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Better Living through Technology

If you follow me on the Windows Weekly podcast, you know that I made a resolution, coincidentally at the New Year this year, to lose weight in 2011. Since then, I've dropped 24 pounds and have adopted a healthy and natural low-carb diet, and plan to continue losing weight for the rest of the year if possible. And while this doesn't seem like a regular topic for the SuperSite for Windows, let alone a general purpose tech site, it does touch on an interesting tech trend that impacts us all.

Put simply, personal technology first gained traction because of work: Individuals would demand an Apple II or other early personal computer in order to run Visi-Calc or Lotus 123, and in the early days, they were willing to bring in their own machines if that's what it took. In the subsequent couple of decades, business drove technology, and people adopted PCs at home simply because that's what they used at work or, in the case of students, it was what they expected to use at work.

The past few years, especially, have been different. Microsoft calls it the "consumerization of IT," but the broader trend is that it is consumers, not businesses, that are now determining what technology is important. And as these consumers embrace entertaining hardware like the iPhone and iPad, and simple and free web services like those from Google and Facebook, they are also turning towards technology to solve life's other problems.

And, as a consumer, I've taken these same steps. But even for someone as immersed in technology as me, some of what I'm seeing lately, frankly, is eye-opening. And while this is by no means a comprehensive look at what's out there, I've stumbled into three particular incidents lately that have made really rethink how I go about doing things.

Lose weight, get healthy

Five years ago, Apple announced an add-on product for its iPods called Nike+. If you're not familiar, that original version was a hardware doo-dad you could insert into specially designed Nike running shoes, and it could be connected to the PC, via USB, and transmit information about your workouts. Over time, this technology was improved, and I must not have been paying attention because one of the enhancements that Apple made to its late 2008 iPod lineup was the ability to record cardio workouts to the MP3 player without any other doohickey. (Various Nike+ hardware devices still exist.) This feature, called Nike+iPod, exists in today's iPods too, of course. And I ran into it this week, for the first time, at the gym.

I should have been better prepared. But the first time I saw the new cardio machines (I happen to prefer elliptical trainers, but I believe this is available on a variety of machines), I was struck by the number of ways in which I could use an iPod. I could just listen to my iPod using my headphones, as before. I could plug it into the elliptical trainer via an included iPod cable. Or, if I had my own USB cable, I could use that. (This latter method provides some compatibility with non-iPod devices, but only for music playback.)

Not understanding that there was any iPod connectivity worth worrying about, Monday's run occurred the old fashioned way. But when I went back on Tuesday, curiosity got the better of me, so I connected the iPod to the iPod connector on the elliptical trainer to see what was up. It asked me if I wanted to record my workout to the device. Hm.

Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I used this interface. It recorded each workout to the device, and while working out, I was able to control music playback via the elliptical trainer's touch screen. (Nice.) Each time I returned home, I synced my iPod with iTunes normally, but now it sends my results to Nike's Nike+ web site, for free.

The Nike+ web site.


From this simple web interface, you can track your progress, dive into individual workouts, compare your runs, set goals, challenge friends, and so on. It's pretty cool, but for me the big point is that the cool technology here makes me want to keep using it.

On a side note, I'd also point out that while this functionality would only cause a small percentage of people to buy an iPod, for the rest of the world, this free functionality is just one of dozens of differentiators that make the iPod better than any other MP3 player. It's really neat, and it's just something I've ignored until this week.

Learn a foreign language

Since my wife and I returned to France in 2005 for the first time in a long time, we've been back repeatedly and I harbor some desire to learn the language. French is tough, almost as bad as English when it comes to special cases and a long list of things that don't make any logical sense so you simply have to master how it works. And if you don't stay with it--practicing and learning regularly, immersing yourself--it's just never going to happen.

There are various approaches to learning a foreign language, and I've tried them all. In Boston, we have the excellent French Cultural Center, which offers spring and fall French classes. I've taken two sessions, but that was years ago now, and I'm rusty. And I just don't have the time to devote to this, since it requires a commute into the city twice a week.

There's also the expensive, traditional software route. A few years ago, I purchased Rosetta Stone French Level 1, and I upgraded to the latest version pretty recently. This solution is actually pretty excellent, but at $180 to $480 for various language packages, it's not for everyone. Plus, you can only use this software on one PC, so if I install it on my desktop PC, I can't access it while I'm traveling. (On the flipside, Rosetta Stone does now offer an iPhone "companion app," but I haven't really tried that yet.)

Looking at less expensive options, there are various podcasts that are useful--and I do recommend one called Coffee Break French, for whatever that's worth--and if you have an iPhone or iPod, there are some decent French language apps and dictionaries. And I have use both of these tools, actually, especially the podcast. But more recently I've come across an exceptional and interesting web service called LiveMocha. And it's worth checking out.



LiveMocha bills itself as the world's largest online language learning community, and it has both free and paid courses for 35 different languages. On the face of things, what LiveMocha offers is similar to other language courses. But what sets it apart is that it provides a way for you to interact with native speakers of the language you're trying to learn. And this interaction takes various forms: These people can basically grade your work, but also converse with you, giving you the benefits of a class without the cost or commute.

So far, I've been working through the free, three unit French 101 course--I'm still a beginner--but over time I expect to move along to the other three levels and interact more with native French speakers through the service. (It's reciprocal as well; you can earn "mocha points" by grading others' English submissions.)

Expand your horizons

Say what you will about iTunes and the iTunes Store, but one of this service's features is perhaps the greatest secret in personal technology today. I'm referring of course to iTunes U, a podcast-like feature that provides audio and video-based courses from universities, colleges, and other educational institutions from around the world ... and does so for free. iTunes U is fantastic, and if you aren't aware of what's on offer or haven't looked in a while, load up iTunes and check it out. You're going to be impressed. (iTunes U is available as a top-level choice in iTunes Store from within the iTunes application, alongside Music, Movies, TV Shows, App Store, Podcasts, and Audiobooks.)

According to Apple, over 800 educational institutions participate in iTunes U, uploading their content  to the cloud for students and others to enjoy, and over half of these institutions--including Stanford, Yale, MIT, Oxford, and UC Berkeley--provide this content to the public too. (Universities can optionally lock down content for their students.)

Apple's iTunes U is an amazing resource.


The available content is amazing. Semester-long classes on the history of western civilization (Parkland College), basic Spanish (DePaul), ancient Greek history (Yale), and even developing iPhone apps (Stanford). Whatever your interests, there's something here for you, and in the same vein as the previous foreign language discussion, it's available to you without the cost and commute and time requirements of actually attending class.

I've accessed a variety of history lessons from iTunes U over the past few years and this week I downloaded Stanford's most recent Developing Apps for iOS course, in HD video, and with captions no less. This is high quality material, nicely presented.

Seriously, do check out iTunes U.

And if you've seen any other life-altering uses of personal technology, truly fun or useful stuff, please do let me know. Sometimes I feel that my hyper-focus on desktop, cloud, and mobile technologies is preventing me from seeing the forest for the trees, if you will. I bet there are other neat things out there I've missed.

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