Thursday, March 15, 2018

Music Maker JAM Seeks Social Platform for Amateur Musicians

The neat thing about Music Maker JAM (MMJ) is its ability to let users pick and choose from thousands of clips of previously recorded individual musical instruments played in various genres, and then compile them into a completely new musical production with anywhere from one to eight tracks of music play time. Authoring with it is like playing with Legos: there are nearly infinite combination possibilities and the results are bound to please someone's ears. The result from MMJ's quality mobile versions on popular platforms like Android can be exported into other musical composition software available from MAGIX (a German-based manufacturer) for the PC (Windows 7, Windows 8/10). From what I understand you can also export your content as MP3 files--at least when using the PC versions. An Apple version also exists in the iTunes store. So obviously this is a multi-platform software application that caters to amateur composers who don't want to deal with sheet music or the more complicated musical theory or experience required when producing a melody from scratch. It gives you building blocks of common prefabricated rhythms, beats, and melodies that you can then tailor. There are also hundreds of well-thought-out and arranged settings and preferences in the app that help an amateur decide how to arrange a score and effortlessly customize things like tempo, pitch, and the right keys desired for each measure. You can copy and paste parts of your arrangement and build up the score progressively over time at your leisure, play it back repeatedly, and record the final draft to post it on MMJ's social Community site--also accessible from the app. To top it off, you can also record your own custom vocals on top of the music you create. So, although detractors (usually real musicians, unlike me) may criticize the app for how it cheats the process of original musical composition--allowing true amateurs to build masterpieces that are really based on other people's recorded instruments--the app does, in fact, offer the potential for original work. No wonder MMJ's online social Community feature is teeming with hordes of brand new users making contributions daily.

Composing a musical piece in Music Maker JAM for Android. 

And that latter feature--the social outlet--is the focus of my review. It's what makes MMJ an attractive app for many users, yet at the same time somewhat sinks its value because of its grossly under-developed social and search features. People--especially in today's socially recluse Internet and electronic commerce society--long for online interaction, if not even their own fifteen minutes of fame. MMJ, with its quick, non-technical means to put together a melody, offers the general public just that: an opportunity to shine on a potentially global performance stage. There are visibly hundreds if not thousands of European, American, and Far Eastern active users from Russia and other countries constantly on the system--and you can see them daily plopping hundreds upon hundreds of imaginative new musical arrangements there. People can play their peers' scores right from this stream-capable Community page on the app, and they can click Like and comment on each. Users can even set themselves up to follow their favorite amateur artists as they contribute new content. However, your contributions can get easily lost in the shuffle! Each time you visit the Community's "Explore" news feed, the sheer number of new contributions by the hour push down your latest new jam out of mind and out of sight. Thankfully, MMJ allows users to include customized album covers as they present their jams on the in-app Community's "Explore" news feed. Employing a clever image can make listening to a user's contributions seem more enticing as folks browse the feed. You can even search using keywords and try to find, for example, all the pieces that have the words "slam funk" in their names. I myself frankly have had a lot of trouble getting that search feature to perform accurately as searches for particular word sequences appear not to be searched for in the most expected, intuitive manner; instead they result in haphazard matches on the search result list, which will include items that may have only the title "funk", or simply items where a user's name begins with the word "slam"--neither of which truly satisfies my intended search criteria.

 

The MMJ Community is a first attempt at establishing some social interaction and exposure to Magic Maker Jam (MMJ) artists. I'm especially happy with its ability to report inappropriate or abusive content on the "Explore" musical news feed. That was definitely an important inclusion in this system considering many MMJ artists are youth and they're fairly anonymously intermingled with adults.  But as far as building a healthy, thriving online community of musical artists, that's where the quality of the social interaction stops. Abuse of the system is common, with many inappropriate images pop up on some users' album covers. There is also a significant number of deceptive users trying to usurp the identities of others or ride on their coattails by branding their songs after another contributor's successful musical posts. Even MMJ's official page on the Community is hard to identify due to the mounds of other similarly named unofficial profiles. Entirely missing also are several key elements necessary for a thriving online community of multi-genre content providers. Although there are means to discover new music, there is no precise method to search by genre classification, rate songs with any meaningful musical rating system, nor is there an established quality curation process for the rapidly growing mass of unjudged user contributions. All in all, the Community feature of MMJ is just not yet at the maturity level it needs to be for a more satisfying social experience. Coupled along with MAGIX's hodge-podge of odd, disjoint, and somewhat mismanaged web-based social networks, you unfortunately get an amateurish impression of the company. I mean, there's an MMJ page on all these social networks, but none seem to directly correlate to nor enhance the in-app Community page. They just seem to all stand apart from each other with completely incongruent user authentication systems and unrelated content threads, adding to the frustration of an already inefficient and fragmented social machine for MMJ artists:
Furthermore, to add to the plethora of confusing domain names, MMJ itself appears to be hosted on a site named justaddmusic.net, while the parent manufacturing company is at magix.com. When registering the PC app, a confirmation e-mail sends you over to a URL prefixed with https://api.jam-community.com/user/confirm, yet the resulting webpage coughs up:

{"error":"The user does not exist.","error_description":"The user does not exist."}

Obviously, the background software application handling the user registrations is either under construction or simply buggy--but it's just not a good first impression especially knowing that the app already has several years out in public release. The disparate social media presence just doesn't seem to match up with the high quality of the German manufacturing behind the main Magic Maker JAM application. This main content authoring app, in terms of what it was designed to do, is both pleasing and fun, easy to use, well put together, and robust. Unfortunately, if the company continues to fumble in its uncoordinated attempts to transition its loyal user base into this highly confusing, fragmented and ineffective mix of social outlets, many may grow disillusioned and move on to other competing social music platforms.

MMJ's in-app Community page features an "Explore" tab where you can discover new music posted to the app by international users chronologically in somewhat of a newsfeed format--just that this is not the most efficient method to find the genre of music you'd like to hear, and unfortunately, the Search feature (accessible via the magnifying glass at top right) doesn't help much in narrowing that down either.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel for MAGIX's Music Maker JAM's social platform, however: currently, a chance to publish your music to the world over more popular and well-established music streaming platforms like Spotify and iTunes is being promoted at a 10% discount (oh yeah, this is going to cost you, but you get to keep 100% of the royalty fees every time someone plays your tune on those platforms). This may be interesting to individuals who'd really like to get a chance to start a musical career. The MMJ folks are partnering with another firm called iMusician to carry out this vision. Also, a new app called Loudly is expected to be released by the company in 2018 to [hopefully] bring together all the disparate social networks it currently manages. Touted by MAGIX as "the perfect streaming community for Music Maker JAM" per the announcement on the Android app, it's still kind of hard to see how it will "bring together new music talent" as the CEO claims--especially as it now adds yet another  domain name to the already too diverse MMJ musical software application and website universe. It remains to be seen to what extent Loudly will actually address the limitations and weaknesses in MMJ's current content sharing venues--or whether it will actually finally provide aspiring MMJ amateur artists a mature, more intuitive, and functional social outlet.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Microsoft Drops Access Web App Support, Breathes New Life Into SharePoint with PowerApps

SharePoint's real power lies in its multi-faceted means to mash and categorize and share and add collaborative value over a web interface to all of a company's content that's stored as Microsoft Office document types (e.g., Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access). Up until recently (as it was last supported in June 2017), Microsoft Access 2016 web apps running on the SharePoint platform--dubbed Access Services for SharePoint Online--was the pinnacle (in my opinion) of Microsoft's own off-the-shelf solutions with which consultants and power users could help their clients or employers tap into all of SharePoint's collaborative power. It had some muscle, sporting a SQL Server back end with Microsoft Access' amazing front-end development technology--all served over the web! This was definitely a step up from the old Access Web Database feature included in Access 2010 which really relied on the underpowered Access engine under the hood. I mean, just talking about the new Access Services for SharePoint Online makes me feel like a sports car aficionado raving over new engine specs! Only that, kind of like the vehicle buy-back program Volkswagen recently instituted over its diesel emissions recall, this muscle car has been indefinitely recalled! I never even got to see a model on the lot! Microsoft has received a lot of negative flack over its decision to abruptly end the life span of Access Services for SharePoint Online (aka Access web apps), an integral part of many businesses' newly automated web database services. I too was quite disappointed myself, having been a Microsoft Access fan for decades now. I couldn't wait to get my chance to develop client solutions on Office 365 with this new Access version! Can't now! Bummer.

The Case for PowerApps

To be fair, Chris McNulty at Microsoft has announced the company will continue support of Microsoft Access web apps for on-premises installations of SharePoint, just not for SharePoint Online (Office 365). He also said traditional Microsoft Access desktop app support (which is all the Access I ever knew) won't be affected by this decision. After reading his post, I have to give Microsoft credit also for making the tough decision to drop Microsoft Access web apps in favor of a new replacement web technology for SharePoint called PowerApps. It makes sense now.

To be frank, SharePoint websites had begun to feel like dated technology. Sure, they recently introduced the new Modern experience. But even that's not enough for power users and applications developers like myself. Unfortunately, whereas Microsoft Access would have filled that gap bringing exciting, powerful new automation features, even out of the factory Access web apps really couldn't compete with the rapidly advancing mobile technology that's out there. Access was originally designed for the PC platform; however, PowerApps was, "designed with a mobile-first strategy" (per Ben Clothier and Andy Tabisz in Introduction to PowerApps for Access Web Apps Developers). Additionally, Access was built to handle relational data from a relational database management system (RDBMS); users today would be glad to know that PowerApps can harness the data from almost any type of data source, not just an RDBMS. This enables it to perform what are called "mashups", where disjoint data from various sources can be cross-referenced and repackaged for previously impossible or unimagined user experiences. PowerApps is the technology boost SharePoint developers really needed! Now in Chris McNulty's words,
Over the last several years it has become clear that the needs of our customers have grown beyond the scope of what Access Services can offer, such as mobile device support, integration with line of business data, and professional developer extensions.
When we researched how to close these gaps, the answer became clear as well; we’re aligning efforts behind Microsoft PowerApps as the way to build no-code business solutions on desktop and mobile devices.  PowerApps offers a comprehensive set of application building tools, connection to custom web APIs, and a wide array of database options including SharePoint lists, SQL Azure databases, Common Data Service and third-party data sources. 
This is good news for the Microsoft camp, especially considering the dwindling interest in SharePoint on Google searches as you can see from the search trend graphs below. Here, we see that interest in the earliest versions of SharePoint has been understandably winding down:



Even interest in the most popular versions ever of SharePoint is also dwindling (version years 2007, 2010, and 2013). Surely, the widening technology gap between Microsoft SharePoint technology and the rapidly growing web plays a factor here:



However, since Microsoft began transforming the declining SharePoint brand, introduced the Modern experience, relabeled it as the fully web-aligned Office 365 and added PowerApps, things are looking up!



With its new PowerApps offering, Office 365 becomes an automation powerhouse. And it is clear Office 365 is the hands-down leader in collaborative office technology! Just look at how the interest logged by Google searches shows it's leading the competitors such as IBM Lotus, Google Apps, and Box for Business. Wow!



Now Microsoft PowerApps' major benefit is its ability to combine and mashup data from a large array of different sources, a major step ahead of Microsoft Access' main reliance on a relational database source. Let's take a glimpse at how other similar mashup tools are faring on the Internet in terms of interest. Mind you, most of these tools only lend themselves for use by expensive consultants, not to mention the overhead of the tool's manufacturer price! In contrast, PowerApps as of this writing is FREE to all SharePoint users on an Office 365 subscription, and it's minimally priced for other customers:



I can honestly say now that the PowerApps gamble Microsoft took was a winner after using the product myself and coding a few apps. Consider how as a SharePoint web development tool and as a "cross-platform service, you are able to run the apps you create across all of your devices including Windows, iOS, Android, and the web browser" when you develop using PowerApps (per James Oleinik, Microsoft).

PowerApps In Action

I've seen PowerApps in action now. I've developed some functional apps with it both for myself and for my employer and I can say it's got the goods. Development for it feels a lot like traditional Microsoft Access app development. You start with the data you need, identifying whatever new connections you need from a myriad of possible data source types PowerApps makes available to you.

A long list of connection types is available to applications built in PowerApps.


I mean, the list of possible new connection types seems endless!

Now on the development user interface, there are new names for things--like a form is actually called a screen (because traditional Access forms were meant to run on Windows but PowerApps screens are expressly made to correspond to an actual phone or tablet form factor!). Fields such as textboxes and comboboxes are lumped with their associated labels into what are called "cards", and they automatically readjust themselves on the screen as you throw new "cards" in to represent other data.The coding for events and data validation is entirely new with lots of new function names I had not seen before in Microsoft Access nor Excel for that matter. But there's a distinct feel that sets PowerApps apart from the traditional Access development interface, particularly because of the cross-platform compatibility that's been ingrained into it (of course, there's JavaScript in there, but are the underpinnings that enable PowerApps to be cross-platform actually Xamarin-based? I have yet to find out!)

Of course, PowerApps development is all done over the web--which is distinctly different from Microsoft Access desktop app development or even the old Access Web Database creation experience. But PowerApps is better. Not only can you interface with what are clearly database sources such as SQL Server or SharePoint lists, but your data can also reside in non-traditional repositories like OneDrive or Google Drive. You can connect and mashup data from virtually anywhere it seems. The list of configurable data sources is overwhelmingly inclusive, far more than I've ever seen on any Microsoft product. It almost makes it feel like this product is not originally from good old proprietary Microsoft! The interface has this swanky third-partyish feel to it. To me it's reminiscent of JackBe and their proprietary mashup tools...only now Access has made such functionality infinitely more accessible to end users.

Now, being a cutting edge Rapid Application Development tool, there's still a level of tinkering I still have to do to get some things to work right in the PowerApps applications I build. This is not for the faint-hearted! The platform appears to be always under construction while still operational, too. Sometimes it feels like you can hear the Microsoft developers hammering away behind the interface as you are working with it because things are changing faster than the training videos and websites can keep up with. But I'm sold on PowerApps. The SharePoint development platform has definitely gotten the second wind it so badly needed in today's rapidly advancing technology climate!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How To Recover All Your Phone Data From a Rooted Samsung Galaxy S4 That Keeps Rebooting (ClockWorkMod Method)

A phone that keeps restarting repeatedly is unusable, but retrieving the data on it is still possible. Unrooted phones are at a great disadvantage unless you've used an external SD card to store all your information. But if you have rooted your phone and also installed a recovery method using ClockWorkMod or TWRP, you're safe! All your data is salvageable, whether on the internal SD card or the external. Even the phone's internal storage memory is salvageable as a "Nandroid" backup! In this post, I will concentrate on recovery steps for a rooted Samsung Galaxy S4 with ClockWorkMod (CWM) recovery software installed (v6.0.4.4).

Harold Hisona has written up a very useful guide on how to recover from a constantly rebooting phone at http://thedroidguy.com/2014/01/fix-samsung-galaxy-s4-keeps-rebooting-stuck-boot-loop/. I suggest you read that first, but return to me if you reach the end of that guide and are hesitant to do a master/hard reset for fear of losing your data.

You Will Not Lose Your Data!

The truth is you will not lose your data. CWM won't wipe your internal SD card. This is the data you really want to keep, in addition to your external SD card's. During normal use, all apps on a Google Android-based Galaxy S4 phone generally store their information either on the internal SD card or on what is called the external SD card (though in reality that "external SD card" is mounted on a slot that resides internally as well, behind the Galaxy's back cover!)  But you'll want to follow a specific sequence of steps in order to recover the most you can recover from your misbehaving phone.  I will walk you through these steps in more detail later on. In brief, so you get an overview of the process, you will:
  • Backup the External SD Card - First you'll want to mount the external SD card on your computer and move all data off to a location of your choice on your PC (you can simply do this via a USB data cable without needing to open up the phone's case and physically extract the external SD card)
  • Perform a Nandroid Backup - Next you'll want to create a Nandroid backup of all your phone's internal storage memory (this is different from the internal SD card on the Galaxy). I will step you through this but you can also see Ada Sandoval's post on Nandroid backup creation at http://www.shetalksandroid.com/2012/09/how-to-do-android-nandroid-backup-cwm-recovery-manager.html. Another very nice step-by-step guide is found at http://galaxys4root.com/galaxy-s4-tutorials/how-to-backuprestore-rom-on-galaxy-s4-with-root-cwm-recovery/. You might ask, why perform a Nandroid backup of a phone's ROM when it is already misbehaving (incessantly rebooting)? Well, let's just say we're doing this because we're trying to make as thorough a backup of the phone as we can in case there's anything there you want to go back to later after a factory reset. 
  • Reset The Phone - Then you'll want to reset the phone using CWM and restore normal operation to the phone. Note that this is not a stock recovery wipe, but the data wipe/ factory reset provided by CWM which is not as destructive. The contents of the internal SD card will be kept around, which is a great relief wince CWM does not allow us to back the internal SD card nor do the Samsung USB drivers mount it onto Windows! Having the internal SD card survive CWM's factory reset will give us a chance to back up its contents in the next step.
  • Backup the Internal SD Card - Finally, using Windows Explorer on your PC, regain access to the phone's internal SD card and copy its contents to your PC
If you've got the Samsung Galaxy S4 drivers (http://www.samsung.com/levant/support/model/GT-I9500ZKAMID-downloads or http://www.samsung.com/us/support/owners/product/SPH-L720ZWASPR) already installed on your PC, then you can recover all your data by doing the following. I assume your external SD card is as large as your Samsung's internal SD card.

Backup the External SD Card

  1. Make sure your phone is off
  2. Connect your phone to the PC using a USB cable
  3. Boot to CWM on your phone by pressing and holding Volume Up, Home and Power buttons simultaneously.
  4. Use the Volume Up/Down buttons on your Samsung phone to scroll over to the menu item called "Mounts and Storage" and use the Power button to select it
  5. Scroll again this time to "Mount USB Storage" (I expect from now on you know to hit the Power button to select the menu item); you should hear the PC sound off a notification that a USB device has been connected
  6. Use Windows Explorer on the PC to find the drive where your external SD card has been mounted
  7. Move the entire contents of the mounted drive to a location of your choice on your PC with the intention of leaving the external SD card empty.

Perform a Nandroid Backup

  1. Once finished backing up your external SD card data, scroll to "Go Back" on your phone; the mapped (mounted) drive will temporarily go away on your PC.
  2. Hit "Go Back" again and you should arrive at the CWM main menu
  3. On the CWM menu scroll to "Backup and Restore"
  4. Scroll to "Backup to /storage/sdcard1"
  5. The backup should take a little while and the CWM screen should display an on-going status; wait for it!
  6. Now return to the "Mount USB Storage" menu we visited on step 5 and move all files from your mounted drive in Windows Explorer to a location of your choice
  7. You're done! You've now got what is called a "Nandroid" backup

Reset The Phone

  1. To reset the phone back to factory setings, return to the first (main) menu in CWM (remember, contrary to the impression this gives, you won't lose the internal SD card's data!)
  2. Scroll to "Wipe Data/Factory Reset"
  3. Reselect the option in the subsequent confirmation prompt, i.e., scroll down to "Yes - Wipe all user data" and tap the Power button to select that option!
  4. Don't cringe--it's gonna be alright!
The Galaxy S4 should immediately appear in Windows
Explorer upon rebooting the phone.

Backup the Internal SD Card 

  1. It's time now to reboot the system by selecting that very option at the top of the CWM menu
  2. The phone will go through its familiar initialization routines and finally arrive at the Samsung Galaxy "Welcome" screen where you may begin reconfiguring your Samsung again for the first time
  3. What's more, if you go back to Windows Explorer (assuming you already installed all Samsung USB drivers earlier) you should see your internal SD card's contents again--all intact!!
  4. Double-click on the Phone drive and select all the files and folders there by pressing Ctrl-A.
  5. Copy the files to the clipboard and then paste them to the location of your choice on your PC.
  6. Now we're really done!
The contents of the SD card are intact and listed as "Phone".
Remember the external SD card is empty because we moved
its contents to the PC earlier!

NOTE: Accessing individual files from CWM's Nandroid backup data requires you use a decompression utility that can read *.tar files. Mind you, this is an uncommon thing to do. Nandroid backups typically contain only Android system data, some APK files, and the like....but no user data of any use to the normal or even intermediate user. The files are found in a directory structure in a pathname similar to clockworkmod\backup\<datetime>, where datetime is the timestamp of your backup. If your Windows installation doesn't know what to do with these types of files, download and install Winip, WinRAR or 7-Zip. Just do a Google Search for it. WinRAR or 7-Zip should allow you easy access to the individual files and folders compressed in the *.tar files. 

For more information on decompressing simple tar files produced by CWM, see Vijay Rajasekara's post on CWM tar file extraction at http://ajqi.com/how-to-extract-files-from-a-nandroid-backup/.

However, there are more complicated backup tar file scenarios. Recent versions of CWM have begun splitting large tar files into parts ending in tar.a, tar.b, tar.c, etc. Your Nandroid backup data (if it was large enough) may be stored in multiple files, some labeled like data.ext4.tar.?, where the ? stands for an alphabetic letter. There are data tar files and system tar files (there's also cache tar files). In order to see the contents of these strangely-suffixed data.ext4.tar.a, tar.b, and tar.c backup files from Windows, you'll need to perform some commands prior to using WinRAR or 7-Zip. Using a Windows command prompt (cmd), change directory (cd) to the folder where your backup tar.a and tar.b and tar.c files are. Then type the following commands to build a usable data.tar file and system.tar file:

Copy /b data.ext4.tar.a + data.ext4.tar.b + data.ext4.tar.c data.tar
Copy /b system.ext4.tar.a + system.ext4.tar.b + system.ext4.tar.c system.tar

Once each command is complete, you should be able to decompress the new data.tar or system.tar file. I would move these files from the backup directory in which you just created them though and place them elsewhere just to keep the original CWM backup directory contents pristine.

What If You're Not Rooted?

If you are sobbing because you haven't yet rooted your phone and can't take advantage of anything I've shared here, maybe you would like to in the future. For information on rooting the Samsung Galaxy S4, check out http://www.droidviews.com/root-sprint-galaxy-s4-sph-l720-on-android-4-3/.

If you want a recovery menu like ClockWorkMod or its competitor, TWRP, visit Alex Dumitru's post at http://www.android.gs/how-to-install-and-boot-cwm-and-twrp-recoveries-for-rooted-sprint-samsung-galaxy-s4-l720/.  Personally, after trying CWM and seeing what can be done with TWRP, I prefer the latter. For an introduction, see QBKing77's video presentation at http://www.how-to-diy.org/ktTmFFiX8xTQBb/How-to-Install-TWRP-Recovery-on-the-Samsung-Galaxy-S4.html. TWRP, by the way, can be installed right over CWM to replace it as your preferred recovery method if you end up liking it better ...as I did!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Family Safety Against Malware and Media Abuse


When a dear friend of mine recently started a study aimed at equipping parents with information on how to safely raise their children in this increasingly electronically-dependent society, I felt compelled to put together a short, informative article to highlight the most important protective steps parents can take to safeguard their children. It seems kids are all distancing themselves from their parents' sense of common decency at an alarming rate nowadays, due in large part to the proliferation of social media and our nation's increasing acceptance of the most controversial types of lifestyles! As a parent, you may not want to allow this at home, and keeping even the adults at home accountable on the web may be as high a concern as protecting your
children online.

In this article, please keep in mind that the following labels/terms for electronic devices/services may be used interchangeably:


  • Internet, web, network
  • Cell phones, smartphones, handheld devices, wireless devices
  • Tablets, hand-held devices, wireless devices
  • Laptops, PCs, computers, wireless devices
  • Game systems, gaming consoles, wireless devices
  • TV, entertainment or mass media, broadcast or streaming service

Fighting for your family's safety on the Internet and mass media is a complex battle that requires a well-coordinated, strategic plan of action. Your enemy is the multitude of commercial and private entities seeking to gain unauthorized access to:

  • Your personal information (e.g., social security number, birthdate, etc.)
  • Your assets (your bank accounts, or even just your computer, tablet or smartphone's compute cycles, i.e., to clandestinely reprogram your unit to become a bouncing board for illegal activity)
  • Your services (e.g., e-mail accounts, websites, social media, etc.)
  • Your loved ones (i.e., to lure your children out of the house, or to seduce a husband through porn, etc.)

Collectively, the software used by the enemy to corrupt our families and our assets is called "malware." As far as the mass media goes (in which I include TV and the various broadcast and streaming services proliferating today, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora), unrated or underrated worldly and secular programming often undercuts the morals and values we're trying to instill at home. However, neither suggestive video content nor computer malware is always the source of our troubles when we're fighting for our family's safety--because sometimes the attack does not come from the outside in, but from the inside out. Your own children or even the adults in the home may be innocently or not-so-innocently led to seek out the undesirable content themselves. They may unwittingly be the ones who sabotage your electronic security defenses, your assets, your family's innocence and purity, or worse: your very lives! Let's face it: our real problem lies in whether we have helped our children and those with whom we live to make righteous choices that lead to a healthy lifestyle. In a world where few if any socio-political platforms are generally accepted and anything goes, defining what a "healthy lifestyle" actually means and determining the right parental choices to lead a child into such a healthy lifestyle seems overwhelmingly difficult. Difficult unless, of course, you are arriving at this juncture of your life already certain of what you stand for and what "family safety" really means. This is the territory where leftist or right-wing agendas simmer, and the proving grounds for those who claim to live by higher standards, such as Christians (right-wing) or atheists (left-wing). But that is another story!

To protect against Internet and mass media intruders and their potential for sabotaging our children's innocence and our teenagers' purity, you'll need to cover all the bases:
  • Laptop and personal computer access to the Internet
  • Tablet and handheld device access to wireless signals (WIFI)
  • Cell phone access to wireless signals (3G, 4G, WIFI)
  • Game system access to the Internet
  • The nature of TV and media content

Your primary weapons for tactical defense are:
  • Malware Prevention
    • Antivirus software for smartphones, handhelds, and PCs
    • Rogue software prevention, e.g., antiadware, antispamware and antispyware for computers
  • Safeguards Against Media Abuse
    • Family safety software-based Internet filters for all electronic devices
    • Software and hardware firewalls
    • Routers and managed switches with hardware-based web filters
    • Cell phone and wireless device monitoring software
    • Game system parental controls
    • TV and entertainment media rating systems

The purpose of this post is to bring awareness to the availability of defensive armor available to parents in the battle to maintain our families' sense of purity and dignity.  The discussion will follow the sequence of bullet points listed above and provide slightly more detail.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of how to set up parental controls on any device, but rather as an eye-opener for folks who knew little or nothing about these preventive measures already available in their own home. For more information, use your favorite Internet search engine and seek out web pages that go into further detail on the terminology I expose here, and go study the parental control products and features that seem most relevant to your situation. There are definitely more brands than I've mentioned here--and this is by no means a thorough review of the products I do mention--so I'd welcome your professional opinion and any other products you'd like to enter.

Malware Prevention

Malware includes, viruses, adware, spyware, and spamware. Guarding against these generally involves the use of their antidotes (antivirus software, antispyware, and antispamware.)

Antivirus Software

Viruses attach themselves to software and make it perform erratically or not at all. A virus can attack different areas of a computer or even an entire network, for which several categories have been labeled (e.g., worms, Trojans, boot sector viruses, etc.) Trustworthy brand names in the PC antivirus market include Microsoft Essentials, AVG Antivirus, and Avast Antivirus. Other good players in the antivirus market are McAfee, TrendMicro, Vipre, and Norton. The degree of effectiveness of their products varies also with their price; free or temporarily free (trial) versions of their programs are generally available and satisfactory for use, but with purchase of their software come additional enhancements such as firewall features, antispamware features, etc. Fortunately, you can obtain additional free software packages from other vendors to cover these needs separately. Some of the best antivirus programs are specialized to do just virus scanning and cleaning and nothing else. There are antivirus programs from Avast and AVG available also for smartphones and tablets, although their necessity is greatly overstated at this time. Not many viruses attack smartphones...yet.

Rogue Software (Spyware, Spamware, Adware)

As far as rogue software, there are loads of these on the Internet. They come in many forms. Spyware track your clicks in a web browser and monitor your online activity without your consent. Adware are programs that riddle your PC with pop-up ads and often underperform in their stated function if at all. People fall for them because they often use very official-looking on-screen prompts to lure in unwary users, with false claims that they can clean out a previously unknown viral infection on your PC for example. Thinking that their PC is actually infected with a virus,  people click the ads and install these pesky programs. Many times they're hard to get rid of. Spamware, finally, are programs that use your own e-mail address without your authorization to send out unsolicited e-mail we call spam. Some products designed to stop such rogue software are Windows Defender, Lavasoft Ad-Aware, and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.

Safeguards Against Media Abuse

Safeguards against sabotage and Internet/media abuse include family safety programs for the PC, software and hardware firewalls to prevent attacks from hackers outside your network, and hardware designed to prevent or filter visits to rogue or indecent websites. Lastly, they include cell phone and portable device safeguards as well as TV and streaming media parental controls.


Family Safety PC Software 

Family safety software include Internet filters, the most illustrious of which is Microsoft's Live Essentials' Family Safety module. A competitor which has also received great ratings from PCWorld and other reviewers is AVG Family Safety. Another package is Norton Online Family. I personally prefer the Microsoft series. The purpose of these programs is to allow the parent to hold administrative rights over the PC, while handpicking what programs are allowed to run for the child users on the PC, what websites can be visited, etc. Very powerful. Very essential! And ultimately, much of the prevention of unwanted web page visits and unwanted software installs depends on your proper installation and configuration of these family safety products. A couple more safety products that deserve special mention are Google's SafeSearch Lock and YouTube's Safety Mode. Turning these features on is often on a per-browser/per-machine basis but it prevents access to explicit web content.

Software/Hardware Firewalls

A firewall is a method by which programmatic or user-initiated access to the Internet is filtered and also a means to thwart unwanted attempts to access your home's computers by hackers from the outside. Microsoft Windows brings its own Windows Firewall software, but you may also obtain additional or alternative firewall software from software manufacturers such as Avast, Norton, and ZoneAlarm. Also, many routers and managed switches bring firewall features that can supplement or replace software firewalls.

Hardware-Based Web Filters

Routers and managed switches are hardware boxes usually standing between your Internet Service Provider's modem and your PC. A router or managed switch can split the signal from the modem out to several PCs at a time, allowing for Internet connection sharing. But a smart router/managed switch can also be programmed to filter out unwanted websites when users inside your network attempt to visit them. This is instrumental if you want to prevent Internet abuse in your home. It can be an added level of protection beyond the use of software family filters. Web filtering can be an additional level of configuration beyond the use of a firewall feature. But it does not necessarily have to be done via a router; nowadays more advanced and more user-friendly Internet-based mechanisms such as OpenDNS are available to do just the same thing. These services somewhat take away the difficulty of setting up a router and understanding all the technical terminology related to web filtering and place it in a more centralized, easy to access, easy to read, and easy to follow website.

Cell-Phone and Wireless Device Monitoring

Finally, there are the more difficult devices to safeguard and monitor: cell phones, tablets, and other hand-held devices. Fortunately few viruses affect these devices, so viruses are generally not a serious issue here. The more serious concern with portable handheld devices, smartphones, tablets, and cell phones is the fact that these devices are portable and not easy to track if lost or to monitor if they're being misused. They run on completely different operating systems than PCs, and as a result have fewer or more complicated solutions to address the family safety problem. If you're trying to monitor a member of your household and prevent Internet misuse on a portable device, the best solutions are (in order of preference):
  • Abstinence (i.e., don't give them a cell phone at all!)
  • Give them a rudimentary cell phone that has no Internet access.
  • Open the cell phone account in your own name (not your kids'!) so you can track its usage yourself. NTelos Wireless, for between $11/mo - $15/mo for example, offers security tracking, curfews, SMS keyword monitoring alerts to help you keep track of what's being communicated through your children's cell phones. 
  • Give them a smartphone or tablet already preprogrammed to prevent rogue software or unauthorized contacts (such as the Nabi touchscreen tablet which comes with preloaded parental controls, or the Kurio touchscreen tablet)
  • If you have an existing portable device (phone or tablet) you wish to implement parental controls on, try downloading Zoodles for younger ages (available for Android). Zoodles is a virtually impregnable sandbox full of kid videos and games that will keep them entertained for hours while you're at the dentist office. Zoodles prevents the child from accessing areas of your phone you don't wish them to. Unfortunately, not all software and feature sets are available for all product lines. For example, Zoodles is easy to break out of on an Apple device. Apple products, Android products, and Windows Phone certainly have other features and apps available besides those listed here.
  • For older kids and for adults, you'll need tougher security. Android's App Lock helps lock out access to software unless a password is provided. The service CovenantEyes.com will filter all web activity (for an upfront fee) by replacing your cell phone or tablet's browser with a custom one that has monitoring capability so that an accountability partner can review your online behavior. A similar browser content filtering product for the iPhone is x3watch.com.

Game System Parental Controls

If you've got kids, you've probably heard about the ESRB by now. It's a rating system that provides helpful guidance about the content and age-appropriateness of games for the PC and gaming consoles. There are parental controls based on the ESRB on all new video game platforms, allowing you to block out unwanted content. Also, Internet access can be disabled and password protected on such video game consoles as the Nintendo Wii--which is by far the most child friendly game console on the market. Although parental control settings are also available on the XBOX and Playstation, keep in mind these game consoles are generally far too advanced for children and were already designed from the ground up with the indiscriminate teenage and adult game-player in mind. If you've already bought one of these, you'll want to screen closely what types of games and movies your family obtains for the console. Fortunately, the XBOX and Playstation do offer far more advanced parental controls than even the Wii. Whew! The XBOX appears to top out the parental control feature list, with Ratings and Content settings that let you restrict games and video content based on the content's rating, a Family Timer curfew feature that allows you to limit the time that your console can be used, and Xbox LIVE Access controls to allow you to limit connections to the Internet-based Xbox LIVE and even prevent Xbox LIVE membership creation without consent.

TV and Entertainment Media Ratings Systems

Believe it or not, there are families that do not own a TV by their own conscientious decision. It's too much of a liability if you're trying to raise children with pure minds! If you want to offer your family safe TV, may I suggest SkyAngel? It competes with DISH and DirectTV and Comcast and the other TV service providers, but limits its channels to those from Christian broadcasters and other less risky sources. Watching DVDs and Blu-rays? Take note of the ratings on the box.  For TVs, the V-chip is actually a means for a parent to place limits on what a kid can watch. A parent can program the TV with a rating, and the TV will block all shows above that rating. For example, if you program the TV-Y7 rating, the TV will allow your child to watch shows rated at TV-Y and TV-Y7. Shows with higher ratings will be blocked. Now as far as media streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, woefully inadequate parental controls have been put in place by each, consisting of kid zones that can be easily bypassed by a curious child and no form of program ratings monitoring or other safety controls. You'll definitely want to be present in the room everytime TV streaming services are used at home! Same must be said for audio/music streaming services such as Pandora.com, Spotify.com, and TuneIn.com radio. You've got to stay abreast of the artists your children are listening to and what lyrics they sing; these services provide no adequate means of controlling what your children hear. The best you can do is set up these services for them yourself if they're at a teachable age and expose them to good wholesome musical sources, like HisKidsRadio. The website NewReleaseTuesday.com can be a great tool to watch for up and coming worthwhile artists. Finally, if you frequent the theatre much, first visit PluggedIn.com for the latest family-friendly reviews on the movies.

Conclusion

If you are already under a viral attack and unable to clean out your PC using the software I've mentioned, you'll need a technician like myself. If Internet or streaming/broadcast media abuse is an issue at home, you may need to either 1) cancel the service in question, 2) hide the remote! 3) establish some solid means of accountability either by an honor system or by employing the provided safety controls for that service or device--or if that has proven to be fallible, then 4) obtaining the counsel of a Pastor for the entire family or seeking therapy with a trusted family psychologist might be in order (!)

Hopefully you've come away a bit more enlightened after this discussion. I hope more than that, that you're also coming away empowered to establish meaningful family safety measures to prevent future breaches or attacks in the home!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What Does The Next Three Years Look Like For The Computer Industry?

I just rooted my Android cell phone a few days ago and have been pleasantly surprised by the plethora of freely available Android apps. Just what is there that I cannot do on my little LG AS740 Axis and my unlimited NTelos wireless service? And the thought immediately arrested me. Forget the onslaught of Apple's increasing popularity over the years. The days of Microsoft's worldwide sovereignty are over.

The Personal Computer (in all its incarnations, starting with the original clunky IBM desktop PC down to the most recent netbooks) has run through its career much like a pop artist. IBM begat the consumer industry in the early 80s and lost its parental control over it during the Personal Computer's teenage years. The Microsoft promotions machine then quickly made the PC rise to stardom only to bring its illustrious career to that of just a dated icon struggling to maintain its rep. Kind of like Madonna.

Who speaks well of Microsoft? It seems nowadays everyone gets a kick out of throwing tomatoes at the company. What we are now witnessing is a flurry of new talent and ideas. Nothing like you've ever seen or heard. Contending for the top spot as prime computing technology in your home and at work are a whirlwind of amazingly smart cell phones and tablets. There's iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Nook, the Java phone, Kindle, Android...you name it. Laptop computers are hanging in there because there's stuff these tiny phones and tablets are just not well suited for [yet], but desktop PCs are now more of a specialty item for people with special needs (heavy duty PC gamers and certain media professionals being among them). Even then, smaller, external USB hardware is beginning to replace the traditional need for internal slots on a PC. The underlying hardware is also radically different from that of the past and due to its tinier circuitry and increasingly lower price, it is often best replaced rather than repaired. The general consumer and most business people today will opt for these smaller footprints (the laptop, notebook, netbook, or the tablet), and in every case a smart cell phone that can integrate with their hardware is indispensable. Apple Computer, Inc. foresaw that in 2007 when it removed the word "Computer" from its name and kept it as just Apple Inc.

But what's most revolutionary right now is the fundamental shift in operating environments occurring in the marketplace. Gone are the days of Microsoft's dominating presence as the platform of choice for consumer software and graphics; Java-based equipment can now play videos and run games that are often just as flashy as Windows'. Apple has also greatly increased in popularity with the release of the new iPhone and iPad, and has made its already strong media platform even more attractive. And gone are the days of Microsoft's monopoly on office software! You can now open Word documents and Excel spreadsheets in a growing list of compatible software products running on any of these alternative platforms. OpenOffice and ThinkFree Office are both feature-rich competing products that will do everything the Microsoft Office suite does and more (for FREE!), will run on an Android phone or a Mac, and yet retain compatibility with Microsoft's industry-standard document formats. What's Microsoft to do?

The new contenders vying for Microsoft's crown are as diverse as they are versatile. And they're menacingly popular. Why? Because they break with tradition, and they break the yoke of Microsoft's market share. It's all in the same vein as the social unrest that has captivated this generation. Look at the political shifts happening internationally and how social media has fueled them. It's the GNU era. Open source. Free for all. Apple has managed to keep that rebel flair since its inception--never quite taking lead, but probably better off for not doing it. Now, for the first time in decades, a strong third contender has made its presence felt in the industry: Google Android phones have swallowed up almost a 50% market share of today's cell phone operating systems. You can already buy Android tablets and netbooks and completely bypass Microsoft's and Apple's longstanding presence in the market if you're a new buyer shopping at Best Buy.

I could say the stage has been set for a fierce competition in the next three years to determine which will be the hardware footprint of choice, but we all know smaller is better and at the end of those three years the cell phone and tablet will win.  I could predict that whoever takes the lead in the cell phone operating systems market will eventually rule over or determine the fate of the laptop and desktop software/hardware market...but who am I kidding? We all know this generation is sick of big bullies and will destabilize any company trying to become king. What I really think will happen in the next three years is that we will see an on-going tolerance of diversity in operating systems platforms. Smaller and more inter-operable electronics will marginalize the desktop PC market. Open source will continue to flourish. Apple's iOS will continue to gain popularity. But if any of these rising companies are smart, they will keep their throttle at a safe pace. Microsoft's last card to play in this era is Windows 8. Botching up another release as it happened with Vista is not an option. And the best strategy for Microsoft right now is to take a hint from the career of other giants. Either Microsoft gets Windows an effective crowd-pleasing makeover that can ride out the storms of this generation's unrest, or this new generation might forcefully pull it off-stage in a less-than-desirable abrupt ending.

Now, whether Madonna can keep up with this generation is another story.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Recovering a Corrupted HP Computer's Hard Drive Using a Third-Party Tool (BartPE)

Perhaps your hard disk has been irreversibly wrecked by viruses and you're ready to reformat and reload all the original manufacturer's preinstalled software.  But you find yourself in a bind: you never did make those Recovery CDs the system nagged you about when you first bought it!  Have no fear: there are still several solutions available to you.  First, you may have direct access to the recovery partition on your hard drive if you press F10 during boot-up.  Next, obviously, you can contact your PC's vendor and ask to receive replacement recovery CDs for your model PC if you'd rather make sure (for once!) that you obtain those.  But what if you're impatient and can't wait the number of days it takes to get your replacement CDs in the mail, or what if that F10 key just won't work?  Well, now you and I are ready to start talking!

This entire blog post is hanging on the possibility that your recovery CD software is actually still intact within your computer's corrupted hard drive.  This is entirely possible (and I've witnessed it!) since the recovery partition usually lies dormant in a locked state.  You may even have seen an H: drive (or some other odd drive letter) while browsing through Windows Explorer at some point in the past.  Its contents may have been displayed on the screen as a lock icon which you couldn't browse into.  Guess what?  That's your recovery software in there.

There is a very obscure tool called BartPE by Bart Lagerweij which you can download for free from his website and tap into that locked partition. But wait!  Don't click on that link until I tell you the whole story!

My goal in suggesting that you use BartPE is to help you gain access to that recovery partition locked away within your computer and run a process to restore all your operating system files and software to their original state.  BartPE will give you, "a complete Win32 environment with network support, a graphical user interface (800x600) and FAT/NTFS/CDFS filesystem support."  With it, you can boot your PC into a mini-Windows XP environment and gain access to the hidden recovery partition's executable files.  You can then literally execute (double-click on) the Restore.exe file found normally in H:\MiniNT\system32 and have your machine back to its original state! What's great about this method is that (because you're restoring directly from the internal H: drive into the C: drive) it cuts down the file restoration time to just a few minutes, as opposed to potentially hours of swapping HP Recovery CDs into your drive bay!

Alright, go ahead and click the link!  You've got the picture.  You will create a boot CD using the simple BartPE instructions on the product page, start the PC using that boot CD, and off you go!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Software Development Life-Cycle (SDLC)

There's much already shared on the Internet and in books regarding the software development lifecycle (SDLC), but the term still frightens even some seasoned I.T. professionals.  Really, it's very simple.  About the only scary part of it for the average Jane/Joe is the part where you have to sit down and actually write.

Any successful software project must be first well thought-out and planned on paper (or some other electronic means, if you'd rather.)  You've already begun following some crude sort of software development lifecycle process at this point.  Beyond this, there's researchers at Carnegie Mellon who've already written up volumes of theory and educational material to guide you to create the most fabulous and most perfect software product ever.  If you'd rather get on with your project, read on.

My simple (and more so fabulous) SDLC process would have you write the following documents (document titles are in bold; proposed contents are bulleted):

Business Requirements
  • Problem Description
  • Organizational Impact
  • Solution Requested

Project Proposal
  • Solution Proposed
  • Technical Details
  • Product Deliverables
  • Additional Features
  • Cost Analysis
  • Project Plan

Functional Specifications
  • Workflow Model
  • User Interface
  • Object Model
  • State Diagram
  • Database Design
  • Flowchart Diagram
  • Glossary

Implementation Plan
  • Algorithm Design
  • Code Samples

Maintenance Plan
  • Tune-up Schedule
  • Change Control
  • Upgrade Plan
  • Disaster Recovery

Verification Testing
  • Acceptance Criteria
  • Integration Testing
  • System Testing
  • Acceptance Testing

User Manual

Validation Plan
  • Standard Operating Procedures
  • Documentation Plan
  • Verification Plan
  • Acceptance Qualification

These last two documents really ought to be among the first to get drafted, though I list them last because they generally get edited or even rewritten after the code has been developed.  However, it's the documents themselves that will drive the entire SDLC process.  They are of utmost importance.  I will provide some guidelines on fleshing these out later.