Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Stikkits: Cool Technology You Can Use

While reading Boing Boing (one of the strangest yet most entertaining blog sites on the Internet) I was alerted to a neat company called Value of N. They offer a free web-based product that I have grown truly enamored with. The product is called Stikket. The Stikket site allows you to create and manage sticky notes on-line. Nothing new there really. For example, Yahoo! has Yahoo! Notepad. It allows you to create on-line notes that can conveniently be accessed via a Yahoo! Widgets widget or the Yahoo! website. Google Desktop has a similar feature as well.

Stikket, however, does way more then your typical notepad application. It includes a to-do list, calendar, and bookmarking system. Again, other services have these as well. They are not as well integrated but they do exist. What sets Stikkets apart is that everything is derived from the sticky note, called a stikket. The Value of N software analyzes what is written in the note for clues that tell it how to manage the content of the note. For example, if you say “remind me” in the note, it will send you a reminder via e-mail. If you say “Order Books Tomorrow” it will create a calendar entry for “Order Books” with tomorrow's date. It can recognize e-mail address, hyperlinks, and other typical clues. There is a simple and natural way to list items as to-do list entries that can be checked off. The stikket itself is then listed in the To-Do section as well.

What is remarkable is that bookmarks, to-dos, tags, and calendar entries are not treated as separate items. The stikket drives everything. At the very least, you always have the original note which could contain much more information then a typical calendar entry. In fact, a stikket could be interpreted as a calendar entry while portions inside as to-dos.

In the same manner as the MyStuff system, you can create a bookmark for a website. However, to paraphrase Fred in the movie “Valley Girl”, it's not what they do, it's the way they do it that makes the difference. You can save a link on your toolbar to create a stikket. If you click on it while on a website, it pops up a stikket with the URL embedded in it and categorized as a bookmark. You can add to the stikket just like any other stikket. The software will also analyze the content of the page and provide a ready-made list of tags for the stikket. Neat!

Which brings us to yet another great feature – tagging. You can tag in a number of ways including explicit tags (say “tag as...” in your stikket) or by letting the software figure it out from the content. It is another example of content driven features that makes Stikkets so useful. At this time explicit tagging is the only reliable way to tag a stikket but I'm betting that will change.

But wait! There's more! Stikket contains collaboration features, again driven by the content of the stikket. Make a note in the stikket to share it with someone, or reference them by Stikket name or their e-mail, and copies of the stikket are made available to others. You can even send reminders and assign tasks this way.

A simple, familiar interface belies so much power. There are some features (like peeps) that I haven't even explored yet. Stikkets almost seems to understand what I want it to do without me telling it explicitly. Now that's automation. I'm hoping they can succeed. More likely they will be consumed by some big on-line company. In a way that would be good since this functionality would then become even more widespread. I would love to see this in office productivity applications or CRM packages. Hey Microsoft! You listening?

Next up on the Value of N landscape, an e-mail assistant with some similar features. Called IwantSandy, it promises to look at the content of your e-mail and automate the process of setting events, managing your address book, and organizing e-mail. That may prove to be a truly killer app.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Common Pitfalls of Technology Advertising

I am pretty much appalled at the state of technology advertising. Telcos, hardware companies and software companies have some of the dullest, most confusing, most obscure messaging in the world. The same mistakes are made over and over. I have to wonder where the disconnect is. Is it that advertising firms just don't get technology? Perhaps technology people don't know how to talk to other human beings. The biggest problems happen when technology companies try to market to consumers. Here are a few of my favorite pitfalls of technology advertising.
  1. The “We Suck Less” Approach. A prime example of this is the Cingular ads that talk about fewer dropped calls. First off, why mention the fact that you drop any calls at all? It's not something people tend to focus on. According to Cingular, this happens all the time while sitting in your living room. I'm glad they pointed that out. Before they mentioned it, I always thought it had to do with me driving through different cell zones at 60 miles an hour. Now I know it's the cell phone companies' fault. Thanks for clearing that up. Of course they may drop less calls because they connect less calls in the first place. Don't think we haven't thought of that.

  2. The “Let Me Get The Manual” Problem. Also known as the “What the heck are you talking about” problem. This one is endemic to PC makers. They spew all kinds of techie jargon at people who can't possible know what it means. Consumers want to know what they can do with the stupid thing not what's its configuration is. The good news is that you see much less of this these days. The bad news is that you still see this today.

  3. The “Price of Tea in China” Issue. A great example of this is the Intel Duo Core processor ads that litter the Internet. I don't mean on technology sites where IT people and engineers go, I mean on Atom Films or Adult Swim (which is part of the Cartoon Network, not a porn site). These are video sites that normal people go to. Do you really think they give a hoot about the processor in their desktop computer? They politely watch the ad so they can get on with watching clips of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I'm sure some ad agency is spouting some garbage back to Intel about number of viewings, name recognition, and extrapolating that to processors sold. The problem is, except for the hardcore techie and gamer types, no one cares even a little bit. Even the hardcore folks don't care very much.

  4. The “Beating a Dead Horse” Syndrome. Okay all advertisers do this. They keep the same thing going far too long. Like the Budweiser frogs. Funny at first but annoying at the end. Or the Geico cavemen. Hello Geico. It's jumped the shark! Tech companies are not immune to this either. Take the Apple “PC vs. Mac” ads with the dull, nerdy guy representing the PC and the hip, young guy as a Mac. We get it. Macs are cool, PCs are for boring nerds. Or perhaps for people who don't want to pay too much for a computer. Whatever. But the commercials are decidedly dull now. Much more so than the PC guy.

  5. The “Huh?” Factor. We all know that technology can be hard to describe in a 30 second ad, right? So let's not describe it all! A great example of this approach is the Microsoft Vista ads. They show people doing mundane things like jogging or watching television, all the while muttering “Wow”. What the heck is that suppose to mean? There's a guy staring at a deer in a suburban street. What's that about? At least they show you the product at the end. The connection from the imagery to the product escapes me. An earlier ad for Vista didn't show the product at all. It had people walking around and vogueing. At least the text shown on the screen said what the major improvements in Vista were. I guess Microsoft assumes they can't appeal to our intelligence and have to go for the emotional. Funny thing is that no one is going to buy Vista because they heard it was “Wow”. They are going to buy it because it's bundled with their new PC. From “Huh?” to “Duh!”

  6. The “Dry as an Old Bone” Problem. Pickup any technology magazine and you will know exactly what I mean. Really dull ads that do little more than show a commodity product and some silly background image. Hackneyed, boring, and not worth the ink to print it. Not only don't these ads get someone to buy, they don't even get them to look.

This is not to say that all technology or communications advertising is bad. I especially like the T-Mobile commercial for their MyFaves features. This ad has two teens, a boy and a girl, sitting at the dinner table talking about who is in the MyFaves circle. The girls lists all of her closest friends. The boy does the same – all of her closest friends. She is clearly upset about this. It's funny and clearly shows not only the MyFaves feature but why it is attractive to it's target audience. More technology advertising should be like this.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Greetings from the Data Protection Summit

I've been going to fewer and fewer trade shows, conferences, and expos. The reason: I see mostly the same folks (nice though they are) and the same gear. I have the same conversations about mostly the same stuff. Storage conferences in particular are dull with endless rows of storage systems, mostly disk systems, that all look the same. Usually someone tries to convince me that their new disk system is faster then anything ever known. Okay, sure. Whatever...

However, I decided to go to the Data Protection Summit in Irvine even though it's a new event. I like focused conferences especially about the very thing I write about the most. As can be expected with a new conference, turnout was not what everyone wanted but the sessions were high quality. On the vendor side, there weren't any of the giant three-letter-acronym companies. Instead, there were mostly smaller companies that focused on one or two innovative (or so they hope) products.

So here are my impressions of what the conference had to offer:

  1. Gobs of storage security “platforms”. More concentration of storage security than I've ever see before. There were more encryption devices displayed then people in the sessions. The problem with these devices is that they all look and act the same. I think it would be hard to decide on a vendor given the sameness of the products.

    Note to vendors: People don't buy based on small differentiators especially when they can buy from a large full service vendor instead.

  2. Where was everyone else? With the emphasis on encryption so strong, there was little room for other forms of data protection. Hardly anyone was showing good old-fashioned data protection solutions, tape or disk. ILM, traditional backup and restore, CDP, etc. were talked about in the sessions but no one was showing them. It is a strange disconnect between what was discussed and what was shown.

    This tells me two things. First that in minds of small vendors at least, all the other forms of data protection have jumped the shark. No matter that backup systems are what people are buying. It's just not interesting enough to get the VC's to invest in you. Second, old-fashioned backup is still interesting enough to talk about and (more importantly) buy. It's just not as much fun to see. Everyone talks about the new Fall Out Boy album but secretly listens to Bruce Springsteen.

  3. Compliance Rules! If security didn't get your attention then regulatory compliance sure did. No matter what the subject, it always came up. Vendors, analysts, and IT folks all had something to say about it (me included). It's so worrisome even though it only represents a small part of what is wrong with data protection. It just goes to show that lawyers can scare the snot out of anyone, even seasoned IT people. Most of us would rather face an angry mob of end-users whose data was dumped down the drain than be deposed by an attorney.

    We can all imagine the opposition lawyer, dressed completely in black and hissing “Where are the tapes” like Darth Vader. Sends a shudder down your spine, doesn't it?

  4. Your own private DR site. I saw something really cool from a company called VaultStor. It was a standalone, self contained, D2D system in a fireproof and waterproof vault. It's a DR center that fits in a closet. It's a great solution for small and remote offices where it is terribly inconvenient to build a protected data center. Often in those cases the device are left vulnerable to physical disaster. Or the data is left vulnerable to any kind of disaster. VaultStor is a great idea. My thanks to Tom Rauscher of Zetera for pointing them out to me.

  5. From The “All Talk and No Action” Department. There was a lot of gabbing about protecting mobile data but few solutions. Everyone admits it's a problem yet there didn't seem to be too many good ways to address it. Most of the solutions were geared toward protecting mobile data from prying eyes but not from total loss.

    There seems to be this fantasy land where laptops hold no useful information that isn't backed up on a corporate server. In this wonderful place, the CEO has never dropped his laptop down a flight of stairs and a salesperson never accidentally erased the customer proposal that was written in the hotel the night before. Lovely place. I want to live there.

And there you have it. The first Data Protection Summit has come and gone. It yielded, for me anyway, some interesting insights into where the industry is heading. So, despite the low turnout, there was a lot of value in it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

My Top Five Reasons Why The Open Source Community Should Stop Whining

I like open source products. I use them, write about them, and recommend them. What I can't stand is the constant whining and sniping about Microsoft from vocal members of the open source community. They position Microsoft as the Evil Empire. The popular wisdom amongst the anti-Microsoft crowd is that the company owes its success to being technology buccaneers. They steal other people's good ideas and then crush those people under their mighty fist.

I see this every day. Every press announcement from Darth Ballmer or Gates is seen as a pronouncement from the depths of Hades. Vista was lambasted even before it was released and not for the reasons it should be lambasted. The loudest and most persistent whining was over the mutual patent agreement with Novell. It's not a sign of the apocalypse. Companies make these kind of arrangements every day. It's called covering your behind.

What these folks fail to see is that Microsoft is good for open source. In the spirit of giving back to the open source community, I have compiled my top five reasons why Microsoft is good for the open source community. Take heed and maybe you will have something to think about.

5. Jealousy Makes Open Source People Look Like Babies. Oh grow up! When all you can do is cry about Microsoft you look silly. Wah! Wah! Bad Microsoft took all the corporations away from me. Stop telling us why they are lousy and tell me why open source is good. “They stink more” is not a an effective communication strategy. Nor is “Because Microsoft is a bunch of meanies.” If you can't present a compelling reason why your solution is better then maybe it's not. What's sad is that there are a lot of compelling reasons for open source. They just get lost in the self pity.

4. They Have Figured Out the Desktop. Unlike everyone else, they figured out that mix of features and cost that works on the desktop computer. In fact, I think pushing the “Wow” factor of Vista is misguided. People who want eye candy pay the extra it takes for a Mac. People who want really cheap but more geek factor use a Linux desktop. Microsoft has the mix right and is an example for future desktop operating systems. Good enough and cheap enough.

3. Microsoft Actually Makes Some Good Software Sometimes. Sorry but it's true. Let's face it, is a copy of Microsoft Office. And every word processor touts MS Word file compatibility, even Google Docs. In this instance, Microsoft became the leaders by making good software such as PowerPoint (which created an entirely new category of software). You can't act like everything they do stinks. It's simply not true or fair.

2. The Eye of Sauron Effect. Without Microsoft to draw their attention, open source software would attract the black hats. For proof, look at the growth in the number of Firefox attacks since it started taking market share from Internet Explorer. Also keep in mind that the short comings of open source software are often overlooked because people are busy complaining about Microsoft.

1. Competition is good. If Microsoft did not exist, then open source would stagnate. Without something pushing the development, without a sense of oneupmanship, it would be hard to justify the effort that goes into open source development. The open source community needs a big monolithic company as its foil. Otherwise, they have no reason to exist.

The unkindest cut of all is that Microsoft actually helps promote open source products. Check out the MSN Tech site. Right on the front page is a link for Firefox and other open source products. I'm no Microsoft apologist but fair is fair. Criticism is fine but constant attacks are unproductive.

Stop the whining and crying and get on with making software. If you make it better than Microsoft then you deserve attention. Otherwise, you end up looking like a crybaby. And here's the world's smallest violin playing just for you...