Friday, December 21, 2007

Using a cell phone overseas

If you are traveling overseas and don't want to pay a ton of money for your cell calls, this column is for you. I got started down this path because of some upcoming speaking engagements in Australia in the new year, and I wanted to be prepared and be in touch. Soon, it turned into A Project, and now I share the results with you, my gentle readers, for your own benefit should you find yourself in similar straights.

You have the following alternatives

- Buy a phone calling card once you get to your destination and use it from payphones or your hotel,
- Don't do anything and use your existing US phone,
- Buy a new SIM module for your existing phone, or
- Buy a new SIM module and a new phone.

Why bother? If you have ever taken your cell to Canada (or even further a field), you know why: the per-minute cost for calls is ginormous. And while it is nice to be in touch when you travel around the world, there are lower-cost ways to do it.

The calling card is a decent option, depending on where you are going and what your hotel charges for both toll-free and local calls. Some are still back in the profiteering stone ages and charge almost as much as the cell providers on a per-minute basis, even to make a local call or to connect to the calling card provider. You should know that some calling cards may not work with some pay phones, according to Dan Dern. He also reminds me that you might want to invest in a DMTF tone generator if you need to call back to a stateside answering machine – some foreign phones don't generate the correct touch tones. You can use the Java applet on your computer here.

The other options will only work if you have at least a tri-band phone on either T-Mobile or AT&T/Cingular networks. If you are using Verizon or Sprint, you need a new phone. Most of the world's cell phones (except in Japan and a few other places), work on what is called the GSM networks that operate at either 900 MHz or 1800 MHz. The US and Canada GSM networks operate at 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. So if you have a phone that can work on at least three of the four bands, you should be set to roam abroad.

So we arrive at the last options, and here is where things get interesting. Before I get any further, let me explain that your cell phone has two important pieces: one is the phone itself, and this makes a difference with the number of radio bands that it works on. But the second piece is the SIM card that is inside the phone, and if you are like most normal people you probably haven't given this little thing much thought – until now. This SIM card is what is used by the phone to store your address book and also gives your phone your inbound number and identity on the cell network. It is about the size of a microSD memory card.

If you replace the SIM card that came with your phone with a card that works in the country you are visiting, you get several benefits. First, you don't pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you will pay international long distance charges. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don't pay for the international calls either. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won't go there for now.) You also don't use any minutes on your American cell accounts, which can be good if you have a limited number of minutes – when you travel, you don't think about all the time you are on calls. The trouble is if you are going to several different countries, then you need different SIMs and have to keep track of the numbers too. That gets onerous.

So there is another solution: buy a SIM card from This Irish vendor offers a universal SIM that will work across the globe, and has lower per-minute rates no matter where you are. Plus, like the VOIP services, you can set up your number to automatically forward to a series of numbers, so that you can be more easily reached as you travel. You don't have to sign a contract, the SIMs are inexpensive (about $43), and you can add more minutes to your account easily over the Web and charge your credit card. It took me a few minutes to setup and activate the SIM online: you pick a US-based number for your phone, and pay for another number in the country or countries that you are visiting. They have a wide selection. Each additional number is just a few dollars per month to maintain.

There is just one catch. Chances are, your cell phone is locked to your carrier that you are currently using. This means if you try to take out your SIM card and replace it with this Maxroam card, your phone won't work. You might be able to receive calls, but not make outgoing calls.

So how do you get your phone unlocked? You can pay for a special code that you enter and here is where things get dicey. Until recently, American cellular carriers claimed that unlocking was illegal. The laws are changing, but still many of the companies that provide this service have the feeling of going to the seedy side of town where goods are bought in cash through an open car window, not that I conduct my business in this fashion, you should know. There are a number of unlocking providers, here are just a few and what they charge per phone to unlock:

- $15
- $25
- $20
- $13
- $20
- $25

I have tried a few of these, and haven't had good experiences. All of them work by first charging your credit card the fee, and then sending you the code via email. Sometimes they take their sweet time in sending this code. Uniquephones "lost" my order, and only when I emailed their executives and spoke to them personally (they are based in the UK), did I get my code delivered.

There are other services that have downloadable software, but that seems even more trouble. Once I got my code, it took seconds to enter it on my AT&T phone, and it was running on T-Mobile's network with my new number from the Maxroam folks. Sweet.

If you are reluctant to do business in this fashion, then you have another option, and that is to still buy the Maxroam SIM card but get a new phone that comes unlocked. If you are a Verizon or Sprint user, this is really your only option. There are many Web sites that offer to sell you unlocked models. The least expensive phones that I could find (that were at least a tri-band GSM model) were on – they were selling a Motorola V180 for $50. And has a Motorola V220 for $70. Neither of these phones are going to win any design awards, but they will do the job.

Plan on taking a few weeks to negotiate all of these options, so don't do this a few days before you have to leave the country. And you might want to bring along your current SIM card, just in case.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Facebook vs. LinkedIn

The world of social networking is getting, well, more social. But I question whether it is also getting more open, at least with my understanding of what the word open means. And whether it is becoming more useful, at least for business purposes.Last week Facebook and Bebo (another network that is primarily UK-based) announced that the copious applications that were created on Facebook will now be able to run on Bebo, and soon other social network sites.

Also in the news, LinkedIn announced a beta version of its home page, which I almost missed because it is so much like its existing home page I am not sure what the fuss is about. They also have finally revived their Groups application and have made it easier for users to add a few applications too.So are we seeing more openness with these social sites, or just more vacuous PR-ware announcements that have little importance? A little of both.First, let's talk about what I think openness should be.

Ideally, I should be able to write an application to a published series of program interfaces, and be able to move data in and out of the social network site in a way that makes the most sense to me, the ultimate user. None of the sites come close to doing this right now.Let's just compare Facebook and LinkedIn and see where the stack up on the openness scale. Facebook has a published guidelines for how to build applications. As a result, there are thousands if not millions of apps that have been written, from the frivilous to the semi-useful. People try out apps when they see what their friends have done, because the proces of selecting an app is one of the notifications you can see on your news feed home page. As a result, these apps can get very viral and quickly gain traction. Or they can languish if you don't have the right A list friends to spread the word. Facebook apps are kind of like a trendy new nightclub: if you invite the right friends to come on the opening night, you are going to have a crowd lining up outside your door. These are the apps that are now going to be shared with other social networking sites like Bebo.

Ironically, Facebook is trying to prove to the world that they are more open than Google, who announced their own application interfaces under the "Open Social" name a few weeks ago. You could say that Facebook is trying to be like the Microsoft of the social networking sites, if Microsoft would ever open up some of its Windows programming interfaces. Or maybe they are just trying to not be evil. (Too bad they muffed that part with the various privacy issues, but that's for another column.)Open applications isn't the only metric of usefulness here.

Also important is how you populate your network on these sites. With Facebook, you can import your contacts to populate your list of "friends" from a variety of Web-based email services, including Gmail, Yahoo, and so forth. You can import contacts from a text file if you prepare it properly. However, once you contacts are imported and linked to your account, you can't export them or even figure out what someone's email address is if they have changed it, unless they tell you explicitly on their profile. LinkedIn doesn't have a set of apps guidelines yet, although they keep talking about it. They have similar contact import features to Facebook, although they will terminate your privileges if you send out emails to too many people that you reject your approaches,claiming they don't know you. The service does allow you to export your contacts anytime you wish, and in several nice formats too.Let's move to talk about groups of your contacts. Neither of them is as useful as they could be. Ideally, I would like a publishing system that I can alert all the people in that group with a single posting. Maybe it is because I have been publishing this Web Informant email newsletter for so long that I continually hope there will be something better than an email listserve to send it out. Facebook allows anyone to create a group on any topic. Many of them reflect the collegiate (or inane) demographics of their audience, and most of the people that I link to there are in a constant state of joining and unjoining various groups. It is easy to do both, and as a result group membership isn't really worth much, other that to keep track of which groups are popular among your friends, since the act of joining is what shows up on the home page "news feed" as individual events and again can be very viral. But since each individual has to take the action of joining a group, you can't set up a pre-populated group with all of your friends. You can send out notifications to all of your friends, but that isn't quite what I am talking about here.Facebook has this groups capability already built-in, there is no need to add an additional application and several business people have begun using Facebook as their primary communications mechanism in a one-to-many fashion. (Jeff Pulver, the VOIP impressario, is one of the more notable and public ones.)

As I said earlier, LinkedIn's Groups has been enabled in the past several weeks. You first have to get approval from the LinkedIn Police to create your group. This took me just a few hours. Then you have to invite people to join, but you can't just send out a notice to your existing LinkedIn network of people that you have identified. No, that would be too easy. There is a multiple-step, multiple-opt-in procedure before you can join my "Strominator" group, as an example. Go ahead, I dare you to try, you will see how tough it is.

I understand why LinkedIn is doing what they are doing, but it isn't going to work, and unless you have tremendous patience and are very detail-oriented, it is much easier to use something else to group your contacts, like an email listserve.

So here we are. A little more openness for social sites. Google is trying to get its own beachhead established, and while Facebook stumbles about with its privacy issues, they have the beginnings of something that can be used for ad hoc groups. LinkedIn is still too heavy-handed for my taste, which is too bad because we all have internalized the LinkedIn dance: Update your profile, ask for recommendations, then start looking for a new job. And in the meantime, we have newer social networking sites like Spock to deal with too. And do-it-yourself sites like that allow you to pretty much build your own network from scratch with very little programming skill.

Monday, December 10, 2007

F for fake

It is time once again to recap the fakery, hoaxes, and all-around trickery online over the past year. It seems like we have had an exceptionally busy one. Thanks to social networking sites, user-generated content, and increasing use of online by everyone over eight years old, we have plenty to write about this time around.

To start the creative juices flowing, I caught "The Hoax," the Richard Gere movie about Clifford Irving, one of the all-time great fakers (he faked a biography of Howard Hughes and sold it for millions of dollars, eventually winding up in jail). I couldn't help thinking as I was watching this movie (which of course plays very loosely with real events) how much easier Irving would have had it in the online era of today. Back in the 1970s, he had to get on planes and mail forged handwritten letters with real postmarks and such to disguise the fact that he never actually talked to Hughes. Today he could do the same thing in about ten minutes with a blog.

So the biggest news the past couple of weeks has been the Myspace teen suicide backlash taking place about 40 miles away here in Missouri. The suburban community passed a law making it a misdemeanor to harass someone online. Almost immediately we have a fake blog that purports to be the writings of the Drew family gathering hundreds of comments and fueling the vigilante fires even further. The story, for those of you that have been not online, is about a teenage girl named Megan Meier who killed herself last year over a series of fake Myspace postings from a boy that were actually written by Lori Drew and her older teenaged employee. Drew was a neighbor of Meier, and ironically the harassment law that was recently passed to punish her Myspace postings could be used to benefit her and punish her own blogging impostor. (You might need to re-read the above graf, I know it is a bit confusing.)

While this was happening, a friend of mine was telling me about how he was posing online as a woman, trying to ensnare a former employee of his who faked some reports and was never caught. Luckily, he doesn't live in any community that has any online harassment laws. Sadly, he thinks this is all le mot juste and his own version of online justice.

Back to the blogosphere, earlier this year we have Dan Lyons (with whom I once worked when we were both at PC Week back in the 1980s) outed for being the author of the "Fake Steve Jobs" blog and ensuing book tour. I hope some day I can aspire to be the author of a fake blog that will boost the sales of one of my books. (We assume that the royalty payments go to Lyons and not Jobs, but I haven't checked.) In the meantime, I will have to settle for being the real author of real blogs.

Lyons isn't alone, here is a list of several others.

Meanwhile, Steve Colbert's fake presidential bid is dead in the water as a result of his show being in reruns because of the writer's strike. The main point of contention of the strikers is how writers are paid for online works, which are supposed to be over real bylnes. Are you still with me?

And let's now forget earlier this summer with John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, who posted to Yahoo's financial Web sites using an alias. Mackey was outed in an FTC document, and it turns out he was writing these posts over eight years. Eight years! No mea culpa, either.

Here's hoping that you all have a really great holiday season, surrounded by the actual people that you know and love and care about, and that you can step away from the computer for a few minutes too.

N.B. For those of you too young to remember Irving contemporaneously, he also wrote a book about Elmyr de Hory, a noted art forger. Orson Wells did the movie version, which is where we get the title of today's post. Irving continues to sell copies of the "autobiography" from his Web site.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Encouraging St. Louis entrepreneurs

One of the best things about my job is that every day is different, and I get to meet with some interesting people all over the world that are doing cool stuff with computers. Lately, I have been spending time at home in St. Louis and enjoying not getting near any airplanes, and this past week have been at meetings with local entrepreneurs. It made me realize that sometimes you don't have to travel far to get to see some great stuff and meet fascinating people who are passionate about technology and working on innovative things.

Last night I was asked to be one of the judges in a competition hosted by Washington University's Skandalaris Center. They are an organization that promotes entrepreneurship and helps to mentor start-ups both with enterprising students and in the community. Every couple of months they host an "Idea Bounce" where budding CEOs-to-be have two minutes to pitch the idea behind the company. We as judges have just a few seconds to mark down our comments and grade the pitch on creativity, how good a presenter they are, and what kinds of resources and help they required to move their ideas forward.

Each evening has a very different collection of ideas, ranging from the mundane to the sophisticated. Five winners are selected by the judges and those five get a check from the university for $100 along with the chance to spend some time with the judges at dinner to get more feedback and advice. The best idea of the evening (at least by my vote) was something very simple and low-tech: a plastic cover for the urinal flush valve that could support a beverage cup. It is called a "beverage buddy" and already has two patents. I got to sit next to the inventor at dinner, along with another judge who is a patent lawyer – he was thrilled that the device already had been through the patenting process. There were other pitches that had merit too, including ones that involved social services, better nursing scheduling algorithms, and a wedding registry for grooms only.

The hard part about starting a new company isn't having a new idea – those are easy. It is knowing what you are good at doing, and what you lack, and how to connect with the right people, resources, and funds to realize your dream. While the Idea Bounce is just the first step in the process, it is an important one because it gives the inventor some basic direction and simple tools that they can use to flesh out their idea.

It was a fun evening, although we had a light turnout for the event because of our first light snow of the season. Anyone can attend for free – you don't have to pitch and can just be a spectator. Those of you that are local might want to put it on your calendar for 2008.

Then this morning I was off to the Missouri Venture Forum, another group devoted to helping start new businesses in the area. We got to hear from the principals at a new networking vendor that is based nearby called Global Velocity, who will be in production sometime early next year with a new networking product. The CEO proudly mentioned how most of his talent was home-grown, and they are planning on doing the fabrication right here in St. Louis.

So while we are a long way off from Silicon Valley, it is nice to see that we have such a rich incubation culture and plenty of resources to draw on here in St. Louis.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gmail's contact management is the pits

I have been a big fan of Gmail for the past two years until lately when they made "improvements" to their interface -- and have gone a step backwards.

For those of you still living in the stone ages, Google's Gmail is a free Webmail service, and available for free as well for domains that you own too. Their philosophy is to have world-class search, to be able to classify messages so that you can easily find them. Oh yeah, and do no evil. They lose on all three counts by me.

What did they break? The whole contact management section, that's all. There is no easy way to delete a contact from a group once you have more than a few groups. The interface takes longer to load and requires a more recent Web browser to work. Safari 2 and IE 6 aren't recent enough, it seems. And, the whole search engine thing is broken: if I want to search on a term that is part of my notes on a contact, I can't do it with the Search interface of the contacts page. For example, I am heading out to Boulder to visit my daughter next month: a search on "Boulder" comes up empty, even though I know I have entered information on several people in the area. The old interface worked just fine, and displayed things correctly, and could search across any data that you entered in your contacts.

Gmail's contact groups have been the weakest part of the service for a while. In late June, all of my group members went missing for about 24 hours, and I -- and many others -- had a fit.

At the heart of any email solution for me are two things: being able to run it from any Web browser and being closely tied to my contacts. Gmail does neither: to delete that errant contact mentioned earlier, I had to bring up a version of Windows with IE6. That seems backwards.

What I liked about Gmail was being able to create ad hoc groups and mini-mailing lists of my contacts, arranged by subject, geography, or some other common thread. I must have 40 or 50 different groups of my more than 8500 contacts. I am not trying to brag, but I took the whole notion of "never throw anything away" to heart and now am stuck with this huge list.

Gmail offers ways that you can export your contacts into a CSV or a file that contains V-cards, but neither of these exports contains the group identities of the contacts. The only way that I have figured out to make backups of this information is to take screen shots one by one of the groups that are displayed. Talk about the stone ages. This is so cumbersome that I have only done it once, since shortly after the group memberships were restored from the June outage.

So what can I do? I could get off of Gmail, but that means finding something else to use for my contacts and cleaning them up. Plaxo Pulse and LinkedIn both do a nice job of keeping everyone's contact info current, but neither have a nice Webmail solution. Apple's Address Book can take the Gmail V-card export just fine and also do the searching across all contact information, but that ties me to a Mac when I travel. I could go with a Web-based ACT solution, but I have stayed away from ACT for this long I am not sure I want to start now. And I don't want to run an Exchange server and use Outlook Web access either.

Of course, Google could fix their contact management module, but I am not holding my breath. I hate it when software companies succumb to adding features at the expense of usability, and turn a great product into an also-ran. I guess they are taking some lessons in becoming evil from their pals in Redmond.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Becoming more agile

There is all this talk about making companies more agile. And with more than two million hits on Google the term may even be more popular in some circles than Web 2.0 this week. (Well, we can only wish.) Certainly, part of understanding agility is changing how you develop and bring your products to market -- write better code, make more reliable hardware, work more adeptly with Internet services, respond better to customer complaints or suggestions. But another part of agility is understanding the "softer" side of your company, such as being able to better hire, train, and retain your people. Too often management tends to forget that it is the people that make an organization, not just the products.

I thought about this recently for a story that I wrote for the New York Times that is out today about contact management software. I first got the idea from a colleague that I met at the local National Speakers Association chapter here in St. Louis. He had some computer issues running ACT on an old Macintosh. He was keeping the aging Mac around because ACT was essential to running his speaking business and he didn't want to have to a Windows PC just to run the latest versions of ACT. That got me going on the idea for the story, and the Times was interested enough to give me the assignment.

Too often a small business gets wrapped up in the wrong technology and their agility suffers as a result. Actually, it can be any sized business. Take a look at what happened to IBM back in the 1990s when its mainframe-centric world collapsed and they had to reinvent themselves as a software and services company. I was reminded of this when at a lecture last night by Harvard biz school professor Lynda Applegate, who has done some consulting for them over the years. IBM went from the most profitable company in the 1980s to losing billions in 1991.

But a better situation is when a company builds in agility from the get-go. They don't stay small too long because they can grow. As an example, take the woman that I interviewed for the Times who runs her own business in Orlando. When she started her company, she thought she would use a traditional model of having everyone come into a single office. But as she got clients around the country, she realized that this wasn't a workable model.

Part of what was holding back her operations were outmoded contact and sales management tools. The assumption was that a single PC would house this information, and that everyone would create their own documents on their own PCs. As a result, there wouldn't be much need to share data among different staffers. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Once they implemented an Internet-based contact and document system, things changed. The firm found out that they could hire anyone and that they can work anywhere. "We didn't intend to run our business in a virtual environment when we got started but realized that we can hire people based on their skills and our needs regardless of their location," says Lara Triozzi, the president of MarketLauncher Inc. But now that they have a taste for the "virtual environment" – meaning that their critical IT components are outsourced and available via the Internet -- they really like it and it is the core of how they will grow their business going forward.

They got some side benefits from this strategy, too. The outsourced contacts vendor that they picked (ACT Remote) also handles all of their security, backups, and tech support, and the vendor also hosts all of their Microsoft Office applications and data, too. Now they have freed themselves from having stand-alone and isolated applications, and can share information around the company without having to worry if someone left something on their PC and didn't come into work that day.

That is what agility is all about.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Are PR people spammers?

Paul Gillin and I do this weekly podcast called TechPRWarStories, and we both have a lot of fun with it. The episodes are less than 15 minutes and talk about issues that pertain to public relations and hi tech, something we both have a little experience with. The latest episode (#33, wow!) we talk about Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson’s anti-spam manifesto, which includes the publication of hundreds of addresses of PR people who are banned from his inbox. I am appalled that Anderson would go so far as to publicize e-mail addresses for every spambot to harvest. Paul agrees, but sees merit in the problem that Anderson is highlighting. Both of us agree that there are tools journalists can use to manage their inboxes more effectively and that the onus is on reporters to become familiar with those tools.

We also discuss Steve Rubel’s blog post this week in which he laments the craziness that has overtaken the Web 2.0 market.

Have a listen, subscribe, send us some comments please!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A new kind of data center testing facility

I let you in on one of my big passions – I have a certain fondness for visiting data centers. Maybe it is the feeling of power coursing through all those racks of servers, or getting access into the inner sanctum of IT after passing through a series of security checkpoints. Or it could be just seeing how all this gear has been wired up. I always was big on looking at the backs of equipment and checking the cables whenever I got a demo from some vendor.

So when the folks at Schneider Electric and its American Power Conversion subsidiary asked me if I wanted to come to their open house of a new kind of data center, they were talking to the right guy, and I jumped at the chance.

The place is an oddity for several reasons. First, it is built like an actual working data center but with one key difference: there is literally nothing inside it. Instead, the mostly empty building has lots of HVAC equipment, electrical power, and plenty of monitoring and modeling tools. The idea is to have "a facility dedicated to practical solutions, not a not of hype," says Aaron Davis, the chief Marketing Officer for the subsidiary.

Schneider built its data center, which it calls its Electric Technology Center, to serve as a test bed for its customers, to show IT managers what they need to do to reconfigure their own data centers as they have evolved from mainframe-centric to house more distributed systems. It is a great idea and overdue. As IT shops outgrow their data center infrastructures, they want to be able to figure out the power and cooling issues and how companies can retool their data centers appropriately.

If you run a data center, chances are you have some pretty old equipment that you'd like to replace but literally don't have the energy to do it. Your raised floors are probably filled with outdated cabling that is so thick you have lost much of the airflow capacity and cooling ducts. Your air conditioning is on overload because it was never designed to cool racks of gear, and the temperature varies greatly from one aisle to another as a result. Your backup generators and power conditioning equipment is probably not matched to the gear it is backing up, and you have no idea of what should be upgraded first.

Wouldn't it be great to model what you need to do, before you actually have to bring servers down and remodel? That is the essence of the idea behind what Schneider is trying to do with its new testing facility, located outside of St. Louis. Think of it as one big (more than 100,000 square feet) big playroom where you can bring in gear and move it around and test various situations before you have to deploy it in your own shop.

Some companies are fortunate and able to rebuild or relocate their entire data center, something that I got to witness first-hand when the data center at the end of my block was rebuilt to new specs. (See the article here on my night at Rejis when they moved their facility just a few feet.)

But not everyone can just take a former parking lot and erect a new building to serve modern needs. Some IT shops have to do a fair amount of retrofitting, and that's where the St. Louis test bed comes in handy. Firms can build racks and lay them out on the floor, and try out different scenarios to measure airflow, power consumption, and temperature gradients for their gear. There are also two huge temperature controlled testing rooms that can rapidly heat or cool down and be used to see what happens to particular gear.

I am glad that the company picked St. Louis to build their facility, because being the data center groupie that I am I hope to visit often and get to see what they are doing with their customers. Plus, it is a really neat looking building that also serves as a showroom for some of the company's product lines. Schneider bought APC earlier this year, and has merged them with their MGE division, which sells electric power control equipment. While most of us know APC from their battery backup boxes (or we should), they also make large-scale rack power and cooling gear that are designed for data center use.

Their push has been to isolate airflow just around the immediate vicinity of the racks, so you are cooling the smallest air volumes and reducing the amount of power for these cooling needs. This has lots of appeal, particularly these days when everyone is going green and when oil prices continue to reach new highs. At the launch event last week, representatives from the US Department of Energy and spoke about how they are working together to reduce energy usage of data centers. "This is real low-hanging fruit," said Douglas Kaempf, who runs the Industrial Technologies Program at DOE. The Schneider facility has 7 MW of power supplied by the local utility, which is enough to power a reasonable suburb.

Ironically, the Schneider facility is located in between two massive data centers of Mastercard and Citibank, just the other side of the Missouri River from where one of the worst floods happened about 15 years ago. Don't worry – all three are on high ground and have plenty of backup resources too.

If you are looking at a data center remodel, keep this place in mind. The daily rental fee starts at $5,000, depending on customer needs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Choosing a toll-free number

When was the last time your had a business with a toll-free number? Was it back in the mid-1990s, when the "new" area codes 888, 866 and 877 started showing up?

My step-daughter recently asked me "what the deal was with the 877 area code?" She grew up in an era when long distance was always free on her cell phone. It got me thinking about how things have changed with Ma Bell (even saying that will date me, I am sure).

I had an 800 number back in the day when I thought it was important for people to easily call me. This was when I had 128 kbps ISDN "broadband" Internet, and had to pay something like two cents a minute for each call to my ISP (that cut down on my surfing time, to be sure). Most of the time I got wrong numbers, which I paid I think regular long-distance charges for. I think my business phone bill was around $300 a month, including the ISDN access.

Fast forward to today, where my personal phone bill is around $200 a month and the thought of having a "dial-up ISP" and ISDN puts you back in the cretaceous period. Of course that includes several cellular lines, DSL, and unlimited wireline long distance. But there are still some situations where you might want to have a toll-free number for your business, or even personal needs. So what do you do?

The easiest and cheapest way to get a toll-free number is if you already are a Vonage VOIP customer (there are still a few of us diehards around). It costs an extra $5 a month with a $10 activation fee, and you have your choice of 877 and 866 numbers with 100 minute in-bound calls. The number is tied to your existing Vonage line, of course, and it takes seconds to sign up via their Web site. Clearly, these guys get how to do self-service features.

If you aren't a Vonage customer and don't expect a lot of calls, you can get a toll-free number from for $10 a month that includes 30 minutes of inbound calls on one of their messaging plans. After that, the price is 7 cents per minute, which can add up. A better deal is a plan from, where the same $10 a month gets you 200 minutes, and then 4.9 cents per minute after that.

And is just one of a number of Web sites that allow you to type in your name or some catchy seven-letter phrase and see if you can match it to a particular toll-free number, where the first 100 minutes will cost – you got it -- $10 a month plus a $29 activation fee. They offer all the various toll-free prefixes too.

There are a number of differentiating features on all of these plans: some will send your voice mail calls to email-based notifications and voice attachments, some will allow you to have multiple "extensions" on your line for different users, some can forward to different numbers or have a "follow-me" type of service, and some will have toll-free fax tied into the voice line too.

Speaking of Ma Bell, I tried to get information from AT&T's various Web sites about toll-free numbers, but wasn't able to find anything even after I entered my login information as one of their customers. That is shameful, and just goes to show you how far we have with toll-free calling.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Learning from NASA

I spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week while I was attending a user group conference nearby in Orlando. As my wife and I rode around the vast complex, I thought about the many things that public relations and tech marketing folks can learn from the way NASA tells its story to the public.

147_0398.JPGNASA has always spent a lot of money on PR. Sending people into space is dangerous and expensive, and continues to be so. And while the company’s reputation isn’t what it used to be compared to the “Right Stuff” 1960s when we were trying to land on the moon, they still do a lot of things right when it comes to getting their message across and educating the public about what it takes to work in space.

I admit it – I am a space junkie and grew up fascinated with astronauts and the whole lunar landing thing. Growing up on Long Island, I knew that the local space contractor was Grumman and that they built the spidery lunar lander, and even had a model of it in my bedroom too. Later, I spent some time at the Cradle of Aviation Museum which isn’t far from where Lindbergh took off for Paris, and got to meet Fred Haise, one of the Apollo 13 astronauts (Bill Paxton plays him in the film version) when he gave a lecture there several years ago. (Just to complete the connections with Lindbergh, now I am living in St. Louis. He also wrote his memories when he was living in Port Washington, NY, where I lived for many years too.)

What made the visit to the space center memorable were the testimonial videos from long time NASA employees – they were short, You-Tube like segments about people that had rather odd jobs, but took pride in doing them -- for decades in some cases. As an example, the various pieces of each shuttle need to be put together in a special building called the Vehicle Assembly Building and then towed over to the launch pad. The guy who drives the tractor that tows this multi-million ton rig talked about how he isn’t exactly NASCAR material – the tractor’s maximum speed is one mph – but when he gets to the pad he has to position the rocket within a sixteenth of an inch for it to be properly launched. You could see him positioning the rocket with a joystick in the video and wonder how cool is that?

Another video was about the guy who runs the recovery operations to pick up the booster rockets once they are ditched in the ocean. NASA recycles them but first they have to track them down after the launch and the process isn’t easy. We saw videos of divers wrangling the boosters – everything is bobbing up and down in the ocean while the drivers try to attack the lines to tow the rockets back to shore.

The best part of the complex for me was the actual firing control room that has been reassembled and shows you what happened the moments before and after one of the Apollo launches. Those of us that grew up glued to our black and white TVs watching many moon launches will find this the iconic techno stage setting fascinating, and it was great to see the attention to detail – the various instrument panels lit up as they came into play during the countdown. Now we have space entrepreneurs that can run their launches remotely over the Internet with just a small staff.

147_0406.JPGEven though I visited the space center when I was very young, I wasn’t prepared for how vast the place is – you need to take a series of bus rides from one site to another, and of course much of it is very much a working industrial site that is off limits to the general public. My wife and I got to go in a simulation ride that shows you what liftoff in the shuttle feels like. And we ate lunch literally underneath the huge Saturn V/Apollo rocket that is lying horizontally and stretches close to 400 feet.

What was special about the space program, then and now, is that it takes the right mix of teamwork and selflessness and ingenuity to pull all this technology off. And while the shuttle fleet is aging, it is a testimonial to how many of them we have launched successfully and how well it really works. While some might argue that sending people into space is a luxury we can’t afford, I like to think that the innovations and sense of discovery continue to inspire many of us in the hi-tech field. I give NASA a lot of points for doing such a great job, and the next time you find yourself in the area do plan on spending some time at the space center, and maybe skip a day at the theme parks that ring Orlando.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New VOIP Services

I had a chance to compare two new Internet phone services from Ooma and MagicJack. Let me summarize what I have learned in the table below:


Initial cost
$40 for first year



Recurring cost
$20/yr following years
plus monthly Vonage service

911 features
Uses E911 PSAP
Uses landline 911 (2)
Use Vonage PSAP

Headset or analog phone?
Either supported
Analog Phone
Neither needed (mic included)
Headset + PC

Free calling area
North America
North America
Various countries (1)

Mac OS X support
Not yet
Uses phones
Not yet

Notable features
Headset or phone
Second line
Built in mic
International reach

Few area codes yet avail.
Customer support
Tied to Vonage account
Dicey p2p network issues

Email voicemail notifications?



(1) Skype pro provides unlimited calling in a single country that you receive the phone number for.

(2) Please note that in order for the ooma system to work, we will add call forward busy ("CFB") when we provision your line, for which you will owe your landline phone company associated monthly charges

So what are these new services? Ooma is a small box about the size of an answering machine that hooks up to both your broadband Ethernet and your land voice line. MagicJack is a bit bigger than a USB key drive that connects to your computer's USB port. They have very different approaches, and are not for everyone.

MagicJack is a way to supplement your existing landline or cellular service. If you have a loved one that is living overseas, or someone who travels a lot, then this makes sense. At a fixed price of $40 and $20 for the second and subsequent years, it is a low enough price point that you can send it to someone living abroad, have them register with a US phone number, and then you can have cheap unlimited talk time. The nice thing about the gizmo is that you can either hook up a standard analog phone to it, or use whatever PC-connected sound device you'd like: it can toggle between both. It doesn't yet have many local phone numbers -- when I tried it out, I could get as close as Memphis but nothing in Missouri as yet. But this is becoming less of an issue as many people have unlimited long distance plans anyway.

Ooma is much more expensive, and I am not sure where their market is: at $400, you have to make a lot of calls and the device requires a lot more commitment. You need to make changes to your landline calling features too. Its niftiest feature is the ability to give you a second outgoing phone line, so you can get around a chatty teen who is always tying up your phone. But it has very poor customer support despite some initial buzz and a high initial cost to get their gear.

Both Ooma and MagicJack come with their own voicemail box that can send you email notifications, which is becoming standard in the VOIP world. Both supply unlimited calling in the US or North America, with additional per-minute charges to places beyond. Both support the better E911 services that aren't the norm with most VOIP suppliers: ironically, Vonage offers a competitive USB gizmo called the V-phone, but 1) you need to sign up for a Vonage service plan to use it and 2) it doesn't support E911, instead, emergency calls get routed to a Vonage operator.

The other entry in this sweepstakes is Skype. They of course only work on your PC, but they do offer Macintosh support, something neither the V-phone or the MagicJack presently have. They are a bit more expensive if you buy all the various options (you need Skype In to get a fixed phone number so people can call your PC at $60/year and Skype Pro to make outgoing calls at $36/year ) than either USB device, but they do offer local numbers in various countries, should that be important to you or if both of your frequently called parties are outside the US. Their Pro plan allows unlimited outbound calling to phones in whatever country you assign your phone number to your account.

What you pick will depend on a lot of different circumstances: if you are looking for a complete replacement of your landline phone with an Internet solution, I still think either Vonage or AT&T CallVantage is a better way to go than any of these products. If you make a lot of international calls to different places, then probably Skype is your answer. If your teen or traveling salesperson is tying up your phone or racking up cell minutes, then any one of these might be a lower-cost alternative if you want to keep your existing landline.

Clearly, the VOIP market is undergoing a lot of change, and a lot of players will come and (like SunRocket) go. As someone who uses Vonage daily for the past four years, I am watching avidly what is going on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rewriting computing history with Colossus

What if I told you that a secret project conducted more than 60 years ago held the true origins of the modern computing era? And that the country behind this project did such a good job erasing its tracks that it did itself a disservice? And that many of the things invented during this project would only be realized with modern-day PCs?

It sounds like a made-for-TV movie, and it should be, and finally -- Now The True Story of Colossus Can Be Told (cue announcer and swelling music).

The world's first electronic digital computer wasn't developed on American soil but presaged by nearly two years during an intensive British top-secret wartime effort called Colossus. A team of engineers built the room-sized computer for a single purpose: to decrypt German military radio transmissions. The original designer died without ever receiving any acknowledgment or acclaim accorded to many of his American computing counterparts, yet he was responsible for the first implementations of program-controlled logic, parallel processing, variable programming, hardware interrupts, optical reading of punched paper tape, shift registers and other things that are now common to the PC lexicon. Some of these innovations took a decade or more to implement elsewhere by others.

And lest you think that Colossus was so old school slow, consider this: It was so massively parallel and efficient at what it did that a modern PC programmed to do similar code breaking tasks now takes about as long to achieve the same results!

There were actually ten Colossus models produced during the war by a team led by Thomas Flowers, who worked doing telephone switching research before and after the war at what was to become British Telecom. By a series of fortuitous circumstances, Flowers was originally hired for another project, and took it upon himself to develop Colossus using his own designs.

Why are we just figuring its place in history now? Several reasons: first, the Brits have finally declassified the key documents and lifted gag orders on the project, and as a result a wonderful book is now out by Oxford University Press.

The book is a huge 460-page tome with many details about the code breaking process directly from the people who worked at Bletchley Park and Dollis Hill, the government labs involved. This is a collection of first-person accounts and you get to see the enormity of the task and exactly how critical this effort was towards winning the war. If you got excited about crypto stuff in the DaVinci Code then you will have lots of hours of fun trying to work through the examples the authors provide. (And my thanks to my original writing mentor, Grant, for turning me onto the book.)

The book's author and organizer is Jack Copeland, who is a New Zealand professor and responsible for the archive. Turning, a name familiar to many of us, was intimately involved in many things Bletchley Park but not the brains behind the hardware of Colossus.

Second, owing to an odd set of circumstances, all but two of the machines were immediately destroyed after V-E day in 1945 on Churchill's command. Had more evidence survived, it might have become as notorious as the American ENIAC, which has gotten most of the credit for the early computing innovations. The two units were used by the British Government for several years for code breaking purposes, presumably. And recently, a project to rebuild one machine has been successful, and was tested with breaking some historic codes.

Third, the veil of secrecy around this project was colossal, too: despite the thousands of people employed during the wartime effort, there were few leaks. Maybe the Brits are better at keeping secrets than us Yanks, but the amount of containment and compartmentalization was austere. Thousands of people worked at close quarters yet never asked each other what they were actually doing on the project. Parents didn't have idea what their children were working on – indeed, one of the younger Colossus team members was so concerned that all of his contemporaries were off fighting (and he was just a mere geek-in-residence) that he asked to be reassigned because his father was beginning to wonder what he was doing. His superiors arranged to have an army officer visit his parents and reassure them that the son was involved in a major military project, and just because he wasn't shipped to the front lines he was still a key part of the war effort.

Despite the secrecy, engineers kept a few pages of design notes about the project and now a group of academic researchers is using this information to try to reconstruct Colossus and the German encryption devices it managed to break. There are exhibits at Bletchley Park as well, someday I hope to see those in person.

There are some modern lessons to be learned from Colossus:

"The only dependable way of protecting corporate and government computer networks today from the criminal trespasses of hackers is to hire from their top echelon on the principle of fighting fire with fire," ways Donald Michie, one of the younger code breakers at Bletchley park. He talks about how the code makers and the code breakers were never allowed to communicate and indeed were two separate government organizations, thus serious flaws were never fixed on early encryption machines. Many of these flaws introduced incredible human errors that allowed the Brits a way into decrypting the German transmissions.

A second lesson is how critical Colossus was towards the overall war effort. Many Americans like to think that we played a key role in winning the war, and certainly without our men and material things would have happened differently. Yet, the book describes the moment that Eisenhower changed his plans for the D-Day Normandy invasion based on the Colossus decrypts. Indeed, one of the Colossus machines was finished just hours before he had to make this decision. The decrypts made it possible for him to monitor German counterstrike efforts before he attacked the beaches and place his troops accordingly. There are several other examples throughout the book about other moments where Colossus saved lives – including German ones, too.

Third, reading the descriptions of the Colossus team and their exploits, I got the feeling that Bletchley Park was a very unique place in Britain's military history. People were addressed on a first-name basis, and civilians and soldiers worked side by side. Many of the people employed there were just out of high school, if that, and the team leaders had to find motivational ways to keep the place running 24x7. There is a lot to learn from in these sentiments for anyone who manages a team of people.

Finally, there is also an understanding the role of secrecy in an open society. I don't think anyone would argue that Colossus needed to be a secret during wartime. The issue is how it was revealed to the public, and how long it took before the exact details were openly available. Given that the events of the 1940s are just now coming to light, perhaps we need to keep this in mind when we think how the innovations we create during our modern era can find their way into the future public domain.

I highly recommend this book, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Monday, August 27, 2007

I have a dream

Today is the anniversary of the famous King speech. Five years ago, I wrote this parody. It is sadly still true today:

Twenty-some years ago, the PC was invented and our desktops would never be the same. And now we must face the tragic fact that our desktops are still not free. Twenty years later, our lives are still sadly crippled by the manacles of frequent crashes and by numerous security problems. Twenty years we have lived on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. We are still languishing in the corners of American society and find ourselves exiles in our own technological land.

So I have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. Windows has to go from our desktops. It is time for the 'nixes (Unix, Linux and Apple's OS X) to play a more major role, and for Microsoft to get with the program and fix this broken buggy whip.

I say to you today, my readers, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of productivity. I have a dream, that all PCs will live up to their original marketing potential, and free their owners from the devils of DOS and frequent application crashes. I have a dream that one day our desktop PCs, sweltering with the heat of their overclocked CPUs, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and reliable operations.

I have a dream that one day all of my applications will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood and play nicely on my PC, no matter what version of drivers and odd video adapter is inside my computer.

I have a dream that your and my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the version of operating system running on their desktop computer, but by the content of their work output on their hard disk.

I have a dream today.

This is my hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day from having to reboot our computers every day, from crashed applications and inexplicable blue screens and error messages.

How I wish most of us could free ourselves from the tyranny of Windows and have a desktop operating system that didn't crash frequently, could support our legacy applications, were easy to install and wasn't a security sinkhole. Dream on.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Video production collaboration

Last week I wrote about collaborative databases with This week I take a look at another collaboration technology from a new company called that is geared towards video production and editing teams.

Everyone these days is shooting video and thinks of themselves as video producers and editors. And while it is great that more video content is now online, much of it is either unwatchable or uninteresting. But I come here not to judge all these budding Bergmans, but to tell you about a tool that can make it easier to work together with your team and better produce these videos.

The idea isn't new, but what Cozimo offers is. Let's say you shoot some video footage and want to show it to a bunch of people who are spread all over the landscape before you release it to the general and unsuspecting public via YouTube. You can email a copy of your video to your team, but this isn't very satisfying, and especially these days as many filters routinely block big file attachments. Ideally, you'd like your video to be stored in some kind of collaboration system itself, so you don't have to worry about where the most current copy is housed. And this system should allow your working team to gather together online and view, comment, and make adjustments to the footage.

You want to make comments on particular segments, frames, or portions of the video, and make them in near-real time, such as what might be done via an IM text or voice chat session. That is what is at the heart of Cozimo, and what is lacking in many of its competitors. For those other applications, you'll have to run a separate IM network. That is cumbersome, because you can't store the commentary with the actual video footage itself.

Ideally, you'd like your collaboration solution to have some elements of a lightweight content management system that does version tracking – so you can go back and review an earlier edit in case that was more appealing – and workflow elements too. You want to be able to direct the job to a particular person, who must complete some task before sending the video to someone else. General collaboration tools such as Notes and Sharepoint have had these features for a long time, but don't support video content specifically.

Finally, you want to be able to use just an ordinary Web browser to access this tool, without the need to have any additional desktop software.

As I said earlier, there are plenty of people already in this space, some that come with pretty deep pockets or heavy Hollywood industry following. Autodesk has its, which has one problem because it requires a Windows client to access most of its features. Also, it is really designed for architects to share AutoCAD files rather than general videos. and both offer support for a wider variety of content types than just AutoCAD documents but don't have much in the way of workflow besides some general email notification features when one person is done doing some particular task. And -- which supports just video files -- has too many different components to make its workflow component really effective.

I haven't spoken about the price for these services. Some of them are pretty inexpensive to start out but then the price quickly climbs as you add workgroup teams and start consuming storage. For a gigabyte of online storage is $50/month for 12 workgroups (but an unlimited number of users and files) and even their most expensive plan is $150/month for 5 GB of storage. is $100/mo for a single workgroup, but then things start to get pricey. Wiredrive charges $250/month, and several thousand dollars for setup fees. And of course Autodesk is at the top of the cost charts with about $1,000/month for 100 users.

If you have any experience with these products or something similar, drop me a line or add a comment here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sharing spreadsheets

In the past, the easiest way to share a small database was to create a spreadsheet and email it to your collaborators. This time-tested method has withstood more sophisticated competition for several reasons:

First, databases are still tricky for some people to understand. While relational databases can be thought of as tables that have several indexes, this is more than many people want to deal with. Second, the collaboration tools are tough to learn and use. Look at how many people still use Lotus Notes for email and not much else. And since most of us are comfortable with email, using it as the transportation system isn't all that taxing. Until the day comes when three people are working on the same spreadsheet and make conflicting changes.

Third, building the right kinds of collaborative applications requires some skill and understanding how and what kinds of data are shared. How many people are going to be adding/changing records to your database? How many just want to do queries and reports? And how do you prevent conflicting updates?

Finally, when you add the Web and Internet-based access to the data, you have greatly increased the skill level required to create and manage your database. While there are some really good Internet-facing database programs (Alpha Software, Filemaker, Quickbase from Intuit, and DabbleDb – just to name a few that I know of), none of these are as easy to setup and manipulate as, a service that has been out for the past year but recently gotten some much-needed improvements.

You can create an account and upload your spreadsheet in about five minutes. If your first line in the spreadsheet contains your field names, you are just about done. You can easily sort any column quickly by clicking on the arrow icons. You can quickly locate duplicate records, create a mail merge template and forms for your Web site, all with just a couple of clicks of the mouse. Custom reports are simple, and what's more, they can be distributed via email to your collaborators on a set schedule. Adding different collaborators with various discrete permissions is very straightforward, and in about 30 minutes you can have a project setup and working with your team.

There are other ways to import data into your database, including using Web forms or setting up a special email inbox that will post the information automatically. These tasks will take some skill and some HTML knowledge, however.

Other tools require more programming skill to do what Trackvia does with a few mouse clicks, or are more cumbersome to manipulate, or don't have the automatic defaults that make setup as easy as Trackvia. Did I mention the cost? $10 per month per user. This includes an unlimited number of databases and up to a GB of attachment storage (meaning that you aren't charged for the actual records themselves that are stored). If you sign up before October 1 for an account, the company will give you several additional features free.

The company has been around for over a year and has some pretty impressive customers, including people that have built some very large databases. One final thing that I liked: with Trackvia, you have a completely free 14-day trial: you don't give them your credit card to register. If you are sharing your spreadsheets the old fashioned way, you might want to check them out.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Toolbars are hazardous to your browsing health

Every browser-based toolbar should come with a warning like what the cigarette makers have to put on their products: WARNING: Use of this product may be hazardous to your PC's health and cause all kinds of viruses and other infections.

I am being somewhat serious. The news last week of the potential exploits from the LinkedIn toolbar should be a sobering thought for anyone who has this or other toolbars installed on their system.

No one has actually observed this proof-of-concept exploit used by any malicious hacker, yet. But obviously this is just the tip of the virus iceberg here.

I don't know what the big deal with browser toolbars are, anyway. No one I know will admit to using them, and most people have them inadvertently because they downloaded something else and the toolbar got installed as collateral damage. Most of these toolbars are there for better access to search sites, but if you are already using IE 7 or Firefox you have this already as part of your browser without having to download something that will consume more screen real estate.

I actually was using the LinkedIn toolbar for a few days earlier this summer when I was experimenting with using the site for more than just finding where my friends now were working. But alas the toolbar didn't stick – it was buggy and kept crashing and causing me all kinds of grief, so now I am very happy going back to just bookmarking the site and coming in manually like ordinary civilians. I didn't see much savings and the notifications were getting annoying after just a few days, a sure sign that its toolbar didn't have staying power.

Now, my dissatisfaction with browser toolbars doesn't extend to browser extensions, which are an entirely different story. There are lots of useful ones that help me access FTP sites, Greasemonkey programs, and create TinyURLs, just to name a few.

Browser security is still a big, gaping chest wound for desktop computing. And having a toolbar just opens up another point of infection and isn't worth the trouble. I'm actually interested in this topic and doing some research this week for a story about honeyclients for Information Security magazine. If you are familiar with honeynets, these are a bit different: they are automated search programs that try to uncover new browser exploits by browsing thousands of Web sites and recording what they see. Obviously, lots of fertile ground. In the mean, if you have any toolbars installed, uninstall at least the LinkedIn toolbar, if not all the others.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

P2P Protection

What happens when you deliberately put a real debit card and pre-paid phone card out on a peer file sharing service and measure how it long before someone tries to access the cards and drain them of any value? About a week, according to an experiment conducted by Tiversa, a company who sells P2P protective software.

The results were reported in congressional testimony today.

The researchers put a file called "credit card and phone card numbers.doc" on a PC running Limewire inside a shared directory, as part of a test earlier this year. Within a few days, dozens of downloads were tracked, and soon the total value stored on both cards was depleted.

This is a very real scenario. While I won't get into whether P2P file sharing is legit, plenty of people are running this software on their PCs, and they may easily place files in the shareable folder that contain equally sensitive information. The problem is compounded if these services are being run from corporate-owned PCs, too.

So let's try something out. If you are running a sharing service on your PC, take a moment now and see if you have made yourself an inadvertent target:

Have you set up your entirely hard drive as shareable? Not a good idea. At least change the setting to just the folder where your media files are located.

Is your hard disk not very organized, and you don't pay much attention to where you store your files? Now is the time to look. The Tiversa researchers found dozens of copies of passports and birth certificates, hundreds of copies of tax returns, and federal student aid applications when they did a quick search of the Gnutella network. It didn't take them very long to find this stuff, and when they downloaded a few samples they seemed like the real McCoy.

Did the file sharing software add other folders besides the one where you knowingly store your music and videos? They are good at finding all of your media files elsewhere, and if you have an MP3 in the same place where you have your Quicken data, you could be in trouble. Spend some time cleaning house now.

Do you do work on a PC that is also used by your teenagers? You could have saved a work document in a shareable folder by mistake, or not realized that later on the folder became shareable. In a recent study by Osterman Research, 71% of employees answering the survey have checked work-related email from home on a non-work owned computer. Work is being done away from the office more often all the time.

You have been warned.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

LinkedIn and Facebook

The press loves a food fight, good vs. evil, Microsoft vs. Netscape (Netscape? Remember them?), Microsoft vs. Linux, Microsoft vs. Google. Okay, enough already. The one I'll talk about today is LinkedIn vs. Facebook.

For those of you that have been living under a rock and use neither, LinkedIn is a social networking site where people can post their online resumes and search for jobs or business connections. I have been a member for several years and have several hundred people whom I have met over my career. I have used LinkedIn for doing research on companies and finding sources to interview for stories or leads to new story ideas, as well as a place where I can collect references for previous work that I have done for my consulting clients. It is also a great place to keep track of people when they change jobs, or about to. (The recent CMP layoffs were presaged by a flurry of connect requests, for example.)

Facebook is a social networking site that formerly was the exclusive domain of college students, and seems like the successor for MySpace when kids want something more grown-up. Its scope has been expanded twice recently: first to allow members from the general population to join, and most recently with a series of REST interfaces that developers could build applications on. It is one of the quickest growing sites around – according to the WSJ, they have added three million users since this latest development. I was one of them and joined a few weeks ago and now have 100 or so "friends." One of my motivations for joining was to communicate with my daughter, who used the site to do research and figure out where she wanted to go to college this fall by joining several groups and messaging people that eventually formed a group of entering freshman in her particular dorm.

Both services have their own messaging system so you never have to leave the service and use your regular email identity and you can also get info about your correspondents by clicking on their picture. This seems less useful to me – but then I already do too much email anyway. I see my daughter using email less and less because she lives in Facebook and doesn't want to check her email box.

The Facebook open application ploy is a smart one, and there are now close to a 1,000 different applications that people have put together. As the Journal points out, a popular music sharing app called iLike gets more revenues from Facebook users than from its own home page. I am sure that there are others that will be moneymakers in the near future too. What is interesting about the applications is that you can see what your friend network is using and this way get a lead on the more interesting ones that you might want to fool around with.

Up until now, LinkedIn was its own closed universe. They offered several different plans from free to several hundred dollars per month to make use of their services. I know a few people who have coughed up the cash but most are satisfied with the free service. They have begun their own developer program too, at least according to Techcrunch, but I couldn't find any details on their site. The details on the Facebook API are easy to find and seem well thought out.

Facebook is easier to build networks, easier than LinkedIn to set up your own groups (see if you can find my group called frosh dads), and easier than LinkedIn to customize your own home page with a lot of silly applications. There is even a group for LinkedIn users, where I got a lot of useful information and links to write this column. [And there is a discussion thread on LinkedIn about Facebook here.] But more importantly, it seems the people on Facebook you ask to be your "friend" are choosier and have somewhat of a higher threshold than on LinkedIn. I took the easy way of bulk uploading about 200 of my Gmail contacts to get started on Facebook, and I should have been more selective: Several people messaged me basically saying who the heck are you and why should I want to be your friend. That brought me back to thoughts of junior high and I don't want to get into that period of my life, believe me.

One person that sent me a "who are you" request turned out to be someone that I exchanged emails with 12 years ago and haven't heard from since. At least, he kept better records than I did, but it was nice to reconnect.

With LinkedIn, I get all sorts of requests to be connected with people that I honestly don't know and don't think I ever met or corresponded with. I mean no offense if you are one of those. When you write a weekly newsletter, you the reader know a lot more about me than I about you. Depending on my mood, I have either accepted them or denied them, with no real rationale.

Granted, the two networks serve vastly different audiences and purposes: I don't have any incentive to hide my true identity on LinkedIn, indeed, I want to be as specific as possible about my credentials and professional affiliations, because you never know what work might come in as a result. That is the opposite on Facebook, where you don't want unknown stalkers coming by, and where you might want to have multiple identities (if you are a teenager or college student) to see how to take your "friends" to "friends with benefits" level.

Alex Iskold has done an excellent analysis back in January about the two sites, showing traffic stats and their different approaches to their networks and content:

A more recent post by Ed Sim on this blog talks about the different rationales and audiences and has some insightful comments by his readers.

I'd be interested in your comments about both services. You can either send me an email directly, post a comment on my, or message me from within Facebook or LinkedIn. I'll tally all the replies and let you know across the board what happens.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

MS Home Server review

Here is a question for you: when was the last time you backed up your home's digital files? Maybe never? Bad answer.

Microsoft has been working on a solution, and it went into its final production throes this past week. The product is called Windows Home Server, and it is a stripped-down version of its Windows Server 2003 that normally costs a thousand bucks or so. For the time being, you can download a timed-version (it will work until December) freely from this link. You do need to sign up and answer a few questions to join the Connect service, which also has other pre-release software from Microsoft.

You need to install the software on a new machine: it will wipe your disk clean and boot up automatically with the Home Server running. The software is designed to run "headless" which means that you don't need to attach a monitor or a keyboard, once you get beyond certain basics that I will talk about in a moment. It will install the operating system, split your hard disk into two partitions (one for system files, one for data), and set up a bunch of shared drives for pictures, videos, files, and so forth. Think of this as layering a simple set of controls on top of the standard Windows server platform.

To access these shares, you will need to run another piece of software called Home Server Connector Software from each computer to set up the network connection. There are basically two different levels of access – "remote control" for the administrators that gives them access to the server control console, and ordinary file and printer shares for everyone else.

I tried it out on my home office network to mixed results. I liked a few things:

First, getting to the reason for this column, it is very easy to backup your PCs with this product, provided you have a big enough disk on the server's PC. You can choose what you want to backup, and it automagically does it in the middle of the night, when traffic is lightest (and presumably your PC that is to be backed up is still powered on). You can set up a different schedule if you are pickier.

Second, Home Server can also automatically synchronize its shared folders with ones on your local PC – that is a neat trick and something you might consider for say sharing your pictures or videos across the network, and something that has been standard with the Windows server line for some time.

Finally, you can control the server from outside your home, if it can figure out how to open up your home gateway ports. It uses UPnP to do this. Sadly, my 2Wire DSL gateway doesn't support this (it doesn't support a lot of other things, but that discussion will have to wait for another day). It would be nice if there were another alternative to UPnP, but there isn't.

Here are some things that I didn't like about the software.

First, you initially need complex passwords to set the darn thing up, meaning something with seven characters, upper and lower case and numbers too. That seems a bit onerous for the average home network. This can be loosened up once you get the first user going.

Second, when the install was done, it didn't recognize the Intel network adapter that was in a fairly recent Dell. Once I installed the right driver, I was good to go. Third, despite its headless installation, you will still need to be sitting in front of the server to set up a shared printer. Next, the only clients for this server are Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista – if you have got anything older on your home network, and chances are good you do – then don't even bother with the product.

Is this a good deal? It is hard to tell until Microsoft sets pricing. There is still talk that it will be available both as a bundled piece of hardware from the usual suspects and as a software download, but we'll see.

If it does come as low-cost software and you have an older PC and can upgrade the storage, it might be worth it. But if you have older Windows and Macs, then no: you are better off buying either a Mac mini or a network-attached storage box and saving yourself the trouble.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

How to do your next teleconference

If you are like me, you probably spend a lot of time on teleconference calls. And like it or not, these calls rarely have everyone joining at the same time, so you end up spending a lot of time waiting at the beginning of the call for everyone to dial in. A new Web-based service is trying to fix that and make these calls more useful.

The service is called, and while it isn’t cheap, the productivity gains could pay for the cost of the calls. Here is how it works. You sign up on the company’s Web page with your email address, and you get an account with 100 free minutes to try out the service. You enter your participants names and phones numbers using your browser, and set up when the call is to begin. Then the service calls everyone and joins them together for the conference.

NOTE: As of 9/1/07, they are redoing the service and rebranding it under So not sure if it is still working at the moment.

Since the service is making outgoing calls, they charge you for each minute that everyone is connected. So if your call last ten minutes and has five people – including you – then that consumes 50 total minutes. You can buy minutes in bulk (250 minutes for $30, 1000 minutes for $80) to recharge your account when you run low.

There are a lot of Web-based free conference calling services out there that work the old-fashioned way: you email people a dial-in number and a password, and you have to wait for your parties to initiate the calls and connect in. (I have a list of them on if you are interested.) Gaboogie is the first one that I know that initiates the calls. You can create teleconferences in Skype, but it isn’t as simple and you are limited to a maximum of five participants.

So I like the idea behind Gaboogie, but the service still has some quirks. The Web control panel for the moderator is somewhat terse. If you want your conference call recorded, you can set this up ahead of time but then you have to listen to a recurring beep to indicate the recording during the call. That is somewhat annoying. Once the call is done, however, the recording can be downloaded as an mp3 file or as an RSS feed for others to listen to. (It would be nice if the mp3 file could remove the beep indicators from the recording, then these could easily become nice podcasts.) And the recording includes about a minute of music on hold at the beginning and about another minute at the end of the call.

All in all, Gaboogie is an interesting twist on an old idea. And maybe it will save some time on your next teleconference.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Email Koyaanisqatsi

When someone sends you an email, when should they expect a reply? Within an hour? A day? It is a simple question, but the answer (and you can send them to me via email if you'd like) isn't.

I think most of us try to respond within a business day, and if we get the email early enough, by the close of that day too. It is a pretty good rule of thumb.

But then some of us expect a response even quicker, and get annoyed or impatient of the delay. To me, this represents something out of balance, like some scenes from the movie Koyaanisqatsi. (Little ironies department: I now live about a mile from the former site of Pruitt-Igoe made famous in the movie.)

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about how she often replies to her emails late at night, after her husband has gone to sleep. It made me think about how often I reply to emails in the early morning, before my own wife awakes.

And how many of us can't leave the laptop home when we go on vacation for fear of the massive email pile-up that will await us upon our return? Or who can't help ourselves but "multitask" during meetings and clear our inboxes when we are supposed to be part of the meeting itself?

There are some that are hyperactive email responders, carrying BlackBerries and being reachable 24x7. You know who you are.

Is this healthy? I am beginning to wonder.

The irony is that I have come full circle on email responsiveness. Back in the early days of my own email use, I tried to respond to every email that I received within a few hours. This is the early 1980s, when the Internet was still a DoD science project, and few people had the ability to send messages between corporations, let alone across the world. It was still a novelty then.

In the early 1990s, I had an Internet-reachable email address, actually several. When I started Network Computing magazine, we were one of the first magazines to include email addresses of the authors for each article, which was also novel concept then. Now you can find them for the bylines in my local paper. I was also an early user of the BlackBerry precursor, called Radiomail. I remember one time pulling over at one toll plaza on the Garden State Parkway to answer some emails. A curious cop came over and was wondering what I was doing.

Back when Computer Associates (now called just CA) first implemented their email network, they actually turned the system off for several hours during the workday because they wanted their staff to get work done. This was before various executives were caught cooking the books, so I guess it worked too well. They eventually stopped doing this, and now email is available 24x7, just like everywhere else.

The email landscape sure has changed since then and what was novel is now de rigueur. Today most of us think nothing about emailing people that are halfway around the world, and of course now I get spam in about a dozen different languages, if I could figure out the character sets that come into my inbox.

The trick to being successful with email can be summed up with one word: balance. Or getting back into email balance.

"I do however still get a chuckle by those who complain they can’t get work done at the office, yet are sending personal emails out all day long," says Rich DiGirolamo, who writes a very amusing email newsletter and is a professional keynote speaker. "Some of us make every effort to answer every email within twenty-four hours, but at times we need to prioritize them. Yours just may not be as important to me as you think it is. But it will get answered, I promise."

I think that is a great strategy. I recommend setting aside some time every day to read your emails, and perhaps a separate time to write replies. But don't let it bleed into the entire day.

Maybe we need an email rehab center in Malibu to help those that need to get their lives back into balance.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My top ten ways to promote yourself on Web 2.0

After reading about how various indie musicians promote themselves in a NY Times magazine article this past weekend, and meeting Scott Ginsberg for the first time, I have a series of Web 2.0 epiphanies.

Ginsberg is the Nametag Guy, a smart young man who wears "Hello, my name is Scott" nametag on his shirt all day, every day, for the past several years. He has a blog, a podcast, a Squidoo "lens", an email listserv, an RSS feed, Digg and Technorati references, Myspace and Facebook entries, YouTube snippets, and probably one or two other things too. In between updating all these things, he writes books and is a professional speaker. He totally gets how to promote himself using the latest tools.

People and businesses that will succeed in this brave new world have a lot of work to do to. The old days of putting together a few pages (or a few hundred) of static HTML are so over. The good news is that most of the tools are free for the downloading. All it will take is your time. The bad news is that the time investment is non-trivial. You can't farm this out to someone to just do it for you. It has to become part of your own online psyche and daily activities. Like the Katie Couric ghost-blog debacle, it isn't something you want to delegate.

Here are my top ten tips that I have learned along the way:

1. Email is still the best way for anyone to enter your ecosystem. I have been doing these essays for more than 10 years, and many of you are still reading them and responding. Email is the best way for people between 30 – 50 years old to contact you and stay in touch. Why not younger than 30? Because these people are using IM, Facebook, Myspace, and probably 13 other "social network" sites. They certainly have email addresses and spend time with email, but probably not to the extent that you would want to count on this form of communication. Why not older than 50? Well, I am just putting an arbitrary age here, but eventually, you are getting to the non-typing pre-war generation that doesn't want to communicate via email – until all of their friends or grandkids get on it. These are still people that have their assistants print out their corporate emails – don’t laugh, I have seen too many situations.

2. You don't just want to focus on email, you still need to be approachable in Web 2.0-space. List all of your electronic coordinates in one place on your Web site, and include a phone number for good measure, because that makes it all real. Don't do a "contact form" that hides your email address – that is so old school and off-putting, and anyone worth their HTML code can figure out what the embedded email address is anyway.

3. Give something away for free. Really. You do this to build credibility and also to give people a taste of what you will charge them for. Ginsberg is giving away his latest book on his blog, and he is so comfortable with doing that because he knows this will build word-of-mouth and drive sales. The indie musicians profiled in the Times are giving away MP3s. Some have taken this a step further and are even experimenting with demand-based pricing that turns out to net them more than the 99-cent download standard at iTunes.

4. Think about lists of useful stuff that you can offer others. I have a page of links to various Web conferencing tools on my site that used to be in the top four sites when you searched on Google (today is down to #13, I guess I am slipping up). I have had this page on my site for about a decade, and started it on a whim. Now I get vendors who want me to list their stuff there. Squidoo has institutionalized this with their "lens" approach, and Pageflakes has something similar with their shared pages (You can see my RSS feeds and sites that I frequent here). Each of these approaches takes something that you know, and filters that you apply to the Wide World, and puts a very small amount of your own stamp and value to it.

5. Remember the Web is all about short attention spans. Call it the 4-4-4 rule: The average person spends less than four seconds looking at a Web page. They abandon a site if they can't find something in four clicks. Any video should be shorter than four minutes, or people won't bother watching it.

6. Video matters more. Speaking of videos, start to think about ways that you can put more content into (short) video segments on your site, and then post them to YouTube and other video-sharing places.

7. Don't just Digg. Sites like and that point people to your content are terrific ways to spread the word, but need care and feeding as you post new content – you have to add the entries on their sites to point to your new stuff. But also consider other places such as that will promote your content. If you post enough content on these other sites, you can leverage them better too.

8. Titles and keywords matter. When you add content to these pages, think of snappy headlines and catchy keywords. Because that is what people are going to be searching for and seeing when they scroll around.

9. Exploit your readers/fans/listeners/viewers. Everyone is big these days on "user-generated content" but there is much more to this than meets the eye. The people that consume your content are your best promoters. Leverage them, take care of them, and they will make you rich and famous. Or at least amongst your own ecosystem. The NYT article mentions how the musicians have cleverly used their fans to generate tracks on their songs, schedule concert dates in particular cities, and other activities. I try to answer every email that you send me, even if it is just to acknowledge receipt. Part of this is respecting your readers, part of it is a new way of interacting with them. I remember when we started Network Computing magazine back in 1990 and put our author's email addresses at the end of the articles. We were fearless! But we got some great feedback.

10. Think about all the communities you belong to. Does each one have its own equivalent of an A-list blogger? Someone who has a page a mile long of MySpace "friends" or LinkedIn "connections? A common calendar of events that is easy to subscribe to via RSS? A list of recommended books/videos/music?

There is so much more to do with Web 2.0. I have to run, and post this article on the various places mentioned here, and get the emails out.

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.