The cost of a digital life

If you’re single, start with your monthly smartphone bill. Double that if you share expenses with a spouse who also has a smartphone. Or, if you have some sort of shared “family rate,” use that number.

Now add whatever you pay for Internet access.

Next take your monthly cable (or satellite of whatever) television subscription.

If you’re as connected as I am, these three costs combined could equal or exceed $360 per month. That’s $4320 per year.

But don’t stop there. Let’s move on to all your monthly and annual fees that exist only because the Internet exists.

For openers, let’s assume you have Netflix streaming. Count Amazon Prime if you mainly joined to have access to their streaming videos. Add these two together and you have almost another $200 per year.

Do you pay for something like Backblaze to backup your data to the cloud? Do you pay for cloud storage to Dropbox or iCloud or anything similar? If so, toss those in.

What about music subscriptions services such as Spotify or Rdio or even iTunes Match?

Do you pay to subscribe to digital versions of magazines/newspapers? If so, count them, unless you would have otherwise paid to have a print subscription.

Finally, add in any other Internet-based fees that you pay on a regular basis, from website hosting to VPN networking.

The combined total will obviously vary a lot from person to person. For me, it comes to about $4800 per year, or about $400/month. For most people who are active Internet users, I believe the number will be similar.

Remember, this is all money spent on services that largely did not exist twenty years ago! And the amount we spend each year seems to only get bigger — as newly emerging services become commonplace to the point of becoming “essential.”

If you’ve wondered why you have more trouble coming up with the money to pay your bills each month, even when most of your major expenses (rent, food, etc.) remain stable, now you know.

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MacFixIt is gone

MacFixIt is gone.

Sometime last week, apparently without any formal announcement (aside from a tweet), CNET dropped the MacFixIt name from its site. As of now, if you go to www.macfixit.com, it takes you instead to CNET>Computers.

In response, Topher Kessler, who had been the primary contributor to MacFixIt under CNET, has started a new troubleshooting-focused site called MacIssues. I wish him luck.

I began MacFixIt in 1996. After managing the site for four years, and watching it grow to a level I had never imagined possible, I sold MacFixIt to TechTracker in 2000. I remained as editor until 2002. I continued to write a monthly column (mac.column.ted) for MacFixIt until 2009. Beyond that, after resigning as editor, I no longer had anything to do with the site.

TechTracker did a fine job of maintaining MacFixIt in the years after my departure. I felt a bit like the parent who nurtures their child until adulthood and then watches as the child continues successfully out on their own. [To read my look back at MacFixIt’s first decade (1996-2006), as originally posted on the site, click here.]

In 2007, CNET purchased TechTracker, including MacFixIt. This resulted in a dramatic transformation of MacFixIt. In my opinion, it was not a good change. While the MacFixIt name was retained, the site soon lost its distinct character. It was even hard to find the “site,” if you didn’t already know the URL; it was awkwardly located under the “Reviews” section of CNET. After a while, it seemed to me that there was little point in CNET keeping the MacFixIt name alive. I guess CNET finally came to the same conclusion.

[Note: Most of the site's content remains on CNET, at least for now (for example, click here). However, you'll likely have to do a Google search to find any of it.]

MacFixIt had a great run. It survived 18 years, almost to the day. That’s a very long time in Internet years. I remain quite proud of the site and all that it accomplished.

I’ve said goodbye to MacFixIt in various ways over the years. The time has now come for me to give it my last goodbye.

Posted in Apple Inc, General, Mac | 26 Comments

Why I look forward to CarPlay

Apple announced CarPlay yesterday, its renamed iOS in the Car technology that gives drivers of compatible automobiles direct access to iPhone features connected via the Lightning cable. The first cars to include CarPlay are due out before the end of the year.

Existing car systems can already do something similar: a driver can access an iPhone to play music using the car’s built-in software. With CarPlay, it’s more like the iPhone takes over the car’s user interface, offering access to music, maps, text messaging and various other apps. In some cars, you may still have to use physical buttons and dials with CarPlay, but the better systems will provide a touchscreen much like the iPhone itself.

I’m very much looking forward to CarPlay. In fact, I’m certain that the next car I buy will have it (given that I’m years away from a car purchase, that’s a safe bet).

As I see it, there’s a big upside and a smaller downside to CarPlay.

The upside

The big upside is the “unification” of disparate systems.

For example, as it stands now, if I want to set up directions for a trip prior to getting into my car, I can do it on my iPhone. Even better, I can do it on my Mac, using Maps, and have it automatically transfer to my iPhone. In either case, it offers no connection to my car’s built-in GPS navigation system. Once in the car, I would either have to depend on the iPhone (probably using a windshield mount so I could see it while driving) or re-enter the data in my car’s system.

If I wind up taking my wife’s car on another occasion, I confront a navigation system that’s different both from the ones in my iPhone and my car. It’s admittedly a “first world problem” — but I have the hassle of dealing with three separate independent systems. It works fairly well in spite of this, but it could work a lot better.

Enter CarPlay. If both of our cars had CarPlay, I could enter an address on my iPhone, connect it to either car and have the directions instantly accessible, with both cars using almost the exact same familiar iPhone-like interface. Perfect!

Now imagine that rental cars came with CarPlay. I could preload my iPhone with various destinations points, prior to a vacation. When I pick up my rental car, I attach the iPhone and…presto…I’m good to go.

Accessing music, either via my iTunes Library or via streaming services such as Spotify, would similarly be simplified and unified across vehicles. The iPhone interface would replace the often awkward controls in current car systems. For example, with the system in my wife’s Nissan Leaf, there is no Pause button to halt a song that is playing.

You get the same “unification” benefits for making phone calls. Finally, CarPlay offers capabilities not available in most existing car systems, such as the option to send and receive text messages.

With CarPlay’s inclusion of Siri, almost all actions can be accomplished via voice commands and spoken responses — allowing you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

I wouldn’t buy a car today, no matter how good it otherwise is, unless it came with a USB port and was compatible with my iPhone. It’s easy to stick to this requirement because almost every current car meets it. Within a few years, I expect the same will be true for CarPlay. That’s why I can be confident that my next car will include CarPlay. It’s not essential yet, but the day is coming.

The downside

Despite all of these advantages, there remains one likely downside to CarPlay. CarPlay-equipped cars may be dependent on an iPhone. This is not so for current car systems. For example, with my Ford Fusion, I can use its built-in GPS even if I don’t have my iPhone with me.

I’m still not exactly sure how carmakers will bundle CarPlay. But I expect there will be an option to have CarPlay installed in lieu of a built-in GPS. Such a setup might similarly eschew other “smart” features that would otherwise be built-in to the car. With this type of setup, you are dependent on the iPhone to access the absent features. That will mostly be just fine with me. After all, using the iPhone is the whole point of CarPlay. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I (or someone else driving my car) would be prefer a built-in system.

I am hopeful that, to compensate for this downside, CarPlay will be significantly less expensive than current car systems. After all, with the iPhone doing all of the heavy lifting, CarPlay should cost less to install. But who knows? If carmakers believe they can successfully sell CarPlay at current premium prices, I’m sure that’s what they’ll do.

At least in the beginning, I expect there will be an additional option to have a combined traditional system and CarPlay installation. This will allow you to have your proverbial cake and eat it too — but at a presumably higher cost.

No matter what the installation details turn out to be, and despite whatever competition emerges, CarPlay will be successful. We’ll see a rapidly expanding popularity of the technology over the next few years. And the more widespread CarPlay becomes, the more useful it will be for iPhone owners to have CarPlay — creating a sort of positive feedback loop. Similarly, the more prevalent CarPlay becomes, the more incentive there will be to own an iPhone. And that, of course, will be good news for Apple.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 3 Comments

I can’t believe House of Cards

I like Netflix’s House of Cards. I get so caught up in the show that I am seduced into binge-watching because I don’t want to wait to see what happens next. I watched the entire first season in less than a week and was enthralled the entire time. I finished the entire second season in even less time. It’s sort of an anti-The West Wing, revealing the depth of the machinations and corruption that lie behind the public facade of politics in Washington. Rarely, if ever, is anything done out of a desire to serve the public good. And it’s all deliciously played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The way they juggle the deceit and backstabbing is truly outstanding.

That said…

I almost gave up watching the show after the end of the first episode of Season 2 [Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal plot details]. Here’s why:

Frank Underwood, the Vice Presiden(and eventual President) of the United States, is a serial killer.

The utter unbelievability and ridiculousness of the above sentence is impossible to overstate. I thought House of Cards was supposed to be a serious, if not entirely realistic, drama about the underbelly of American politics. Instead, it turns out to be spin-off of 24. I expected Jack Bauer to pop out at any moment.

I was (barely) able to accept last year’s murder, born out of desperation and meant to shock us as we discover just how depraved Frank Underwood really is. But this second murder? No way. Not even close.

According to the show’s plot lines, Frank Underwood, one of the most well-known public figures in Washington, can commit murder anytime he gets the slightest urge. Even “better,” he can do this without raising any suspicion—save for Zoe and Lucas and company. As Janine tells Lucas while he his behind bars, Underwood is going to “get away with it.” True to her prediction, the subject of the murders barely appears on the radar for the rest of the season.

With Tusk trying to uncover every iota of dirt that he can find on Underwood, and newspaper reporters doing their own digging, is it really plausible that no one even gets a whiff of what Underwood has been doing in his spare time?

The end result is that the viewer is left with a sense that we are supposed to treat these murders as some minor character flaw, much less significant than Underwood’s plan to get the President impeached. It’s hard for me to swallow this.

As bad as all of this is, it’s not the biggest problem with the plot development. That award goes to the way Zoe’s murder was carried out.

The way Zoe’s murder is carried out is even more absurd than who did it. Ten times more absurd.

After watching the murder scene, I asked myself: Had Frank already decided, prior to arriving at the subway platform, that he would kill Zoe if she wasn’t willing to play ball? Or was the murder a spur of the moment decision? As I thought about it, I realized that it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it makes no sense.

If he planned the murder in advance, that meant that he somehow knew how to time the conversation so that, at the exact moment he walked away and Zoe followed him, a train would be arriving…allowing him to push Zoe off the platform just as the oncoming front car was approaching. How could he count on things going that well? He couldn’t. For starters, what if Zoe hadn’t followed him and had instead turned around and left? The planned murder would fail.

And let’s not forget the security cameras. Had Frank actually scoped out their locations in advance so that he knew where to stand to avoid being recorded? Remember, not only was there no video evidence that Frank was the culprit, the camera didn’t even pick up that Zoe had been pushed at all! Could Frank be certain this would be the case? Really? How? I can hear my credulity snapping.

One more thing…Frank also had to be sure there would be no witnesses to the crime. But how could he know that no one was in his line of sight at the crucial moment? Actually, he pretty much had to count on no one knowing he was in the vicinity of the train station at the time. The about-to-be Vice President goes off to commit murder at a public subway stop and no one has any clue? <sigh>

Lastly, Frank is generally smart enough to find a way to have others commit crimes for him, so that he can’t easily be connected to the acts — as when he sets up Lucas to get arrested for cyber-terrorism (which, by the way, no one in the media has an inkling about as yet). Why couldn’t he do something like that to get rid of Zoe? Even given the murder he committed last season, it seems out-of-character that he would allow his hands to get so directly dirty. [By the way, I had a similar reaction to the final episode of PBS’s Sherlock Holmes: Would Sherlock really resort to murder as a solution? No. It's beneath his intellect.]

OK. What if, instead, Zoe’s murder was an unplanned spur of the moment decision? It’s just as bad. In this case, we have to believe that all of the fortuitous circumstances I cited, such as the camera not detecting him, were just the result of “good luck.” Again, it’s impossible for me to believe that (a) Frank would leave something so critical up to “luck” and (b) that he would actually get all the luck he needed.

Bottom line

As the opening episode of Season 2 was drawing to a close, I found myself reaching for the Off button. I came very close to pressing it. But I kept going. And I’m glad I did. A good part of the rest of House of Cards was diabolically nuanced, so unlike what I’ve discussed here. It was fun to watch. Yes, it’s implausible that Underwood would have succeeded in becoming President the way he did. But it remained within the range of acceptable for me. As for the murders, is it too much to ask that scriptwriters come up with plot developments that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence? Ones that don’t require that we stretch our “suspension of disbelief” so far that it breaks entirely? Unfortunately, it too often does seem too much to ask.

Posted in Entertainment, Television | Leave a comment