Monday, February 22, 2010

Taking credit card payments via the Internet

It all started when one of my clients wanted to pay me with a credit card. It is odd that I have been in business for 18 years and this is the first time that I have been paid in this way. It is doubly ironic in that I used to teach classes on eCommerce back in the early days of the Web and hadn't ever gotten around to getting a merchant account, which is what you need to take credit card payments.

If you want to accept credit cards, you enter a brave new world where there is an entire collection of jargon to use your secret decoder ring. For example, "discount rate" is the fee that the card issuer (like American Express or Visa) charges you per transaction. Typically these are anywhere from one to four percent, depending on a series of circumstances. Then there is the "virtual terminal" which is a series of Web-based services that allow you to enter the credit card number in your browser and have the transaction completed online. These replace the typical credit card swipe machines that you see in every retail shop.

Since my client wanted to use their American Express card, my first stop was to try my business bank, Bank of America, and see what they could offer me. Online had limited information but I tried the 800 number and got nowhere fast. They suggested that I talk to Amex and see what they could do for me. Within about 30 minutes I was setup with an Amex merchant ID and could start accepting their card via a telephone response number. The issue was that the transactions would take some time to clear and actually end up in my bank. They could also sell me their virtual terminal software, called Payment Express, which would be an extra charge of $20 a month. Amex has many different options that can easily get confusing – my recommendation is if you want to go this way, first sign up online to access your account and then read the various screens that describe Payflow, Payment Express and their physical card payment terminals.

In the interests of research, I pressed on to see what else is available.

Paypal was my next stop. While you can process some credit card payments, once you get beyond a few hundred dollars you need to have a Paypal business account. This means $30 a month, plus transaction fees of 2.4 to 3.1% to use their virtual terminal software. Here is a description of that process:

Intuit was next. Their merchant services are $13 a month, and it took about a day to set me up. They also have their own virtual terminal software and their home page takes something to get used to. They also charge less per transaction, with fees ranging from 1.9 to 2.9%. They have a great series of online demos here on their Web site:

So which do I recommend? If I had to start over knowing what I know now, I would go first to Inuit. They are geared towards their online product, they have a simple sign up process, and if you already use Quickbooks they can integrate with that too if you end up with lots of transactions. (I have been a happy Quickbooks user for nearly two decades, starting with the DOS version, can you believe it?) I would steer clear of Paypal, I just think they charge too much for too little.

There are dozens of other payment processors online, and this isn't meant to be a comprehensive review. And feel free to share your own experiences on my blog or via Twitter.

Outbound content compliance using Global Velocity

Looking to do a better job monitoring all of your network's applications portfolio? The GV-2010 is a unit designed to give you very granular control over how your end users use particular applications, and inspect all of your content leaving your network.

We tested the appliance on a small network in February 2010.

Global Velocity GV-2010
St. Louis MO
314 880 2900

Kace Kbox: Best Way to Massively Migrate Windows XP Desktops to Windows 7

Kbox (which recently was acquired by Dell) is used to manage and control desktop system images that contain user files and applications and — with its Systems Management Appliance, sold separately — to do PC inventory and audits. It also works with both virtual and physical machines too. Unlike the PC Mover and Zinstall approaches, they are designed for large-scale deployments of hundreds or more PCs.

You can watch my screencast review here at

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Codeless Ajax Development with Alpha Five

Alpha Five is a powerful database and Web applications server and development environment that has been around for many years and continues to get more powerful but not at the expense of ease of use. There are numerous tutorials

You can watch my screencast video here:

We tested Alpha 5 v10 on a Windows XP running SP2 in February 2010.

Documentation, copious code examples and videos:

Alpha Five v10
70 Blanchard Road,
Burlington, MA 01803

Prices: Developer $349
Application Server $599, both for $799
Unlimited Runtime licenses $599
Windows XP or later required with at least IE v7 or Firefox 3.0

Monday, February 1, 2010

Searching for softphones

Remember when your office phone was a solidly built multi-line key system with push buttons for the different extensions? And you had a secretary who would answer all of your calls? It seems so quaint now, like something out of a Tracy/Hepburn movie like the "Desk Set." (Which for those of you that haven't seen it, features a plot about a room-sized computer that replaces human workers at the TV station. Amazingly, 50 years ago too.)

The biggest change for office telephony these days is the separating of incoming and outgoing calling plans and how we will use computers instead of an actual phone instrument. Maybe, if we all can get our softphones to work properly.

I am not talking about some Claes Oldenburg sculpture, but the software running on your PC that enables you to make and receive calls. Softphones aren't new – I recall writing about them in the early 1990s. Sadly, the quality of software development is still akin more to this era than the modern day.

Voice over IP has made calling almost too cheap to meter, to recall a phrase from the 1950s (then it was about nuclear power, and we know what happened to that). That's why many vendors currently offer unlimited monthly calling plans for their VOIP Service – Vonage ($25), Skype ($3), Google Voice (Free!). What is important to note is that these are all outgoing calling plans. Anyone can call you without any plan, you just need a phone number. Here is where things get tricky.

I have been a happy customer of Vonage since around 2002 or so, using their phone service in three different states and for both home and work. The best part about using Vonage (or any other VOIP phone with a reasonable feature set) is that I can set up what happens when someone calls my number. Right now I have it ring both office and cell numbers simultaneously. This way I just have to give you one number to call me, and I can change cell numbers, or add a new location if I am working someplace for an extended period of time. The next best part about Vonage is that I can do all of this with just a couple of mouse clicks, without having to wait on hold for a Bell business office service rep to try to upsell me with services that I don't want.

But I don't really get that many calls anymore, not that I am complaining. Most of the time when I am on the phone it is to interview someone for an article I am writing or to listen to a conference call briefing. Those are calls that I initiate and I don't really need a physical phone anyway – I much prefer to use a headset connected to my computer, to free my shoulder so I can type in my notes. (Yes, I could use a Bluetooth headset for my phone, too.)

I started thinking that perhaps I could eliminate my office phone line, and swap it for a Vonage softphone, and perhaps save some money in the process. That led me to searching for a softphone that will run on my Mac, connect to my Vonage account, and be reliable. Getting all three criteria has turned into A Project over the past week.

The softphone costs $10 a month. A call to Vonage customer support set up things, and moved my office number over to the softphone account. I thought I was doing well.

Alas, it wasn't so easy. First of all, while Vonage has its softphone app on both Windows and Mac, the Mac version is a poor cousin and I couldn't get it to work properly. After spending some time with Vonage tech support, I found out that there are "issues" with it running on Intel-based Macs (which are all recent Macs for the past several years).

Vonage does have a softphone for the iPhone (and Blackberry too), but you need to set up another $25 a month subscription plan. It really is designed to call internationally from your phone and save you on these charges. So it really isn't the softphone that I am looking for.

There are numerous softphone VOIP software companies, and some even have Mac clients. I have tried a few, and tried to get them configured for my Vonage account, but with no success. There is a lot of poor quality information online, and many of these are smaller companies with no tech support.

What about Skype? Yes, Skype can be considered a softphone (and more, since it does video calls too). The monthly unlimited calling plan is $3, but you also need to purchase an online number for another $3 a month if you want people to call you. All of a sudden, my expected savings are evaporating. I like Skype and have used it for years, mostly for the IM features, and the voice quality is terrific.

How about MagicJack? This is a pretty cool USB device that you can connect to both Macs and Windows PCs, and it will set up a softphone (or you can use a regular phone and wire it to the USB device directly). All for $40 for the first year, and $20 a year thereafter. My one problem with the Jack is that I keep getting people calling me who are calling wrong numbers. Not sure what that is all about. I do get the occasional Skype from someone I don't recognize but not as often.

And then there are Google Voice and eVoice, a new service from J2 Communications, the people that are behind eFax and jFax. These aren't quite softphones, but do offer some interesting communications features to manage your telephony, and if I didn't keep my Vonage number I would probably be more interested in them. Google has also purchased Gizmo Project, which had a really nice softphone that came with a built-in voice recorder, so who knows what will happen to that.

Not having a traditional land-line phone can be an issue, I will admit. But it isn't usually a problem. So as I transition to a phone-free desk, I think back to the days when I had one of the old Western Electric phones. Maybe I should buy one and just keep it on my desk for old time's sake while I keep fooling around with my softphones and headsets. If you are interested, check out this site which has all sorts of great info on the golden era when people had to rent, not own their phones, and they still had dials instead of buttons.

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.