Media Hubs – Home Entertainment Evolution

Our world revolves around media: pictures, movies, music, and even documents. Families are separated by their media devices, flung to the far corners of the house hunkered over computers, laptops, tablets, and other handheld devices. Each device is like an island, providing entertainment to only one person. In a previous article, I discussed how to share content like movies and music with multiple devices around the home. In this article, we are going to talk about devices that bring all of that media together in one place, the family room. These devices are sometimes referred to as media hubs.

For some time now, geeky folks like myself have been toiling away at getting all their movies, music, pictures, and DVR content in one place and sharing it around our homes, building computers that reside in our AV cabinets in the family room and using them to display this content on our TV. Our TVs and DVD players are now “Smart” and include some apps that allow us to connect to some of that media over the internet. Devices like the Roku box stream content from the internet, but also allow for other applications to be added to it that allow you to stream your personal media from a computer in your home. I am looking at building a custom solution that uses a hobby electronics device called a RaspberryPi to create a media hub for streaming content to my family room. Another new device that wants to be the only media system you will ever need is the new Xbox One. I know I talk about the Xbox in the security article of this newsletter, but it really is just that cool to make it into 2 articles. The Xbox One is a Blu-ray player, game system, video phone, TV tuner, DVR, content- streaming pile of cool. But it won’t be on sale till later this year.

There is a trend forming here, and I think Microsoft is on the right track. Being able to get to and view your content should be easy. It should in the words of Steve Jobs, “Just Work.” And people shouldn’t have to have 50 little boxes hooked up to their TV with an equally large number of remotes to operate. And while the family room has always been the hub of entertainment, the different methods of delivering that entertainment are going to converge into a single powerful media hub.

Biometrics – You are the Password

The weakest link in a chain is always the one that breaks, everyone knows this. Several popular TV shows are built on the concept of the weak link, finding it, and eliminating it each week to find the strongest competitor. Hacking a system is, in a lot of ways, the same. Run some test, poke the system with a stick, push on it, pull on it, and see where it gives – where it breaks. Securing a system is the same basic idea; however, instead of using that weak point to get inside, you eliminate it. Time and again, in system after system, network after network the human element is the most easily exploited point in a system’s security. I am not talking about users opening infected email or browsing infected web sites. I am talking about passwords. People always look for a way to use the simplest password to connect to a network, or email, or web site. I am as guilty as anyone else, but what if humans were not the weakest link anymore? What if we could forget about remembering a password to access a system?

If I don’t use a password how do I log in to my computer you ask? Biometrics… Bio-what? Oh yeah all that spy stuff that evil fictional governments use to protect their secrets and weapons. That’s all just fake, right? No, it’s real and it has been available in some form or other for years. There are thousands of laptops in use today with fingerprint readers on them. Several mouse manufacturers have sold mice with fingerprint readers on them at one time or another. USB fingerprint readers are available online right now for $20-$30. So, if this is old news that you can log into your computer with your fingerprint, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is facial recognition. At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, several developers were showing off software that would let you log into your computer with your face. Cool, huh? Sit down, look at the camera, and your computer recognizes you and logs you in. Microsoft has integrated this feature into its new Xbox One — just look deeply into its cold digital eye and Xbox recognizes you. It logs you into the system and loads your preferences, and you are ready to enjoy the system. Well this is a far cry from logging into my workstation at the office, isn’t it? Again, the future is here. There are companies today that have software that they will install on your computer — for example, KeyLemon has a free application that will log you into Windows using your face. KeyLemon can also manage your other passwords for sites like Facebook or Twitter. Face it — this is the evolution of computer security. At least that’s what I think. I think this technology will continue to evolve and that with Microsoft using it in their Xbox One to identify system users, we should expect to see this feature become part of the Windows login experience out of the box within the next year or two.

Windows 8 – Don’t Worry, It’s Still Just Windows

Not too long ago some news outlets covered the impending release of an update to Windows 8 that is being called Windows 8.1. After this news broke, I was hit with an onslaught of questions. People telling me that they had heard that no one likes Windows 8, that Windows 8 doesn’t work, and asking will this update fix it all. For the life of me I still cannot figure out what needs fixing. I have tested Windows 8 and even run software on it that does not support Windows 8 — all without any trouble. The best theory that I can come up with is that, as a group, PC users abhor change and the new home screen that Windows 8 presents on start-up and Metro UI is too much for us to deal with all at once.

The new Windows 8 Metro style interface is a smooth, visually appealing, and easy to navigate space for storing tiles that provides quick access to our favorite apps and folders. Live tiles even provide dashboard-like features, allowing us to get a quick, up-to-the-minute overview on what is happening in apps like email, news, and social media without having to open the application. The native Metro style apps are just like the old apps we know and love — they just fill the screen completely, providing a more immersive experience for the app. New Metro UI apps are appearing on the Windows Store all the time, but Metro UI apps aren’t the only kind of apps Windows 8 will run. Windows 8 is more than happy to run all the classic Windows style Apps you ran on Windows 7. You can even place tiles on the home screen to these apps so you can access them easily.

Another question that still comes up is what happened to the desktop, and can I get it back. The desktop is still there. It didn’t go anywhere. It is just hiding behind the Metro UI, and to get there all you have to do is click or touch the desktop icon on the home screen and there it is, just like you would expect. You can even fill it up with icons just like you did before. You could say the classic desktop provides the bridge between the new user experience and the old, providing a framework for running the classic Windows style apps. Some of the tools you are used to, like the Control Panel, are even still found on the classic side of the bridge.

I won’t lie to you. Windows 8 takes some getting used to, especially if you have been managing and maintaining Windows systems for as long as I have. There is a learning curve to finding where some of the tools you used to set things up have moved. For most users though there are but a few new things to learn, like switching apps in the Metro UI, which requires using a fly-out that hides itself on the left side of the screen. On touch devices like tablets, the basic gestures like swiping, pinching, pulling, and so on are fairly natural, and if you have had any interaction with apple or android phones or tablets this will be a breeze.

If you are still running Windows XP your days are numbered. As of April, 2014, Microsoft will no longer support the operating system. That means no more patches or security updates. This will also mean other software like QuickBooks or Adobe will stop supporting their software on that operating system. If you have an application that will not run on anything other than Windows XP, you need to either find a new solution or really push the developer to update their software and start supporting current operating systems. If neither is an option, or there is some reason to extend the migration period for a piece of software, Windows 8 includes what Microsoft calls the client hypervisor. If you have been reading the newsletter you know what a hypervisor is. It is a piece of software that allows you to run a virtual computer inside a window on a “real” computer. A Windows XP virtual computer can be created and run on your Windows 8 machine to allow you to run your old application until you can complete your migration. Just remember that a virtual machine running an unpatched version of Windows is just as big a security risk as running a physical one, so I would not look at this as a permanent solution to running your legacy Windows XP software but a life raft to help you make it to the shore.

You have nothing to fear from Windows 8, it’s just Windows, part of the ever forward moving march of technology. Windows 8 is beautiful but more than that it is functional. Windows 8 is going to be the most secure version of Windows for your business, not because it is better but because it is the version being actively maintained by Microsoft. It is going to get the most attention and quickest response to threats from Microsoft’s development team. I don’t have all the details on Windows 8.1, but it is not bringing back the desktop because it never went anywhere. 8.1 is the first update to Windows 8 in a much faster development cycle. More updates will follow every few months as Microsoft continues to improve and add to the platform as part of their commitment to try and bring its customers the best operating system it can. If you are still staring down the barrel of a migration from Windows XP call me and let’s talk. You need a plan, and starting by evaluating Windows 8 with a partner is a good first step.

Rise of the Smart… Everything!

Some of you may have gathered that I like projects, especially DIY. There is a growing wave of interest around making things at home on your own, rather than going out and buying a commercial product. The people who are part of this growing trend even have a name — Makers. Inside the maker community is a thriving electronics community whose interests run from 3d printing to making wearable electronics fashionable. These tinkerers tend to like to keep their eyes on their creations, send information to them and even get messages back. Lately, some of these gadgets have started to not only talk to their Makers but to one another, sharing data and making decisions based on this data. Now the machines have not taken on a mind of their own, but have been connected as part of the grand designs of their makers. Over the last several years, there have been articles and books published about what has been dubbed the Internet of Things, devices that share information connected over wired and wireless networks.

Commercial manufacturers are starting to get into the act. Now I am sure if you have been into an appliance store recently you have seen the word Smart pinned in front of nearly everything you can imagine: Smart Refrigerator, Smart TV, Smart Coffee Maker, etc. All of these devices in general have one thing in common. They are “connected” or have some feature that uses a sensor or timer to do things for us to improve their operation or reduce their cost. One of the smartest devices on the market today, in my opinion, is the Nest. Nest is a smart thermostat that is connected to the Internet. It allows you to control the temperature in your home from a web browser anywhere in the world, but it is also smart. Nest will detect when you are away from home and adjust the temperature to conserve energy. It learns your routines and will adjust the temperature back to your preferred settings before you return home. Nest uses motion sensors to see if you are home and temperature sensors to detect the temperature in the house. I believe I even read it can check the weather and will make decisions about how to manage the temperature in the house based on the forecast. Smart, right?

More devices are coming to the market or are being built in the Maker community almost daily that connect to each other and make decisions based on our preferences in order to make our lives and experiences better. Devices that turn off the oven if you leave the house or, like the Nest that improves the efficiency of our heating and cooling systems. We are building systems of devices that coexist and communicate, moving us into a world that a few years ago could only be found in science fiction. Voice controls, facial recognition that recognizes you when you enter a room, touch displays that can manage it all and connect you to the Internet — the world of the future is here today. So when you are shopping, even though “Smart” might seem like the newest buzzword to move the latest kitchen widget, be aware that that coffee pot might just be smarter that you think. What’s next? Robots that do chores like in Star Wars? Oh wait, the Roomba does that!