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protonic.com Newsletter
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Issue 33 - December 3, 2009
Table of contents:
????Access to Computers
????From Off to Email in less than 10 seconds: Google Chrome OS
????Office of the New Year
????Keeping up to date: Secunia Software Inspector
????Credits

Access to Computers[ TOP ]
Over the past few months I?ve been providing free technical support to elderly residents of my local town. It?s brought to my attention just how inaccessible the machines that have changed our world are. Operating system developers have, in all fairness, done a fantastic job of turning the strings of binary code into something the ordinary layperson can understand, but there are endless complications.

For the purposes of this article I?m going to skip the difficulties of using a mouse and getting the machine connected etc in the first place ? even if I had a week to write this article I think I?d struggle to cover Windows installation and network setup. So, Harry Potter (our inexperienced computer user in this case) logs on and comes to a screen with a bright blue picture ? the Windows 7 default background. He?s heard that you can use a computer to type documents. On the screen in front of him, however, all there is something called ?Recycle Bin? and three pictures at the bottom next to some kind of orb. On Windows 95-XP there might have been some indication of where to begin ? the ?Start? button in the bottom left, but on Windows 7 it?s no longer called Start, making things prettier for Windows old hands but not much use for beginners. The other pictures ? a Blue ?e?, a yellow and blue icon (upon closer look this is a file rack - explorer) and finally a picture with a play button on it (though to the uneducated eye the new Windows Media Player 12 icon can look like nothing more than a triangle in a circle in a square?).

Something essential for learning to use a computer is not being afraid of trying things out. In the case of some of the people I have helped recently, this isn?t the case. I think this is one of the main reasons that children learn how to use computers so much quicker than adults [1] ? they?ll have a guess and if it doesn?t work try something else out.
Anyway, Harry eventually discovers that clicking the orb in the bottom left opens some kind of menu. Here he?s in luck ? a button with the words ?Getting Started?. Then again, the ?window? (assuming he understands the vocabulary) that opens up doesn?t help him at all with respect to creating a document. Perhaps the only useful thing here for Harry (whose eyes aren?t so good after being strained on the Quidditch pitch) is option to increase the size of text on the screen.

Returning to the original menu, Harry finally sees what looks to be a useful option ? ?Documents? but clicking this brings no luck ? merely another window opens with a load of stuff Harry doesn?t understand. Out of desperation he tries the ?Pictures? and ?Music? options and (once he has somehow gathered that you need to double-click to open a file or folder) manages to look at some pretty pictures and listen to some music. Great?

Giving up, Harry attempts something else he?s heard computers can do ? send emails. He?s out of luck though ? a fresh installation of Windows 7 without Windows Live essentials has no email application. In fact, the only semi-obvious option is ?Internet Explorer? ? Harry manages to load this up and, since his internet is miraculously already working, he might fumble his way through the Internet Explorer setup process (learning about ?web accelerators? when he?s yet to understand what a search engine is) and try searching for something using Bing. He might even think to search for help, of which there is a wealth of online if one knows where and how to look. Several hours (or days) later (presuming that he doesn?t give up, thinking it?s more trouble than it?s worth) Harry might have email up and running, having gone back to the ?Getting Started? menu, trying every option and reading the information, seeing ?stay in touch using messenger & mail?, making the link with email, downloading windows live essentials, launching windows live mail, signing up for a ?free email account?, configuring the program, not getting distracted by the ?353 unread feeds?, working out that the Subject doesn?t need to be anything technical, taking the decision to ignore CC and BCC... I?m not sure if all that even made sense and that?s just the point ? it?s confusing being a first-time computer user. With trial and error one can pick things up quickly and a few lessons here and there would do the world of good. Even better, someone could create a desktop background such that you had icons for everything clearly labelled.

Harry may have found his way to the accessories menu and tried out ?Wordpad? yet even once that?s running and he?s managed to type something, there are still a myriad of skills to learn ? highlighting, formatting, saving, printing (the printer has, of course, already been magically set up)?
To many readers this example may seem a bit over the top and, if computers were made user-friendly enough so that Harry could operate them, the rest of us would get somewhat annoyed by the endless advice. It?s not a one-size fits all scenario, and there would need to be an option to choose your ability so that the ?help level? adjusts accordingly. On the other hand, whilst we may not need help with basic word processing and file management, everybody encounters computer problems at times which are easily solvable if only we knew how ? a user friendly operating system would provide the answers.

Hopefully this article hasn?t come across as some kind of rant ? I?m not having a go at Microsoft & Apple. And there do exist ?easy? computers, known as eee pcs, made by Asus [2] ? there?s a nice interface with big icons. It?s by no means perfect though and there?s plenty of room for confusion. It?s a step in the right direction, but only a small one.
Personally I think this is an important issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of equality. Even if people like Harry can get kindly relatives and friends to help them set up, read books on using computers or attend lessons on basic computer skills there?s the developing world to consider. Countries such as Rwanda are using technology as one of the ways to build their economies but for many of the older residents; it?s going to be a painstakingly slow process to get used to using computers.

[1] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/11/15/how-to-profit-off-the-poor%E2%80%A6-and-keep-your-soul/
[2] http://eeepc.asus.com/global/index.html

From Off to Email in less than 10 seconds: Google Chrome OS[ TOP ]
Most readers will have heard of Google Chrome, a browser* made by the search giant that is advertised as being a superfast new way to browse the web. And, in all fairness Google Chrome is very fast, and has several other great features as well, not the least of which is its simplicity. It?s this simplicity and speed that makes Google Chrome great for running web applications such as Yahoo Mail, Windows Live Skydrive and Google Documents. Chrome includes a feature for creating ?application shortcuts? ? essentially an icon on your desktop that opens a Chrome browser window without any of the stuff at the top ? address bar, back button, tabs etc. The idea is that you no longer need these buttons on those sites as everything is included within the application ? you don?t need to click ?back? to return to your inbox, you simply click ?Back to inbox? within the application or choose it from your navigation bar on the left.

Anyway, there are a lot of web applications available, many made by Google (mail, calendar, documents (including word, PowerPoint and Excel replacements)) itself. In fact, if you use these online applications then you may find yourself doing very little except using the internet.

Here?s where Google Chrome Operating System (OS) comes in ? it?s an operating system entirely built on the internet. You can see a video about it here [1]. If you want to listen to your mp3 songs saved on your hard drive, you?re out of luck. However if all you want to do is check your email, read some news, type up some work or generally browse the internet Google Chrome OS might just be what you?ve been waiting for!

Google Chrome OS is designed to be installed on select netbooks. These machines will only use flash memory, which is faster but more expensive and thus the total capacity is usually smaller. With Chrome OS, however, this isn?t an issue as the Internet is your hard disk, and everything is automatically backed up online.

The advantage of a computer which can only browse the internet is speed, something Google is becoming famous for. Instead of the usual 40-60second or longer load up, Google Chrome OS loaded for me in less than half that time and the final products will load up in less than 7 seconds.

It?s all pretty cool stuff. There are obvious disadvantages ? some stuff you just can?t do with a browser alone and a low powered computer, for example heavy video and image editing, gaming and use of any desktop applications such as Microsoft office and Spotify (of course something which put the author off instantly!). However, Chrome OS isn?t designed to do this stuff ? Google isn?t planning on the operating system being used as a complete replacement for Windows or OSX ? it?s for netbooks alone, and they expect people to usually have another computer as well for stuff that can?t be done with the simplified netbook.

If you?re interested and feeling adventurous you might like to try Chrome OS out for yourself. TechCrunch provide a guide to running the operating system in a virtual machine (so inside windows, it will appear like any other program) or you could install Chrome to a USB key [4]. Chrome OS is in early stages of development so you may encounter errors, perhaps not for the standard user.

To see what the operating system looks like you can check out this Engadget article [5].

Moving back to the title of this article, I?ll finish with some issues that are being talked about with regards to the new operating system. There are issues with Google spreading out into yet another area, and with a product which is entirely controlled by the company ? there?s no privacy of your own hard disk anymore. Google can also dictate exactly what hardware will be compatible with its system, forcing computer manufacturers to build things exactly to its specifications (this is also a good thing as hardware is guaranteed to be compatible). Finally, is it really enough to have the internet? Even with some offline functionality the device is pretty crippled if one moves to an area where there?s no connection!

[1] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/11/19/video-chrome-os-for-dummies/
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/technology/companies/20chrome.html?_r=1
[3] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/11/19/guide-install-google-chrome-os/
[4] http://carbon.hexxeh.net/chromiumos/
[5] http://www.engadget.com/2009/11/19/googles-chrome-os-revealed/

*A study showed that not many people actually know what a browser is. If you?re unsure this brief explanation might help. Your computer is connected to the Web through broadband/dial-up. The Web is made up of millions of pages, including text, images and video. In order for you to read all this stuff out there, you need something that will display these pages to you. Essentially that?s what your browser does ? show you the information that you?re getting through your internet connection. Browsers include Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Safari and Google Chrome. Hope that makes some kind of sense!

Office of the New Year[ TOP ]
As I type this article I?m enjoying the wonders of a faded ribbon and a blue ?File? button ? I?m running Microsoft Office 2010 Beta [1]. On the whole, there are very few dramatic changes when compared to the interface overhaul that took place between Office 2003 and 2007. The key new feature is the ?backstage? menu, accessible by clicking the shiny ?File? button previously mentioned. This essentially does everything that the ?File? menu did, only in a much clearer and better designed manner. Like with Windows 7, the best way to show the changes is with screenshots. For images of backstage view see here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmcmahon/sets/72157622900472568/
(Sorry ? these haven?t come out very well but you get the general idea!)

In Word, the only other noticeable change I can see between 2007 and 2010 is better OneNote (Microsoft?s note taking software) integration under the ?review? tab. Powerpoint is a different matter ? there are several changes and a brand new ?transitions? tab (as well as the ?animations? tab there was in 07). One of the more notable features is inbuilt Video and Image editing tools, including the ability to embed online videos in your presentation[2] ? previously this could be done with a free third party add on but it was complicated to set up, it?s great to have the feature properly included within the PowerPoint system. Full details of the changes available on the Microsoft website [3].

A key new feature of office 2010 is Office Web Apps, which will be available for free! They will replace Microsoft Works, providing basic office features all linked up to your windows live Skydrive [4] account. This obviously competes with Google documents[5] and perhaps will win more users what with the familiar interface.

OneNote 2010 includes an equation editor along with several other new features. Everything?s improved one way or another so if you?re interested check out the Microsoft Office 2010 Beta website [1]. There you can also download for free the Beta product, presumably with a limited license (I?m not sure how long it is?).

All in all Office updates are never really revolutionary ? after all the amount people want to do with this applications is limited ? with word perhaps the majority of people would be happy enough with a small amount of font formatting (bold, italic, size?) and the ability to copy and paste. However, if you?re planning on buying an Office product soon I?d say it?s worth the wait, if only for the enjoyment of feeling up to date. Compatibility wise things haven?t changed since 07, only you can now only save in 97-2003 compatibility mode by choosing it from the drop down list (no big button in the file menu). The default format is still Docx though this can most likely be changed. Businesses and schools that have skipped 07 might go for 2010 along with Windows 7, so saving in the old format might not be such an issue anymore.

Note: I?ve done this article/comparison based on Office 2007. There were a lot of changes between 03 and 07, the main thing being that the ?File, Edit, Insert?? menus have now been changed into tabs.

[1] http://www.microsoft.com/office/2010/en/default.aspx
[2] http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmcmahon/4145106480/
[3] http://www.microsoft.com/office/2010/en/powerpoint/default.aspx
[4] http://skydrive.live.com
[5] http://documents.google.com

Keeping up to date: Secunia Software Inspector[ TOP ]
Any computer user will be familiar with software updates. Whether it?s a little popup politely demanding to install updates for your windows operating system, occasionally with a necessary annoying restart or massive iTunes patches that seem to take forever to download and install, updates are everywhere. Normally the changes made by the updates will have little noticeable effect unless you are a security expert or a developer ? they merely fix minor bugs and patch security holes. Occasionally a big update will be released such as Internet Explorer 8 or iTunes (9), bringing new features (in these cases web accelerators and the genius bar?).

The constant reminders to update can be annoying, but it?s an important thing to do nevertheless ? without the updates you leave your computer open to vulnerabilities and malicious attacks. But, short of going to the ?Help? menu of every application and selecting ?check for updates, its very difficult to stay on top of what needs updating.

Enter Secunia Personal Software Inspector [1] ? a program that scans everything on your computer to see if it?s up to date and then shows you the results. On top of this, it provides in many cases direct download links or at the least a link to the website from which the software is from.

The interface is great, showing you how the security of your system changes over time (the application runs constantly in the background to make sure you?re always up to date) and you get a nice warm feeling upon seeing the green colours, implying that your applications are completely up to date. Note that after installing updates you need to rescan the system.

If you click ?Advanced? in the top right you get a much more detailed overview of the different applications running on your system and how the security could be improved. However the more detailed insight can be confusing ? for example it brought up a problem with a portable version of Firefox I had saved on my computer - since I never used it except on other machines I never really kept it up to date. The best thing is probably to try both interfaces and see what suits you. If you?ve applied a fix from the ?Advanced? section and rescanning showed the problem to still be there I shouldn?t worry!

All in all Secunia PSI is a fantastic utility for keeping your applications up to date. If you?d rather not install the full application then there?s an online version which you could just run once in a while.

[1] http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/
[2] http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/online

Credits[ TOP ]
Newsletter Administrator - Ross Connor (ross@protonic.com)

This issue has been entirely written by Philip McMahon (philip@protonic.com)





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