VMware takes its best shot at cloud market

At VMWorld 2014, the cloud is a central theme, but company still has a lot of work to do.

VMware this week at its annual U.S. VMworld conference has focused intently on cloud computing, trying to prove that it is uniquely positioned as an Infrastructure-as-a-Service provider to deliver a consistent management platform across public, private and hybrid clouds. This builds on VMware’s recent vow to become a Top 3 cloud provider.

To back up its marketing, VMware this week has unveiled a slew of product news, including OpenStack support and new public cloud functions. It needed to do so, according to industry watchers and the company itself, since VMware is still in the earliest stages of executing its ambitious cloud strategy.

To understand VMware’s cloud strategy, it’s helpful to consider it in the context of the company’s broader vision. VMware has a three-pronged approach to IT management that it rolled out a year and a half ago and that it continues to talk about at this year’s VMWorld. The first part is the software-defined data center. VMware is known for virtualizing the compute layer through its ESX hypervisor. Now it wants to do the same for network and storage. For network virtualization, the company’s NSX platform is emerging as a formidable software-defined networking tool. And the company has rolled out vSAN for virtualized storage.

To deliver the applications that run atop VMware’s software, the company formed its End User Computing division. VMware has built up this group significantly over the past year via buyouts, including: the $1.5 billion purchase of AirWatch, a major provider of enterprise mobile device management software; the acquisition of Desktone and its desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) software; and the purchase of Cloud Volumes, which helps deliver virtualized applications.

Sitting between the software-defined data center and the end user computing tools is the cloud, and VMware at its conference this week has made announcements across that spectrum.

On the private cloud side, the company already has tools for customers to extend their virtualized environment into a private cloud. The main products in this category are vSphere and vCenter, which help companies create and manage virtual machines. VMware this week added to that collection with vRealize, a packaging of the company’s management tools across compute, network and storage virtualization. And perhaps most notably, the company announced support for OpenStack in its cloud management tools.

VMware also put some meat on its previously bare-bones public cloud offerings, which mainly consisted of the vCloud Hybrid Service (vCHS) introduced a year ago, with a focus on bringing ESX workloads to its public cloud and having vCHS as a disaster recovery option.

Just before this week’s VMWorld, the company rebranded its public cloud as vCloud Air and during the Day One keynote it announced many new features that would be coming soon to its cloud, including:

Though company officials were vague about the pricing and availability of these services, the offerings do mark important milestones for VMware’s cloud plans. VMware is hoping to give legitimate competition to Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft.

Analysts at VMWorld applauded the company for taking the necessary strides for vCloud Air to be a compelling service offering for enterprise workloads, beyond the basic backup and recovery use cases it has been used mostly for thus far.

Bill Fathers, executive vice president of Hybrid Cloud for VMware, said the company wants its vCloud Air to be a landing spot not just for VMware workloads that are looking for a home in the public cloud. He wants vCloud Air to host new applications developed for mobile devices and for ones that crafted in a devops environment. He claims that the service differs from what’s available from the likes of Amazon and Google in that those companies don’t have private cloud plug-ins to go along with their public clouds.

As VMware looks to execute its software-defined data center strategy, it’s clear that cloud will be a central platform to deliver to customers. With intense competition from many others in the market, such as Red Hat’s efforts to capitalize on OpenStack for the private cloud and Amazon, Google and Microsoft showing no signs of slowing down on the public cloud front, VMware will have its work cut out for it.

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How to Survive 4 Cloud Horror Stories

For all its promise, the cloud still brings some peril (like sleepaway camp or that dirt-cheap fixer-upper on the outskirts of town). Here are four cloud horror stories – along with spoilers so you know how to make it out alive.

Horror stories don’t just happen at the movie theater. In a few cases, companies make a big play to use the wrong cloud application or experience widespread outages in their connection to cloud storage.

While vendors claim that cloud services are secure and reliable, that’s not always the case. A better way than relying or vendor promises? Make sure your migration plans, budgets, existing infrastructure, security and any ancillary services all match up before making the jump to the cloud.
What Happens When a Cloud Provider Declares Bankruptcy?

Late last year, a cloud storage company called Nirvanix shut down and gave customers only a few weeks to move data to a different provider. According to Charles King, an IT analyst, this meant companies with terabytes or even petabytes of data in the cloud had to act quickly. “A business should always have a strong sense of the assets it has stored in the cloud, but it needs to consider those points in terms of the time and cost of retrieving them,” King says.

In the case of Nirvanix, one client noted that, due to the company’s download bandwidth limitations, it would need 27 days, in a best-case scenario, to recover all data. “That was cutting things pretty close since they were given just 30 days’ notice to remove everything,” King says.
What If the Wide Area Network Is Faulty?

Before attempting to use cloud applications to run your business, you might want to check with your network engineers first.

John Eisele, the vice president of business development at The DDC Group, a business process outsourcing company, tells the story of a major networking snafu. A preexisting condition related to router configurations at a customer location became exacerbated once the company started using cloud apps. Slow, sometimes broken connections were the main problem, though there were some issues using a virtual network with an external VPN. Fortunately, the network engineers and WAN experts ran diagnostic tests. The culprit? Outdated router configurations.

“In the end, the customer’s end-users could successfully access the cloud-based applications quicker than they could before the migration – which should be the case with all cloud solutions),” Eisele says.

What If Your Cloud Service Provider Has No Disaster Recovery Plan?
Disaster recovery is far more than just having a good backup. There has to be a more thorough way to get a system back online. This can include restoring data, applications, server access, user accounts and much more.

Code Spaces, a company that let developers host their code on a cloud server, learned this the hard way. Last month, the company announced that its Amazon Web Services account had been breached. The hack wasn’t just a way to change passwords and block access, either. Code Spaces found that its Apache Subversion repositories and Elastic Block Store volumes had been deleted.

It gets worse: The company posted a message on its site saying that it wouldn’t be able to rebound from the attack and would be closing its doors. A spokesperson for Amazon told CIO.com the breach had nothing to do with the AWS services and that companies must follow the AWS security precautions.
What if You Forget About Compliance and Security?

Most companies know the cloud is a secure portal. In some cases, the disaster recovery techniques and backup processes are even more rigid than an on-premises approach. According to analyst Rob Enderle, though, that’s not quite the whole picture.

Enderle tells the story of two engineers at an enterprise-level pharmaceutical company who were tasked with analyzing the results of a drug trial that required an investment in hardware and software. The IT contacts told the engineers the budget would be around $100,000 and would take nine months to deploy. They decided not to wait. After finding a cloud provider and spending about $3,600 using their own credit cards, they rented the resources and finished the work. Then an executive found out.

“The engineers were terminated the following day for the massive violation of security policy,” Enderle says. “There was no way to determine where the data resided after the work was done but, generally, it was believed to be in Eastern Europe.”

How should your company respond to all of these horror stories? With due diligence. The experts all says cloud infrastructure is just an extension of your own data center and computing services. Somewhere, there’s a server and a storage array housed in another city – or another country. Research all of the variables, ask the right questions and be thorough about your strategic plan.


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New Microsoft same as the old Microsoft

For all the talk by its CEO about a new and different Microsoft, the company’s revenue and profit engines remain untouched, with money-making software groups tied to hardware-intensive divisions that increasingly drag down the firm’s overall margin.

Perusing Microsoft’s latest financial report, the one filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in July, makes it clear that little has changed in either the last year or since Satya Nadella took over the reins in February 2014.

Two of the company’s six business units — Devices & Consumer (D&C) Licensing and Commercial Licensing — generated 68% of the company’s total revenue for the second quarter of 2014 and 93% of its gross margin. Those units, as their names imply, primarily sell software licenses: Windows to OEMs in D&C’s case, Office and a slew of other products, including Windows Server, to enterprises in Commercial’s.

Those numbers were not substantially different from a year ago, much less six months ago when Nadella took over the company. In the second quarter of 2013, D&C and Commercial Licensing accounted for 75% of the revenue and 95% of the gross margin. Half a year ago, the figures were in the same ballpark: 66% and 93%.

And the D&C and Commercial Licensing margins were still stratospheric last quarter, 92% for D&C, 94% for Commercial. In other words, for each $100 brought in by those two units — from software sales, in other words — Microsoft retained $93.10. That’s “printing money” by any business definition.

The other units — Computing and Gaming (C&G) Hardware, Phone Hardware, D&C Other and Commercial Other — had gross margins of 1%, 3%, 24% and 31%, respectively, but contributed even smaller portions to the total gross margin for the quarter. C&G Hardware, for instance, accounted for just 0.1% of the company’s gross margin, while Phone — the new line item in Microsoft’s financials that represented the Nokia business acquired in April — contributed only 0.3% of the gross margin.

As six months ago, when Computerworld last analyzed Microsoft’s financials to try to figure out whether its strategy matched its numbers, the four units were not only less profitable than the software groups, but were nearly invisible on the bottom line. Collectively they accounted for 8% of the total gross margin. It’s not a rounding error, certainly, but just as obviously not a core part of Microsoft’s profitability.

And Nadella has talked “core” so often he could be an apple — not Apple — enthusiast.

“We made bold and disciplined decisions to define our core as the productivity and a platform company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world,” Nadella said in the July 22 earnings call with Wall Street (emphasis added). “We will get crystal clear on the core businesses that drive long-term differentiation and the businesses that support them.”

Nadella used the word “core” 10 times in his prepared statement at the top of that call.

Microsoft, of course, knows full well the profit-making disparity between what it has historically done — sell software — and what ex-CEO Steve Ballmer decided it must do, sell devices, too.

While revenue from C&G Hardware, which primarily came from sales of the Xbox game console and Surface tablet, and Phone added $3.4 billion to sales, a closer look at the numbers revealed still-higher costs and continued declining margins for devices.

After an increase in 2014’s first quarter, the margin for C&G Hardware took a dive in the second, dropping to just 1%. In the last eight quarters, the group’s margins have fallen in four when measured against the previous period.

And the 1% for the second quarter, a record low — except for the second quarter of 2013, which included a $900 million write-off — put new meaning to “razor thin.”

Microsoft attributed the decline in gross margin for C&G Hardware to higher expenses for both the Xbox and the Surface, but the latter was what dragged down the number: Microsoft took an estimated $363 million loss on the tablet in the June quarter to push the total red ink to $1.7 billion since its October 2012 debut.

Nor did the addition of Nokia help much. With Phone added to C&G Hardware, the two groups returned just 50 cents for each $100 in revenue. When one charts the gross margins of Microsoft’s divisions, those for C&G Hardware and Phone are so tiny they simply don’t register.

Nadella wasn’t unaware of the crummy margins for his company’s devices, whether video game machine, tablet or phone. He killed the Surface Mini shortly before it was to launch, reportedly to eat crow immediately rather than to lose even more money down the road; rejected Ballmer’s “devices and services” strategy; and talked instead about the company’s mission as a “productivity and platforms” seller.

The vast bulk of Microsoft’s gross margin — an indicator of profitability — still comes from its software sales, while other businesses, including its hardware and phone efforts, generated so little that they’re impossible to see in the chart’s scale. (Data: Microsoft, SEC filings.)

“At times, we will develop new categories like we did with Surface. And we will responsibly make the market for Windows Phone,” Nadella said during the July 22 earning call. “However, we are not in hardware for hardware sake, and the first-party device portfolio will be aligned to our strategic direction as the productivity and platform company.”

Other company executives, including former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, have also deployed the phrase “responsibly make the market.” which some analysts have interpreted to mean that losses will not be tolerated in Nadella’s regime as they were in Ballmer’s.

The mantra of “productivity and platforms” certainly matches Microsoft’s revenues better then Ballmer’s “devices and services,” which was never really defined. The Office productivity family, represented by Commercial Licensing, and the Windows platform, more or less encapsulated in D&C Licensing, accounted for 93% of the firm’s second-quarter gross margin.

That was actually down from a year ago, when the two lines combined for 95% of Microsoft’s gross margin.

But another group, Commercial Other, which generates most of its revenue from what Microsoft calls “Commercial Cloud” — Office 365 for commercial accounts; Azure, the company’s cloud business; and Dynamics CRM Online — more than made up the difference. The service-oriented group booked $2.3 billion in revenue during the June quarter, up 44%, and boosted its gross margin to $691 million, a 106% increase.

Commercial Other’s gross margin in percentage format was 30.5%: For every $100 in revenue, Microsoft kept $30.50. That was not only a jump from 21.3% a year before, but the highest since the group’s creation on the books.

“Commercial Other margins expanded again in this quarter, benefiting from both improved business scale and datacenter efficiency in our cloud services,” said CFO Amy Hood last month.

Although Commercial Other was a creation of Ballmer, who regularly cited its offerings as the prime example of the “services” side of his strategy, the group also fits well with Nadella’s updated message of productivity (Office 365) and platforms (Azure, as a cloud-based OS).

Add Commercial Other to the two licensing-centric groups, and the cumulative margin drops to 84.7% — Microsoft keeps $84.70 of each $100 in revenue — which, while a smaller number than licensing-only, is still a fantastic margin that demonstrates the financial power of software, whether delivered traditionally or as a service.

Nadella knows that, and has even acknowledged as much, although he uses the word “software” sparingly — just twice, for instance, in the July 22 earnings call. In a May interview at Re/code’s technology conference, Nadella said, “We are a software company at the end of the day.”

No kidding.

Which makes the hardware divisions and their very low margins stand out even more.

If the Xbox, Surface and Nokia businesses, along with the rest of the peripheral units bundled with them, were purged from Microsoft’s balance sheet last quarter, it would have raised the gross margin ten points, from 69% (with hardware) to 79% (without). In other words, Microsoft would be a smaller company — just under $20 billion in revenue versus the actual $23.3 billion — but a more profitable one.

That’s not gone unnoticed by Wall Street, which has regularly pressed Microsoft to abandon hardware, sell the units or spin them off into independent companies. Industry analysts have also questioned the devotion to hardware.

“The contrast between hardware and licensing couldn’t be more stark: one makes enormous gross margins, and the other barely scrapes a profit,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, in a July 22 analysis of Microsoft’s financials. In a follow-up, he wondered how long Microsoft would put up with the losses of the Surface.

“Continued losses will make it harder and harder for Microsoft to keep the Surface project going, so a good performance in the next quarter or two will be critical to justifying its continued existence,” he wrote on July 31.

A few days later, in an interview, Dawson elaborated. “My sense is that Nadella is less willing to accept losses than was [Steve] Ballmer,” he said.

With a financial disparity like the one shown in the June quarter, who could blame Nadella if he did?

And he has hinted that pressure would be applied to the low-low-margin hardware divisions. “For those supporting efforts such as MSN, retail stores and hardware, we will also ensure disciplined financial execution,” Nadella said on July 22 (emphasis added).

While margins for Microsoft’s hardware group — which sells the Surface and the Xbox — continued to fall in the June quarter, margins have improved for ‘Commercial Other,’ the group that handles Office 365 for businesses and the Azure cloud. (Data: Microsoft, SEC filings.)

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10 signs Google Glass is disrupting the enterprise

Google Glass, the tech giant’s connected eye-worn computing device, has generated plenty of buzz and controversy in consumer markets, where people seem just as excited about its apps as they are concerned about its potential threat to privacy. Although many questions remain to be answered for consumer wearable technology in general, Google Glass is already making inroads to several enterprise markets, while inviting competitors looking to capitalize on the businesses that could put it to use. Here are 10 signs that Google Glass is already making an impact on the enterprise.

It’s already being used in healthcare
Hands-free access to information while multi-tasking makes Glass a perfect fit for healthcare, where the risk of contamination or clerical errors could spell disaster. That’s why the healthcare industry has already started to integrate Glass into its operations. Physicians in one Boston hospital are using the devices during routine checkups and examinations, while surgeons have put them to use for operations. Medical students at Stanford are using Glass to connect with instructors for feedback during operations, and a surgeon at Duke Medical Center in North Carolina is using it to record and archive his operations.

First venture financing went to medical Glass developer
In March, a startup called Augmedix that develops Glass applications targeted for use in hospitals and doctors’ offices received $3.2 million in venture funding. The Dow Jones called it “the first publicly announced round of venture financing for a developer working exclusively on Google Glass,” highlighting the potential for Glass in the healthcare field.

Manufacturing apps are in the works
Another market that places a premium on easy access to information for workers is manufacturing, and many developers have begun to accommodate Glass for them. Last July, Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies released a free Glass app called MTConnect, which Automation World called “a manufacturing industry standard for the organized retrieval of process informaiton from numerically controlled machine tools.” Even GE is working with Glass apps for manufacturing. In December, Barry Lynch, GE Intelligent Platform’s global marketing director for automation hardware, published a company blog post predicting that Glass “will become a common sight on the manufacturing shop floor of tomorrow.”

Glass is being adapted for the oil and gas industry
In May, Automation World reported on a Google Glass project at Wearadyne, a company working on wearable technology specified for use in the oil and gas industry. David Vaucher, a company co-founder and a petroleum engineer himself, told Automation World that the company envisions Glass applications that allow engineers to access templates and other information hands-free while in the field, then ultimately send the data back to the network.

Competitors are targeting enterprise markets
One company with a serious Glass competitor for the enterprise is Vuzix, whose connected eyewear system looks strikingly similar to Glass and actually runs an Android-based operating system. The Vuzix system has its own SDK for developing custom apps, and offers separate models for about $1,000, undercutting Glass’s price point by $500. Whether intentional or not, the approach to the market – capitalizing on Google Glass buzz with its own product – is already paying off. In the first quarter of this year, Vuzix reported an 8% year-over-year increase in gross sales, more than half of which stemmed from sales of its new eyewear.

Some see enterprise as a gateway to consumer market
Atheer Labs, a successfully crowdfunded Glass competitor that initially billed itself as a consumer device, has since taken aim on the enterprise as its gateway to consumers. In an interview with Business Insider, company co-founder and chief scientist Soulaiman Itani pointed to the enterprise-first route the PC and smartphone took before gradually moving into consumer markets. Itani told Business Insider that the company would rather design a product for specific use cases, be it for healthcare or factory workers, before trying to guess which features consumers will use.

Others are trying to usher Glass into the workplace
APX Labs, a company with experience developing smart glasses for the military, is crafting its Skylight software to make it easier for developers to create enterprise-focused apps for both Glass and Epson’s smart glasses. In July, the company announced that it had hired Eric Johnsen, a member of the Google X team, to serve as its vice president of development. At the time, Johnsen told Forbes that the active interest in smart glasses in the enterprise is what drew him to the company. Similarly to Atheer Labs, the company said Google’s efforts to make Glass a consumer device created new opportunities in the enterprise.

Citrix is developing enterprise Glass apps
In May, Citrix vice president of mobility Chris Fleck told PC Pro that the company has been working with Google on enterprise apps for the workplace. He clarified that the work is still in the prototype stage, but detailed the company’s interest in integrating its ShareFile and GoToAssist software products into Glass.

Business is an easier sell for smartglasses
In November, Gartner predicted that smartglasses could save the field service industry as much as $1 billion annually by 2017, even though Gartner only expects 10% of U.S. companies will adopt them in the next five years. It will likely be easier to convince a business to buy smartglasses by showing them real cost savings and better efficiency than it will be to convince consumers to buy a $1,500 Glass unit, especially while consumers wearing Glass are being kicked out of restaurants and attacked on the streets.

Google has launched a Glass at Work campaign
Earlier this year, Google teamed with several companies (some of which were mentioned in this list) for the Glass at Work initiative to help foster a large community of enterprise-focused developers for Glass. The program didn’t receive as much attention as much of the more controversial Glass news, but it’s an open invitation from Google to help adapt Glass for the enterprise.

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11 ways LXLE Linux will make you forget all about XP

The lightweight, speedy and feature-packed LXLE 14.04 can breathe new life into your old XP hardware.

A lightweight powerhouse
Windows XP’s long run may have finally come to an end, but that doesn’t mean your XP-era hardware has to go too. No indeed: There are numerous options available in the Linux world, and one shining example is LXLE.

A brand-new LXLE 14.04 made its debut a few weeks ago, and it’s packed with new features while remaining lightweight and speedy. With an XP mode among several other desktop options, this zippy OS needs less than a minute to boot and get online. Don’t try that on your Windows machine.

Ready for a look? Read on, then, and see what your older PC hardware could be doing.

Long-term support
LXLE is based not just on Ubuntu Linux, but on Ubuntu Long-Term Support (LTS) versions in particular for maximal longevity. In the case of LXLE 14.04, the underlying Linux distribution is Ubuntu 14.04 “Trusty Tahr,” which was released in April and offers support through 2019.

More specifically, LXLE 14.04 is based on the Lubuntu variant of Ubuntu, which uses the LXDE desktop and is designed to be more lightweight than its parent in general. Both 32- and 64-bit versions of LXLE are available; the 64-bit .iso file weighs in at 1.49GB.

Windows XP Mode
As a variation on the Lubuntu Linux theme, LXLE uses an optimized LXDE user interface. It also offers several alternative desktop layout paradigms, however—all of them updated in version 14.04 and accessible at login using a drop-down menu.

Shown here is LXLE’s Windows XP paradigm, designed with refugees from Microsoft’s long-lived OS in mind. LXLE aims to provide users with “a complete drop-in-and-go replacement for XP, Vista and 7 Starter/Basic,” the project team says. Also available is a Netbook paradigm that’s essentially a variation on the XP theme.

A classic Linux option
For those with no particular allegiance to Windows XP, LXLE also offers another classic desktop paradigm, this time from the Linux world. It’s GNOME 2, specifically—the longstanding favorite of many Linux users, even as numerous more modern contenders such as Unity and GNOME 3 have arrived on the scene. Linux Mint is another distro that aims to preserve the best of GNOME 2, as can be seen in the recently released Linux Mint 17.

A hint of Apple

Extending its flexibility even further, LXLE also gives users the choice of a Mac OS X paradigm, offering the general feel of Apple’s desktop operating system. Part of the philosophy behind LXLE is to add useful mods and tweaks for improved performance and functions, the design team says. Also among its goals are to “develop a beautiful, modern-looking intuitive desktop for anyone to use easily” and to “save system resources and spend them wisely on capable, feature-rich apps.”

Emulating Ubuntu’s Unity
Yet another choice for users of LXLE, meanwhile, is a desktop paradigm that offers the feel of Ubuntu’s Unity interface. While the mobile-inspired Unity option has been a controversial one ever since it was first introduced back in 2010 in what was then Ubuntu’s Netbook Edition, it has gained a considerable number of fans as it’s been refined over the years. With a vertical application switcher called the launcher, it’s now Ubuntu’s default user interface.

Packed with work tools
In addition to its diminutive footprint and speedy performance, LXLE also offers a wide array of full-featured apps preinstalled. Among those on tap in LXLE 14.04 are the latest stable versions of the LibreOffice suite for office productivity and the Osmo personal organizer along with the Evince document viewer, FBReader for ebooks, and HomeBank for personal accounting.

Accessory apps include ClamTK for virus-scanning and security, the gedit text editor, the PCManFM file manager, and the Xarchiver archive manager.

A raft of internet apps
For connecting with the Internet, LXLE offers Mozilla’s Firefox as its default browser and Claws Mail for email. Linphone is the default VoIP client, while Gitso handles remote desktop connectivity.

Since Canonical recently shut down its Ubuntu One cloud service, LXLE 14.04 includes Bittorrent Sync instead for file syncing and sharing among multiple platforms. FileZilla offers FTP capabilities, while Pidgin and Xchat are both on hand for chat purposes. uGet is the software’s download manager.

Graphics tools galore
One of the changes made to LXLE’s suite of graphics apps in version 14.04 was that Gpicview was replaced by the Mirage image viewer “to offer more features like cropping, resizing, etc.” while providing an alternative to always using GIMP, the project team notes. GIMP is still on hand for bigger jobs, though. Other options in LXLE’s graphics toolbox are LibreOffice Draw, the Shotwell photo manager, Simple Image Reducer, and Simple Scan for scanning.

Access for all
A number of Universal Access tools were added in LXLE 14.04 to extend the software’s capabilities for users with visual or hearing impairments or physical disabilities. The Florence Virtual Keyboard, for instance, offers features such as a timer-based auto-click input method. Gespeaker, meanwhile, can play text in many languages, with settings for voice, pitch, volume, speed, and word gap. The xZoom magnification tool is also included, as are right-handed and left-handed cursor themes in various sizes.

A rich software trove
Long before app stores became commonplace in the mobile computing world, Linux users were already enjoying software repositories such as Ubuntu’s Software Center as the place to quickly and easily find new software without having to scour the Web.

LXLE users in search of software tools to add to their setup can turn to the Lubuntu Software Center, which is packed with both free and for-a-fee options. Also available are the Synaptic package manager and the Y PPA manager along with an updater tool to keep everything current.

100 Flavors of Beauty
Last but not least, LXLE 14.04 gives you more than a few ways to customize your desktop and make it your own. A full 100 wallpapers come preinstalled, in fact, pretty much guaranteeing that there will be something to please everyone.

There’s also a Random Wallpaper feature for those who like variety, and you can add your own images as well. LXLE was designed to offer theme consistency throughout system, the project team says. Included ARandR software, meanwhile, provides multiple-monitor support.

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10 things you need to know about Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3

Since the release of the first Surface nearly two years ago, Microsoft has been improving and revising its line of tablets. We tested a Surface Pro 3 that came with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, and 256 GB SSD. Microsoft also included a Type Cover — the keyboard designed for this tablet that also serves as a protective cover, which is normally sold separately. Bottom line: The Surface Pro 3 is a beautifully designed machine that shows off the Windows 8.1 operating system. It’s billed as a tablet, but I found myself preferring to use it as a notebook, a nifty ultraportable one — and doing so through the Windows desktop environment.

Form factor
The Surface Pro 3 is comprised of styles that complement one another. The flatness of its back is offset by sides that angle outward toward the display screen. Due to its size, which is close to that of 8.5-by-11-inch paper with a thickness of 0.36 inches, it’s safest to hold this tablet with both hands. The kickstand flips out initially to an endpoint of 22 degrees, but the two hinges will gradually and gently give, allowing you to turn them back to 150 degrees. This angle helps you use the tablet when you have it set on a table, without the Type Cover. Placing it on your lap, with the Type Cover attached, and using it as a notebook is doable and not uncomfortable.

Keyboard: Type Cover
The Type Cover, which is available in four colors, attaches tightly with magnets to the edge of only one side of the tablet. The keyboard’s palm rest surface is a tight and smooth-to-the-touch felt. The protective cover is a rougher but softer felt, like a high-quality billiard table. The touchpad is wider than the one on the first version. And while the original rested flat when opened; this one can be raised into an upward incline. I found that this elevated profile did make my typing better.

The Surface Pro 3 uses the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 Pro. This is, refreshingly, the “cleanest” Windows device (desktop, notebook or tablet) I’ve ever seen: It comes with several Windows Store apps owned by Microsoft, including Skype, but only one by a third-party: Flipboard. There are no third-party desktop applications. The only extraneous desktop application was Microsoft Office.

The 12-inch, 2160-by-1440 pixel screen is color-calibrated, which aids in professional work where maintaining image fidelity is tantamount. To me, the colors looked somewhat dull. By default, the screen is set at a dim looking 50% brightness. I liked it better at 80% to 90%. Outdoors in sunlight, the display’s glass became so reflective that the screen was not viewable. When the tablet is held in portrait mode, its display’s aspect ratio is 2:3, which compares similarly to that of an 8.5-by-11-inch paper sheet. So the Surface Pro 3 can work well for previewing PDFs or scanned images of documents.

With an Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, the tablet operated speedily with rarely a slowdown. I would purposely keep several tabs open in a web browser, while playing streaming music or video (at 1080p resolution), and jump between the Start Screen and desktop to launch applications or apps. The one notable time that the Surface Pro 3 became strained was when I updated Windows 8.1 through Windows Update. The upper-right of the tablet’s back (when the device is in its notebook orientation) began to feel warmer than usual to the touch, as the OS installed several updates onto itself. Things returned to normal after a required reboot to finish the installation process.

Digital pen: Surface Pen
The Surface Pro 3 comes with a digital pen, called the Surface Pen. You can use it to interact with Windows 8.1, as you would by tapping on the tablet’s touchscreen with your finger, but it was specially devised for the OneNote app. The Surface Pen has a button at its end that launches OneNote when you click it. Virtually doodling or writing with this digital pen on the Surface Pro 3 felt very much like doing so with an actual pen on paper. Even when I quickly swept its tip across the tablet’s display, OneNote kept up with my motions instantaneously to produce corresponding scribbles.

When set up as a notebook or held in landscape mode, the tablet’s speakers emanate sound through grills from the top edges of the bezel. The audio had a fullness, but lacked distinct and strong enough clarity in the high end. The volume range seemed narrow, but the loudness that these tiny speakers could put out was still impressive. When I listened through good-quality earbuds, the audio sustained clarity without any distortion at high volume settings.

The Surface Pro 3 has three mics: One in the bezel; two embedded in the back, which together are meant to capture sound in stereo. Using the Windows 8.1 default Sound Recorder app, the front mic recorded audio that sounded crisp and free of buzzing.

Both the front and rear cameras can capture images up to 5 megapixels. And, in general, I found they were equally capable of taking clear, in-focus shots under bright or sufficient light, whether indoors or outside. Colors appeared accurate and dynamic in such ideal situations.

The difference between them appeared to lie in how each handles focus: The rear camera couldn’t capture objects within about 22 inches in sharp focus. The front camera fared much better, focusing in at about 8 inches, as to be expected; this is the camera that will be transmitting your face when you’re video-chatting.

Microsoft lists the Surface Pro 3 being able to run for about 9 hours on a full charge. I managed to use it continuously as much as I could (letting it go to sleep when I took breaks) for almost 8 hours under its Windows 8.1 default settings. I browsed the web, captured audio and images, listened to music, ran desktop applications and Windows apps, and watched video. The Surface Pro 3’s power charger, which neatly sticks to the device with a magnetic connector, shines a bright white LED when it’s plugged into a wall outlet. But there’s no light on the tablet to indicate the charging status of its built-in battery. By my estimate, it took about 3 hours to completely recharge.

OS: Windows 8.1 Pro, 64-bit
DISPLAY: 12 inch, 2160-by-1440 pixel
SCREEN: Multi-touch touchscreen with digital pen support
UNDER THE HOOD: Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 chip, 4 or 8 GB RAM; 64, 128, 256 or 512 GB SSD
CAMERAS: 5 MP front camera; 5 MP rear
CONNECTIVITY: MicroSD slot, Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n
BATTERY: Up to 9 hours
WEIGHT: 1.76 lbs
DIMENSIONS: 11.5” x 7.93” x 0.36”
PRICE: Starts at $799; Type Cover: $129.99


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In search of a social site that doesn’t lie

Facebook and OKCupid experiment on users. So what’s wrong with that?

Rudder’s post described a few of the experiments that the dating website had carried out. In one, OKCupid told people that they would be good matches with certain other people even though the site’s algorithms had determined that they would be bad matches. That’s right: The company deliberately lied to its users. OKCupid wanted to see if people liked each other because they have the capacity to make up their own minds about who they like, or if they like each other because OKCupid tells them they should like each other.

(The controversial post was Rudder’s first in several years; he had taken time off to write a book about experimenting on people. Due out next month, the book is called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).)

The OKCupid post was in part a response to controversy over a recently discovered Facebook experiment, the results of which were published in an academic journal. Facebook wanted to see if people would post more negative posts if their own News Feeds had more negative posts from their friends. In the experiment, Facebook removed some posts by family and friends because they were positive. The experiment involved deliberately making people sadder by censoring friends’ more uplifting and positive posts.

Don’t like this kind of manipulation? Here’s Rudder’s response: “Guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site.

That’s how websites work.”

What’s wrong here

Rudder’s “everyone is doing it” rationalization for experimenting on users makes it clear that he doesn’t understand the difference between what OKCupid and Facebook are doing, and what other sites that conduct A/B tests of different options are doing.

The difference is that OKCupid and Facebook are potentially changing, damaging or affecting the real relationships of real people. They are manipulating the happiness of people on purpose.

These companies might argue that this damage to the mood and relationships of people is small to the point of being inconsequential. But what makes them think it’s OK to deliberately do any damage at all?

The other glaring problem with these social science experiments is that the subjects don’t know they’re participating.

Yes, I’m sure company lawyers can argue in court that the Terms of Service that everyone agreed to (but almost nobody read) gives OKCupid and Facebook the right to do everything they do. And I’m sure the sites believe that they’re working so hard and investing so much to provide free services that users owe them big time, and that makes it all OK.

Imagine a splash screen that pops up each month on these sites that says: “Hi. Just wanted to make sure you’re aware that we do experiments on people, and we might do experiments on you. We might lie to you, meddle in your relationships and make you feel bad, just to see what you’ll do.”

No, you can’t imagine it. The reason is that the business models of sites like OKCupid and Facebook are based on the assumption of user ignorance.
Why OKCupid and Facebook think it’s OK to mess with people’s relationships

The OKCupid admission and the revelations about the Facebook research were shocking to the public because we weren’t aware of the evolving mindset behind social websites. No doubt the OKCupid people and the Facebook people arrived at their coldly cynical view of users as lab rats via a long, evolutionary slippery slope.

Let’s imagine the process with Facebook. Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard, moves to Silicon Valley, gets funded and starts building Facebook into a social network. Zuck and the guys want to make Facebook super appealing, but they notice a disconnect in human reason, a bias that is leading heavy Facebook users to be unhappy.

You see, people want to follow and share and post a lot, and Facebook wants users to be active. But when everybody posts a lot, the incoming streams are overwhelming, and that makes Facebook users unhappy. What to do?

The solution is to use software algorithms to selectively choose which posts to let through and which to hold back. But what criteria do you use?

Facebook’s current algorithm, which is no longer called Edgerank (I guess if you get rid of the name, people won’t talk about it), is the product of thousands of social experiments — testing and tweaking and checking and refining until everyone is happy.

The result of those experiments is that Facebook changes your relationships. For example, let’s say you follow 20 friends from high school. You feel confident that by following them — and by them following you — that you have a reliable social connection to these people that replaces phone calls, emails and other forms of communication.

Let’s say you have a good friend named Brian who doesn’t post a lot of personal stuff. And you have another friend, Sophia, who is someone you don’t care about but who is very active and posts funny stuff every day. After a period of several months during which you barely interact with Brian but occasionally like and comment on Sophia’s posts, Facebook decides to cut Brian’s posts out of your News Feed while maintaining the steady stream of Sophia posts. Facebook boldly ends your relationship with Brian, someone you care about. When Brian posts an emotional item about the birth of his child, you don’t see it because Facebook has eliminated your connection to Brian.

And don’t get me started on OKCupid’s algorithms and how they could affect the outcome of people’s lives.

Not only do both companies experiment all the time; their experiments make huge changes to users’ relationships.

The real danger with these experiments
You might think that the real problem is that social networks that lie to people, manipulate their relationships and regularly perform experiments on their users are succeeding. For example, when Facebook issued its financial report last month, it said revenue rose 61% to $2.91 billion, up from $1.81 billion in the same quarter a year ago. The company’s stock soared after the report came out.

Twitter, which is currently a straightforward, honest, nonmanipulative social network, has apparently seen the error of its ways and is seriously considering the Facebook path to financial success. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in an interview this week that he “wouldn’t rule out any kind of experiment we might be running there around algorithmically curated experiences or otherwise.”

No, the real problem is that OKCupid and Facebook may take action based on the results of their research. In both cases, the companies say they’re experimenting in order to improve their service.

In the case of OKCupid, the company found that connecting people who are incompatible ends up working out better than it thought. So based on that result, in the future it may match up more people it has identified as incompatible.

In the case of Facebook, it did find that mood is contagious. So maybe it will “improve” Facebook in the future to build in a bias for positive, happy posts in order to make users happier with Facebook than they are with networks that don’t filter based on positivity.

What’s the solution?

While Twitter may follow Facebook down the rabbit hole of user manipulation, there is a category of “social network” where what you see is what you get — namely, messaging apps.

When you send a message via, say, WhatsApp or Snapchat or any of the dozens of new apps that have emerged recently, the other person gets it. WhatsApp and Snapchat don’t have algorithms that choose to not deliver most of your messages. They don’t try to make you happy or sad or connect you with incompatible people to see what happens. They just deliver your communication.

I suspect that’s one of the reasons younger users are increasingly embracing these alternatives to the big social networks. They’re straightforward and honest and do what they appear to do, rather than manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Still, I’d love to see at least one major social site embrace honesty and respect for users as a core principle. That would mean no lying to users, no doing experiments on them without their clear knowledge, and delivering by default all of the posts of the people they follow.

In other words, I’d love to see the founders of social sites write blog posts that brag: “We DON’T experiment on human beings.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

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