by WebKeyDesign | Oct 4, 2017 | News & Trends
Like most professionals, I have taken countless courses on data privacy and computer security. After a while, the online courses and training scenarios all end up sounding the same. In 2017, the size and scope of technology breaches has increased and at the same time we are learning that our financial and private data is being compromised in more places than we can count. From our local store at the mall, to our financial institutions, the reality is that technology is making everyone a target. By news accounts, you can’t trust anyone. Your bank, your healthcare insurance, your webmail provider, the IRS, your payroll provider, have all been compromised and this all before we even learned about the Equifax breach. Target is a good example of a company that invests heavily in technology and implemented security protocols better than most companies, however they still became a victim and were compromised. The reality is that security is not ever going to be easy. The best way to implement security is by using a layered approach, with multiple levels of restrictions. Secure your network, secure your devices, secure your software with updates, use strong passwords, and backup your data in multiple ways. This becomes a lot of work for individuals. The frustration is that even if you do everything right, you are still going to be compromised. The best possible outcome is that you will not be an easy target and that you limited what was taken from you.
CCleaner is one of my trusted utilities, on Windows computers. I use it quite often and install it on all of my Windows machines. Recently, their security was compromised and malware was added to their installer. Reading carefully through all the reports, I determined that on two machines the version had not been updated and multiple scans by different anti-virus tools came up clean. On a third machine, a laptop, the machine had been compromised. On this particular computer, I did not have any real data that was of importance, and this was the laptop that I had setup with a custom Windows setup that allows me to restore Windows to a fresh state. This allowed me to restore the machine in less than an hour and I no longer had to worry about malware on that computer.
However, this was a wake up call in regards to my other machines. I need to implement a similar setup for my other computers. There needs to be a strategy for my home Windows Server, my kids computers, and what about my Mac computers? This all came about because I trusted an application that I have been using for years.
For the most part, I have not had to worry too much about the Apple ecosystem, when it comes to iOS. Apple has been pretty good about keeping malware out of the App Store, not perfect by any means, but good. All I have had to do is keep iOS updated with the latest version that is available for the device and not install too many third party apps. I also keep an iTunes backup for my iPhone and iPad. I do not put too much faith in the cloud, so my iCloud data is pretty slim.
There are not any Android devices in my home. We are pretty much Apple, Windows, and Linux. My criticism of Android is that there are way too many exploits and security compromises when it comes to the platform. The devices are not updated very often and prior Android versions are very vulnerable to all types of attacks. This is an area where Apple has managed to do better due to the faster upgrade cycle and walled garden that is the App Store. My best advice for Android users is the same as iOS users: upgrade your OS and do not install too many third party apps.
I do not use Linux as a desktop, so my concerns with Linux is typically with servers. Linux is becoming a bigger target these days. Part of the problem is that Linux is a collection of software that is patched together from multiple sources. These sources are all vulnerable. The other issue with Linux in general is that it requires a certain level of admin expertise, which is different from most consumer software. For Linux, I keep a backup of an original setup, so if I misconfigure or break something, I can restore to that setup. For the data, I backup separately and keep multiple copies of that. Scanning tools for Linux tend to be free, but there are commercial versions which you can purchase. If you are using Linux for business purposes, Redhat is highly recommended.
Facebook, Amazon, & Clouds
I find it hard to reconcile individual security and Facebook usage. To me the more you use Facebook, the bigger a target you become. I see people updating their Facebook account with their physical location all the time. This is great information to have, if you are a thief and want to break into someone’s house. The problem with Facebook, Amazon, and cloud platforms like iCloud is that these services communicate with your mobile phone and the data that they send back and forth is very susceptible to being breached. Your phone is literally a beacon that keeps signaling all the time. You can prevent some of this by turning off Bluetooth, Wireless, and not installing third party apps, however for everything you turn off or disable, the phone becomes less connected, less functional. A must have is some sort of VPN, that you can enable when connecting to free wireless networks.
There really is not a good way to be private or have layered security when it comes to the mobile phone. The phone is a beacon at this point, and you are the target.
Since the Equifax breach, I have been reading about what possible avenues people have to protect themselves, now that everyone is compromised, and the only advice that I found that seemed plausible was to change your name. It is possible to legally change your name and to escape some of the repercussions of the Equifax breach. Unfortunately it has come to this.
by WebKeyDesign | Sep 6, 2017 | Business
When I was a child, my parents would drive to the suburbs once a month and we would arrive after what seemed like the longest drive at Kmart. At the time, Kmart was a strange and wonderful place. It was a giant store that had toys, music, clothes, pretty much everything! My parents would usually buy my brother and I, a couple of Hot Wheels cars and that is pretty much all we cared about. I can’t even remember why we would even go there, cause all I remember was the Hot Wheels cars. The only stores that my parents would take us to were grocery stores, so to us Kmart was pretty incredible. As I got older, I grew less and less interested in Kmart. The store lost its appeal to me completely when I became a teenager.
Primarily Kmart seemed to be a store that did not want you to shop there. They had a little bit of everything, but they never really had what you wanted. They sold automotive parts, but somehow never had the bulb or oil filter you were looking for. At the time they sold music and movies, but always at a higher price than stores like BestBuy. They were not known for carrying the best brands. Their registers were notorious for ringing up the wrong price and making people wait in line for price checks. Lastly, it seemed like Kmart employees hated their customers. The only good time to shop at Kmart was when they had an end of the season sale on items. Otherwise I learned to avoid Kmart if at all possible.
On the other end of the spectrum was Sears. For many years, I would shop at Sears for hand tools, lawn equipment, electronics, and most of all clothes. Unlike Kmart, Sears had better quality clothes for men. In my teen years they also had the famous Sears Catalog and I did order from it a few times. My first stereo system came from the Sears Catalog and I had to pick it up at the local Sears location. For both my parents generation and part of mine, the Sears name was associated with quality and the middle class. Overtime Sears began to gradually decline. Some journalists today are writing about how the decline of the middle class itself is causing a death spiral for businesses like Kmart and Sears, other people are instead pointing to the rise of online shopping from Amazon as the cause of why retail business is suffering. However, I think the reality is a bit more complicated than Amazon Prime members no longer shopping retail.
Today Kmart and Sears are one company. A company that is closing stores, having trouble keeping shelves stocked, and bordering on the edge of bankruptcy. So what did happen? More than anything else, Sears Holding Corporation, the parent company of Kmart and Sears, does not understand who their customers are. This is the problem.
ShopYourWay Is Not Helping
The focus on online shopping is not going to save Sears. If anything it is going to cause it to close more stores. Last year I ordered a sweater on clearance from one of the three websites the company has. The website allowed me to ship to my local Kmart and save on shipping costs. After receiving an email notification stating that my item had arrived, I drove to the store and went to the customer service desk. I was amazed to find out that the Kmart employee had to search for my item on a paper log that was completely handwritten! After a few minutes, the employee gave up and brought it up on the register and then went to go retrieve the item. Comparing this to JCPenny, BestBuy, or even Walmart, the experience was not impressive.
I receive multiple retailer emails a day. When I look at emails from Amazon and BestBuy, I can immediately see that their emails are targeted to my interests. They spotlight specific electronics or books that I am already interested in. The ShopyYourWay emails look like old style newspaper circulars with literally 50 or more items listed, almost none of which I am interested in. The emails are not helpful, they are instead a time waster, as they never highlight anything specific. Sears Holding really does not understand my interests, nor do they value my time.
The Store Shelves
A year ago I was at social event, and I sat next to a retired gentleman. He mentioned that he use to work in supply management. I could not help but vent my frustration and relate what a terrible inventory system Kmart and Sears have. He agreed with me and then related that he was a former employee. In the multiple years that have passed, where Walmart figured out how to do electronic inventory and Target created mom friendly stores with plenty of room for baby strollers, Sears and Kmart stores have not changed physically at all. The competition understands that change is good, that changing layouts and having different types of displays is what keeps people coming back. Target offers Wifi access to its customers. Imagine if next time you went to Sears there was a cafe area where customers could drink Starbucks coffee at the same time they waited for their tires to be installed? Instead the last time I was at Sears, I saw a shoe department that looked like a tornado had just gone through it and boxes were scattered throughout. The employees in appliances were trying hard to stay awake as they stood there looking at each other. The store was almost empty of customers. Walking to another end of the mall, you could find a vibrant, brightly lit, JCPenny. The differences were remarkable.
What To Do
Sears Holding needs to focus on the customer experience in the store. First empower your employees to take care of the customer. Retail employees want to help their customers, so let them do that. Forget about giving customers endless amounts of paper coupons and instead let employees walk around the store and survey customers via iPads. Find out why they are there and thank them with a discount or other type of immediate reward for their time. Provide spaces in the store for customers to sit and talk. A coffee shop or other type of area where customers can make a small purchase and feel comfortable would help keep customers in the store and visiting more.
Focus on products that customers actually want to buy, this is why you had employees survey customers, so use the data. Highlight specific products in the store, show people how to use their lawn mower. Host makeover sessions on the weekend to attract customers to clothing lines and other personal items. Be relentless, about creating spaces for customers to interact with employees and products. The store space should be about customers engaging with products.
Lastly, invest in the stores. Close the store for a week and remodel. The stores need to be bright, clean, and layouts open and inviting to families.
by WebKeyDesign | Jul 19, 2017 | Out Of The Box
When technologies go through major upgrades, they are most often evaluated not on the technical merits of the upgrade but on how the market reacts overall to the technology. For me personally, the iPhone had a major impact and it was my first personal cell phone. Most everyone I know today was impacted by the iPhone. Even if you don’t have an iPhone today, you most likely have an Android, and even though Google was working on Android prior to the iPhone’s release, they ended up having to change their designs, once they saw iOS. In the world of home entertainment, the DVD player and HD television have had monumental impacts as well. In 2017, I looked at my home theater and decided it was time to move into the next big upgrade, namely 4K.
The three big components of home theater system is the television, the surround receiver, and a blu-ray player. Once you talk about speakers and sub-woofers, then you get into things that cannot be accurately described in reviews. Audio is something that is best experienced. Lets just say that I have 7 speakers and a sub-woofer, so it is a surround system.
My first component upgrade was the television. Our television was the first flat screen we ever bought. It is nice television for its time, but it certainly paled in comparison to today’s modern TVs. For some reason, in 2017, televisions are more than just screens. Once you decide on a screen size, you still have to decide what type of screen technology you can afford, if it comes with apps (similar to your phone), and even if you can talk to it. Showing my age, I chose a 55-inch Sony. My father’s generation had Zenith, my generation has Sony, and if you are younger than me, you probably have a Samsung or LG for your brand of choice. Sony makes nice televisions, but their price is higher than you would expect. The new Sony television annoyingly comes with Google Android. I say annoying because, I don’t want to talk to my TV, and I don’t want it to tell me what to watch. All I really want to to is turn it on, and then watch a movie or play a video game. Sony needlessly complicated their television and forces me to deal with an Android OS, its apps, and networking. Aside from this the screen is flat, appears bright, and is just awesome for watching movies.
4K is a technology upgrade that is in search of content. The problem is that DVD resolutions do not look very good on a 4K screen. I am a cable cord-cutter, so online content comes from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime video. The Sony TV includes these apps, and these apps are also on my Apple TV, Playstation, and Blu-ray Player. Regardless, my connection to the internet at home is not capable of delivering 4K resolution streams, so streaming content is not really going to look all that great on the 4K screen. Slow and unreliable internet connections are a barrier to 4K. I will also mention that ISPs with data-caps are also a barrier to 4K adoption. If you do have the internet capacity to have 4k streaming, then Amazon Prime video is a good source for content. Netflix charges extra for 4K content, so you might need to spend a bit more on subscriptions. Content is also in a mix of formats at this time. This means that higher resolutions than 1080HD are available, but they will vary in resolution and HDR color and of course audio formats will vary. It is best to stick with the native apps on the television if your 4K television has HDR as well.
The Cord Problems
HDMI has both been a blessing and a curse for me. While having one cable for both audio and video makes connections easier and cleaner, the DRM protections included with the standard has meant having to upgrade cables, and unplug them multiple times! In the case of my previous Onkyo Receiver, it even meant having to ship the component for repair due to a malfunctioning HDMI board. Yes, HDMI is awesome when it works, but when it doesn’t it is the most frustrating part of any setup. For 4K, it means another round of replacing all your HDMI cables so they will support the 4K speeds and DRM standards. Don’t even think about using your current cables, just go to monoprice.com and buy new ones. Once you have them, set your HDMI connection to Enhanced (at least that is what Sony calls it if you want to view 4K content), and be prepared to spend 20 minutes trying to make sure the blu-ray player syncs up right. In the case of the Apple TV and my Denon receiver, well, just unplug everything, power it off and start plugging one device at a time! HDMI is suppose to be automatic, but it seems that this was more of a goal than an actual reality for some manufacturers. Yes, I am talking about you Apple! Getting any Apple TV to work with your receiver is the opposite of plug-and-play. Note that a lot of devices do not support 4K at this time.
Receiver 4K Support – Pass Through – Upscaling?
Similar to computer companies who put Intel Inside stickers on their laptops, it has also become fashionable for electronics to be adorned with stickers advertising features and technologies. In the case of my Denon receiver, there was some sticker on it that mentioned 4K. But what does that even mean? Unless your receiver was made in 2017 or is newer, it means almost nothing. The surround receiver, much like the Sony television has become more complicated as well. Modern receivers are slaves to the technologies that televisions and blu-ray players implement. This has meant HDMI boards to allow for multiple inputs and network capabilities. For HDMI specifically, this has meant that the receiver has to support the newer and faster speeds of the HDMI Specification, and at the same time come up with a way to not interfere with the DRM protections (HDCP) that are grounded between the television and the media device (Apple TV, Playstation, XBox, Blu-ray Player, etc). It is the DRM protection that is a problem for older receivers. Although my Denon receiver can pass through 4K resolutions and speeds, it does not know what to do with the newer DRM protection that 4K UHD requires. You will need to upgrade to a new receiver in order to get 4K to be passed through your receiver to your 4K television. Before you buy HDMI cables, a receiver or other component to add to your 4K setup, look for these specifications to be at least: HDCP 2.2 and HDMI 2.0.
UBP-X800 UHD Blu-ray
Given today’s economics, the magic price point for consumers is $300. This is the price range that you will see most companies try to hit when it comes to devices. It is a price that customers view as affordable for entry level tablets, to fancy thermostats and wireless routers. It is the same price range that Sony aimed for the UBP-X800 UHD Blu-ray player. At this price range, the UBP-X800 provides an overall good quality player with an assortment of streaming apps. Sony made some trade-offs in regards to physical outputs and front panel display in order to get to this price range. There are two HDMI outputs, however the second HDMI output is for audio only. This allowed me to keep my Denon receiver and have it process audio only, while connecting the UBP-X800 directly to my television via the first HDMI output. Overall the UBP-X800 is the most responsive disc player that I have ever bought. It beats the previous five Sony Blu-ray players that I have. Is it a perfect high-end player? No. There are $500+ players out there that have more features, but again those players are in a different price range.
Is Blu-ray Dead?
In 2017, there are multiple market realities that are going to hold back 4K adoption. You have the obvious factors such as price and for people who already have invested in 1080 flat televisions, the upgrade to 4K is not as compelling due to the limited internet connections. A more detrimental factor might rest not with consumers but with the media companies themselves. As services like Netflix and iTunes became more popular, physical media sales have been declining for multiple years now. The VHS and DVD formats were very profitable, but as the internet became a content delivery platform of choice, it has resulted in a declining Blu-ray format. A trip to your local BestBuy or Walmart shows that the space dedicated to Blu-ray media is shrinking with every store remodeling. Much like music CDs, the availability of Blu-ray movies is becoming more limited. The upsale to 3D Blu-ray was never more than a passing fad and today you won’t find a 3D Blu-ray section in most stores. The movie studios have begun to adjust to the market; the end result being that some films are no longer even being considered for a blu-ray release!
The market at this time has three different physical formats: DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD Blu-ray. The DVD format is not going away. Internationally DVD is still a high end format. You will find in some international markets, people still renting VHS movies. Those markets will be adopting DVD for multiple years and the inexpensiveness of DVD discs will allow DVDs to remain popular. In the USA, step into any gas station and you will find cheap DVDs for sale.
This leaves us with Blu-ray and 4K UHD. At this time, 4K is not an option by itself. Instead you have to purchase a combo-package that contains usually at least a Blu-ray disc and a 4K UHD Blu-ray. These combo-packages are anywhere from $5-15 above the normal price of single Blu-ray or DVD disc. At this price range, the 4K format is being priced as the most expensive of all formats, including digital online delivery. This does not bode well for the future of 4K or Blu-ray in general. The movie studios should consider lowering the price of entry, because the movie industry has multiple problems.
There are younger generations of consumers who do not go to the movie theater and who do not consider spending two hours watching films to be a worthwhile experience. There is then the glaring issue with films not featuring female and minorities as leads. In my opinion these are bigger threats to the movie industry than pricing Blu-ray discs for profitability. These problems and others with the movie industry can only be ignored for so long.
With Blu-ray in decline and 4K discs being limited and expensive, 4K adoption will be slow and might have to be saved by consumers themselves. The mobile phone is for many consumers already a 4K camera with HDR capabilities. If Disney won’t release Empire on 4K, it may be that you can reach for your phone and make your own 4K content.
At the end of the day, I come home and sit down in front of my setup, throw in John Wick on the UBP-X800…
People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.
And yes, it sounds and looks amazing!