MonthApril 2011

iPad is a shot across the bow of Google Chrome OS

It hit me walking to the metro this week. The iPad is a Chrome OS competitor. It is a closed, managed, internet-based computing device.

It is computing for dummies. No malware to worry about (yet). No updates to manage. No underlying OS to play with, infect or break. It is a media machine. An internet machine for consuming media, composing text, and communicating.

All the joy of the rich media Apple empire at half the cost.

Of course, all of my speculation on Google’s Chrome OS is just that since it is still unreleased. However, I imagine the Google OS is a similar walled garden of Googly goodness. Integrated Picasa, YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, etc in a malware-free playground.

Google is no Apple when it comes to media. However, if Chrome supports Flash/Silverlight/HTML5 then Hulu, Netflix and YouTube can begin to fill the gap. Pandora and Last.fm will aid music playback in addition to any locally stored app.

The real question is how will these web-dependent platforms do going forward. Is the trade-off of freedom and openness worth the worry-free, managed environment?

Simple Tools: Infrarecorder

Tonight, I’d like to profess my love for Infrarecorder.

Infrarecorder

This is my preferred method for putting data onto discs and removing it from them. This simple application will rip you a disc to an ISO as well as right the ISO back to a disc, copy an existing disc, write audio, video or straight data.

There are so many bloated programs out there that want to be your video recorder, sound editor, or make you a pot of coffee while you wait. I prefer to stick to simple programs that do one thing or a core set of features well.

This wonderful application clocks in at just above 15MB installed and offers portable versions as well as source code if that’s your thing.

I am a big believer in simple tools and you will love this one.

Malware Battle – My portable malware removal toolkit

With each passing month there is inevitably a new round of malware to combat. With that in mind, I have put together a USB key with the tools I go into battle with against these vicious foes. Your toolkit and mileage may vary. However, this is the kit I’ve used with great success to combat the various threats I’ve found in the Windows world.

Ultimate Boot Disc

First, if you do encounter a machine you can’t access the Windows installation on through Safe Mode of any command line access, go straight to your bootable Windows environment. In my case, I have burned a copy of the Ultimate Boot Disc to CD so I can boot into a familiar Windows environment and access hard drives or network resources if all else fails. This is usually a last-ditch attempt to access and retrieve data off an infected hard drive.

Autoruns

Once I have accessed Windows, I run Autoruns. This will give you a look into every single process, service, and application currently running on the machine. Autoruns shows you the entry (application/service/registry key), description if there is one, Publisher, and the path to the entry. This is invaluable to finding applications that launch on startup. The application 67hklzfrh.exe with no Publisher running in a temp folder is a giant red flag.

Process Explorer

ProcessExplorer is a great companion to Autoruns because it will give you far more detailed information about each process running on your computer. If you’re unfamiliar what an application or process is, fire it up. It also had a target icon you can click and drag over an application and it will show you which process corresponds to it. This can be particularly useful if you can’t figure out what process is spawning your pop up windows.

CCleaner

Once I have stopped any auto running applications, I move on to CCleaner. If I can, I clear the caches of each browser on the computer first, but even if that’s successful, I move to CCleaner and blow away all the temporary, cache, and unneeded information on the computer. Anywhere malware can hide; I will find and remove it. It also helps to clean up the caches and temp folders.

SuperAntiSpyware

From there, I bring in the artillery, SuperAntiSpyware. It has been my experience that if there is a threat on your computer, this program will find and eliminate it. There is also an excellent portable version that runs as a .com file to evade any malware shutting down access to .exe files.
Make sure to update to the latest available definitions before you begin as the portable version does not come preloaded with any definitions at all. Then start your scan and sit back. Your time will vary. Allow at least an hour for the scan to fully run. It will pop up and alert you when it is ready to remove the threats and offer to reboot.

Once you’re shut down the offending applications and run your full malware scan and rebooted, I suggest rebooting back into Safe Mode and checking AutoRuns again and seeing if anything looks out-of-order. From there you can decide if you want to reboot normally and verify the threats are gone. If so, I would recommend rebooting into an account without administrative rights. This will prevent some things from reinstalling themselves if the threat isn’t all gone.

AutoPatcher

Recently, I worked on an infected computer that hadn’t had Windows Updates run since 2008. AutoPatcher is invaluable in this situation. Once launched, you tell it which version of Windows you’re running and it will go out and collect all the updates it needs, download them, and install them saving you multiple reboots and trips to the Windows Update site. This made the 120+ updates I had to install far more tolerable than if I had used Windows Update.
So far, I have only encountered one PC I could not get into because the spyware had taken it over entirely. I could not boot into Windows, access it in Safe Mode, even booting to an external CD did not work. In that instance, I had to wipe the hard drive and reimage it.

Unstoppable Copier

Now that your mission changed from removal to recovery this is when I reach for Unstoppable Copier. Using the standard Windows copier can run into troubles when it hits a file it can’t move it quits or it may hang of fail to write. Then you’re left without any idea of how much data you got. Unstoppable Copier will move data from A to B but with the added benefit of logging each file it moves and skipping locked files so you can get through moving a user’s data without multiple failures. Once it completes, just go back and consult the log for any files it did not move and determine if they’re important or not.

This is what I use to combat malware and spyware in my daily life as an IT Support Technician. Let me know if it works for you or if you’ve found something better. And if you have any questions, ask away.

Cloud Computing is on the Horizon

Author’s Note: This article is part of a Tech Topics column I write for a small print publication focused on helping small business owners become more comfortable with technical topics.

Cloud Computing is similar to how it sounds. Instead of keeping your data on hard drives inside computers at your office. It lives up in the “Cloud.” What is the Cloud? It is a generic name given to remote servers that host and maintain applications and data. And it can be a real asset to your business.

Instead of worrying about storing and backing up all your business data at your office, the cloud gives you peace of mind that comes with the benefit of backups and redundancy unlike anything you could do in-house. The hallmark of a Cloud Computing application is anything you use without having to install any software on your computer or smartphone. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and the email provided by your ISP are all examples of Cloud Computing applications.
Similarly, Netflix Instant, the video streaming service they offer is another example. You do not have to download the movie to your hard drive then watch it. The video file lives in the Cloud, managed by Netflix, and for a price, you have access to that file.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Dropbox. This service changes the way people use and manage files. The service is deceptively simple. Once installed and registered with the web site, it will place a folder on your Mac or PC. Your “dropbox” is just what it sounds like. You can place anything there you like. Only instead of living on your computer it will first be backed up to the web site, where it will be accessible from anywhere you have an internet connection.

Second, if you install Dropbox on more than one computer and login to the software, it will keep the two folders in sync. Additionally, the service will keep backups and previous versions of all the times in the dropbox. This is especially important as it relates to mobile devices.
Enough talk about clouds, what does it mean to you and how can it help you out?

Apple is bringing Cloud printing to the masses with AirPrint. Their technology piggy backs off Bonjour, their zero-configuration printing technology for Macs and PCs. AirPrint only works with a very limited number of HP printers but more support will be expanded in the future. The idea is simple. If you’re on an iPhone or iPad and there is a printer connected to your wireless network that supports AirPrint, the iPhone/iPad will locate it, install a driver, and allow you to print, all with no effort on the user’s part. The technology is still young but once it becomes more mainstream it will make printing from Apple’s mobile devices as simple as sending an email.

Not to be left behind, Google also threw its hat into the ring with Google Cloud Print. Similar to Apple’s small offering, Google Cloud Print only works in Google Chrome browsers and only on a Windows operating system. However, the idea is equally as simple. Go to the options in a Chrome browser, sign in to your existing Google Account to use Cloud Print and suddenly you’ll have access to any printer installed on the Windows PC from Gmail for Mobiles devices, Google Docs and the Chrome OS operating system Google is currently beta testing.

Google is pushing this technology quickly because of its upcoming Chrome OS operating system because the entire thing is one big web browser. There is no underlying operating so everything must work within a browser.

Never far from the printer scene, has HP had an entire ePrint initiative going. HP has taken a slightly different route by assigning its printers with ePrint a unique email address where the applications designed to work with it, will send the file to that address and the printer will then print it. The real benefit here is the print can be used from anything that can send an email.

So far it is only the ePrint printers which Apple’s Airprint works with. HP also promises direct support for Google’s Cloud Print. In the future, the current requirement of Google to have a printer connected to a Windows PC to work will be erased. HP’s purchase of Palm and the Web OS mobile platform will be particularly exciting as HP has announced a new line of Web OS smart phones and tablets and you can bet they will all be capable of printing.

The days of a mobile phone or tablet needing a PC or Mac to print are gone. Gone are the days of worrying about print drivers and PPDs. Gone are the days of worrying about whether a manufacturer had made a drive for your particular device. In the coming days, the barrier to print will be erased on Apple, Google Chrome OS, Android and HP/Palm devices. Microsoft is lagging behind with no system in place but you can bet they’ll get on board in the coming months. Though, Google’s current system relies on a Windows PC to operate so they’re not totally out of the game.

These are exciting times for printing in the mobile world. As phones and tablets become smarter and more business travelers adopt them instead of laptops, the ability to print from them will be in increasing demand.

Instead of clients walking in with laptops, in the very near future they may walk in with an iPad or other tablet with Dropbox installed. They’ll be able to pull their presentation or contract out of the cloud and print, without using a computer.

The Cloud is not all beautiful sunsets and safety nets. Giving up control of your data to someone else can have its problems too. The latest high-profile incident was when Google lost 150,000 Gmail accounts back in February of this year. This isn’t even the first time Google has had problems with losing customer’s mail. A similar event took place in 2006 though on a much smaller scale.

I don’t mean to pick on Google, as T-Mobile and Microsoft had one of the biggest meltdowns when they lost all data from users of the T-Mobile Sidekick back in late 2009. The Sidekick is different from a normal cell phone in that it stores all of your data, contacts, photos, etc in the cloud instead of on the device itself. When a server error took down the Sidekick servers, all of the customer’s data went with it.

Similarly, there have been security issues with the cloud. With Gawker Media being hacked in Dec 2010 and their user’s passwords leaked and even Etsy.com, an online marketplace for crafters and artists recently exposed the purchases of its users. Just as with all technologies, there are trade-offs to be made. There are a ton of benefits to Cloud Computing but it is not without its risks.

Comfortable Surroundings

The environment you live in directly affects how you feel. I am not talking necessarily about the world outside your physical address but the space within. Recently, my wife and I moved from a too-small-for-us, cluttered apartment to a nearly 1,00 square foot condo unit we’re renting. The change has been a breath of fresh air.

Instead of an overflowing kitchen with a book shelf and a dresser needed to hold all our pots and pans, we now have a spacious kitchen with drawers and cabinets to spare. Instead of an apartment lacking real closets, with Target and IKEA acquired shelving units suffocating our dining area, we have a series of huge closets.

The list goes on but the point is made. The new place is much more open and as a result, there is less clutter everywhere. There are less piles. The entire place feels more open, airy and inviting. As a result, my mood has been uplifted. I no longer feel dread about coming home. I feel happiness. I look forward to it everyday.

I feel freer. I feel more alike and awake. I am inspired to wind down on our couch and write late into the night about whatever comes to my mind. I feel as a gust of fresh air was blown into my life and into my new home.

I am excited for the change and the creative opportunities this new space will hold.

I don’t take the New Year as my opportunity to rethink my habits and resolutions. I take the moving to a new place as the start of a new page of my life. The year is just a number on a calendar. But a new place to live offers up such a bounty of exciting and endless possibilities. The layout and decoration of the space. How the space will be utilized.

The simple fact that we now have freedom to devote portions of our living area to projects where before we never had the space to devote anything to any one task.