“Net Neutrality” is a phrase we may be hearing more often in the coming months

So what is it?

“Net neutrality” is the concept that all data that whizzes around all of the internet is dealt with in exactly the same way irrespective of its content, source, or destination. So, for instance, if you visit my website (www.davidleonard.london, as if you didn’t know) and click on a menu option to display a particular page, then all of the computers that are involved in delivering that page to your browser (including your ISP – your “Internet Service Provider”) will treat my page in exactly the same way as they would treat, say, a request to Netflix to deliver a movie to you. Delivery of my page will not be slowed down because I’m just a one-man band. Delivery of the movie won’t be speeded up because it’s important that movies are “streamed” quickly and Netflix have paid one or more entities to get it delivered quickly. You might want to pay your ISP more money to have ALL of your internet traffic delivered more quickly (eg by moving from ADSL to fibre optic) but your ISP will not differentiate between the traffic that it delivers to you.

Net neutrality 01

No-one at any stage “judges” the content and decides that anything is more (or less) worthy or important than anything else. Net neutrality means that pornography, Facebook, and the weather forecast are all treated just the same – x megabytes of content from one provider travel across the internet, and are delivered by ISPs, as quickly as x megabytes from another. Of course, the website that is serving the content may send it out quickly or slowly, and your own internet connection may be quicker or slower, but there is no discrimination in transit in terms of the type of content or who sent it or who requested it. The principle of net neutrality also says that your ISP is not entitled to decide what content you are allowed to download and what you are not.

What is the alternative?

One alternative would be for the senders of data to be able to pay for preferential treatment. So, Netflix for example might be interested in paying to get their movies delivered to you more quickly so that you don’t spend ages downloading it or experience “buffering” if you are streaming it. They could pay your ISP to bring this about.

Another example of something that could happen if net neutrality is ended is that ISPs could decide not to allow their customers access to certain websites at all (if, for instance, they themselves offered a competing product or if they chose to take some moral stance against a particular website or particular type of content).

But this is all more complicated than a simple, straight-forward case of “free competition” versus “meddling”. One view of “free competition” says that if someone wants to pay for a better service then they should be entitled to do so. The opposite point of view says that “free competition” demands that everyone is on “a level playing field”.

Net neutrality 02

Why will we be hearing more of this issue?

During President Obama’s administration, the US Federal Communications Commission committed the US to new regulations that supported the principles of net neutrality. I think maybe you can guess what’s coming next. Yes, President Trump has appointed a chair of the FCC who wants to abandon net neutrality. The FCC is currently seeking public opinion on the matter and so you may come across websites that are openly lobbying for one side or the other.

But we are in the UK, not the US!

The situation in the EU is that net neutrality is written into the guidelines published by BEREC last year (BEREC is “The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, representing EU national regulators).

It’s hard to imagine, though, that we wouldn’t be massively affected by an abandonment of net neutrality in the USA. And post Brexit? Better ask David Davies.

Net neutrality 03

The images in this blog post were taken from the following websites (respectively), discussing net neutrality from a US point of view:

bluefletch.com

dailytech.com

eff.org

I reckon that more than half of all of us are frustrated by poor ISP support and dread having to contact them

We all know the scene: something’s gone wrong with your internet connection and you want to pursue it with your provider. It goes something like this:

HurdlesHurdle 1: you can’t find a phone number for technical support. Many organisations with an online presence (not just ISPs) try to reduce the number of cries for help that actual reach human ears by making their customers jump through hoops such as “have you looked at our FAQs page?” After that, you may have to fill in a complicated form that only allows you to express your problem in the pre-defined terms of the form instead of wording it the way you want. Eventually, you may be lucky and be given the option to call a number. I wonder what percentage of initial calls they have weeded out before a call is even made? As I’ve suggested in a recent blog post, googling for “tech support” followed by the name of the organisation might find you a number.

Hurdle 2: the phone number you finally find is a premium number
and you resent paying £1 or £1.50 per minute to have a problem rectified that is the ISP’s responsibility. I will always try to beat this one by using a smartphone app that tries to find an alternative number, whose use is free as it’s within your allowance (see WeQ4U, for instance).

Hurdle 3: You finally get a phone connection, but it’s to an automated service
that forces you to choose a menu option. This wouldn’t be so bad if they told you at the start how many options they are about to provide. How often have you listened for what you want, only to find it never occurs and you didn’t make a mental note of what might have been the best alternative?

I try to jot down the options as they say them. If this doesn’t work and they don’t offer to repeat them, just hold on and they will probably either repeat the options or put you through to a human. If this just gets too frustrating (and assuming you have access to a web browser with an internet connection) just google for “sales mynemesis” where “mynemesis” is the organisation in question. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to find a sales telephone number and a human being to answer the phone. You can then ask to be re-routed to a support person.

Indian Call CentreHurdle 4: You finally get through to a human being who identifies himself as “Kevin” but seems to be talking like a cross between Stanley Unwin and Peter O’Sullevan (remember them?). He (or she) may think (s)he is speaking English as an English person would, but (s)he isn’t. When this happens to me, I have no problem whatever in asking them to please repeat what they said and to say it slower as I’m having trouble understanding them. I will do this as often as necessary during the conversation and will not feel embarrassed to do so.

Hurdle 5: Kevin then insists on repeating back to you the situation you have just explained and promises that he is “absolutely going to help you with this matter”. He then asks you to confirm that his confirmation of what you just said is correct. Not sure about you, but this is where I’m starting to lose it. I haven’t found a clever way of dealing with this hurdle except hissing “yes” at him through gritted teeth. He won’t continue until you do confirm his confirmation, so you might as well bite the bullet, play his game, and attempt to be gracious and dignified.

Hurdle 6: Kevin then insists – absolutely insists – that you tell him you are now carrying out the same ten tests/tweaks/fiddles that you tried ten times before you eventually gave in and started this process of contacting him. There is nothing you can do here except play along with his game. I’ve lost count of the number of times my computer support clients have asked me to help because they can’t bear to phone their ISP for help, only for me to be told to repeat all the steps I’ve already tried. It’s no good saying to them “Trust me, I’m an IT Consultant”: that little joke just plummets into the cultural divide.

The key thing to remember with Hurdles 5 and 6 is that Kevin is following instructions on a screen. Although (s)he is a highly capable graduate doing a job that is well-paid in the place he resides, he knows that his supervisor is quite possibly listening in to what he is doing and it really is more than his job is worth to try to use his/her initiative or to try to take shortcuts through the process. We are not dealing with a “free human being” here: we are dealing with a human being who is just a part of the machine. You can just imagine what Kafka or Orwell might have said.

Jumping through Hoops

Hurdles and hoops. The metaphors may be mixed, but the reality is depressingly similar amongst most ISPs.

Hurdle 7: Kevin admits that the ten things he’s insisted you check (again) haven’t revealed the problem and he’s now going to “escalate your issue to the next level”. However did that phrase gain currency? He means, of course, “I’m going to pass you to someone else, who is trained in a slightly different microscopic slice of the whole process”.

Hurdles 8, 9, 10: repeat Hudle 7, through “ever escalating levels” until some kind of decison or answer is reached, or until you lose the will to live.

This whole sorry scene is surely one of the worst aspects of our techological age. What it all boils down to is, of course, money.

Take my own ISP, for instance – Zen internet. Although I don’t think they are as brilliant with customer support as they used to be, they are still much better than most. Until I upgraded today, I have been paying £16.25 plus VAT per month for a 35mbit/sec fibre optic connection with a download limit of 50gb per month. This is a lot more expensive than some providers, but think about the total package.

This comes to £234 per annum. Now imagine that I have just two “issues” per annum that require half an hour each of Zen’s time to resolve. If we assume that Zen’s employees cost them (say) £20000 per annum (Zen support is – unusually, but thankfully – sited in the UK) then that hour of support has probably cost about £30 (including overheads for that employee). To put it another way, every hour of customer support costs them more than 10% of what I pay them annually. It wouldn’t take many big issues in the course of a year for me to be an unprofitable customer. And if I was only paying half as much for my internet provision (say £10 per month), then each hour of support that I need in the course of a year could soak up 25% of their income from me.

These figures are, of course, estimates but I think they demonstrate just how important it is for the profitability of ISPs to be maximised by reducing as far as possible the number of phone calls they have to deal with and “de-skilling” the support they provide as far as possible. If they can deal with 50% of problems by making the customer jump through the same hoops that some of them already tried, and employing a “lesser skilled” person to handle that 50%, then they are going to save money in a very important area. Being prepared to pay more for your internet provision can mean you get a better level of support.

When it comes down to support from your internet provider, you get what you pay for.

Is your internet provider manipulating the speed of your internet connection?

Light Trails coming from screenThere’s a lot of data traffic passing through the internet and the amount is increasing all the time – especially now that we expect to be able to download or stream entire films and TV programs, and a household of four people could easily be connecting four devices to the internet at the same time. It costs money for internet providers to install the infrastructure to handle all this increasing traffic, so it makes sense (from their point of view) to have some kind of control over the demands that you – their customer – put on that infrastructure.

This control comes in the form of them manipulating the different sorts of demands that you put on their system. For example, are you just trying to send a 100kb email or to stream a 1gb video? This manipulation is known as “traffic management” or “traffic shaping”. The traffic shaping that ISPs are allowed to apply to your internet connection is covered by their policy and should be available to you before you sign up to that provider. Although they are not legally obliged (as far as I can tell) to explain their policy, I wouldn’t sign up to any internet provider that wasn’t open and honest about this (who wants to buy a pig in a poke?) Ofcom have a Code of Practice for internet providers and being open and honest about their fair usage policy and how they shape traffic is required by this code.

Examples of traffic shaping policies could include:

  • Shaping some types of traffic at certain (busy) times of the day – eg slowing your downloading of the latest episode of Downton Abbey if you try to do it at 6pm
  • Shaping your traffic if you have already used this month’s allowance of what they state in their “fair usage” policy – eg slowing everything down for the rest of the month if you’ve already downloaded, say, 100gb of data in the current month.
  • Not allowing you to use the internet at all for the rest of the month unless you pay for some more “data allowance”.

Tangled Ethernet CablesThere are tools available on the internet that allow you to check whether your current traffic is being shaped. Unfortunately, both of the ones that I tried a short while ago depend on having Java installed and activated, and I’ve just discovered that both Firefox and Internet Explorer now consider Java to be so dangerous that they de-activate it. You are supposed to be able to over-ride this de-activation but I think it must be too early in the morning for me because I couldn’t make it happen.

Certainly, there are simple speed tests you can run – such as Speedtest and Broadband Speed Checker – that give you an idea of your internet connection speed, but these don’t attempt to test for traffic shaping and the results would be affected by extraneous factors (such as the distance between your property and the telephone exchange, the quality of the telephone line and the telephone wiring in your property).

The main point that I am making in this blog is that if your download speeds are irritatingly slow – especially when downloading large files – then checking your usage against the stated policy of your internet provider should be included in your list of things to investigate.

Shouting At Laptop

Shouting at it probably won’t help

By the way, I mentioned “downloading” and “streaming” at the beginning of this post. What’s the difference?

Downloading” is when you copy a file from the internet to your own computer, but you are not attempting to open (or use) that file until the copying has been completed. When you do open it, you will be opening the downloaded version. As long as your computer is working reasonably well then even a huge movie file should play at its proper speed and with no interruptions.

Streaming“, on the other hand, is when you are simultaneously downloading the file and using it. If you have a fast internet connection then the downloading is happening faster than you are “consuming” (eg watching) the content that is being downloaded. That’s fine and dandy, but if the downloading is not happening fast enough then your watching is interrupted while the downloading catches up. This is the phenomenon known as “buffering“. What that means is that the downloading process needs to “feed” some data into a “buffer” (an area of memory) before you can continue watching. As we all know, buffering can be very annoying and it can happen because your downloading speed is being “shaped” (ie slowed down) by your internet provider.

There has been much publicity in the last few days about the Heartbleed Bug

Heartbleed logoWhat is it?

It’s not a virus or malware that can affect your computer. Rather, it is a vulnerability in the coding used by many websites that are meant to be secure as they encrypt the data passing in and out (the web page address of supposedly secure web pages begins with https and not just http. Also, depending on your browser, you will probably see a padlock somewhere on the browser indicating that you are accessing a secure page).

The Result

The result of this vulnerability is that hackers can learn the usernames and passwords of people logging into the site as well as the content of the data passing between that user and the compromised website.

The Implications

The biggest implication that seems (rightly) to be getting most coverage is not the fact that you should change your password on sites that are known to have been hacked (such as Mumsnet), but that you should also change the password on any other logins that you have that use the same combination of username and password.

Think about it

If someone has just learned that you use a particular combination of username (that is probably also your email address) and password on one website, then they might try the same combination on other sites that you might use. They might try your bank, but I don’t think that your username and password will be enough credentials to do your online banking any harm. They could try your username and password on Amazon or they could see if you use those combinations for webmail (Gmail or Hotmail, for instance). If they can get into your email then they can try the old trick of sending emails to all your contacts, saying you’re in Spain and have been mugged and please send some money. If they’ve got into your email then that could give them access to goodness knows how much other information about you. They can then change the password on your account, locking you out.

PadlockSo, it’s not just a case of changing your password on one website when that website has been compromised by Heartbleed. To protect yourself as much as you can, you need to change that password on every account that uses it with that username. This is one very good reason why you shouldn’t use the same password on different websites. Some websites and blogs are advising that you change ALL of your online passwords, irrespective of whether you have been advised that the site may have been hacked and irrespective of whether you use the same password on many sites. Personally, I think it unrealistic to think that anyone’s going to follow that advice, but I would definitely advise my computer support clients to change all instances of any password that has been used on a site known to have been compromised by Heartbleed.

Since this bug was discovered, vulnerable sites have of course, been applying the necessary patches to close the vulnerability so, by the time you read this, it’s not likely that very many major websites will still be vulnerable. That does not mean we are all safe and can forget about it! How many sites have been attacked but the owners haven’t advised their members? How many sites have been attacked but the owners haven’t yet realised? How long before the bad guys find another, similar, vulnerability?

Like anyone else who writes – or talks – about the subject of passwords, I have always warned people not to use the same password wherever they go. I’m not going to repeat what I’ve said in previous blogs on the subject, but here are the links:

Personally, I manage passwords with a program called eWallet Go. It is available for Android, IOS, Windows, and Mac. This solution won’t suit everyone as not everyone is prepared to use The Cloud to store a datafile of passwords (encrypted, of course).

Lastpass logoAnother program that’s been around for a long time is Last Pass. This is so-called because the publishers say that your password for accessing your password data will be the “last password” that you’ll ever need. This program does other things as well – including generating strong, safe passwords for you.

If you really don’t want to commit your password information to a digital file (whether held in the cloud or not), then I do urge you to write down your passwords manually – all in the same place and where you can find them. Apart from anything else, that will make it easier to go through your passwords systematically, changing any repetitions so as to minimise the vulnerability to the Heartbleed bug and anything similar that might crop up in the future.

Here is everything you need to know about Heartbleed from the BBC and from Codenomicon (who discovered the bug).

In the past, I’ve counselled buying a tablet that has 3G (cellular) access, but this may not be the best option for you

My reasoning has always been straightforward. You will quite probably wish to take your tablet around with you. That’s what it’s for. But, away from your own wi-fi setup, you may not be able to connect to anyone else’s wi-fi. if you do not have a 3G (cellular) connection available to you then you may have no internet access.

On the other hand, buying a tablet with 3G access will, typically, cost you about £100 more than a tablet that relies solely on wi-fi access. You will also need to subscribe to a 3G plan costing from £5-£15 a month. So, it’s not exactly cheap to have 3G access.

iPhone with wi-fi iconWith a newish smartphone, though, you may have an alternative method of connecting your tablet to the internet. You may be able to configure the smartphone so that it becomes a “personal hotspot”. In other words, your smartphone broadcasts a wi-fi signal that your tablet can use. If you manage to connect this way then the data downloaded to the tablet will, of course, count against your data download allowance for the smartphone providing the wi-fi. But it means that you only need one device with 3G access to get internet access on both devices.

In years gone by, the mobile service providers (Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile etc) used to “cripple” the phones that they provided to stop you from doing this. The small print of their contracts also expressly forbade using their data plans in this way unless explicitly stated otherwise. I remember about five years ago paying-T-Mobile about £10 per month more so that I could pass an Internet connection from my Windows mobile phone to my netbook via a USB cable (it was known as “tethering” then). In fact, I think I’m still on the same plan, but it’s much cheaper now.

I have just carried out a very quick survey of Orange and Vodaphone plans on their websites and can’t find any reference to personal hotspots so maybe they no longer worry about whether you are using your data allowance on your smartphone or on a connected device (and why should they?). It’s still possible, though, that if your iPhone was supplied as part of your contract, then the method detailed below will not be available to you. It may also be good advice to check the details of your plan to ensure that you won’t get hit by large charges.

It wouldn’t work for me, anyway, as I use an iPhone 3GS. This does have the option to create a personal hotspot, but the connection is via a USB cable or bluetooth. I have, in the past, used the connection via a USB cable to a Windows netbook, but I’ve never had much luck with bluetooth.

iPhone Personal Hotspot settingsHowever, if you have an iPhone 4 or 5 then your “Personal Hotspot” settings include an option to “connect using wifi”. This is simple and secure. Just follow the instructions (as illustrated). If you go into “Settings” and then “Personal Hotspot” but do not see the option to “connect using Wi-Fi” then it is either being blocked by your provider or you have iPhone 3 or earlier.

This potentially very handy facility was pointed out to me by a reader, and it caused a little lightbulb to ping into life in my head. I bought a 3G data plan with my first tablet last year. It came with a mobile broadband USB “dongle” so that you can put the 3G SIM into this and connect a Windows machine (such as a netbook) to the internet. So, if I needed an internet connection on either of my Sony tablet or netbook, I would fiddle about, removing the SIM from one device and putting it in the other.

When I moved to an iPad Mini I carried on with the same method. This was made even more fiddly by the fact that the iPad Mini uses a “nano” SIM, whereas the dongle is made for a “micro” SIM, so the SIM has to be put into an adaptor before fitting to the dongle. All rather tedious and just the sort of thing I don’t want to be doing in front of a client in their time.

So, this lightbulb moment consisted of realising that the iPad may be able to serve as a “personal hotspot” and give the netbook an internet connection just like an iPhone 4 or 5 can. And it can! Magic! The SIM now stays in the iPad. Giving internet access to the netbook (or even a client’s machine) consists of just going into “Settings” and “Personal Hotspot” on the iPad and then connecting to that wi-fi signal on the other machine.

If you have an Android smartphone, then you may or may not be able to create a personal hotspot. Go into “Wireless and Network Settings” and look for “tethering and portable hotspot”. On a Windows mobile phone go into settings and look for “Internet sharing”. I understand that newer Blackberries with the latest operating system can also provide a wi-fi personal hotspot.

Conclusion: you don’t necessarily need 3G access on a device if you can create a wi-fi personal hotspot from another device. You could even use this method to give internet access to your home setup if your home broadband service went down.

… and I’ve just found out what “SIM” stands for – it’s a “Subscriber Identity Module”.

Have you noticed the “casual dishonesty” by commercial enterprises on their websites?

Cartoon robber stealing away from laptopWe all know – I hope – that there are some out-and-out villains trying to deceive us online, but many otherwise highly-regarded organisations also appear to be “ethically challenged” online.

You can sign out if you are not you

Take Amazon, for example. If you want to sign out of your Amazon account you need to click on the link at the top of any Amazon page that says “Hello, David, your account” (assuming, of course, that, like me, you are called David). The option that allows you to sign out is at the bottom of the menu that pops up. But it doesn’t say “sign out”, it says “Not David? Sign out”.

Amazon Sign Out Option

The Amazon sign-out. The only way to sign out is to pretend not to be David

The way that I read this is that this option is only for use by someone other than me. Is there any other interpretation that can be put on this? Hence, if I’m a bit overwhelmed by all this stuff I might not want to use this option to sign myself out and might look in vain for an alternative way of doing it. No doubt Amazon would say that they give an option to sign out. My guess is that their weasely wording just nudges the “sign out” rate down a smidgeon, so they can gather even more information from people who have failed to find the non-existent unambiguous sign-out option.

Go, Don’t Go

Green Button

Is this the nice, friendly, button …

A favourite trick is to style the button they want you to click as a green one, and the one they don’t want you to click on as a red one. This looks incredibly crass once you’ve spotted it, but I suppose that the whole point is that you don’t spot it: you only apply a part of your attention to what you are doing and the green button looks safe and suggests “go ahead, this is the safe way forward”. So, the green button is likely to represent “upgrade to the paid version” and the red button means “stick with the free version”.

Red Button

… or is this the one you were looking for?

You wanted to continue with the free version, but before you know it you’ve clicked on the green button and you’re on your way to paying for it.

The Microsoft Upgrade Assistant

I was thrown off balance last week by what semed like similar behaviour by Microsoft. They very helpfully provide a Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant so that you can check to see what problems (or “issues” as everyone calls them these days) you might encounter if you upgrade your existing operating system to Windows 8.

The Upgrade Assistant analyses your current setup and then gives you a report. This divides the results into two sections. The first section is headed “For you to review” and the second section is headed “Compatible”. Included in the first section of my report was an entry with a yellow icon of a “warning triangle” and the text “paid update available”. Given that other items in that section had red crosses and text such as “go to the app website for help”, I think I can forgive myself for believing that Microsoft were telling me that I had to pay for a newer version of the (Microsoft!) product flagged with the yellow warning triangle.

I actually ran the Upgrade Assistant twice on different days. Perhaps I was hoping for a second opinion. Not surprisingly, it gave the same result on both occasions. I decided to bite the bullet as it’s time I got to grips properly with Windows 8 and the only way to do that is to use it for real on my main computer.

Guess what? The “flagged” item runs perfectly happily with Windows 8 (as does almost everything else). No paid update needed. For a few minutes I felt a bit of a ‘nana for letting myself be misled like this. Then I remembered that Microsoft – like all the other major web presences who are trying to lead us by the nose down paths that they choose – are paying lots of intelligent people to tweak web pages to the nth degree so as to get the very best response rates. Why would those people care too much about pushing the boundaries of ethical standards? They’re not standing in front of the end user, looking them in the eye and telling a barefaced lie. No, they’re sitting in front of their computers, tweaking their web designs so as to squeeze out the very last fraction of a percentage point of “response rate” or whatever it is they’re seeking to maximise. Or am I just being too cynical – again?

What are the main internet browsers and are two – or more – better than one?

Internet Explorer

IE9 - Internet Explorer 9 - logoSupplied by Microsoft as part of Windows, this used to be the leading browser. The European Commission judged that Microsoft was taking unfair advantage by supplying their own browser with their (almost ubiquitous) operating system. A deal was struck in 2009 whereby new Windows machines pop up a screen pointing out that Internet Explorer is not the only browser. It then offers links to download other browsers. For more information, see this link to the Microsoft Competition Case.

Firefox

Firefox-logoFirefox is produced by Mozilla, a non-profit organisation. The main advantage of Firefox is that there is a huge range of “add-ons” that you can install to the browser. Other browsers also allow add-ons, but Firefox’s range is probably the biggest. Firefox gained a lot of fans a few years ago at a time when it was thought that Internet Explorer was insecure.

Chrome

Chrome-LogoChrome is produced by Google. It’s a fairly new browser (released in 2008), but is now probably the most popular (see the end of this article). In Google’s own words – “Chrome is a fast, simple and secure web browser, built for the modern web.”

 

Safari

Safari-logoSafari is Apple’s browser, installed as part of both its desktop/laptop systems (Mac) and its mobile systems (iPhone and iPad). Don’t ask me why Apple are allowed to bundle their own browser in their operating system but Microsoft have to offer alternatives. The only reason I can think of is that Apple is such a tiny minnow in comparison with Microsoft (as far as browser use is concerned) that no-one thinks it worth pursuing Apple for unfair practices. There is a version of Safari for Windows PCs but it doesn’t seem to be very popular.

Opera

Opera-logoThe other “main player” in browsers is Opera. This is a Norwegian product that is possibly not as well known as the others mentioned here, but seems to me to be stable and highly useable.

 


 

Can you have more than one browser installed?

Yes. Browsers are just like other programs in that they shouldn’t interfere with each other. In the same way that you could have two or more media players (such as iTunes and Windows Media Player) installed at the same time, you can also have several browsers. In fact, the only major area of software in which you must not have competing products is security software such as antivirus programs and firewalls. You can even have different browsers open at the same time.

Why have more than one browser installed?

There are several reasons why you might wish to have more than one browser installed on one system:

  • As a troubleshooting tool. Sometimes you might find that a website does not display properly or does not behave properly. This could happen if an “add-on” that you have installed on the browser isn’t “playing nicely” with some aspect of the website you are visiting or with other aspects of the browser it’s working with. It could also happen as a result of the browser itself interpreting the website’s programming in a manner not envisaged by the programmer. So, if a website is driving you mad because its behaviour isn’t what you expect, I would advise launching the same web page in a different browser to see if there is any difference. In my own system, for instance, there is some problem stopping me from accessing my online banking details when I use Firefox. There’s no such problem when using Opera.
  • To stay logged into Google without them knowing everything you do on the internet. If you use Google services that require you to be logged into your Google account (such as Gmail or AdWords), it’s very easy – and convenient – to stay logged in while you use the browser for other purposes. That’s exactly what Google want you to do as they can then track your movements as you browse the internet. If, like me, you don’t want Google to do this, but often forget to log out of your Google acount, then a simple solution is to use one browser exclusively for websites where you have to be logged in to Google. Just minimise the browser when it’s not in use and use a different browser for other online purposes. I’m sure the same principle applies for other online services that require you to be logged in but then use this to track your online activities.
  • To use services that require a specific browser. There are some things you can not do on Microsoft sites, for instance, unless you are using Internet Explorer. Downloading Microsoft program updates is an example. If you are using a Windows computer and prefer a browser other than Internet Explorer, I would not recommend un-installing Internet Explorer: just leave it there but don’t use it unless you need to for specific purposes.
  • Personal preference – different people using the same computer may prefer different browsers.

It might be logical for me to offer an opinion as to the merits and drawbacks of different browsers but, to be honest, I really don’t think there’s a lot to choose between them if you are an average user (and I think that covers all my own computer support clients). I use Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera on my PCs, Safari and Firefox on my Mac, Safari on my iPhone, and Firefox on my Android tablet.

Just out of interest, though, here’s a graph showing how the popularity of the different browsers has changed over time. This shows that Internet Explorer’s supremacy may at last be over as Chrome is now slightly ahead in terms of market share (the exact figures on this graph are Chrome – 28.4% of the market, Internet Explorer – 27.6%, Firefox – 22.8%, Safari – 14.1%, and Opera – 2.3%, miscellaneous – 4.8%). Source – w3counter

Browser Market Share 2012

You may also be interested in this previous blog post on the subject of web browsers

Since I bought my Sony Tablet S I’ve been trying to consolidate all the different bits of software I use so that as much as possible is available on both my main Windows 7 laptop and on the Android tablet. “Android“, by the way, is the operating system on the Tablet. In other words, it does the job that Windows does on most computers. It was specially designed for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs where the screen is typically much smaller than that on a PC and where there is likely to be no physical keyboard.

So, if you want to move smoothly between a laptop and a mobile device with the same data and functionality available on each device then you have to consider:

  • Whether there is an identical or similar program available on both devices.
  • Whether these programs access the same data files so that you don’t have to worry about trying to reconcile different versions of your data.

As I said in my earlier blog on Tablet PCs, I am new to Android and I’m pleased and surprised at how good it is with these considerations. I haven’t got it all sorted out yet and some requirements are easier to satisfy than others, but so far I am encouraged and I think it is very possible for users with the typical needs and skills of my own computer support clients to get value from a smart mobile device. Some people may need some help to get started, but once things are set up they seem stable and user-friendly (Android devices, that is, not my computer clients – whose stability and user-friendliness is beyond doubt).

So, as part of that quest to get my main work needs met on a Tablet PC I went looking for a modern “Task Manager” (or “To-Do-List Manager”) that I could access from a Windows PC or Android Tablet.

ToodleDo logoI came across ToodleDo and certainly think it’s worth looking at. It works as follows:

  • It is web-based. You access it through a web browser (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox).
  • Your data (tasks, reminders etc) are held by ToodleDo on their servers.
  • Consequently, your data is available from any computer that can access the internet. It could be a Windows PC, a Mac, a Tablet PC, a smartphone.

This “model” or “arrangement” of working through a web browser is becoming more and more popular. You’ve probably heard the term “Cloud Computing” and this is it. You don’t install a program onto your own computer, you don’t have to back up your data (if you trust whoever is hosting your data to do it properly), and you don’t have to copy or reconcile different data files between different devices. It’s not really new, of course: web-based email programs such as Hotmail have worked this way for years. But it’s now becoming more and more popular for other types of programs and one of the reasons for the growing popularity is this need to have the same data available on lots of different devices.

There can be disadvantages to this approach:

  • You may need to have a working internet connection to be able to access your data (but some programs allow downloading of your data onto your own computer so as to make it available “offline” – ie available even when there is no internet connection).
  • You may be concerned about the privacy and security of your data as it’s online (“in the cloud”) and outside your own control.
  • Web-based programs are often slower, have fewer features, and are generally less pleasant to use than the equivalent “local” program would be.

A ToodleDo Screen

A ToodleDo Screen - click on image to enlarge it.

Despite the disadvantages, you don’t have to have lots of different devices to make it worth using cloud-based programs such as ToodleDo. There’s no reason at all why you can’t use it on your one and only PC. Some of the things I like about it so far are:

  • It’s free (there’s a “Pro” version available that has an annual subscription fee).
  • There are lots of ways of classifying, sorting, and prioritising tasks.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • You can receive a daily email listing the most important tasks for the day.
  • You can create tasks/reminders just by sending an email to a special email address linked to your account. This is useful for creating tasks as soon as you think of them, but it also means you can forward an incoming email to this special address so that it’s on your “to do” list.
  • There’s a data backup/restore feature (but not, as far as I know, a method for working “offline”).

So, whether or not you use more than one computer, if you are looking for a Task Manager I recommend looking at ToodleDo. And if you are thinking you may want to be using a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet in the future then I would definitely recommend bearing that fact in mind when choosing any new program or way of working.

Female face, obviously frustratedWeb browing can be frustrating. Apart from connection problems and slow computers, we can often be thwarted by different kinds of computer problems that crop up on specific websites. These browsing problems are often caused by the particular combination of computer hardware and software, and sometimes caused by human error other than your own.

Stating the obvious, computer hardware and software is very complicated and it changes all the time. Sometimes things are just bound to go wrong when one thing doesn’t talk nicely to another. Something that worked yesterday may not work today simply because (for instance) you have done what you were told by the prompt that nagged you to update your Adobe Flash Player.

Websites that don’t display properly

I recently had a very frustrating experience during an onsite computer session when trying to download a file from Dell. I just could not find the button to initiate the download process. It got so bad that I even checked their help files and wondered whether to ask them for some tech support. The web page kept reassuring me that I had put the file in my “basket” and that I had installed the “download manager” but I just could not find how to start the download. Eventually it dawned on me that the instructions were so straightfoward about telling me to “click the download button” that I wondered if the “download button” was just not being displayed. So I went slowly around the white space of the screen, clicking everywhere. It worked. For some odd reason the button was invisible (probably printing white text on a white background).

In retrospect I should have tried a solution that often works with website problems – use a different browser. It’s just possible that that would have been the quickest solution. For the first half hour of my frustration, though, I assumed that the problem was my own fault of not being able to see something that should have been right in front of me.

Website thats don’t compute

A pencil broken in frustrationNot long ago I was providing some home user support for a client who asked me to help her place an order on a website. Trying to do it on her own, she had been unable to find the “checkout”. Well, when we looked at it together we still couldn’t do it. We gave up in the end. There was just no way that we could follow a path through the website that took us from the stage of “placing the item in the basket” to placing the order. There was some horrible flaw in the design of the website. It wasn’t my client’s fault and it wasn’t mine. We went to Amazon instead.

This brings me to another obvious suggestion. If a website is driving you mad because you seem to be going round in circles then ask someone else to look at it with you. Computer assistance is often as valuable from a family member as a computer support specialist. You may just need someone to confirm that you’re not missing something obvious. My thinking is that if two people looking at it together can’t work it out then it’s a badly designed website rather than a technically-challenged user. It seems to me that a lot of people assume that this sort of problem is “their fault” when, in fact, it’s a badly designed website.

Along similar lines, I rcently tried to buy some copyright-free images online. I’d previously created an account and then I spent ages making my selection of images. When I got to the checkout, however, the website detected that I wasn’t currenlty “signed in” to my account. Instead of giving me the opportunity to sign in at that point it insisted that I either abandon my basket (and then sign in) or create a new account. This is just bad website design. OK, I admit that I have a low frustration threshhold coupled with high expectations of other people’s competence. Nevertheless, my main point still holds: the fault wasn’t mine and there’s no reason why I should criticise myself for incompetence (intolerance, maybe, but not incompetence).

Missing add-ons

Another area of frustration can be that you think you should be looking at a video on a website or some other bit of fancy eye-candy and you just can’t see it. This can be caused by not having an important “add on” installed on your computer that the website is trying to call upon. You’ve probably noticed those irritating nags telling you to update Java and/or Adobe Flash Player. Although this is irritating it’s worth doing as this software is needed to run some of the fancier bits of website pyrotechnics. Also, using out-of-date versions could pose a security threat. So, if you think you should be looking at something fancy and it’s not there it’s worth looking to see if there’s a hint somewhere on the screen telling you that you need to install something before you’ll see the fancy web content. Only do this on websites you trust, though: clicking on links that claim to download add-ons like Java can expose you to risk. See my blog post on download risks for further information.

Printing problems

If you are trying to print a web page and it either won’t print at all or prints very badly (eg with lots of white space and different elements printing on different pages) then it’s worth looking to see if there’s a specific “print” button embedded in the web page (as opposed to starting the printing by using the browser’s print command). This is because the website will then send a version of the page to your printer that is optimised for printing rather than displaying as a web page. And if that doesn’t help, or if there isn’t a special print button, then try a different browser.

Conclusions

1) Not all websites are perfectly written or tested. Having a bad “user experience” could be the website’s inadequacies and not your own. Ask someone else to look at it with you.
2) Try viewing the web page in a different browser. You can have as many browsers installed as you wish. They won’t interfere with each other in the way that antivirus programs do. See my post on browsers for installing more browsers.

Are you concerned about the privacy of your internet activities?

Magnifying glass over computer keyboardA lot of people just shrug their shoulders at this question. They just don’t care what information is being collected about them or their online habits and activities.

Others – including me – think that the “default position” ought to be that only the minimum information should be collected to permit an online function to happen and that no data should be kept unless it is required to protect one or both parties in a contract situation (such as a purchaser giving a full invoicing address).

Someone recently told me that she thought it was “freaky” that Google ads are appearing in her email for products she had recently been looking at on seemingly unrelated websites. Along similar lines, I was recently training a silver surfer client in the use of Gmail and noticed a lot of ads for militaria. I asked him if he had recently had any contact with the army and he said that he had been involved in a veterans’ dinner.

Now, to some people this spying on our activity and fine-tuning on-line ads to capitalise on what they have learned about us is nothing more than a logical extension of how traditional advertising has always worked. After all, if you were selling a boat and wanted to advertise it, you would put the ad in a boating magazine because you’d know that the reader was interested in boats. Is there any difference between that and Google targetting ads about militaria to a Gmail user who has been discussing an army veterans’ dinner in his email correspondence?

If I ask people under 30 this kind of question, their eyes glaze over and a look comes over them that suggests that they’ve just realised they’re talking to a nutter and now they’re wondering if I’m dangerous as well. Ask the same thing to someone who’s old enough to remember the days before CCTV cameras (silver surfers in particular) and I’ll usually get a different response.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that it is an outrageous invasion of privacy for Google to read people’s email and use the knowledge gained to target ads to that person. OK, I do realise that it’s a machine that’s doing the reading and not humans. That doesn’t change the principle. Apart from anything else, it’s widely thought that Google never ever throw data away, so anything they’ve recorded about you could, in principle, be checked over by humans or machines at any time in the future. I also acknowledge that Gmail is “free” to use and that people are quite capable of choosing different methods of handling their email. However, that should only give them the right to read a Gmail user’s outgoing – and not incoming – email. If I send an email to someone who uses Gmail what right do Google have to read that email? I haven’t given them permission to do so: I don’t use Gmail.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser. Click here for an interview with The Independent.

"The Filter Bubble" book coverPariser discusses the fact that Google and other huge websites such as Amazon, Facebook et al, not only bombard you with ads that they have tailored to what they know about you, but that they are also tailoring content to show you what they think you will like. So, if you perform a Google search and I perform the same search we may be presented with different results depending on what Google knows about each of us. And I’m talking about the Google organic results, here, not the Google advertising presented in sponsored links. Facebook are likewise filtering which of your friends’ updates are displayed to you depending on how much interest you have shown in that friend in the past. Pariser argues that these online organisations are creating a “filtered” view of the universe such that what you see on the internet is biased in favour of what you already know and like (ie you are in a “filter bubble”). Pariser maintains that, at the very least, this is presenting a distorted view of the world and most people are just not aware that such filtering is going on. I’m not sure about some of the implications that Pariser considers because I suspect that he over-estimates the importance of the internet in influencing our worldview. Nevertheless, I found this book informative, thought-provoking and worth reading (and thanks to Elaine for telling me about it).

If you belong to the part of the population that doesn’t care about privacy and doesn’t care where all this data gathering and filtering may be taking us then you won’t read my blog next week as I’m going to list some of the steps you can take to try to protect your privacy. l feel like a cross between the boy with his finger in the dyke and King Canute, but I do feel happier taking at least a few steps in the right direction and maybe you will, too, if you find things like targeted advertising “freaky” and disturbing.

I am aware that I am open to charges of hypocrisy. I advertise my computer services using Google AdWords and www.google.co.uk is still my home page. I do also buy stuff on Amazon (but not books). That doesn’t mean, though, that I have to approve of their definitions of acceptable boundaries when it comes to information gathering, retention, and use. My stance is that taking small steps to protect my privacy is better than taking none at all.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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