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Please begin with an informative title:

I’m my family & friend’s (retired) geek and a recent rec’d diary started me thinking about how often I hear these complaints:

  • “I HATE the new (Windows, OSX, iTunes, iPhone, Windows Phone, Blackberry, etc.)!”
  • “I just learned how to do what I want in the old software and now they changed EVERYTHING!”
  • “(Microsoft/Apple/HP/Dell et al) must hate their customers; I can’t use any of their new stuff!”
  • “I just got my new computer and now I can’t find my (mail/ contacts/ documents/ pictures…)!”
Well, I hate to break it to you – but, it’s not their fault – it’s your fault. (Well, maybe a little their fault – but you can protect yourself from evil Corporate Marketing forces).  Allow me to elaborate and ramble a bit lot with my old “Analyst” hat on …

You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

So you don’t have to read the whole thing (no one ever does), here’s the “executive summary”:

  1. Don’t buy the “newest thing” unless you’re prepared for some changes in how you work
  2. Don’t buy “Consumer Class” hardware from retail stores without careful research and/or advice from someone knowledgeable
  3. Don’t expect your “productivity” routine to stay the same without some concerted effort on your part
  4. Be realistic about what you will do versus what you would like to do with new technology
  5. Educate yourself on how general advances in technology will impact how you work – there is usually much discussion available on the web and you can usually find “experts” who can advise you (sometimes for free – sometimes for pay)
First of all; things change – deal with it or you will suffer on some level.  They change because you demand it. Everyone is attracted to new toys, the latest and greatest gadget, on some level.   It’s called progress and progress progresses – especially in tech – that’s a good thing.  It gets complicated when whatever what you’re using is more than a gadget to you – when your career or chosen vocation depends on you getting something specific done by a certain deadline.

Finding a balance between adapting new technology and remaining productive is always a difficult. This is more critical when your professional livelihood depends on the choices you make or your budget can't handle frequent upgrades. It has been made more complicated by hardware vendors selling direct to end users without the (sometimes dubious) advice of knowledgeable dealers and consultants.  When you work for a large-ish company, you have an “IT Department” that does this for you – but if you’re on your own; you are the IT department and you have to do your homework before you jump. If you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into, it’s easy to go wrong. Here are some thoughts based on 30 years of dealing with these problems that might help.

First is the big secret most computer vendors don’t really tell you - there are two classes of computer hardware out there: “Consumer” and “Commercial”. “Consumer Class” hardware is usually flashy (thinnest, lightest, prettiest, Win8 …), has the latest processors and graphics accelerators, built-in multimedia capabilities (web cams, memory card readers, premium speakers, etc.) and it seems inexpensive for what you’re getting, because it is.  These systems are primarily built to a cost/price target where most the perceived value is in the device itself, not hardware longevity or support relationship. Once these devices ship out the door, you’re essentially on your own after a year or two.

“Commercial Class” is not as sexy, usually heavier with less emphasis on performance, fewer options, “last gen” processors and operating systems … and is almost never sold in a retail stores (a relic of the “value-added re-seller” model). Notebooks will feature metal frames vs. mostly plastic and have low-buzz options like high capacity batteries and road-warrior friendly configurations. On the plus side, they will usually have a better quality keyboard, stand up to more abuse (due to sturdy chassis and components) and frequently have longer warranties. Manufacturers usually commit to longer support cycles - making bug-fixes, updates, new drivers and replacement parts available for a longer period of time because that’s what corporate customers demand. These same customers are not as price sensitive, so these will cost more – sometimes a LOT more – but you are usually getting your money’s worth.

One exception to this rule is Apple; most of apple’s products are quasi-commercial quality because that’s part of Apple’s Industrial Design ethos.  They are a “premium” product and you get what you pay for most of the time. Apple also doesn't have the legacy “dealer channel” model that created the “commercial vs. consumer” issue other large PC vendors have. Apple’s world is not without its flaws – the “walled garden” means you pay more for accessories and have more limited options on software and peripherals, but it also means what you buy is usually going to work.

It’s not always easy to find these commercial-type models because PC vendors don’t like internal divisions seeming to compete against each other.  If you look for “Small and Medium Business” (SMB) on the company web site – that’s where you head. You’ll know when you get there because the web page usually gets a lot more boring and most of the systems will still have Windows 7 as the operating system (or as a direct-downgrade option). Finding these “pro” systems will let you settle back into a slower refresh cycle and help delay the plunge into new operating systems you may find disruptive.

The second biggest road-bump I encounter with (usually older) users is adapting to basic paradigm shifts in technology. Most development around new operating systems revolves around the convergence of phones, tablets and computers and how we can stay productive while integrating these devices into our work-flow. If you don’t really use a “smart phone”, have no interest in a tablet and don’t care if you don’t have seamless access to your “stuff” everywhere – this is not for you.  Unfortunately, you will find yourself increasingly isolated from mainstream product and software development.  This means you’ll have to work a bit harder to get what you want – and to get your tech to do what you want, but it’s not impossible with some effort.

Windows 8 is a good example of how this “convergence” will eventually work. One of the reasons Win8 wants you to log in with a “Microsoft account” is that it’s goal is to provide you with a seamless experience moving from your Windows Phone, to your Surface Tablet, to your Windows Notebook. For example; when you leave your notebook and take your Surface (tablet) to the couch – all your bookmarks, email, and documents will follow you and still be accessible.  By the same token, moving to your Windows 8 Phone will also give you a similar web browsing experience (all your “favorites” are there) as well as the same email, contacts and access to documents(via the "cloud"). It’s a pretty ambitious project and not all the pieces are in place yet (as witnessed by still having to load legacy productivity applications from the “desktop” vs. native Win8 apps).  When it all works, they will potentially have a better “eco-system” than the not-completely seamless Apple notebook > iPad > iPhone world everyone admires.

Another tactical issue is the problem of dealing with legacy systems that haven’t quite died yet.  I just finished a rather painful (for them) migration for some friends from the old Outlook/Pop Mail to IMAP access to mail. If you still use POP mail servers; you are about to slide off the “cassette & VHS tape” end of the technology continuum.  There are still quite good mail programs (Thunderbird) that will feel like your old Outlook – but it’s time to jump on the IMAP/Exchange Server bandwagon.  If you don’t know what these terms mean and why they’re important, get someone you trust to explain it to you or do some more research – it could cause you some grief at some point.

After this point, it gets complicated; if you chose NOT to or cannot participate in the “bleeding” edge of tech development; you’re going to have to get your hands dirty at some point (metaphorically speaking). If you decide you don’t want to deal with emulators to run your old software or don't want to commit to one vendor’s vision of the future; there are options – but you’ll need to get your geek on. Most older hardware (notebooks or desktops) will run VERY nicely with any number of free Linux operating systems (Ubuntu seems quite user friendly).  The OS is free, also has many free productivity applications available (Open Office does everything “MS Office” does, including compatible files) and it even looks very much like the version of Windows you’re currently using (“Libuntu” flavor of Ubuntu, specifically).

The downside to all this is you have to do the grunt-work; find the download of the ISO file, figure out how to burn a bootable “disk image” to a CD or DVD, learn how to configure, update and download applications you need, etc.  None of it is hard, but if “ISO” sounds like a foreign term to you – proceed with caution.  Once you get your system configured, though – you should be good to go. Browsing is very similar, mail is the same (with Thunderbird & others), files are compatible and the operating system is advanced enough that it should support any hardware or peripherals you throw at it.  One advantage of the “open sourced” world is that you are not penalized for experimentation – everything’s free – so you can feel free to explore what’s out there.

If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, my usual recommendation (and my only one for older, first-time buyers) is to stick with the Apple world. While not perfect, their software and hardware tends to be easier to navigate for casual users and Apple’s support infrastructure (also not perfect) is at least more consistent. The primary downside here is cost; apple hardware can be substantially more expensive than equivalent performance in the PC world – but you are usually getting a better overall quality (commercial type) product. Your hardware also has a better chance of staying up to date because Apple has the advantage of being able to “push” incremental software upgrades out to their users through the homogeneous nature of their devices and their direct sales model. (Ask some Android phone users what version of their OS they have from their cell provider if you want to start an interesting discussion some time …)

All of these things can be learned by searching for discussions in numerous places on the web, but it’s going to be harder NOT to be a geek in the near future if you don’t want to go with the main flow of technology.  I just turned 60 and have no problem using any and all stuff out there, but that’s how my brain is wired and I’ve been taking all these things apart for the last 30 years.  I worry about the increasing divide I see with friends 10 – 15 years younger that aren’t “tech-fluent”.  Much of the new tech is getting easier to use if you’re already there – but if you don’t upgrade on a timely basis you can get to the point where you won’t have any idea where to dive in.

More than you wanted to know, probably, and I’m not sure how helpful this survey will be (or if anyone will read it!). I wind up helping my circle of friends, family and acquaintances make these types of decisions all the time, so I thought I’d pass this info for whatever it’s worth.
{/ramble} {/book}

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