Thursday, October 29, 2009

Control freak seeks absolution.

“I do self.”  That was my very first sentence, and my mom loves to remind me of it all the time.  Apparently I liked to say it, a lot.  I was picking out my own clothing by age 3 and Christmas gifts by age 5.  I did not like the element of surprise, and liked to be in control.  I even screamed and cried one year when I opened a Christmas gift and found a bald Cabbage Patch Kid doll head staring up at me - it was an unauthorized gift and thus one I was not expecting.

I still don’t like surprises.  My organizational skills are envied by most, not understood by many, and probably seem ridiculous to some.  When managing a Briefing Center in Chicago, I was simultaneously planning, executing and closing out over twenty customized customer meetings (some were 2 days long) in a given quarter.  That workload was no match for my super organizational powers.  Program record?  Heh.  It was nothing!  My world was in control and I loved it.  Then, I had a child.

Imagine my surprise when all the planning and organization in the world couldn’t control this little person who had his own agenda and made it very clear he wasn’t interested in what anyone else wanted!  Funny thing though, being a parent makes you even more resourceful and (gulp) adaptable.  This was a good thing. Like most things that are good for you, I fought it at first.  I honestly remember saying at one point, “Oh God, what have I done?”  Gradually as we learned more about each other, I was able to go with things a little more (however I will never be described as “go-with-the-flow”). 

In an ironic twist, I found I needed to be even more organized to keep up with unpredictable life.  It was this paradigm shift that elevated the importance of technology to a whole new level.  I had less time to plan and organize and had to adapt on-the-go. How would I ever manage?  Luckily for me the internet was born long before my son was and I have the world at my fingertips.  Aside from the basics of online bill pay and email to keep in touch with everyone from my family to the doctor’s office, there are some very practical ways to do more with less - time, money, you name it!  Here is a quick-hit list of my favorites:

Price shopping. 
I have a confession to make here.  I don’t actually own an iPhone, yet.  When I hear about new Apps like Red Laser that scans the barcode of a product and goes to the web to tell you who has it for less, I am one step closer to signing up.  I think the $1.99 app would very quickly pay for itself.
Online shopping.  I hate when I find something I like in store and it’s not available in the size or color I need.  There are usually no store employees within a 5 mile radius and I don’t have time to track them down or if I find one wait for them to locate my item at another nearby store. Most stores now offer free shipping for online purchases.  If they don’t, check out coupon sites like CouponCabin or RetailMeNot for free shipping or other discount promo codes.  To make it easy:  take a picture of the product tag with your phone, or take down the name, item#, etc. on your iPod touch or iPhone in notes or as a recorded voice memo (requires iPhone OS 3.1 for iPhone/iPod touch), or, keep a pen/small notebook or pad in your purse for this purpose.  Go home, go online, order and have it delivered to you free of charge.   Be sure to also use any coupon offer codes you receive in the mail, most apply to online purchases too.
Calendars.  Use iCal, Outlook, or the free Google Calendar... it doesn’t matter the application, just do it, and sync with your smartphone or iPod to take your calendar on the go with you.  Never again will you double-book your dentist appointment over a meeting or other obligation.  Be on time and plan ahead for upcoming events.  Furthermore, send your spouse or significant other meeting invitations for occasions outside of the normal family schedule, like when you’ll be home late from work because of a dinner meeting.  Don’t let them “decline” the invitation either!  No more, “I didn’t know that, I can’t make that work...”
Movie rentals.  We tried Netflix for a while and the low monthly price seemed justifiable at first, but we quickly realized there weren’t that many new movies we really wanted to see every month.  I then purchased an Apple TV and was so thrilled with the quick delivery and ease of use.  However, at $4.99 per HD rental (my husband refuses to watch anything in lower resolution... HD snob) our rentals added up quickly.  I still love the Apple TV concept and think it has it’s place.  But, let’s be honest every little bit counts these days.  My friend Christian turned me on to RedBox for one dollar, 24-hour DVD rental that you reserve online or at one of many locations (gas stations, supermarkets, pharmacies).  Who can beat an evening of entertainment for $1?  If you sign up for text messages, you get a free Monday rental every week.  Smart marketing on their part, Tuesday is DVD release day so when you return you’re likely to pick up another rental!

How has technology helped you save time and do more with less?  Share your tips!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Be in the know and the now w/RSS and podcasts.

In a failed attempt to become a info maven, I started watching the local evening news.  After a few nights of listening to the doom and gloom of the Chicago daily happenings, I was no closer to knowing what was going on in the world and a few steps closer to the proverbial ledge.  The network evening shows weren’t much better.  They took so long to get to “the meat” of what was going on, I was asleep halfway through.  Newspapers are pretty much outdated the minute the hit your driveway or the newsstand, and I don’t have enough time in the morning to eat breakfast, let alone sit and weed through the paper. 

Along came RSS... years ago, actually, and I ignored it.  I kind of got it but didn’t really get it.  Shortly after learning of RSS, I had my son and stayed home with him for a full year.   Then I really had no clue what was happening in the world!  When I reentered the workforce, I had to re-immerse myself in the tech industry in general and Apple products and happenings specifically.  If there is one company that has everyone buzzing, it’s Apple.  Between rumor sites (Apple does not publicly share product roadmaps, fueling the cult following of Mac enthusiasts), financial analysts predictions and commentary, Apple’s own Hot News and other industry sites, I was completely overwhelmed.  Often times I found out about news from someone else.  In a futile effort to be in the know and the now, I bookmarked top sites in my browser of choice (Firefox) and tried to make a habit of visiting them all every morning.  I quickly found I had neither the time nor commitment to make it a habit, and I constantly felt like I was drowning.

Finally, one morning I sent an IM to my technology muse and friend, Danny, “RSS - what’s up?” “Yup, call me.”  The conversation went like this,  “From what I understand it’s a way to feed snipits of articles from the sites I subscribe to into one place so I can scan them quickly and see if I want to read more.” “Exactly.  All you need is a free reader application.”  Within five minutes I was up and running, subscribing to AppleInsider, InfoWorld News, Gizmodo, and CNN, for example, and you can be too:

  1. Download a free RSS Feed Reader application, or use a web-based application like Google Reader (here’s a list of some top online readers).  Some application options include News Gator and their Mac/iPhone version NetNewsWire.
  2. Find the sites of interest to you.  The sites can be webpages, blogs like this one (shameless plug, I know), or anything that has a web address and RSS or atom feed available. Once on the site, click on the RSS/atom button to be taken to the scaled down RSS version of the site.  You can then copy the link (Ctrl+C on a PC or Command+C on a Mac) and paste it into the “subscribe” option of your RSS reader. Or, depending on your reader, you can enter the main site ( and the reader will find the RSS feed for you.  Give it a title you will recognize.  Hit Subscribe and you’re done!  Keep adding sites until you have covered the ones you’re interested in.  You can always unsubscribe to feeds and add other feeds later. 
  3. If you use a reader application instead of a web-based reader, it’s a good practice to set the RSS reader to open on your system when you log in.  On a Mac, you can do this through System Preferences (from the dock or the Apple menu), click Accounts, select your user account and click the Login Items tab.  Select from the list of applications, or add one by clicking the + button.  Find the Application (use the spotlight search function in Finder window) and click add.  You can then check the box next to the application to open it at login, but hide it in your dock if you’d like.  Quit System Preferences, no Save necessary - the change is immediate.  Now when you login to your system, your RSS reader will launch and you can start reading right away.  On a PC this is called Startup Programs
  4. Make it a habit to keep the reader application, or web-based reader open and scan it throughout the day.  Once you’ve read articles or decided you aren’t interested in reading them, you can mark them as read.  Based on the reader you’re using it may indicate there are new articles available by listing a number next to the site name... like your email box lets you know there are new messages to read.
That’s it!  You are now getting feeds from all the sites you’ve subscribed to and you are the one having conversations about the happenings in the world.  How’s that for enrichment and empowerment through technology?  And it’s free!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention podcasts. This is another way to be “fed” information you subscribe to and get constant updates that you can review at your convenience.  The difference is podcasts are audio files, or “enhanced podcasts” are audio files with photos, videos, and/or documents and links that accompany the audio.  Think of this as electronic versions of news/shows you can download to your computer and/or portable device like an iPod, other MP3 players, or smartphone (Blackberry, iPhone, etc).  When you subscribe in iTunes, you’ll get updates any time your system is connected to the internet and a new episode is available.  You can manage the number of episodes you get and how often.  You can also set your preferences in iTunes for how your iPod updates and manages podcast episodes.  I’ll go into this more in the future, but if you’re interested now go to the iTunes Music Store and click on Podcasts.  Search for something of interest to you - ESPN, a Food Network show, a health and fitness magazine, etc... chances are there is a podcast available. Click on “get episode” to download just that episode, or subscribe and iTunes will get the most recent episodes and will update when new ones are available.  My husband got an iPod touch for his birthday this year (from his parents, yes, at 31 years old - thanks mom and dad!).  He is not the audiophile I am, but he loves sports.  By love I mean he always has ESPN or a game of some sort on, listens to AM sports radio, subscribes to Sports Illustrated and ESPN the magazine... you get the point.  He has found several sports-related podcasts that he downloads to his iPod and listens to during his workouts.  We also have an inexpensive car iPod adapter (or many new models have it built-in) and he listens to podcasts while driving.  So, put that commute to good use by listening to content you’re interested in, instead of scrolling through drolly morning shows.

RSS readers are free.  Podcasts are free.  They both serve up the news and other content you want in an easy to digest format.  Subscribe today and be in the know and in the now - now!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What is it about the Mac?

My mom refuses to hear me when I sell her on the benefits of switching to a Mac.  She's a bargain shopper.  She even once called me from a garage sale to tell me about a deal she found on a notebook.  "Please, please, please don't buy that thing!", I lamented, "If you do, I'm not helping you with it." When I listen to her tell me about all the ways she wants to use technology - to manage and share pictures (she had a camera surgically bound to her hand at age 20) - to video chat with me and my 2 1/2 year old son, for email and web access, and the occasional application like writing and printing letters and managing  personal finances, I grit my teeth and say, "It would all be so easy..." and she finishes my sentence, "If I had a Mac."  But, she just can't get over the higher up front cost.

 Even in this economic climate Apple Inc. posts record earnings and profit, defies industry analysts and outpaces the market by a notable magnitude.  If you listen to the earnings release webcasts, Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's Chief Operating Office, sounds so humble when in a carefully crafted statement he attributes the record-breaking results to "...the best and most innovative products and solutions [delivered] to our customers."  What is it about the Mac that sells millions of them each quarter, with over half going to "new to Mac" users? 

Here are my Top 5 reasons users are getting on the Mac bandwagon:

1.  Know iTunes?  You know Mac.  The painful exchange with my mom has gone as far as her purchasing a PC notebook and bringing it to my house for me to "help" her with it.  This "help" consisted of installing software, removing software, trying to find and tweak user settings, get her setup with an IM account, and the list goes on.  We then installed iTunes and she was blown away by the ease of use for importing, downloading and managing music.  "Oh wow, that's so cool!"...(pregnant pause) "That's made by Apple.  Everything on a Mac is that easy, mom."  "Oh."  Most people have at least one iPod now days and thus, have used iTunes.  If you get that, you can manage your way around a Mac.  The Finder (file management system) on a Mac is similiar to iTunes, even leveraging Cover Flow for searching through and previewing documents.

2.  The hardware and software work together and come pre-loaded.  After hours of doing that, we were finally ready to "use" the computer.  But how?  Where is the video conferencing application?  How do you turn on the web cam?  (Three months later and she is still not using this feature of her PC.)  With a Mac, you setup your Mobile Me account ($99/year for website publishing, online storage, email - which is also your iChat messaging screen name) or use a free AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) account, launch iChat, click the video camera of the buddy you'd like to chat with and you're off and running - or riding a rollercoaster or visiting the Eiffel Tower... iChat has a bunch of fun multimedia backgrounds to choose from. 

3. No more calls to your brother-in-law, son, daughter (enter unsuspecting relation here) to de-bug your system.  Thank goodness I live over three hours away from my parents or I would probably be there more than at home.  My poor brother has spent hours "working on" my mom's desktop only to find she needs to hire some one to "fix" it.  I'm not quite sure what that means which is why fix is in quotes.  It is never fixed.  Macs don't get viruses, they run a more stable operating system, and they just work.  Sure, all technology has it's issues and no Mac is perfect.  But, you may find your children and other relatives like coming over a lot more when they're not relegated to your office "fixing" your system.

4.  You can do all sorts of fun stuff.  After hours of exhausting me with questions about using the PC, my mom said, "Okay, now what about pictures?"  I laughed a hysterical "you've got to be kidding me, I just can't take this anymore" laugh and then just said, "I can't help you there."  It was true.  The photo app that came on the PC was so user unfriendly and ugly I couldn't make myself go there.  iPhoto is the easiest way to manage and share pictures.  It's been around since 2001, and a part of iLife since 2003.  And it's free on a Mac.  One click creates an album, another publishes it to your own website/gallery, or Facebook or Flickr.  Share albums with dynamic slideshows set to music.  And this is just the tip of the iceburg... but you don't have to be an expert ice climber to figure it out.  iMovie, iDVD, iWeb and GarageBand round out the iLife suite.  They all work together, work with the same tools and smoothly - once you've played with one, you'll have it down.

5.  There is a whole culture supporting you.  The Apple Store retail locations continue to amaze.  The revenue these places produce per square foot is enough to make your jaw drop.  They are a social destination - a place to see and be seen.  They draw crowds at all hours of the day, all around the globe and they are popping up all over the place.  (Maybe I'll really go to the Eifel Tower instead of just using the iChat background, so I can visit the first store in France next year.)  Let's not forget, it's just a store.  Or is it?  Make an appointment online to have a Genius troubleshoot and diagnose your iPod or other Apple product.  Attend free in-store seminars, or buy One to One personal training or Pro Care and get personal training sessions - at your convenience and you decide the topics to cover.  Beyond the store is AppleCare, Apple's warranty extension option which not only provides repair/replace for things covered in the terms, but 3 years of telephone support from Apple on the hardware, operating system (i.e. Mac OS X is what Windows is on a PC), applications like those in iLife and other peripherals like Apple displays and wireless products (when purchased with a qualifying Mac.  See terms and conditions for details.)  And, the support site is very useful and easy to navigate.  Bottom line, you are not alone.

There is a whole burgeoning culture of new Mac users who have switched and will never go back.  Sure, Macs are not the end all be all of technology and Apple doesn't always get things right.  But, millions of users can't be wrong - there is something to be said for the ease of use, reliability and seamless user experience Macs provide.  Some believe a machine that does everything you want out of the box without add on hardware, software (whether free or downloadable), "just works", doesn't get viruses and has a whole culture to support it is worth a higher price tag.  Considering these points, does it really cost you more?  Maybe my own mom will finally see the value Apple provides and be one of the new-to-Mac purchasers referenced in a future earnings release.  For my sanity, I sure hope so.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I actually like MS Outlook

Call me a Mac purist, call me a Mac zealot, call me a lot of things (preferably G-rated) when it comes to my views on Apple and the PC market at large but you may be surprised to hear that I  (gulp!) actually like Outlook.

Apple's Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard introduced vast improvements in regards to integration with Exchange (out of the box!  not even PCs are as ready to go!) and I have enjoyed moving from Entourage to Mail.  However, there are still a few key things lacking in Mail and iCal for this Mac user on a PC network, namely:
  1. Delayed send option.  Our company restricts messages to sales and other departments during the work day to limit distractions.  Have something of value to say?  Do it before 8 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. and be cognizant of the time zones. Delayed send in Outlook lets me write, format and set future delivery of my messages - set it and forget it (and amend if the info changes b/t now and the time it is scheduled to go out).
  2. Edit invitation responses before sending, and propose alternate time.  If a meeting time doesn't work for me I may want to let the scheduler know why and see if they can move it.  iCal simply declines without further explanation.  People probably think I'm being very rude now, and if I want to suggest a different time it requires a separate email.  Blah.
  3. Checking attendee availability for a meeting.  Sure, I can invite you and you can accept/deny/propose new time but I'd rather pick a time that works for everyone the first time around.
  4. Tracking attendee status.  Accepted, declined, tentative, no response - kind of hard to plan a meeting without knowing who can make it... and I'm not one for saving each "response" email.  Which leads me to another one...
  5. Turning off "Request Responses" and "Propose New Time" options.  Maybe I don't need to know that you're okay with me only being available on my cell from 12-5 on Friday - it's just a heads up for you.  Outlook lets me just send it and you can do with it what you like... I don't care!
  6. Last (for now) is the inability to schedule a meeting room through iCal.  Outlook has a drop down menu and lets me "invite" the room as a resource to avoid embarassing double-bookings.

So, with all these issues, how do I function on a daily basis?  The workaround consists of using Mail and iCal as my main apps but logging in to Outlook through Citrix client for Mac OS when I need to do any of the above.  While I may not be as comfortable on the Windows side of the house, Outlook is my security blanket when it comes to being a good corporate citizen.  Maybe the next version of Mac OS will be named after a canine species and truly be my best friend.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Superwoman? Nah, just quick to adjust

Whoever said “You can have it all, just not all at once” underestimated the power of women.  I'm a wife, mom, and working professional - and even though there are days I wish I had a clone to pick up where I leave off, I wouldn't trade it for the world.  When the norm is to go in 5 directions at once, you have to be organized, resourceful and able to change strategy mid-execution.  Have a plan, and plan to change it.  This has never rung as true as it does for me at this stage in my life.

Just today, I had planned to leave the house promptly by 7:25 to catch the train to Chicago for an 8:30 arrival to the office.  I awoke early, showered, and was getting myself together when my 2 1/2 year old son, James, woke up.  Shaun, my husband, who works out in the morning, was about to get in the shower.  James wasn't quite ready to be awake so we read Curious George while rocking.  Somehow, I managed to get him dressed.  I think "The firemen coming to school today think your outfit is awesome" helped.  Thinking the edge had been taken off his morning reluctance, I proceeded to take him to the kitchen.  Surprise!  Dog poop on the livingroom floor.  Finally in the kitchen, we prepared his morning juice (+ laxative, poor kid), which he wanted to stir and spill all over his hair and the floor.  He had a meltdown when I put his Lightening McQueen spoon in the sink.  I then told him we needed to go up to the bathroom so I could get ready. "I'll stay here."  Hmmm, okay, time to get creative... the spoon came with us and all was good.

However, it is now 7:20 and I have no makeup (or pants) on and my hair is still wet.  Responding to my frustration my husband says, "The train's not until 7:45, right?"  "Right."  Needless to say, I watched the train speed by while sitting at a stoplight about 1/4 of a mile from the station.  Deep breath.  Take it all in stride.  I'm often reminded of the Serenity Prayer and try so hard to not blow up over things I can't control... it is what it is.

I made it to the office eventually and had a very productive day only to come home to the dog running out the door, my husband yelling after her and James with no pants on standing in the doorway to greet me.  That little guy makes it all worth it and reminds me the little things are not worth getting upset over... there is too much good that comes along with it.