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.

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.