Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Ghost of Christmas Future

NEWS: Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett Packard, appeared in the NY Times as the ghost of Christmas future. He predicted that “managed home” products, which blur the line between PCs and consumer electronics, will be the coming thing. HP is currently number one in PC sales, so Mr. Hurd's vision of the future must be taken seriously.

HP has three new products that, according to HP, are designed to capitalize on Mr. Hurd's vision.
  1. The Media Smart TV is an LCD TV that “pulls in” content stored on networked devices. It is priced at a $1,000 premium over comparable HP LCD TVs. See the CNET review.
  2. The Media Vault is a network attached storage device positioned/marketed to store music, movies, photos and more. (It is comparable technically to the $200 Western Digital device I recently recommended here). See the CNET review.
  3. The iPaq Travel Companion is a Windows Mobile PDA. It has a 3.5-inch, QVGA touch screen with 240x320 pixel resolution. It also has onboard WiFi for internet access and GPS for navigation. It is designed to provide information and entertainment to travelers. See the CNET review.

ANALYSIS: According to Mr. Hurd, “Consumers keep telling us they want something that is insanely simple.” He believes the new Media Smart TV to be “insanely simple.”

IMHO, smart and simple are a contradiction in terms. Besides, I certainly don’t expect to pay $1,000 more for an insanely simple TV. Since most of the TV I watch comes through the signal decoder box, the DVR or the DVD player, all I really need is a monitor. That is my definition of an insanely simple TV.

Network attached storage devices have been around for years. Price per unit of storage has plunged to the point where homeowners can afford to have them and should have them for a host of reasons. Prices will continue to fall dramatically over the foreseeable future. It is hard for me to imagine that the Media Vault will be a big deal for HP.

The idea of combining entertainment and navigation in one device for travelers is the “inspiration” for the iPaq Travel Companion. This might be attractive to people who have to drive a lot. But the communications capabilities of this device are limited. Business travelers will want to be sure to pack a Blackberry and cell phone in addition to this device. Or a Blackberry, cell phone and an iPod instead.

HP is right that managed home products are the coming thing (see this). However, these three products are non-starters. As the NY Times says, “The problem for Hewlett-Packard is that to keep pace with market changes, the company that Mr. Hurd describes as “the world’s leading I.T. infrastructure company” may have to recast the PC part of itself as a consumer electronics company like Sony, Samsung or that other computer maker that has made the shift, Apple. And that will not be easy.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

IT Best Practices

This is the text of a speech I delivered at the National Intitutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Ladies and gentlemen, today I speak to you in your capacity as employees of different branches of NIH, doing a wide variety of different jobs. As such, you are collectively responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of information technology expenditures each year.

In the course of your work, you help directly and indirectly to shape the IT landscape in this country and in the world. For instance, this place is ground zero for bioinformatics. Tell that to your kids next time they mock your efforts to do something on your home computer or navigate the web.

It is a little scary, isn’t it? What if people find out? Remember the flak that George Bush Sr. got for never having seen a supermarket scanner?

The truth is you don’t have to be an expert in IT to fulfill your role as a gatekeeper in Information Technology. Follow my advice and you’ll do it right every time, and “Best Practices” are the key. That is the term for the body of knowledge, developed through trial and error, that represents the current consensus on the best way to do specific things. Your job, then is not to know IT, it is to identify the best practices that apply and implement them. If you do so, things are likely to go right, and it will be difficult to fault you if they go wrong.

For example, the best practice for adding RAM to your home computer is to ask your teenager to do it.

Generally speaking, best practices should always begin with one particular step, and that is “Plan Carefully.” Information technologies can be very complex and involve many people with varying needs. Decision making is very complex. At the outset of any project remember the words of Aristotle, “Well begun is half done.”

In addition to planning, accountability is also essential. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. You don’t want the hardware guy to be able to say it’s a software problem, and the software guy to be able to say it’s a hardware problem. Then you are left holding the bag.

Another rule is don’t cut corners on quality assurance and testing. It will cost you $10 to fix a problem after it has been deployed for every $1 to catch it and fix it in development and testing.

Best Practices are all you need to know to succeed. Then, if you are smart, you will get somebody to help you. Somebody like me who knows and believes in Best Practices.

The first thing I will do for you is a SCAN. That is a Standardized, Collaborative Assessment of Needs. It is a systematic, needs based approach to planning. Build to the state of the need, not the state of the art. Too often people build to the state of the art and find themselves on the “bleeding edge,” struggling with expensive and buggy software.

We survey people and interview executives across the enterprise to identify users and assess their needs. We tabulate our findings, identify solutions, formulate recommendations that embody best practices, build a working prototype, and present our findings, recommendations and prototype. Along the way, we facilitate communication across the enterprise and build consensus around the proposed solutions.

We recently were hired by a client to do a SCAN for them. We recommended that they reengineer one of their core business processes, taking it from a manual, ad hoc, poor quality, labor intensive, expensive system to an electronic database with a browser interface for data entry and reporting over the internet. They were very happy with the report. And they contracted with us to do the development and implementation of the system.

Like it or not, you are leaders in IT, gatekeepers on the Information Super-highway. Make best practices your guiding star, and you will succeed. If I can be of further assistance to any of you, please let me know.

I Recommend a $200 Computer!?

I was skeptical. I’ve been burned before buying cheap hardware. Either it ends up being a piece of crap or the vendor is planning to make its money on supplies (think ink jet printers). Sometimes a really low price is just the lure in a bait-and-switch operation.

I’ve learned the hard way not to go cheap on computers. The cost of a system failure is MUCH higher than the premium you’ll pay for a good machine that is reliable. Quality pays!

Western Digital, a leading manufacturer of disk drives known for quality, has introduced a line of low-cost computers called network attached storage (NAS) servers. The line offers internal disk capacities of 160 GB, 250 GB, 320 GB or 500 GB. Prices range from about $170 to $300 (prices vary widely across retailers).

These are specialized computers, designed to function only as file servers. They are promoted as “an excellent solution for data backup or general storage in small networks.” These computers run Linux, not Microsoft Windows. They do not come with a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Customers set up and administered these devices from a networked PC using a web browser.

With knowledge of Linux, it is possible to hack these devices and repurpose them. If you knew what you were doing, you could make one into an MP3 player, or you could link a bunch of them together and make a super computer. But don’t bother. Data backup and general storage are important, necessary and valuable purposes for most small networks. With these devices, there is NO EXCUSE for not having automated online backups of your valuable data. There is no reason not to store disk images of your PC hard drives to help you recover to the “base configuration” quickly and easily from PC failures. No more having to spend hours reloading the base applications (where are those disks?)!

In short, if you have a small network at home or at work, this should be your next computer. It will be a little bit of money well spent. BTW, to do backups and disk images of your network Windows PCs, you’ll need a copy of Norton Ghost too for about $50.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Five Ways to Avoid SPAM

What has happened to email? The sea of messages that is email has become badly polluted! According to TechNewsWorld, “nearly every e-mail consumers receive -- some 86 percent -- is considered SPAM.”
What can we do about the problem? Email is too important to surrender it to the usurers, the pornographers, the drug pushers, and other assorted moneygrubbers.

In its broadest definition, SPAM is unwanted email. But SPAM, like ugly, is in the eye of the beholder. If I get a message titled, “Check out these naked pictures of me,” unless I look, I won’t know if the pictures are ugly. And what I find ugly, my neighbor may think is the prettiest thing he’s ever seen.

SPAM filters are at work in some places. They scan incoming emails for certain words, and they trash the messages that contain those words. The trouble is that SPAMers are creative. You’ve seen a lot of creative ways to spell Viagra, haven’t you? That’s because the SPAMers have figured out one way to get past your spam filter for the time being. With each new spelling of Viagra, Vicodin, and assorted male and female body parts; highly educated, highly paid computer professionals across the country have to type creative misspellings of narcotics and vulgar words into their SPAM filters. That’s not why I went to graduate school.

Filtering is an imperfect solution at best - witness Poor Dick French and his associates at the Chicken Council. Chickens have breasts, eggs are laid and cockfighting is an issue on their agenda. Words like these are their stock-in-trade. How many emails do they send out that get trapped by SPAM filters and never reach their intended destinations? Dick’s friends all think he’s putting on airs because he’s started signing his messages Richard.

I know how to fix the problem of SPAM. I can help you lose weight, quit smoking, and cure baldness, too. Just kidding. All I really have is five suggestions to alleviate the problem.
  1. Don’t give out your email address. Disguise it in the return address field of the messages you send.
  2. Change your email address regularly.
  3. If you have to give someone your email address, make one up.
  4. Never try to “opt-out” if you have somehow gotten on to a SPAM mailing list. SPAMers know that 99.9% of people don’t want their messages. If you opt out, that tells them that yours is a valid email address and you are stupid enough to read their messages, and you are gullible enough to think they are going to take you off their list. You just won a lifetime supply of SPAM!
  5. Whenever you purchase something online, they usually ask for your email address and they have one or more boxes that you have to select or deselect to avoid receiving “special messages of special interest to you” from them and “specially selected partners.” If you want to exercise a small measure of justice, find an email contact posted on the web site, and list that as your address. Go wild, opt-in to receive those special messages. That way your special messages will be theirs.

Follow these suggestions and not only will you never get SPAM, you’ll get hardly any email. This is what the SPAMers themselves do. Problems afflicting email today are not a laughing matter. We’ll talk again when you are ready to be serious.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Geek Cancer Spreads

Abstract: An ironic and hypocritical analysis of the popularization (bastardization) of the term geek. Marketing people are blamed for the erosion in status of IT professionals to the level of pizza deliverymen.

Note to readers: The hypocrisy is intentional. It's not anybody's fault that marketing works, so, in the words of blogger ABB, "If you can't beat them, rip off their hustle..."

Washington, DC: I am sick of the term geek. It used to have one meaning, then it had another, then another... Nowadays, geek is chic.
  • Googling geek, you get 63.4 million results. Googling tech support you get only 26.1 million results. nerd garners 20.1 million, and dork gets 8.2 million results on Google.
  • More than 25,000 geek domains names have been registered. For example, there is 1-800-Rent-a-Geek.com. But that's not their phone number; their phone number is 1-888-542-GEEK.

Somewhere along the line, geek was embraced by marketing people. Rapid growth and uncontrolled usage of the term in the media ensued. Thanks to the marketing geeks (turnabout is fair play), the term became malignant nonsense through endless repetition; the very definition of a cancer.

  • This holiday season, you can find the word geek used to sell almost anything and everything. There are geek t-shirts that were "designed by experts." There is a web site that pushes a geekly and geekily erotic newsletter. "Geek My Ride" was a book published last year. Search Yahoo Shopping for geek and you find clothes, food, golf clubs, tools, musical instruments, cars, etc.
  • Information technology professionals are routinely called geeks and portrayed as akward and unfashionable. On the job, they are made to wear retro (silly) uniforms and drive retro cars (e.g., New Beetle). In advertising, IT geeks have the look and status of pizza deliverymen.

Yet, there are early signs that this cancer is abating.

  • According to Yahoo's overture.com, in October 2006, searches for the term geek lagged behind searches for the term nerd and for tech support. And the high keyword bid for geek is currently only half what it is for tech support. (Curiously, there are currently no bids for nerd.)
    • FYI: When you see Google or Yahoo ads on a web page, Google or Yahoo has scanned the page and identified key words and phrases. Google and Yahoo each has a massive storehouse of advertisements. Each advertisement is associated with some number of keywords and phrases selected by the advertisers. For each keyword selected, advertisers bid, that is, they indicate how much they're willing to pay for each click-thru resulting from that ad being displayed. Your bid, relative to others for the same keyword will determine the frequency and placement of your ad. Thus, the high keyword bid is a measure of the current economic value a key word of phrase.
  • Circuit City recently launched a new tech support service along the lines of Best Buy's Geek Squad. Circuit City has chosen to brand this service "Firedog."

Disclosure: I am not a geek, nerd, dork, doofus, techno-whore or other variation on this theme. I don't dress ridiculously, carry a badge and drive a themed car. I am a consultant that does tech support and tech strategy with Keystone Computer Group (an excellent company) in Metro DC. BTW, my brother-in-law owns and operates an excellent business in Omaha, NE called GetYourGeek.com.

For more information or for questions, call John Redmond at 240-486-6370 or email him at jredmond@keystoneisit.com. Keystone Computer Group is located at 4615 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22207.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Friends Don't Let Friends Print

Many of us are addicted to printing things off our computers, especially older folks. Who cares what it costs to have a hard copy of something rather than merely looking at it on a computer screen? So what if 99% of these printouts end up in the trash?

In some companies, the boss’ email is screened by his/her assistant, printed out and placed in the In box on the boss’ desk. A doctor often will dictate a letter, print it, sign it and fax or mail it to a patient or colleague. For many of us, an essential element of photos is handing them around to friends and family, putting them in albums or hanging them on the wall.

We prefer to read things printed on a piece of paper. We can make ourselves more comfortable; we don’t have to strain our eyes or neck to read it on the computer. We can underline and write comments in the margins. We can walk down the hall and show this thing we’ve printed out to a coworker. We can take a document into the toilet to read it.

Printing options and costs vary all over the map. There is the cost of the machine, the service contract and the costs of supplies to consider. Do you want to print in color? Do you want to share printers or let everyone have their own or both? Do you want to print photos and text or just text? Do you want laser or inkjet technology? Do you want to collate and staple? Do you want a printer that is also a scanner and fax? How big or small do you want the printer to be? How fast?

I don’t know what it costs you to print in your situation. I bet you don’t know either. Nobody I know tracks their costs, including the time costs of people dealing with supplies, printer problems, paper handling, etc., and calculates a fully loaded cost of printing. People would be amazed if they did.

How does $0.50 per page sound? If you have inexpensive color ink-jet printers, that’s not an unreasonable number. If you have a large, networked laser printer (B&W), your printing costs per page will be substantially lower, if you print a lot of pages.

Reducing your printing will not only improve your bottom line. Reducing paper will make your operation more efficient. You will no longer have to file reams of paper, and it will be much easier to find things when you need to. Business processes can move much more quickly, moving electrons instead of sheets of paper.

Because printing is a largely uncalculated and unmanaged cost in most organizations, it has become a cash cow for many in the computer business. Hewlett Packard, the market leader in printers and number 2 in PCs has a 15% profit margin on their printer business and a 3% margin in the PC business. HP’s sales of supplies such as ink and toner accounted for 59 percent of printer business sales. (See: http://www.ndpta.com/files/PCsBringProfitToHPBloomberg.htm ).

So remember, the next time a "friend" is bragging on you about the wonderful new printer they got, tell them to go away. Friends don't let friends print.