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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Connecting Your Mobile Lifestyle

2/7/2014



If you’re like me, your smartphone has become far more than a tool for checking e-mail and keeping in touch with the family. It’s almost like my smartphone has become my controller, not for a video game but for the real life task of being more organized and productive.

A lot of this has to do with the amazing apps that are now available. When you can use your smartphone for everything from helping you prepare dinner to reading the night sky, we have moved far beyond the realm of the old PDA into a world of almost fantasy-like indulgence.

But apps aren’t the only things that are transforming our digital lives. Our ability to pair our smartphones and tablets and communicate with other devices and accessories is just as important, and represents the next frontier of the mobile revolution.

As I sit in my office and look around me, there are at least three other devices that are linked to my phone: a Bluetooth wireless headset, a Jawbone JAMBOX Bluetooth speaker, and a Jawbone UP activity tracker. Each device uses my smartphone as a hub to add convenience, increase productivity, or keep me entertained.

These connected devices have already been joined by security cameras and smart switches for the home; remote-controlled toys and augmented reality puzzles for the kids; and heart-rate monitors and ‘smart’ bathroom scales for the health-conscious. Each month, more and more connected accessories are introduced, adding to our options and abetting our increasingly mobile lifestyles.

That means you can now use your smartphone to check on your living room while you are away on vacation; or remotely turn up the thermostat when you know the kids are coming home early; or see how many steps you have taken as you strive to meet your fitness goals. All these tasks, that would have waited until later or would never have happened at all, are now as easy as picking up your smartphone.

So don’t waste another second. Use your smartphone to get connected and start enjoying the limitless benefits of a truly mobile lifestyle!



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“Leaky” apps serve up personal data but do we really care?

1/29/2014



This week’s revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, have been scooping up treasure troves of personal data from apps such as Angry Birds and Google Maps might sound some alarm bells with privacy advocates and government watchdogs but it is hardly going to change the habits of the average smartphone-obsessed, app-guzzling consumer. After all, we might be living in the age of Big Brother, but what would life be like without the ability to knock over those annoying little pigs?

This latest Internet security flap comes courtesy of yet more documents leaked by Edward Snowden, who, despite his exile in Russia, has clearly not lost his appetite for tweaking government noses on both sides of the Pond. According to the Guardian newspaper of London, smartphones users are only too happy to allow apps access to all sorts of private data, and the NSA and GCHQ are only too happy to intercept and collect this data as it’s transmitted back-and-forth on cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of these latest disclosures is that the documents in question are mostly 5 or 6 years old. If GCHQ was so happy with its spying abilities in 2008 that it declared that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system,” imagine how thrilled it must be today with millions more smartphone users and billions more dollars invested in refining its eavesdropping techniques.

Of course, if we’re talking mobile apps and privacy, then it’s a good bet that Facebook wouldn’t be out of the conversation for too long and Mr. Snowden didn’t disappoint there either. One slide from a May 2010 NSA presentation entitled “Golden Nugget!” listed the information that the agency could glean from just one uploaded photo. Depending on what data the user had supplied, it could include current location, age, gender, zip code, marital status, education level and number of children.

But what do these disclosures mean to the average consumer and do we really care? While a January poll for the Washington Post showed that 69 percent of US adults were concerned about how tech companies such as Google used and stored their information, very few consumers do anything about it. Early last year, Apple’s App Store served up its 50 billionth download and customers continue to download apps at the rate of 800 per second.

Google’s own app store, Google Play, is almost as successful and even lists all the permissions required before an app is downloaded. Some of these permissions specifically spell out the personal data that we are putting at risk when we download the app but it doesn’t appear to make a difference.

So while Mr. Snowden and various news outlets can grab the headlines and cause temporary embarrassment, our spymasters and elected leaders can just wait for this latest privacy concern to blow over. They know that the average consumer will take a game of Cut the Rope or Flappy Bird over personal security every day of the week!


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App Developers Face Hard Road to Prosperity

1/15/2014



If you’re thinking about giving up your day job to become an app developer, you might want to think again. A new report from research firm Gartner suggests that rather than providing a quick path to riches, developing apps is becoming an increasingly competitive business, with relatively few apps rising above the din to become anything close to a financial success.

There are now so many apps already available – over a million in both Apple’s iTunes store and the Google Play store – that it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed. Because of the sheer number of apps, potential customers are turning to friends and social networks to get recommendations, making it even harder for new arrivals to breakthrough.

Gartner predicts that by 2018, less than 0.01 percent of mobile apps will be considered a financial success. Further complicating the situation for would-be developers is the number of good apps that are available for free.

“The vast number of mobile apps may imply that mobile is a new revenue stream that will bring riches to many,” said Ken Dulaney, vice president at Gartner. “However, our analysis shows that most mobile applications are not generating profits and that many mobile apps are not designed to generate revenue, but rather are used to build brand recognition and product awareness or are just for fun. Application designers who do not recognize this may find profits elusive.”

There are now over 200 mobile application development platforms in existence or under construction, with millions of developers using these and other tools to generate thousands of apps each week. Plus, the number of good apps already available sets an increasingly high bar for the apps that follow.

Of paid applications, about 90 percent are downloaded less than 500 times a day, and the more successful an app, the more paid – and free – imitators it is going to attract.

Of course, many app developers don’t rely so much on download revenue but rather the in-app purchases that can be generated once an app is in regular use. But again, these apps are the exception rather than the rule.

Writing and developing apps has never been easier, which is why it has become so popular. But when an activity becomes this popular, maybe it’s time to start looking for something else!


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Want to improve those math scores? Start coding!

12/19/2013



There was a lot of hand-wringing earlier this month when the latest survey results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that U.S. students ranked below average in math among the world’s most developed countries. Twenty-nine nations outranked the U.S., including China, South Korea, Japan, Poland, Vietnam, Ireland and Latvia.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the PISA findings “a picture of educational stagnation” and the New York Times this week ran a full-page editorial blaming the U.S. performance on everything from poor teachers to inequality of school funding. The Times quoted a federal report that claimed wealthier school districts were spending twice as much per pupil than the lowest spending districts, leaving 40 percent of U.S. students in areas of “concentrated student poverty.”

Interestingly, the focus on the poor test scores overshadowed another math-related story which also appeared this week in the Boston Globe. The Globe reported that President Obama and more than a dozen celebrities from the sports and entertainment world are urging students to start writing computer code. It’s all part of a campaign to introduce computer science into schools and improve computer literacy.

Not only is computer science seen as a valuable addition to the school curriculum in its own right, but it’s also believed to have a beneficial impact on other core subjects, particularly math. In a recent study conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University, Utah middle schoolers were taught basic programming skills twice a week in after school programs. After just a few months, the researchers measured a significant improvement in math test scores. “We saw growth in certain math skills like functions and variables used in algebra,” said Geoff Wright, an associate professor in the technology engineering education program at BYU.

The push to teach programming skills is spearheaded by Code.org, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to bringing computer science classes to every K-12 school in the U.S. through its Hour of Code campaign. It is particularly concerned with increasing the representation of women and minorities in the field of computer science. Code.org is supported by Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, along with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Khan Academy and Teach For America.

Whatever the reasons behind the poor showing of U.S. students, it’s clear that maintaining the status quo is not an option. With almost every student in the U.S. carrying an electronic device in his or her pocket, perhaps the transition from using technology to creating it is not such a big leap. As President Obama says on a promotional video for Hour of Code: “Don’t just play on your phone, program it!”


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Safeguarding Your Online Reputation

12/6/2013



In a recent survey conducted by the job listing web site CareerBuilder.com, 37 percent of employers reported using social networks to screen candidates for open positions. Among the reasons given were “to see if the job seeker presents himself or herself professionally” (65 percent); “to see if the candidate would be a good fit for the company culture” (51 per cent); and “to learn more about the candidates qualifications” (45 percent).

The days where we could invent a completely different persona for ourselves online are gone. Instead, we now need to make sure that the online version of ourselves closely matches the real-life version, and that anyone looking for us online is going to like what they find.

My grandmother used to say that it takes a lifetime to build a good reputation but only seconds to destroy it, and nowhere is that more true than among the minefields of online social media. Whereas damage caused by offline mistakes can often be kept at a local level, online mistakes are just a YouTube video or Facebook picture away from reaching millions of people. Oftentimes we won’t even know we have made a mistake until a “friend” comments on an offending post.

So what can we do to help protect our online reputations? Is there some move we can make proactively or are we at the total mercy of anyone with time on their hands and a grudge?

Commentators have offered various strategies for managing your online reputation but most of the advice concentrates on four main areas. First, be your own monitoring service. Set up Google alerts, Facebook notifications, or any other kind of notice that will inform you when your name surfaces on a social network or anywhere else on the Internet. Even if you have set up several of these alerts, make sure you Google yourself regularly to see what else might be out there.

Second, take charge of your online presence. Instead of passively waiting for negative commentary to appear, flood the airwaves with a positive vibe. This could be through starting your own blog, regularly posting on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, or just making sure that there is enough recent chatter out there that everything else (including any negative comments) are pushed way down the search results.

Third, be consistent. If you have a good online reputation, then you want people to be able to find you. That means using a recognizable profile picture and making sure your qualifications and interests are consistently represented. It also means keeping your profile up-to-date, so people can learn about the latest you and not the person you were when you graduated from college.

Finally, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This variation on a well-known biblical theme is particularly important for the digital age. If you target someone on the Internet, it’s amazing how quickly the fire is returned!

Social media offers a wonderful opportunity for self-promotion, but only if it’s done the right way. With an eye for detail and constant vigilance, you can turn the Internet into one of your biggest assets.


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