Making Email Work Best in a Mobile World

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, March 7, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

Email used to be simple. Connect, access your email and disconnect. However as more of my clients access email between their PC, and newly purchased smartphones and tablets, they are discovering that the email access methods that worked well for their single PC or Mac are no longer adequate. What do we need to do to adjust?

Let’s start with a little history of email access.


The “Dial-up” Days
For many users in the 80’s and early 90’s, “connect time” meant either inconveniently tying up a phone line or expensive per-minute charges. So, Email servers used a “store and forward approach” to make connection time more efficient.

You would load an email application to retrieve email and store it locally on your computer. Any replies or new communication would also be stored locally and then passed to the email server then the next dial-up connection was made.

The process was pretty efficient with an online connection lasting only the period of time necessary to retrieve new messages from the server and send your outgoing messages.

This process is not unlike how “snail mail” is delivered from or sent to your local post office. Given that, it’s not surprising that this method become known as the Post Office Protocol (POP). Technically, POP only handles received email. To send email, we use another protocol, SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), a topic for another time.

The latest version, POP3, is a very simple retrieval method that downloads your mail, deleting it from the server. Virtually all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and major email services like Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail/Outlook.com support POP email access.

The downside of POP today is that it is designed for a single computer to collect your email. A Harris/Teamview study in 2011 found that 63% of people surveyed “use at least two computing devices” a week. The chance of losing mail between two computing devices is irritatingly high.

While POP lets you leave a copy of email messages on the server for another device to collect, that lays the burden on you to manage a lot of duplicate mail.

Always Connected and On the Web

“Webmail” eliminated local storage of email and allowed multiple computers to access messages through their web browsers. Hotmail’s and Gmail’s email web sites became a major draw for users, competing for awhile on how much web storage of email they offered.

Today, Outlook.com offers 5 gigabytes (GB) of storage initially but provides for unlimited expansion. Gmail combines email storage with Google+ Photo on the 15 GB offered free through their Google Drive cloud service.

The popularity of webmail as a service has lead ISPs to offer it for their own email accounts. Unfortunately, using webmail requires you to stay online all the time, something not be possible on wireless-only tablets between Wi-Fi hotspots. Smartphones can still stay connected through cellular data plans, it can be an expensive proposition for plans with limits on data usage,. Also, webmail sites are challenged by the need to accommodate a wide range of screen sizes…and users are often challenged by the results!

The Online/Offline Mobile Experience

Today’s email access needs the flexibility of being offline periodically and still be able view email, while creating new mail that can sent while online or held for the next online opportunity. It also needs to accommodate different screen sizes and be able to synchronize changes with the email server that other devices can see emails previously read/written. The most common solution is to reach back into the past and use IMAP.

IMAP – Internet Message Access Protocol has been around nearly as long as POP but uses a model that duplicates the email found on the server and then synchronizes any additions or changes made. Since IMAP or its latest version, IMAP4, is just a protocol, you need a IMAP-aware email program installed to handle your local mail management. Fortunately, there are many free or low-cost programs to handle this task on virtually any desktop or mobile device.

While IMAP is well-supported by email service like Outlook.com, Yahoo, and Gmail, it is less common among Internet service providers. Earthlink and Frontier don’t provide support. Through Comcast doesn’t promote it, they do have a sign-up site to convert your account to IMAP.

Syncing with EAS

Microsoft Exchange and Outlook.com email users have another email alternative, EAS. Exchange Account Service is the protocol originally designed for mobile devices but is now also being used in desktop.

EAS allows these users to not only synchronize email but also calendar and contact information. Users of Office Outlook may not know the name of the protocol but they may be familiar with the “Outlook Connector. ” The Connector uses EAS to connect with the Microsoft email addresses like @hotmail.com.

Google used to also directly support their Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts through their EAS-based Google Sync service. That changed last year when they restricted usage to Google Apps for Business, Government, and Education customers.

Windows 8 and 8.1 shipped with the Mail, Calendar and People apps that make use of EAS to connect Microsoft domain users. If you have an outlook.com, msn.com, hotmail.com or live.com user account, it is automatically used as a Microsoft Account in Windows, connecting you not only to mail, contacts, and calendar items but backup your account settings, and other information.

Mix and Match Your Email Options

What you choose to use with your PCs, Macs and mobile devices can be pretty individual, especially for the major email services. For example, you might use IMAP in the Mac’s Mail program to access Google Gmail. For your iPad, you can choose either the built-in Mail program or the official Gmail app in the in App Store.

The mix ultimately depends on your email provider and the email access they support, the devices you intend to use, and the email applications you prefer to use.The nice thing is that once you make set up these choices, email across your computing devices can work remarkably well…and accessing your electronic can become “simple” again.

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When Text Size Varies and Defaults Don’t Apply

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, March 1, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

A couple of weeks ago, I started talking about how to make text and objects on your screens more visible and usable. It’s a step in my personal campaign to have technology work to our benefit instead of us having to accommodate small screens, tiny pointers, and hard-to-read text. The basic changes we covered help in many cases, but not all situations. While application developers are encouraged to accommodate changes in font size and other options in their programs, it has taken many years for this approach to become standard practice.

Applications Which Make Up Their Own Rules
iTunes, for example, is notable for not following the font sizes you chose in Windows or on the Mac. While going its own way gives iTunes a unique look, it can also challenge those trying to see its song lists and sidebar. Those items shown in their default size can be challenging on a high-resolution screen.

iTunes 11 provides a minimal solution to this problem. For the Mac you can go to Preferences under the iTunes Menu. On the PC, it is either the Edit Menu in the application or the app’s general menu (). Once in Preferences, you can go to the General tab and click the check box to “Use large text for list views.”

When in Doubt, Just Magnify Everything!

If that adjustment isn’t enough in iTunes or the application you are using doesn’t provide any font size adjustment, there is a still a “fall-back” option. You can use the magnification feature in the operating system to magnify the display.

For Apple Mac this is called “Zoom” that can be turned on in Accessibility settings In System Preferences. Microsoft chose to make its “Magnifier” a separate program in Windows that can be launched through an icon or keyboard shortcut. Both increase and decrease the screen magnification by using keyboard combinations.

Apple’s tablets and smartphones also have Zoom capability as well as their competitors, Android, and Windows Phone.

With the exception of Windows Magnifier, these magnification tools first need to be switched on in their respective Accessibility or “Ease of Access” settings before zooming controls will work.

Expanding Your Web Browsing Experience

While complete screen magnification can relieve most screen “squinting,” it isn’t always the best viewing experience. An expanded view means that you have to move around to see everything, especially on busy web pages to find information or click links.

Fortunately, most web browsers provide ways to magnify and reflow page text and images. This is a much nicer way to display web pages, especially pages.

On the PC side, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome, and Mozilla’s Firefox web browsers all use Ctrl+Plus (∪) and Ctrl+Minus (‒) to expand or contract text on a web page. If you prefer to use the mouse’s wheel, you can perform the same actions while holding down the Ctrl key and moving the wheel back and forth. Touch systems with IE and Chrome can also use two fingers stretching apart to expand or pinching together to contract.

For Safari on the Mac, it’s a similar keyboard combination for expanding/contracting, Cmd+Plus and Cmd+Minus. In the more touch-oriented iPhone/iPhone works, the stretch/pinch technique works fine in Safari.

Fortunately, browsers on most other mobile devices running on Android and Windows Phone also use stretching and pinching to enlarge or reduce text size on web pages. It’s nice to see this level of conformity across web browsers.   Now we just have to get other application makers to follow suit.

Playing with Your Sizing Options

Do you have applications with hard-to-read text or images?  If the techniques I laid out in my last article on this topic don’t improve the situation, check the application’s preferences or display options for ways to control the size of these items. Failing that, you can try these tips to improve your experience and reduce the discomfort of accommodating your technology.


“We’ve noticed you have a virus on your computer…”

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, February 22, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

This week I had intended to follow up with part 2 of my exploration of how to make your computer adjust better to your needs. However, as they say in the news media: We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for this important announcement:

IF YOU RECEIVE THE ABOVE MESSAGE UNSOLICATED FROM SOMEONE CLAIMING TO BE FROM MICROSOFT

 

HANG UP THE PHONE.

Seriously, hang up! They will be persistent and patient. They have been doing this for years. You will need to steel your nerves, abandon your usual phone etiquette and hang up without comment.

They were talking to my client a week ago when I showed up for our regular appointment. Relieved, she said to the caller, “You can explain all this to my computer specialist.”  They hung up the phone before I said “hello.”

 

The Sordid Truth
Have you guessed by now? She wasn’t called by anyone from Microsoft. That is because Microsoft never calls people out of blue to tell them they have an infected system.

It is and has been a scam going around since at least 2009. Microsoft does not send unsolicited emails either. What confused my client especially was this email:

From: Microsoft Corporation

Sent: Fri, Feb 14, 2014

To:

Subject: Microsoft Corporation

This is to let you know that your computer has been sending us some error notifications as its been filled with a lot of junk programs which are malfunctioning with your computer from DELL and it may crash your system at any point of time.

Hence, you got a call from one of our representative.

Thank You.

Regards,

MicrosoftCorporation.

I haven’t seen this wrinkle before. Normally these kinds of calls are more random. However this email is not from an official Microsoft support email address, contains grammatical errors and assumes that Microsoft’s error collection service (Windows Error Reporting) collects information that can be used to identify individual users.

 

How the Scam Works
The method is consistent. You are informed that Microsoft has received information that your system is infested with viruses or problematic software and the caller, identified as a support person from the Windows Technical Department Support Group / Microsoft Support / Windows Service Center or other appropriate-sounding name has been asked to help you.

Their actual goal is to collect more information from you, either by having you download remote access software so they can get into your computer or by having you share account or credit card information that they can use. If you stay on the phone with them but appear resistant, they will claim that “unless something is done soon, your computer will crash.”

Depending on the caller, they can become quite argumentative. During one of my calls, (I have had three), I explained that I used to work for Microsoft and knew they were a scam … and they still argued. As long as they have you on the phone, logic must be that you can be worn into submission.

We must getting a lot of these calls right now because A.G. Schneiderman, New York’s Attorney General, issued an consumer alert earlier in the week warning New Yorkers about the scam.

So Want Can You Do?
First, learn about this problem so when you receive the call, you can recognize the scam. Microsoft has information on this kind of scam and other common scams that use its name.

Second, know your computer and its current health so you won’t be vulnerable to this scam. Besides your regular anti-virus software, run a second malware scanner monthly or quarterly that uses a different engine and virus database to get a second opinion. Malwarebyes Free Edition, Kaspersky Security Scan and Trend Micro’s HouseCall are excellent free scanners for this purpose.

Third, spread the word about this problem to your friends and family. The chances of someone you know having this experience is high. Besides my client, two other immediate members of my family have had these calls.

Explain that if the scammer has gained access to the system, they should uninstall any remote software on the system added, run complete malware scans (See Step Two), and change any system passwords as well as passwords to financial or critical websites to avoid potential identity theft (more information). They can also file complaints with the FTC, and your state attorney general (WA state).

Fourth … when your turn comes and the “Microsoft” tech person calls for you … hang up!