Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sidebar conversations are here to stay

My question for you today is this: when is it appropriate to have a sidebar conversation during a conference call or in-person meeting? By sidebar, I meet a parallel Instant Messenger chat session or texting someone or posting something to your Twitter feed. Whatever your tool of choice, you are sharing your thoughts about what is going on in the meeting to other co-workers who are bored/distracted/uninterested with the current speaker.

I am as guilty of this behavior as the next person: back in the day when I had weekly staff meetings, we had various ways to amuse ourselves over IM chats. I remember when the precursor to the Blackberry first arrived on the scene and we would hide them under the table and check our emails – now they are so much smaller and easier to pull out and use. So much easier, that even our elected members of Congress are sending out Tweets and texts from the House floor this week during Obama's address. Color commentary at 140 characters at a time, coming to you from those folks that pass bills that most never read. There is some irony in this situation, somewhere.

And this week, the Billerica Massachusetts selectmen passed a law that prohibits people from texting and emailing during town meetings. I am sure more will follow, maybe even our Congress.

There are professors that prohibit Internet-connected laptops (or at least try to) during their classes. Back when I taught a bunch of high school boys computer networking in a PC-laden classroom lab, I had to routinely unplug their machines' Ethernet cables when their attention wandered to the Internet and the call of more important things, like checking and updating their overnight gaming standings. At least I had a cable to unplug: this was in the era just before universal Wifi coverage.

Call it ADD. Call it multi-tasking. Call it sophomoric or just plain rude. But this behavior is definitely here to stay. And as someone who makes part of my living as a professional speaker, I find this trendlet both disconcerting and yet fascinating. Indeed, at a speech that I gave this week, one of the participants suggested that I should show a live Web link to a Twitter feed so the audience could post their comments on screen, for all in the audience to examine. (This was done last at last year's South By Southwest conference, to mixed results, as I recall.) First I thought it was a good idea. Now I am not so sure.

Remember how when we watched TV back in the olden times there wasn't anything on the screen besides the program? Now we have the ever-present logo, sometimes spinning around with the time and temperature. We have little people that pop up at the bottom of the screen announcing some more "must see TV" that will be broadcast later in the week. We have the "crawl" which used to be used to announce snow or other extreme weather conditions but is its own sidebar conversation for many news shows. And Bloomberg TV has so much going on that I get dizzy when I tune in there trying to track all the various windows of data scrolling by. Even "24" shows multiple windows where each character is doing something to get across its real-time effect. (At least Chloe is back in the current season's episode's to save the day, we can all be thankful even if the underlying technology isn't quite realistic.)

I am not sure where this is going, but it definitely is the brave new world of communications. Tweeting and texting during meetings is probably here to stay, regardless of what rules are put in place to stop them. And we as professional speakers will have a harder time unless we learn to incorporate these things and collaborate with our audiences, rather than competing with them. Of course, if we were more engaging perhaps all the sidebar chatter would come to a stop because people would actually want to listen to our speeches.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Can collaboration save our economy?

Web Informant TK February 2009: Can collaboration save our economy?

The economic news is depressing, and yet I want to see opportunity where others see looming disaster. And I think one way we can try to make things better is become more productive and do a better job collaborating with each other. Think of it as a no-cost stimulus package that even the Republicans can love.

Remember when the PC was first introduced, everyone thought it was such a great personal productivity tool? Sadly, the more powerful that PCs have become, the harder it is to use them to collaborate. This is because we get used to using them as our personal machines, and most of us don't like sharing our computers, let alone our work products from them.

The primary collaboration tool today is still what it was ten years ago: I send you an email attachment with a Word or Excel file. You make changes and then email the file back for me to look at. This is really serial collaboration, because we alternate working on the same file. While this model is okay for two people, when you have a whole group that is trying to add their thoughts it gets very messy, to say the least. Also, one person can hold up the entire process and then the rest of the group has to wait until that person has finished their revisions. And if we don't agree, we pretty much have to start the process from scratch. A friend of mine is ghost writing a book for two of his bosses. I can't imagine what his editing cycle is going to be like under this model.

It is time to realize that serial email-style collaboration is so last year. Consider these trends:

First, the Internet is now ubiquitous and most of us are comfortable using it to connect to our partners, supplies, customers, and colleagues. It has also made email more powerful, and most of us have become addicted to checking our email several times a day and even during off hours too. Some of us have to check email so frequently that we start to get a bit jittery when we are offline for a few hours, let alone when we want to take a week off on some deserted beach where there isn't any connectivity.

Contrast this with Lotus Notes, which has been around for about 20 years and supposed to be the be-all and end-all collaborative tool, or Microsoft's SharePoint, which is more recent. Both Notes and Sharepoint require everyone to run it, and develop to its own programming interfaces. That seems so quaint and outmoded now. And both are very quirky to install and deploy, which makes them less desirable too.

Second, email is a great notification system and a great way to organize your to-do list. You don't have to use it as the transportation system for sending documents around, though. As an example, you can set up a blog to automatically notify via email when someone posts a comment to a particular page, so people can participate in a discussion thread but don't have to continually return to that page to find out what has been posted.

Third, free or low-cost Internet applications have come of age, such as Google Docs, Google Calendar, Trackvia, Tripit, Timedriver, Hourtown and Setmeeting. All of these don't require any software to download, don't have a lot of upfront training or even any dough to use, which means that people can experiment with them and see if they will be suitable for their needs. All of these products can offload some of the tasks that we are used to doing on email and make us more productive in scheduling meetings, sharing work product, and arranging our time. Look for a story from me in the New York Times next month on this topic.

Fourth, instant messaging has become more useful for connecting remote work teams together and can be used as another notification system that is more immediate and more potent in terms of bringing people together. Some firms are beginning to use the built-in IM features of Facebook and Twitter for this purpose too. Again, this takes some load away from looking at your inbox for starting a particular task or trying to get a colleague's attention.

Finally, there are other tools for two-person collaboration that will work better in real time, such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC, that allow two people to actually see each other's computer screen while they are talking on the phone. My podcasting partner Paul Gillin likes, which allows teams of 25 to share the same desktop, no matter if they are on Linux, Mac or Windows.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to collaborating effectively, and I since we are talking about sharing do share your own stories with my audience and post to this entry on I will have more to say on this topic for a keynote speech that I am giving in Philadelphia in April for the American Hardware Manufacturer's Association. If you want me to come talk to your organization, you can send me email, or better yet, just call me on the phone.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The shoemaker's children

This week I seem to be surrounded by dysfunctional electronics, and I
am not a happy camper. Or maybe they just are attracted to me, or I to

My oven is on its third electronic control panel in as many months. It
has very fancy touch-pad controls, and when we first got it everything
on the panel worked with the sole exception of the on/off switch. And
the fact that it couldn't get beyond 290 degrees — it was a very
expensive crock pot. Cooking the turkey for Thanksgiving took the
better part of the day. But perhaps the third time will be the charm.

Then my stepson needed help with getting his Xbox connected on his
wireless network. I had done him no favors by setting up his wireless
router to use WPA2, which is the one security protocol that doesn't
work with the Xbox wireless adapter. That was luckily quick work to
downgrade him to just regular WPA. Why can't Microsoft support a
protocol that is several years old on its equipment is a mystery to

How about my home laptop, which for some odd reason won't keep its
batteries charged? I guess it is a flaky motherboard power connection,
so the laptop needs to be plugged into the wall all the time. That is
annoying to say the least, but then it is a aging Dell that is due for
replacement, so maybe this a sign. Of course, finding something that
runs XP is an exercise in patience these days.

Speaking of Dell, I was looking for an inexpensive machine that I
could stuff with oodles of RAM to run in my lab. You would think with
all of the machines that they sell that it would be easy to find out
what the maximum amount of memory you could install in one of the
desktops would be. Not so easy to do on their Web site. So I took the
unusual step of calling them and that wasn't much better. I could
order a PC with a 64-bit Windows OS and that was the trick to boost
the RAM on the order, but a 64-bit OS is almost as much trouble as
Vista. I want a machine that will actually run my applications, thank
you very much. When I went into the Dell Outlet store to search for
used PCs, there was one yesterday that had 8GB for sale.

And I was excited to hear about the latest crop of devices that will
accept streaming video from Netflix, including a Samsung Blu-Ray video
player. A friend has been having a lot of fun using his Xbox and
streaming videos to it (you need to have both subscriptions to Netflix
and Xbox Live services though to do this). Trouble is, I bought the
cheaper model Samsung that doesn't do the streaming, even though it
has an Ethernet jack and runs Windows CE and can be upgraded across
the Internet. Another friend has the right model and was singing all
of its virtues and how wonderful his streaming videos were. Too bad
for me. Now I have one more computing device that can get infected,
require periodic care and feeding, and is already obsolete within a
few months of its purchase. I sure know how to pick 'em. At least I
haven't had to replace the front panel and the on/off switch is still
working. But it sure throws off a lot of heat, I guess from all the
graphics processing firepower inside.

At least my iPhone is running without any troubles, knock on formica.
I think I only have had to reboot it maybe 3 times in the past six
months. The fact that I used "only" in that sentence is a sad
testimonial to the state of my electronic life. They say the
shoemakers' children go barefoot. I would settle for a device that
would just operate as intended.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My network stimulus package

With all the talk of billions for this program or that in Washington, I thought I would put together my own stimulus package that can help your network run smoother. I don't know whether $10 billion to buy steel (domestic preferred) for new bridges or $9 billion to put up new rural DSL lines will really be effective (my initial reaction is dubious), but the idea of spending lots of money quickly by our Congress is a scary one. And despite serving on my local school board several years, I am not qualified to run any cabinet department or national office (I have dutifully and fully paid my income taxes and don't have any dark family embarrassments). But I think I can offer a few ideas for you. So here are a few suggestions that won't cost (much) dough and could save your own bacon if you are trying to impress the boss that your name doesn't belong on the cut list quite yet.

First off, do you actually know what kind of traffic is running on your network? Have you looked at your top applications? You would be surprised. At an event that I attended yesterday sponsored by Blue Coat, they talked about how when they did these assessments they always found ten times the number of applications that most IT admins thought they were supporting. That is a factor of ten. The best story was a company that found out that one of its most popular mission critical apps was a home-grown one running on a box under someone's desk. I am sure this isn't unique, or even rare. It doesn't matter what fancy tool you use to do this apps census, and there are many vendors besides Blue Coat who would gladly come in and do one for you (in the hopes that you will eventually buy their gear). But the more that you know, the more you fine tune your network and reduce the traffic from the apps that aren't business-related.

Second, have you looked at your latency lately? Has someone along the way added a few new router hops somewhere that you didn't know about? I am amazed that we are still talking about a concept that is decades old and should be better understood. Latency improvements are the best bang for your buck short of hiring a DC lobbyist to get some of that earmark money. And you don't have to wait for any Congressional action either.

Third, how many people still have admin rights to their own desktop PCs? This makes it impossible to manage these machines, and allows users to install their own apps. Granted, it may be politically difficult to change this policy now, but hey, change is in the air and you might as well start somewhere.

Next, have you looked at your user accounts lately and seen if anyone that you have laid off is still using your network? You would be surprised at how often this happens. At one hospital that I visited, the IT manager told me that an employee who was laid off went home and started using his girlfriend's login credentials at night. They caught it because the girlfriend was still logged in at the same time at work. And the number of people that I talk to that don't have regular password change policies, or have the same password for all of their critical servers, is amazingly high. Take the time to get this set up properly. Given the number of layoffs these days, this is probably the biggest thing that you can do to fix your security loopholes that doesn't even cost you a dime.

I will have lots of other suggestions, if you are interested; check out my article in next week's Information Security magazine. I will post a link to it on my blog when it goes live. In the meantime, you can post your own network stimulus ideas on my blog if you are feeling a need to share them.

About Me

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