Technology I'm Thankful For

One of the great things about Thanksgiving -- besides the food, of course -- is that it encourages us to sit back and be grateful for what we have, instead of coming up with lists of things we don't have but want (that comes next on the calendar for most of us). And as I've been cultivating my attitude of gratitude this week, I realize that some of my joy -- or at least enjoyment -- in life comes from various forms of technology. OK, if not enjoyment, drudgery reduction for sure. And I'm grateful for that, too.

The basics

World Wide Web. "How did you do your homework before Google?" a friend's pre-teen asked me, truly puzzled at the thought.

But even those of us old enough to remember having to dial a phone number when we wanted a weather forecast on demand or drive to a library to look up corporate financial information can't imagine going back to the pre-Web world.

We've now got orders of magnitude more info than the best bricks-and-mortar library could offer -- updated constantly -- forever at our finger tips. Combined with the power of community, it's an awesome resource that previous generations couldn't imagine.

Yes, it can be overwhelming at times, and yes, not all the information out there is good. But develop the 21st-century research skills of knowing where to look and whom to trust, and it's so much easier to be well-informed and find answers to questions and solutions to problems.

Robust processors, cheap storage. Speaking of "old enough to remember," the newsroom at my first job was powered by an ancient VAX PDP with 40 Mbytes allocated for data storage. We were each supposed to keep a maximum of 10 files in our account at any one time or the drive would fill up. Now I've got more than half a petabyte hanging off my home network and a phone that's got more processing power than powered lunar landings. I can do everything from edit video to keep a tagged database of all my digital photos going back 15 years, all on my desktop.

Open source. Whether it's plug-ins for my open-source browser, the cool jQuery JavaScript library that makes developing interactive Web pages so much easier, or using the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) to develop a personal site, I can't imagine either coding or consuming without these free, community-created applications. I'm especially grateful to all those talented developers who donate their time to create projects the rest of us can enjoy.

Cloud apps

Google applications and services. I know, I know, Google's getting plenty in return for all the free stuff they give us. Such as priceless intelligence on Web behavior in general and a fair amount of specific data on individual activities as well. Still, I appreciate using Google Docs to back up or share my work; Maps and Fusion Tables to find places, get directions or create interactive apps such as where H-1B visa holders are working; and Translate when I come across a Web page (or Facebook posting) that's not in English.

Even though I won't use Gmail for personal messages -- I don't need them crawling through my private mail looking to ad-match -- I appreciate my account to collect and sort through the e-mail newsletters I regularly receive.

And, if I wasn't a Photoshop Elements devotee, Google's free Picasa photo software would likely be something else I'd likely enjoy.

Evernote. If you surf the Web, chances are good you suffer from information overload. It's no longer practical for me to bookmark everything I think might be useful someday; the bookmark list gets out of control, and before long I no longer remember what's where or why I saved most things. Not to mention the problem of encountering items on multiple systems and multiple browsers.

Sure there are solutions to synchronize bookmarks and keep them orderly, but Evernote makes so much more sense. Clip to your account, add some tags, and you've got full text stored, not just a bookmark and notes. So, it's a cinch for me to find that site with helpful suggestions on CSS tricks or SQL how-to's.

Database builders. I'm a data geek, and I love working on data-drive journalism projects such as that H-1B analysis. But as much as I'd like to create these apps from scratch, I understand that the tech folks who run our enterprise-level corporate site -- one that serves an IT audience, I might add -- aren't necessarily comfortable with the idea of a coding enthusiast not formally schooled in things like secure programming and scalable architecture adding software to the site.

Enter database builders in the cloud. I've used Zoho Creator for years, which has allowed me to build internal tools such as a story tracker tool with customized alerts as well as some interactive tools on Computerworld.com. While I can't do everything I'd like with Creator, the drag-and-drop interface saves time building apps and its Deluge scripting language offers a fair amount of functionality even if it's not exactly Perl or PHP. The plus side? It's easy to embed in a Web page, and security/scalability are someone else's concern.

Recently again on my radar is Caspio Bridge, another cloud-based database builder that I'd given up on a couple of years ago after determining the interface was too clunky and the monthly fee too costly for the relatively little work I was doing there. I gave it another try last week and found that the Caspio interface improved. It appears to work well for things like posting search forms and embedding the results on my Web site; the available training and documentation is more robust.

I'm happy to have both right now to use each for what each does best on my projects.

Bonus non-cloud database tools I'm thankful for: MySQL is an obvious one; but also for the desktop: FileMaker Pro, which I find a lot more pleasant to use than Excel.

Social Networking

Facebook is definitely a mixed blessing, depending on a) how many people from your past (or present) connect up with you that you didn't really need to hear from, b) how skilled you are at blocking annoying posts without alienating the authors and c) how much you know about Facebook privacy. I do know more about some people's games and politics than I really ever needed or wanted to. But I'm also happy to feel more a part of peoples' lives whom I care about that are far away than I ever was before. Plus I re-connected with a friend from childhood, arranging an in-person meeting for the first time in 20+ years.

Twitter is less about keeping in touch with a network of people I actually know and more about discovering people I don't know who share my interests and have extremely useful things to say. I've found a lot of interesting articles and ideas from folks I've followed, and hope those who follow me at @sharon000 feel the same.

StumbleUpon. This one is just plain fun. After setting up my account and recording interests ranging from work-related to hobbies, I've really enjoyed seeing new Web sites come up with useful or interesting information about subjects I like.

Gadgets

Digital cameras. Most still aren't as good as film for everything -- shooting sunsets, capturing some vivid reds -- but for the vast majority of needs, today's generation of digicams give impressive image quality in an instant. It's not only the patience-free portion of my personality that appreciates not having to develop film (or wait for a Polaroid); digital also makes it much easier to share photos with family and friends.

Smart phones. I'll admit this one isn't always a net positive in life. Sometimes it's hard to be fully in the present moment with the pull of that addictive device; and it's downright annoying when you're talking or dining with someone and they whip out the device to look at a text or e-mail. But it's nice to be able to keep track of sporting events while away from a TV or look up reviews of nearby restaurants while out and about.

Plus, if the person next to you on the bus has a smartphone instead of simpler cell phone, odds are higher they'll be looking at the screen instead of yelling into the mike.

E-readers. I don't actually have one of these yet, although a Kindle is coming for the holidays. But I'm already grateful at the thought of future vacations without having to haul around a bunch of guidebooks.

I'd be interested to find out what technology you're thankful for in the comments below, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter

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