Now you have to watch out for QR Codes

What are QR codes? They’re those funny little blotchy squares you see all over the place. They are actually web addresses that you can point your smartphone at, and it will take you there. Many ads in magazines and billboards have them. They’re cool, and they’re handy. But now, they’re also risky. Who would have thought? A recent article on Dark Reading (a website for security geeks like myself) has the info:

VPN’s–Now on smartphones too!

News flash. In my blog about VPN’s I didn’t mention connecting to the Wayne VPN with a mobile device, such as an iPad or Blackberry. Turns out you can. All you need to do is download a free app (there’s one for each of the major platforms—iOS, Android and Blackberry) called Junos Pulse. Installing it is quite transparent, and it works flawlessly. Instructions for each device can be downloaded from the Juniper/Junos Pulse support website.

Online in China and Japan–Some Observations about Computing, Mobile and Otherwise

During the month of July my wife and I spent several weeks traveling in China and Japan, attending a couple of academic conferences in Xi’an and Osaka, and sightseeing. I took a netbook (a tiny, less-than-full-featured laptop) and my Palm Pre. Here are some random thoughts on my experiences, what I saw around me, how the world is connected, and my experiences ‘phoning home’.

First, a few comments on what ‘equipment’ I took with me. Because of the strict, and somewhat complex Export Control policies that all American universities are subject to (see for more information) I decided not to take my ‘home’ laptop with me, but instead borrowed a stripped-down netbook that had only web-browsers and Microsoft Office installed on it. That way, there was no risk of ‘exporting’ something that ought not to be ‘left’ outside the country. In addition, I password-protected the netbook (using a long, complex password) so that, if the computer were to be stolen, it couldn’t be accessed without reformatting the hard drive.

I took my Pre primarily as a music player. It also has WiFi, which permitted me to do web-surfing and email, although only within range of a WiFi access point. As a phone, however, it was useless, because the CDMA (Sprint) system is not used in most of China or any of Japan. Since we were not visiting friends or making business appointments, we didn’t feel the need for a ‘real’ phone, although several of our colleagues at the conferences had simply rented them at the airport when they arrived–they are surprisingly cheap to rent.

Wireless connectivity in both China and Japan was more limited than I had expected. All hotels had ethernet jacks (although not all had cables—fortunately I had brought one with me). As is the case in North America, the cheaper the hotel, the more likely the internet connection was free—a weird fact I have repeatedly confirmed around the world.  I’m sure this was idiosyncratic to the hotel we stayed in in Xi’an, but we had a choice of a no-smoking room without internet access or a smoking room with. They assured us they had thoroughly cleaned the room, and, in fact, we found it to be just fine, and chose the occasional faint hint of smoke to be worth the online access.

You may have read that some websites are inaccessible in China, and we certainly found this to be true. CNN, Facebook, and Google were all unavailable. There is a Chinese competitor to Google search, called Baidu, and there are also a couple of Chinese equivalents to Facebook, and lots of folks we talked to used them.

There is a way around these restrictions, however, via the Wayne State VPN facility. I’ll write a separate blog about it in a couple of weeks, but it has a number of advantages. Primarily, it encrypts whatever you send out from your computer when you are connected to it, so anything you may write cannot be eavesdropped upon. It has other uses I’ll talk about later, but it’s just a safer way to surf and read email.

One of the things that struck me about both China and Japan was the vast use of smartphones and tablets. There are iPhones and Android devices everywhere (you can tell by the fact that folks are swiping the screens of their devices). Lots of people also have iPads and similar toys as well—clearly mobile devices are the wave of the future, not just in the US but around the world.

I had much less sense of the widespread use of ‘The Cloud’ (another topic I’ll be covering in the next few weeks), but it’s quite clear that the parts of  Japan and China that we visited (Shanghai, Xi’an, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo) are about as wired as any comparable city in the US.


Your office phone–it's so twentieth century!

How much do you use your office phone? Does anyone ever call you there? Do you call anyone from there? Do you have a cellphone? Do you need a distinctive Wayne State phone number?

These are questions Wayne State and other universities are starting to wrestle with as the landscape of telephone technology changes out from under us.

Like most large organizations, Wayne has a telephone system that operates over copper wire, sending analog signals that are routed via switching stations. Chances are the system in your home no longer works that way. You may have migrated your telephone service to VOIP (‘voice over IP’) where the telephone signal travels over the Internet, just like e-mail and web pages. If you have Comcast or AT&T phone service your home phone probably works this way now, and you probably didn’t notice much difference in voice quality (it probably is a little better with a digital connection).

C&IT, which is responsible for the phone system, has been throwing around the idea of switching to a VOIP system, at least in limited contexts. The advantage to VOIP phones is that they essentially work through a computer, so they can be configured to do much more interesting things than just ring. For example, VOIP systems come with an integrated voicemail facility. But the voicemail doesn’t just sit on a server somewhere. It can be configured to be turned into an e-mail message and sent to you as an attachment (usually a .wav file, for the technically inclined). Then you could check your e-mail, double-click on the attachment, and hear the message.

Another thing you could do would be to tell your phone account to forward any calls to your cellphone, or your home phone, or your Google phone number (if you have one–that’s another subject).

So, suppose we install such a system at Wayne. If you have a computer in your office you could get any messages as fast as e-mail can deliver them. Or you can have your calls routed to your cellphone and be able to pick up anywhere you happen to be. You could even configure the system in more fine-grained ways. You could have your ‘office’ number routed to your cellphone from 9-5, Monday to Friday, and routed to voicemail the rest of the time. Given all of this, do you still need a physical phone in your office? Currently you (or your chair, or your dean) pays a lot per month for a phone in your office, a phone which is silent almost all the time if it’s anything like the phone in my English office. So who needs it? What if you (or whoever’s responsible) were to pay a lot less for a ‘virtual phone’ like the one I described in the previous paragraph?