Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Buying XP shouldn't be this tough

Over the weekend, I helped a friend of mine buy a new laptop. What was
amazing was we actually went into a retail store, found the model she
was most comfortable with and was in stock. We actually left the store
with it under our possession.

What wasn't amazing was how hard it was to purchase it, and how much
Internet research I needed to do to enable this fabulous shopping

You see, my friend wanted to stick with Windows XP. And the moral of
my story, which I will provide up front, is that if you want XP on
your future laptops, you better buy it now because it is only going to
get more difficult.

According to Microsoft's own Web site, XP Pro will no longer be
available in the retail channel after July 1. Although OEMs and system
builders will have until Feb 1, 2009.

There is an exception -- for the immediate future the XP Home version
will be available for ultra-small PCs, but these are probably not the
PCs that you want to outfit your corporate fleet with.

Before heading to the Office Depot that is literally a block from my
house, I spent some time looking over the major PC vendors' Web sites
and seeing what they had. Here is where the story turns ugly. My
friend wanted to spend less than $1,000, have a 15.4-inch screen, and
a keyboard that was solid enough for a demanding typist. That seemed
easy to satisfy, until I started looking around.

None of the major PC vendors make it easy for you to buy a
pre-configured XP laptop. They all "recommend Windows Vista" and hide
their XP models several menu layers down or just don't tell you where
to find them. The two best vendors for XP are Lenovo and HP – possibly
because they have standardized on XP for their own employees, possibly
because they understand that this market segment isn't going away as
fast as Microsoft would like. HP sells actually two different versions
of XP Pro – one is called a "business downgrade" that sounds ominous,
the other is just the standard XP Pro. They cost the same, and they
have fairly wide support for XP Pro across their laptop line. Lenovo
has equally wide support. Both sites make it easy to figure out which
laptops can be configured with XP Pro pre-installed, even if you can't
sort by operating system directly.

The two worst vendors are Sony and Gateway. I couldn't find any XP
models on either site, and Sony makes it almost impossible to
determine what operating system is running on its machine until you
get into the details on each individual model. Toshiba's Web site
isn't much better.

I had better results going to Office Depot's Web site, which was
fortunate because as I said the store is very close by. There you can
quickly search on XP Pro and find a dozen models from several
different vendors, including Sony and Toshiba, which come with this
operating system. It is ironic and cruel that you have to go to a
retail vendor's site to find the details about a product that you
can't get on the actual vendor's site. This should be a lesson for
those of you designing Web sites, but I will leave that for another
column and another day.

In fact, the major PC retailers have done a much better job at finding
XP from their home pages – often a few mouse clicks is all that it
takes to narrow the field. and both will show you
which models come with XP: in CDW's case, they had nine results but
only two Toshibas were in stock.

So off we went to Office Depot. Amazingly, the Lenovo model they had
on display was the sole laptop running XP, and it was one that my
friend liked. We had to deal with a salesperson, who made several
mistakes and tried to get us to purchase the extended warranty, but we
left the store with product in hand.

Microsoft is making a mistake discontinuing XP to retail and corporate
customers. There are many people that aren't enamored with Vista, and
I have heard from many corporate IT managers that are going slowly on
its adoption. Buying a laptop is more of an issue, because many
vendors are making laptops that have network cards and other gear that
doesn't have XP drivers. If you have plans for major XP laptop
purchases this year, spend the money now while you still have a

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fail frequently

How many of us remember our failures more than our successes? My own divorce, the time I didn't get a research grant, the last job that I was fired from (come to think of it, there were some other messy situations that I still recall), the I time I rear-ended someone on a slippery freeway. The list goes on and on. You could say that I have had a full life.

Those of us in technology are fond of the line from the Apollo 13 book and movie: "failure is not an option." Back then, it was something to revel in, a bunch of NASA nerds working around the clock to figure out a strategy that would save the three astronauts' lives and get them back to Earth safely. It was a good story then, and still is.

But I wanted to talk to you today about a somewhat different point of view, that failure >is< an option, and in fact, those of us that fail frequently are better for it. The trick is to think of each failure as a learning and growth opportunity, especially how you can learn to triumph over your own business adversities. Easy to say now, especially as these failures are illuminated in the dim light of my faded memories, but still.

This isn't a new concept. For example, Jeff Atwood in his blog, Coding Horror, says, "Fail early and often." (

And Mitchell Ashley in his blog says:
"If you aren't seeing some failures along the way, it's a pretty good idea you're not stretching, challenging and really going for it. You're probably believing in your own assumptions and plans too much." (

Other people have called this concept rapid prototyping: put something together quickly, barely working, to show your customers or clients. Then, based on this feedback, you go back and make small changes, get more feedback and sharpen your ideas.

And really, when you go back to our childhood, this is how we all learned a new skill, whether it is in playing sports, mastering the piano, or whatever. We took small steps, saw what worked and what didn't, and learned from our mistakes.

The hard part is to figure out the right feedback loop so that you aren't micro-managing everyone. This isn't good either: you have to give people the responsibility to make their own mistakes, so that they can really learn from them.

I got to witness this first hand this past weekend. I was attending a professional speaker-training workshop, and got to see first-hand how really good speakers can still fail and how they can tune their craft. It was like drinking from a firehose, but extremely worthwhile as I try to move into that orbit.

Part of the notion of frequent failure has to do with corporate culture, and the acceptance by management of a certain level of risk. After all, who wants a bunch of employees that don't produce? The other thing to figure out the right amount of freedom to try out new ideas and experiment, and to make these adjustments without a particular timetable or schedule of "deliverables."

This is the philosophy of many innovative companies. For example, last week I met Keith Sawyer, a professor here at Wash U. His Group Genius book talks about the culture at WL Gore (the makers of GoreTex and other products less famous). Employees have ten percent of their time that isn't allocated for particular billable projects. They are free to experiment and fail, as long as the other 90% is actually producing results. This is how they come up with some of their most profitable products, and failure at Gore is tolerated within this guideline.

So really, why I can understand why NASA says that failure is not an option, because after all they were talking about actual lives at stake, what we are usually dealing with in our lives is a bit less critical and threatening. Instead, may I suggest a replacement motto, on the order of "Failure is not an only option, but should always be encouraged."

Now I am not talking about promoting your least productive employees. What I do mean is that you want to give your self the permission to fail, and in doing so foster innovation in your company and make you a more agile business. But unlike the astronauts, by making it easier to fail you can avoid the bigger mistakes, and make smaller steps towards progress.

Start thinking about promoting the culture of frequent failure at your shop. It is the first step along the path towards being more innovative and agile. And if you are looking for some inspiration, it is worth renting the Apollo 13 movie if you haven't seen it in a while.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

It takes a village to build a Web site

I am old enough to remember that Web sites started out being one-person operations, using simple, easy-to-learn HTML codes that didn’t take much beyond a text editor and memorizing about a dozen commands from Laura Lemay’s book. There were plenty of Web servers to choose from, and it didn’t take much programming skill to get one installed and up and running.

Now it seems like it takes a village to get your site updated and maintained. There are content management systems, advertising serving systems, Flash and streaming content delivery mechanisms, caching servers, databases, and more. So my question to you today is how many people does it take to update your company’s Web site? If the answer is more than two, maybe you need to rethink whom you have and why you need this entire crowd.

Sure, having a modern Web site is more than just putting up a couple of pages of text, and writing the right codes for paragraphs and bold face. I know that. But Web sites should be agile, should be frequently updated, should be easily updated, and shouldn’t take “approval cycles” or long food chains to get from the person that creates the content to the final stage where the world can view it. You want the content to be as close to the original thinker and creator as you possibly can.

Where have we gone with the Web? What happened to make it so difficult? Was it function creep, or security issues, or the marketing and legal departments getting mixed up with this technology? Was it because no one cares about what Web server you are running anymore (really it is a simple choice between Microsoft and Apache)? Was it because static pages of text with just a few images are so over and we have to embed video and Flashy objects to get anyone’s attention? Or because the browser is now everyone’s mission critical, must-have application and so much of what we do everyday involves going to various Web sites? Or because everyone is now a professional blogger and the average Web site designer has a bucket-full of tools to use? Or because everyone is using RSS feeds to keep track of new content and the actual site that contains this information is no longer really all that important?

It probably is some mixture of all of the above. I don’t mean to suggest that we want to go back to the really olden days, when we had command-line browsers that didn’t do much (remember Lynx?). I just think if you have a corporate Web site, take a moment to look at your chain of command, and see if you can streamline it. Let’s see if you can set a goal to update your site at least once a week, or even once a day. It doesn’t need to take a village, and your customers and your staff might really appreciate it, too.

The power of Pi

I have been doing some seminars on IT asset management for a client and as a result I have been talking to a lot of IT managers of some fairly large organizations. One of them mentioned to me his rule of π that I thought was worth sharing. As in the Greek letter that is a geometric constant of 3.14159. (I used to know more decimal places, and yes, I was one of those kinds of people back in high school.)

His rule is simple: anytime a consultant or an employee gives you an estimate of what something costs or how long it will take to complete, he multiples the estimate by π. Someone says a project will take two months, it really will take a bit longer than six. And so forth.

I got a good laugh out of his π rule, but then I got to thinking. Why are IT people so miserable at estimating costs and time to complete work? Maybe they are the worst group of people – certainly I have had general contractors who weren’t the best at this, but then I guess I should consider myself lucky that they were only a few days off schedule rather than by such a huge factor.

Sure, we’ve all read the mythical man-month and other works talking about how the more developers you add to a project, the longer it will take. But this isn’t just about that.

Maybe it is because IT people really want to serve their clients, and set themselves up for unreasonable expectations right off the bat by underestimating their work product. Or maybe it is because the work product is so ephemeral to begin with. I mean, it isn’t like a construction crew trying to rebuild a bridge or erect a new office building.

I guess I am overly sensitive to this because so much of my job revolves around hitting particular deadlines that are very definite. If I miss one, someone else along the editorial production process has to make up the slack, because the magazine has to be printed at a specific time or the article has to be posted online for a particular moment. I am proud to say that I hit all of my deadlines except for some unusual circumstances.

But when it comes to IT projects, a deadline is more a guideline than something hard and fast. The report isn’t done? Oh well, we can wait another week, not to worry. Or how about the opposite, when your boss gives you an artificially early deadline, you actually deliver the work on time, and then he tells you that he was really not counting on getting it today and will be too busy to review it until next week? Boy, does that make you feel like you really moved heaven and earth to get the work to him as agreed.

Sure, things are sometimes out of your control. People make mistakes, code has bugs, equipment takes longer than anticipated to configure, the dog ate my homework, etc. Some of the delay can be explained by developers who want to add “just one more feature” before they lock down the code for production purposes. Did anyone ask them to add the feature? Probably not, they just took it on their own initiative because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I taught high school computer networking, believe me I heard it all when a student was late with his homework. (And you should know, I didn’t let my students slide. A deadline is a deadline, after all. Most of them only made that mistake the first time, and then cooperated quite nicely afterwards.)

If we are going to move towards more realistic estimates, we need to do a better job of anticipating the problems with our projects, and also need to be able to communicate up and down the food chain when the first hint of delay or feature creep hits.

Think about the rule of π the next time someone asks you about when you will be done with something you are working on, and try to give it some thought before you commit.

About Me

My photo
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.