Monday, December 21, 2009

Tune Up Utilities 2010 to tweak your PC's performance

Make your Windows PC run faster and more reliably with this updated utility program. It can do many common tasks quickly and automatically, and clean up your hard drive and registry settings too.
Price: $49.95, for up to three PCs
Supports Windows 7, Vista and XP with SP2, in both the 32- and 64-bit OSs

Monday, December 14, 2009

ITExpertVoice screencast: Using Laplink's PC Mover to Migrate XP to Windows 7

If you are running Windows XP and want to upgrade to Windows 7 without having to reformat your machine’s hard drive, you currently have one choice: a utility called PC Mover from Laplink software. This video shows you the steps involved in the migration, along with things to look out for in using PC Mover.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

ITExpertVoice screencast: Using Windows 7 Mobility Center

Windows Mobility Center is a new feature of Windows 7. Microsoft has collected in one place for road warriors a powerful series of controls that can help you quickly connect to wireless networks, adjust your screen for presentations, and set up other important adjustments. No more hunting around the Control Panel settings for busy people on the go. This video shows you the lay of the landscape with Mobility Center.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Developing the next gen of iPhone apps programmers

I had an opportunity to audit a computer science class this week at Washington University, a class that was teaching students how to write iPhone apps. It was their final presentation, and I got to see a dozen apps that were very impressive. As I was watching the kids present, I was thinking back to my college days and the similarities and differences about my education.

Of course, back in my day real programmers wrote in Assembler, and maybe Fortran. None of this object-oriented stuff had even been invented. We also had punched cards, which is probably why I never became a programmer. In grad school, we had video terminals because PCs were still being tinkered around inside Silicon Valley garages.

In the Wash U class, most of the students had their own Macbooks, some better than my own. Each was given an iPod touch to use during the semester and this session was the moment of truth, where they had to demo their apps in front of the class. Most of the programming projects were functional, although there were a few students that had obviously been putting some long hours trying to get the bugs out of their apps. One of the kids was working on his presentation and actually debugged his app during class. Some things never change.

I was impressed first of all with the apps, which ranged from tracking what is in your fridge to being used by a personal trainer to track their clients' workouts to locating friends on a campus map during free times. There was an app that taught people how to count cards at Blackjack --this could have helped one of my dorm-mates who would periodically make a run to Tahoe where they still used single decks and come home with enough money to pay for his living expenses. Another was used to collate and tag photos from Flickr. Each team had to research and find an app to build that wasn't yet sold on the App Store, too.

I hope the kids take the time to finish them and post them to the App Store. Some of the apps were very polished and could probably be used as is with almost no additional effort, while a few just crashed with the slightest tap on the screen. I was also impressed with the quality of the presentations and how polished the kids were in front of the class. This isn't what I remember of my nerdy classmates back in the day, where we seldom even spoke to each other, let alone spoke Powerpoint. Most of the kids put together a few slides that showed their decision-making and progress during the class. Some of the apps were built in teams, some solo. There were about 25 kids in the class, with two women. (This is about the same sad gender ratio in my day, too.)

These were not beginning computer science students by any means. Each of them had to have an understanding of a lot of different pieces, including the graphics interface of the iPhone itself, database calls, Web services, and the Apple development environment that is used to build the app itself. That is a lot for any programmer to handle, but the kids took it in stride. You could tell that they learned a lot during the semester, and were proud of it too. Heck, I was proud of them and I didn't even know them.

One of the things that I was struck with during the class was how collaborative the kids were. This wasn't the introverted nerds of my misspent youth -- these kids were calling out suggestions to help each other and try to remove the remaining roadblocks in each other's apps. Some of them had tried to go down a particular path with one tool, only to change horses and use something else. It was fun to watch them get all excited about some arcane code fragment. Part of this I think was because the iPhone environment is so new and so contained that it makes it easier to collaborate, because there are so many things to learn that are outside the normal coding process.

They also learned first-hand about feature creep and trying to hit their requirements on time and how to balance making things work with making things look pretty.

Speaking of which, most of the students had high standards for the look and feel of their apps. There isn't much screen real estate on the iPhone to fool around with, and you have to make every pixel count. Some of the kids took the time to find the right icons to display on screen, and they all took pains to make use of the various menus and screen controls that make the iPhone apps easy to use with one or two fingers. That was impressive, and showed me that the iPhone really has a future and why 100,000 plus apps have been already created.

You could also see the beginnings of professional computer scientists here too. A few of them mentioned how they coded in pairs, using extreme programming techniques. I think that meant that the pair stayed up all night to meet a particular deadline, but still, that is how it happens in the real world too. And learning object-oriented languages is part and parcel to today's programming world, unlike the world that I entered after college.

One kid had the funniest line, talking about his mother, who is a project manager and a programmer. "My mom is very old school and knew all these Unix shell script commands that she never told me about when I was growing up." Oh, youth is so wasted on the young!

If your local university offers a class on iPhone apps, you might want to stop by and be inspired. I know I was. Thanks to the teacher Todd Sproull for letting me sit in.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Managing your Firewalls with McAfee Profiler

Profiler makes it easier to troubleshoot and manage up to five McAfee Enterprise firewalls from one central console and help you keep up with changes to your network and applications. You can examine the implications to real-time changes in your network before you commit them and also quickly do ad hoc analysis on rule sets.

Version 1.5.1
Price: $19,500 for appliance model

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

ITExpertVoice screencast: Using Windows 7 Bitlocker

Do you worry that if your PC is stolen someone can steal all of your data? Then you should encrypt your hard drive. In this screencast, we look at how Windows 7 has beefed up BitLocker, its built-in encryption program.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Time to consider crowdsourcing

We all know about outsourcing, the ability to farm out work to people, often overseas, that will work for less, and sometimes for a lot less. But a not-so-new trend is changing the way that outsourcing happens, called crowdsourcing.

The idea is to take a job and divide it into small enough pieces that someone can do it quickly in their spare time. Think about transcribing an audio recording. Or Photoshopping a series of photographs. The difference between regular outsourcing and crowdsourcing is that you don't necessarily know your contractors, and they mostly are here in the good ole U S of A. Think of it as stimulus package for our troubled times, but based entirely on the private sector.

The idea isn't all that new, but is catching on due to some important trends. First off, there is a critical mass of people who are willing to do the work, and probably more people are going to be interested because of high unemployment over the past year. Second, the Internet-based tools that are used to farm out jobs and track completions and manage the crowds is getting better all the time. Broadband penetration helps: now most people don't do dial-up, which is great if you are going to be online for hours at a time working the crowd-based tasks. Finally, many crowds have developed a solid track record, so it is more compelling for project managers looking for workers.

As a result, crowdsourcing is big business. There are several dozen firms that help organize the crowds of people that offer up their services, and some of them are making millions of dollars a year in fees that they collect from being brokers between buyer and provider. Amazon's Mechanical Turk and are two of the more well-known ones, and if you want to find out others I suggest you first listen to my podcast with my partner Paul Gillin and Brent Frei, the author of one of the first industry reports on crowdsourcing. You can find the links to his report and our podcast if you go to:

Frei runs a company that provides crowdsourcing, so it isn't too difficult to see his self-interest. But the report opened my eyes to see the power and the promise behind the idea. For example, you can leverage your own billable time by farming out tedious tasks to someone else that would gladly do it for a lot less than your rates. Or compiling a list of vendors by doing online research of their Web sites. With a $10/hour intern, this project would have taken 12 hours or $120 to complete the task. By divvying it up among a crowd, Frei was able to get it done for about $18 total.

Now, I know what you are going to say. How can you ensure quality of the crowd-based researchers? What about the time and cost to manage them? There are ways to build in redundancy and have the results cross-checked, and with the right kind of project management, you can piece things apart in such a way that makes sense for your crowd.

Paul and I have been doing our MediaBlather podcasts for several years, and always on the lookout for someone interesting to interview, particularly on social media and new marketing tools. If you are interested in being on our show, let us know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to make LinkedIn even better

LinkedIn has been busy in the past week, sprucing up their default members' home page, linking with Twitter, and putting together a very belated effort at opening their service to programmers.

I like LinkedIn. I am spending more of my time using it to promote myself, to connect to people that I know, and to build up value for my community and myself. With the help of the local chamber of commerce, I now manage a group called the St. Louis Job Angels, where we have listed more than 80 different jobs over the past couple of months and more than 500 job seekers and recruiters have signed up to share tips and support each other's efforts. So as a long-time frequent user, I offer some advice of where they should be going in 2010 – not that anyone will listen to my humble suggestions.

First off, they need to be more open. The add-on applications were a good first step (you can link up to your Wordpress and TypePad blog entries, publish your slide decks via Slideshare, and others). And the developer network ( is a good second step, but I want more. I would like to use my LinkedIn connections as my main contact manager, but until I can gain more control over this information it isn't as useful as it could be. Why do I need to publish these Web Informant newsletters to a separate email listserv that I have to maintain with your current email addresses? Probably most of you subscribers also take the time and energy to maintain your current email address in LinkedIn, so why duplicate that effort? Well, because it is too hard to still setup groups and email selected contacts inside of LinkedIn.

Second, I want to be able to freely export my connections without having to resort to a third-party service. Right now, OpenXchange ( is the only way that I can extract my contacts. Yes, I can synch up my address books on any number of services (one that I have mentioned in the past is Glide, -- but these are strictly a one-way operation, pouring data into LinkedIn. I don't like using services that I can't extract my data easily.

Third, scrap InMail. We don't need another communication substitute for email or IM. Ditto for the LinkedIn toolbars for Outlook and the Web. My browser window is small enough without any more clutter.

Fourth, give me better and more discrete publishing tools for my groups, similar to the way the free Yahoo or Google Groups services operate. Right now, I can send messages to everyone, but only as the group manager. My group can't easily communicate amongst themselves, without my intervention. Subgroups are a nightmare to deal with. There is no easy way to remind people that I have invited to the group (but haven't accepted the invite). Can I get a URL that points directly to my group? Not easily. And so on. Any quick look at what Yahoo has been doing since they bought eGroups nearly ten years ago would show the way towards a truly useful service.

None of these suggestions would be difficult, or even time consuming to implement. And I am sure that there are plenty of other things that they have on their radar. Feel free to share your own on my blog too.

Friday, November 20, 2009

ITExpertVoice screencast: Using Windows 7 Applocker

My latest video screencast review for the Dell sponsored site ITExpertVoice has been posted, on using Windows 7 new whitelisting feature called Applocker. You can watch it here:

Monday, November 16, 2009

The evolution of Web-based enterprise video

This week Brightcove begins a new lower-priced video service called Express that starts at $100 a month and offers some impressive features. I'm glad to see them in this space, which is still very much in the pre-Guttenberg publishing era. I thought I would take this moment to talk about some of the issues involved in publishing Web videos for corporate uses, putting aside all the tectonic shifts that are happening in the Web entertainment arena for another essay.

To put things in perspective, realize that it took only a few years for the Web to evolve from its first crude text-only efforts to a full graphical experience. Yet it has taken more than a decade to get videos inside the browser page. And while there are dozens of video streaming service providers, including Brightcove, Wistia, Fliqz and Kaltura, that offer ways of delivering videos, none of them are as easy to use as they could be, and almost none of them offer one-stop solutions for publishers.

In the last year I have spent a lot of time with video publishing as a result of my five-minute screencast videos, where I write, review, narrate and produce everything about a particular product. The product's vendor sponsors each video that appears on my site along with 20 other places around the Internet.

Just take a look at the most popular Web content creation tool of the moment, Wordpress, as a good case in point. If you create your own blog and host it using, you can purchase a "space upgrade" for $20 a year and start uploading video content. But if you decide that you want more control over your page design and host your blog on your own Web server, this space upgrade option isn't available and you have to dive into the nasty world of third-party video player plug-ins. Even though you are still using Wordpress software. It is these sorts of gotchas that can drive you crazy, or keep me fully employed explaining them.

All of these video services operate in some broad basic ways. After you prepare your video, you upload it to their server and then annotate it with any supporting text, keywords, and other information. You are then given a bunch of HTML code to embed the video player into your Web page. When you view the page, you see a player that you can click on and control the video playback, just as you would come to expect from YouTube et al. The special embed code contains tracking information that the service collects and then offers reports so you can see who watched what videos.

The service that I use at the moment is Their most basic plan starts at less than $40 a month, and offers some very sophisticated tracking and embedding features. Their video player is very clean and crisp, and I haven't had too many reports about playback quality issues from my site. I recommend that you start with them and see if they meet your needs, and if not then you might want to ask the following questions:

First, do you need a branded player for your videos? Meaning that you have your logo somewhere on the first or end screen, or underneath the video image. For some people, this is important. Some services offer a single player, like Wistia, while others, such as Brightcove, give you more stylistic choices.

Second, do you need control over the ultimate size of the video image on your Web site? The various hosting services either offer this explicitly, or else (like the basic plan from leave it up to you to edit their embed codes that they provide for you to copy and paste into your Web page. If you have to manually edit the code, you want to maintain the aspect ration (horizontal to vertical) so your video displays correctly. (It helps if you produce your video for the ultimate intended size that it will appear on your Web site, too.)

Third, how big of an audience do you expect for your videos? Given that these are targeted at potential customers and not people looking for the latest skateboarding cats or guys gone wild, you should set expectations accordingly: several thousand views over a period of a few months is a good audience. Some of the services, like Wistia, charge by playbacks per month. Brightcove charges on the number of individual videos and on your bitstream consumption, which is harder to estimate. Kaltura offers a free Wordpress plug-in for hosting up to 10 GB of monthly video data.

Fourth, what kinds of reports and features are available from your service provider? With some services like Fliqz and Brightcove, their more expensive plans give you more features and choices.

Finally, what else is or isn't included in the service? One of the things that I like about Wistia is the ability to share the video project with a number of collaborators, such as my clients, who can view the video directly, without my having to email them a huge attachment.

As you can see, there is a still a lot to deal with when it comes to Web videos. If you have another site that you would like to recommend, please let me know on my Strominator blog. And if you are a subscriber of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey, you can listen to me and Sam talk about some of these video hosting and production issues on a Webinar that we will host this coming Thursday afternoon. For those of you that aren’t subscribers, I will post my Powerpoint slides on my account afterwards.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Windows 7 LIbraries and Backup Features How-to

My latest screencast video on how to use Windows 7 libraries and built-in backup features has been posted to IT Expert Voice here;

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to extract your LinkedIn contacts

If you have spent any time online using social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook, you know they can be difficult to grow your network and add contacts. But even harder is the ability to extract your contacts once you have built up a reasonably sized network. None of the social networks makes it very easy to get this information.

Why would you want to do this? Several reasons. First is the peace of mind that you have control over your own data. Should you decide to leave the network, or should the network decided to leave you (either for cause or for lack of funds to continue operations), it would be nice to have your contacts tucked safely on your own hard drive. Second is the ability to do some targeted marketing emails or just do some research: none of the networks has the right search fields when you need to find everyone that lives in a certain area with a certain job or works for a specific company. Sometimes I can find people on my network using the search tools, but often I can't. And wouldn't it be nice to see if everyone that is on your LinkedIn network is also on your Facebook network? Or not, if you are still trying to keep these two separate?

Before you hit the reply key and tell me that there are several different services that allow for you to synchronize your contacts, that isn't quite what I mean. Yes, there are services such as Plaxo's Pulse and that allow for synchronization of your desktop to their cloud-based contact list, but that is usually in one direction only (Pulse offers de-duplication services and better searching tools if you want to pay them for a premium membership.) Say I don't want to have anyone from my last employer on my LinkedIn network, because I left that job under a dark cloud. (Purely hypothetical, of course, not that I am saying that this ever happened to me!) It isn't easy to find this out with these networks, even if you do know how to manipulate their complex privacy settings.

So if you are still reading down here, I suggest you take a look at a Web service called Open Xchange, at You can set up a free account and within a few minutes have it setup to automatically bring in all of your contacts from Google's Gmail, LinkedIn, Facebook, and a few other places as well. What is more important though is that you can easily publish all this information (or some of it) to a Web site, or download it to a comma-separated file, so that you stay in control of your data at all times.

OX is the same technology that is white-labled by Network Solutions and 1&1 Internet as their own email services. You can also purchase a software license if you don't want to run it across the Internet and on your own Linux servers. It has a lot more under the hood, including plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook, import/export of calendar items, iPhone apps and a shared document repository. If you want to get a feel for the software, go on over to my screencast video that I just finished on the product here:

(And while you are over there, if you haven't seen these videos, you might want to browser around, or better yet, hire me to do one for your company's product.)

I am glad to see products like OX take hold: all of us need better and more open ways to control our contacts.

Using OpenXchange to manage your communications

A flexible unified communications service for collaborative workgroups that can share files, import and export contacts and calendars from a wide variety of data sources and Web services, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google's Gmail. Entirely open-source based.

Price: Begins at $5/user/month for hosted version; $1095/yr for 25 users for server-based software version
Requirements: Works on a wide variety of browsers and operating systems. We tested it on IE 7, Firefox 3 and Mac Safari 4 in October 2009.

OpenXchange Inc.
303 South Broadway
Tarrytown, New York 10591
914 332-5720

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making science a spectator sport

I had a chance to see Dean Kamen speak last night, and I have to say he was inspiring. The man, who is known for inventing the Segway two-wheeled transport, has actually touched millions of people more directly through a variety of innovative medical devices, including the first portable glucose injector, better stents for heart patients, and improved wheelchairs and prosthetic arms.

The occaision was the kickoff of a science festival that brings together school children, scientists from around the world, and leading local technologists for a multi-day series of seminars held at our local science museum. Some of them, such as the session on the science behind flirting, are just fun. Others present up-to-minute basic research. There are even a variety of rare Omnimax movies too. For a geek, it is hog heaven.

Anyway, back to Kamen. He showed us some of the devices that he has invented over his career. What I found amazing is how down to earth he is about his creations: yup, I just came up with this thingie, it is now used by ten million diabetics or hundred million kidney patients. He wears jeans and work boots -- even when visiting the White House to receive one of his numerous awards or proclamations. Perhaps it is an affectation, but it comes across as someone who isn't trying to impress anyone. You got the feeling that after the speech and when the theater lights are turned off, he is just going about his business, coming up with the next great thing.

One of his current efforts is an international science competition called FIRST that involves thousands of grade school, middle school and high school students to build various robotic devices and square off against each other in the grand tradition of any sporting event. Indeed, that was his original motivation -- our society honors and extols the virtues of athletes, so why not use the same metaphor for budding student scientists? He has been extraordinarily successful. Each year's competition is larger with more teams and more corporate sponsorship than the last. One of his sponsors' CEO at a large aerospace firm put it this way: he told the audience that most of the engineers are nearing retirement age and he needs to find thousands of replacements, and find them quickly. So sponsoring FIRST teams isn't completely altruistic, it is the best way to develop a farm team and start locating and encouraging fresh talent. Makes a lot of sense to me. Kamen now requires his sponsors to kick in four-year college scholarships too, which is terrific.

Ironically, Kamen was here the day after Lance Armstrong was in town inking a new deal with Michelob, something else that St. Louis is famous for (the beer, not Lance.) Kamen also announced last night that FIRST will hold its final championship rounds in St. Louis starting in 2011. They have outgrown their current digs and he wanted to take the competition to a city that would be a natural fit for science buffs.For those of you that aren't local, this may come as a bit of a surprise. Not Silicon Valley? Or Austin? Or even Chicago? (That suggestion drew a big laugh last night.) St. Louis has long roots in science competitions, stretching back to Lindbergh's flight and the X Prize. I am very proud that our region was chosen and look forward to attending the events.

It is time we considering making science and engineering more of a spectator sport. We need farm teams, seeding the professional leagues, we need local venues that will bring out the tailgaters and the devotees wearing their colors parading around downtown the night before the big meet. We need commentators that will give us the play-by-play. We need the winners to be celebrated more than the annual Westinghouse/Intel scholars or the Nobelists that were just announced this past week. We need highways names after famous scientists, not just steroid-laden sluggers. Granted, nerds have come a long way since I was in high school and couldn't get a date. But Kamen showed me just how far we still need to go.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A happy ending: how two stolen laptops were recovered with Kaseya

Have you ever had your laptop stolen? I did several years ago, from the trunk of a locked car in a suburban shopping mall. But lately thieves are getting caught because of better software tools that are on the laptops, and this is a story about two laptops that were stolen several months ago. The thefts were independent events, with only one thing in common: both of them were managed by the same Sacramento VAR, Capital Computer Guys.

Greg Hemig, the operator and owner of the business, has been a Kaseya customer for years and tries to get all of his PC support clients to install the Kaseya agent on their machines. This agent can do a lot of different things, such as remotely control the machine, update drivers, and install a keylogger to keep track of what the user is doing. Most people use it for fairly benign purposes but Hernig figured out quickly after the laptops were stolen that he could use the software to track down where the machines were being used.

Which he did. He was able to gather all sorts of information from them once they connected to the Internet – "I was able to find out not just an IP address, which is what a typical anti-theft product like LoJack would provide, but an actual physical address, the names of the user's girlfriend and family, how to access their bank accounts, and even turn on the microphone on the laptop and listen to what they were saying while they were typing." Scary stuff, but within two weeks of contacting law enforcement, he was able to get back both machines to their original owners.

The hardest part about the whole process wasn't collecting the information, but convincing the cops that he was legit and that they needed to act to retrieve the PCs. Both laptops didn't travel very far from their original locations – one was only 20 miles away.

Hemig charges $30 a month per PC to support his customers, and has more than 600 PCs under management in this fashion. That is a nice piece of business, and something that more VARs should consider. "It makes me more competitive, and it was the same price that I used to charge for break/fix work, but now I can deliver a lot better service to my customers," he says. "I think traditional tech support companies are going to disappear soon. Certainly, having Kaseya has changed my business completely. I almost wish my laptop would be stolen just to try to find it." Kaseya may be new as an anti-theft device, but it made it a lot easier to recover the laptops. And the company is looking into providing other tools to help its VARs in similar circumstances.

Monday, September 28, 2009

When is a friend a "friend"?

Tonight I am expecting my BFF to stay for a short visit. He and I have known each other since high school, and we get together about once a year to catch up. That visit, and a new book called "Connected," got me thinking about friendship and how we account for our connections in this era of hyper social networking.

You might want to read this post that I wrote a few months ago about when to defriend and defollow, I want to build on the thoughts that I mention there:

Ironically, just because we have lots of social network "friends" doesn't mean we really socialize with the vast majority of them, or even have met them f2f. (BFF is best friends forever, f2f is face to face for those of you that either don't have teens or have yet to grasp the lingo). In my case, I try to keep my contacts in LinkedIn with people that I have some business relationship with, and Facebook friends a bit looser. It doesn't always work out that way, and now I have given up trying to distinguish the two networks. I have found that over the summer a lot more of my blog comments have come through Facebook than through either email or posted on my blog directly. Why? I have no idea.

Anyway, the book "Connected" is written by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler and talks about the inner structure of our social networks. I found it interesting. According to a recent survey, the average American has four close social contacts, with the variation between two and six for most of us. That surprised me, and you can read more of the sample chapter here:

The two authors talk about the effect of social networks on particular behavior, such as obesity and revenge and other things that you might not be thinking about when you are updating your status or posting a new set of photos from the weekend. It turns out that our networks influence a lot of what we do, no surprise.

They also talk about the structure of social networks: a fire bucket brigade where each person is just connected to two people, a telephone tree-structure for the PTA, and a military collection of squads and commands are three very different structures of how people are collected together into a group. And where you are placed in your network – either at the center with a lot of dense connections outward, or at the periphery with just a few friends – can also make a big difference in how happy or healthy you might be too, according to the authors.

As you can imagine, there are network visualization tools that can help you understand the structure of your social networks. One for Facebook that I have tried is called Touchgraph and it allows you to select different subsets of your friends and see how they are related. With over a 1,000 friends, it becomes hard to see the relationships, but one of the things that I noticed – at least about my Facebook friends – is that there are a lot of people that I know that also know a lot of people.

If you find these concepts intriguing, pick up a copy of the book and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The different Twitter account types

I have been studying a presentation that Brent Payne made earlier this year and can be found here, entitled "How to Connect Great Journalism with the Greatest Possible Audience."

Payne is in charge of the search engine optimization efforts for the Chicago Tribune Web site, and knows a lot about what he speaks. The presentation is chock full of a lot of great stuff, and I would urge you to download it and study it as I did. One particular section bears further discussion, and that is how to deploy a corporate Twitter strategy.

Payne talks about several different Twitter account types that are part and parcel to any business use of the popular microblogging service. And until I saw them delineated, I didn't realize how important it is to keep them straight. The four basic types are:

News feeds -- Here is where you automate posts from your blog sites and other RSS properties to this account. Don't follow anyone or send any direct messages from it. An example of such an account is @ccnbrk, the breaking news feed from CNN.

Celebs – You should force them on Twitter and give them the freedom to be human and Tweet about their personal lives and follow/respond to their followers. If you want some extra assurance, work with Twitter to have these made into verified accounts so people will realize that they are legit. @Andersoncooper and @oprah are two of these, I am sure you can think of dozens more. If your company doesn't have a celebrity spokesmodel, then don't worry about this.

Brand Personae – These are characters or avatars or Twavatars (I just made that up), something that your customers can identify with and lead brand awareness and perception on Twitter. This is the social media face to the public of your brand. They can engage your audience and represent you in the Twittersphere. Think of what Spencer the Katt did for PC Week back in the heyday of the PC era. And as we did with Spencer, we protected who it "really" was that was writing that important back-page rumor column as a trade secret (no, I never penned the column while I was there).

Ordinary folk – For the rest of us that don't fit into any of the above categories, it is still important to be on Twitter. Make sure you set some ground rules about how people will participate and what they will and won't Tweet that is part of your corporate acceptable use policies. Make sure you give employees some basic training in libel laws and also mention that they should be able to Tweet about competitors and speak honestly. Understand that mistakes will occur and that sometimes human resources might have to help out here. Don't get too heavy-handed though.

Finally, make sure you promote your Twitterers. List their IDs on their business cards, in their email sigs, and on your corporate Web site right next to their email addresses in your contact page. What you don't list email addresses on your Web site? Hmm, that is the subject for another day.

When you think about it, the different Twitter accounts is similar to the different ways that companies use blogs too: the difference is that with 140 characters, a Tweet can be a lot more flexible than a longer blog entry in terms of developing a personna.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Coworking, the next step up from Starbucks

This being the day after Labor Day I wanted to pass along an interesting concept called coworking. Most of you are familiar with the idea of a shared tenant services for small businesses that can't afford their own office space but want to take advantage of a common collection of services such as fax machines, conference rooms, reception areas, and the like. But what if the $400 or so a month fee for these services is still out of the park for your nascent business owner? And what if working out of a coffee shop or other free Wifi place isn't really professional enough? In between these use cases is where coworking comes in handy.

Coworking goes under various names, including the "Jelly" ( movement started by Amit Gupta. The idea is that people who want more than just a virtual water cooler of email, Tweeting and posting online can actually get out of the house and spend some time nearby other humans doing their work too. The goal is to create a community of like-minded people but from different walks of life, skill sets, and interests – just like your local Faceless Big Company Cubicle Warren. Bring your own laptop and cell phone, tie into a Wifi connection, and partake of the included coffee. The "rent" is reasonable – about $50 a month or even less, depending on how often you need to show up. Some facilities have more, such as multiple-line phones and conference rooms, and some have less. All are a step up from Starbucks, though.

There are lots of resources on coworking here ( and the Jelly main site also lists the locations in major cities, including one in St. Louis. So in the interests of research, I paid them a visit last week and was impressed by the concept. The coworking facility is in a residential neighborhood at the very southern end of the city, a few blocks from the Mississippi River. It is actually in a renovated home owned by Lisa Rokusek, complete with full kitchen and bathroom and guest bedroom. Lisa is a recruiter who lives nearby and first renovated the house as a guesthouse before she got into coworking. Now she is hooked on the concept and is developing a few other properties as well. She has about ten regular coworkers who come anywhere from several times a week to just a few times a month.

You would think that someone who recruits people for new jobs would want something more private, but Lisa was adamant that the idea works for her. She doesn't need a full-time, 9-to-5 office because she is often out visiting clients at their offices. And when she really needs some privacy, she steps outside with her cell phone to make the call. "And it gives my coworkers a sense of openness, because they are seeing how the sausages are being made," she told me.

Still, my work style wouldn’t tolerate such close quarters – at the St. Louis coworking site that I visited last week, it could easily house ten people in two small rooms. I like it nice and quiet and no one else around, because that is what I need to write and to interview people on the phone. But perhaps you are different, and crave the company and companionship. You might want to investigate coworking, and see if there is someone in your area that has such a setup, or even start your own house.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Free vs. Freemium in online markets

I was talking to a colleague of mine who is an Amazon Vine reviewer ( -- a select group of customers who are invited to post their opinions about new books and other items on Amazon's Web site. They get free copies, and their reviews aren't edited or modified in any fashion by the company after they are written. I was jealous, but started thinking more about the meaning of free.

Coincidentally, I have been reading (on my iKindle, of course) Chris Anderson's latest book "Free, the future of a radical price." The book is based on a Wired magazine article of the same subject (he runs the editorial for the magazine). He describes the various efforts of vendors to make money at giving away free stuff, by building a market or demonstrating value or building word of mouth. In the digital age, it is easy to have a place to download an app or read through a Web site and then offer paid upgrades for people who want more. Fred Wilson coined the term "freemium" to refer to this practice, and it is now so widespread that most online shoppers have come to expect that they can get something for nothing on just about every Web site that they land on these days. Or least a limited 30 day trial or download or subscription.

Indeed, in the new ventures that I have been mentoring I start almost immediately thinking about what they can give away for free. It is still the best way to start out in this chaotic eWorld. If you are starting a new business, you might want to take the time to at least skim Anderson's book. You also might want to read this New York Times article that analyzes the cash flow from Evernote, an online services company:

Evernote converts less than one percent of the 4500 customers who sign up everyday to try their service into paying customers at $5 a month. But the more interesting number is that within a year of using the free service, the conversion rate jumps to four percent, because customers get more deeply involved and are willing to pay to enable more storage or more features. This brings the share of revenue per customer up from three cents to 35 cents. That is a powerful argument towards free. What is also interesting is that their variable costs have been plummeting, as you would expect: from 50 cents a month per active user down to nine cents today.

This is very typical of an online business, and indeed another example is how Google continually adds storage to its Gmail service, or why Yahoo can offer unlimited email storage – because these costs are dropping fast.

Then I realized that I have been doing this exact same strategy for the last 15 or so years ever since I started this Web Informant mail newsletter/blog/social network thingie. Whatever it has become, I do spend a lot of time each week thinking about what I am going to write to you all, and then posting it in its various forms around the Internets. And I don't ask you for money (well, I do ask for charitable contributions once a year, but that is another matter) and do it willingly and with the expectation that at some point in the future, you will "upgrade" to the paid Strom service of having me write something or speak somewhere or consult on something. Not all of you have hired me, of course, and some of you will never do so (don't worry, I don't take it personally). But enough of you do that this method has served me well in my business, bringing many loyal readers and clients over the years. The free Web Informants, and the various other cyber collections of stuff that I curate (there are tons of products on various lists here at and hand-pick have built up a level of value, trust, and quality that I like to think you all appreciate.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Painless offsite online backups using 3X Backup

The 3X Systems Backup appliance is a great way to automatically backup a collection of PCs and servers across the Internet at reasonable cost.

We tested version 2.1.6 in August 2009 on a small network of Windows clients and servers.

Windows agents available for 2000 and later versions, including both servers and 64-bit OS's

• Easy to setup and operate
• Simple and effective offsite backups
• Can scale up storage as disk requirements grow

• Only Windows agents supported
• Require recent browser versions such as IE v7 and Firefox v2
• Restoring full domain controller or specific email messages could be easier

Price: base system starts at $2,495.00

3X Systems

1275 Kinnear Road,
Columbus Ohio 43212

The battle of eReaders will be all about software

There is a lot of activity on the eBook front: Sony earlier announced that they would be moving towards supporting the open ePub eBook format on their eReaders, and they are expected to announce a new eReader that incorporates cellular data connectivity. Barnes and Noble announced this week that they are partnering with Irex Technologies and will come out with a new device later this year.

But with all the hoopla and promise, one thing missing from a lot of coverage is the software side of things. That is where the eBook eBattles will be fought and won.

eBooks are beginning to take hold for a lot of different reasons: finally there are enough titles available (although in a confusing array of formats and readers). Prices on the devices have come down and quality has gone up. Prices on the eBook titles themselves are at parity with the mass market paperbacks. The size and quality of the screens is approaching that of printed paper. Battery life is reasonable.

All of this may be well and good, but the real reason that eBooks are doing well is that the software is finally catching up with the hardware. Why so? Because you need a great combination of eReader software along with Web storefronts that offer the books for sale and allow people to shop and discover books that they want to download to their readers. Some of the people that design the Web stores that offer up the eBooks are getting some clue here. The best example is Amazon's Kindle storefront. Why? Because first and foremost, they know how to sell books online. Inside of about 35 seconds, I can find and purchase an eBook, and in another 35 seconds, have it in my hot little hands and start reading. It is hard to beat that kind of delivery time.

Sony's Web store,, comes in second, such as trying to find bargains. On both you can sort eBooks by price, but because Amazon offers so many free eBooks, it is hard to find current titles. Sony does a better job. Sadly, in order to buy an eBook from Sony, you need their desktop client software. B& is just plain miserable.

My choice of eReader is to use the Kindle app that runs on the iPhone/iPod touch. I don't have to carry another device around, and while the Kindle reader does drain my iPhone battery, I can deal with it. I also don't read much beyond text: if I had a need for more graphics-rich documents, I would consider another reading device.

I have read about a dozen books from start to finish on my iPhone and found the experience to be more than satisfactory. Most of these are the sort of books that I would buy in airports and dispose of or donate almost immediately after reading. The iPhone Kindle app has a few things going for it: since I carry my phone everywhere, I am not without reading material to fill in those small time gaps during the day while I am waiting in an office for an appointment or so forth. At night, I can continue reading in bed without annoying my wife, since the screen is backlit. The page turning process is something you get used to, and the ease at which you can find a book and start reading within about a minute is great for those of us that require near-instant gratification. You can be well into the new best seller of your choice before anyone else had even time to get to the bookstore, let alone wait for the overnight Amazon shipment.

If you are in the market for an eReader and have an iPhone, it is a simple matter to download the free app, start browsing Amazon's Kindle store, and stuff it full of eBooks. If you don't have an iPhone, it almost makes economic sense to buy an iPod Touch and dedicate it to reading books: the cost is nearly the same as the Kindle hardware device. The downside is that you will need to be in WiFi range to download your books. On the iPhone, like the Kindle hardware, you can download over the cellular network.

If you have a Blackberry, Palm and some other PDA, then you have two choices: either the Barnes and Noble eReader or the Mobipocket eReader. Both are more cumbersome to use than the Kindle app, and require you to download books to your desktop first. I couldn't really get the B&N app going, it seemed like it had too many moving parts.

Sony's eReader currently lacks the communications but supports a lot of different book formats, including their own which they are phasing out by the end of the year in favor of ePub. And they have a growing culture of modders who have exposed the underlying Linux OS to do various things:

ePub-formatted books can be read on the iPhone with Stanza, but the process is also cumbersome and clunky, certainly nowhere near the experience of the Kindle. Google and others have digitized many public domain books in this format, but few of the current best sellers are in it. Amazon, by virtue of their market position, is in a better place here. They also understand how to develop Web software, something Sony -- and B&N for that matter -- still haven't caught on to. The better the Web stores are, the more eBooks will be sold.

For eBooks to be truly eUniversal, Kindle needs to be able to read ePub formats, and be available on Blackberries and Palms and other larger-screen phones and PDAs. And all the various players – including Sony – need to eliminate the digital rights management that comes with your eBook, as has been reported with last month's debacle over "1984."

While nothing will ever replace the physical bookstore browsing experience, at least for me, I am glad to see this market continue to mature.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Listening to the voice of the customer

Two companies are showing that in today's touchy economy, making the sale is all about the way you respond to a customer via the telephone. And not only are they are listening very carefully but also they are using sophisticated software systems to help implement their solutions. One of them, called, is brand new, launching this week. The other one is very well established, called Varolii, and we'll get to them in a moment.

Aisle411 is used to help consumers find a specific item in a store. Say it is a hardware store that you don't often frequent, so you don't have the store layout encoded in your brain. You spend the first few minutes wandering the aisles, or asking an employee where your item is located. Wouldn't it be nice if a service could tell you where you can find it – by aisle number and shelf position?

I have a confession to make: I am not a shopper. I don't like to buy stuff, of any kind. But what Aisle411 is doing is noteworthy just for people like me, who measure the amount of time inside a store in microseconds. According to their research, more than 13% of shoppers leave a store without finding what they came for in the first place.

Aisle411 uses speech recognition software and some elegant programming to direct shoppers to the right place in the particular store they are trying to navigate. You just call them up and say what you are looking for.

Behind this phone call there is a huge database of products, store layouts, and other information. And while Aisle411 is just getting started with a few Ace Hardware stores in the St. Louis suburbs, they have big plans to work with a number of national retailers, who see this as a way to differentiate themselves and offer up better customer service, as well as to increase sales by helping their customers actually buy more stuff when they are roaming the aisles. And Aisle411 is turning its systems into a way to provide better leads management, inventory management, and real-time tracking for store owners. They can deliver coupons for related products to the consumers’ cell phone via a text message, too. And the service is free for consumers.

Now let's contrast what an older company is doing to help provide better customer service with automated call center software. What do you do when you get a incoming robotic phone call from one of these services? I know what I do, I hang up. I don't want to talk to a machine. But to try to keep more people on the line, as well as actually provide better customer service, you have to combine the best bits of psychology with technology, as the folks from Varolii – one of the leading vendors in this software -- have found out.

The company's automated attendant completes over a billion calls a year for many large banks, airlines, and others that need to make customer service calls. They have begun learning from all these calls and now apply a little bit of psychology and population dynamics in helping their customers prepare the right series of voice prompts for their automated systems. Their goal is to help keep more people on the line and provide better customer service.

Varolii has learned that different age groups respond differently to how they are contacted by their systems. With Gen Yers, you want to send a text message and then follow up with a voice call, which is exactly the reverse of how to deal with a GenXer: call first and then follow up with a confirming text message, while for baby boomers call first and then follow up with email. And the strategy for seniors is to use voice prompts that speak slower and can be repeated. They have also found that the time of day and the sex of the recorded voice matters in terms of getting the best response too. How many of us have heard "press one for English, two in Spanish?" – well, that isn’t the best prompt design, because someone could hit the wrong key on the phone dialer pad by mistake and then start receiving prompts in the wrong language. A better method would be to move the response key further away, such as pressing 9 for Spanish.

They found that calls that avoided the use of Social Security numbers but could authenticate the account holder with some other specific information, such as an airline frequent flier ID or bank account number, increase the probability of action by 30%. And using the word "now" in a prompt, such as "press one now to activate your card," add a sense of urgency and that will translate into better results.

Finally, unlike the movie Jerry Maguire, you don't have me at hello. In fact, you want to avoid starting any calls with "hello" – when you remove hello from the initial greetings, you get a 50% increase in live answers. The company suggests starting off with identifying the company name and purpose of the call, and start talking immediately upon when the call is answered.

Both Varolii and Aisle411 are showing that it pays to listen and track what customers are doing over the phone. Both also marry some sophisticated voice response software with lo-tech phone calls to help improve customer service. It just shows you that when it comes to doing innovative things over the telephone, we still have a lot to learn.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Netflix should buy the US Postal Service

Congress last week began hearings about whether to discontinue Saturday mail delivery, close local branches and other measures to try to balance the postal service's budget. On the national news last night was a story about how a small town in Maine fought to retain its lone street mailbox. I say desperate times call for much bigger measures, and my suggestion is to sell the entire USPS outfit to Netflix, lock, stock, and … Well, you don't want to say certain words around postal employees – at least until they become Netflix staffers. More on that in a moment.

It isn't so far-fetched when you start to think about the possibilities. After all, Netflix is keeping the USPS afloat with more mailings of DVDs than McDonalds sells burgers. They have more than 50 distribution centers around the country, all of them in locations that are more secret than Dick Cheney's bunker. They certainly understand how to run a distribution network, they have the machinery and the personnel. Plus, something that would warm the cockles of my Republican wife's heart, I can't believe that I am saying this but having a truly private mail carrier might actually bring some economic sense to our mail system.

How would this look? Here are my suggestions: First all, all mail would be one size and have to be sent in those familiar red mailers. That would mean that anything larger would have to use some other carrier, such as Fedex or UPS. International mail? Same thing. Magazines? Well, this is hard for an old magazine editor like myself, but they will have to change to the Netflix form factor if they still want to be mailed. Junk mail? Same deal. Standardization is key. No more post cards. If it doesn't fit in a mailer, you can't mail it.

Next, we eliminate potage stamps. Since we all will be using the standard mailers, we have standard postage. You buy the mailer and pay for the postage right then and there. Forget about metering based on weight: whatever you can cram into one of those envelopes is what you get to send. This obviates the need to run local post offices: if you need to mail something bigger, you can go on down to Kinkos or the local UPS store. They give better customer service there anyway. No more postage meters, but Pitney Bowes has been on the decline for years anyway.

And while we are at, we should eliminate business delivery of postal mail. Don't need it. You want to send something, use one of the other private carriers and get it there overnight. I recall a funny story a few years ago, when I was doing some work for a publishing firm and mailed in my signed contract. My editor kept saying that he never received the contract, because he never thought to ask where his actual postal mailbox was – there was little point because he never got anything via USPS that he cared about. The only thing that I get these days are checks, and we might as well move towards electronic payments anyway. Some of my clients now do direct deposit to my bank account, and I wish more did.

Netflix is a good choice to run the USPS for one other reason: it has an amazing employee base. You couldn't pick something that was more the polar opposite of the feather-bedded, anti-customer oriented, highly motivated, hyper regulated postal system if you tried. How so? There is no vacation or hourly time card tracking policy at Netflix. There is also no specified uniforms or other dress code policy there but no one has come to work naked lately. Their entire T&E policy is "Act in Netflix's Best Interests" and not much more than that. I think that says a lot about how much a company can trust its employees, unlike many firms that make you take odd flights to save a few dollars that consume hours of your time, or jigger your expense report so you can get almost reimbursed for your actual out-of-pocket expenses. The lesson is that you don't need detailed policies for everything. (You can see the details of this for yourself if you are interested here:

I know having Netflix run the postal system is probably a fantasy. But it is fun to dream, and have hopes, right?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Eyes on the prize

The news last month that two groups of computational researchers have qualified for the $1 million Netflix Prize got me thinking about how other prizes have had a very influential role in technology development. For those of you that missed this nugget, several dozen different computer scientists and mathematicians have tried over the past year to improve upon the algorithms that Netflix uses to recommend new videos to its subscribers. The teams that could get better than a 10% improvement (defined very precisely by Netflix) would qualify to win the prize purse.

This is only the latest in a series of prize-motivated developments. For the past three years, a group of southern California investors have been working on a venture called Prize Capital. The effort grew out of the work of the Ansari X PRIZE Foundation that awarded a $10 million prize in 2004 for the first private spaceflight.

Prize Capital combines old-fashioned greed with socially conscious investing on a grand scale. Their concept is thrilling, with a simple idea at its core. An investment firm creates a fund that will be used to invest in the total field of competitors in a single niche market. The complexity comes about in its execution, which may be why no one has ever tried to do it on the scale that they envision before now. The first prize effort is underway to develop better biofuels:

Unlike traditional venture funds that invest in multiple companies or sector funds that serve particular markets, the prize capital model starts with this "matrix fund". The genius behind the idea is that this fund drives an entire ecosystem for directing high-return innovations. The largest and most noticeable element is a very public science contest that all of the funded companies take part in, going after a ten million dollar prize purse and racing to be the first to establish a particular invention, task, or medical cure.

The Prize Capital notion is revolutionary and differs from existing venture or sector funds on several different dimensions. First, the combination of the matrix funding model with the prize competition is a brilliant deal-discovery mechanism. The allure of the challenge and the chance to be in the spotlight, not to mention the actual cash prize itself, can help to locate and identify potential technology solutions in a particular market niche. Because the prize is a public one, the bright light of worldwide publicity associated with the contest can help bring about all sorts of benefits to the competing companies, including attracting additional investors and management talent.

Second, "the matrix model permits investors to bet on every horse in the race," says Lee Stein, one of the founders of Prize Capital and an early leader in the Internet payments industry in the mid-1990s. "A lot of times VCs don't make investments because they have a short list of companies in a particular niche but can only invest in one. The matrix model enables them to play the full field and spread their risk."

Traditional venture capital funding is not structured to take positions in direct competitors, while the matrix concept relishes this situation. Prize Capital leverages its relationship with the prize management industry to take positions with everyone in a given field. As long as the competition is attractive enough to cause everyone in a given field to enter a particular competition, the result is a new opportunity for investors to become involved with cutting edge technology. Spreading the investments across the matrix can create additional leverage and reduce the risk of the investors.

A third difference is that Prize Capital will own a royalty stream on the intellectual property generated by the teams in the competition. Even if a given company fails to win the prize, the fund has the ability to succeed.

Fourth, the prize mechanics are important part of the deal, and here is where the groundbreaking work on the Ansari X PRIZE has paid off. These mechanics have to be carefully scripted and innovation targets clearly defined. The competition also requires that the ultimate science must be repeatable and independently verifiable. This was done on the Ansari X PRIZE and is an essential element of any planned future competitions.

The prize is only awarded when a positive report comes back saying everything works. This process is more stringent than that is typically required by peer-reviewed academic journals, the current prestige venue for scientific results. Prize Capital thus could be in an interesting position of being able to set a very high bar here for how basic research is conducted in the future.

While the traditional VC trades capital for equity positions in their portfolio companies, Prize Capital can use other kinds of benefits, including the additional influence from the publicity and activities of the competitors as they work hard to meet the particular goals to win the prize, to secure stakes in the innovation on favorable terms.

Most science competitions have been funded through philanthropic means. Prize Capitalism leverages the large jumps in technology innovation and uses it to fuel an entire ecosystem of investments to take advantage of these innovations.

Look at what happened with the original X PRIZE. That initial $10 million prize purse was leveraged into over $100 million into work being done to develop two spaceports in the New Mexico and Arabian deserts. This isn't just a lot of dot-com sock puppets or social networking startups depending on ad click-throughs. This is hard-core real estate development, new job creation and engineers building real assets on the ground.

The Prize Capital model has something for everybody. It could bring a ray of hope for many people that are looking at ways to dramatically increase basic research and kick start medical cures. It can co-opt the heavy publicity surrounding the whole prize itself and the take advantage of the spirit of invention and innovation that so often goes hand-in-hand with the best American capitalists. It has universal appeal across nations and cultures too, and can play as well with the new generation of Asian proto-capitalists and with the old crew along Sand Hill Road too. And it has some Hollywood glitz on the order of "American Idol" and yet still appeals to button-down Wall Street bottom-line sensibilities. It is an intriguing mix of investors, capitalists, non-profit charities and philanthropists working hand-in-hand, all in the name of advancing science and fostering innovation. I wish them well and hope to see the fruits of their labors soon. In the meantime, keep your eyes on other prizes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Houston, give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm

Like many of you that grew up in the 1960s, I have been spending a lot of time online looking at the various commemorative links to the Apollo 11 moon landing that happened 40 years ago this week. I found it fascinating, not just because the event was such a key moment in my teenaged nerd life, but also because it shows how we managed to triumph over technology that wouldn't even be found inside your average watch today, let alone a cell phone or computer. Rather than pepper this email with a lot of links and run the risk of the sp*m gods, please go to and you can click on what you want to follow up with more conveniently.

The Apollo spacecraft had three different display units onboard, running two computers: one in the main command module and one in the lunar module. Both weighed 70 pounds, ran at 1 MHz and had about 152 kb of memory.

To get an idea of how primitive the guidance computer was, you didn't have a typewriter interface or a display screen, but a box with mostly numeric input that you had to key in "nouns" and "verbs". You can go here and try the simulator:

The first moon landing was beset with problems. Armstrong had 17 seconds of fuel remaining, after having to take manual control over the lunar module and fly past some obstacles. The site was four miles off course because the module wasn't completely depressurized when it separated from the command module – a small amount of gas pushed it off course. And during the descent, several people documented how many times the guidance computer would get overwhelmed with data inputs and had to be rebooted, because Aldrin had not set one of the radar switches properly and it was filling up the computer with too much data. A young engineer, Stephen Bales, made the critical decision to ignore these warnings. There is a great video segment about it from CBS News that they ran this week.

There are probably hundreds of Web sites with various tributes to the space program, I will just mention two places that I enjoyed reading. First is a special report compiled by EE Times, which has eyewitness accounts from a few of the engineers who worked at NASA, along with a teardown of the space suits used and other technical info about the program.

The other is a list of numerous technological achievements from the space program that have found their way into our lives. And while Tang isn't on the list (and it is dubious whether it should be), there are lots of other things showing just how much innovation NASA had to do to put two men on the moon and bring them back home safely.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When did the browser become the next OS?

"We view the Internet as the fourth desktop operating system we have to support after Windows, MacOS, and DOS." That quote was from an executive at McAfee, and DOS gives it away that it was spoken back in 1996.

With the announcement that Google will develop a quick-start operating system by next year for instant-on netbooks, I thought it might be interesting to take a trip down memory lane and remind us how we have gotten to the point where the browser has become the next OS, and probably now moving into first place rather than fourth.

Of course, the smarmy retort to Google's announcement is that we already have a quick-start, ultra-reliable Web OS, it is called OS X and my MacBook takes about five seconds from when I open the lid to when I can be surfing the Web. Unlike many Windows PCs, I don't have to have a degree in advanced power management techniques with a minor in spam and virus prevention to get this to work.

But let's go into the WayBack Machine to the early 1990s and see the context of that McAfee quote.

The first collection of Web browsers literally weren't much to look at, because they only displayed characters and basically just a page of hyperlinked text. This was the then-popular Lynx that was initially designed back in 1992 for Unix and VMS terminal users (that was back when we called them that). Think about this for a moment: this was pre-iporn, pre-IPO Netscape, pre-real Windows -- when the number of Web servers was less than a few hundred. Not very exciting by today's standards.

Then Microsoft got into the game, and things started changing. With the introduction of Windows 95 we had the beginnings of a graphical Internet Explorer, which ironically was licensed from the same code that Netscape would use to create their browser (and eventually Firefox). Windows 95 came with both IE and Windows Explorer, and the two were similarly named for a reason: browsing pages of the Web was the beginnings of something similar to browsing files on your desktop. Things didn't really get integrated until IE v4, which came out about the same time as Windows 98, and they were so integrated that they begat a lawsuit by the Justice Department. At the end of 2002, Microsoft was legally declared a monopolist and had to offer ways to extract IE from Windows going forward for users who wanted to install a different browser.

During the middle 1990s, we began to see better support for TCP/IP protocols inside the Windows OS, although it really wasn't until the second edition of Windows 98 that we saw Microsoft improve upon the browser enough that they could include it as part of their Office 2000 product. Before then, we had separate drivers and add-on utilities that required all sorts of care and feeding to get online, in addition to using AOL and Compuserve dial-up programs.

As an example of how carefully integrated IE was with Windows, when Microsoft released IE v7 along with Vista, initially you needed to verify your license of Windows was legit before you could install the latest version of IE on earlier operating systems. That restriction was later removed.

And lately Microsoft has announced its next version of Office 2010 will have even further Web integration and the ability to create online documents similar to the way Google Docs works. Google Docs is an interesting development of itself, because now documents are stored outside of the desktop and managed through a Web browser. As long as I have an Internet connection, I don't need any software on my local machine to edit a document or calculate a spreadsheet.

So what is the real purpose of an operating system? Originally, it was to manage the various pieces of your PC so that your applications could talk to your printer or your hard drive or display characters on your screen without having to write low-level programs to do these tasks. Three things have happened since the early PC era:

First, as the Web and cloud computing became more powerful, we stopped caring where our information is located. In some sense, having documents in the cloud makes it easier to share them across the planet, and not have to worry about VPNs, local area network file shares, and other things that will get in the way. And we even have cellphones like the Palm Pre that have a Web OS built in, so that applications don't have to be downloaded to the phone but can run in the cloud. At least, when developers will finally get their kits to build these Pre apps later this summer.

Second, as the desktop OS matures, we don't have to worry about the underlying hardware as much because that hardware has gotten more generic and the OS has taken on a bigger role (to match their bigger footprints too). Although printer drivers are still scarce for Vista, and 64-bit apps aren't as plentiful, for the most part we don't need a "thick" desktop OS. Yes, there are enterprise apps that need the OS, and some that need a specific version of Windows too, but most of our computing can be done without really touching much of the OS.

Finally, the browser is the de facto Windows user interface. Perhaps I should say the browser plus Ajax or the browser plus Flash. But most applications that were formerly client/server now just use browser clients, or run inside a browser with minimal desktop downloads. This has been long in coming, but now Rich Internet Applications can be considered on par with local Windows and Mac ones.

So here we are, at the dawn of the new Google OS. We have come full circle: from the green-screen character mode terminals of the mainframe and Unix era to the browser-based Webtops of the modern era. This doesn't mean that Windows 7 or 8 or whatever will become obsolete. Just less important. And given the multiple billions of dollars that Microsoft has made over the years from Windows (and let's not forget dear old DOS), you can imagine that there are some nervous folks up in Redmond these days.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How proudly we fail: how 25 innovative tech companies die

I recently wrote a story for that looked at 25 companies that are no longer with us but were ahead of their times with innovative products. Before you write in and say that I missed your favorite, I wanted to take a few moments here and talk about some of the interesting trends that I saw from this list. The reasons for failure could be broken down into five general categories:

Corporate hubris and hijinks. Tech companies don't have the best record when it comes to staying on task, and this is especially true when they merge or start to bleed their best people. Look at Ashton-Tate's dBase. When they were at their height of their powers in the 1980s, thousands of people around the world studied their programming language and built databases on PCs (I was one of them). Then they lost their way and were sold to Borland in 1991, and that was the beginning of the end for both the company and its flagship product. Borland had a competing database product and couldn't sustain dBase. Or Banyan's VINES networking operating system, which also had a loyal customer base and had innovative directory services applications long before they were implemented by Novell and Microsoft. How about Digital Communications Associates, maker of the 3270 Irma boards? They quickly disappeared after 1994 when Attachmate acquired them.

The market evolved past them. Columbia Data Products made the first clone PCs back in 1982, not long after IBM came out with their model. They lasted five years, and the market moved on to more efficient suppliers like Dell and HP. Ironically, we got some other innovation from Columbia that they were less known for, the SCSI storage interface that was used for many years to connect hard drives to PCs. AST Research was another one who had a dominant share of the peripheral expansion market in the 1980s, only to see many of these peripherals integrated into PC motherboards.

Bright people working in the wrong company. Just because you have a collective brain trust doesn't mean that you are going to live long and prosper. Sometimes the chemistry is wrong, or the circumstances not quite right. Take First Virtual Holdings, one of the pioneers of Internet payment systems. Their founders went on to develop key products for Paypal. General Magic founding fathers went on to develop key parts of several phones including iPhone for Apple, Android for Google, and to help start eBay.

The Osborne effect. One company even is notable for its failed strategy of pre-announcing products that killed any demand. Osborne Computers was the early leader of portable PCs that weren't all that portable – at close to 30 pounds and a few inches too big to fit under an airline seat, they were a bear to fly with. Nevertheless, when Osborne announced a new version in 1983, everyone stopped buying the current models.

Engage lawyers. Sue everyone. Repeat as needed. Research in Motion uses this tactic to the present day, even though it has lost its share of suits in the creation of the Blackberry smart phone and millions of dollars. SCO/Caldera Systems has done something similar for early Unix inventors. Sometimes winning a lawsuit can be the death of a company too: Witness Stac Electronics that won $120 million from Microsoft on their disk compression technology, something that is now part and parcel to just about every operating system.

Take a look at my trip down memory lane here:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The self service Internet

There is no doubt that we have become accustomed to less customer service and more self-service these days. Maybe it is because the general bar for customer service keeps getting lower and the actual service itself surlier. Maybe it is a cost-cutting measure as more retail establishments cut back on their staffs. Maybe it is a general increase in rudeness, or because of more violence or reality shows on TV. I don't know. Whatever the reason, self-service is here to stay, and we might as well get used to it.

The inspiration for this missive came from a blog entry on the New York Times Web site, entitled the Self-Service City. Timothy Egan talks about the various cutbacks in municipal services that have him growing his own food, hauling his own trash, and other activities:

As he recounts, self-service doesn't always work out as well as we'd like, though. Remember how the Internets was supposed to empower everyone?

We buy our movie tickets on Ticketmaster/Fandango, so we don't have to wait in lines at the box office. We can examine online seat maps to find the perfect seat to watch our shows. Yet we pay "convenience fees" and surcharges that sometimes add $15 or more to the purchase. Convenient for whom, exactly?

We book our own flights online, because travel agents weren't as good as search engines in finding the best fares or flights. Now I have a Twitter account that notifies when fares drop from major St. Louis-based routes. (Go to and enter your city for more info.) But I really don't need a search engine to find these fares, mainly because there are so few non-stop flights out of STL served by our one and a half major carriers (and American is dropping more nonstops, making Southwest our largest airline here now). Southwest has some amazing customer service initiatives, including calling you back when you dial their 800 number, rather than being on hold.

We bank online so we never have to enter our branch and deal with snarly bank employees or get stuck behind a first-time customer unfamiliar with general banking principles. And companies like USAA and ING have made this into a calling card, offering branchless banking for years with various online tools – USAA even allows you to scan your checks to deposit them instantly to your account. That is the ultimate in self-service banking, without the heinous float times that the ordinary banks like to lay on top of you for their deposits. And yes, some banks are getting it totally online: after Twittering Bank of America a few months ago, I managed to save $140 in overdraft fees. Not bad for a buck a character transmitted, surely the best rate that I have ever been paid as a writer.

Many of you use Web sites like to order and deliver your groceries, which seems like the ultimate in self-service time savers. I know several of you that are very happy with this service, but you have to be more organized than I. Like Ticketmaster, there are delivery fees that are added on to your purchases.

There are companies like RightNow Technologies that build self-service web sites that have frequently asked questions and answers. And there are numerous developments on social networks, such as Answers for LinkedIn, and where people can ask and get answers to their questions no matter how arcane. There are some people that spend significant portions of their day answering questions for people they don't know and have never met: isn't the Internet a wonderful place?

So what does all this mean? As we do more Internet-based disintermediation, the companies that can provide face-to-face contact and initiate customer problem resolution will win over loyalty and retain their customers. The best companies will combine great service by humans with electronic initiatives such as USAA's scanned deposits and Southwest's call-backs. Those that have the right attitude and understand how important customer satisfaction is will need to do both online and human-powered things together. The others will go the way of Worldcom, GM, and AIG.

Do share your own customer service success stories if you don't mind on my blog.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Four useful tools for social networkers

What do the services,, and have in common? All four are tools that I can't live without these days and didn't even know existed a few months ago. That is how fast the Internets are changing. I suggest you give each of the four a quick try out and see if you agree that you can save yourself a lot of time with each of them.

Pixelpipe is a service much like It allows you to post the same piece of content to multiple sites. Whether it is a status update (which is just what Ping does), a blog entry, a video, or a series of photos, it is a very useful service and handles more than 80 different sites. Look for a review to come soon in Computerworld next month. The downside is that you have to store your authentication credentials with the service for each site, which may make you nervous if you care. And if you mess up, your typos will be immediately sent out to the world for many of your correspondents to see, because there is no easy way to recall the messages without visiting each site individually. I like it mainly because I post my blog entries to multiple platforms, part for redundancy's sake, part because I don't trust Wordpress to be the sole repository of my work product.

Next is Etherpad, a service that allows multiple people to concurrently edit a document using just a Web browser. You create an unique URL and then send that to your collaborators via email. Once someone knows the URL, they can make changes to your document, and each author's changes can be tracked with different colored highlights. I used this today with a client – even though we were sitting around a conference table in the same room, we were able to agree on the edits of a document within a few minutes, it was incredibly productive. is a URL shortening service with a twist: you can post the shortened link directly to your Twitter account. And while that is convenient, wait there is something that I really like. It will track all the people who have clicked on the shortened link and show you which client (browser, Twitter third party app, or service) was used in the process, along with time-series data on the clicks. You can really see the immediacy of Twitter, but you can also use it to track referrals on other services too.

Namechk is a very simple service that will lookup a particular username on more than 120 different social networking, blog and video sharing sites. It will see if it is taken or available. This is a very useful tool that you can show your clients how tuned in you are to that scene.

Let me know what you think about each of these services, and if you have others that you have recently found that could be useful.

Friday, June 19, 2009

If I want a link to be clickable, all I have to do is compose it in this window like this: and will do the rest
This is an embedded link to

David Strom pic

David Strom

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Learning about proxies in the news, see post on

The Power of the Proxy

Proxy servers have been in the news as of late, both as a result of the Iran putative election and a new legal case where Microsoft is suing purveyors of advertising click fraud. I thought I would take you through what proxies are, how they can be used for both good and evil, and what all the fuss is about.

First, here is a little background. When you bring up your Web browser, you are asked how you want it to connect to the Internet. Most of us that have home PCs don't use any proxy, and go out to the raw Internet without any fuss or bother. But enterprises that want to cut down on their bandwidth usage, improve performance and security, and have control over what their users see use them all the time. Each browser first checks and sees if the Web page that is being requested is on the proxy's cache, or memory, and if so, it saves a few milliseconds or more by grabbing the page directly, without having to traverse the Internet at all. So proxies are often combined with caching servers to deliver the best combination of features and management. As far as the browsing user is concerned, all this happens without any notification, other than the pages seem to load quicker on their PCs. About the only configuration option is the IP address of the server, which is placed inside the browser options or network settings. And proxies are available for more than just Web protocols, although that is their most popular use case.

That is the good side of proxies. What about the evil side? Proxies are supposed to be for internal users of an enterprise, but if a hacker can find out the IP address of an internal proxy, they can gain access to lots of network resources. This was a common MO for the hacker Adrian Lamo, among others, and you still find corporations that haven't locked their proxies down with the appropriate security. It is also possible for proxies to operate on a user's PC without their knowledge, which is a common way botnets are created.

There are also proxies that are used to make your browsing history anonymous, which can be used for both good and evil; depending on what information you are trying to hide.

Now to the news. Microsoft filed suit in federal court yesterday against three people it claims were defrauding Internet advertisers by having automated programs mimic users clickstreams. They found the fraudulent activities by tracing the actions to two proxy servers. And once they blocked the particular IP addresses of the proxies, the fraudsters would simply alter them in a continual game of cat and mouse. The fraud involved is significant, and ClickForensics estimates that 14% of the total ad clickstream is faked.

When the Iranian government wanted to block Internet access, several private individuals from around the globe took it upon themselves to set up the open source proxy Squid ( and other tools on their own networks to get around these blocks. They then publicized (via Twitter) the IP address of their Squid PCs so that anyone could connect to the open Internet, rather than be blocked. Of course, as the government learns of these addresses, they add them to their block list, so another cat and mouse game ensues.

(small self-promotion here) The news is very timely, indeed. I am off next week to work with Blue Coat on producing another of my screencast product review videos on their proxy and caching server line for my site. Let me know if you'd like me to do one of these for your product, they are a unique way to promote and explain a product.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Faster response times and Google's Wave

For those of you that feel good about yourselves because you are IM'ing and Tweeting, your online life is about to get a whole more complicated thanks to Google. More on that in a moment, first let me set the stage.

I remember back in the day when many of us first got on email and we tried to do everything in it. When we tried to completely replace real-time phone calls and in-person meetings, it was an abject failure: you still needed that give-and-take. And many corporations that put up email support or customer response inboxes quickly found out that they needed to do more than just assign the inbound messages to a staffer: they actually had to respond with a meaningful answer. I remember an article that I wrote back in 2000 where I sent out a test email inquiry to 13 financial services firms and timed how long it took before I got a response. Some sent out automated responses quickly and followed with a more meaningful reply within an hour, some did worse. Ironically, one site where it was hard to find an email address now has one of the currently best self-service Web sites,

Then came the era of Instant Messaging, and suddenly we didn't have to worry about email response times because we could connect with someone in real time. Some firms got into IM in a big way, particularly to connect remote work teams. And parents found out that IM was another tool in their arsenal of trying to track down their teens' whereabouts in those dicey after-school hours.

Lately everyone is talking Twitter, and that makes IM seem slow. Twitter and I are still getting used to each other, and I am still not sure that it will be tremendously useful to me in the long run. But it is sure fun to experiment with, and thanks to Bank of America being on it, I managed to save myself a bundle in overdraft fees about a month ago. But that is a story for another time. What I have found is that I am sending and receiving fewer IMs these days.

Some of the more interesting experiments in the Twittersphere have to do with aggregating Tweets from a variety of different sources. Take a look at, a news site that reports on tech events in the Raleigh-Durham area that is the labor of love of a bunch of volunteers but is probably the best place to go to get up-to-the-minute news and blog posts in the area.

And then there is a new protocol and product coming from Google by way of Sydney Australia called Wave. It was announced a few weeks ago, and while I am still analyzing it, I can tell you that the near-instant response times that we get from our IMs isn't going to be fast enough. What Wave does is similar to a product called that allows for real-time collaborative composition of documents, but oh so much more. You can thread your conversations, add wiki-like tools to do joint editing, and add email notification and Twitter-like status streams all in a neat bundle. The 80-minute demo video is definitely worth watching, at least the first third, here:

But before you abandon all hope of every staying current with the latest Internet fad, let's just go back to first principles for a moment and think about what your expectations of customer response times should be these days, and whether your company is coming anywhere close to fulfilling these expectations. With some people (such as my condo board), I have no expectations that I will get a timely response – that is just the type of folks that they are or they just aren't that service-oriented. With others, such as my Tweets to Bank of America, a few hours to reply was better than anything that I have gotten from them. Previously, I had to wait on hold or in line down at my very busy local branch for at least 30 minutes. For other businesses, overnight is still a reasonable expectation.

What I am saying here is that before you scrap yet another response system, take a few days to conduct a census of your customer-facing staff and see exactly what they are delivering now. And maybe try to improve the human side of your response systems that have nothing to do with any underlying technology.

I have no doubt that Wave represents a new way of thinking about how to interact with each other and work together. And while it might be a while before we can actually touch the technology, in the meantime let's not lose sight of how we work with our customers and give them the best possible service.

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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.