Monday, April 28, 2014

Wearables As Client-Server Systems

Many reviews on wearable technology often sound disappointed that the devices do not do more. We have grown up with publications (comics) that use watches and other small devices capable of live audio and video conferencing from anywhere in the world. We expect standalone devices that are almost magical in their ability to handle heavy computing and communications on their own, at least until the bad guy finds one and smashes it with his heel.

I propose a different mindset. After all, long ago, computing was mostly a client-server technology. You had a VAX or UNIX server somewhere that allowed you to log in and use some cycles to check email, run programs, or manage files. The computing was all done from a central computer. Your terminal was simply there to make your work viewable.

Then, with the rise in desktop PCs, we gave each user the ability to do their own computing on their own machine anytime they needed.

Then we networked the machines, and added servers. For productive work environments, it simply made more sense to centralize file storage and share in the computing load. As Internet connections have become faster, we have moved to client-server model of old, except we call it "the cloud".

With the Cloud, all the computing is done on the server end. The client side is simply for presentation to the user. This is to say that as technology changes, it simply goes back and forth between local computing to client-server computing.

Our current mobile experience is similar to when desktops came out. Suddenly you have computing power in your hands. We tend to download and run apps on our handsets and tablets. We expect that they should run in offline mode.

Given the history of computing, I propose that our disappointment with wearable technology is mostly an unreasonable expectation of the technology. These peripheral devices are at the stage where they are simply information gathering and presentation devices. Your mobile device is the server. We should not expect that these devices have full computing capacity. If you wear a smart shirt, it's a far cry from wearing Iron Man's Mark VIII suit. We are simply not there yet.

It is better to see smart devices as ...well, dumb devices. They are dumb terminals. They perform very specific tasks reliably and report back to the server, your mobile device.

Now, even if we eliminated mobile devices, your wearable tech would report to your desktop. Or, if wearable tech were to access Wi-Fi directly, it would only report back to a cloud server somewhere.

What I am saying is that there are several iterations to go before our smart devices could be even remotely standalone devices. I think that so long as we see smart watches, activity monitors, or other smart devices as the dumb terminals they are, we can manage our expectations. I think it is reasonable to expect performance to improve in time; but, the few things that these devices do, they do well (one hopes). I think that should be our focus.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Blowing Bubbles

Io goes outside to blow bubbles and watch them fly away. She is a long ways from when she was younger and had little breath control. She used to fail at bubbles because she would blow too hard through the wand. All she could manage was to drip bubble solution all over the floor. It is fascinating to watch children grow through different phases.

Io is our last child of three. The next time we see such things will be through grandchildren, I disagree that children grow up too fast, not when you pay attention to them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Flickr Vs Google+ on Auto Backup

I've been going back and forth on whether to use Google Photos auto-backup, or use Flickr's. I have both enabled for the moment; but, it can eat up double the bandwidth backing up to both services. Actually, triple, I have Bitcasa also backing up; but, that service is not as shareable or social. 

The decision is tough because the offerings are not equivalent. 

Google Photos

Google Photos shares storage with other Google services, Gmail and Drive. So, backing up photos to Google can get expensive. Google does offer unlimited photo storage for photos under 2048 pixels on the largest side. So, you can set up auto backup to upload at standard size. The photos will be resized prior to upload. Going full size would eat up storage. 

The cost of Google storage is currently $1.99/mo for 100 GB, or one level up is $10/mo for 1 TB. This is the problem I have with Google, the jump from 100 GB to 1 TB. If I could step up in smaller increments, I might be less hesitant. 


Compare that to 1 TB free storage at full resolution with Flickr, undoubtedly a great bargain. What if, however, you ever want to store more than 1 TB? It's possible you could get a Doublr account with 2 TB of storage for $499/yr. 

To further confound things, we are talking about the new Flickr. I was, and still am a Flickr Pro subscriber, which means that I have Unlimited storage so long as I maintain the subscription. Therefore, the real comparison is unlimited 2048 px photos with Google, or unlimited full-size photos with Flickr.

For now, I've compromised by setting my Google backups to resize my photos to take advantage of the unlimited option. And, Flickr is set up to back up at full-size, even with the cap. 

Practical Vs Theoretical

In practical terms, 1 TB is nearly unlimited storage for my photos. I currently have just over 10,000 photos on Flickr, using only 0.028 TB. Flickr calculates that I would need nearly half a million full-size photos to approach the 1 TB limit. I saw a calculation somewhere that states I would need to store 500 photos a day for 80 years to get near that limit. 

My hard drive has all my DSLR photos, including RAW files, which amount to 178 GB. Actually, that includes 1080p video too. I don't know exactly how much storage I would need for photos alone; but, it would certainly be way less than the 178 GB. I am inclined to think that perhaps I should cancel the Pro subscription...except that "What if?"

Cognitively, I know that I likely won't reach 1 TB; but, what if I do? I'd like the option to store more. 

Flickr should be sufficient storage for all my photos in my lifetime with 1 TB. This puts the Google offer of unlimited storage in perspective. Yes, it is totally unlimited storage; but, we are talking about smaller photos, which would only use up a fraction of my storage on Flickr for the same photos. 

Let us also remember that the cost of storage keeps declining, so perhaps somebody somewhere will be giving away 10 TB. 

Theoretically, I shouldn't worry about a limit I may never reach nor about storage prices that continue to decline. I could very well be worrying about nothing.

What About RAW files and Video?

Good question. I have another service, Bitcasa, with which I am grandfathered into the unlimited storage plan like Flickr. That is where I plan to keep my RAW files and video along with my other data. My media is going there simply for the sake of redundancy. Although cloud services are magnitudes more reliable at backing up data than I am, it could not hurt to diversify a little. 

If I were to hunt around for cloud storage for RAW and video today, I would go with Pogoplug, which is $5/mo for unlimited storage. The added bonus for Pogoplug is that they offer local storage and backup products as well. 

Looping Back

Looping back to Flickr Vs Google+ auto backup, I guess I'm doing both at different image qualities. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bitcasa Adds Chromecast

Tonight, I launched the Bitcasa app on my Android tablet to look at some photos that I uploaded earlier in the day. I noticed that the Bitcasa app has the iconic Chromecast button in the upper right hand corner. Out of curiosity, I tried it and, surprise, surprise! Bitcasa now displays to the Chromecast, which evidently is not news. But, it's news to me!

My results, while exciting, given that I have cast my lot with storing my files in Bitcasa, are a bit disappointing. I think they could improve the experience, and probably will. Perhaps they got caught up with throwing something together quickly and fixing the kinks later.

Previously, I had to use another app named Aria, which required downloading a file locally to my tablet so that it could cast to the TV. But, with Bitcasa taking over, it is much less troublesome.

All is not smooth, however. Some of the movie types had trouble loading, and others loaded quickly, without a hitch. I could now say why some worked and others did not. I have a 50 Mbps Internet connection, so it's not bandwidth on my end.

Photos have a lag between showing the photo on your tablet and showing it on the TV. I'm not talking about a one or two second delay. There is a several second delay between changing photo on your tablet and the Chromecast mirror of your action.

I tested the ability to cast music from Bitcasa to Chromecast. Playing one item at a time seems to work OK. Using the Play Album option crashes the app on Chromecast, requiring you to reconnect. I have not worked out how to make a playlist on Bitcasa. Using the shuffle feature freaked the app out, it just jumped from song to song instantly before even having a chance to play.

Of particular use to me are the photo and video casting. The former works well enough, the latter needs a little work; but, may serve its purpose. The music casting definitely needs work. However, I did not see myself using Bitcasa to stream music. Most likely, I'll save podcasts there and stream those. I use Google Play Music and am satisfied with that; but, don't wish to clutter that up with podcasts.

Overall, I'm excited that Bitcasa took the leap. Bitcasa on Chromecast will definitely serve me well. I do expect that the feature will improve in time, I hope.

Can we take pictures?

My younger daughter, Io, is not at all shy in front of a camera. She is always asking me to take her picture. As time permits, I agree to take her picture. Sometimes, like today, it works out where I want to experiment with a lighting setup and she is also in the mood to pose.

Of course, Io's willingness to take pictures does not make it any easier. She is, after all, in Kindergarten, with all that it entails regarding energy and attention.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Contemplating Pogoplug as alternative to Bitcasa

Pogoplug may be a possible alternative to Bitcasa when considering unlimited storage of your personal digital files. Pogoplug currently offers unlimited storage for $4.95/mo or $49.95/yr. Pogoplug can run exclusively on your desktop with cloud backups, or you can purchase one of their Pogoplug devices, which allow you to connect external drives via USB port for local storage and sharing of personal files.

Compare this with Bitcasa, to which I currently subscribe. Bitcasa launched into Beta with the promise of unlimited backup for only $10/mo or $100/yr. This was a very exciting prospect at the time, given the alternatives. Late in 2013, after some user statistics, they figured out that they should limit the unlimited and added tiers to the service. They were respectful enough to existing subscribers to grandfather in old pricing.

On the surface, Bitcasa's honoring their old plan is great for me; I like the old pricing. However, they rescinded Linux support for the unlimited plan under the old pricing. If I want a Linux client, I would need to convert to a special case subscription where they charge the old price, but limit storage to 5 TB. This is still generous given that my current storage is barely over 100GB. I am nowhere near 5 TB; however, I don't want to cap myself. So, my Linux computer is out of luck when it comes to an unlimited network drive. Shucks.

Just a quick distinction between these types of services and other services such as Crashplan, which offers unlimited file backup. Bitcasa and Pogoplug are both backup and file sync services. This means that they immediately update any files that change. Furthermore, Bitcasa and Pogoplug are meant to make files available on multiple devices, emphasizing cloud storage and access, whereas backup services are meant to simply ensure the safety of your files in case the worst happens. They do not concern themselves with sharing and collaboration.

Evaluating Pogoplug as an alternative to Bitcasa

Going on price, Pogoplug wins out, even with Bitcasa's old pricing. Pogoplug offers unlimited backup and storage for half the price. But, they also do not have a Linux client. Their backup software is only for Windows and Mac. Pogoplug does also offer clients for iPhone, Android, and iPad. No clear advantage for mobile.

One benefit of Pogoplug where it clearly stands out is the option for local storage via one of their network devices. To accomplish the same thing with Bitcasa, you would need to have a dedicated Windows/Mac machine with a shared folder that is synced to the Bitcasa cloud. Local storage is definitely a plus for Pogoplug.

So, what else matters beyond price and network storage? There is sharing. Both services allow you to share a folder or individual file with others via a private link to your content. In my personal experience, this is not something you use every day unless you have some sort of business need.

Security as the Sole Differentiator

The one difference that comes to mind in terms of security of your files is that Bitcasa offers client side encryption. This means that your files are encrypted on your end before they are stored on Bitcasa files. This means that they have no idea what files you have; and should they develop a curiosity, could not snoop. This was a key selling point when Bitcasa launched. There is one vulnerability which involves the snooper already having a copy of your file to compare with yours. Any difference in the files would render the vulnerability rather useless. And, if they already have a copy of your file for comparison, what's the point?

The best details I can find regarding encryption on Pogoplug is that your files are encrypted during transport, via SSL, between your computer and their servers, which are actually Amazon servers. I've seen it suggested that you can encrypt your files locally prior to storage, which means that on the server side, your files are not encrypted; they rely on standard user authentication to restrict file access.

The key difference is that if you hack into Bitcasa servers, you would find encrypted files. If you hack into Pogoplug's storage, you'd have immediately readable files. Assuming anybody had the ability to hack either service, Bitcasa offers that little extra bit of security via client side encryption. However, it is more likely that you would download malware to your PC and leave the front door wide open to either service. In other words, you, the user, are more likely to be the origin of a security breach than the two service providers.

So, which will I use?

I very much like the price of Pogoplug. Bitcasa's backpedaling on their initial pricing annoys me. I like Bitcasa's added encryption, which would at least deflect secret warrants to access my files. As an side, if I'm going to be required to give access to my files, I'd rather know about it than have it done without my knowledge. In terms of local storage, I've been down that road. Unless, I have a NAS with RAID, I would be hard pressed to trust local backups; or at least I would not be lulled into a false sense of security against loss. That sort of defeats the purpose.

Ultimately, I'm going to stay with Bitcasa for two reasons. The encryption is one reason. Both services are very similar. Other than the encryption, there is hardly any differentiation. The other reason is I don't want to bother with migrating files.

For the average user, I think I could recommend Pogoplug. The subscription price for Pogoplug is a great value, there is no denying. Family photos and videos aren't really that sensitive as to require extra security. If, on the other hand, you have nudie photos and videos; you might sleep a little easier with Bitcasa's encryption, though as mentioned previously, you might be the cause of the leak rather than the provider.

So, as a moonlighting computer tech, I would first recommend Pogoplug. If my client requires a little more security, then I would recommend Bitcasa. For commercial use, I would take a different tack and use something dedicated like Crashplan with both local and cloud backups. But, that's a subject for another blog post.