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.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Living in the Browser Age

I'm one of the people who practically lives in his web browser. The company I work for makes browser delivered software. I have a small netbook-like laptop that is pretty much only used for on-line applications, social networking, and messaging. So, the browser is important.

I've been messing around with a variety of browsers, though Mozilla Firefox is my favorite. Several experimental Mozilla extensions point to the way to the way we will use our browsers and personal computers in the future. I especially like Snowl (pronounced snow owl – like the bird) and Prism.

Snowl is pretty neat. It is an experiment in messaging within a browser. The idea is to integrate different types of messages feeds, such as Twitter and RSS, in a browser based interface. It would appear that the goal is to include other forms of messaging such as email and newsgroups. I would guess that social networking feeds from the likes of Facebook are also on the list. If this is realized, a complete view of all the communications a person engages in can be head right in a browser page. What is fascinating is how, if successful, the need for a separate email client will finally disappear. Messaging is slowly being integrated into browsing but this takes it a leap forward.

Prism is also a recognition that the world of the browser has changed. It allows you to create desktop shortcuts to web sites and format the browser window to make it look more like a desktop application. Google Chrome does this too. If you access web-based applications such as e-mail, or social networking, this helps create the look and feel of a desktop application, rather than a web page. I use it for Internet messaging applications as well as on-line, SaaS office applications such as Zoho Writer.

These extensions point to one view of the future of computing. In this world, little to nothing is happening on the desktop computer. File storage and certain high intensity applications (like games) will be local but applications themselves will be on-line. Functionality might be split between on-line and local resources. Google's Picasa is a good example of this type of software. Cataloging (storage) and editing happen in a desktop application while viewing and sharing are on-line.

The iGoogle homepage takes this idea even further. Nothing really happens in the browser itself. It's all put together on the server and the browser only displays it for you. You can arrange a bunch of widgets that do all kinds of cool things like display your Twitter feed, access your Gmail messages, and show Calendar entries.

Is this the future of computing? All of our applications and messaging needs contained in a complex browser tool? Maybe it will all reside on a server somewhere, accessible from a very simple browser. The two things these views have in common is that a personal computer will be little more than a home for the browser and broadband networking is ubiquitous. Or maybe all this will happen on my phone...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some More Whining about Values of N

I have been in a terribly whiny mood lately. I've been whining at work, whining at home, whining just about everywhere. At least now I have something real to whine about. Values of N has been acquired by Twitter and they are shutting down all the services that the company provided. That would be two of more favorite services, I Want Sandy and Stikkit. I won't go into why I think they are great (just look at the previous posts on these awesome services) but it is suffice to say, they will be missed.

Now, it is unusual for a company to buy another company and shut everything down almost immediately. Most of the time it takes a couple of years before management realized they have screwed up and should never have bought this dog. Not in this case. First, Values of N is not a dog. They have some of the most interesting and inventive software anywhere. Second, they did it right away. They finished the acquisition today (November 25) and are shutting everything off on December 8th. Even in Internet time that's fast.

I'll grant you that I never saw how Values of N was even attempting to make money. I always assumed that the Internet services were meant as a proving ground for software and they would simply license it to other software vendors. Bottom feeding is not, however, the reason that Twitter bought them. They did not buy them for their technology (though hopefully some of the best stuff will make its way into Twitter). Nope none of that conventional stuff.

Instead, they wanted the founder on their team. That's right, they bought a whole company and shut it down to get one guy, Rael Dornfest. Okay, he's a brilliant guy and all but still. Did they have to kill the whole company just to get one brilliant guy. Like I said, Twitter doesn't go for the conventional way of doing things.

There is a serious issue that the shutdown highlights. As more and more apps migrate to the Web, we have to worry about our data sitting on someone else's machine and what happens if that machine gets turned off. I don't mean temporarily but for good. Like Values of N. Needless to say, getting all my Stikkit notes converted to other bookmark managers and note programs was a pain, especially since there was no wholesale download facility.

Now imagine that Google turned off Google Apps. All the people who rely on it would find themselves having to find a new application plus migrate their data. Just as I was warming to online apps, I get slapped in the face with the cold hard reality of having my data in someone else's hands. Not pretty.

So, I bid a fond farewell to Stikkit, I Want Sandy, and all the promise of Values of N. I hope Twitter gave you a great deal Rael since the rest of us got a raw one. I'll stop whining now

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Woot! Crack for Gadget Freaks.

I love Woot. Woot is my master and I am its slave. I must look at Woot everyday and, if there is a Woot Off, must constantly check it. I buy really cool stuff I don't need but find myself desperately wanting. I crave what Woot offers. My family is considering an intervention. It's not like I haven't tried to stop myself. I just can't.

While that overstates the effect of Woot just a wee bit, it is the only on-line store that has approached obsession with me and many of the folks I know in the tech world. For those of you lucky enough to have avoided Woot over the years here's the run down. Woot is a website that sells just one item each day. That's it. They start selling something at midnight and keep going until it is all gone or the day ends. And what they sell! It is a geek's dream! Woot has everything from the big (wide screen TV) to the small (Micro SD Flash Memory cards). Shipping is also the same no matter what the item - $5. That's $5 to ship a pair of headphones or $5 to ship a PC.

Woot started as a way for an electronics dealer to get rid of excess inventory and it shows in its offerings. There are a lot of high volume products such as USB flash drives. Many of the bigger ticket items like PCs are refurbished or restocked items. But each day brings new goodies to drool over.

For many Internet retailers, shoppers go to them when they already know they want something. You have made the buying decision and all you need is a good price and someone to ship it to you. Amazon has done great business this way. The same is generally true of auction sites. People go to eBay because they are looking for something or an item in some class of items. They choose the auction because the perceive they can get something cheaper this way or because that is the only way to get certain things like collectibles. Even when you are buying a gift and want to browse the site for an idea, you have already decided to buy something.

Woot is different. By only offering one thing at a time, it draws you back every day to see what is on sale. That makes Woot king of the impulse buy. You don't go to Woot looking for anything in particular. You go to see what they have. It is totally addictive.

Incredible Marketing

The marketing on Woot is outstanding, some of the best around. Each item has a description that is incredibly funny. It's worth going to the site each day just to read the copy. The title for the product description for the Elf-1 night vision monocular reads “The Elvish Mounted Policemen’s Union”. The humor is definitely twisted. It's very funny in a Monty Python manner. It shows that they really understand their customers. The daily podcasts are also hysterical.

They also have interesting promotions. Tuesdays are Two-For-Tuesday... um... Tuesdays. They sell a two pack of something. It might be a set of headphones (Got that once for me and my son) or something similar. Now, you might say “Why do I need two of them?” Why not? Given what things cost on Woot, you are basically getting one free. Do you have friends? Then give one away. Or keep a spare as a sort of belt-and-suspenders strategy for electronic do-dads.

Another innovative piece of marketing is the Woot Off. Every once in awhile, they sell a whole bunch of items in one day. Not all at once, like a conventional store, but one after another in true Woot style. They sell a limited number of items until they are gone then rapidly fire up another item. This is truly addictive (there's that word again). It is easy to waste an entire day looking at all the pretty toys go by and occasionally buy one. Woot Offs are more exciting than Vegas. The Woot Off is only one of the many other promotions on Woot. The launch event is another but read about it in the FAQ. It's pretty funny.

The single best promotion that Woot puts on is the Bag O Crap. For $1 plus the usual shipping you get a bag of three items. You don't know what those items are but, hey, it's only a dollar (90 cents to my Canadian friends and practically free to those whose lives are denominated in Euros). Folks I know who have bought the Bag O Crap claim that it is not crap at all but really good stuff. Problem is, they go so fast I can never get one. You have to decide ahead of time to just buy it when you see it, without thinking about it.

The Site Design is Spectacular

The Woot site is one of the best e-Commerce sites I have ever encountered. It is so easy to use, anyone can figure it out. If you see something you like you click on an enormous orange button that says “I want one!” No mistaking what that's about. Once you decide to buy something using the huge button, you fill in your information (unless it's stored from a previous purchase) and click on another giant orange button that says “Buy this now!” The label above the button tells you to click on this “ridiculously large button” just in case “Buy this now!” doesn't get the message across.

Woot is one of the greatest ideas I've ever seen for marketing and selling products. The Woot people have extended the concept to T-Shirts and Wine. For a wine aficionado like me, Wine.Woot is truly dangerous to the wallet. Thank goodness they don't have Cigar.Woot. That would push me over the edge into bankruptcy for sure. Like classic Woot and Wine.Woot, it would be too easy to get sucked in and just buy on impulse.

Now, let me see that 26inch monitor again. Oh man. That feels good. So good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New and (sort of) Improved

As Bob Dylan said “the times they are a' changin' “ So what does that have to do with technology? Everything! Lately, we have been inundated by new updates to old friends. It began a few months ago with the Firefox 3.0 launch (which is now up to 3.03 and they are talking about 3.1 soon). Since then we have seen a rapid succession of new versions of Twitter, Jott, Internet Explorer, Skype, and now a UI upgrade for LinkedIn and the long awaited release of OpenOffice 3. In all fairness, IE 8 and Skype 4 are technically beta releases but that's meaningless. Heck, some software has been in “Beta” for so long I'm beginning to think it is just a euphemism for Version 1 (Plaxo Pulse anyone?).

So let's look at two new releases and what they do for us.

Nice, Not Thrilling, but Nice.

The new OpenOffice, version 3, just came out and I have to say that I like it. Of course, I liked version 2. That explains a lot. It is faster loading, but I don't see many new features. The new quickstart menu perhaps? Looks great on a Linux netbook designed for the unwashed masses but does little for everyone else. The UI is still decidedly old school and has seen only minor updates. The new Extension Manager, which looks a whole lot like the Firefox/Thunderbird extension manager, is a definite improvement. The (limited) support for DOCX formats is also very nice. It really doesn't matter since almost no one uses the DOCX format, even users of Word 2007, but it comes in handy on occasion.

Overall, the features that made OpenOffice 2 great are what makes OpenOffice 3 great. While not as pretty as the Microsoft Office suite, it gets the job done just as easily. It costs much less to buy than Office, zero being less than anything. That's a plus. The ability to extend OpenOffice is also useful, especially since major players like Sun do put out decent extensions. The PDF creation capability is a big part of why people use OpenOffice. I can't say that I notice a speed difference but it still works right and that's all I ask.

OpenOffice is still a contender. As more and more netbooks deploy Linux, the market share for OpenOffice will continue to increase. Now, if they could just clean up the UI so it doesn't look like something only a geek could love...

Not again!

Once again, I sign on to LinkedIn and find the UI changed and not for the better. They keep monkeying with the layout and each time they do, important stuff gets buried and yet, the interface gets more cluttered. Neat trick. Less good stuff and more of a mess. Kind of like my garage but I digress...

It looks like LinkedIn is trying to go all Facebook on us. That's fine for college students and teenagers. It doesn't work for businesspeople. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of the new features, especially the groups. It has come a long way from its days as an online resume. They just can't seem to stop fooling around with the interface. Perhaps the problem is trying to shoehorn too much into one piece of software. In contrast, the Plaxo Pulse idea, which is a bit like a Twitter stream, seems to work better. I get ongoing updates from people I know and can dive in further when I want to. It's a clean interface while LinkedIn's is not.

This seems to be the season for upgrades. Cool! Sort of. OpenOffice might have waited a bit longer if it meant a UI upgrade. LinkedIn should have left well enough alone. Jott completely messed up their latest version, annoying loyal users in the process. Xpenser is up next for an new release. Let's see how they do.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Here's To The New Skype

I'm one of those people who likes Beta software. I like being one of the first kids on the block to test drive new software. There is the thrill of discovery and the excitement of "the new". In that spirit, I recently downloaded and installed the Beta release (now releases) of the new Skype 4. It is radically different from the current version. It has taken me some time to really get into this release. I'm glad I stuck with it because truly is a step forward. However, the changes are pretty radical and take some getting used to.

Skype made some serious mistakes in the initial Beta release. I thought that I must have gone senile when I first used it. I couldn't find how to access groups anywhere. They were clearly there - other plugins could still "see" groups - but I had no way to access them. That's because there was no way to access them. Skype had taken them out but, gladly, they are back.

The new view is much bigger, more like a web page. This is cumbersome to say the least. Usually, one only wants a simple contacts list visible. More information about contacts and during calls is great and Skype 4 has it. Most of the time, it simply takes up too much desktop real estate. Thankfully, Skype now includes a compact view that shrinks the contact list down to it's old dimensions while allowing the new stuff to be displayed when you click on a contact. Nice save!

The half dozen tabs are now gone and good riddance to old rubbish. That was pretty cumbersome and made it hard to look at a call screen while still looking at the contact list. You had to click all over the place. And try looking at multiple contacts at the same time. Now the contact information pops up to the right or pops up a window in compact mode. I especially like that last option. I can have multiple contact windows open at the same time, making it easy to have multiple IM message streams going simultaneously.

At it's core, Skype is about calling. The IM, SMS, and video are nice but the ability to make inexpensive phone calls is the primary reason to use Skype. SkypeOut is still the least expensive way to call long distance (not including Skype to Skype), especially overseas. That has not been lost in this new release. In fact, My SkypeOut account is easily accessible from the new interface, something that was a bit more cumbersome in earlier versions.

The only thing I am not yet sure of is compatibility with older plugins and hardware. My Pidgin plugin is working fine. At home I have a doo hickey that allows me to use my regular telephone with Skype. I am hesitant to upgrade my home computer to Skype 4 for fear of rendering tha very useful device unusual. Curiously, the speed dial feature that my Skype phone relys on no longer seems to be available. In the end, all UI changes aside, if Skype 4 doesn't have decent backward compatibility with hardware and software plugins, it will be a failure.

All in all, I like the direction. This latest release goes a long way toward making this a worthy successor to Skype 3. I await the next release with great anticipation.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Jott from Jott

A little while ago I wrote about the bait and switch that Jott pulled. For those who only occasionally read this blog (for shame!), Jott offered a wonderful set of features for their service and then, when they finished the "Beta", pulled many of those features into a paid service.

At the time I wrote that post, I predicted that usage would drop off. Many of the more useful features were now part of the paid service, so there was less reason to use Jott. Low and behold, I got an e-mail from Jott this morning saying "Please return to Jott!" That's right, they sent be a beg-o-gram.

Even better, they offered me three tips for "taking full advantage of Jott". Of course, none of their tips included bringing back the valuable links that made the system useful in the first place. My personal favorite was the tip that suggested a link to Google Calendar. That, of course, is one of the features of the Premium, for-Pay version.

So, follow this chain of events:
  • I stopped using Jott because they took away features.
  • I didn't get enough value from those features to pay for them.
  • Please come back, we love you.
  • But you have to pay for that love.
I don't mind ads for free services. I don't get enough value to use Jott at all without the links. I don't get enough value from all of it to pay their rates. Because I don't use it I don't see the ads. They lose ad revenue but don't get subcriber revenue. The begin the death spiral.

If only they had kept the basic service the same and found ways to integrate with corporate systems that I might pay for, everything would be fine. Instead, they got nothing. This email shows that they know that.

So, I'm laughing at this feeble attempt to gain my loyalty by having me pay for it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Gives a Chrome

Google just came out with the beta of its new browser called Chrome. (Note to Mozilla: You have a browser technology called Chrome too. Isn't that trademark infringement? But I digress...). Predictably, a lot of tech writers went all agog over it. "It's so fast" they said with glee. That might be, in part, because it is unencumbered by features. "Ooo. Each tab runs in it's own process" they giggled. Like that means anything to the average joe. I get that an errant Javascript program won't hang your browser, but that's a problem that even a geek encounters with low frequency.

Here is the crux of the matter: Chrome is made by geeks and ultimately for geeks. It lacks the type of basic features that most normal people want and replaces them with features that normal people don't care about. The little task manager? Nice... if you are a geek. Most people don't know what the Windows Task Manager is and that's way more useful on a regular basis.

The flaws are more obvious then the features. Where's the stupid print button? Yeah I get the "minimal interface" philosophy but regular people doing regular things need a regular old print button. If I have to look for it or remember a key combination (which is sometimes like playing Twister with your hands) it's no help.

What is readily apparent is that this is not really a browser at all. It's an advanced web application and Javascript engine. Now that I understand. There, the minimal interface makes sense since the application is going to handle all the typical application cores. That's not a browser though. It's also not unique. A very neat application called Bubbles has done this for awhile. I'm using it right now to run my Zoho Writer word processor as if it were a desktop application. Mozilla has something like it, called Prism, as well.

Which brings me to the final point. If this is ultimately meant to be a browser, then why? We already have Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Opera without even diving into the hundred or so specialty browsers. What is the point of another one? To stick it to Microsoft? That's not going to happen. Instead, Google is going to harm Mozilla, their erstwhile partner, the most. Why not, instead, contribute the technology to the Mozilla Foundation and get it into Firefox. That way you help your partner and stick it to Microsoft. If this is meant to be a next generation web application engine then "too late!" It's already been done several times over. Day late and a dollar short.

Or maybe Google's collective head has just swelled a bit too large. Perhaps, they are starting to think that anything they come up with is naturally better and should replace everything else in the world. More likely, they are callously trying to undercut their search partners so they can grab a bit more of the search revenue for themselves.

As we sit and view Google ten years after their inception, we see a company that may be losing its way. In the past year they have started to undermine their own partners, encroach on people's privacy with their obnoxious picture taking, and released ho-hum software that causes disruptions but adds little to the technology space.

Not too cool Google. Not too cool.

In the meantime, Chrome is pretty lame and its best features (from a user point of view) are already available in Firefox. If you like the interface (but with a print button!) try the Chromifox theme for Firefox. If you like the ability to peel off a tab to your desktop, you can do that already with Firefox. Get jazzed up by having a tab run as a separate process? It's called "Open in New Window". And try Bubbles or Mozilla's Prism for a Web Application engine. They are just as fast and easy.

And don't let Google screw Mozilla by undercutting the search revenue necessary to keep Mozilla alive. That's just wrong. And they call Microsoft the Evil Empire...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Once Again, The Old Beta and Switch

Okay, I love Jott! I admit it. Of course, if you read this blog, you know that already. The ability to translate voice to text from my cell phone is clearly useful. Use it to connect to on-line services like Sandy, Xpenser, or Google Calendar, and you have a truly coordinated set of services that enhances business and personal life. It is best viewed as part of a gestalt, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Now, all that is changing. Jott has come out of Beta and is charging for premium plans. That in itself doesn't bother me. Lots of Open Source projects and free Web sites do this. They have free offerings and premium offerings. That's typical and expected. Free services are supported through advertising or try to entice you to sign up for premium services. You know this going in so it doesn't bother you when it happens. If you think ads are evil (I don't) then it's up to you to decide if you want to make your pact with the Devil.

At the core of this free and premium services strategy is the idea that a basic body of functions is established in the free service and that you pay for the features that go beyond the free. Jott is clearly establishing that model. They have a free service called Jott Basic and then a couple of premium services that include additional features.

The problem is that the social contract of the Beta says that you don't take away features after the Beta and tell Beta testers to pay for them. Ultimately, We've done some work for you. We've suffered through problems that no paying customer would tolerate. The community has pumped you full of ideas for new services that could make you money. We have promoted you to friends, family, and business associates. Free testing, free ideas, and free marketing should count for something.

For the folks behind Jott, this social contract did not amount to much. The Jott Basic takes away the best and most important features - the ability to e-mail via voice and to connect to services like Xpenser and Sandy. There are still some basic links open (Twitter for example) but the most useful ones are only available from the paid subscription services.

Jott has done a Beta and switch.They have given away great features and gotten people hooked on those features. They never made it clear that these features would not stay free after the Beta. It was reasonable to assume that, like most other on-line Beta programs (ala Google or Linkedin), the feature set introduced during the Beta would be the free set. Instead, Jott has decided to break the social contract and eviscerate the free service. I'd like to see them try and get Beta testers for anything again.

What is sad is that there were so many better ways to get people signed up for premium services. For example, offering longer jotts (as they do for the highest premium service) makes sense. The Blackberry software makes sense as a part of a premium package as well. Offering new links to other services, especially paid business services, makes sense. Links to or corporate e-mail gateways would have been something people would pay for. Cutting back on jotts to e-mail and links to free services comes across as a cost cutting move pushed by their accounting department. And the old fashioned desktop applications they are giving away? Sorry, totally old school and uninteresting.

I will make a prediction here. Jott usage will drop off dramatically. As good as it is, it is not tremendously useful without the e-mail and links. Rather than pay $4 a month ($48 a year) to get what we have been getting for free, current Jott users will just trail off. Oh, we'll stay signed up for the occasional use but won't be heavy users. That means that advertisers will see less value in Jott and stop using them and few people will convert to premium.

So, watch Jott over the next 12 months. Either they will be wildly successful and my crystal ball needs realignment, they will be on the verge of disaster, or they will change their offer. I'm hoping for the latter.

Jott people, if this is a Beta test of the marketing and sales program, you could have just asked first. If not, this will be as pleasant as sitting on a spike. Hope you can jump off it before you impale yourself.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ditch the Computer for the Net - Not!

I have been fooling around with Internet desktops for a little while now. Two in particular have floated to the top of the heap, Desktoptwo and Jooce (pronounced like juice). While they have the same fundamental goals, the approach is quite different.

When looking at Internet desktops it's important to understand why anyone would want these. Basically, they claim to allow you to become free of your desktop computer or laptop. In other words, you can access your "Desktop" from any browser, presumably even on a smart phone. That is an attractive option for people who need to access files and applications from different computers and devices. If I'm visiting my family in Florida, I could, in theory, access my desktop remotely. But, as Yogi Berra once said, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." So, I'm skeptical.

Both Jooce and Desktoptwo (and all other Internet desktops) allow you to have personal communications and storage in your virtual desktop. That seems to be the core of it. It sounds like a nice idea until you consider the following:

  1. Lot's of options exist for accessing files through on-line storage applications. Dropbox and XDrive are two I use regularly. Specialty services also exist such as Flicr and Google Picasa for pictures. Do I need another place to store and share files?
  2. They continue to rely in some fashion on local machines. Jooce especially only has the ability to display or run media files such as audio, video, or pictures, and do instant messaging. Desktoptwo comes with more applications including a version of OpenOffice and a PDF reader but no video capability. Applications can't be installed on your on-line desktop. You are completely dependent on what is provided as part of the desktop or some other site on the internet. If I can keep my documents on Google Docs or Zoho, and my pictures on Flicr, do I need this?
  3. The same problems exist as with all on-line applications, especially its unavailability if you are lacking a network connection or the desktop service company's servers are down.
  4. I don't see how you can make real money. Desktoptwo has ads that are exceptionally annoying but I never read them. The fact is, they seem out of place on a desktop. This was true ten years ago in the age of Pointcast and other push media. Jooce doesn't have any ads at all. Maybe they hope to sell the software to ISVs...

There are real differences between Jooce and Desktoptwo that, unfortunately, highlight the problems of virtual desktops. To that end, I welcome you to enjoy these mini-reviews of each. Keep in mind, both are officially in Beta so, to be fair, these are preliminary comments.


I like the look and feel of Jooce. It has a Gnome-like (as in Linux/Gnome interface) look that, while a bit cute, is at least visually appealing. You can customize the desktop a bit with your own wallpaper which is nice. Jooce actually gives you two desktops - a private one and a public one. The public one allows you to share files with other Jooce users. Switching and sharing files between them is easy.

Jooce is very media-centric. While you can upload (there's that tether to the local machine again) and store any files you want it only has applications for audio, video, and graphics files. While this is very limited, they are integrated into the desktop seamlessly. For example, if you open a picture, it appears on you desktop as a photo or picture that you tossed on your desktop. Neat! Audio just plays without appearing to launch a separate application. This is the true innovation of Jooce. It strives to create a desktop where applications are part of the desktop and not separate from it. This is also a weakness since the number of applications is limited (to the above add an IM application that can connect to major services and that's all) and even if available would be hard to integrate so seamlessly. They are promising e-mail soon but even viewing a PDF requires that the viewer be part of your local browser environment and hence your local machine. Go to a machine that doesn't understand PDF and where you are not allowed to install a viewer and you can't access your files.

Jooce has promise as a way to store and share files but it is still anchored to the resources available on the local machine a bit too much.


Desktop two has a more conventional look and feel. It has lots of conventional looking (kind of a KDE-ish) icons on a conventional looking desktop. It is best described as flat and uninteresting. It does have more applications including the suite, e-mail, calendar, RSS reader, IM, a website editor, blogging tool, and a PDF viewer, though I can't find a video player.

It is unbelievably slow. Slow to start up, slow to load applications, and slow to upload files. Worse yet, it often appears to be uploading files but they don't appear on the "hard drive". It appears that it it can take so long to transfer a file, especially a large one, that it is unclear that it is actually happening. This makes it too easy to start an upload, assume that something mysterious has occurred and shut down the desktop before it can fully upload the file. And the ads are really annoying.

The interface is also Flash-based which generates weird error messages. For example, while trying to empty my trash bin I got an error message telling me that the script was taking too long in this "movie". I know that is because of the roots of Flash as a media scripting applications but it is out of place here.

So, Jooce hasn't enough juice yet to be useful and Desktoptwo, in trying to be a full fledged computer in a virtual, on-line space, is slow and ponderous. The edge goes to Jooce, however, for its look and feel. In fact, I would like to have the interface on my regular desktop or phone. It is, at best, an adjunct for a real desktop but that's enough. Desktoptwo seems to be shooting for the corporate market for virtual desktops. It's got a ways to go then.

I like the idea of a desktop that runs in a browser which gives me basic functions no matter what platform I'm running it on (including a phone). On-line desktops have a while to go before that is a reality. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Friday, August 08, 2008

I Am Dumb

If you haven't heard about this already, then let me be the first to give you a chuckle. Apparently, someone uploaded an application to the new Apple iPhone store called "I Am Rich". Priced at 999.99 (the highest price the store allows) it does basically nothing. If you click on its icon, which is shaped like a ruby, it displays a picture of a bigger ruby. The author makes no attempt to hide the fact that this application doesn't do anything. He is right upfront with this being $1000 for something completely useless. The application's sole reason for being is to display to the world that you are rich enough to toss down $1K on nothing. It is the 21st century version of lighting your cigar with $100 bills. Channel Web had a great article about it.

Two things really caught my interest here. First, that eight people actually paid for this. That's incredible. Even if you are Bill Gates-wealthy you don't throw your money away like that. The more important fact to emerge in this whole farce is that some of these people were not rich and did it because they thought it was a joke. Are you kidding me? At what point after they entered their credit card numbers in did this cease to be funny. Hello! It's not a joke when you pay serious money for it.

This leads me to the real purpose of this rant - idiot proofing. There has always been tons of talk in the engineering profession about making something idiot proof. As this situation shows, it simply can't be done. By definition, smart people don't understand how idiots work. They simply cannot conceive of the stupid thinks some people will do. Internally, they dismiss the really dumb behaviors of some people as being impossible. To themselves they say "There's no way anyone would do that". They might not even be able to think of something to mentally edit out because it is not how they would act or think. Just look around YouTube and you can see all the stupid things people do that a reasonable person wouldn't even be able to wrap their head around let alone come up with on their own.

Simply put: You can't predict what an idiot will do. You can only react to what they have already done.

You can, however, predict what a reasonable person will do. Even if the person is inexperienced you know they will act in a reasonable manner. As a reasonable person you can understand and predict that. You can say "Oh. I can see how someone would do that."

So, I want to advocate a different design philosophy called "reasonable person proof". Strive to make products such that you keep a reasonable person from doing reasonable things that are somehow harmful. If this product is in an area you don't know very well, ask people in that area what they might do. Observe normal people using your prototype in normal ways. If you design hammers, watch a carpenter hammer nails into a wall and come up with a way to keep the shaft from shattering. Don't try to keep a moron from getting hurt when he uses the hammer on his big toe to see what it feels like. (If you don't believe me on that one check out this video of a bunch of morons doing just that. All I had to do was go to YouTube and type in "hit toe with hammer." For the record I only looked for the video after writing the sentence but I digress.)

Rather then try and keep all manner of stupidhead from doing something completely dumb and harmful with your product, recognize that you can't predict that. Put on all those warning labels that cover you legally but don't try and design around it. It's a fools game (pun intended). Instead, assume that your customers are reasonable people and design for them. They deserve that attention. The idiots do not.

Oh, and everyone email Apple and tell them to put "I Am Rich" back on the Apple Store. Whether it's a demonstration of fabulous wealth or a honey pot for dummies, they should let us make the choice including the dummies.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Name Game

The great thing about kids is that they don't know all the things that that adults know. This makes them open to anything, any thought, any idea. They are not constrained by "the obvious".

So, I was taken aback by a question from my daughter the other day. She asked me "how do cars get their names?" I, of course, launched into a Marketing 101 lesson about names and brands. I started by telling her about how names are sometimes meant to describe and invoke an image. Others, I said, are meant to invoke an image or create an emotional response. This got me to thinking more deeply about names in the technology sector. Since technical marketing is a big part of what I do, this is not simply academic.

I mused on the names I've known. Windows, Macintosh, and the Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless-B Cable/DSL Router.

Over the years I'm heard a bunch of great names and a lot of silly ones (I still think that is a stupid name). On reflection I began to realize that computer product names fall into a series of buckets.

So I present to you "Tom's Guide to Technical Product Names" complete with commentary.

The Functional

One of the most popular ways to name a technical product is by assigning a totally functional name. These names usually sound like a part number, such as XLP 3010. The purpose is to give a sense of industrial strength and encode some kind of information in it. With a naming scheme like this, you can easily tell that the 3012 has two ports and the 3014 has four.

Of course, you would never remember what the two or four ports are for. It is a conceit to assume that a customer will know your peculiar nomenclature. If you don't know what an XLP is, then the distinction between 3010, 3012, 02 3014 is lost on you. Just look at the IBM Storage products to get a sense of this. What does DS6000 mean? Nothing unless you know what it is already. And in case you think I'm picking on IBM, go look at Linksys product names. Some of these are meant for the SOHO market! What are they thinking?

By the way, would someone please tell LG that I can never remember that my phone is an LG-VX8350. And yes, I had to look it up. Razor is a much better name.

A subspecies of The Functional name is The Descriptive name. This type of name tells you exactly what the product is. For example, the HP BladeSystem is a blade server system. No kidding. The problem with The Descriptive name is that it's boring. You might know what it is but will you care?

The Image

Some products are all about image. They have fancy names that tell you nothing but sure sound cool. I will put Microsoft (a great name) Windows Vista in this category. This was one that my kids asked me about. When I tried to explain it was supposed to invoke an image of a horizon without limits they looked at me like I was ready for the old folks home.

The problem with image names is that they either connect or they don't. There's not a lot of middle ground. Over all, image names are the best. They are not boring and they catch your interest. That's why I like Jott. It gives you that sense of quickly jotting down notes and sending them to someone else. Memo would not have cut it. Descriptive but dull. Jott is cool without being obscure or cute.

The Consumer

Obviously for more consumer oriented products, more consumer oriented names are in order. Unfortunately, as an industry we don't do that well. Some work well like iPhone because they are part of an overall branding strategy. The reason iPhone works is because Apple spent years convincing us that "i" anything meant an innovative and cool-as-all-get-out product.

The drawback is when the name is too cute for technical people or grown ups to buy and not feel stupid about. This is probably why I won't sign up for Twitter. It's not that I don't get Twitter. I just hate the name.

That goes for color. Recently I bought a portable hard drive for someone in the company. The one requirement was that it not be in a color that embarrassed them. Finding one was harder than it should have been. Same goes for names. As much as I like the idea of the ASUS Eee. I can't imagine whipping it out in front of a customer and say "How do you like my new Eee?" Not happening...

The "Huh?"

Some names are simply incomprehensible. They make so little sense that you can only go "What were they thinking?" One of my favorite online services is like that, called "I Want Sandy". Sandy is supposed to be your online e-mail assistant. Get it? Sandy is your assistant so you want her there to help you. My apologies to the folks at Values of N but it's a great product with a name that sounds like a porn film. I'm surprised that more firewalls don't block

Or the Dell Vostro laptop. Is that Serbian or did they just make it up? Maybe it's a Transformer. Even Inspirion was better since it invoked an image of being inspired in some way. How about the Archos media play. What's an Archos? A Greek Hero like Achilles? We know what happened to him. An old company I worked for used to pick names from foreign languages that invoked certain images. Since many people didn't speak those languages, the imagery was lost on them and the names mostly sounded silly.

I admit that coming up a product, brand, or company name is not an easy thing. Big companies spend millions trying to tease out a good name from fickle consumer attitudes. Still, the techie world seems to be especially bad at it. Perhaps it's the geeky nature of what we do. Wrong side of the brain and all.

It seems to me that we have to get more folks in the industry whose other side of the brain works better.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Note to Google - Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It Right

Google Maps has come to my home town. At some point, in recent days, their photo van must have crawled up my street and took pictures. This was noticed by the local media which reported on it. Out of curiosity, I looked for my own house and there it was.

This was rather disconcerting. There in full view of the world was my house with a car in the driveway. Exposed to the entire world without my permission. A few things bother me about this. One, it does feel like an invasion of privacy. It's weird to have people taking pictures of you and posting them. It's not the same as being at a public event and being in the newspaper. It's plain creepy to think that these people are taking pictures of every house on my block. Big Brother is not always the government. Just look at Google Health and tell me it doesn't give you the creeps. This certainly does.

The second thing I don't like is not being asked. I am making the argument here that my house is part of my family's brand. It says something about us. Using it's picture to make money (this is not altruism on Google's part) violates my personal trademark. I wonder if I put a big TM on my front lawn if that would stick in court. I would love to see it tested. Isn't my image and the image of where I live as valuable as the images of a celebrity, at least to me?

The final aspect of this that really annoys me is how it violated my security. By publishing detailed pictures of my house (as opposed to the grainy top view of Google Earth) it give potential thieves and miscreants value information that I would rather they don't have. Google should think of it as publishing their internal IP addresses. Not too harmful on the surface but valuable information to a hacker. Same applies here.

In the end, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that Google is not applying the same standard to itself as to regular people. I bet if I took pictures of their headquarters and published it for money, they would have something to say about it. Shouldn't I get the same respect? If someone used those photos to break in to their HQ and steal servers, you can bet they'd have their lawyers crawling over them like ants at a kindergarten picnic. So, Google, eat your own cooking. The double standard is pretty awful here.

The next thought comes by way of Google's response to objections. So far, Google's reply to complaints has been that it is perfectly legal because they did in the street. Maybe that's true. I can't tell since I'm not a lawyer. But that doesn't make it right. Whatever happened to "Don't be evil"? Google knows that this upsets people, it knows that they are on shaky moral ground, yet they hide behind legalities.

I'll say this, it doesn't give me confidence that they should hold my most private data. What if Google Health was to exploit a hole in the existing law that let them give away private health information. It doesn't matter whether they do or not, or whether the hole is there or not. I only need the suggestion that they might try and find such a hole. If they can't see the immorality of taking pictures of people's homes and posting them, then they might have some other moral lapse when it really counts.

Eventually, someone will be robbed or murdered, or a child abducted and the perpetrator will reveal that he planned it with the help of Google Maps pictures of the house. Then you will find Google scrambling to find a way to convince us it was not their fault. Of course, we won't be convinced. The legalities won't matter then.

In the meantime Google, get the picture of my house off your site. You do not have permission!

Monday, June 23, 2008

At Least It Was Somewhat Relevant

As anyone who has read this blog before knows, I hate spam. However, as I've said int eh past, there is something I hate even more. In the past I have called it treet, after the spam-like canned meat.

I bring this up because it happened again. After having comments jammed into my blog from all types of spammers, selling rather suspicious items (like instant M.B.A's and even less savory products), I started moderating comments. That means that I go through the hassle of reviewing all potentially posted comments for content. I reject nothing that is not treet. Of course, since so few comments get posted, it's not a big job.

This brings me to the current post. Someone posted a comment in a blog entry I made over a year ago. March 2007 to be exact. The first thing that struck me was that someone was actually writing a comment to a blog posting that old. The second thing that got my attention was that it seemed actually relevant. It had to do with on-line backup but it seemed incredibility silly and not at all written like a serious comment. It said:

"I just discovered online backup and I think it’s a good way to protect data!"

That's like saying that they had just discovered cars and think they're a good way to get around. You could not have designed a more naive comment. My kids know what online backup is and think it's a good idea. Rather than jump to a conclusions I decided to look further. I mean, maybe this was someone who has been living in a cave with a goat.

The URL included with the post referenced two different companies. The first was for something called Clickmeter and the second for Memopal. Clickmeter is an online tracking and marketing company. They provide a way to track clickthroughs in embedded links, kind of like DoubleClick. This immediately gave me an icky feeling. Once again, this was not a legitimate comment to the blog! They probably have some automated program to insert these links into blogs and forums that match user selectable criteria. Everyone has a right to make a living but I think it's pretty clear that inserting advertising disguised as commentary is deceptive and, at least on my blog, heavily frowned upon.

The second part of the link seems to involve the company called Memopal. It is an online backup service. Here's where it gets sad. If they had sent me an e-mail pointing me at their site directly, and not as treet in my blog, I would have looked at it. If it was found worthy, I probably would have given them a post since I like online backup.

That's right, folks. If they hadn't tossed an ad into my blog they would have had a shot at a positive post. At worst I would have simply ignored them. Instead, here I am heaping scorn on them. Is this such a lame service that they need to spew spam/treet into blogs? Are they really on the same level with the fake college degrees and male enhancement products? Do they think it makes them look smart to have copy that looks like it was written by a teenager posting on Twitter? This does not give me confidence as a place to put my precious data.

To put it simply, this was stupid. Really stupid.

So, to summarize. Despite how obviously stupid it is to spam people, companies continue to do it. Even technology companies do it. Instead of creating an ally and promoter of their products (like I have been for Dropbox, Zoho, Stikkets, I Want Sandy, and others) they have become the subject of my ire.

Now, I'll bet some old school marketing wag is probably thinking "It doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they're talking about you!" Bull! If what they are saying is that you appear to be stupid and are contributing to the proliferation of spam, I doubt that works for you.

To Memopal I say this - whoever you hired to do this should be fired. Not in a month. Now. They clearly show poor judgment. If you don't really understand new media, stay away from it or hire someone who does. Do that now or you will find more and more derision heaped upon you and will not succeed.

Oh, and stay away from my blog.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Waiting on Extensions

I don't know when the Mozilla Foundation will finally get this straight but here it is again - some extensions really matter! For those upgrading to Firefox 3.0, there will be grave disappointment when they discover certain popular and key extensions are not yet updated.

I get the philosophy of having a lightweight browser where you add the features you want through extensions. However, some extensions are so popular that they take on the same weight as a standard feature. Ultimately, if the extension is not ready, then the whole software package is not ready. You can't act like extensions and plugins are part of the rich universe of your product and then ignore them when you launch a new version of that product. When the extension doesn't work it is the same as having removed a feature.

Take IETab. This extension is not only great to have, it's essential. There are still a great many websites that are built for Internet Explorer and won't render or function correctly in Firefox. IETab elegantly deals with this problem by allowing Firefox to use the IE engine in a tab. Other extensions simply launch IE which is not what you want when you open a bunch of tabs. This is a critical feature for Firefox to be useful outside the closed world of Open Source people who have disdain for Microsoft. Yet, IETab is not ready for download into Firefox 3. Heck, I can't even find it in the Add-ons site anymore. It only seems to exist at the development site,

Every time Mozilla launches a new version of Firefox or Thunderbird, we go through this. Half of the important extensions don't work or are unavailable from the automatic upload service. This is too consistent a problem to be accidental.

It calls into question the whole idea of community development. I'm not criticizing the author of IETab. They have better things to do than keep up with Mozilla. It's up to Mozilla to make sure these important extensions (really features) are available. If the community can't do it then Mozilla has to. This is the millstone around the neck of the Open Source community - inconsistent support for vital features. If Mozilla has to rely on people who do this as a hobby for their product to be functional, it will never be truly competitive.

Since I hate complaints without solutions here's what I suggest. First, find out what extensions are important to the majority of users. These are now features. Whether you make them available as a built in feature or an extension doesn't matter. They just have to be available. Second, design Firefox to insure backward compatibility with older extensions. A lot of extensions won't load because they say they only support the last version. My guess is that many of these extensions would run fine if it weren't for the version check. Maybe the solution is as simple as a override on the version check for a particular extensions.

Finally, stop releasing product until you have tested the critical extensions. Recognize that your work is not done until the extension maker's work is done. It would also help if the latest version is available for automatic update. Sometimes extensions are available on the author's website for quite some time before they hit the automatic update facility.

Luckily, I backed up my extensions and kept FireFox 2.0 around. I'll stick with that until I know all my critical extensions are updated. This is not the way I would have liked it to go.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Virtualization Made Easy

I've worked with a number of virtualization products including VMWare and QEMU. While they are fine products and definitely get the job done, I've always had two complaints about them. First, they are tough to configure. In a lot of cases, getting a virtual machine up and running is time consuming and frustrating. The second complaint is the footprint it leaves on the system. VMWare in particular uses up a lot of system resources and can take forever to get loaded. Now, VMWare folks, don't get angry. I like your product and it is definitely industrial grade.

That said, I like VirtualBox from Sun a whole lot better. To begin with, it has a very small footprint of it's own. It loads quickly and takes up few resources. The interface is clean and easy to use. It has wizards that walk you through setting up virtual machines easily. There are presets for different types of common operating systems such as Linux and Windows variants. Setting up virtual disks is a snap and connecting to CD Image files (commonly known as ISO files) is equally easy.

Does this make VirtualBox the most robust, industrial grade virtualization system for use in data centers? I dunno. For the casual user who might want to do some cross OS development or a QA engineer testing on various platforms, this is so much easier than anything else I've tried. You don't need expensive training. You don't need the "Enterprise" addition to get anything meaningful done. And you don't need to read a manual the size of the New York City phone book or hire a consultant for the equivalent of the GNP of a small country just to do the basic stuff.

Some of the ubergeeks out there will probably assume I'm just stupid. They will argue that VMWare and its ilk is plenty easy. Argue all you want. I've used the others and this is, by far, the easiest to use and the quickest to deploy.

Besides being easy, it works very well. I have installed a variety of common operating systems, including various Windows and Linux systems, as well as more unusual ones like OpenSolaris and FreeDos. With the exception of OS/2 Warp (I don't have a floppy drive and the OS requires one to load) and Windows 98 (still don't know what that was about) everything installed flawlessly. I can't say I've had that same experience with other virtualization software.

Oh, and did I mention it was free. That's right. It Open Source from Sun. Sure, if I was deploying this in a data center I would pay for the service and support. At least I would have been able to fully evaluate what I was paying to get serviced and supported.

Virtualization is a great idea. It beats dual boot arrangement or having multiple machines. VirtualBox has made it very easy and cheap to do. It's great for the occasional or medium duty user.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

You Can't Get There From Here

It is rare that I find myself traveling over a weekend, unless it's for vacation. Sometimes, it's unavoidable. So here I find myself in Hsinchu, Taiwan over a weekend. Taiwan is a wonderful country. The people are nice and most days you can't beat the weather. It's 84 degrees F and sunny right now. Perfect for a lazy day at the beach. Oh, and the tea is incredibly good. Even the stuff in the hotel.

To me it seemed a perfect day for some urban exploration. Hsinchu is a medium sized city of about 419,000 people according to the city's website. Like many mid-sized and fairly new cities, it is not a tourist place. There are a handful of museums and cultural sites spread throughout the city sprawl. It's mostly a place of regular people doing the regular activities of a regular life. There are some really nice restaurants if you go with someone who speaks Manadarin Chinese and know what to order.

I'm not one for sightseeing alone. I view sightseeing as a team sport, best played with others. I was also feeling lazy. Not wanting to haul myself up to Taipei, I settled on some urban exploration. This is where the limitations of technology slapped me in the face. Having missed breakfast at the hotel (which ended at the impossibly early hour of 10am on a Sunday!) I went in search of a cup of coffee. Since this is a tea drinking nation, I figured I would be safest with a Starbucks. I know, ugly American, but I really need my coffee and the freeze dried stuff in the hotel room was not going to cut it. And there are Starbucks everywhere.

So, I did what any intelligent, American does these days - I checked out Google Earth to get the lay of the land. That's when I stepped in the first steaming pile of technology poop. People in China and Taiwan write in (imagine this) Chinese! Well, I can read names written in any language of the Western world because I can understand the characters. I know that Rue Madeline means Rue Madeline. Whether I know what that translates to or not, I can locate that on a map. Despite the fact that my query was in English and I was working from a computer that was configured entirely for English, my results came back with all th street names in Chinese characters. Pretty useless.

Now, to make matters worse, when I entered in the location of my hotel (in English) it sent me to some other place entirely. You could tell that the software was really struggling. That's when I stepped into the other steaming pile. There is no standard way to translate Chinese words into Western writing systems. In some cases, it's just that some sounds are not even in Western language. Or maybe it's that's nobody has tried to come to an agreement on how Chinese translates. Perhaps it's something else entirely. What matters to me is that Google Earth didn't know that Chung-hwa Road and Junghua Road were the same thing. If you say them, or especially hear a Chinese speaker say them, you get it. The software clearly doesn't.

Google maps was even worse. It couldn't find Taiwan at first. I had to (talk about irony) google "Google Maps Taiwan" before I could find the right version. And that version liberally mixed English and Chinese. Go to the American version of Google Maps, type in a non-US address, and it tries to find you something in the US that's similar. I got pointed at San Diego for some reason. Starbucks had embedded Microsoft Virtual Earth into their store locator which seemed to have a better handle on translations but still couldn't give me directions from my hotel to the store. Other map services faired no better.

As technology permeates our lives we come to depend on it. Google and Mapquest have become verbs and we rely on them to help us find were we are and where we are going. When the system breaks down, we are lost - figuratively and literally.

We also have to figure out this language thing. Asia, especially the Chinese parts of Asia, is growing rapidly. Everyone is doing business here. While it's great that there are more websites in Asian languages, there needs to be agreement on how to translate these languages into Western ones. Otherwise, many other business people will find themselves experienceing the old New England wag of "You can't there from here". Next time I'll buy myself an old fashioned map before coming over for a weekend.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stop, Drop, and Rock and Roll

Online personal storage has been around for years. Yahoo has had its Briefcase for eons. XDrive, a service of AOL, has also been around awhile. EMC just recently bought yet another on-line storage and backup company called Mozy. So you would think that another entry in this rather crowded field would be a cause for overwhelming ennui.

Happily, that is not the case with Dropbox, one of the latest entries into the on-line personal storage market. It's not so much what they do - all the other companies in the market perform similar functions - but the way they do it. Like XDrive and Mozy, Dropbox has a client interface for your desktop that allows the on-line storage to appear as a desktop folder or drive. Unlike XDrive and Mozy, Dropbox also supports this functionality for Macintosh computers without having to add additional software such as Adobe Air. Like XDrive and Briefcase, Dropbox has a web interface that allows you to access these files from any browser. Unlike those products, Dropbox has a crisp, clean interface. It's sort of the Sauvignon Blanc of interfaces - refreshing and somewhat tart. Briefcase in particular is in need of a face lift. It looks positively pre-2000. It's the Bordeaux that is long past its peak.

Unlike any of the above, Dropbox is fast or at least appears to be. It is very good at caching files so that they seem to be local in terms of performance. Even when you upload a lot of files at once, it is incredibly fast compared to other offerings.

Sharing files with others is very easy too. In fact, this is the strength of Dropbox. Let's say you have a big file that you want to send to someone. You can e-mail it and risk it choking as it pushes through yours and the recipients e-mail gateways. With Dropbox, you can simply upload the file and make it available though a browser link. If they also use Dropbox, you can share it them and it looks like a local or network drive, no matter whether they are on a Windows machine or a Mac. If you change or delete the file, those changes are made immediately available, just as if you changed them on a file server.

In the end, that's what Dropbox really is - an Internet file server. You can do all the things one normally does with shared and private drives on a local file server. It even supports drag and drop well. Compared to Dropbox, all the others seem slow and clunky.

About the only thing that XDrive and Mozy have that Dropbox doesn't is an automatic backup client built into the software. Since this "feature" does not work particularly well for either of these services, that's not much of a lack. Your usual tools including SyncToy work just fine with Dropbox.

Overall, Dropbox is an excellent on-line, personal storage service. I only hope they can figure out how to make money at it. Maybe Yahoo would like to buy it... if they aren't gobbled up themselves

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Zowie Zoho

A couple of months ago I wrote about how much I hated online office applications. It seemed to me that in their haste to stick it to Microsoft, online Office vendors such as Google had created a poor imitation of the world famous productivity suite. The applications were brain damaged - lacking in basic features, visually unappealing, and without a facility for working unconnected.

At the time I lumped Zoho in with the rest. I wish I hadn't. I have spent the last month or so using Zoho Writer for basic writing tasks, especially blogging. While it is not nearly as full featured as Word or Writer, it handles most basic writing tasks well.

Zoho Writer also allows you to work offline, a critical feature to me. It downloads some number of documents to your local storage and allows you to continue to work unconnected. Afterwards, Zoho syncs up your files with the online documents. Zoho also has complete versioning (which makes syncing easy) and includes various on-line collaboration functions. It does a fair job of exporting most important file types from major competitive applications and a very good job at exporting to Blogger. It allows you to create PDFs, a feature that Word still doesn't have. One minor annoyance: Zoho Writer lacks the spellcheck-as-you-go feature found in most word processors and disables the one on Firefox. That's a bit annoying but not fatal.

One thing I find fascinating is how Zoho provides the offline capablity. It's uses Google Gears! Zoho does something that Google Docs doesn't do yet using Google technology. That's practically the definition of ironic.

I haven't spent much time with the other Office-like applications. Zoho has all the usual suspects. I am especially hesitant to say anything positive about the spreadsheet module since few are as good as Excel including the one. The same is true for the PowerPoint clone. I'm not so impressed with Openoffice.orgs Impress.

I have to admit, at least for word processors, I have changed my mind about online office apps. While not perfect, Zoho Writer is a decent web-based word processor. It is a rival to Microsoft Works and a viable alternative to Word for those who need to do simple writing tasks. I wouldn't write a book using Zoho but then again, most of us rarely write a book.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What am I missing?

Maybe I'm not as smart as the rocket scientists at EMC. On the other hand, maybe they are just pursuing a bad strategy. My own ego requires I think the latter is the case so...

What I don't get is EMC's pursuit of Iomega. If this is a downmarket move ala Cisco and Linksys, then it's a not a good one. Iomega was once a great brand and technology leader. They invented the ZIP and Jazz drives and pioneered portable hard drives. They were to the 90's what SanDisk, Fabrik, and Maxtor are today - a premium purveyor of personal mobile storage.

Sadly, Iomega has fallen on hard times. First cheap CD-ROMs and later flash memory eroded the need for their supercharged floppy disk products. In comparison to these alternatives, the products that Iomega was selling became expensive, bulky, and low capacity. Lately, they have tried to produce personal storage devices such as CD and DVD writers as well as small, USB portable hard drives and tape cartridge devices. In other words, the commodity stuff that lots of companies are making.

Recently they were planning to sell out to a Chinese outfit called Excelstor. It was presented to the public that Iomega was buying Excelstor but it's really the other way around. This makes EMC's move even more mystifying. They are making an unwanted, unsolicited bid for a ho-hum consumer storage products company whose brand no longer has any cachet or even geek appeal. Ask your average teenager who Iomega is and they look at you like you're talking about Calvin Coolidge.

If EMC wanted to expand into consumer markets they could have purchased a startup on the upswing like Simpletech instead of letting Fabrik grab them. Heck, they could have gone for LaCie or even Maxtor if they wanted to attack the consumer market. Perhaps it would have cost more (though Fabrik only paid $43M for Simpletech) but you get what you pay for. Iomega is last century enough to be almost steampunk. On top of that all, EMC is getting a bunch of products, like the tape cartridge products, that they can't possibly think have any legs in the market.

So, I don't get it. I usually find EMC's moves wise. RSA gave them a strong security portfolio and no one can argue with the VMWare move. The market has proven that one. But Iomega? I think the rocket scientists might have midfired this time.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The New LinkedIn

Subtitle: "AJAX Gone Wild!" or "In Your Facebook Business People!"

LinkedIn, the social networking site for business people, just had a face lift. More like a face transplant. The whole interface has been redone in this jazzy AJAX manner. It now has movable modules, drop down or expanding menus galore, and pop-up boxes all over the place. Wow! So cool. Sooooooo cooolllllll dude!

And it stinks. What had once been a nice clean interface is now cluttered and busy. It hurts to look at it. What once looked professional now looks like something a high school kid would like. The previous interface was something you could have up on your computer at work and the boss would think "Ah! He's doing something constructive. Good man that Petrocelli." The new one looks like you're screwing around.

I have special disdain for the microblogging "Tom is..." feature. I predictably put up something dull and boring about work. This seems appropriate since the whole idea behind LinkedIn is about professional life. Do my business contacts really care that I had a Fish Fry for lunch? I doubt it.

So note to the LinkedIn people: Boo! I despise the MySpacing of your site. If you add videos, I'm leaving. And the cute icons? They make me puke. I don't deny that you needed new clothes. The site was getting tired looking. But you didn't need to dress it up like a streetwalker. Next time you want to change the interface get someone with the sensibilities of a CEO, not a college kid, to advise you.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Personal Storage is now Stupid Cheap

I mean stupid cheap. Like Jack Benny cheap. As in so cheap, I have sneakers that cost more. You get the picture...

A 500GB internal SATA drive goes for around US$100. I just bought a SimpleTech 2.5" 120GB USB drive for my laptop that uses no external power supply for around US$75. At this rate I'll be buying multi-Terabyte drives for my home network soon.

I can't get the economics here. At this rate can these drive manufacturers still be making money? The USB cable alone is worth a few bucks. Add in packaging, support, the cut the store gets, distribution and - oh yeah - the drive itself and what's left? $1.98? I exaggerate a little here but only a little.

I'm just old enough to remember the day when I had to remove programs from my hard drive to make room for more programs. Now, I just plug a new drive into my mini-NAS devices and - voila! - more than enough storage. The bigger problem is starting to be managing the data. I constantly misplace files and programs. I have software on my system that I no longer know what it does. Which is probably a clue that I don't need it. I have software for Mac OS 7 sitting on my network. I don't even own a Mac anymore!

Data storage has come a long way in 10 years. What used to be a valuable resource is turning into a cheap commodity. Who needs to clean off a hard drive anymore? Even with music and video files, it's hard to fill up these big drives. And, if I should happen to get above 60% utilization, I can plug in another massive drive for next to nothing. I'll get bored with what's on the drive long before that happens. The bottom line: for even a power user the growth in data is far below the growth in drive size.

So, there you have the state of personal storage. My first computer has a couple of 5 1/4" floppy drives, my first hard drive was 20MB, and I
am currently sitting on a total of nearly a terabyte at home. I am finally at the point where I can say that I will probably never fill up all these drives. Now that is something I never thought I'd hear myself say.

On an entirely different note, I have stumbled upon what has to be the single best personal technology blog ever! It's from Britain and called Dork Talk. It's written by the brilliant actor (yes actor!) Stephen Fry, best known in the US for his portrayal of Jeeves opposite Hugh Lurie's Bertie Wooster. It is one of the funniest, insightful, and down right entertaining takes on gadgets and personal tech. Go read it NOW! Oh, and I rarely plug other blogs so you know this one is good.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Aargh! There Be Pirates Afoot!

Today I ran across an article about a website called Pirate Bay. I won't give their URL since I don't need some automated system thinking that I'm promoting them. Whatever type of 'bot you favor, most are much more stupid than most humans (most, not all) and can't tell when someone is linking to a site for nefarious reasons or not.

Anyway, Pirate Bay is a bit torrent scanner. They publish the addresses of torrent streams used to download all kinds of - you guessed it - pirated media. Music, software, video, you name it. It's so incredibly blatant. I should also mention that these guys are in Sweden where the rules are different. This will be important later, so make a note.

Needless to say, these folks get a billion cease and desist letters on a regular basis. This does not seem to bother them much since they actually publish the letters on their web site along with their responses. The responses range from the merely snarky to the harsh and obscene. I won't go into details but, needless to say, you couldn't sit down after taking some of their "advice".

Much of their taunting revolves around Americans not knowing Swedish copyright law or threatening action under US law. Some letters exhibit a complete lack of basic knowledge about Sweden. Those letters get the extra special treatment as you might imagine. The basis for their disdain is the argument that what they are doing is legal in Sweden. They reserve special ire for those who threaten them with the Digital Millennium Act or similar US-based sop to the recording industry.

The evil part of me finds this truly fascinating, bordering on entertaining. It's not so much the letters
that I find interesting. They fall somewhere between formulaic to downright silly, . It's that anyone would send them at all. Pirate Bay is very upfront about the fact that they publish these letters and verbally abuse the senders. Maybe there is a legal requirement but sending these guys a form letter is just asking for abuse and accomplishes nothing. That much is obvious to even a casual observer. What's even more remarkable are the responses to Pirate Bay's responses. Clearly, someone is not getting the message here.

I would also be worried about bringing this public derision
down on my company or client. Basically, most of the companies that send them letters end up looking quite foolish. The marketing guy in me is just screaming "Stop it! The PR nightmare is killing us!"

So, while I don't condone what the lovely Swedes at Pirate Bay are doing, I have to admit they know how to make fun of something. If I was them, I would shut down the bit torrent site and just make fun of cease and desist letters sent to others. That would be worth something and they are very good at it. They could be the Jerky Boys of the copyright world. Now that's entertainment!

P.S. The bit about what Elk are still allowed to do in Sweden had me in stitches. I know that doesn't reflect well on me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tripping Over Myself to Talk about TripIt

I travel a fair amount. Keeping those trips organized is a huge time suck. Just getting all the pieces of my itinerary into one place, printing maps, and making sure I have my schedule down takes a lot of time and effort. That is until I discovered TripIt. A free web service, you e-mail all the itineraries and reservations that you typically get from travel agents and websites and it organizes it into a full view of your trip.

But wait. There's more! Once the itinerary is created, TripIt displays buttons to call up maps, directions, on-line check-in and flight information. It becomes a dashboard for your whole trip. You can also add meetings and other parts of your trip manually to get a complete picture.

The downside? TripIt only understands standard formats used by travel agents, airlines, major hotels, and car rental companies. When I e-mailed the site a reservation from a small Bed and Breakfast, it couldn't figure out what it was. It isn't fair to expect that the software behind TripIt can understand every way that a small B&B may e-mail a reservation.

Overall, this is one of the best and most useful travel tools I've ever worked with. I'm glad I tripped over it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I Can't Cotton to On-line Office Apps

I still don't like on-line office applications. It's not that I have anything against on-line applications. Heck, the company I work for (and the line of business that I run) sells that as an option for our customers. I love Xpenser, which helps manage expenses and Stikket which is an on-line sticky note app. It's the office apps I can't cotton to.

To start with, they all feel somewhat lightweight to me. Let me put it another way - most are only about as good as a decent text editor. Even for people who just want to write a letter, on-line office applications offer too little in automation and features. You can enter basic text or numbers and perform some simple editing functions but that's it.

I'm writing this on Google Docs and am not enjoying it a bit. I want margins! I know this is electronic and going to get published to a blog but if I wanted to print this, it would be ugly. It's also very web-centric. If you look at the style menu you see typical internet styles like "Heading 1". That's an HTML programmer's idea of how to write documents not a writer's. There is no way I could write a memo on this, let alone something substantial like an article.

Now, I can already hear the howls from the promoters of these applications. They will say "on-line applications are not meant to do everything a desktop office suite does" and "your expecting too much". All I'm asking for is basic functions. I'm not suggesting that these apps be used to write the great American novel, just simple stuff like the kid's school papers. Wordperfect circa 1985 has more functionality.

There is also the whole problem of it being on-line in the first place. It's great to imagine that you can access your documents from any computer in the world. That assumes you have a network connection. Without that, you can't access your documents from anywhere in the world. So, while the dream of documents everywhere is a great one. It doesn't help if you can't get to them. Once your network connection is down, they may as well be at the bottom of the ocean.

I don't mean to beat on Google Docs alone. All of the on-line office apps are like this. They have no choice. If they add more features then dragging that code across the Internet will eat bandwidth like frogs eating flies in late summer. This is why I think the whole concept is flawed. Applications that encompass lots of back-end processing but few upfront features are great as Software as a Service. Applications that need to have a lot of features on the front end do not.

What makes this especially amusing is that there are free alternatives such as It's not like the only choice is to buy a professional office suite for $500.00 or use the on-line apps. There is a free but full-featured alternative.By the way, I hate having to use the ".org". Someone should fix that situation.

So, for lightweight writing tasks like blogging, the on-line apps are certainly interesting. For most anything else, they are useless. I'll stick to

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

He's in the Jailhouse Now

Well, it looks like Greg Reyes has finally found out what his sentence will be. While not as bad as it could be, 21 months in the slammer along with a $15 million fine is not fun. Of course, the fact that he might have the $15 million to pay the fine kind of blows my mind but some guys get lucky. This, however, may be the luck you can do without.

Anyway, it's still not fair. Okay, the guy lied but no one has been able to show that he profited from his lie or that anyone was hurt by it. Give him a spanking but not 21 months in jail and a reputation what will follow him for the rest of his life. And remember, when he did this, it was not clear if backdating was even a crime. Scooter Libby out a CIA field agent and gets a pardon. Reyes adjusts some options and he gets the big house. It ain't right.

What is clear to me is that going after executives for accounting irregularities is the new witch hunt. The average jury can't even understand what this is about but it doesn't matter. The fact that there is no evidence of hurt to anyone doesn't matter. We just want to start stoking the fire around the stake and need someone to tie to it. So let's burn Reyes!

And do you know why he was picked for particular honor? The answer is in the witch burning scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Crowd: She's a witch! Burn her!
Sir Belvedere: How do you know she's a witch?
Peasant in the Crowd: She looks like a witch!

That's pretty much it. I don't have to understand the intricacies of securities law to figure this one out. Reyes looks like a witch so we should burn him.

The good news is that his charity work counted for something. We should all remember that next time the PTA asks for volunteers.