‘Free’ is Not Always Free

Anyone who’s known us or done business with us for any length of time knows that there’s no such thing as a free anything. If you use T-Mobile to access the Free Conference Call service, you likely got a rude – though not necessarily expensive – wakeup call about the fallacy of free.

The problem, as one of our clients discovered, was that the dial-in phone number for Free Conference Call was not on his T-Mobile plan. He had to use the service for business calls, and it cost a penny a minute. We investigated the charge and eventually found he got a text message about it. This wasn’t a big deal cost-wise, but it was a huge annoyance. After all, he expected it to be “free.”

In reality, it’s not a free service. Your carrier may be subsidizing the cost of the call because it helps them keep your business or gives them a platform to sell you additional services. The company that provides the service may be subsidizing it as a way to encourage you to use paid services.

Regardless, it begs the question of what else are you paying for? We might get some more specific answers from the Congressional grilling that the heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google underwent, but we suspect the substance won’t be any different from what we’ve discussed before. In just about every aspect of our online lives, we trade privacy for convenience.

Google, Amazon and Facebook are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this trade. Google is synonymous with online searching, and Amazon turns up as the top listing (or they buy top-of-the-page ad space) for just about anything you want to buy. Facebook will display ads for products you’ve searched for on Google or other websites and will show you ads depending on product pages you’ve liked or comments you’ve made. Oh, and did we mention that if you use a YouTube video to learn how to do something, Google can send you ads for a product you may have watched in the “how-to” video, which you can buy on Amazon.

You get all of this information for free in one sense, but you’ve paid through the nose in another sense. All of them have collected information about you, which they sell to companies who want to advertise products and services to sell. The info is sold for pennies per click, but, as they say, they make it up in volume. Through cookies, they retain info on your browsing history. That helps them direct you to products and services you are interested in. That’s your convenience. But they also know where you’ve looked and used algorithms to figure out what you might be willing to pay for whatever it is they’re selling. You could wind up getting “special offers” for goods and services at higher prices.

You can decline cookies, erase your browsing history and take similar steps to protect your privacy. But you really can’t hide from everyone, and your searching will be more difficult.

Are there alternatives? Yes, there are plenty of them. You can go back to Yahoo, which used to be the search engine of choice before Google, or you can use Microsoft’s Bing or an independent such as Duck Duck Go, which claims to protect your privacy when you search. You can try to find smaller or more local providers of goods and services independently of Amazon. You may wind up with fewer choices and fewer options.

We invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with other providers of searches and goods and services. Leave a comment and check back to share information. You may not get anything that’s truly free, but you may free yourself from hidden costs and know more about what you’re paying for.

Windows 10’s Summer Storm

Microsoft’s free upgrade to Windows 10 for eligible computers will end July 29. But rather than just let the offer expire, the company is actively pushing out upgrades. You can expect a storm of activity as part of the effort. If you don’t want to upgrade, here’s how you can batten down your electronic hatches.

Our best advice right now is to let it happen – sort of – and undo it with a rollback. Just make sure you roll back to your version of Windows 7 or 8 within 30 days of the download (and possible installation). Here’s why we believe this is the best course of action. Again, just to remind those of you who could be affected, Microsoft has a free upgrade offer for eligible computers running Windows 7 and 8. The free offer will end July 29. Starting July 30, the upgrade to Windows 10 will cost $119.

In a “big brother” way, Microsoft knows which computers are eligible and which ones have been upgraded. That’s because there’s a chip in your computer that has the information about the version of Windows that was installed when the computer was assembled. It’s not all that bad of a system because Microsoft can use it to push out the correct updates on an as-needed basis to make sure you have all the latest security patches and bug fixes. It takes the onus off you to download and install them. Microsoft also knows which version of the OS you have, such as the Home or the Pro, and that prevents you from, for example, downloading and installing the Pro when you’re entitled only to the Home.

On the other hand, it can be highly intrusive for the upgrades. We’ve had a number of instances in which clients have accessed their computers – at work and at home – in the morning and found a message from Microsoft to continue with the installation of Windows 10. Or, we’ve had clients tell us that all of a sudden, in the middle of the day, their machines started acting funny and then they received messages to continue the Windows 10 installation process.

Naturally, none of these clients had taken advantage of the offer, but Microsoft can’t distinguish if that was by oversight or intent. (Add your own comment here.) Essentially you have two options:

  1. Go through the entire installation and then roll your system back to Windows 7 or 8.
  2. Don’t accept or agree to the terms and conditions.

Each option has its own set of consequences.

If go through the installation and then roll it back, that’s a major time suck. However, we have not encountered any problems with getting old systems back and running again. If you don’t accept or agree to the upgrade, you will lose your entitlement to the free upgrade – at least so far as we can determine. We have not gone through the process of trying to reclaim it.

To make your best decision on whether to accept the upgrade to Windows 10, make sure you are clear on what you need.

We firmly recommend the Windows 10 upgrade because it has a lot of new security measures, and the support for security and bug fixes are crucial to keeping data safe. For home and SOHO systems and for offices that are not using highly customized application software, the upgrade should work well. However, if your application software will not work with Windows 10 or not work as well as it should, we recommend that you keep your present Windows OS. Application software developers and publishers are working to upgrade most packages, but we all know that it’s a complex endeavor.

If you need to reinstall Windows 7 for any reason, it’s still a pain, but Microsoft has released an update to cover all the updates as a one-time deal. That will ease the pain somewhat, but the longer you wait – assuming you have a choice about when to do it – the more updates you’ll need to install manually going forward.

If you have any questions at all about Windows 10 and any other version of the OS, please contact us as soon as possible by phone – 973-433-6676 – or email. We can answer your questions or schedule any work that needs to be done to keep your system running smoothly and safely.

Two Essentials to Take Care of Business

Backing up your data files and keeping them from prying electronic eyes are essential. We have the tools and tips you need to take care of business at the office and at home. Here are some things to keep in mind.

The first tip is: Backup your data offsite. We never like to consider the “unthinkable,” but bad things do happen. A story from a recent sales call, a non-profit organization, drives home the point.

Non-profits can get a lot of software free or at a greatly discounted price. So, our client wondered why they needed to spend money to back up software on the cloud. As we were talking, the client mentioned that they had considered buying the house across the street from their office and converting it into their own space. They didn’t do it, and at some time after they made their decision, that house burned down.

We never talked about the cause of the fire. If the house was old, some failure of its electrical wiring, for example, could have played a role, and all of our client’s “free” stuff would have been gone. The cost of replacing and reinstalling all of their hardware and software – especially when you add the value of their time and the cost of lost service to their clients – would have been huge.

We’re happy this is a “could-have-happened” story, and we can’t emphasize backing up data offsite enough, but we have a tool to keep your data safe.

Our managed backup program includes automatic backup to the cloud through local data centers and daily monitoring. It is far less costly than post-disaster recovery and much more reliable than putting all of your data and pictures on an external drive that can fail or be lost in a fire or flood. It’s a proactive form of insurance.

Our second tip is: Never sacrifice protection for performance. In today’s hack-happy world, you can’t protect your data and yourself too much, but you must understand one thing: Any system can be hacked by any hacker willing to spend the time and effort to do it.

Just as you need doors and windows to enjoy the world outside of your home, you need pathways from your computer to the Internet. And, just as you have locks on your windows and doors to keep out most bad people and just as you take safe routes on trips, you need to use firewalls and passwords to lock your computer and data access, and you need antivirus software, malware protection and common sense to travel safely on the Internet.

At a recent security seminar, a presenter pointed out that people are agreeing to take on more bandwidth from providers for a free or a small fee. (You know our feelings about free stuff.) You can face problems if your firewall or Wi-Fi devices can’t handle the increased performance, and that can leave your security vulnerable.

We get questions from time to time, for example about the safety of storing data on Dropbox. Our question back to that is: Who hasn’t been hacked? Yes, Dropbox is as safe as you can make it as long as you and Dropbox take all the precautions and safeguards you can.

So, in this day and age of hyperactive hackers, how are you protecting yourself? Are you reading emails carefully before clicking on any links or attachments? Are you careful about signing up for online offers that are almost too good to be true? What kind of antivirus are you using?

We’ll address that last question. We have our partners, but no matter whose system you use, make sure they give you regular updates and act with blinding speed to fix a problem as soon as it’s discovered. Subscription services generally offer you better protection and faster fixes, and they are more likely to automatically update your virus and malware definitions.

If you accidentally click on a site or open an attachment, our recommendation is to push the power button on your computer or device IMMEDIATELY. This will stop any activity right away, and hopefully limit any damage. Then, call us without delay to find and fix any problems.

We can help you with all of your backup and antivirus needs, including installation of valid software and setting up automated functions. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your needs and put a solution into action.

Windows 10 to Arrive July 29

The date we’ve been waiting for is out there. Microsoft will make Windows 10 available for laptops, desktops and Windows tablets July 29, and it can’t come a day too soon as far as we’re concerned. Yes, it will be free – if you download within a year of its release. Don’t wait. Here’s why you should migrate to Windows 10 ASAP.

Freebie – Well, it’s a freebie for life if you install it within a year. You know our feelings about freebies: they always come with strings attached. The “free” upgrade is for customers running Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 running Home, Home Premium and Pro versions. And while it will be free for life, early reports indicate that not all the features will be available July 29. Neither will Edge, the new browser that replaces Internet Explorer, nor Windows phone be available. If you have a really old version of Windows, such as Vista, XP or even RT, you’ll have to pony up the money. Speculation is up to $199 for Windows 10 Pro. Enterprise users will be charged for an on-going service, and that’s where Windows will ultimately head with everyone. As we’ve discussed before, software as a service with automatic updates is a good thing.

Easy Transition – Unlike most migrations to a new operating system, you’ll be able to retain all of your data, drivers and settings if you are using Windows 7 or 8. Microsoft used the analogy of the egg and the yolk, calling your data, drivers and settings the egg and your operating system the yolk. The egg stays while the yolk changes. Let’s hope it’s more like “eggs easy over” and nothing gets scrambled. Once you make the transition, you’ll have 30 days to get used to everything and decide if you want to keep it. We fully expect you’ll make that decision pretty quickly. If you find you don’t like Windows 10, you can revert back to your older operating system with a simple click. To further ease your mind, Microsoft will continue to support Windows 7 until Jan. 14, 2020 – almost five years from now – and support Windows 8 until Jan. 10, 2023.

Return of the Start Button – The Start Button is back, and that might be reason enough by itself to migrate from Windows 8 or 8.1. The big advantage for many users is that it will restore a well-known way to navigate through various application programs. However, it will retain some of the visual cues from Windows 8, and those will be resizable to help you find and launch your key apps quickly and easily. Along with the Start Button, there are also reminders when you install new apps and an alphabetical grid when you click on a heading letter.

New Browser – The Edge will replace Internet Explorer. Names aside, the new browser will load pages faster and display some useful information, such as weather forecasts, in a pop-up menu below the toolbar. Edge will also feature a predictive search engine, which could come in especially handy on a mobile device if you’re looking for a restaurant or a store. This could also be a good salvo against Google for getting more search (and advertising) traffic.

Cortana – This is Microsoft’s personal digital assistant. It will differ from Siri or Google Now by giving you the ability to conduct a single search across your hard drive, as well as the cloud and the web, bundling the results into a single pop-up menu.

Apps – We talked about a photo-editing app in our initial evaluation of an earlier version (build, as we say in the tech biz) of Windows 10, and you should find a lot to like with various apps. The new Photos app will scan your devices and OneDrive account for photos, arrange them into a giant collection and automatically enhance them, such as fixing red-eye. Microsoft will use a unified code for its apps that should work across desktops, tablets and smartphones. A new code base makes it easier for iPhone and Android developers to make their apps work with Windows.

With more than six weeks until Windows 10’s release, you have plenty of time to prepare for the migration. Windows 7 users must be running Service Pack 1 to enable the update, and Windows 8 users must have upgraded to the latest version of Windows 8.1. Your computer should have these minimum system requirements:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster processor or SoC
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) for a 32-bit version, or 2GB for 64-bit
  • Hard disk space: 16GB for a 32-bit OS; 20GB for 64-bit OS
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 1024×600

You’ll also need to enable your Windows 10 reservation. Look for the tiny Windows icon down in the right corner of your taskbar, and click it to launch the Windows 10 reservation app. However, even if your PC seemingly meets those specifications, it might not be upgraded. Use the “check my PC” function within the reservation app.

If you are cleared for takeoff, the process could take 20 minutes to 3 hours, depending on your computer’s age and networking setup – among other things. It goes without saying that even though the upgrade is expected to be a proverbial “piece of cake,” you should have all of your important files backed up before you start the process.

We can help you make sure your computers are ready for the Windows 10 upgrade. If your computers don’t qualify for the upgrade, we can help you purchase and install the software. If you are an enterprise user, we can help you migrate to the new Windows 10 service. Call us – 973-433-6646 – or email us with any questions you may have about making Windows 10 work for you.


Free Software Has a Price Tag

We love free software, and we use a lot of it. Programs like Adobe Reader, Java, media players and browsers come immediately to mind as indispensable tools. But they can get pretty costly pretty quickly, unless you look before you click.

It’s really easy to download free software with strings attached – especially from Google. Here’s a typical scenario:

  • You want to download the Google Chrome browser. It’s free.
  • You type Google Chrome into the search box – using Google.
  • What do you see first? You see an ad for a free download, but who is offering it?

Here’s a hint: It’s not Google. We strongly urge you NOT to find out the answer to this. It’s not because we want to single out this particular third-party program provider. Rather, we want to suggest what may be behind a provider’s free offer.

That third party might be collecting data about you to sell to its customers who have an interest in selling you something. They could be putting cookies on your computer to track where you browse and then send you ads and spam. That could be an annoyance and an invasion of your privacy, even though you likely agreed to accept those cookies without even realizing it.

At worst, you could be downloading a Trojan horse that could put some serious malware and/or spyware on your computer. It could also compromise your address book and get to any financial information or passwords stored on your computer. We guarantee you’ll get some sort of infection on your machine.

Some of those “free” offers also offer help with the application or with some aspect of your computer’s operation. Here are two more guarantees: They’re not going to help you, and you’ll have to go through a long, aggravating process to get rid of their “help.”

We don’t think of these consequences often enough. We tend to download free software when we need it to continue something we started. You might need Adobe Reader to open a PDF file. You might need RealPlayer to watch a video a friend just sent you. You might need Java to fill out a form. You might need to update Chrome – or Firefox or Internet Explorer – to access information on a website.

The temptation is to simply click on the first link we see because it’s convenient and because we’re rushing or trying to do two things at once. Our advice: Slow down. Look before you click, even if it’s the software publisher.

Yes, the publisher can create problems, too. Many have marketing partners, and their products are part of the free download. You need to look carefully to remove accepting those partners before you click to activate the download. Yes, you can get rid of those partners and all the baggage they load onto your browser and computer, but it’s a pain in the neck. It’s one of the biggest complaints we get.

The solution, of course, is to look before you click. There will always be strings attached to “free” offers, but you can keep them from tying up computing resources or even wreaking havoc on your computer by taking that little bit of extra time. Go to the publisher of that program you want and get it directly. Look closely at everything that site offers and make sure you agree that you want whatever you download.

If you have any questions or need help getting rid of unwanted software, please contact us (973-433-6676 or [email protected]. We won’t say we told you so. We’ll just remind you to look before you click.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.

Freebies for Non-Profits; Savings for Others

Non-profits can keep their shoestrings from fraying by taking advantage of free software offerings from a number of publishers. Even for-profit businesses can realize savings. That can be especially helpful for small and home-based businesses that operate on shoestring budgets or have little margin for extra expenses.

For legitimate, duly registered non-profits, numerous software publishers and web-based services providers offer free programs. They can cover email, application software and web-based (cloud-based) file storage and collaboration tools.

We’ve worked with two non-profit clients to help them save $2,600 and $500 per year, respectively, in software and service costs. We helped them achieve their savings by looking at the availability of free software and services from current providers or finding alternatives they could use free of charge. While the savings may not seem like a lot of money, they do free up dollars to spend on fulfilling their missions.

For one of our non-profits, GreenVision Inc., which provides jobs and learning experiences for students and adults with developmental disabilities, we could have saved them an immediate $150 per year had they been a for-profit business. That’s because one of their providers was charging them for features they didn’t use.

Paying for products or services that are neither used nor needed is one of the biggest cost drains for many small and home-based businesses. The problem can initiate when buying and setting up software or services. If you’re not sure whether you need a feature or capability, you may take it as part of the purchase price or ongoing subscription charges.

In some cases, you may be able reduce the number of licenses you need because not everyone in your company needs access to a specific web-based service. In other cases, you may be able to save money by using a subscription service that provides discounts for multiple users within the same company.

Whether you are a non-profit organization or for-profit business, we can help you sort through all of your options to find the software and services that meet your needs – and can be provided to you free or for a reduced cost. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to learn how you can eliminate or reduce your software and web-based service costs.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.