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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

And We Like Sheep

Back in the early 1990's I had the opportunity to see management guru Tom Peters several times. At one presentation, he talked about Saturn Motors and how they had discovered that a lot of cars are bought by women. He went on to say that they had devised a brilliant marketing and sales strategy for selling to women - “don't insult them!”

I was thinking about what Mr. Peters said while reading the defamation complaint that ZL Technologies has filed against analyst firm Gartner and analyst Carolyn DiCenzo. Several folks have already written summary and analysis about this suit, one of the better ones coming from Dave Kellogg of Mark Logic.

There are a lot of obvious problems with this suit. The claims of superior product by ZL are, to some degree, subjective. No one truly believes the metrics they get from vendors or the people vendors pay to report on them. The complaints about Gartner not wanting to reveal how it calculates its Magic Quadrant are also quite silly. Why would Gartner reveal its most treasured trade secrets to anybody?

What stands out for me is the assertion that the Magic Quadrant is so influential that it can seriously damage a product and company. That's absurd. To suggest that IT managers follow Gartner like sheep is insulting. And as Tom Peters reminds us, insulting customers is a terrible marketing strategy.

No responsible IT organization makes a decision regarding something as crucial as email archiving by relying on a Gartner report. Even assuming that you bother to pay for Gartner's services, it is but one data point in many and rarely the make or break one. Instead, most IT organizations, large and small, will develop matrices based on performance, price, features, service options, TCO, reliability, and a host of metrics important to the organization.

Being called a Niche player in the Magic Quadrant is unlikely to knock you out. Not having an extensive service network might. No one wants to find out that the field technicians can't get there when the system is down before the audit. Not having local sales people might push you to the bottom of the list. Companies don't want to wait on your next trip out to see the demo. For many customers, questions about your long term viability as a business are more likely to influence their decision than Gartner is.

No offense to Gartner but to suggest the level of influence that ZL claims they have is outright silly.

Part of the suit calls out Gartner's own claims of influence. That is also insulting. Doesn't ZL know that IT managers can separate marketing hype from real value? If they don't, then that might be a bigger part of their problem than Gartner's Magic Quadrant.

Shakespeare said it well in “ Julius Caesar”. Cassius tells Brutus that “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Sage advice from the Bard. If you are not so successful as you would like, don't blame the analysts. Don't blame your competitors. Certainly don't blame your customers for being stupid. Look to yourself and see what you could do differently.

And stop insulting your potential customers and find out why they are really not buying your products. Then you might be able to fix your problems rather than just whine about them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mozilla Thunders Ahead

Warning: This is long. I'm in a gabby mood. But when you write about something so basic to everyday life as email, it's easy to get a bit verbose. As my friends will tell, I find it easier than most...

One of the problems with modern software applications is that they tend to be incredibly feature laden. That's a problem you say? Yes it is. Feature overload leads to a great many features never being used because you don't know what to do with them, don't know they exist, or are only useful to about 5% of the target market. Mozilla seems to have avoided that trap with the latest release of it's fabulous email client, Thunderbird. Most features are infinitely useful to a great many people.

At first blush, things don't appear to have changed much. For the most part, Thunderbird looks and acts pretty much the same. For an email program, thats a good thing. Productivity applications that you use all the time should not have major interface changes. No one wants to spend a week learning how to do something that was fine before. Just ask the legions of people who positively hate the Office 2007 interface. It doesn't matter if it's better. It is radically different enough to get in the way of getting the job done.

Instead, useful features should be added that enhance the usual experience. This exactly what Mozilla has done in all releases of Thunderbird. No jarring, radical changes to the user interface. Just enhancements that make things work a little bit better. Many of the UI changes are immediately recognizable since they are adapted from either Firefox or web-based email sites like Gmail. With email clients, usual and recognizable is what you want.

The GUI Got Better

For example, Thunderbird now supports tabs. A simple thing, putting tabs across the top, but really useful. Your calendar (assuming you have the Lightening extension, which of course you do because it only makes good sense) and tasks can live in their own tabs making navigation to them simple. Messages can also be opened in tabs allowing you to have multiple emails open in a neat space. No more having a dozen windows spewed all over your desktop. Everything is nice and neat.

In typical Mozilla fashion, you can turn off tabs and use Thunderbird in the old fashion way. This is important since it doesn't force a change in behavior. Users can choose to continue working the way the always have or easy in slowly. This is not a trivial matter when training budgets are under constant pressure. The ability to expose features slowly or only to power users is a great help.

Another useful GUI enhancement is the action buttons on the email itself. In the past (and in most email programs) when viewing email from the message pane, actions on an email such as Reply or Delete are initiated from a toolbar on the top of the window. While you can still do this in Thunderbird 3, you also have the most common action buttons right on the email message pane itself. This allows you to quickly review, read, and take action without your mouse flailing about like its rodent namesake stuck in a trap. You can choose a more minimalist toolbar at the top or keep the old one and the message pane buttons. It's the best of both worlds.

Organize, Search, See

The new T-Bird goes all out to bring better ways to find and view emails and RSS feeds. My favorite new feature is the summary list. If you select a group of email or RSS messages, a search engine type list is displayed in the message pane. It shows you the title and a snippet from the beginning of the message for each message selected. This gives you a Google-like view which helps you to skim through a big batch of messages.

This also works with the new global search capabilities. Searching for emails in earlier versions was a decidedly local affair. You could search through a folder from the search bar but had to go into the advanced search for anything else. Thunderbird now sports a global search bar similar to the Firefox one, including auto complete. It helps to search through the gobs of emails that pack rats like me accumulate. You can apply filters of various sorts after the fact, narrowing your results in much the way as a you would with an Internet search engine. This is a very powerful feature.

In Thunderbird 2, Mozilla introduced tags but they typically were underutilized. Most people still moved messages to complex folder structures. Tags allowed for better organization since you could dump messages into one folder and perform multi dimensional searches on them. I create virtual folders of saved search results that allow me to find messages based on a number of tags. Mozilla kicks it up a notch in this release by making it obvious what you are supposed to do. They have added an Archive button and matching folder. Now, when you want to save a message, you hit archive and it puts it in a folder based on the year. Combined with tags and the new search, looking through dozens of layers of folders is instantly as old fashioned as a rotary phone.

It's Like Having A Big Brother To Look Up To

A lot of great ideas besides tabs and search features have migrated over from Firefox. My two favorites are Weave and Personas. Weave synchronizes information between different instances of Firefox and now Thunderbird. If you have multiple computers, say a desktop and a netbook (or are like me and have more than two) this is a valuable feature indeed. Though there have been a number extensions that do this sort of thing, it is much better as a Mozilla project that gets updated regularly. I wasn't able to get it to work in Thunderbird 3 RC1 but if it works like it does in Firefox, I can't wait. My hope is that some day it becomes a core feature and not an extension.

Personas is also a neat feature from Firefox. It provides a way of skinning the GUI without going all out and writing XML and designing buttons. Pretty much anyone with the ability to create a JPEG can do this. Personas are kept in an online repository making it easy to share and change them. I think this signals the death knell for themes. Personas are more lightweight and portable. And now my browser and email can look the same. Sweeeeet!

Changes Under the Hood

There are also a number of changes to the core code. Like with the Firefox 3.0 upgrade, the memory footprint for Thunderbird has shrunk a bit. This is very good when you are dealing with a low memory devices like a netbook or an old PC. Or an old PC used as a netbook...

A lot of effort also went into IMAP improvements. For many Thunderbird users, that's not that important since they get their email from a POP server. More and more ISPs, however, are moving toward IMAP because it allows for better synchronization amongst different email clients on different machines. Gmail has an IMAP option and AOL requires it. It is also the best way (at the moment) for Thunderbird to interact with an Exchange server.

One somewhat geeky new feature that I'm not sure I like is the Activity Manager. It keeps a log of all the things you did on Thunderbird. On the one hand I can see it's potential for debugging and answering the question “Oh no! Did I delete that email? The one with the time for my job interview?” On the other hand, there is also the potential for eDiscovery problems since it can explicitly tell you that someone suddenly nuked 25 emails when there was a preservation order. Sometimes metadata and logging are not wanted.

And Yet All Is Not Perfect

There are a number of strange, ugly, and just plain wrong things about this new release. Hey! Nobody is perfect and Mozilla proves that in spades. First, the elephant in the room – no Microsoft Exchange support. I get that Mozilla and Microsoft don't get along. I also get that Mozilla may think they are not that interested in the big, bad corporate market (though I don't believe that for a second). But Exchange is so ubiquitous that you have to wonder why, after all this time, there is no support for it. Heck, my ISP offers it for five bucks a month! If Microsoft is the problem then they should remember that the real enemies are Google and Oracle and get over it. If Mozilla is the problem then they need to remember that email is serious business and get over it. In any event, when anyone puts together a list of why Thunderbird is not a real email contender, Exchange support is at the top of the list. They need to add it just to shut those people up.

Oddities abound, especially in the GUI. Some are inconsistencies that had to have come up during testing. For example, there is now an Outbox. Unsent emails used to sit in the Drafts folder. Perhaps this is another way to support offline work but it needlessly confuses the process of sending emails.

And why when you compose an email does it still open in a separate window? Other email messages open in a tab. Same goes for the address book. Inconsistencies like that confuse regular users and annoy the power users. Maybe that gets fixed in a later release.

Speaking of unusual behavior, why does the reply button on the message pane have a little selection arrow but only one selection, yet the reply all has one that shows reply all and reply? A bit redundant isn't it? What I do like is that the reply all button only shows up when there is more than one person to reply to. Nice touch.

Finally, whereas the search features are so much better than before, the page that is generated to show them is ugly as sin. We are talking about a page that looks like an amateur web site from 1994. Lots of functionality but no aesthetics.

Thunderbird 3 is still a release candidate but is really close to production grade. The GUI enhancements and search features make it a worthwhile upgrade. There are still a few unusual issues but those might be ironed out over time or someone will come up with extensions to deal with them. The enhancements are great and the complaints small. My kind of software!

Disclaimer: Like everyone else, I get Thunderbird for free. So while technically not a paid endorsement, it's best to mention it anyway. I don't want the FCC giving me grief. And it give me an excuse to be silly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Take Your Hands Off My Hard Drive You Damn Filthy Ape!

If this is the future of computing, then I want out now.

Not something that I would typically say is it? I've had just about enough of the run to the cloud. The latest shove out the door is the announcement of Google Chrome OS. The name says it all. The entire OS will act like – basically be – a browser. No local applications. No local storage. While I'm confident that they will figure out how to cache data when you are disconnected (they do it now with Google Gears) it will still be completely dependent on the on-line applications and storage.

Am I the only one who gets what's wrong with this. Let's start with complete dependence on a service provider. We finally can choose broadband services from the cable people or the phone people or the cell phone people. Yet now we are supposed to become drones to Google. What happens if I don't like Google applications or have a problem with them holding on to my data? It's not like moving the data will be easy, if even possible.

And how comfortable are you with Google having sensitive data like a trade secret or the name of your doctor. That's what we are talking about here. Handing your personal or critical data to another company. Are we all confident that they are up to the task.

Can we talk availability? How many times in the last year has Gmail been out for some reason? Too many for anyone that isn't a casual user. So this probably isn't about the corporate folks but more on that later.

Do you mind tossing out all of your applications? That's what Chrome OS is all about. With Chrome OS, Google may well be able to control who you can get applications from. Like Google or their partners. So many people whine about how Microsoft dominates their lives. Okay. There are alternatives that don't require that you hand over your precious data to some company. Free ones at that. The proper reaction is not to hand over the keys to the kingdom to Google. Microsoft may own the application space but they don't own your data.

What worries me most is their approach to rolling out the software. So far, they are only releasing source code that is optimized for solid state devices. That reveals their strategy. Make this an OS that predominantly comes with consumer products. That way the great masses don't realize what they are buying into. Ooh. Look grandma! Cheap netbook/phone/blender doo hickeys. Sorry, but the “no local, persistent storage” aspect of this gives me the willies. Google wants our data and I'm not sure for what purpose.

So, call me a Luddite but I don't like what I see so far. Blindly handing over your data in exchange for a cheap device seems like a bad trade off for me. I'm not against cloud applications – in a controlled corporate data center. I am against people unwittingly handing over data to a faceless corporation with no guarantees. It's the dependency I despise.

The other night I envisioned a new Mac commercial in 2011. The first character is the slacker Mac guy (who never appears to have a job – just saying). The second is the boring PC guy who at least looks dependable. Finally, the Google Chrome guy who is a shadowy figure, dark, mysterious, and somewhat unsettling. As soon as the Mac guy starts to say something about the Chrome guy, the shadow reaches out and engulfs him. The last sound from slacker Mac is his muffled scream. The PC guy cries and wets himself.

And in the distance there is disembodied laughter. An eerie voice intones “Don't be evil” followed by maniacal cackling. Dissolve to black.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sudo You?

Whenever I write about patents, trademarks, and copyrights, I'm always careful to state two things up front. First, I'm not a lawyer. It is quite possible that I am missing some part of law that makes my opinion invalid. I try to understand the technical underpinnings of the patents and see what it means to the computer industry and economy at large. I'm not trying to be an attorney.

Second, I am completely in favor of intellectual property protection. I am not one of those folks who believes that patents are evil and that all software should be open source. The fact of the matter is, intellectual property protections provide motive to continue to innovate. They protect the small inventor from having their life's work pulled out from under them by a deep pocketed company. Same goes for copyright and trademark protections. History shows that if people can't benefit from their work, they'll do something else and we all lose out on the richness of life.

Patents are monopolies granted to an inventor in exchange for adding to the useful knowledge of the world. Without them, the world would be full of virtually permanent monopolies as inventors strive to keep inventions secret rather than disclose them. It is also well understood that without the time based monopoly, many inventors would not recoup their investment in innovation and wouldn't bother inventing in the first place. When it costs nearly US$800 million to develop a new drug, patent monopolies are the only way to recoup the costs and make a profit.

That's why I took it with a grain of salt when I saw the initial commentary on the new Microsoft Patent ( number 7,617,530 ) issued November 10, 2009 and originally filed in April of 2005. You see, there are a lot of people who hate the idea of software patents. In their eyes, no software patent is valid. I'm still not sure where I stand on software patents nor am I a Microsoft hater, so I tried to turn a critical eye to the patent. Once I read it (and read it and read it and read it...) I came to a very firm conclusion: What was the USPTO thinking? This is so obviously wrong that I can't imagine how this got through.

The patent is entitled “Rights Elevator”. It describes “systems and/or methods” to allow a computer user to elevate their rights from a lower, standard user account to higher level administrative rights. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. It has existed in UNIX systems since at least the 1970's. In UNIX and Linux we use a command called su, for superuser, to obtain the rights of another user with higher level rights. There is even a short hand version called sudo which runs a command or program once with elevated rights.

All patents have to pass certain tests for them to be granted by the US Patent Office. For a patent to be granted the claims must describe an invention that is novel (new), useful, and non-obvious to practitioners of the inventor's art. These tests are important. Without them a lot of inventions would be granted patents that should not. That would, in turn, inhibit innovation.

It is hard to argue that this patent passes at least two of the three tests. I agree that it is useful. The ability to briefly elevate rights to install software or copy files to a restricted directory has been proven to be good method of balancing security with the need to do certain important functions. I have a Unix book from the late 1980's that tells a sysadmin how to do that using existing UNIX commands like su. Therein lies the problem. It has already been proven to work because it already exists. That kind of kills the novelty of the invention doesn't it. The patent makes the argument that remembering a user name and a password is too difficult. Part of what is says is innovative is not having to remember a user name. That's a load of hooey. How hard is root to remember?

Let's be nice though. The Microsoft patent also includes a component to select a higher level account with a GUI and ask for a password. You have to admit, given the prevalence of graphical operating systems today that seems like an obvious addition. Wait! Did I say obvious! That seems to run afoul of the non-obvious test. In fact, this is something that most Linux distributions do today. They even reference Ubuntu, Debian, and Red Hat in their prior art list. How is this method any different from what is already done in Linux and Unix systems.

To be fair, this method of elevating rights temporarily with a graphical interface may not have been used when the patent was filed in 2005. I don't think that's true but I'll give the USPTO the benefit of the doubt. The method outlined in the patent, however, doesn't move far beyond sudo (which is also referenced in the prior art listing). Certainly not far enough to claim novelty and non-obviousness. It doesn't take an expert in software and operating systems to see that, never mind someone practiced in the art of system administration.

This method is so ubiquitous that everyone does this. Everyone except Microsoft that is. Windows, in all it's forms, has always required you to either have administrator rights or log in as someone with those rights, when that was possible at all. The Windows Vista UAC allowed you to override built in restrictions not elevate your rights temporarily. The UAC never even kept you from doing something. It just nagged you that it was bad. Windows 7 finally catches up with the rest of the world and Microsoft is trying to patent it. Talk about making lemonade from lemons.

How did this one get by? There could be a lot of reasons including overworked patent examiners. The patent should be overturned and likely (hopefully) will. In the meantime the patent office needs to do something. Maybe independent panels who don't work for a vendor. I'm not sure. All that patents like this do is throw fuel on the fire for people who want to eliminate patents, especially software patents.

This one should never have been granted. But then, I'm no lawyer nor do I play one on TV.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Obfuscation through non-erudite terminology

I've spent a lot of time around both lawyers and engineers. One of the common complaints about either group is a tendency to say things in non-human terms. The assumption is that there an attempt being made to obscure facts through archaic language. Actually, both groups use their own language in an attempt to be more precise, as do scientists, police, and accountants. It is language designed to communicate to each other not to the world at large. The problems occur when they try and explain what they are doing to folks outside their profession using that same special language.

Marketing folks, on the other hand, are supposed to communicate in ways that customers understand. In my own career, I have often been employed as a geek who can speak, translating from technospeak into plain language. That is the heart of technical marketing.

Instead, we consistently find technical marketing people using language that no one understands. It's not that it's too technical. That would make sense if you are selling to techies. No, quite the opposite. A lot of the time, it simply doesn't make much sense. Let's look at the sampling below. In an attempt to not pick on any one company, I won't say who specific quotes came from. The list was a quick sampling from a number of company websites, technology news sites, white paper titles, and press releases.

  • Navigating to Customer Satisfaction

  • Innovations in Managing IT Service Quality

  • ... To Accelerate Innovation Across The Network

  • Improve Business Efficiency and Agility & Enables organizational agility. These came from two different web sites

  • Sustainability can help you unlock the value of green

  • Provides actionable knowledge

  • Reduce costs as you solve IT challenges across your information infrastructure.

Most of these don't make much sense do they? “Navigating to Customer Satisfaction” would kind of make sense if this were a shipping company (it's not). I'm hoping they really didn't mean “actionable”. “Actionable is a legal term that means an action that is grounds for a lawsuit. If the knowledge is actionable, then I don't want it provided.

My favorite is “Sustainability can help you unlock the value of green.” What does “green” mean here? Besides the color, it is often misused as an adjective to mean environmental friendly. That phrase is, I'll grant you, kind of an obtuse way of saying “good for the environment” but at least people get that. When did green become a noun? Can I have two greens to go? Maybe they mean a putting green. Building a golf course around my green will unlock it's value quite nice, thank you. Or salad greens, perhaps? In that case, the value comes from destroying (that is eating) them not from sustaining them. That sounds more like something I would need Ex Lax for.

I'm not against using language in a sophisticated manner. This blog has a plethora of SAT words like obtuse, obfuscation, archaic , erudite, and, of course, plethora. What I don't like is mangling language, especially in marketing. Marketing is supposed to make it obvious and clear why you should buy something. Instead, we are treated to tongue and mind twisting phrases that only confuse. I don't want to hear “optimizes performance envelope capabilities”. Say “It's much faster” or even “ higher performing” instead. I know what that means without my decoder ring.

Speaking of the decoder ring, here is a (tongue in cheek) glance at part of it. I hope this helps in the future.

TechnoBusiness Marketing Speak

What it really means?

Innovate, Innovation

To make something that is totally new. Or something that sounds new but isn't.


Helping... you to spend money.


Pushing... you to spend money.

Solution, Solutions

A fix to a problem. Or, a bunch of stuff thrown together into groups. We can sell you bundles this way.


Moving around. Like moving your money into our pockets.


To make something so that it is as good as it can be. Unfortunately, we seem to have to optimize constantly so it really doesn't make things optimal.

Efficiency (Attain Efficiency)

Using the least resources possible. Notice, that money is not included in this. Your money anyway.

Productivity (Boost Productivity)

Doing more with fewer resources... including your money.


Not doing stupid things. It does suggest that you are doing some dumb things right now doesn't it? Feel insulted?

Business Need

Stuff your business needs to keep going. As in “our business needs your money”

Sometimes though, you hear something that is pretty straight up. It doesn't mean you believe it but at least you understand it. So, from the front page of Microsoft's website comes “Windows 7 is pretty dope.” It's not hard to guess that someone likes Windows 7. If only we could always be that obvious.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

FTC Is Okay By Me

I'm fired up about the new FTC rules regarding bloggers. I didn't say I was mad or annoyed about it. Actually, I'm happy and excited. For those who don't pay attention to what goes on in the blog world (and yet you're reading this... whatever.) there are new rules in the U.S. regarding how you present certain information about products in blogs.

The U.S.Federal Trade Commission, commonly called the FTC, is charged with insuring fair trade in the United States. Part of their mission, I would argue the most important part, is consumer protection. These are the federal watchdogs that make sure that business doesn't take advantage of the average consumer. That is precisely what they are doing with the new rules for bloggers. In a nutshell, if you get paid to write good things about products, you have to reveal that. If you talk about the results of a test or a consumer experience that you know are not typical, you have to say what is typical. If a company comps you with free products, services, or tickets to a Buffalo Bills game, you have to reveal that too. Okay maybe not the Bills tickets this season. (I live in Buffalo, NY so no hate mail please. You know it's true.)

Basically, if you are being paid to say nice things, it is a paid endorsement and that has to be disclosed. It doesn't matter if the payment is money or in-kind. You have to let people know that you may be influenced by that compensation. This is not a privacy issue, it's a commercial one. It is important that someone reading a blog know what conflicts of interest may exist that could effect what the blogger says. This is not about free speech. It is about commercial speech which can have restrictions not applicable to individuals.

Frankly, these rules are no different from what you see on TV or in newspapers. When a celebrity endorses a product on TV, at the bottom of the screen are tiny letters that say “Paid Endorsement”. This is because it is really an advertisement, placed by an agency or company, and using the actor as a spokesperson. The only real difference is when they tell you that you can make millions with no money down, they have to let you know that that only applies to those at the top of the pyramid. Getting rich without risking your own money has not been typical since the dot com crash. Unless you are a Wall Street banker of course.

And while the rules don't address Twitter and Facebook specifically, the same should apply in those media as well. While we're at it, white papers should also denote when something is done for pay. When I was in the analyst game, I insisted that any white paper I put my name on be only what I wanted to write. Otherwise, the company could have the paper but leave my name off of it. Even with creative control, I still told the audience that it was a sponsored paper. Despite my best efforts, I still couldn't be sure that my client didn't exert some influence that created a conflict of interest. Not in a nefarious manner mind you. It's just that relying on someone for your livelihood can change your perspective even if you are not aware of it.

So, I'm glad for the new rules. It's sad that we need the government to remind us of our ethical duty. It's unfortunate that we can't trust what we read. Too bad. But until the day comes that all people are perfect, I'm glad to see my government taking a stand and insisting on good behavior for our citizens. Thanks FTC.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

eBox Shebop

Back in the day, Linux was mostly a geek toy. You had to compile the kernel from source and install all the applications including the GUI by hand. Even by Windows 3.1 standards, it was very technical and primitive. In those days, Linux's best attributes were that it was free and basically UNIX. A lot has changed since then. Linux has become a viable UNIX replacement in servers, helping to fuel the rise of a great many Internet companies. It has also tried, with limited success, to become a desktop operating system and rival to Windows and Mac OS X.

One of the biggest holdups to widespread adoption of Linux has been installation and configuration of software applications. Linux distros seem to subscribe to the philosophy that real men hand edit configuration files. It's the command line that separates the men from the boys. Linux is like a techie version of a sports car. It's about proving something. I just won't say what that something is. Package managers have done a lot to streamline installation but configuration has always been a black art. There are entire books written to help trained system administrators tackle SAMBA configuration. Not to mention every other major Linux package.

This might be fine for the hard core sys admin. It makes them feel superior to the rest of the morons out there. It doesn't work, however, for the vast majority of people milk fed on Windows installation and GUI-based configuration. Even when there are decent configuration tools (which often, in an awesome display of irony, have to be installed and configured separately) and package managers, everything is piecemeal. To set up a user on a box requires configuring many different applications using different tools, some only available from the command line. All of this has been holding back adoption of Linux as a commercially viable alternative to the Windows hegemony.

The good news is that this is changing. A fairly new distribution called eBox has solved many of the problems that have plagued Linux server installation and maintenance. Perhaps it's fair to say that eBox is a mega-distro. It is based on Ubuntu Server, which is itself Debian based. What sets it apart is the comprehensive web-based management tools. They allow single screen configuration for many typical tasks that a sys admin faces. For example, you can set up a user account along with associated file shares, email accounts, and groupware configuration all from one place. This is even better than Windows which still relies on wizards walking you through the process.

Think of it this way. Old Linux is like shopping on a busy city street. You have to walk and walk to lots of individual stores to get what you want. Windows Server is like a department store. Everything is in one place but you still have to go from department to department. eBox is like a personnel shopper. Everything comes to you.

One of the best features of eBox is the initial package installation. It groups packages into functions like networking, security, communications, office (basically file and print services), and infrastructure. This makes it easy to configure a server for specific purposes such as an office file server or a network gateway. The documentation clearly shows where to place the different types of servers in your network to get maximum safety and effect.

eBox is not perfect by any means. Installation (on a virtual box I admit) was difficult. Not difficult in the sense of hard to do since it walked me through every step. Difficult because it hung up a bunch of times. The root password is not obvious. I wasn't asked for it and it isn't the same as the initial admin account as is typical of most Linux installations. That severely restricts what additional software I can install on the server.

While the seection of packages are good, there is not database server package. I know that PostGre SQL server is installed but configuration for it is not included in the web-based configuration system. Application or database server and developer packages would be a good idea. Virtualization packages would also be nice in the future. Maybe a “cloud” package although I suspect that way madness lies.

eBox is an important step forward in making Linux a viable alternative for enterprises of all types but especially for the Small-Medium Business market. With limited or no IT resources SME organizations need easy setup, configuration, and management. That was hard to deliver using Linux before eBox.

There is one truly unfortunate aspect of eBox: it's name. It shares said name with a small PC product from Taiwan. It's bound to cause confusion. I suggest changing it as soon as possible.

Disclosure: The eBox software was provided for free. Of course, it's provided to anyone for free. Just download it from their web site. So, I guess this doesn't really count but why mess with the FTC.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost In The Clouds

Ah! Lost in the clouds again.

Sounds nice right, unless you're a T-Mobile customer. In that case, lost in the clouds means your data was lost during an upgrade. Too bad. Most of the attention in the blogsphere has been centered on how stupid this appears. A lot of folks are railing against how avoidable this was, how best practices for data protection are well known, how unfortunately common this sort of thing is, etc. I wrote a book on that stuff years ago and it was not new then. Well, some of it was new but the basic blocking and tackling wasn't.

The central issue is being avoided though. It's uncomfortable to address if your company is involved in any type of outsourcing, and what major computer company isn't these days. In all the moaning about how Hitachi Data Systems and Microsoft (T-Mobile partners in this fiasco) should have done better, in all the technical details, in all the posturing about best practices, the core problem with outsourcing is being ignored.


I don't care if it is Cloud Computing, call centers, data centers, or overnight delivery. When you outsource you have to trust the outsourcer to do as good or better a job as you would. You can't be looking over their shoulder 24/7. They can't have you in their shorts either. For the relationship to work there needs to be a lot of trust.

I have been on both sides of the outsourcing game. When you hand over a mission critical functions to someone else you have to do your homework. You have a duty to make sure that the outsourcer has the capabilities, best practices, and determination to do your business the way you need it done. They have to look out for your interests. It's a relationship that needs attention.

This is the problem with outsourced Cloud Computing. You have to have the expertise to evaluate your outsourcing partners, the time to conduct appraisals and look at references, and people to monitor performance and deal with problems. I'm not saying that T-Mobile didn't do this. Bad things happen to good companies. But with the hype around outsourced clouds, a lot of trust is being handed over to folks whose abilities are barely known. It's like getting married after the first date. And in this case, what happens in Vegas ends up all over the Internet. Like Paris Hilton, but I digress...

What worries me is that a lot of folks will get sucked in by the Cloud Computing hype who are not ready to do it right. I especially worry about smaller outfits with fewer resources. To them, Amazon S3 is a god send (not to pick on Amazon). Or Mozy for that matter. Solves a problem cheap and quick. Just what everyone wants. Don't worry. They're big companies. We can trust them, right? Right...

Trust takes time and effort. Any type of outsourcing, Cloud Computing or otherwise, requires a lot of trust. Go slow, take your time, and get to know each other first. You have the rest of your lives together. No need to rush.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Of Paperweights and Doorstops

I have quite the collection of paperweights and doorstops. They didn't start out that way of course. They all began life as usable electronics like cell phones and networking gear. All were the victims of upgrades to newer gear such as Wireless-B to Wireless-G. My cell phone upgrades every two years per the plan, leaving a graveyard of old phones. Some devices were on their way to the trash and I couldn't help but save them from becoming toxic waste. Don't kid yourself. Even the most innocuous electronic devices have heavy metals, plastics, and other materials that will continue to pollute for centuries to come.

What annoys me is not the proliferation of electronic gear but the fact that they can't easily be reused or upgraded. Why? Because they are designed to be tossed away, use closed architectures or, and this really galls me, are purposefully locked.

For example, I decided to upgrade my cell phone this year. My old one worked fine but was lousy for texting. So I took the old one to a Verizon store and asked if they could convert it to a Tracfone. Tracfone is a pay-as-you-go cellular service provider which is great for the kids. The no-contract, phone card type system keeps teenagers from running up massive phone bills. I was told, quite emphatically, “No!” What's so ironic about this is that Verizon owns Tracfone. I was offering to spend more money with them but they didn't want it. So the phone sits in my desk draw waiting for its day of liberation.

I could attempt to jailbreak it. Jailbreaking consists of hacking the hardware and firmware to remove whatever is tying the device to the service provider. Why should I have to do that though? Besides the fact that I might brick the device, it's also likely that Tracfone/Verizon still won't let me use it.

There are alternatives. I could donate the phones to various groups that re-purpose them for soldiers in Iraq or victims of domestic violence. Worthy use but I wanted to get more out these myself. And I'm pretty sure they don't want an old DSL Modem.

The sheer waste is incredible. Millions of these devices get tossed in landfills or, hopefully, sent to a recycler. All could be given a new lease on life if only they could be opened up, added to, and tinkered with. I'm not suggesting that vendors open up the phones when the are active. That would be nice but unnecessary. It's great that Cisco opened up their Linksys Routers. Lots of hackers enjoy extending their WRT54 devices, adding new features and sometime using them for entirely different purposes. I'm not that ambitious. I only want my devices to have a longer lifespan.

One of the great things about computers is that they can be used nearly forever. I know a lot of folks that still use DOS era computers for useful purposes. Some are hobbyists and others use them for a single purpose like voice mail. I still use a nine year old 40GB disk. I stuck it in a USB drive case and use it for email backup. Why can't we do that with all of these devices? Okay, it's big company greed but it's stupid greed. They could sell me a cheap retrofit kit and make a couple of bucks that they wouldn't have.

Reuse is the ultimate recycle. Let my devices go!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rollups In Our Lunchbox

There's been a lot of chatter about the acquisition of Perot Systems by Dell this week. It's not surprising that in a slow news week so much attention is being given to a deal that is only one of many that have happened in the past few months. Most of the commentary is the typical stuff such as “This will (or will not) help Dell compete against IBM and HP.” or “Dell service partners will (or will not) be mad as hell.”

I'm more interested in what the Perot acquisition says about the state of the computer industry. Since 2000 the computer industry has been consolidating, coalescing into a handful of companies that directly deliver solutions to customers. The rest of the industry exists to serve these mega companies. It's like the car industry. There are only a half dozen companies that sell cars and services to the vast majority of consumers. The rest supply parts such as headlights and seats.

You can easily tick off the number of computer companies that sell the majority of equipment to both business and consumers. Dell, HP, IBM, Cisco, and EMC are delivering complete solution sets in all segments including enterprise computing of all types, consulting services, and consumer products (through brands like Linksys and Iomega). Microsoft is a special case. It is a major, first tier company that sells mostly software (mice and Xbox systems aside). I wonder how long it will be before Ballmer buys a large or specialty hardware company like Acer. I wonder about the same for EMC. How long before they buy a specialty server company or small networking company.

There are a few companies overseas that are part of the mix as well such as Hitachi in Japan, the aforementioned Acer in Taiwan, Lenovo and Huawei in China and Groupe Bull in Europe but their sales, product depth, and international reach pale in comparison to the biggest five or six American companies. Don't kid yourself though. Any of those could be the next Toyota. Or a great acquisition. These folks compare to Fiat. Not GM or Ford but certainly an important company.

Apple is important but still small in comparison. They are like Porsche - a well-known, high-end luxury brand that people pay more for because they want something they perceive of as special. They are technology trailblazers with a great sense of style. More taste maker than mainstream sales giant.

Unlike the auto industry, there is still a healthy second tier that is trying to move up. NetApp comes to mind. Brocade and Juniper too. These companies are centered around being best of breed in one area of the industry such as data storage or optical network equipment. This segment keeps getting smaller though. How much longer can Brocade or Quantum remain independent? Sooner or later the combination of size and narrow focus will make competing against the top tier impossible. They won't be able to offer anything unique enough or broad enough. They will either sell out in some face saving “merger” or go the way of SGI, becoming mere shadows of themselves. Perot Systems is a great example of a second tier player (IBM GS and HP Consulting they are not) being absorbed by the first tier. Second tier players provide entry into a whole new segment for a big company.

There is also a whole host of small companies that supply specialty equipment or develop new technologies for big companies. These small companies are technology Spackle. They fill holes in a big company's product line. A few will grow independently but most will be gobbled up by bigger companies. Some will fail altogether. A great many will stay small, too small to acquire. They will continue to survive by supplying critical parts to the big boys. There are lots of small companies that make specialty chip designs or cores, RAID controllers, and software libraries.

This year has been a banner year for rolling up small companies. With credit tight and VC money still not flowing free a great many small companies are realizing that, despite current success, they won't find the money to grow. Really, how many computer technology IPOs are going to happen over the next two years? For many small companies it's grow or die... or sell out. For the big companies this is a boon if they have cash on hand. They can buy out the smaller players for much less money then they can in good times.

So, what's next. I think the majors will continue to buy companies. Dlink is a good acquisition target. They have a great consumer and SOHO line that would help out HP or Dell. The macro trend will continue for awhile. Tight credit and investor wariness will make life difficult on the companies exiting the startup phase. The biggest companies will take this opportunity to reinforce or extend their product lines, perhaps even get into new segments.

So, if you aren't selling cars to millions of people, you are probably selling headlights to the guys who make the cars. Don't feel bad. There's opportunity in that.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Free Software Tools for Geeks

Everyone knows that techies have different needs when it comes to software. Come on. Admit it! For the average person a slow network is a mystery and an annoyance. For us, it's a project and all projects need tools.

Over the years, I have accumulated many software tools that can be had for free. Some are open source tools supported by a vast community of developers. Others are a hobbyist's pride, given freely for all to enjoy. Some are particularly useful.

So here is my top software tools for the serious computer geek, with commentary. Did you expect any less?


If you don't occasionally need a terminal session then you have no right to consider yourself a computer geek. The command line is what separates the real deal from the poser. PuTTY is an excellent Telnet interface with support for SSH, Rlogin, and even a serial shell.


Git 'er done! PuTTY gets you a command line to almost anything. It emulates the most common types of terminal (ah! The VT100. You never forget your first) and has a bazillion options to tweak your terminal session. Mostly, the default settings are all you need.


PuTTY only handles one session at a time. You have to load multiple instances of the software to talk to multiple systems. Even more annoying, when you shut down a session, the whole program shuts down and you have to reload it to talk to another box. Still, these are annoyances not major flaws.


There are lots of websites to visit, servers to manage, and PCs at home and in the office. All have passwords to manage and it's a pain. If you use the same password over and over you know that's a security risk. Besides, the user name and password requirements vary from site to site and box to box. Keeping an unencrypted file or database of passwords on your computer is inviting disaster.

Enter KeePass. It manages an encrypted database of information about your logins. Besides storing user names and passwords, KeePass also has search and organization capabilities.


Does the basic job of storing user names and passwords extremely well. Search is fast and accurate. The password generator is also useful when you want to create secure but different passwords.


The interface is a bit dull but, really, it's not a game after all.

MailStore Home

Unlike most people, techies tend to generate and receive a lot of emails. No matter how good your email system, sooner or later your system bogs down if you don't archive them. Or you bog down trying to find needles in your email haystack.

MailStore Home is the little brother, freeware version of a commercial package. It does a credible job of archiving and indexing emails. I find it useful for archiving emails to a USB drive which acts as a backup. I can then delete emails from my email client with confidence.


MailStore Home interfaces with most of the major clients such as Outlook and Thunderbird but also can archive from a server, including Exchange, POP3, and IMAP mailboxes, and webmail systems such as Google Mail. It's also pretty fast for an average techie which means an above average email user.


It can copy but not move emails. That's great if you want to backup your email but not so great if you want to truly archive them. Instead, you have to remember to go back to your email client or server and delete emails manually.

Sun VirtualBox

In the world of virtualization, VMWare has the mind share and Microsoft's VirtualPC comes bundled with their servers. Sun's VirtualBox is not as well known which is too bad. It's best feature is that it is really easy to use. You can run most anything you want with minimal effort. It's free for individual use which makes it a great choice for home or a hobbyist. Would I run a data center cloud on it? Probably not. For testing, developing, or just plain goofing around, it's so much easier to use.


Easy to use. You don't need a four week course to start using it. It does a very credible job of creating virtual servers or desktops.


Configuring inbound network access, such as an HTTP server, is not intuitive making VirtualBox more useful for virtual desktops or sandboxes. I still can't get FreeNAS to work right because of server access problems.

The list of freebie tools is much longer than this. This is but a sample of tools for the techie. Also in the mix is 7-Zip, an excellent archiver, and Filezilla, a classic and profoundly useful FTP client. For the software developer, I also recommend Sun's Netbeans. It's a full blown, commercial quality, IDE that is especially good for Java development but has decent support for PHP, Python, C/C++, and many other languages.

A lot of these tools are much better than the stuff you pay for. Some of them you do have to pay for if you want to use them in a commercial setting. It's always a good idea to check the license. And, if you are managing a large commercial environment, many of the tools won't provide the scope of features and services that you need. However, for the hobbyist, individual, or SOHO environment, these tools can't be beat. They give you what you need for a great price – free!

Friday, September 11, 2009

eyeSpy With My Eye My Desktop In The Sky

I've been intrigued with the idea of server-based desktops for awhile. In the past I have toyed around with Desktop Two and the recently deceased Jooce. While interesting, they all suffered from the same set of problems. They were usually:

  • slow;

  • lacking in useful applications, and;

  • had significant security problems.

The last item is significant. Despite what the folks at Google would tell you, most companies don't want to keep sensitive files on someone else's server. The most standout issue with virtual, online desktops (which, heaven help me, they are calling Cloud Desktops) is that there didn't seem to be enough need for them. Until now. I'll get to that later.

eyeOS overcomes the majority of cloud desktop problems. Written in PHP5, you can install it on your own internal server or even a web hosting server. It's open source to boot! This is important since it makes it easy (or even possible) to create your own web-based applications to run in the virtual desktops. The suite of applications that comes with eyeOS is pretty good but the ability to create your own makes it a much more useful platform for business.

Being able to install eyeOS on the server of your choice also goes a long way to removing security objections as well. IT can now control the security environment and does not have to rely on blind faith in a service provider. The same goes for performance. You can use your own magic and hardware to up performance levels to where you want them to be. Even installed on a web hosting platform, eyeOS had a decent response time, granted for a small number of users. That it worked at all in anything resembling a useful manner was pretty startling.

The big question that is still unanswered is “who cares?” That's the acid test for all products. Why should I spend any time at all, let alone money, on this product. As little as two years ago, I would have to have answered “ I don't care.” Today, the world is a different place. We now have a proliferation of small, Internet enabled devices including smartphones and netbooks. Many of these are too underpowered to have a full range of desktop applications – or do they?

This is why eyeOS really makes sense now. Virtual desktops have been primarily concerned with giving users a consistent and controlled desktop experience throughout an Enterprise network. That's fine except that it doesn't carry on to other devices. With eyeOS, you can set up your own cloud desktop service, that meets your standards for security, and make it available on anything with a browser.

With eyeOS in hand, you can outfit your sales force with cheap netbooks and still give them a full range of office and corporate applications. In other words, the whole desktop experience. For an added bonus, if users stick with cloud desktop for everything, you don't lose or expose your data even if they lose their PDA, smartphone, or netbook. It's not on those devices, it's on the server.

The best part is that they users don't have to do anything special to make this work. They sign into the eyeOS server and away they go. Users don't have to remember to copy files to encrypted drives or anything like that. They just do what they normally would do on a desktop computer. In terms of data security, this is a great leap forward. And the fact that only administrators can install applications is sure to please corporate security types. Fewer rogue applications in the corporate network is a good thing indeed.

eyeOS is not perfect by any means. Many of the critical applications, email especially, are nowhere near what a decent corporate application should be. However, it is clear from the Zoho widgets (downloaded separately) that you can integrate other online applications into eyeOS. With more and more companies going to web-enabled applications anyway, lack of sophisticated, standalone desktop applications is really not a problem.

Cloud desktops and eyeOS in particular, are not quite there yet. However, they are rapidly getting there. An organization that is committed to cloud desktops could make eyeOS into what it needed. Not out of the box of course but with a relatively small amount of effort.

The old fashioned, fat desktop will never go away. There are too many applications that will never port to a platform like this. I don't see programmers writing serious code on a cloud desktop. For the average wage slave, however, this would be an improvement and IT will love it.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

EMC Pacmans Kazeon. Mmmm. Good.

More news on the storage M&A front and once again it's about EMC. EMC announced that they are acquiring Kazeon a self avowed “leader in eDiscovery” tools. Stripped of all the eDiscovery hoopla, Kazeon makes a decent indexing and classification rules engine. In that space, it is a very useful thing indeed.

What Kazeon does is catalog and index your data and run the information past a rules engine to generate additional metadata. Again, that's good but only as good as the rules. They also layer on some analytics which is all the rage in eDiscovery. Analytics are also only as good as the data and metadata and, in my opinion, overemphasized in the eDiscovery market. But that's just me...

Kazeon is a hand in glove fit for EMC. For many years now EMC has looked to get past selling just hardware and has wanted to sell systems to store and manage data. That's a great strategy since it creates new value but sticks to their knitting. Kazeon is another value added tool that EMC can add to their toolbox.

The Kazeon acquisition also gives them some eDiscovery street cred. They have been trying to play in the eDiscovery sandbox for years, mostly through their Documentum offerings. Nothing wrong with that since the majority of eDiscovery work is about workflows anyway. However, automated tools for tracking data also are important not only to discovery during litigation but also to insure compliance with in-house data retention rules. And by retention I mean destruction. But you knew that didn't you...

The dirty secret about data retention is that no one can really comply with their own internal rules without knowing where and what all their data is. Knowing where all your data is is a really hard problem to solve. That's where Kazeon comes in. They create catalogs of vast amounts of data that allows you to better comply with discovery rules, a preservation and legal hold, and internal data retention policies.

So, Kazeon is an obviously good thing but why is it good for EMC? Actually, there are two (probably more) reasons why this works so well. First, it adds value. If I buy tons of EMC storage, the Kazeon/EMC products will help me to know what I have on it. Second, those catalogs of information and metadata need, you guessed it, more storage. It's the reason Documentum was such a good deal for EMC. It lets you get more value from your stored data and makes you store more data. A twofer for EMC.

EMC will now be able to deliver, by itself, one of the most comprehensive information management systems available. By combining Documentum, Kazeon, and all the other tools EMC has at its disposal, plus hardware, they will be able to deliver an information management solution that will make lawyers squeal with delight.

That's not to say it's perfect. Kazeon can't help you if someone dumps their files onto a flash drive or emails a smoking gun document to their Gmail account. Smartphones and PDAs are also a challenge that Kazeon will not help with. Still, they hit all the high notes and do better than what most companies do - which is nothing!

As an aside, Kazeon also has an intellectual property (IP) management component to their systems. IP management and eDiscovery are very similar problems – you need to know what data you have where, in order to comply with rules and regulations. EMC has often touted Documentum as an IP management tool. They haven't gotten too far with that since it takes so much effort to set up Documentum to do IP management. Unless you are already committed to Documentum across the company, there are better out of the box IP solutions. Kazeon will give them some more heft in that space. It will allow EMC to automate many of the sticky tracking and classification tasks associated with IP management, especially in preventing leakage. It's not there yet, but getting better.

I don't know if EMC is full yet after eating up so many companies. Kazeon is quite a tasty and healthy morsel for them though. It makes good, strategic sense. I wonder if they left room for dessert.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cloudy Skies This Week

Recent blog posts and comments I made on Twitter might give some people the impression that I'm against cloud computing. I bet I've given some people the impression that I hate cloud computing. Despise it! Want to see it die! Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the idea of cloud computing. It's the cloud computing marketing that I take issue with.

Overall, what's not to like about the cloud idea? The promise of cloud computing (notice I say promise, not reality) is the ability to only buy what you need with the option to buy more later if you want to. In that respect, it deals with one of the key problems in computing: coarse granularity in systems. If I need 10 percent of a server, I might have to buy a whole server. Someday I might need that whole server but not right at the moment. Then again, maybe never. We have wonderful terms for buying more than you need such as underutilization. The best term is “a waste of money”. So, buying only what I need when I need it is a great way to manage my budget. Same goes for software. I no longer have to buy a software package designed for fifty people for just three people to use. It's efficient and cost effective. It also makes it easier to quantify the cost of running an application.

Cloud computing is also evolution not revolution. We have been doing limited purpose cloud computing for years. It's called web hosting. And email hosting. Oh. And application hosting. Do I notice when my hosting provider adds new resources in order to add more customers. Not really. I pay ten bucks and get a chunk of resources adequate to running my simple web site and that's how I like it.

So what's not to like? Well a couple of things really. Security of a cloud is no better than security in a non-cloud data center. You still have the problems of internal espionage, external break-ins, and other Dick Tracy stuff.

There is also a migration problem. When the day comes that your application needs to move to a dedicated system (don't kid yourself – it will happen), you might have a heck of a time moving it. Unlike moving up to a bigger piece of iron, applications may have to be rebuilt to live in a different type of environment. In that way, I suppose, it is different. It's worse... and nobody wants that.

This is especially true of clouds built around service frameworks like Amazon's. At some point the application might get big enough that it makes sense to bring it in house. Worse yet, you could find yourself dissatisfied with the service provider (like that never happens!) and forced into an acrimonious divorce. This is an especially nasty problem because they have you by the data stores if you get my meaning.

These are not reasons to forgo the cloud. They are reasons to be careful. Figure these issues out ahead of time and make good choices up front. And ignore the hype. If someone slaps “cloud” on something that seems not so cloudy, be suspicious.

Remember, cloud computing is a strategy and maybe an architecture. It's not a product no matter how many times the corporate talking head says so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Green Clouds and Other Sickening Stuff

Last week I rented a car from Hertz that was supposed to be a “Green Collection” car. Since it was a Ford Fusion, I assumed they meant the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Hybrids are green. This car, however, was not a hybrid. It was a plain old Ford Fusion. I read the fine print and discovered that Hertz defines green as “ fuel efficient, environmentally-friendly cars”. The cars are all EPA rated at 28 mpg but no one gets that with normal driving. Now, a mid-sized sedan that got 23 miles to the gallon on average doesn't seem all that green to me. My fairly large crossover does better (and is rated better ) than that.

Which brings me to my latest pet peeve - meaningless and overused marketing terms that appear to have real meaning. Like “lite”, both green and cloud computing are overused and under defined. Both have come to mean almost anything some slick Willy marketeer wants them to mean.

Green, in the case of Hertz cars, doesn't mean really environmentally friendly. It means not as unfriendly as some other cars. Sort of a “we stink less” kind of promise. That's not what most people understand green to mean. Ask anyone what green is and they will tell you that it somehow helps or enhances the environment, like clean energy.

And all you computer geeks out there should not get too uppity since we have the same problem with cloud computing (and green computing for that matter). Steve Duplessie of ESG has the best definition of cloud computing that I have seen to date. He described it as a strategy for utilization and purchasing. That sentiment is a good description but drives product managers apoplectic. When you sell servers, storage, or software (or increasingly all three) you can't get people to buy a strategy. You need customers to buy stuff. Real stuff. Stuff that can be shipped in a box. You can't ship strategy.

So the response is to slap the word cloud on everything from hardware to software to services. Like green, it's meant to make people feel virtuous about buying something. I buy some VMWare software and slap it on a “cloud capable” server and I doing the cloud thing! Aren't I smart. I buy some offsite storage like Amazon S3 or rent a piece of software from Google instead of buying it and I'm the cloud king! Woo hoo!

There are two outcomes for this type of overheated terminology. One, sooner or later folks wise up and start to get annoyed at the labels, even when they are useful labels. Second, they get confused and stop buying the stuff we need to sell to stay in business. We came perilously close to that with SAN and NAS ten years ago and “Web 2.0” almost became a dirty word. Everyone get hurt when we do this sort of thing.

Here's my rules of thumb regarding marketing terms:

  1. When one term can mean many different things, it's a bad term.

  2. If you need white papers to simply describe what you mean, it's a bad term.

  3. If you start to see a term everywhere even where you shouldn't, it's a bad term. Or at least has jumped the shark.

  4. If you ask five people what something means and get three different answers, it's a bad term.

  5. If VC's are investing in something with that term, it's a bad term. Just kidding about the VC's. We love you guys. Give us money!

What I'm waiting on now is Pond Computing. You know, green and cloudy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on the Microsoft Word Patent Infringement

I am truly fascinated by the Microsoft-i4i patent infringement case. What's not to love. A small company takes on one of the biggest money makers from one of the biggest companies and wins! Today, Groklaw ( published links to the court documents along with some commentary. It's really good stuff.

As I have (repeatedly) mentioned before, I'm not a lawyer. I'm a technologist and business person. Some of the arguments presented in the documents are technical legal arguments. I won't even begin to comment on those.

I also won't comment on the whole idea of software patents. I'll let the folks at Groklaw do that. In this case it really doesn't matter because it's not what the case is about. The core issue is whether Microsoft should have known better and done something different before adopting OpenXML.

What caught my attention immediately was how the court got the subtle technical arguments presented to it. Clearly, this is not a case of some judge living in the DOS age. Despite Microsoft's protests to the contrary, the court understood the technical arguments and simply didn't agree with Microsoft. Too bad for the boys in Redmond – someone found a judge with the geek gene.

The opinion goes even further and says that there is no evidence that the jury didn't get it either. In a way, the court says that unless you can prove that the jury is stupid, you shouldn't assume they are. Truth be told, the technical aspects are not that hard to understand. Despite all kinds of obfuscation, it appears (at least to the judge) that the jury understood the issues well enough to decide rationally. As normal people become more sophisticated about software and computers, the “ jury is a bunch of technology dolts” argument will be harder to make.

Here are a few additional thoughts based on the court documents:

  1. The court understood that a metacode was like a programming instruction designed to manipulate content for display. The definition it used was “an individual instruction which controls the interpretation of the content of the data.” This is dead on. A file of codes mapped to the content is the metacode map called out in the patent claims. I do have to wonder if this definition could be applied to other types of instruction-to-content mapping schemes like CSS. However, the patent is pretty narrow (which is probably why it was defensible). Further study is required.

  2. The Finisar vs. DirectTV ruling popped up. The short form of Finisar is that if you sell a component of something that is important to the product and infringes, the whole darn thing infringes. You can't buy an infringing LCD component, put it in a TV and say “TV's aren't patentable!” Sorry. Doesn't work that way. It was used in legal arguments around contributory infringement. Finisar is something to watch out for when you buy components. If you put something in that infringes on a patent you might be hit over the head with it, even if you get it from someone else. Know the IP situation at your vendors!

  3. What is even better is that i4i's claim to infringement was proven, in part, by a Microsoft email! An email from an employee that indicated they knew they were infringing. From the court's opinion:
    i4i even presented an internal Microsoft email from January of 2003 containing i4i’s product name, the patent number, and a statement from a Microsoft employee that i4i’s technology would be made “obsolete” by the accused WORD product (which admittedly added XML functionality to the previous version of Microsoft’s WORD product).”

    It almost seems like a joke that Microsoft, who sells products to manage email for eDiscovery, could get hit over the head with a smoking gun email. Probably created in Outlook and sent from Exchange. For this alone, Microsoft should be embarrassed.

  4. I love the arguments about what a data structure is. It was almost Clintonesque, on the order of “depends what 'is' is.” Even Microsoft's own expert had to concede that their own previous arguments support the i4i definitions. And you wonder why the jury didn't believe Microsoft. That and the email maybe.

  5. Obviousness was obviously argued. Microsoft based it's obviousness argument on the inventors' own previous software. The inventors themselves disputed this and apparently the jury believed them. Again, who are you going to believe? They guys who invented it in the first place or the alleged thieves? Discuss amongst yourselves.

  6. At one point, Microsoft must have argued that since the USPTO was willing to reexamine the patent, that shows that it could be invalid. I like that one a lot. The judge, not so much. The court rightly points out that looking something over a second time is not that same as saying it's invalid.

In the end, reading the court documents provides a picture of a jury and judge who actually understood what the deep issues were. That's encouraging. You hear so much about juries and courts that give enormous awards based on emotion because they don't understand business, technology, medicine, or science. That does not appear to be the case here. Big message here – don't rely on stupid juries. They aren't so stupid.

A couple of other takeaways. One, even mighty Microsoft can be hit in the head with an email. Get control of that now. This is an example where someone has to train folks not to write this type of email in the first place. I'm still chuckling over this one.

Second, take software patents seriously. It is clear that Microsoft knew that this patent existed. They just assumed they could get away with ignoring it or beat i4i into submission. Such arrogance should not be tolerated in any company. All of this unpleasantness could have been averted. I bet Microsoft could have bought out i4i for much less than the litigation is costing them.

And finally, whether you like or dislike software patents, this is an argument in favor of them. i4i, a real company and not a patent troll, would have had their technology stolen from them without the protection of the patent. The system worked and protected the small inventor against the giant corporation. Huzzah for patents!

I promised I wouldn't comment on software patents, didn't I? Sorry about that but I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

i4i Pokes Microsoft In the Eye

Microsoft just a got a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. It was delivered by a company out of Toronto called i4i with the help of a judge in Texas. They have, in theory, halted sales of Microsoft Word 2003 and up and the Office bundles that contain them. How long this will actually hold, given appeals and such, is uncertain but the basis for the injunction is interesting.

i4i has a patent, US Patent 5,787,449“Method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other” , that describes how to finely format documents without embedding formating codes in them. The i4i method is to create a map of formatting marks associated with locations in a document. On the surface, this may sound like a common method but on closer inspection that might not be so.

The patent application itself gives a rather good history of document formatting starting with pre-printing press days through to the current electronic documents. You see, the most typical method for formatting electronic documents is to embedded formatting codes into the document itself. That's how the .DOC, RTF, and lots of other document formats work. You want a word to be bold, you embed a code for start bold text and end bold text in the document. In the old Wordstar days you actually saw the formats in the document. I guess I'm showing my age here.

The second most usual way to format an electronic document is to assign codes to parts of a document (such as a paragraph or header) which describe their structure. An external source file is then used to provide formatting for the document based on the structure. This is common on web sites since HTML describes the structure of a document but not its format. CSS describes the look of a document by defining the format of each type of content. So, in an HTML document, all <H1> tags define a header but not how the header looks. CSS defines how H1 headers look when displayed. These are further modified by embedding codes the old fashion way such as inline CSS. Separating structure from formatting has the advantage of allowing you to present different views of the same content. This is one of the ways that websites are able to give you a special view formatted for printing rather than viewing.

Both approaches have limitations. The first method tends to tie the document to a particular software package or API limiting it's openness. Like MS Word .DOC documents, the file might not look or print right when rendered in a different word processor or even a different version of MS Word. The second method tends to take a sledgehammer approach, coarsely limiting how the document is formatted. To get fine formatting you have to resort to kludges, such as using format types in only one place, or embedding codes the old-fashioned way and ruining portability.

What i4i came up with is a different method. It claims a system which creates a map, called a metacode map, which maps formatting to specific places in a document. It doesn't need to know anything about the structure of the content. In fact, it might have no structure at all other than what is forced on it by the formatting. The map is external to the actual document content allowing for different format files to be used with different content. This is apparently what Microsoft does in .DOCX, .XML, and .DOCM files. The i4i approach combines the fine formatting control of embedded formats with the portability and multi-view advantage of the external definition approach.

Since I'm not an expert on Word file formats, I can't comment on whether they infringe on the i4i patents. The judge seems to think so or he would not have ordered an injunction against the sale of the product. That means the judge thinks that Microsoft is infringing and doing harm to the patent holders.

What is Microsoft to do? They could try and get the injunction overturned. Likely they will try and do that no matter what. They might try and invalidate the patent but one usually does that before the injunction is handed down so I'm guessing they haven't had a lot of luck with that.

They can license the patent from i4i. I can't imagine why they wouldn't do that in the first place. No matter what it costs, it can't be as bad as this. At the moment, i4i has no real incentive to license anything to them. They have Word at a standstill and US$200M in Microsoft money. It doesn't get any better. Heck, if I was Google, I would buy i4i just to get the patent and kick Microsoft while they are down.

They could also change Word. To stop infringing, they will need to adopt another file format that is not tied to the patent. There are open source formats, like the ones that uses, or they could fall back on an older format. In any case, if they can't overturn the patent, they will need to change Word or pay more money to i4i.

There is a bigger problem looming and not just for Microsoft. How many other folks do the same thing? It is a logical thing to do. That doesn't make it legally obvious, especially in 1998 when the patent was issued. Most software companies tend to encode content in XML and use something like an XML style sheet or CSS to format it. However, if Microsoft could come up with this method for Word, why not lots of others. i4i should be emboldened to go after more infringing companies now. Once you have slain one big giant, the others do not seem so intimidating. Smaller companies will feel like easy pickings after Microsoft.

My advice to Microsoft – change Word now. Use the same format as It also helps you with your open source cred.

My advice to everyone else who writes document-centric software – check your products. i4i will now have a more solid patent. If you do something like this you might want to change it or come up with an alternative. Otherwise you have only yourself to blame.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Tom's Cheapskates Roll Call of Productivity and Multimedia Apps for the Truly Frugal

When I blogged about Microsoft and Netbooks, I made the statement that nobody uses because they already use Microsoft Office. While I still maintain that is true, it doesn't mean that you can't dispense with all those expensive software applications in favor of open source. That includes Microsoft Office.

In fact, it has become even easier to put together a sophisticated set of software for everyday use using only open source or freeware offerings. There is now a critical mass in productivity and multimedia applications that can be had for nothing. This is the good news.

The bad news is that the free stuff is rarely as elegant as the commercial versions. In almost all cases, the GUI leaves much to be desired and not just the eye candy part. Most free software seems to have been designed by and for computer geeks. There is a somewhat old school feel to much of it and, at times, can be downright confusing to use. If you compare software like Audacity, a sound recording and editing tool, to commercial software such as Pro Tools or even the software that comes bundled with a Mac, the interface falls woefully short. This means the learning curve is high, especially for non-professional users.

So, I now present to you my Cheapskates Roll Call of Productivity and Multimedia Apps for the Truly Frugal. The first thing you will probably note is that there is no video editing software on the list. I have never found a free video editing suite that is reliable (as in doesn't crash a lot) and so I stick with bundled commercial applications.

Office Applications:

Okay, they need to figure out the name problem. Because of trademark issues, the people have to tack on the .org to the name of the suite. That's stupid. Get a new name. No one will care.

Strengths: It's a complete office suite,with MS Office compatibility and native exporting to PDF. The Writer word processor application is a darn good word processor. The presentation and spreadsheet applications are also pretty good though not great.

Weaknesses: The Draw program is just plain lame, hard to use, and lacks features. The GUI is ugly and many icons don't look like anything. The database program seems more techie than Access and lacks application tools.

Email: Thunderbird from Mozilla

This is an example where the open source/freeware version far exceeds the commercial variety. Simply the best email client for most people with awesome anti-spam filters. Add the Lightning add-on for calendaring and you have everything you need.

Strengths: Manages multiple email accounts as one. Freely available add-ons give Thunderbird all kinds of features that are not found in other email clients without creating bloatware. The anti-spam and security features are unbeatable. It's fast and easy too. Lots of support for use with online services like Google Calender, Remember the Milk, and Trip It. Thunderbird integrates news feeds from RSS, ATOM, and Newsgroups into your email.

Weaknees: No native Exchange or Blackberry sync support. This kills it in the business environment. Yes you can have Thunderbird access the same LDAP compliant address books as a Blackberry and make Exchange available as a POP server but that's a kludge. Could also use IM support.

Browser: FireFox from Mozilla and Chrome from Google

This isn't fair of course since almost all browsers are free. Still, you don't have to live with Internet Explorer. As a side note, this is what I find so odd about the recent EU slapdown of Microsoft. They didn't seem to understand that you can install five other browsers with less effort than uploading photos to Flickr. I still don't get it. But I digress...

I could write for days about the strengths and weaknesses of these two browsers. Needless to say, they are better than IE and everyone knows it or doesn't care.

Image Editing: GIMP (Gnu Image Processor).

Despite another lousy name which makes it sound both broken and politically incorrect, GIMP is the best image editor this side of Adobe Photoshop. You can actually get an add-on that makes it look and act sort of like Photoshop.

Strengths: Up to your eyes in features and filters. You can pretty much do everything imaginable in GIMP. Lots of add-ons give you all kinds of additional image manipulation features.

Weaknesses: A lot of time add-ons simply don't work and they are always tough to install. The standard GUI is also quite hideous which is ironic given what the software does. It can be hard to do more complex manipulations that commercial software has wizards for.

Sound Editing and Recording: Audacity.

Gotta love the name which is clearly a play on words. Audacity is a sound recording and editing program with a host of features including the ability to use industry standard VST plugins. This makes Audacity a great tool for the amateur and a platform for the pro.

Strengths: Gobs of features. Does all the basics such as analog and digital recording plus lots of signal processing to clean up what you record. My favorite feature is the ability to mark places in an analog signal and export them as separate MP3 files. If you are ripping an old analog record, this is a very necessary function.

Weaknesses: No mixer. You can mix but it is not as simple of moving a bunch of virtual sliders. The interface is busy and complicated. Compared to commercial offerings like Pro-Tools, Audacity can be confusing. A lot of the plugins you find on the Internet don't work well or at all. You need to have a good grounding in signal analysis or sound engineering to do most anything.

Instant Messaging: Digsby

I've tried a lot of IM clients including Trillian and Pidgin. None compare to Digsby. What makes Digsby special is that it can handle a wide range of Internet-based messaging. Not only does it connect to every major IM system, it can also connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, POP email, and Online Email like Yahoo. Email support mostly allows you to preview messages and launch the real site or client, but that is more than most of the others do.

Strengths: Extensive support for all the major (and quite a number of the minor) IM networks plus social networks and email. Malleable and attractive interface with support for skins. Good Twitter support.

Weaknesses: Email support is not complete so it cannot be used as an all-in-one messaging platform. Digsby also lacks user created plugins which limit functionality compared to more open offerings such as Pidgin. It is also the only program mentioned here that is Windows-only. The website says that “ digsby is coming soon for Mac and Linux!” but that is not the same as now or even “November”.

I'm sure there are a bunch more if I took the time to think about it. What is most encouraging is that the ability exists to put together a complete set of desktop applications for nothing. You just have to compromise a bit, especially in terms of support for corporate systems and GUI. That is might be enough for some folks to pass. Too bad. They are missing out on a great opportunity in these frugal times.