Friday, November 26, 2010

Anti-Virus Software

For a number of years, I have been a strong advocate of Kaspersky Anti-Virus software. A few years back it was the ultimate choice of many large corporations, and did well in the reviews.

Unfortunately a few major revisions later they have not managed to maintain the quality of their offering. With each update, the software has become much more resource hungry.

I work with a lot of customers who wish to preserve the life of their old PCs. These machines are running old versions of Windows (usually XP) with a moderate processor and limited amount of memory. Many were complaining that their machines were running too slow. The solution in most cases was to pause Kaspersky. The machine was significantly faster, but they were left extremely vulnerable to any viruses or malware.

So it is time to have a good look round at the alternatives. A news article caught my eye recently saying that a thorough and independent lab test had rated the free Microsoft offering above many of the traditional packages that were sold on a subscription basis.

Trying to search Google for advice about anti-virus software is a nightmare. All the top articles are either sponsored by an anti-virus company and hence are very biased, or you will come across illegitimate anti-virus software that actually infects your computer.

So who is this independent lab whose review I am basing my new recommendation on? NSS Labs. Their Consumer Anti-Malware Products: Group Test Report Q3 2010 is available free at this link.

They tested 11 leading products, two of which are free. AVG has been available for a number of years, but the Microsoft addition is relatively new. And I really like the look of the Microsoft product. It has above average scores for Malware blocking and Exploit blocking, and has the joint-best rating for performance. Add to this its free, and the convenience that it is updated through the normal windows update system and this has to be my new favourite.

I note that the report also compares this year's findings with the previous year. In 2009 Kaspersky was second in the rankings detecting 87.8% of malware against an average of 80.2% for the group. This year Kaspersky detected 71.3% against an average of 74.1%. For performance Microsoft is rated 8 times better.

The guidance in this year's report is that AVG and ESET are poor. F-Secure, McAfee and Trend Micro were recommended and the remaining 6 (including Microsoft) were rated neutral.

The main problem for my customers is the performance impact of the anti-virus software. Cost is also a large factor for them. The product I will recommend was not the top rated for malware detected, but it still does a respectable job in both categories.

To summarise the next time I need to renew or install anti-virus protection, I will be selecting Microsoft. Click here to visit the Microsoft Security Essentials website.


Monday, May 03, 2010

UK Financial Recovery and Election

Well the general election is this week, and its decision time about who to vote for....

As I have the right to vote I really strongly believe in using it. But I even more strongly cannot back any of the parties.

Rightly the economy is the biggest factor for the electorate at present. So where is that up to? My facebook friends will have seen my various tweets about this, that I ought to expand upon here.

I have my eyes and ears on one man for my economic advice. His name is David Blanchflower CBE who is a Professor of Economics. When I mention David below I mean Mr Blanchflower, not the tory leader. The reason I listen to him is he is the one voice that knew this recession was coming. He has a regular weekly column in New Statesman which I await each week with bated breath. He is also an economic adviser to the government, and sat on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee for a brief period, who he recently wrote have 'lost the plot'.

The recession and the UK economic recovery

So the UK is now out of the worst recession in decades by the skin of its teeth. A recession is commonly defined as a period of negative GDP growth for two consecutive quarters. GDP is the economic output of the country. Growth for the quarter just gone was provisionally 0.2%, and 0.4% the previous quarter. All the signs, such as consumer confidence, private business spending, money supply, the housing market and unemployment are all still unfavourable. For instance unemployment statistics show that the period each claimant is unemployed for is increasingly larger. Money supply to businesses and property buyers is still next to non-existent. The cheap 95% LTV (Ie 5% deposit) mortgage is consigned to the history books. A standard Buy-to-Let mortgage now requires a 40% deposit.

We are recovering from the recession, but this recovery is still at a clearly fragile stage. Any mistakes in economic policy today could end that recovery, and cause a double-dip recession. Avoiding a return to a recession should be of utmost priority. The only priority.

UK Government borrowing

Secondary to the above, but also important is the country's borrowing. UK borrowing is now approximately £167bn. This is a lot of money. An eye-watering amount. This will have to be brought under control and repaid. The Bank of England governor was recently quoted as saying in private that whoever has to make the cuts to repay it risk being out of power for a generation. Really tough cuts are coming and are unavoidable regardless who wins. Expect more stikes and large public unrest. The cuts needed have been summarised as equivalent to a 6p rise in income tax.

Any government has a tough balancing act between spending to prop up the economic growth and money supply, or making cuts to address the borrowing. As has been seen in Greece lately, unaffordable borrowing can be disastrous. If experts and investors feel a government cannot afford its level of borrowing, a country's official credit rating can be reduced. Greece was downgraded to junk status a couple of weeks ago.

So what if UK's rating is downgraded? We are currently enjoying the best possible credit rating. A downgrade would not be good. To consider the effects of a downgrade, my expert quotes yields on government bonds. UK bonds are currently trading about the same price as Italy. He notes that Italy's official credit rating is four 'notches' below ours. This he says is evidence that the bond markets have already priced a downgrading into their prices. So if a downgrade were to actually happen it would have a moderate effect on us. In summary, a return to recession should be a much larger concern than having our credit rating reduced by a notch or two.

The other effect of a country's finances being out of control is the sterling exchange rate. At the start of the storm about Greece a few months back, Sterling was still loosing ground against the Euro, which I saw as a very bad sign for Sterling. This again suggests that the level of our borrowing has already been priced into the markets, and a downgrade to our rating would not have a major effect. A weak sterling could even help stimulate demand for UK exports which become cheaper in real terms.

It is for these reasons David argues that securing growth is more important than repaying our debt at the present point in time.

Inflation and Deflation

The next issue is inflation. UK inflation has officially been 3% in February and 3.4% in March, well above the official target of 2%. However David believes these are a temporary blip due to energy prices, and the end to the 15% VAT holiday, and that inflation will drop back down to around zero very soon. The worst thing that could occur is know as deflation - negative inflation. This is bad because everyone will stop spending as officially goods will be cheaper in real terms if one delays spending. To try to avoid deflation UK interest rates are at a record low of 0.5%, and predictions say they will stay low for a while to come. Low interest rates help stimulate inflation, and vice-versa. Also a medium-term rise in inflation would not be a totally bad thing as it would make repaying the government borrowing easier, as the real cost of the debt would drop. As such, when inflation returns the government could allow it and increase their official target. I need to add that steady, and relatively low inflation is the ideal, and it was a real problem years back when it was 15%.

Again, securing growth will help raise inflation over the long term, and hopefully completely avoid deflation. Cuts too early will stifle demand, and consequently lower inflation.

So to summarise the above, the government borrowing is not an issue. Yes it will have to be paid for and reduced over the next five years. Yes we should have been saving money during the good times. But escaping the recession, getting the economy working properly again and protecting jobs should be the priority.

To summarise my summary, I support Labour's policy on handling the economic recovery. The tories plan of making cuts immediately with an emergency budget are very dangerous. Looking back through history, one will note that the great depression of the 1930's was caused by inappropriate government austerity measures during a fragile recovery. They caused a far worse recession.

Rise in National Insurance for businesses and employees, or rise in VAT

Labour are planning to raise £6bn by an increase in National Insurance. Tories have promised to scrap the increase. This money has to come from somewhere. Labour is already trying to raise billions by 'efficiency savings' and trying to find another £6bn is not realistic. This money will have to come from a rise in VAT instead. Or to put it another way if the money is not raised from businesses it will all be raised from you and I. On this subject I note many prominent economists (over 100) support the labour view, and many non-FTSE100 businesses (Ie no economic experts at all) support the tory policy.

Also at a time when government finances are this tight, I cannot see justification for such a huge increase in the inheritance tax threshold which Mr Cameron is proposing. Currently the limit is £325k and the tories want to triple this to £1,000k.

There can be absolutely no justification for such expensive tax cuts at the present time. Especially when arguing in the same breath for immediate and very serious spending cuts elsewhere based on the argument that it is a priority to pay back the borrowing today.

Other issues

Another issue for me is air travel. I'm not refering to the recent volcano in Iceland. Although this will possibly have an impact on our economy, I am refering to availability of flight slots. I am referring specifically to the extra runway at Heathrow, which Cameron opposes. We need more flights from more airports. International companies rely on them when choosing where to base their international offices, and when choosing where to host business meetings and conferences.

At present London is a very attractive proposal internationally, and we need to keep it that way! Please don't let all the environmentalists destroy this, on the basis of an unproven theory about climate change. No-one knows if it will happen, or what the effects of it would be with any certainty.

So three main reasons I can't vote tory:
  1. Handling of the present economic recovery.
  2. Scraping raise in National Insurance, and most likely having to raise VAT.
  3. Anti air travel policy.
However, there are a few strong reasons I could not vote Labour. I did say I agreed with their handling of the present economic recovery, and I also have to agree Gordon Brown did keep inflation under control as chancellor. But as any reader of some of my previous posts will know, I strongly dislike Gordon Brown. He has the worst record for raising back-door taxation. He can also be blamed for poorly preparing our finances for the recession. All world leaders seem to hate him, damaging the standing of our country with other world powers.

So for all that I strongly believe as I have the right to vote that I should use it, I even more strongly believe that I cannot vote for anybody.


Monday, February 08, 2010

Apple iPad

Well after months of hype and half rumours, Apple have now announced their entrance to the tablet computing and net book sector. The missing device from the world of computing is to be called the iPad. UK betting operator Paddy Power had iSlate as the most likely name so I got odds of 7/4 on the iPad name and turned a £2 flutter into £5.50!!

I do like the iPad. Unlike the original iPhone, the very first version appears to be reasonably priced and a comprehensive and complete piece of hardware. There were a number of anticipated features like a multi-tasking operating system that were not shown, but these can all be added via a basic software upgrade. In contrast the first iPhone did not support 3G mobile networks meaning no amount of software upgrades would allow fast mobile internet or photo messaging.

The question everyone will be asking is "Do I actually need a touchscreen device to hold in my hand and use to browse the internet?" Personally, I have no issue with sitting at my fixed desktop computer when I want to go online.

However when one looks into trends for computer sales, I think it is true that consumer outlets like Dixons or Comet sell a very high percentage of PCs in laptop form factor rather than desktop models. People clearly like being able to put the computer in a cupboard and reuse the space of their computer desk. They like to be able to use the laptop anywhere in the house that is convenient, for example in the garden, or while watching television. Far more business staff require mobile working from customer sites or from home for which a laptop is ideal.

Very gradually, battery life of laptops has ebbed away. When laptops entered the mainstream they would last all day on a single charge. As screens have grown in size, and processors have increased in speed and number of cores battery life has slowly dropped. Last time I went laptop window shopping on the web I would be doing well if the latest laptops would last more than 5 hours on a single charge. So benefit number one of the iPad is it sports an incredible battery life of 10 hours of continuous use!

Next I will discuss what is best called the 'iPhone OS ecosystem'. Recall a recent TV campaign from Apple with the punchline of 'There is an app for everything'. There is no doubt that software drives the sales of hardware. For example I am sure some customers have browsed through the App Store in iTunes and bought an iPod Touch or iPhone because they have seen applications that they wanted to use, or games they wanted to play. This is not the main reason I bought my iPhone, but I did have an urge to use some of the apps before I had my iPhone.

I have also talked to customers in business who have become frustrated because the software they needed for their business was not available on the computers they already owned. They chose the software first, then bought hardware on which to run it.

So my point is that people who see apps in the iTunes app store they want now have an additional choice of hardware device that will execute the app - an iPad. One custom app for example a point of sale application for use in a bricks-and-mortar store like the Apple Store to enable staff to complete sales with customers will be a big driver of sales - the iPad may be the better platform in the ecosystem for this purpose.

This leads me to my next major advantage of the iPad.... it's screen resolution. I have written applications for the iPhone. The first point that hits you as a developer is how small the screen is. When PCs graphics adapters first launched they ran at VGA or 640x480 pixels resolution. The iPhone is half this size, 480x320, or 460x320 after the status bar showing battery charge and signal strength etc. I was investigating writing a TV Guide app, but quickly realised there was no way to show information from many channels on screen at once. A Sky subscriber would want at least 200 channels available. At five per screen this would mean an unfeasible amount of scrolling.

Have you noticed that apps on the iPhone have a very small set of options? Microsoft Word has hundreds of features available from its menus. No iPhone app comes close. I believe the reason for the lack of features and customisation is due to the lack of screen space to show the options. Apps have to be well designed, and features trimmed due to restriction with the user interface.

By comparison the iPad has a resolution of 1024x768 (also known as XGA). This is two steps of development ahead of VGA, the first step was 800x600 or SVGA. With this large increase in screen real-estate and the faster custom-designed Apple processor, the possibilities for developers are now much much greater. It is my opinion that apps (not forgetting games) for the iPad will be an order of magnitute better than all the existing iPhone apps. To conclude, benefit number two is the much larger screen that will bring with it far more potential for application developers.

A second benefit of the physically larger screen is multimedia viewing - lets face it the iPhone is too small to use as a serious device for watching TV or movies. Maybe Apple should revamp their Apple TV to enable recording, syncing those recordings to iPad and even remote control and viewing of your TV? The larger screen will allow more of a web page to readable without the need to zoom. As Apple have advertised, the larger screen is now usable as an electronic book reader.

To conclude I think the iPad will be successful. When consumers replace their present PC or laptop they will be able to consider the iPad instead. Apps on the device will be an order of magnitude better than any existing iPhone apps. Specific apps for specific business needs will drive sales of the unit to businesses. People who require an ebook reader or web and video on-the-go have no better option than iPad at the moment. Also at $499 or I guess £399 in UK this will not break the bank for most people as a fun lifestyle gadget or games device.

There are so many possibilities for this new device....

The hype and rumour mills have already moved on to the next version of the iPhone!