5 Crucial Steps For Managing Your Business’ IT: Part II

This series focuses on how to make your company’s infrastructure more efficient, more secure, and more cost effective. In Part I we discussed why it is important to employ a hardware firewall and leave room for growth; here are steps 3 through 5:

3. Have more than one physical server? Use Virtualization.

If you are maintaining more than one physical server, consider running virtual servers. Virtualization is fairly easy to use, and usually inexpensive considering the ROI; in some cases it is even free.

Although the uses for and benefits of virtualization are vast and potentially complex, initial integration is probably not as difficult as you think. “Configure” your virtual server by telling the software how many CPUs, memory and disk space to use, point it to your installation CD, and start it up. Your virtual server will boot in a window- then you can install and configure the operating system just as you would on a physical server. You can even convert existing physical servers to virtual servers with just a few clicks.

Why is this worth your time? Cost and Convenience. A virtual machine gives you the ability to remotely reboot, shutdown, start and access your servers via a remote console – without the headache of buying and maintaining additional hardware (naturally, the “host” machine needs to be powerful enough to handle the load). You can even take “snapshots” of your virtual servers so that you can rollback to an earlier date if you mess up a configuration and can’t recover.

4. Build Redundancy into Your Infrastructure

The worst thing an IT department can do is have a single point of failure with no simple way to recover. If your physical server dies, you’re left in a difficult position, since most operating systems are tightly bound to the specific hardware on which they were installed. Luckily, there are ways to greatly reduce the chances of catastrophe. The least expensive and easiest technique is redundancy. To illustrate our point, let’s look at the most common failure occurrence of modern hardware: the disk crash (cue ominous music).

Modern operating systems and many servers already support RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) configurations. There are different flavors of RAID, but most of what you need to understand can be summed up with the two words “mirroring” and “striping.” “Mirroring” means that all data is written to 2 disks. If one drive fails, then the other automatically takes over. “Striping” is used to double disk performance with reads and writes alternating between 2 disks, doubling throughput. RAID 0 is striping and RAID 1 is mirroring. Beware: RAID 0 is not “Redundant.” If one disk is lost in a RAID 0 array, then you will lose all of your data. For the performance of RAID 0 with the redundancy of RAID 1, look towards RAID 10 or RAID 5- high performance with redundancy, but these configurations will require more disks to implement.

Most RAID software and modern server hardware supports “hot swapping.” If a disk fails, you just pull it out and plug in a new one. If you have extra disks, you can even provision one as a “hot spare” that will immediately take the place of a failed drive. The RAID software will rebuild the volume and you won’t even need to shutdown the server.

For slightly more cash you can get hardware RAID, which provides the added benefit of being OS independent (other than drivers), and offloads processing from the server’s CPU to the RAID card. These usually cost approximately $150-300. With 1 TB disks selling on Newegg for $60, it’s almost criminal not to use RAID, and the same technique can be used for other software and hardware. Always ask yourself; where are my single points of failure, and if something goes wrong what is the plan?

5. Change Management

Possibly the most important, and most overlooked discipline in IT, Change Management boils down to the following:

1. Keep it as simple as possible- but no simpler (KISS; Keep It Simple, Stupid).
2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
3. If you do fix it, make sure that you can “unfix” it.
4. Document, Document, Document!

Don’t add software you don’t need, if it’s not part of the requirements, and it accomplishes nothing – why add another complication and point of failure?

Always have a “back-out” or “rollback” plan that you can execute in case your changes don’t go as planned. A plan could be as easy as making sure that you have a snapshot of a virtual machine so that, in a pinch, you can restore it, or it could be as complicated as documenting and saving your entire Web server configuration, including software versions, all supporting configurations, permissions, credentials, etc. In other words, if everything goes South can you get things back to the way they were before you started?

In a well-documented infrastructure you will know what services could be effected by a proposed change. Before you make a change to something, consider who and what will be impacted.

Have any questions about our 5 Crucial Steps, or IT in general? Feel free to comment below!

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5 Crucial Steps For Managing Your Business’ IT: Part I

Recently we addressed simple mistakes that people commonly make with their computer; mistakes that cost little time and effort to avoid, but are a huge headache to deal with once they have been made. That post focused primarily on personal computer use, but what about business owners? Well entrepreneurs, never fear, your blog posts are here. We have 5 suggestions for how to manage your business’ servers and network. They range from the “falling off a log” variety (#1), to a complete paradigm shift. Here are the first 2:

1. Use a Hardware Firewall

One of the amazing attributes of technology is how quickly it moves forward, and correspondingly, how quickly the price lowers. Firewalls that have the capabilities and features that 5 years ago were considered to be “enterprise class” have dropped dramatically in price, and can now be purchased for $150-250.

Some small companies connect their servers directly to the Internet and depend on operating system authentication to protect them from intrusion. This is a bad idea. An intruder can scan every port and service, looking for vulnerabilities. However, a hardware firewall sits between your cable or DSL modem and your network and controls all traffic going in and out. When properly configured, and coupled with secure software, this means a malicious hacker cannot log in using another protocol. Today’s inexpensive firewalls provide many other features to increase security on your network such as Intrusion Prevention (blocking those who use well known or scripted hack attacks), Demilitarized zones (limiting your exposure to your own potentially untrusted public services), Virus scanning, Spyware prevention, and Virtual Private Network (VPN) access- for workers to access your network securely from the road.

Considering the potential damage that a firewall protects you from, it is a worthy investment, and its absence is negligent. Take a look at the Zywall USG 20 (around $160 on Amazon) for an example of a great, inexpensive firewall for small business use. Additionally, this entire line of Cisco products is dependable and competitively priced.

2. Build in capacity and “headroom”: Save money and time by planning ahead, and leave room for growth.

Leaving room for growth: Photo courtesy of Kreative Eye -Dean McCoy

Before you do anything else, you need to make sure your machine can handle whatever you throw at it. Have you done capacity planning? If so, are you buying what you need today or what you will need in 6 months or a year? Constantly having to buy larger machines and move all your information over to them is a waste of time and money.

It’s almost always easier, less expensive, and less complex to pay a little more for your initial purchase to allow for growth. For example, instead of buying a consumer grade Quad core desktop machine, you can spend a few hundred dollars more and buy a server class machine that has dual CPU sockets and 12 DRAM slots. Even if you initially buy your server with a single Quad core processor and fill 4 or 8 memory slots to start, further on down the road you can buy another processor and more memory modules and pop them in. Suddenly your server has twice the capacity. An added benefit is that processor prices always drop as time goes on and newer processors are introduced. So your first Quad core server processor may cost $500, but a year down the road the second, identical processor will probably be half that price.

Stay tuned for Part II to learn how to save money, increase your efficiency and improve your security – coming Wednesday!

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Simple, Common, and Easily Avoided: Don’t Make These 7 Mistakes with your Computer

As experts in the IT industry, people come to us with many computer problems that are easy to prevent, but woefully difficult to fix. To avoid a lot of unnecessary heartache, and perhaps an ulcer, try not to make the following mistakes.

Don’t Invite Trouble

1. Hello Malware, come on in…

Image courtesy of flickr user Håkan Dahlström

Unless you trust the source, don’t download their material. There is a vast wasteland of websites offering free media downloads, and many of them are including a free virus in the bargain. When you click to download, you are opening the door to your computer and inviting them in. Stick with well-known and legal websites that offer free media, like Hulu.

2. You’re making it worse

If your computer is acting funkier than last week’s gym socks, and you have no idea why, please don’t try to fix it yourself! Too often users find a problem, look up a solution online, and follow the directions without a clear understanding of what they’re doing and why it’s supposed to make things better. They can end up taking a small problem and converting it to a major blitz that’s almost irreparable. Unless you truly know what you’re doing: Stop! Drop! And roll that problem on over to an expert.

3. Passwords should protect

Image courtesy of flickr user fczuardi

There are two major mistakes people make with their password. The first is that they use the same one for every account in their life. This means if one password is compromised, every valuable piece of information is immediately endangered. Not good. Each password should be unique, and if you have trouble keeping track try a program like Keepass.

The second mistake is possibly the most frustrating. Ready- I’m going to be harsh- here it comes: If you’re going to make your password “123456” why have a password at all? Just be honest with yourself and eliminate the pointless extra keystrokes. The same thing goes for the following: qwerty, password, 1234, 12345, and so on. Shockingly, these are all on a list of the top 10 most common passwords, which means you should avoid them like the plague; they are an immediate and dangerous hole in your security. In fact, certain companies (hotmail, for example) are now banning their use. The best passwords are random strands of letters, numbers and characters, but these can be difficult to remember. There are other effective approaches to finding secure but memorable passwords.

4. Please Secure your Network

Please! If you do not secure your wireless network then anyone nearby can use your  wireless network, and probably access your information. Usually a firewall is already built into your router, all you have to do is make sure it’s on. It’s also a good idea to change the default network name (often the brand name), enable the highest supported encryption, and make the network invisible. This all sounds complicated, but in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, it takes only a few minutes. And for the love of all that is holy, please change the default password.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Your Computer Needs Love too

Image courtesy of flickr user AdriánPérez

5. Spring Cleaning

Computers are fragile and expensive equipment that can be harmed by built-up dust and grime, so use a feather-duster and microfiber cloth and give your computer some good old-fashioned TLC. A blocked vent could lead to major issues such as overheating, which could be a ‘silent killer.’ As far as your computer is concerned, this is as ominous as it sounds.

6. Don’t fall behind the Times

Just as your hardware needs upkeep, so does your software. Regularly update your software, especially your antivirus protection! Just like you need a new flu vaccination every year, your computer needs to be regularly protected against the latest strains of malware. Speaking of which… have and use legitimate antivirus software. This is non-negotiable.

7. Back that Thang Up

Another part of your maintenance regimen should be backing up your data. Should the worst happen, you’ll still have all your work and important information. If your computer crashes you’ll have enough to deal with already, you don’t want to lose years and years worth of files.

If you have any questions, or can think of any bone-headed computer mistakes we might have missed, let us know! And check out the NE Computer Solutions facebook page for information about how to win an awesome set of Sennheiser earbuds ($50 value).

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Learning by Doing: How to Plan a Successful PR Event

Public Relations (PR), as defined by omniscient Wikipedia, “concerns enhancing and maintaining the image” of individuals, events, and organizations. Running a PR event can be a fun and effective way to reach potential customers and to inform your community about who you are and what you do as a company, as well as communicating your mission and personality. It is also a lot of work, and takes valuable time away from other commitments. So how do you efficiently host an event that is enjoyable and worthwhile for all parties?

Creative Commons image courtesy of Flickr's doktor spinn

Determine your goal:

Yes you’re enhancing your image, but who are you trying to reach and what are you hoping to take away from the event? If you’re part of a new company, perhaps you want to let people know that you’re around, if you are a restaurant that just completely revamped your menu, maybe you want to get people excited about the new dishes you’re offering. Determine your message and its recipient.

Organize:

Whether your event is big or small, set up a calender to track when you will execute each part of your plan… and leave yourself plenty of time! It’s likely that you’ll need a venue, entertainment, and refreshments. This can add up quickly, so construct a realistic budget that includes a buffer for any unforeseen costs that might pop up in the process. We compiled a list of who we would invite, and what we would need for both our food and décor, as well as set-up (tables, chairs, etc.).

Find a balance, offer value:

The event should be as attractive as possible to attendees, and should appeal to them on both a personal and professional level. Keep your target group in mind; are the attendees close by or far away? How much advance notice will they require? Should the setting be formal or informal? Empathize with your customer and make your event appealing and convenient for them. To maximize participation try to ensure that from your guest’s perspective your event costs little in time and effort, and offers a large reward.

Inform, don’t sell:

The goal of a PR event should be to let people know that you are a major presence. There are ways to communicate your expertise and professionalism without reverting to a hard sell (we chose to offer a brief presentation on how local businesses could increase their social media presence and why doing so was important) what knowledge do you have that could be useful to your customers?

It’s likely that just by inviting people you will create some interest and invite questions about your company.

Market the event:

Even when you are offering an interesting event with inherent value, it’s difficult to convince people to take time out of their busy schedules. It’s likely that you’ll have to remind them several times, since you want to give them time to plan around attendance without leaving enough time for them to forget about it.

Some tips:

Fliers alone are easy to overlook. Creative Commons image courtesy of ElizalO

-Although posters and fliers can be effective, they’re easy to ignore. If you are inviting businesses, try dropping by the office to make an impression.

-Send a friendly reminder the day of.

-Offer directions! You’d be surprised how many people will choose not to participate simply because they don’t want to go through the trouble of figuring out where you are.

-Be memorable: Find a way to invite people that is both creative and eye-catching. It sparks enthusiasm and it’s a great way to show potential customers that you are innovative and unique.

Have a good time:

Rather than focusing all your energy on trying to sell, connect with customers on a personal level. A great conversation can work wonders; participants will take that positive impression with them when they leave.

Creative Commons image courtesy of BFI Salzburg (Flickr)

Do you have any other insights about what makes a PR event effective? Leave a comment below!

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4 Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read

As small business owners who market to other small and medium sized businesses, we’ve come across quite a few valuable resources for entrepreneurs in the last few years. Naturally, our first instinct was to use this knowledge for the greater good, so we have decided to publish a short list of these resources and why they’re valuable. In this post we’ll just focus on what you can find at your local bookstore:

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to do About It
by Michael E. Gerber

The author leads his audience through the life of a company, from birth to established success, and examines all those popular beliefs about businesses…that just might not be true after all. Ultimately this books aims to help you grow into a focused and profitable company in your marketplace.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t
by Jim Collins

After examining several companies which greatly improved the quality of their business over time, researchers tried to determine what it was about each organization that caused it to be successful. A fascinating discussion about corporate culture, this book will help you turn a surviving company into a thriving one.

Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs
by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah

For companies that are looking to expand their market share, there is no better book to read. Marketing strategies have changed drastically since the advent of the internet, and old-fashioned approach- in which a business interrupts whatever a prospect is doing in order to grab their attention- is no longer adequate. The authors teach their audience how to use different online platforms to connect with their target market in a way that is both authentic and effective.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter than your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist
by Jason Mendelson and Brad Feld

Really, the title says it all. Understanding complicated legal jargon is never more important than when everything you’ve worked for is laying on the line. Mark Suster does a wonderful job of explaining why this book is valuable.

Are there any books that have had a major influence on you and your business? Let us know!

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Are You a Geek?

Jeff Foxworthy, of Blue Collar Comedy Tour fame, has a schtick which allows him to help his audience members determine if they might be rednecks. Here are a few informative examples:

  • “If you refer to the 5th grade as ‘my senior year,’ then you might be a redneck”
  • If… “you’ve ever hit a deer with your car…deliberately”
  • If… “you mow the front yard and find a car”

  A sample of Georgia born Foxworthy’s comic genius.

While there aren’t many rednecks working at NE Computer Solutions, there are quite a few geeks. So we decided to compile a short list of our own:

You might be a Geek if…

  • Your idea of the perfect gift is BSG: The Complete Series
  • Your remote can do anything with the push of a button, but you’re the only one able to use it
  • You automate everything in your house, including your lights, thermostat, and dog bowl
  • You’d rather attend a Scala convention than go to Disney World
  • An entertaining Saturday includes hacking your mobile phone to make it a web server
  • Your family refuses to watch movies with you, because every time there’s an implausible scene with a computer- you have a coronary
  • You take your spouse to Lake Tahoe, and when he/she sees natural beauty, you see fractals
  • You have the poster from Admiral Adama’s quarters hanging above your desk

If there was any doubt that we are indeed geeks

  • You believe Linus Torvalds eats Chuck Norris for lunch, a list of what Linus Torvalds is capable of
  • You have enough spare computer parts to build a particle accelerator
  • You call IT support, and 5 minutes later they offer you a job
  • You get a call that a server is down, and you reboot it with your cell phone
  • You like to ask these questions: “Who is Kernel Panic? Why is he in my computer?”
  • Your doormat says welcome…in binary code
Binary Code Welcome Mat

That says "Welcome" in Geek

So are you a Geek? Feel free to tell us any other indicators of Geekdom!

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Kick Starting Startup Weekend Hartford

Last month, we posted an article called “Startup Weekend: One Businessman’s Dream of Revitalizing Hartford.” The post outlined the appeal of Startup Weekend, and the personal experiences of one participant. For those of you who didn’t read that entry, Startup Weekend is an inspiring program that invites a large number of computer developers and business strategists to work together in competing groups in order to create a viable start-up in just 54 hours.

When local business owner Nicholas Bereza attended Boston’s Startup Weekend he found that the energy and entrepreneurial spirit evident at the event were not only a worth-while personal experience, but also the type of program that would benefit the greater Hartford area. Since then, he has worked closely with local organizations such as HYPE (Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs), MetroHartford Alliance, and premier sponsor Northeast Utilities, to make a Startup Weekend possible in Hartford.

Startup Weekend: Hartford will be held from September 23-25, and will give life to ideas that may have a lasting impact on our world. As of now, participants who win the competition will be given half price at an incubator of their choosing in the CT Business Incubator Network and several hours of free legal service. For everyone involved, it’s a chance to take part in something bigger than yourself, invent solutions to address real-world problems, and network with other passionate and driven individuals.

Hartford itself boasts proximity to world-class universities, is located near Providence, Boston and New York, and it has the potential to become a major hotspot for technological development. However, for that dream to be realized, the city needs brave and innovative people who are invested in its future and who are capable of addressing Hartford’s challenges. Start-up weekend is rewarding for direct participants as well as for Hartford itself, because it brings those people together in a community that needs and wants them.

Want to learn more about Startup Weekend Hartford? Check out its website!

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The Cutting Edge Part II: 5 More Awesome Inventions

We recently posted an entry about the cutting edge in technology- not just the cool stuff that is inescapably shouted about in the headlines, but some interesting developments you may not have heard about yet. Here are just a few more. Let us know what you think, or if you’ve seen anything else we should include.

1. Suddenly Glasses are Cool

Problem: You can’t see.

Solution: Glasses

Alright, alright, I know this seems obvious… glasses help people with a visual handicap navigate through the world around them- that’s what glasses are… but what about for people whose vision cannot be corrected? The University of Oxford has developed a pair of high-tech glasses that include features that assist the wearer with interpreting visual information. The goal of the glasses is to help those with degenerative eye conditions “maintain independence.” The glasses can help the wearer to identify and locate objects, navigate a room, and perhaps read. A camera in the glasses records while a device similar to a smart-phone interprets the information in the wearer’s pockets. The creators predict the device would cost several hundred dollars, a significantly smaller amount than the cost of training a guide-dog.

MIT has developed another set of glasses to help wearer’s address an entirely different challenge: human interaction. Apparently, the glasses use a camera to interpret facial expressions, and then relate the results back to the wearer. Besides being useful for those of us who are simply socially awkward, the glasses have been successful in helping autistic patients to better understand and become more involved in social interaction. In testing, the glasses could identify the correct emotion 64% of the time, which is (believe it or not) significantly more accurate than the average person.

2. Diagnose Cancer? There’s an app for that.

Problem: You have a mysterious black freckle suddenly appear after a summer spent frying in the sun. Now you have to schlep all the way over to Dr. Dermatology just in case it might be something, if only there was a better way!

Solution: Rather than spending buckets of money in medical bills, just use your iPhone to determine whether or not it’s something to worry about. The accuracy of such an app has yet to be seen, but it’s been proposed that using small portable devices such as the iPhone as medical equipment could also be useful in developing countries. MIT, that bright beacon of technological innovation, also created a clip-on for smart phones that scans for cataracts. Thanks again MIT!

3. For $25, make your phone 3D

Speaking of add-ons for your smart phone, this method of tricking out your phone won’t save your life, but then again, it costs much less.

Problem: Oh shucks, I’m watching Toy Story 3 on my iPhone, and it just doesn’t feel like I’m really there.

Solution: A tiny $25 sheet of plastic takes your viewing experience to the next level by converting your screen to 3D. Then again, you could just buy a phone that already has 3D capabilities, they make those too you know.

4. The future of local travel?

Problem: You commute 20 minutes to work everyday. You don’t want to spend ridiculous amounts of money on gas by driving a car, but you don’t live in an area that offers public transportation, what to do?

Solution: An electric scooter without a frame or an engine: BMW Motorrad. This bike is light, electric, and comfortably seats two. However, for a bike specifically designed for Suburban commuters it’s surprising that it doesn’t seem to go highway speeds. If you take back roads all the way to work, this is your mode of transportation.

5. Robots that look and speak and learn like humans!

Problem:  You don’t yet live in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by machines, a la Terminator, the Matrix, and every other terrifying Sci-fi film you’ve seen.

Solution: Give it a little time.

Not quite, but we are getting frighteningly close to robots that really do mimic humans in speech and learning. Out of Kagawa University in Japan comes a machine which imitates the structure of a human vocal tract and chords, to produce a nearly human voice. It’s worth a click to check out an image of the design, a photograph of the device, and a video of it in action.

Also, developers have been experimenting with artificial intelligence for years, so I’m sure you won’t be shocked to hear that they have computers that are able to learn organically, using whatever knowledge they are given to improve, and you also won’t be shocked to hear that this is happening at MIT. Comfortingly, they are teaching these machines with strategy games. Seriously, it’s like the beginning of the plot to War Games.

Oh, and by the way. Thanks to the technology in the Microsoft Kinect that we mentioned in our other post, scientists are now able to inexpensively build robots that can recognize their own position within a given space and avoid obstructions in their path. They can move among us.

So can you think of any inventions on the cutting edge? Let us know!

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Has the shine already worn off? Assessing Google+ with a Critical Eye

So Google+ is slightly less shiny and new, which means one thing… people have had time to find aspects of the product to complain about.

How has Google already managed to offend an optimistic public? A public so hopeful… so willing to abandon Facebook for a younger and more exclusive social network? Let us count the ways…

1. There is no such thing as a private profile.

No really, I mean it. You might think you have a private profile- after all you checked that little box- but soon your profile will either be public, or nonexistent. So unless you want your profile deleted at the beginning of August, you’ll uncheck that box. After July 31 private profiles will not be tolerated.

2. Google+’s circles are a step in the right direction, but they don’t solve the problem.

The idea is to give users as much control over their information and profiles as possible. Google certainly solves part of the problem with their ‘circle’ feature, but they don’t explore all of the possibilities. Stephen Shankland points out that although the ‘circles’ are an improvement on what is perceived to be Facebook’s all or nothing approach, it still lacks the versatility one might expect.

Then of course there’s the other side of the coin; Google+’s circles aim to combine the advantages of Facebook’s groups and its privacy settings, and then streamline them into one easy tool. Yet, not all feedback has been good. By combining the two the new network has opened the door to a new set of frustrations. People have no idea how others have categorized them, rather than a mutual and clear agreement (like a group or a friendship on Facebook) their relation to other users becomes more complex.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth explanation of exactly how the circles feature works, Liz Gannes breaks it down in her article.

3. Oh the bugs…

To be fair, Google+ is still in a testing stage, so it’s expected that there would be a few glitches in the system. For instance, some users found that when they attempted to publish information for a particular circle, it was accidentally made public. Mistakes like this defeat the entire purpose of Google’s improvements. Reportedly, Google has been very diligent about dealing with these errors.

Is Google+ still a major threat?

Absolutely. In the days since Google+’s initial release, users have also had time to discover some unexpected advantages of the new product. Simon Mackie writes that the social platform could find a place in businesses. He notes that the circle feature provides a great way to manage contacts, while the hangout application allows groups to video conference. Still, even he admits that Google+ is in a testing stage and has a long way to go before other business management programs need to feel threatened.

Facebook does not appear to feel the heat yet either. Perhaps this is because Mark Zuckerberg is the most followed user on Google+. Additionally, Facebook has already announced changes to the site that will combat some of Google+’s appeal, including a new group chat feature and of course the ability video-chat through Facebook with the help of Skype.

The Near Future

Several recent articles have pointed out that music could be a deciding factor in the battle between the two networks. So far, Facebook hasn’t made any major moves toward including music services in the Facebook design. Google could use this absence as another opportunity to offer a feature Facebook lacks. If video chat is the current battle in the social networking war, then perhaps the next is music. This possibility is supported by rumors that Facebook seems to be developing a new music service, evidence of which was found in some Facebook code. Still no such project has been officially announced, and the above is simply speculation.

What does all this garble mean? Well, my opinion remains the same: whichever social network wins out, the competition means both Google and Facebook are driven to provide a better product to everyday users.

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The Cutting Edge: 5 Awesome New Inventions

Yes, I know everyone’s excited about the release of the next iPhone, and the ascension of the Cloud… but what about other gadgets? How about some other technology that solves real problems, and is impressively cool? Here’s a list of a few inventions on the cutting edge:

1 – A thermally activated cooling system

The problem: You have a car, which releases hot exhaust when it burns energy, this nasty exhaust is a waste of heat and shimmies up into the atmosphere. Bad.

The solution: What if you could take that waste, and recycle it? Oregon State University has provided a working prototype which does just that. It takes wasted heat- given off by cars, factories, and even a computer- and converts that energy to produce cooling or electricity.

The possible uses for this device are endless, and moreover, it’s incredibly relevant during a period of rising anxiety over the cost of energy.

2 – Using excess heat to charge your portable devices

If the last invention seems too abstract for you, how about a tool which takes wasted heat given off by your stove, and uses it to charge your cell phone?

The “power pot” has already been released in Japan, but unfortunately costs almost $300, and a person would have to boil spaghetti for an awfully long time before his or her smartphone was charged. Still, this seems like a vision of the future.

3 – The Lytro Camera

The Lytro has been garnering a lot of attention on tech blogs throughout the internet, and for good reason.

The problem: You went to a special once-in-a-lifetime event, and you took some great pictures to capture the moment! Or so you thought, until you later realized they all came out unfocused and blurry.

The solution: Wouldn’t you love if you could just refocus those pictures after the fact? With Lytro’s new camera, you can. And since the camera works by capturing “the entire light field around the picture.” You can also take pictures in 3D. Welcome to the future my friends.

4 – The “Smell-o-vision”

No, I didn’t come up with that clever name myself, this is another invention which has recently been trumpeted around the blogosphere.

The problem: (depending on your perspective): You’re watching the food network on TV, you can see Alton Brown preparing some delicious pulled pork in his homemade ceramic smoker, you can hear it sizzling… if only you could smell it.

The solution: A scent-generator in the back of your television, which creates smells to match the subject of your program!

This is undoubtedly very cool, and sounds quite appealing if you happen to be watching The Food Network or a commercial for perfume, but everyone can imagine at least one show they watch- and would rather not smell. Therefore, you might consider it lucky that this concept is still in development, and scientists have not yet been able to produce a fully-operating prototype.

5 – Microsoft “Kinects” us to the future

The problem: You are enjoying a long video conference with your colleague, or a faraway relative, and you can barely see them. They are just a 2-dimensional image on the screen, and they have to remain immediately in front of the camera for you to view them at all.

The solution: A student at UNC Chapel Hill created a system which uses the technology of the Microsoft Kinect to sense many angles of a chosen subject, and then create and project a 3D image. This tool could be used for 3D video conferencing in the future, according to an article in PC World. (If you’re interested, the article also lists several other really cool Kinect hacks).

Microsoft also came up with a similar use for the Kinect, but rather than viewing the subject as he or she might appear in real life, their version of the video conference converts them into a cartoon version of themselves.

So there you are; and you thought the iPad was cool.

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