Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Information Management - the quart and the pint pot

Well, here I am! This first post on the Freeform blog has been a long time coming, not least because I first wanted to tell everyone in my address book about the move, and I then found myself face to face with a mountain of email conversations with old colleagues. Very enjoyable, but a mountain nonetheless.

It is with a strong sense of irony, then, that I can report my new focus area is to be information management. Dealing with email is just one aspect of this: consistently in research, we have found that timely access to the right information is one of the biggest challenges faced by organisations today - the most recent proof point was in our December study on risk management and how it relates to information. While I was working with my friends at Macehiter Ward-Dutton (as I will, incidentally, continue to do) I spent some time struggling with exactly what was meant by “information management”, as it is a term that seems to be overloaded by every vendor with its own agenda to push. However, if we turn things around and look from the business perspective, the definition becomes very simple.

Business people want to be able to get to the information they need to do their jobs. It’s such a basic thing to say that it appears almost trite; the paradox then, it that it remains an unsolved issue in many organisations. Perhaps we can lay the blame at the door of the sheer growth in information sources, and the ease at which technologies enable us to generate new pockets of data, be they emails, database records, online videos or anything else. It is perhaps only over the last couple of years that the issue has reached its tipping point, with the conjunction of simplicity of information generation with business dependency on email and online data sources.

All that is speculation, but the fact remains that it is only by treating information of all kinds in the round, that organisations will be able to get on top of the issue. I’m not going to debate the differences between technology types, many of which are largely the invention of marketing departments, and which leave many organisations in the dark as to their purpose. Sure, we need records management and retention management, archiving, backup and continuous data protection, document and content management, lifecycle management and virtualisation – but most importantly we need a big picture of information assets, and we need confidence that we can get to what we need, when we need it.

The other facet, is of course, information security – and we are seeing plenty of organisations trying to square the circle of how their information can be accessed adequately, while keeping it away from prying eyes. Vendors as well are tussling with the issues, as illustrated by the Symantec/Veritas tie-up, say, or EMC's acquisition of RSA. It’s a big problem, and one which I’m delighted to be focusing on as it means I can give it the intention it deserves. I shall keep a watching brief on other areas, not least IT service management which has been my focus area up to now – but I am sure that information management will be more than enough to be going on with.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Third party security for Windows Vista

Having attended the Microsoft developer launch of Vista and Office 2007 on Friday I was interested to find out what I might need to do to upgrade my main home computer to run the new OS.

I ran the upgrade test utility, but I can’t tell you the result because of the terms of the EULA; but having done that I wondered what I might chose to do regarding my security software. I’m a McAfee user, but strangely enough could find nothing on McAfee’s site or the Internet by way of a definitive statement about support for Vista.

I mean, I assume it’ll work, or will be made to work, but it would certainly be nice if McAfee would come right out and say so. I know that there were grumblings along the “fox guarding the henhouse” back in October, but I’m not sure that I care about a bunch of people arguing when all I want is some copper bottomed protection for my PC.

Symantec, on the other hand, have come out and said that they’ll support it, but I’m still cross with them for leaving me in the lurch when I upgraded my MAC to OSX Tiger. Sophos, CA and others say I don’t need to worry on the AV front, except I’ve never used them.

McAfee know who I am, why don’t they reach out to me, take me by the hand, and help me safely navigate to Vista? Otherwise I might end up using Microsoft’s tools plus others from different third party vendors.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When marketing is a dirty word

One of the directors of the advertising agency WPP once mocked some companies with the quote “we have nothing to say, so we’ll sing it instead”. It’s laudable that companies love their products so much that it translates into a desire to draw attention at all costs, but often it passes hyperbolae and becomes self-defeating.

When your name is on a distribution list in this business you get subjected to a range of press releases. Most of the time they are data points in the evolution of a company and its relationships. Not particularly interesting to an analyst, but acceptable as the heartbeat of the industry.

Occasionally you get one that really catches the eye, but for the wrong reasons. A case in point being one that arrived this week trumpeting the vendor’s joining of one of the myriad forum/associations that exist out there. The wording really caught my eye: “X announced today that it is joining the Y Forum, bringing welcome news to the fast-growing ….community”. I can only hope that their PR agency tried (unsuccessfully) to dissuade them from wasting everyone’s time with language of this type. As if rival or complimentary vendors, let alone press and analysts, are spending sleepless nights worried about when vendor X was going to generously come to our rescue.

Unfortunately, some of this self-centred approach can get into the overall marketing of companies, which I find particularly frustrating when doing desk research on a subject area. I fail to understand why successful companies make it so difficult to tell you exactly how their product works. You can wade through pages of marketing fluff, downloading whitepapers that are in fact monochrome sales collateral, without getting any closer to the core value proposition on offer, and the defensible intellectual property on which it is built.

Making your prospects see through a glass darkly is not the way to win customers, and it’s not very helpful to those of us who are trying to tease out the differences of approach and to frame them for the customer in order to help their decision making. I’ve always believed you should be able to write things in crayon to make them clear; Jon Collins likes the quote from Denzel Washington’s character in Philadelphia “explain to me like I am a four year old, OK?” Being clear is not the same as being patronising.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Back to school note. learning to read Office 2007 files

In the past a new version of Microsoft office could result in a forced upgrade of many systems, because with the new release of the product came a new proprietary binary file format that couldn’t be read by earlier versions of office. Early adopters would author files in the new format and send them on to others who had to upgrade in order to open them.

With Office 2007, Microsoft is changing again, this time to an XML-based file format, but to avoid forcing upgrades it’s sportingly making a compatibility pack available for the last two iterations of office so that the new files can be read. When you go to open a file saved in the new format, you are prompted to see if you want the pack to help you open the file.

So this is a good thing, and the cynics should maybe acknowledge the fact.

The area that concerns me a bit is the size of the compatibility pack. 27.1 Megabytes, which gets you everything you could possibly need across the office suite.

In the consumer market, where Microsoft has been working to get Office onto home networks with the Student and Teacher edition, for these users, many of whom may still be on dial up, and for anyone on a limited broadband tariff, that’s a potential problem.

It would be nice if Microsoft could find a way to allow people to chose smaller compatibility sections to download, and to help them do this. I would imagine that the majority of documents would be created in word and would not include many advanced features. Even better if a utility was available, possibly as an active X plugin that allowed an attachment to be tested to see how much of a compatibility pack was needed and just pull in the bits that were required at the time.

Another alternative for files found from within a browser would be to set up a proxy service that would convert any public domain document and forward it on in the down-converted form to the requester.

Meanwhile, I look forward to getting some user reaction from the re-designed user interface.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

iPhone - What's in a name

No sooner has Apple launched the “iPhone” than it gets sued by Cisco over the name.

The story’s actually more interesting than that, Cisco’s Linksys division recently launched some wireless Skype phones under the iPhone name, so there’s no chance that Apple hadn’t noticed this. This fact is confirmed by quotes from a Cisco spokesman regarding the mark which you can read here http://news.com.com/Finally,+Apple+answers+call+for+iPhone/2100-1041_3-6148392.html. So, either Apple just couldn’t get the paperwork done in time for the keynote, or it decided take on Cisco’s ownership of the trademark. Either explanation is somewhat extraordinary.

To think that Apple has a case for ownership of the trademark it would have to argue that Cisco’s use of the iPhone name is likely to confuse people, or that any tech produce preceded by the letter i belongs to it. If that is the case, to have any chance Apple should have gone on the record at the time of Cisco’s launch, especially given its aggressive stance in defending what it sees as its own property, for example chasing Microsoft over the Windows look and feel, the Beatles and the hapless owner of itunes.co.uk.

If Apple is arguing that there is no confusion between its iPhone and a product called iPhone from Cisco, because the latter is a WiFi enabled telephony device carrying voice over the Internet Protocol and the Apple product is revolutionary mobile phone, iPod and breakthrough internet communications device, well I'm not sure that US trademark legislation has quite got that level of refinement in its definintion which records the iPhone trademark as "computer hardware and software for providing integrated telephone communication with computerized global information networks".

Of course we don’t know what Cisco’s licensing terms were, perhaps they were just too onerous, but then it was clearly a sellers market, so you can’t really blame them.

At the end of the day, the phone looks like a killer product, so you could call it almost anything, and I'd still crawl over broken glass to get one.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Apple iPhone - a shot in the arm for the mobile industry?

There is a good analysis from Robin Bloor of Apple’s iPhone announcement here.

It is interesting that in a world where the word “open” is so widely used, it is Apple’s end-to-end proprietary solutions that seem to be delivering what people want. This is very similar to the RIM phenomenon in the early business email market, though I agree with Robin that the Apple iPhone is potentially going to impact and disrupt at a whole new level.

About time too – the mobile telecom industry needs something like this to drag it away from its historical baggage. By contrast, Microsoft’s big mistake was to fall into line and use the traditional models and form factors as a starting point for its Windows mobile offerings, and I am sure a big part of this was because the folks there perceived a need to “fit in” with accepted wisdom amongst the operators.

I remember giving a presentation to a bunch of guys within one particular mobile operator back in 2000 which contrasted the highly segmented lifestyle/image centric activities of the consumer electronics players with the utility approach of the telecom industry. This was met with a lot of blank faces. Since then, handset vendors and operators have woken up to the difference, but just like Microsoft, they have anchored their thinking in traditional solutions rather than looking at the same thing from a completely different angle, as Apple has been doing so well in recent years.

Those out there who know my views will be aware that I am still a bit suspicious of the notion that it will be possible to produce a single “swiss army” device that does everything someone needs in terms of communication and entertainment, but I have to admit that Apple is getting frighteningly close with this announcement, at least for some segments of the market.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Buy once or many?

This morning I watched an interesting program, a Discovery Channel feature on the history of the iPod. As the world (or some of it) waits for Steve Jobs’ keynote at Macworld in San Francisco, it’s interesting to reflect on the change that Apple’s wrought in the delivery of digital content.

One of the key points brought out is that Apple understood that when you buy music you own it, and therefore buying a song in perpetuity is more natural to people than paying a subscription to have access to a song which goes away when the subscription stops (like the gym membership many people buy after Christmas).

For me the next issue to be worked out is a challenge to the conceit that you should pay for the same content running on different platforms (MP3, ring tone etc), if Apple launches a phone, I wonder if you’ll be able to have content that you own as your ring tone without paying extra for it? If not, no doubt there’ll be a new section on the iTunes store to buy them.

And on the subject of ownership and conceit, I’d like to know why DreamWorks expects me to sit through a preview of Madagascar every time I watch my Shrek 2 DVD. I thought I bought the film, not an advertising opportunity. The compulsory part at the beginning of a DVD was no doubt put there for copyright notices and “don’t pirate” shorts, using it to pimp follow up movies is a total abuse of me as a consumer, you’ve got my £15, now leave me alone!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Some stuff just works, other stuff doesn't

There was a time when I was into messing around with technology. I would actually enjoy spending hours trying to get different combinations of hardware and software working in the face of conflicts, bugs and undocumented “features”, and get a big sense of achievement when it all came together, especially if I had to invent a really creative workaround along the way.

Nowadays, while I still like playing with technology, I would prefer that stuff just worked, and have become pretty intolerant of supposedly mainstream ready technology that doesn’t deliver at least a basic level of usability and stability. And there is really no defence when one product clearly does something elegantly and effectively, while another makes the same thing seem really complicated and unpredictable.

One experience I had a few months ago illustrates the point. During a revamp of our small office infrastructure, I wanted to set up some fault tolerant network attached storage. Off I went to the local dealer, who promptly sold me a Netgear SC101 – neat little box that looks a bit like a toaster with an Ethernet port and two slots into which a pair of standard hard disks (of your choice) can be installed and mirrored. Just the job, I thought.

Two weeks of mucking about then ensued while I tried to get this thing working, which involved updating firmware, installing proprietary software on each of the 6 PCs on the network, then spending hours troubleshooting trying to figure out why some PCs could see both installed disks, some just one and others neither. Along the way, the mirroring set up on one of the logical drives broke, and proved impossible to reinstate. A few Google searches then revealed the adventures of many other users who had experienced similar problems (and others) with the equipment and proudly presented their workarounds, in full technical detail.

My reaction – trash the SC101 and look for an alternative, on the basis that we needed a solution and have much better ways of spending our time.

Fortunately, my pal Jon Collins had recently been evaluating an Iomega StorCenter 500Gb NAS unit that could be configured as a mirrored device (which was our requirement) and came out of the box supporting Windows networks, and he seemed to rate it quite highly. So I bought one, powered it up, told it I wanted it configured with a fault tolerant mirrored setup via a no fuss little utility, and it just worked. Every PC saw it immediately and within 15-20 minutes, we had a secured trouble-free NAS box on the network. I wish I could tell about all kinds of neat features of the Iomega “brick”, as we affectionately call it, but I can’t, because since installing it, I just haven’t had to think about it again, which in my book is the best praise I can give to piece of kit like this.

Unfortunately though, there are lots of examples of hardware, gadgets and software aimed at non-technical people that drag them into technical complexities unnecessarily through either poor design or premature release. Most PC security software vendors should be ashamed of themselves for lack of empathy with the non-technical user (or even the technical one, for that matter), and I have yet to buy a TV card for a PC that just works. One of the most amusing pieces of repackaging I saw from a local dealer was from someone who put a sticker on each Hauppauge TV card box in his shop saying “On no account try to install the software provided on the CD in this box”. The note went on to direct customers to the Website to download the latest drivers and utilities that actually worked.

As someone who has tracked the mobile industry for the last 6 years, I have also despaired on many occasions at how gadgets seemingly designed for techies by techies then end up in mainstream consumer land. Someone recently came to visit who wanted to set up their brand new Dell Windows PDA to access our WiFi network and it brought back all of the memories of trying random responses to questions about whether a particular adapter connects to my work network or the internet. Why is this still so complicated? I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who can actually remember how to configure these things when they don’t just discover and hook onto a network as they are supposed to – you either follow a crib sheet blindly or just apply the principle of trial and error.

On the subject of mobile devices, though, one piece of kit that really impressed me lately is the Garmin nuvi 310 Delux satellite navigation system. Pretty much everything about it just does the job it’s supposed to, from the route finding and guiding functions, all highly intuitive, to operation as a Bluetooth hands-free kit for my mobile – something I thought would probably be a bit of a gimmick, but actually works very well. I paired the two devices, my address book was downloaded from the phone, and I was able to use the big button Garmin touch screen to find and dial contacts, answer and manage calls, straight away, with absolutely no set up hassles.

A product that I’d also like to mention because I think it is a great effort is Vodafone’s new HSDPA USB modem. The idea is you take it out of the packaging, plug it in, and it self-installs from software held on the device itself, getting you connected on “wireless broadband” with two or three mouse clicks in literally less than 4 minutes. This worked a treat on my Sony notebook (very impressive experience), but when we tried it on an HP machine, while the device self-installed OK, the dashboard software that came up insisted no modem was connected. Luckily, Vodafone tech support helped us with a workaround and we were able to get onto the network by configuring a manual dial-up connection.

The point is, though, that it’s all a bit of a lottery, and a couple of announcements over the past few months here in the UK suggests that it’s not just me that struggles with some of the technology that turns up in the High Street or local dealers. Following DSG Retail Ltd (aka the Dixon’s group) setting up a general purpose technical support service, so anyone having problems with any piece of electronic equipment can call for assistance, we have started to see others following suit, obviously coming to the same conclusion that the complexity, usability and integration challenges inflicted on us by the tech industry represent a significant money making opportunity.

Such services are obviously aimed at consumers, but back in small business land, most of us little guys don’t have the luxury of dedicating IT resource to installing, running and supporting IT systems either, so end up battling with technology during evenings and weekends rather than interfering with our “day jobs”. It’s then you discover the astonishingly high number of technical support functions from suppliers who clearly aim products at the SOHO market shutting down at 5 or 6pm on weekdays and not being open at all on weekends!

So, for 2007, I am implementing a new rule. Whenever I buy some piece of kit or software, I will give myself one hour max to install it and get it up and running. If I cannot do it in this time, it goes right back to the supplier.

In the meantime, I have a plea to technology vendors. Please spend more time designing user interfaces and installation tools that hide unnecessary technical details and complexity from the user as much as possible. Then bloody well test them, in the most common scenarios at least, and don’t release the product until it all just works!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Greening IT

I had a though provoking brunch before Christmas, hosted by blade.org, a creature of IBM that’s working to create some open interfaces to its blade servers to encourage an “ecosystem” of complementary vendors.

The pitch for the event included a discussion about the burnishing of green credentials that companies can enjoy by virtualising the data centre and reducing power consumption. There’s no doubt that this is a real win-win: data centre power consumption goes down, utility bills are reduced and equipment suppliers get to sell more kit. In California the local utility, PG&E is actually offering financial incentives to data centres that virtualise, and is actively promoting the story. This is in part because the rapid expansion in the state is putting huge demands on a generating system, while at the same time it’s getting harder to find the money and political will to build new power stations.

So while we were having the discussion I started to wonder what could undo all of this good work, and my mind went back to my days as a seller of network interface cards. When you’re selling something that goes on every desktop, if you deliver an incremental benefit, then when you add up the distributed advantage, it can get quite large. This could be productivity for example, or possibly in the bad old days of limited DOS memory, more applications running.

That got me wondering on the average desktop energy footprint. Just like my old token ring cards could speed up a company one desktop at a time, typical user behaviour might be warming the planet.

Once you start looking it’s hard not to find culprits. For example, how many people leave their desktop PC on all day, even when not using it for a couple of hours? I had such bad experiences with using standby on a laptop that I would never consider it for my desktop system, and I would never risk the “hibernate” option (press the shift key after “start” and “shut down computer”). I now have a wireless network in my home, that’s on 24 hours a day, and the box generates a lot of heat, as does my broadband modem. The UK now has 9.5 million broadband users according to the OECD.

What about Windows Vista? It’s going to have a sleep mode that works via the power switch, but who knows if anyone will use it. Fortunately group policy will allow control of this and other features by network administrators, although there may be problems associated with particular applications that don’t take kindly to blanket power policy decisions. On the downside, just taking the most basic data point, that Vista will require 1Gigabyte of RAM versus 512K for Windows XP, that’s about an extra 20W of power. Looking at VMWare’s site http://www.vmware.com/news/releases/pge.html and using the figure of $600 saved per server removed at California’s rate of about 10C per KWH, you end up with a figure of 700W per server. So, the benefit that PG&E pays for of removing the server is wiped out by about 30 desktops getting a memory upgrade to run Windows Vista.

My point in this is that careful management of desktop power consumption is the most effective way to reduce company energy bills and requires just as much planning as virtualising the data centre to deliver a credible green story, and that there’s a broader picture regarding home energy use with the proliferation of new types of electronic appliances.

Virtualising the data centre makes good business sense, and has a green benefit, but the IT community shouldn’t kid itself that this on its own is going to help save the world.