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Better Living Through Apps

Today’s smartphone apps are countless, with uses ranging from entertainment to enrichment. In the latter category, apps help users manage their personal finance, improve their fitness, and give their brains a workout. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when everyone couldn’t access virtually all the world’s information in their hand at a moment’s notice. Besides the accumulated knowledge available on a smartphone, myriad apps are available to help users with a wide range of tasks, from managing their finances to tracking their fitness goals to getting an education in various topics.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Money Matters

Smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. The budgeting app has attracted more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why, says NerdWallet, which identifies the popular service as one of the best budgeting and saving tools available.

“The free app automatically syncs to bank, credit card and investment accounts, pulling data with little effort on the part of the user, and provides free credit-score information. It’s a tool for reluctant budgeters — many people fall into that category, and they’ll be happy keeping tabs on their spending with this service.”

As its name notes, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, “makes no bones about the fact you need to manage your money rather than the other way around,” according to PC World, noting that the popular program, which started life more than a decade ago as manual-input desktop software, is now a subscription-based web app that can sync with users’ financial accounts.

“YNAB includes customizable reports that break down your income and expenses by category, account, and time frame,” the publication explains. “Its greatest strength, however, is its huge community of devout users who freely share their tips on the app as well as the larger enterprise of personal budgeting. The home site is also rich with support resources ranging from help docs to weekly videos to podcasts, all with the aim of helping you get and keep your finances in order.”

For people who find it difficult to track their expenses while trying to reach their savings goals, Wally might be able to help, by giving users a total view of their finances.

“Wally’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, which makes setting your budget and entering expenses a breeze. The app delivers plenty of features without crowding the screen,” Bankrate notes, adding, however, that “what you put into Wally is what you get out of it. The app makes it simple to track your expenses in the hope that you’ll stick to your budget and reach your goals, but it largely depends on the user being diligent in uploading every expense. If you can do that, Wally will be a tremendous aid in helping you reach your savings goals.”

Finally, Acorns is modernizing the old-school practice of saving loose change, rounding up the user’s purchases on linked credit or debit cards, then sweeping the change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.

“Acorns goes after its target market — young, would-be investors who have little money to invest — by waiving management fees for up to four years. College students are ripe for this kind of service and could wind up with a nice little pot of money after four years of rounding up,” Nerdwallet says. “We’re behind any tool that encourages mindless, automatic saving. If you don’t have to think about saving, you’re more likely to do it.”

No Pain, No Gain

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list? No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, providing users with information on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

Added BuiltLean, “MyFitnessPal is not a one-size-fits-all app. Personal diet profiles can be changed to fit a person’s specific needs, whether they are on a strict diet or have certain recommendations from their doctor or dietitian. The program calculates caloric need based on height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.”

Seven-minute workout challenges have become popular for their ease of use, and the 7 Minute Fitness Challenge app is among the more popular apps promoting this activity.

“I like that the video instructions are led by both male and female trainers, and they do a great job guiding you through each exercise via video, audio, image and text,” notes a review in USA Today. “When you upgrade to the paid version, you can also track your weight and visualize your progress, which might help you stay motivated. It also shows a calendar of all of your workouts and lets you see them at a glance. I’ve had this app for three years now, and they do a great job of updating it regularly to add new exercises and respond to user requests.”

Strong offers many features found in scores of other apps — creating custom routines, logging workouts, and tracking weight over time — but does some things that are particularly useful, according to the Verge.

“Each time I start a new workout for my arms or legs, Strong notes how much I lifted the previous workout. It does so automatically, and it’s amazing how such a simple thing has had such a powerful effect on me,” the reviewer notes. “Bumping that number up over time has become a game to me, and it’s pushed me to gently ramp up the difficulty level on my exercise more than anything I’ve tried short of a personal trainer. The first time I successfully did 40 push-ups, I could scarcely believe it. Previous apps I used required me to update my routines manually; automating that has made all the difference.”

What about emotional wellness? There are plenty of meditation apps available for that. For example, “the moment you open the Calm app, you might feel a sense of … calm. Relaxing sounds of falling rain play automatically in the background, but you could also opt to be greeted by a crackling fireplace, crickets, or something called ‘celestial white noise,’” according to Mindful.

The relaxation continues with Calm’s free meditations — 16 in total, lasting from three to 30 minutes. “Like many other apps, you can set a timer for silent meditation or meditate to intermittent bells,” the site notes. “For nighttime relaxation, Calm features four free ‘sleep stories’ — bedtime stories for adults on everything from science fiction to scenic landscapes to help you transition into slumber.”

App-lied Learning

Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

Meanwhile, Brainscape promises to help students learn more effective ways to study with their classmates, while helping teachers track and create better study habits for students. “This app is a very effective way of using and creating flashcards in a digital manner,” Education World notes. “It’s not much different in terms of creating flashcards and learning from them; however, one cool feature is the ability to set up study reminders, which slightly deters you from procrastination.”

However, the publication notes, the paid content “is a bit of a turnoff from the app, but not to worry — it makes up for it with the ability to create your own digital flashcards. Once the cards are created, you can go through the questions and guess the answer before revealing it, just like normal flashcards.”

Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

For older students and adults, The Great Courses is one of the more venerable services out there, created by the Teaching Company during the 1990s with the goal of gathering educational lectures on a video format.

“What helped the Teaching Company to grow more and more famous is their strong ethic toward a lifelong learning, meaning that, for them, learning is not only a short-term journey with an end, but more of a lifelong adventure during which anyone should keep gathering knowledge,” Gria.org notes. “Users have access to an entire online digital video library, but they also get other supports, such as CDs and DVDs or hard-copy materials such as workbooks and guidebooks.”

In short, whatever you’re looking to improve in your life, as the famous ad slogan notes, there’s an app for that.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Call Forward

Brett Normandeau

Brett Normandeau says hot communication technologies like business texting are providing new opportunities for his nearly 30-year-old company.

Brett Normandeau recalls the early days of the company his father started 28 years ago, when installing telephone systems was simpler, and even voice mail seemed revolutionary. Those days are long gone, and companies, like NTI, that succeed in the world of business communication are navigating some fast-moving waters. But they’re also making work easier and less expensive for their clients, and those are goals that never go out of style.

After eight years in its headquarters on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, Brett Normandeau said he’s looking to move into a smaller space.

Simply put, while his company, Normandeau Technologies Inc. (NTI), is growing — to seven employees at present, after three recent hires — his space needs are shrinking, since technicians are performing more work remotely than ever before.

It’s one example of how NTI reflects the very business trends that impact the services it provides to customers.

The company has been been selling, installing, and servicing telephone systems for 28 years, with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology — which uses the Internet to exchange various forms of communication that have traditionally been carried over land lines — serving as its main service focus over the past decade-plus.

It’s a technology that allows businesses to stay connected even when employees are far-flung — whether they’re working from home or in an office across the country.

Smartphones, however, are changing the game when it comes to phone systems, and newer developments like business texting and mass notification services — two niches Normandeau is particularly excited about — again evolving the way employers and employees communicate.

Kevin Hart is excited too — enough to return last year to the company he worked for many years ago, this time as director of business development.

“We’re looking to grow as a company. There’s a big market right now, and we’re ready for it,” he told BusinessWest, before noting that, as technology has evolved, so have client expectations. “We’re excited that we can do this more efficiently now than ever before. Customers appreciate that. They want their stuff fixed. The industry standard used to be two to three days response time, and now sometimes it’s within the hour.”

When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail. I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

So, while the company continues to make a name for itself in the fields of IP telephony, IP surveillance, data cabling, and cloud services, newer technologies continually shake up the game and provide plenty of opportunity for growth.

“What attracted Kevin to come back were the products and technologies we’re offering, and the opportunities he’s got to develop our business,” Normandeau said. “Business texting is huge, and so are emergency notification systems, as well as our traditional cloud and telephone systems, which have been the bread and butter of our business.”

While traditional phone systems are slowly changing over to cloud-based systems, plenty of companies are still behind the curve, he added, noting that such systems offer more integration, functionality, and control — and lower costs — than ever before. In short, it’s a good time to be in this business.

Beyond the Simple Phone

At its heart, Normandeau communications has been trading in phone systems since Ray Normandeau launched the enterprise in Florence in 1990, using money from an early-retirement package offered by a streamlining AT&T.

As Ray built his business on word of mouth and a few loyal customers, his son Brett started working alongside his father, having been licensed as an electrical journeyman shortly before Ray launched the company. He took over as president when his father retired about 16 years ago.

At the start, clients were mainly residential, but gradually, the emphasis turned to business customers, which today comprise the vast majority of the client base.

“When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail,” Normandeau said. “I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

NTI’s featured partners include LG-Ericsson, whose iPECS-LIK product further streamlines communication within any size business, from small offices to large corporations with thousands of users, managing all kinds of communication — phone calls, e-mails, texts, etc. — across multiple sites, under a single user interface. It’s a useful product for multi-site organizations, such as banks and their multiple branches.

Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart, standing in front of a phone from a different era, says customer expectations have evolved along with the technology.

Hart said businesses are starting to turn away from internal server networks that need occasional upgrading or replacing.

“Cloud-based systems today are effective, and they work, where 10 years ago they were heavily contingent on bandwidth,” he told BusinessWest. “The second-generation cloud-based systems at this point are not only reliable, but they’re usually cheaper than your current telephone bill.”

Added Normandeau, “it’s an operating expense as opposed to a capital expense, and that’s very attractive to businesses.”

On the business-texting front, Normandeau uses a platform called Captivated. On one side, a company’s contacts text it on a landline or published text number the business promotes. On the other side, a text comes into Captivated and the company handles it or easily transfers it to the right department or individual.

The benefit, Normandeau said, is that people don’t answer phone calls as often as they used to, particularly from numbers they don’t recognize, scared off by the proliferation of robocalls — but they will look at texts, especially if the sender’s number is familiar.

In addition, service providers in all kinds of industries can use the system to reach customers if they’re running late for an appointment, while an auto mechanic working on a vehicle who sees additional problems can quickly get in touch with the customer and start working on the second problem — all of this, again, predicated on people being more likely to respond to texts than calls. “It’s a huge scheduling convenience,” Normandeau said.

In addition, all texts are centralized and saved in the cloud, providing a permanent record that isn’t available when technicians use their personal cell phones to contact customers.

In the realm of mass notification — a related but different technology than regular business texting — Normandeau uses the StaffAlerter platform, which was originally developed originally for the K-12 market, for campus security and other reasons. It uses templates by which messages can be sent out quickly to an entire subscriber list with the touch of a button.

“In an emergency, a schook teacher can automatically send an alert, a mass notification to all staff, that can also tie into their paging system throughout the school, so teachers can lock down the classrooms,” he explained.

But the applications are endless, Hart added, from sending alerts to snowplow drivers during the early-morning hours as a storm looms, to contacting large groups of off-duty nurses or police officers if a shift suddenly opens up. “Before, you’d have to call 30 people to get someone to come over and cover.”

Growth Pattern

Staff growth at NTI includes its new operations manager, Lindsey McGrath, who has 20 years of experience on the carrier side of the business, and Russell Diederich, a technician who spent 30 years at Verizon.

Those are the moves a company that knows it has opportunities to grow, Hart said.

“The lion’s share of companies still use legacy systems,” he noted. “Especially after the economic downturn in ’08 and ’09, they held on to what they had and were reluctant to make changes, but it’s no longer cost-effective to do it that way.”

He said he recently sold a new system to a client he had services 21 years ago, noting that “he got his money’s worth.”

“Truth be told,” Normandeau was quick to note, “a lot of those old phone systems still work. There’s a New England mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

That said, he added, there are plenty of opportunities for companies to streamline their communications and save money if they’re willing to look into them.

Especially companies like NTI itself, which is scaling up its staff while downsizing its space because working remotely is the wave of the future.

“It makes far more sense when technicians and sales staff don’t have to come to a central point,” Hart said. “It saves a lot of ‘windshield time’ for sales and service techs when we have this platform. It’s better for customers and better for employees’ quality of life.”

That said, NTI isn’t resting on its laurels, Normandeau said, noting that he takes part in IT networks and conferences with an eye on the next big thing in communications. “I’m going to the IT Expo in Florida next month to check out the latest and greatest,” he said — and bring that knowledge back to a company that has evolved significantly since the days when voice mail was all the rage.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Innovation at Hand

10-nintendo-3ds-xlAn on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and the array of smartphones, tablets, wristband health sensors, and portable game systems only continues to expand as the major players compete for their share of a growing pie. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest focuses on those mobile devices, which are connecting more Americans than ever, 24/7, to bottomless online resources and, sometimes, to each other.

If it seems like everyone’s on their smartphone these days, well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

But not by much.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last November, 77% of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone, with lower-income Americans and those ages 50 and older exhibiting a sharp uptick in ownership over the previous year. Among younger adults, ages 18 to 29, the figure soars to 92%.

The 2017 results won’t be available until later this year, though the percentage is expected to rise even higher, because, well, it’s been on an upward trend since 2011, when Pew first started conducting these surveys. That year, just 35% of Americans reported they owned a smartphone of some kind.

These numbers don’t include plain old cellphones (remember when they seemed like the pinnacle of communications technology?). If those devices are included, 95% of Americans can reach in their pocket to make a call.

But BusinessWest’s annual rundown of the hottest technology — which, this year, focuses on mobile devices — isn’t interested in what was hot a decade ago. Following are some the most buzzworthy new smartphones, tablets, wearable fitness devices, and handheld game consoles, according to tech media.

Smarter — and Bigger

We’ll start, as many lists do this season, with the Samsung Galaxy S8 ($749), which Gareth Beavis at Techradar calls “the best phone in the world for a few reasons, but none more so than the display: it makes every other handset on the market look positively antiquated.

The camera and screen quality are both excellent, he continues, and while the phone is pricey, it’s worth the cost. “With the screen, Samsung has managed to find some impressive innovation at a time when there’s very little to be found in smartphones.”

Eric Walters at Paste added that, while the Galaxy S8 isn’t perfect, it’s the best Samsung has ever made, and an easy frontrunner for phone of the year. “It not only pushes the company’s portfolio forward, but the entire industry with its elegant and futuristic design that prioritizes the display without bloating the size. It’s an impressive achievement of design and engineering, but the quality isn’t surface deep. The entire experience of using the S8 is a rich one.”

One of the hottest trends of the past few years has been a shift to ‘phablets,’ smartphones that boast a much larger screen size than their predecessors. The Google Pixel 2 XL ($849) “improves on the first in lots of ways, but mostly it just looks a whole heap better,” writes Max Parker at Trusted Reviews, praising the device’s modern display and large size in a package that fits the hand well.

“But it’s the software that really wins here,” he adds. “Google’s approach to Android is fantastic, and the Assistant is an AI that’s already better than Apple’s Siri. The camera is stunning, too. It’s a 12-megapixel sensor that takes stunning photos in all conditions, and it’s packed with portrait mode tricks, too.”

Apple continues to be a key player in this realm, too, of course, and while the iPhone 8 Plus ($799) isn’t a big change over last year’s model, it boasts some substantial advantages, notes Mark Spoonauer at Tom’s Guide, and may turn out to be the equal of the iPhone X, to be released in early November.

“The new iPhone supports wireless charging, and its dual rear cameras are dramatically improved,” he adds. “Coupled with Apple’s new crazy-powerful A11 Bionic chipset, those lenses deliver portrait lighting — a new mode that lets you manipulate the light in a scene before and after the fact. The iPhone 8 Plus also delivers excellent battery life, lasting more than 11 hours in our testing.”

For those who prefer full-size tablets, competition continues to be fierce in that realm, with Apple again drawing headlines with the iPad Pro ($599).

“With Apple’s fastest-ever mobile processor, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is easily the best tablet out there right now,” says Lindsay Leedham in Lifewire, who praised its camera, speakers, 256 GB storage, and True Tone display. “The iPad Pro uses sensors to detect the light in whatever room it’s in to adjust the color temperature of the display to the ambient light. The effect makes the screen look more like paper, and is most noticeable when it’s turned off and the screen switches to a bright bluish light.”

Meanwhile, for those on a budget, the Amazon Fire HD 8 ($79) is the best sub-$100 tablet available, according to Sascha Regan at PC Magazine.

“While you shouldn’t expect to compete against the iPad at this price point, the Fire HD 8 fits the bill for media consumption and light gaming,” she writes, calling its battery life adequare but praising its dual-band wi-fi. “In several tests at different distances from our Netgear router, we often got almost double the speed on the HD 8 than on the Fire 7. That made a real difference when doing things like downloading comics.”

Health and Leisure

Wearable technology, which focuses on tracking health and wellness habits, continues to be popular, although Fitbit, far and away the dominant player in this market, may be reaching saturation in the U.S., while smaller competitors eat away at its global market share, according to International Data Corp.

Still, its new products continue to wow reviewers. “Guess what: Fitbit’s newest tracker is its best one yet,” raves CNET’s Dan Graziano about the Fitbit Alta HR ($149). “For me, it’s all about design. I’ve been wearing the Alta HR for almost a month and plan to continue wearing it even after this review. It’s comfortable to wear and doesn’t sacrifice any features, but what sold me was the seven-day battery life.”

For those looking to spend more, the Fitbit Surge ($249) is a satisfyingly sophisticated piece of machinery,” writes Jill Duffy at PC Magazine. “It not only tracks your steps and sleep, but also alerts you to incoming phone calls and text messages, keeps tabs on your heart rate with a built-in optical heart rate monitor, uses GPS to track outdoor activity, and has much more functionality, especially for runners.”

Looking over the rest of the field, Marko Maslakovic at Gadgets & Wearables finds plenty to like about the Garmin Vivosport ($199), which is waterproof, comes with built-in GPS and all-day stress tracking, and counts reps and sets in the gym.

Though it’s slim and fits snugly on the wrist, “Vivosport has some pretty decent specs under the hood,” he adds. “You’ll get everything you could possibly hope for 24/7 activity tracking, including detailed info on steps, calories, distance, heart rate, activity, floors, and sleep. The GPS makes for more precise distance, time, and pace tracking, along with route mapping for your runs. It will track your swims in the pool, too. This is probably Garmin’s best fitness band yet.”

For technology enthusiasts whose tastes favor gaming on the run over, well, running, the portable-console market continues to thrive, with the longtime market leader making some new waves this year with the Nintendo Switch ($299).

“You can use it as a stationary console with your TV or transform it into a portable gaming device in literally seconds. You will keep all the data and can continue your game on the go,” Slant notes. “Nintendo Switch is light and feels comfortable in hand. It doesn’t cause any wrist strain. It also has a kickstand that folds out from the back of the console, so you can put it on the table.”

The publication also praises its graphics and controllers, but notes that it can be hard to find, lacks long battery life, plays poorly in direct sunlight due to screen glare, and doesn’t boast a wide variety of popular games — yet.

Game variety is no issue for the Nintendo 3DS XL ($199), which boasts two large screens, glasses-free 3D, and some of the best video games available on a mobile console, according to Top Ten Reviews. On the downside, battery life is not ideal.

Still, “thanks to its backwards compatibility with DS games and its huge selection of classic and new games in the Nintendo eShop, the 3DS XL is the best handheld game console available,” the site continues. “The 3DS family has the best games on a mobile category, and the Nintendo 3DS XL is the best handheld console available.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Human Touch

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

Information-technology solutions providers can easily get lost in a maze of technical jargon, but that’s the last thing Marco Liquori wants to throw at customers. Instead, the technicians at his 13-year-old company, NetLogix, are trained to communicate clearly with clients about their network needs — and then meet those needs, in the background, so businesses can focus on growth, not computer issues. A recent customer-satisfaction report suggests the Westfield-based firm is doing something right.

When Marco Liquori talks about how his IT company, NetLogix, sets itself apart, he doesn’t go right into technical jargon. In fact, he tries to avoid it.

“We have some business savvy; we’re a small business ourselves,” he told BusinessWest. “We take that knowledge to our clients, and, when we do talk to them, it’s not geek-speak, but business recommendations in plain English.”

That’s actually one of the points on a list he’s prepared called “10 Things We Do Better.” Some of them — delving into areas like network security, budgeting for IT services, and the difference between proactive maintenance and reactive response — get into the nitty-gritty of NetLogix’s services, but many are common-sense goals that wouldn’t be out of place in companies in myriad industries.

Take phone calls, for instance. “We answer our phones live and respond quickly,” he said, noting that callers will always get a human being, not a recording or voice mail, and those calls are followed up by a technician within the hour — actually, the average is 12 minutes.

Those touches are part of the reason why a third-party monitoring system, SmileBack, which tracks customer satisfaction for companies, reported that NetLogix scored a 99.4% favorable rating from clients in 2016 — the highest customer-satisfaction score it recorded last year.

netlogixbuilding

“That’s unheard-of in our industry; our competitors are unable to say that,” Liquori said. But it’s not a surprise, he added; it’s a goal the company works toward. “Our techs are incentivized to get high satisfaction scores; they’re compensated not on billable hours, but on efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Of course, part of achieving high satisfaction scores is actually getting the job done, and this is where a shift in the company’s strategy several years ago has paid dividends and grown the Westfield-based firm — which Liquori describes as a network-management, cloud, and systems-technology integrator providing end-to-end solutions for clients — to a 12-employee operation, and why his plans to keep expanding the company look promising indeed.

Entrepreneurial Itch

Liquori had worked for several other computer and IT companies — “value-added resellers was what we called them back in the day” — but business wasn’t great in the years following the dot-com bust. In 2004, the firm he was working for decided to take his business in a different direction, focusing more on application development. In the transition, Liquori decided to set out on his own — even in that tough economic climate.

“I was on my own for a year, but we grew, slowly and steadily, and we’ve been growing ever since,” he told BusinessWest. “We were originally a break-fix service — when people had issues, they would call us, and we’d go out and fix them.”

During that time, he was developing a book of business focusing on a handful of industries in which NetLogix still specializes today, including insurance agencies, law firms, medical and dental practices, and professional services like accounting firms. But the business model needed tweaking.

We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it. We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

“It was a more reactive model. As an issue occurred, we’d go out and fix the problem, and we’d bill for the time we worked,” he explained. “Over the past few years, we transitioned to a managed-services model that’s more proactive in nature. We’re constantly monitoring every system out there for our clients.”

That encompases everything from preventing cyberattacks and monitoring for malicious activity to installing Windows and third-party application updates to managing firewalls and developing disaster-recovery strategies.

“We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it,” he said. “We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

Under the old system, the more hours NetLogix’s technicians worked, the more money the company made. But a managed-services model is a win-win for both sides on multiple levels, he explained. “With this, the overall objective is to make IT spending predictable for the client, which helps them them budget accurately. They pay a fee for unlimited support.”

That’s an advantage over many companies that hold fast to a more reactive model, he said, adding that clients like knowing exactly what they’ll be spending — no surprises — and can focus their energies outside the IT realm, on growing the core functions of their business.

defendingagainstcyberattacks

In fact, the fixed price, all-inclusive support plan includes a commitment to resolve any issues that arise in an expeditious manner. Since everything is included in one price, Liquori explained, NetLogix is highly motivated to use its time wisely and bring each situation to a successful completion — and clients aren’t nickel-and-dimed just at the time they need the most help.

“Our goal is to resolve issues as quickly as possible, and make sure their computers are back up fully and functioning normally as soon as possible,” he said.

But he kept coming back to the firm’s security-first approach. NetLogix’s first task is to evaluate a client’s network and explain any potential risks and exposures, and recommend adjustments to protect the network and client data — which is of massive importance for companies that store patient records or financial information, for example.

“With our full suite of multi-layered security in place, none of our clients were affected by the WannaCry ransomware attack — or any other ransomware,” Liquori said, referring to last month’s worldwide attack targeting computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, encrypting data and demanding ransom payments to free it. Within a day of the attack, more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were affected.

“We keep all our engineers constantly trained in the latest technology that’s out there, and constantly go to security seminars and network-security training events,” he went on. “Security is the biggest thing, and we stay on top of it.”

Growth Pattern

At the heart of NetLogix’s services, though, is its strategic IT planning. Liquori said he considers himself a strategic partner with clients, listening first and offering solutions second.

“I really enjoy a challenging technical issue and being able to provide a solution that meets a business objective and saves the customer money by improving efficiencies and improving security,” he told BusinessWest. “Customers may be losing sleep over these things. I enjoy the fact that we can take that burden off them so they can focus on their business.”

Liquori said he’s certainly looking to grow beyond 12 employees, and geography isn’t the barrier it used to be in the IT world. “Most of what we do is remote, so we can work in almost any geographic area,” he explained, adding that the firm covers most of the Northeast. But face time is important, too.

“For our managed-services clients, we will engage with them proactively — quarterly or semiannually, depending on the size of the organization. We will sit with the business owner or office manager for strategic IT planning. We’ll talk about areas where they’re weak or vulnerable, get those adjusted and up to speed. It may be making sure they have a backup recovery solution, or a computer may be out of date, so we plan together for updating their computers to help them stay atop the curve.”

And sleep better at night.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Banking on Breakthroughs

 

Three UMass Amherst campus research initiatives are among nine projects across the five-campus system that are sharing $735,000 in grants from the President’s Science & Technology (S&T) Initiatives Fund.

Announced by UMass President Marty Meehan, the projects showcase a range of cutting-edge faculty research being conducted across the UMass system, from enhancing clean-energy technologies to developing materials that can autonomously release drugs and precisely target tumors.

The Amherst campus projects include:

• The Center for Autonomous Chemistry, an initiative with UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School, and led by chemistry professor S. Thayumanvanan. The project will develop the molecular design fundamentals for autonomous chemical systems, inspired by the immune system. Fully developed, this will form the basis to develop materials that can autonomously release drugs in response to a specific trigger and precisely target tumors. The grant of $140,000 will be used to facilitate one or more proposed projects to federal research agencies.

• The UMass Unmanned Aerial System Research and Education Collaborative (UASREC), led by Michael Knodler of the UMass Transportation Center. A collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UASREC is established to advance unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, to advance interdisciplinary and collaborative research and education. With research already funded through the state Department of Transportation, $100,000 in S&T funds will help position UASREC to become the New England Transportation Center and develop other proposals to federal funding agencies.

• The Center for Smart and Connected Society (CS2), a project with UMass Medical School, is being led by Prashant Shenoy in Computer Science at UMass Amherst and David McManus in Cardiovascular Medicine at UMass Medical Center. The project, as part of the creation of the new interdisciplinary CS2, will focus on the advancement and application of smart and connected technologies. The smart-application domains include smart health and smart living, smart buildings and energy, smart and autonomous vehicles, and smart agriculture. The one-year, $25,000 S&T grant will advance the planning for CS2 and coordination with the medical school’s Center for Data Driven Discovery and HealthCare, which also received an S&T award.

Amherst campus researchers are also involved in another of the funded projects, the UMass MOVEment Research Center, which will explore the mechanics of movement and muscle function. Led by Matthew Gage of the UMass Lowell Chemistry department, the researchers will use the $25,000 grant to plan for a UMass system-wide research center for movement mechanics, focused on understanding movement in the aging population. Faculty from Lowell, Amherst, and the medical school will explore how to combine existing research strengths at all three campuses into a comprehensive program designed to approach research questions in the biomechanics of aging from a molecular to an organismal level.

“These funds empower our faculty, strengthen our research enterprise, and spur breakthroughs that boost the economy and improve lives,” Meehan said. “I’m proud to support our faculty while advancing our critical mission as a world-class public research university.”

Now in its 14th year, the S&T fund accelerates research activity across all five campuses, drives partnerships with state industry, and positions researchers to attract larger investments from external sources to expand the scope of their projects.

Since 2004, the fund has awarded nearly $12 million to faculty, helping to generate additional funding of more than $240 million in areas such as medical devices, nano-manufacturing, clinical and translational science, bio-manufacturing, data science, robotics, and personalized cancer therapy.

S&T awards have also helped to establish important research and development centers across the state, including the Center for Hierarchical Nanomanufacturing at UMass Amherst, the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at UMass Boston, the Center for Scientific Computing and Data Visualization Research at UMass Dartmouth, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center and New England Robotics and Validation & Experimentation Center at UMass Lowell, and the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UMass Medical Center.

“Since 2004, these grants have generated a tremendous return on investment to our campuses and to the Commonwealth, strengthening our engagement in key areas, including the life sciences, data science, climate science, and advanced manufacturing,” Meehan said. “This program underscores how critical a strong public research university is to the future of the state.”

The President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund is one of three sources of support that help advance the work of faculty members, along with the Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and the Technology Development Fund. u

Sections Technology

Virtual Breakthrough

Dr. Glen Brooks

Dr. Glen Brooks demonstrates how patients can adjust specifications on a screen before viewing themselves with virtual-reality goggles.

Dr. Glen Brooks, who runs a cosmetic-surgery practice in Longmeadow, says he was initially “awed” by a virtual-reality device that allows breast-surgery patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own post-surgery bodies — before the actual surgery — in a virtual-reality space. He says Crixalix, as the technology is known, has helped ease patients’ anxieties, while assuring him they’re getting exactly what they want.

Dr. Glen Brooks understands that preparing for cosmetic surgery can be an anxious time, especially for women unsure of what the end result will look like. Take breast augmentation, for example.

“The biggest fear of the patient is that she’s going too big. But the biggest fear of the doctor is that I have to reoperate because she’s gone too small,” Brooks said, explaining that, while the fear of choosing too large an implant is a common concern, the patient typically discovers she had nothing to worry about.

Still, he added, “I don’t want to do a revision, and the patient wants to get it right the first time. A revision costs someone money, takes time, and has risks. If we can avoid a revision, that’s an excellent outcome.”

If only there were a way for a woman to see the end result, on her own body, before the surgery.

Now there is.

Five months ago, Brooks, who owns Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, P.C. in Longmeadow, started using Crisalix, a virtual-reality technology developed in Switzerland that allows patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own bodies — not just on a screen, but in a virtual space, as if they were looking down at themselves — exactly how they will look after the breast surgery.

“I was really awed when I watched a demonstration,” Brooks said of his first exposure to the device. “What it allows us to do is create a 3D image of someone’s chest. Then, we can image every single breast manufacturer, any size, any shape implant, and using 3D goggles, the patient can view herself from all angles.”

The result, he said, is a true ‘a-ha moment.’

“The first time they look down and see they have cleavage, they’re like, ‘oh my God.’ It’s an a-ha moment because they’re seeing themselves; it’s a real view of what they look like, not like in a mirror.”

Indeed, Crisalix markets itself as a way for doctors and patients to answer the common question, ‘how might I look after the procedure?’ The goal is to increase patient satisfaction and decrease anxiety, both during the consultation and post surgery.

brooksscreen1art

Crisalix markets itself as a leader in web-based, three-dimensional, virtual-reality simulations for plastic surgery and aesthetic procedures. The company is a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a fast-growing life-science cluster, and the Institute of Surgical Technology and Biomechanics at the University of Bern.

“It gives the patient a chance to see herself,” Brooks said, “and know precisely what she’s going to look like afterward.”

First Steps

But first, the patient sees herself on a screen. Brooks scans her chest and uploads the image to a tablet, where he can help the woman decide on which implant manufacturer to use and which volume and shape to use. They can test out myriad options on the screen, rotating the image to see the change from multiple perspectives.

When both doctor and patient are comfortable with a particular option, the patient dons goggles and enters a 3D, virtual-reality world where she can view herself with the new breast size and shape, and either approve the specifications or go back to the tablet for something else.

Brooks told BusinessWest that breast augmentation, reduction, and reconstruction — Crisalix is effective on all three — are more science than art, a matter of delivering precisely what the patient is asking for. What the VR technology does is help the patient clearly communicate that decision.

“The patient predetermines beforehand what volume they want to have — ‘this is what I am, and this is what I want to be,’” he noted. “It’s a very different type of technological advance because so much of the surgery is objective, but showing patients their size in advance in this way is more powerful than a verbal discussion.

“Most of the other technological advances in this field tend to be things like lasers and non-surgical devices to either remove fat or tighten skin,” he went on. “This is more on the side of patient awareness of outcomes than the actual outcome. It’s the first device that helps on the awareness side so well. There are other imaging systems out there, but this is the first true VR system, and it’s so simple to use.”

The reasons women ask for augmentations varies greatly, Brooks said, but there are a few common categories: early-20-somethings whose breasts are mismatched in size; women in their late 30s or early 40s who want a “mommy makeover,” feeling they’ve lose some volume and gained some sag after having kids; and women of any age who feel more attractive or confident with a different look, to name a few.

“This gives them a really great education in what I need to correct,” he said, adding that the technology is just as effective with reconstructions, typically after mastectomies with cancer patients, in that it can formulate a completely symmetrical look to the patient’s specifications.

According to data from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women after skin cancer, representing nearly one in three cases. Furthermore, the ACS notes, seven out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer who are candidates for breast reconstruction are not aware of their options. As a result, fewer than one in five American women who undergo a mastectomy go on to have breast reconstruction.

“Many women are able to get an immediate breast reconstruction performed at the same time as the mastectomy, but that option depends on what treatment is necessary after surgery,” Brooks said. “Patients with breast cancer have numerous options to help them restore a breast to near-normal shape, appearance, and size following mastectomy or lumpectomy.”

Seeing the Future

Crisalix is only the latest option to reach that goal, and Brooks said patients have been pleasantly surprised at what the virtual images tell them. The technology to convert 2D images to 3D virtual reality is currently being used on five continents.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

“Months ago, they asked whether I would re-up next year for the software license, and I said ‘absolutely,’” he told BusinessWest. “It makes what I do so much more precise, putting together the right outcome by showing exactly what we’ll provide to patient. It’s absolutely a home run.”

And it’s far from the only potential use of VR in the surgical world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on others, such as GE’s early-stage testing of technology that will allow a doctor wearing a Rift headset to take a virtual tour of a patient’s brain and perhaps determine how surgery might affect various parts of it, and pediatric surgeons at Stanford University Medical Center who have used a virtual-reality platform from EchoPixel, a California startup, to plan surgeries on newborns missing pulmonary arteries. Another promising use of VR may be in medical training, as universities that can’t afford to store cadavers for education may be able to rely on virtual reality instead.

Even in cosmetic surgery, Crisalix isn’t limited to breast surgeries; the company also touts its use for eyelids, faces, and other body parts, though Brooks says the impact on patients’ expectations isn’t as dramatic.

“For breast surgeries, it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, seeing the change for themselves.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

View to the Future

By Janet Lathrop

With a new cluster of specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) now installed, UMass Amherst is poised to attract the nation’s next crop of top Ph.D. students and researchers in such fields as artificial intelligence, computer vision, and natural-language processing, said Associate Professor Erik Learned-Miller of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).

“GPUs are critical for modern computer-science research because they have such enormous computational power,” Learned-Miller said. “They can address extreme computational needs, sol­­ving problems 10 times faster than conventional processors, in days rather than months. They can run neural network algorithms that are prohibitively slow on lesser machines. Our new network of 400 GPUs is unusually large for an academic cluster.”

UMass Amherst’s new GPU cluster, housed at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, is the result of a five-year, $5 million grant to the campus from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative last year. It represents a one-third match to a $15 million gift supporting data science and cybersecurity research from the MassMutual Foundation of Springfield.

Deep-learning research uses neural network algorithms to make sense of large data sets. The approach teaches computers through trial and error to categorize data, much as human brains do.

“Deep learning is a revolutionary approach to some of the hardest problems in machine reasoning, and is the ‘magic under the hood’ of many commercial products and services,” said Learned-Miller. “Google Translate, for example, produced more accurate and natural translations thanks to a novel deep-learning approach.”

Andrew McCallum, professor and founder of the Center for Data Science at UMass Amherst, added that “this is a transformational expansion of opportunity and represents a whole new era for the center and our college. Access to multi-GPU clusters of this scale and speed strengthens our position as a destination for deep-learning research and sets us apart among universities nationally.”

He noted that the campus currently has research projects that apply deep-learning techniques to computational ecology, face recognition, graphics, natural-language processing, and many other areas.

The state funds must be used for computing hardware at UMass Amherst, its Springfield Center for Cybersecurity and for terminals at Mount Holyoke College and the UMass Center in Boston, the researchers noted.

Learned-Miller says he and colleagues are now in the first year of the grant, during which about $2 million has been spent on two clusters: the GPU cluster dubbed ‘Gypsum’ and a smaller cluster of traditional CPU machines dubbed ‘Swarm II.’ Gypsum consists of 400 GPUs installed on 100 computer nodes, along with a storage system and a backup system. It is configured with a leading software package for deploying, monitoring, and managing such clusters.

Not only do the researchers hope the GPUs will accelerate deep-learning research and train a new generation of experts, but an important overall goal is to foster collaborations between UMass Amherst and industry. For example, if MassMutual data scientists design a practical problem with high computational needs, they can collaborate with sponsored UMass faculty and graduate students to solve it on the Gypsum cluster.

Janet Lathrop is associate news editor and science writer for the UMass Amherst Office of News & Media Relations.

Sections Technology

The Best Defense

By Sean Hogan

Hogan Technology recently announced it is educating small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) on password-protection policies to help safeguard their businesses from a variety of threats.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

Password management has become increasingly important, with daily attacks from hackers specifically targeting SMBs. For example, some 6 million LinkedIn account passwords were compromised just few years ago, and the list of breaches has grown dramatically since. Anyone who has been using major social-media sites, like LinkedIn, may have received a notification forcing them to reset their passwords. This is the result of colossal breaches in Internet security, and Hogan Technology has been advising businesses on how to protect themselves.

As the Internet continues to expand in complexity, so do its vulnerabilities. In order for business owners to protect their organizations, they need to utilize best practices in password security. Here are some steps that business owners can take immediately.

1. Never use the same password twice. One of the most effective ways to prevent breaches is also the simplest: never use the same password for multiple accounts. Strong, unique passwords, with symbols, numbers, and capital letters are usually far more effective than anything else.

2. Enable two-step authentication and verification. This is one of the other simple ways a business can instantly upgrade the security of its entire network by simply passing a company policy. Two-step password authentication essentially means that, when a user logs into their account, they’ll be required to confirm that log-in attempt by replying to a text message or phone call. This best practice makes it much harder for hackers to impersonate the true account owner because it requires them to have access to multiple accounts before their hacking attempts can be effective.

3. Stay vigilant against phishing. Hackers have long relied on phishing, a common strategy in which a hacker attempts to defraud an online account holder of financial information by posing as a legitimate company. For example, a hacker will gain access to your account information by purchasing your e-mail and password on the black market, and then they will log into your e-mail and send a desperate note to one of your contacts, posing as you, something like, “John! My transmission just blew, and I’m stranded out here. My phone is about to die. Can you send me $2,000 to this account? I’ll pay you back as soon as I get into town.”

Users need to constantly remain vigilant against attacks like this because they are prevalent and have proven effective over the years. While these are a few proactive steps a company can take in the right direction, they are only a mere shadow of what is possible if they work with a true managed IT services provider. Hogan Technology partners with SMBs that need to secure a competitive advantage with advanced technology and want to remain focused on growing their business, instead of keeping up on the latest in online security.

Sean Hogan is president of Easthampton-based Hogan Technology, a business-technology company that specializes in increasing customer profitability and efficiency through the use of technology; (800) 929-5201; teamhogan.com

Sections Technology

Data Delivery

Pioneer Training President Don Lesser

Pioneer Training President Don Lesser

Don Lesser wasn’t planning on a career in computers, but the field found him through a series of opportunities that arose during the 1980s. Those became the basis for Pioneer Training, which, for more than a quarter-century, has helped companies in myriad fields navigate the ever-changing world of technology and make their operations more efficient.

The computer field was an accidental career for many people back in the 1980s, Don Lesser says, because it was so new. He counts himself as one of those who stumbled into it, and he’s grateful he did.

In 1977, Lesser earned a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing. While in the MFA course, he learned word processing, which was a boon to novel writers, who would previously edit their work and then spend two weeks retyping it. An interest in computing soon followed.

In the 1980s, he started doing corporate training and technical writing as part of the Pioneer Valley PC User Group, which he chaired for several years. As part of the group, he started teaching classes on how to use DOS word processors and other equipment. That led him to Valley Data, then a large tech company in the region, which asked him to teach computer classes.

That led to even broader opportunities, which he recognized, creating the company known today as Pioneer Training.

“Other companies weren’t happy about sending people to Valley Data for training, so we broke off and became a separate company,” Lesser said. “Everyone needed training back in those days; it was new to everyone. People didn’t even know not to press ‘enter’ at the end of every line.”

“Throughout the ’80s,” he went on, “I was using word processing, but I also got interested in programming. I asked the fateful question, ‘how does this all work?’ The answer was ‘zeroes and ones.’ But I needed to know more than that.”

In 1990, Lesser forged a partnership with two others and started offering computer classes in the Hampshire Mall in Hadley. In 1995, with a need to expand, the business moved to a suite of offices on Bobala Road in Holyoke. During these years, the company grew to seven employees and 20 consultants, and the outfit was conducting 12 to 16 classes a week.

“Once you do training for somebody, they tend to trust you,” he said, and companies began approaching Pioneer for other services, including database programming and automation. In fact, those areas of the business began to grow until, around 2003, they were outpacing the training aspect of the company. “By 2006, training had really fallen off, and programming had taken off. So we followed the market.”

The company no longer needed the large classroom space in Holyoke, so in 2008, Lesser and a smaller, core group of team members moved to their current, smaller space in Northampton, where they still conduct classes in Microsoft Access, Excel, Google Apps, PowerPoint, Windows 10, Word, and other software — but focus mainly on other services to clients.


List of Computer Network/IT Services in Western Mass.


These days, training is 30% of the business, and the rest is programming, he explained. “To be honest, most public classes don’t run frequently. But we do private classes; for example, a law firm will call us and say, ‘we need some training,’ and either we’ll go down there and set up computers in their conference room, or they’ll send people here.”

Today, Lesser, as company president works with three others — Mannie White, director of training; Graham Ridley, consultant and director of programming; and Deb Napier, consultant and programmer — to meet the ever-changing computer needs of a loyal client base. Although training is still in the name, the company does much more than that.

Breaking It Down

Take programming, for instance. “A lot of programming consists of automating tasks for departments … turning a two-day process into a 20-minute process, most of which is watching the computer work,” Lesser told BusinessWest.

“We’re smaller now, so we don’t need a lot of companies to keep going,” he said. “New clients come in, we figure out what they need, provide it, and add them to the fold. Most of our new opportunities are smaller companies in this area. And a lot of small companies are quite behind what the MassMutuals are doing. We’re bringing them up to speed; that’s where our bread and butter is.”

Some need more help than others, he added — even if they don’t think so. “A couple of companies are still in Word Perfect, and they prefer not to leave Word Perfect, and we have to accommodate them.”

Many small and medium-size companies, he explained, start out by tracking company data on Excel spreadsheets. As they grow and their operations become more complex, working with a web of spreadsheets can become unwieldy and time-consuming. So Pioneer Training helps clients move to Microsoft Access, which is a more robust data-management tool that also saves employees time.

Other services Pioneer provides might include designing a database from scratch that meets a company’s current needs; automating complicated tasks so they can be performed by non-technical users; creating custom forms for inputting data; creating standardized, yet flexible, custom reports for the most effective data display; updating an existing database to meet a company’s changing needs; creating processes for regular data imports and exports; and consolidating data for better data mining.

Clients include companies from a wide range of industries. Pioneer’s database projects, for example, include developing a process-router database for a national metals testing and finishing company, which tracks and organizes processing steps required for complex metal-plating work; and work for a local transport firm to consolidate several processes that manage its day-to-day operations into one Access database.

Meanwhile, examples of Pioneer’s office-automation clients include a regional bank in Western Mass., for which it automated the creation and printing of a certified letter form for bank letters; developed a set of macros to automate printing of letters from the bank to customers; and created a set of 42 separate charts to track loan categories. Meanwhile, for an international bioscience and lab reporting firm, Pioneer developed an automated process to extract data from lab reports, create charts based on the extracted data, and insert charts and data into a Word template for use in court proceedings. It also simplified the company’s billing by analyzing data and producing a number of reports summarizing data in various categories.

The team at Pioneer Training

The team at Pioneer Training, from left: Don Lesser, Deb Napier, Mannie White, and Graham Ridley.

As for its training arm, Pioneer maintains many repeat clients in a number of fields, from colleges to law firms to nonprofits. As one example, Western New England University wanted to offer staff the opportunity to upgrade their Word, Excel, and Outlook skills beyond the basics, so Lesser and his team designed a training program to meet the university’s goals, running a well-attended series of classes in all three applications.

On a national scale, Pioneer also developed online training courses for Pearson Education and reviewed the manuals for Microsoft Office 2000 and 2003, which involved testing every step in the book and flagging errors. “I feel like I’m one of four people in America who has written a formula for every function built into Excel,” Lesser said.

Lesser feels there’s more opportunity out there — “people still need training,” he said, “but fewer companies want to pay for it” — but the volume of work coming in keeps the four team members plenty busy, and he’s happy with the size of the business and the level of trust he has in White, Ridley, and Napier.

“We’ll tell you what works best for your company,” he said. “If people don’t feel like you’re holding them hostage, they’ll call when they need you, and they’ll be happy.”

Looking Back

Lately, Lesser has been producing training materials for Sanderson MacLeod, a brush manufacturer in Palmer.

“I started out doing corporate training, and now it’s coming full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s technical, teaching someone how to use the machines to create the brushes. It’s not computers, not Microsoft Office-based, but they still need the training. I like to think of what I do as a spectrum, with pure training on one end and pure consulting on the other end, and I’m really happy to be anywhere along that line.”

Of the 50 people in that MFA program he took back in 1977, he said, maybe 20 are still writing fiction. Most of the others, like Lesser, wound up in far different fields, although he has continued to write, including a stint as a food columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“That was the beauty of the computer industry in the ’80s. You didn’t set out to be a computer person,” he said. “I think a lot of artists — musicians, writers — fell into it. There was a lot of overlap. I’ve noticed that programming is a lot like writing. The output is different, but it comes from the same place inside me. I’ll see a problem and envision the solution fully developed. The work is getting the pieces down to make sure they work.”

When they do, that’s his personal reward.

“I think of it as moral work, in that we’re doing good for people, and we’re making their lives easier and better. I don’t want to put down any other occupation, but it’s not a matter of figuring out how to get money from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you; it’s a matter of figuring out how to solve somebody’s problem. It’s satisfying.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Something for Everyone

Smartphones rule the world — or, at least, their users’ lives — but they wouldn’t be of much use without apps. And those apps are legion, appealing to individuals’ desire to manage everything from finances to fitness, to continually learn new things and find new ways to have fun. Here’s a roundup of some of the most popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

Say you want to more effectively manage your finances. Or get in shape. Or brush up on your math skills. Or just relax and have a good time.

As the old iPhone commercials used to say, there’s an app for that. Many, many more than one, actually. And they’re usually free, and available on both the iOS and Android platforms.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Financial App-raisals

personal-capitalFor starters, smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Personal Capital offers simple charts and graphs of the user’s income, spending, and investment performance so they can easily monitor their finances.

“Track your investments by account, asset class, or individual security, see how your portfolio compares to major indices, and find the exact percentage of each asset class that’s in your portfolio,” Investopedia explains. “A 401(k) fee analyzer and mutual-fund fee calculator show if you’re paying too much in fees. The Investment Checkup feature analyzes your portfolio and shows how much you stand to gain with a few changes.”

mintBusiness Insider reports that Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. “It automatically tracks your spending, categorizes it, and alerts you when/if you approach your budget limit. You can even ask for custom savings tips within the app,” the publication notes. “Everything is shown in simple, intuitive graphs and charts, making it one of the most popular personal-finance apps in the world.”

goodbudgetMeanwhile, Business Insider also recommends GoodBudget, an app that brings the envelope-budgeting method into the smartphone. Users create ‘envelopes’ for each of their budget categories, such as groceries, transportation, and shopping, and pre-determine how much they want to allocate in each envelope. They can then record and track how much they’re spending from each envelope. “It may not be as sophisticated as some of the other apps, but Goodbudget offers a simple way to stick to your budget and keep your spending really disciplined.”

prosper-dailyWhat about financial security? Investopedia recommends Prosper Daily, a personal-finance security service that tracks spending and protects credit cards from fraud and errors. Users can quickly view balances and recurring charges across all their credit and debit cards.

“Prosper Daily creates an alert if a suspicious charge is posted to your account, allows you to report the charge and/or contact the merchant, and will help you get your money back from fraudulent, erroneous, or unfair charges,” the publication notes. “Data-breach alerts let you know when a data breach has occurred at a place where you’ve shopped.”

Healthy App-roach

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list. No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, teaching users how to shop, all the facts on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

myfitnesspalOne of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

The app’s database of more than 6 million foods makes it easy to track a diet, or the lack of one, added the online magazine Greatist. “Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on muscle, the app helps determine the best things to eat and meet your goals.”

nike-training-clubBut nutrition is only part of the story when it comes to fitness — exercise is the other key discipline. But where to start? One possibility is the Nike+ Training Club, which takes the concept to the next level, offering more than 100 workouts to choose from. Users can also opt for a customized, full-body, four-week plan. “A trainer leads you through the routines, plus you get instructional video clips of the moves,” notes Fitness magazine. “Don’t like burpees? The updated app lets you swap drills you hate for ones you love.”

strava-running-and-cycling-gpsFor those who prefer being outdoors to get in shape, Strava Running and Cycling GPS monitors running or cycling routes via GPS, notes Digital Trends. “It also gamifies your cardio workout and pairs with leaderboards, achievements, and challenges, bringing a competitive spirit to your routine.”

jefitFor a more comprehensive training assistant, Men’s Fitness recommends Jefit, which creates personalized workout routines by tracking and analyzing the user’s workout progress and diligently recording weight, reps, and time.

“Its data-heavy approach will appeal to stat nerds and workout obsessives alike. Jefit also packs the most robust library of exercises and maneuvers,” the magazine notes, including how-to videos with more than 1,300 exercises making up scores of workouts. The free version is limited, with some bare-bones workout routines and basic activity logs, while paid options are ad-free and unlock more features.

App-lied Learning

khan-academyCountless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

photomathMeanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

duolingoFor language learning, Children’s MD recommends Duolingo, which provides interactive foreign-language education in 15 languages so far. It’s appropriate for both kids and adults, and one independent study found that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need about 34 hours with Duolingo to cover the material in the first college semester of Spanish classes.

“It’s simple, user-friendly, and never boring,” the blog notes. “Install the app on your phone and get your language lessons done while you are on the elevator or waiting in line.”

nasa-appLearning means expanding one’s horizons, of course, and where better to do that than the NASA App, which aggregates a wide range of NASA content. “Space enthusiasts and curious minds will love how it packs a wealth of news stories, features, images, video, and information about the space agency’s activities into this one mobile app,” PC Magazine reports.

App-ealing Entertainment

spotifyLet’s face it, though — smartphone users want apps that are just plain fun as well. For music enthusiasts, it’s hard to go wrong with Spotify. Wired notes that users can access a huge catalog of music for a small monthly fee, creating their own playlists or enjoying the app’s curated stations.

Seven years after its debut, Mashable adds, “Spotify has tons of competition in the online streaming space, but the app continues to be one of the best ways to listen to music and podcasts on demand and on the go.”

espn-score-centerSports fans might dig ESPN Score Center, which allows users to check game progress from more sports than most other apps, PC Magazine reports, including baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, cricket, rugby, and more.

big-ovenFor those whose idea of fun is improving their cooking skills, plenty of apps do the job. Digital Trends recommends two. Big Oven features more than 250,000 recipes, and provides grocery lists based on them, lets users add your own, and import recipes from friends. “If you like (or want to like) to cook, start with Big Oven.”

yummlyBut the publication also raves about Yummly, which offers access to thousands of unique recipes. “On top of recipe and grocery-list functionality, Yummly takes user preferences into account to provide recipe recommendations, for when you just can’t decide what to eat.”

action-movie-fxFinally, if the kitchen doesn’t provide enough action and adventure, Mashable recommends downloading Action Movie, the brainchild of Star Wars and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. The app allows anyone with an iPhone introduce movie-level special effects to their short videos.

“Not only is it incredibly easy to use and completely addictive, it’s a huge crowd pleaser,” the site notes. “Filming a Thanksgiving dinner where a virtual car can unexpectedly crash across the dinner table is guaranteed to inspire roaring laughter. Action Movie is free, but smartly uses in-app purchases to sell you additional effects, all as good as the originals. It’s the rare app that has few competitors and has maintained a high level of quality.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]