and/or provide access to all the files from all the platforms and devices I use.  No problem so far.

Since cloud synching is not the same as backup (another potential topic for another time), I also run both local backup to an external hard drive (that is only plugged in for the duration of the backup), and cloud/network backup to an actual backup server (currently using CrashPlan and very happy with it.)  But, and this is a key point, my local and cloud backups are only backups of all my data files.  I do not backup a full system image as that would eat up a lot more storage and time and if I do need such a full recovery, I would prefer to do a “nuke and pave” instead of trying to reload a system image.

Heres’ the rub (and the reason for this post), I recently discovered that my local backups and cloud backups are not actually backing up any of my OneNote notebooks.  Because of the unique way that Microsoft stores notebooks – using hidden files with visible file that is a url/redirect, the only thing that is in my OneDrive folder on my computers is the url/redirect, the actual OneNote notebook is not stored locally.

I verified this by opening a web browser and examine my OneDrive folder using Microsoft’s web interface.  On the web, the notebooks are displayed as actual OneNote files and not shortcuts – I can verify this as the file size is quite large (tens of MB) which is to be expected as the notebooks have grown over time.

On my local computer, the notebook files (which are actually those special shortcut urls) are only several KB in size.

So how does one actually backup the OneNote notebook data files themselves?  Sure, it is being saved in OneDrive, but I like to be protected against the possibility that my entire OneDrive folder or account gets blown away or trashed.

The conventional approach would be to do a full image/system files backup of the PC that somewhere in the mysterious “..local app data” windows folders has the original or a copy of the OneNote notebooks.

This would require changing my workflow and require extra hard drives and procedures that I don’t want to do.

Fortunately, I found there are configuration settings inside OneNote for the PC (haven’t found them in the Mac version), where you can specify the actual location for backups, how many previous copies to save, and a convenient forced backup button “backup all notebooks NOW”.

I simply created a new subfolder in my OneDrive folder called “notebook backups” and pointed OneNote there.  Now I have a folder that will only contain OneNote backup files (so it easy to verify backups are taking place and being updated), and this folder and its contents will be seen by my normal local backup and cloud backup programs.

Here’s the info from Microsoft:

https://support.office.com/en-nz/article/Back-up-notes-8f4741b6-7526-426b-ad94-1063c529b233

It looks like “AMA” is the next “thing” on the Internet and Social Media

Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’m starting to see a trend here.  Through unsolicited emails, some startups, and dedicated sections on popular existing sites, I’m seeing a lot people jumping on the AMA bandwagon.

For those of you, like me, not paying attention, AMA is not the American Medical Association.  The TLA (three letter acronym) stands for “Ask Me Anything”.

AMA’s are websites, apps, or services where someone sets themselves up as an expert in a particular subject matter and literally invites the public to ask them any question and they will try to answer.

Some places are set up as a public service, some are educational, some are for charity (I think a saw an “Ask a VC anything for $20 that will be donated to charity), and I’m sure some are purely for entertainment or snarky comments.

Forcing Starbucks To Accept Apple Pay

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Officially, Starbucks does not support Apple Pay – the contactless, wireless, secure payment system from Apple that can be used with new iPhones or the Apple Watch.

Starbucks is invested in their barcode payment system linked to the Starbucks prepaid payment card.  Apparently, they are not too excited about upgrading all the optical/bar code scanners POS equipment in every Starbucks to accept NFC wireless payments.

However, there is a little known trick that can be used to pay with your Apple Watch at Starbucks that is almost as convenient.  Starbucks supports Apple Passbook (Wallet in iOS 9), so if you have your Starbucks card loaded into Apple Passbook, you can pay with your Apple Watch by launching the Passbook app on the Apple Watch and it will display a miniature bar code that the Starbucks scanner will process.

Slightly more friction than a true Apple Pay payment, but works nonetheless and I find it easier than digging my iPhone out of my pocket, or looking for my Starbucks card (physical) in my wallet.

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Google Chromecast reveals secret USB peripheral port?

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Google recently added an Ethernet option for the popular Chromecast HDMI stick. (Quick refresher – the Chromecast is a small stick-sized device that plugs into the HDMI port of any television or monitor and enables wireless streaming).

Like its’ competitor, the Amazon FireStick, the Chromecast only has built-in WiFi connectivity which is convenient, but subjects the user to the whims of radio interference, WiFi router placement, and other annoyances.  (I believe that the Amazon FireStick supports 5gb WiFi frequencies while the Chromecast only supports the older, more pedestrian speeds and feeds.)

This new accessory, which sells for $15, is interesting.  It is essentially a replacement for the passive external power supply for the Chromecast.  Instead of simply an AC power transformer that connects to the Chromecast through a ubiquitious micro-USB connector, this little dongle has both an AC power transformer and an RJ-45 jack for connection to a standard wired Ethernet port.

Personally, I am intrigued as to how this works.  Has Google simply packaged up a miniature wireless-to-Wifi repeater/bridge device in a convenient form-factor and price, or have they built a simpler/cheaper “external USB Ethernet peripheral” that simply connects via USB (micro-usb connector, but still USB).  If they have done the latter, this confirms that the Chromecast has a full-fledged USB interface port and not just a power connector hiding behind the micro-USB connection.

Besides being the “right” way to do this, (since anyone could have bought their own wireless-to-wired repeater bridge from many vendors), it potentially means developers might hack the Chromecast to interface other USB-connected devices to do things that Google has not envisioned or sanctioned.

“Hey Siri” is Apple Music’s unfair competitive advantage!

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This week marks the debut of the revamped/rebranded Beats streaming music service – now called simply Apple Music.

Forget the controversy leading up to the launch, forget all the nitpicking “zero-day” analysis, and forget the idiotic “how to” guides the link bait techie sites are publishing — I’ve got the real news!

Every marketer is always seeking the holy grail of how to position their product or service as unique.  Find something you do that no one else does and is hard or impossible to duplicate and you have the ultimate marketing weapon – in classic market-speak this is called the “unfair competitive advantage”.

I’ve stumbled upon the UCE (unfair competitive advantage) for Apple Music that easily sets it miles ahead of Pandora, Spotify, and every other also-ran streaming service wannabe:  Siri

That’s right, the voice assistant that some of us love, some of us hate, and some of us love-to-hate, is truly a godsend with the new Apple Music service.

Not only does Siri make using Apple Music fun, it is almost mandatory for use in a car or any situation where you need to keep your attention what you are doing instead of fiddling with your phone to select or adjust your music.

Of course, Siri understands the obvious commands such as “Play Shake It Off by Taylor Swift on the 1989 album” (shameless link bait example), but where Siri excels are its new music-centric commands.

Much to my delight Siri understands phrases like “Play the theme song from Top Gun” or “Play the top hit songs from 2012”.

Don’t forget to keep a power adapter in your car or by your desk so you can activate Siri with the “Hey Siri” phrase and not have to actually touch the home button.

Lastly, if you find the Apple Music app user interface a bit overwhelming or confusing, Siri provides a slick way to completely bypass the UI and cut right the chase of playing your favorite music.

Does Apple Music Raise Hopes For More Cross-Platform Services and Apps?

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For me, the biggest promise of Apple Music is the potential for Apple to provide more apps on Android and other platforms.  Apple music is the first expansion of the Apple eco-system beyond Mac hardware in quite a while.

Apple does support iCloud from the web and Windows PC, but not Android.  The last major capability for Windows was Safari for the PC before it was discontinued.  (Having recently gone “all in” on Apple by giving up my desktop PC for a Mac mini, I actually miss being able to use Safari cross-platform — especially now with bookmark sharing and continuity/handoff.)

From day one iTunes has always supported the PC (heck, it even supported USB in addition to FireWire to provide a hardware link to iPods for PC users), but iTunes support on the PC has been the exception rather than the rule.  (Still no way to access your purchased music library native on Android or from the cloud on non-Apple hardware.)

Think of the markets and solutions that Apple might have already dominated if they had been more willing to go cross-platform:

Video Conferencing – Imagine Opra Winfrey chatting live with her home viewers over FaceTime instead of Skype

VoIP Calling – FaceTime Audio calls to anyone/anywhere bypassing carrier per-call charges for low-cost or free International phone calls.  “Over the top” phone calls have been feasible since the pioneering days of Vocaltec on dial-up Internet connections before Cisco could even spell VoIP!

Text Messaging – Would multi-billion dollar apps like WhatsApp even exist if iMessage was cross-platform, cross-carrier?  Remember how Hotmail pioneered free web based email and Microsoft bought them (and continued to run it on *nix servers) ?

Don’t even get me started on Evernote and other productivity apps!

“And Now for Something Completely Different” – I’m not littering, I’m storing energy!

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Once in a while I read something online that is scientifically amusing and insightful at the same time.

I couldn’t resist posting  a link to this article that discusses how the spent filters in used cigarette butts can be post-processed into a nano-carbon material that excels as a capacitive material for storing energy in new super capacitors.