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.

About Me

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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.