Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The connected executive: Tethering limits us

Mountain rescue teams express concern at ill-prepared groups entering the wilds with just a phone and no map or compass, unprepared for the technology to let them down when out of cell tower range. And incapable of independent thought.

As my daughter's team prepared for a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition over the weekend I became aware of a rule that they could only take one mobile phone, which had to be kept in a sealed bag for emergency use only.

I don't think a single expedition group kept to the rule: pressure came from kids who've grown up always connected, permanently entertained, able to deal with difficulty by withdrawing for a season into a world dominated by input from headphones and screen; or by making a Google search; or an SMS for an SOS.

But rebellion came, too, from parents - so used to the potential for contact at any time for any reason.

When the kids were small we let them toddle along in a harness, attached to us by reins: a deft flick of the wrist could keep them suspended before they fell and scraped a knee. Now as parents we give our kids more apparent freedom, but it's conditional on our ability to communicate wherever, whenever; and it's an illusory freedom. To some extent, we're chained to one another more completely than ever before.

Today's mobile communications technology extends the range with an invisible leash, but we're all used constantly to being able to summon driving directions, price comparisons or just the comfort that we're not missing out on a crucial status update...

Jeremy Bentham famously designed the 'Panopticon,' a prison where a single guard could peer in at random without the incarcerated knowing whether they're being watched. He described it as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example." For the most part, current technology appears less sinister than this: but to the extent that we're all so used to others being instantly available; to us receiving an instant response to each email, tweet or text; ... to that extent we're all chained to one another, living in a mutual Panopticon.

And this 24-7 connectedness extends to the work realm. In fact, the boundaries are blurring out of existence. The Economist's Babbage blogs that at 3am we all know exactly where our phone lies: within reach on the night stand. Some 30% of Europeans will check for incoming email in the small hours, and the figure rises to 60% in the work-focused Asia-Pacific cultures.

Many old-style managers adopt the position of Bentham's Panopticon guard, determined to ensure that work is being done through random observation. How wonderful for them that they can simultaneously cut office costs by letting staff work from home, hotel and coffee shops while keeping ever closer tabs on what employees do and when. And doing it regardless of geography and time.

Just as the invisible technological tether to our children extends our mutual dependency well into teenage years, so the tech attachment to colleagues can limit our independent creative thought, or the taking of responsibility for the decisions we must live by.

If Peter Drucker were writing today, he might title a piece on The Connected Executive, but would the executive be more effective?
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Monday, May 30, 2011

Making network shared folder security easy

Problem: Network Attached Storage (NAS) is great for keeping backup copies of vital data, or sharing files and folders between users. But how do you secure it, especially if (like me) you want access to your company server over the Internet, while keeping the bad guys out?

Solution: Use operating system capabilities to make your life easier. The options are pretty well hidden, but here's what worked for me:
  • Use the control panel software that comes with your NAS to secure a user's folder with a username and password combination. You can probably set a quota for how much disk space each user gets; and set up sharing groups so departments have shared storage; and more...

    NAS devices like the World Book Series II from Western Digital or similar devices from Iomega are aimed at the SoHo market, but are actually mini-servers. They probably run a version of Linux, but hopefully your supplier has hidden that complexity from you!

  • I'm using a Windows 7 Pro. computer to access the folders across my LAN. (There's a similar option within Windows Vista Pro.) Both the computer and the NAS are part of the same 'workgroup.' (We're not using the more complex Domain control.) These steps make life easy:
    • From the Windows Start menu, select Control Panel
    • Select User Accounts and Family Safety
    • Select Credential Manager
    • Under the option Windows Credentials select Add a Windows credential
    • Enter your NAS device name (e.g. \\Storage), Username and Password and OK
    • When you next re-boot, Windows will automatically authenticate you to the NAS
Outcome: This simple configuration step makes life so much easier - you just sign in to your computer with your Username and Password when it starts and, as soon as you're connected to your network, you have immediate access to all your private files and folders, without being interrupted with a request to verify who you are. Of course, the implication is that all your files and folders are immediately accessible to anyone who walks up to your un-attended PC so, if that matters to you, press the Windows key+L before you walk away!

What else?
  • Next, I use the Windows capability to synchronize offline files. This means that I can keep a copy of selected folders from the NAS on my own computer. I can work on the files, whether I'm connected to the LAN or not; and the files get synchronized together whenever the computer is back on the network. It's like having yet another copy of key information. I can work on those files from anywhere, even without a network connection, but they 'properly' belong on the LAN storage where the NAS keeps them secure.
  • The NAS has two large disk drives that automatically make a mirror copy of each other. And there is software on the computers that automatically makes a backup copy of crucial user files, over the LAN to NAS. Finally, I have a second NAS that I connect to the LAN from time to time and use the Microsoft RichCopy tool to mirror contents from the main NAS to the secondary one. Then the second NAS gets moved to off-site storage that we control in case of fire or theft at the main location. We keep similar off-site copies on encrypted Internet-accessible server storage space in the 'cloud.'
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Friday, May 27, 2011

Possible transformation with Big Data

Some fascinating statistics in the Schumpeter column from this week's edition of The Economist. The columnist is drawing on research from the McKinsey Global Institute that I also came across earlier this week.

Schumpeter writes:
  • In 2010 the world stored enough data to fill 60,000 Libraries of Congress. 
  • There are more than 4 billion mobile-phone users (12% of them smartphones).
  • YouTube claims to receive 24 hours of video every minute. 
  • Manufacturers have embedded 30m sensors into their products, converting passive objects into data-generating nodes in the internet of things. 
  • The number of smartphones is increasing by 20% a year and the number of sensors by 30%.
  • Tesco, a British retailer, collects 1.5 billion nuggets of data every month and uses them to adjust prices and promotions. 
  • Williams-Sonoma, an American retailer, uses its knowledge of its 60m customers (which includes such details as their income and the value of their houses) to produce different iterations of its catalogue. 
  • Amazon, an online retailer, has claimed that 30% of its sales are generated by its recommendation engine (“you may also like”).
  • The German Federal Labour Agency managed to cut its annual spending by €10 billion ($14 billion) over three years while also reducing the length of time people spent out of work.
  • MGI argues that the data deluge could create a new wave of productivity growth. Properly used, big data could save the American health-care system $300 billion a year and the European public sector €250 billion. It could also enable retailers to increase their operating margins by 60%.
With seemingly inescapable trends like these, it's intriguing to see the pressures on some of my clients: one company is able to produce a ranking of its most popular products - once every six months! I have a phrase, "It's an IT project - therefore it's all about people!" And we're seeing a culture shift as people consider the possibilities of a new way of working.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Making life easy for customers

We've been thinking this week about  how to make life easier for our customers. The bottom line, for us, is what I believe they call 'empathy' which I take to mean putting myself in another's shoes.

By thinking through the experience from the other's perspective, we hope to design what makes sense to a user rather than to the engineer who built it!

In practice, this means a number of things:

  • No one likes reading manuals, for anything. So we're recording bit-size, function-specific videos.
  • Engineers hate having to re-work stuff so our product design and implementation makes it easy to change the Help content without requiring any time or input from the engineers.
  • As business manager I hate anything that increases costs, so a solution that enables self-service and community support is great!
With strategies like these we can adopt and adapt to the increasing pace of change in the world while giving great service!

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Confusions around privacy

The British media is filled with news over this weekend about the 'stupid' laws that allow the wealthy and influential to obtain a 'super-injunction' to guard their privacy in public media outlets such as newpaper, radio and TV; while new media such as Twitter seem to get away with breaking/leaking news items with impunity...

In an update of the 'Streisand effect' one footballer's attempts to use legal force to extract information about Twitter users re-publishing information of his alleged affair, seems to have had the predictable outcome of raising the visibility of his situation with many who might not have known, or cared, before...

But, in other news (as they say), the Washington Post is warning that proposed data protection laws in India may be 'too strict for some US companies.' The article makes the point that requirements such as obtaining written consent from each customer before collecting and using personal data will make it hard to do business, as it's currently conceived where 'free services' are provided in return for user-submission of data for marketing purposes.

In reality, many providers of online cloud computing services now do so under terms that require users to accept that their data may be processed on computers outside their country of residence, and in particular outside the European Union where some of the world's strongest privacy regulations lie, at least nominally. This is necessary, not least because cloud computing providers (dominated by Amazon's EC2 service) are predominantly housed in the USA, home to some of the world's least well defined privacy laws.

It's a confusing situation, for service providers, service users and the ultimate service consumers.
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Data center thefts fuel cloud concerns

Thanks to @MarkDansie for drawing my attention to a further concern about storing our business data in the cloud:
  Should IT managers be concerned about DC security in the UK following theft at O2 yesterday 

I was already attuned to the need to protect against software intrusions: news of the recent loss of personal details of approaching 100m Sony Playstation Network users is a wake-up call to many businesses trusting their operational data to cloud computing.

But the article Mark referred to lists a catalogue of physical break-ins to data centres across the western world ... the resultant theft of hardware has brought major disruption to Vodafone and O2 cell phone networks; high profile and mundane web sites alike and more...

The bottom line is that we shouldn't trust all our eggs to any one basket. Just as I keep a spare PC in case my main one fails, and I have multiple copies of key files on various backup media, so we need a strategy for protection in case other parts of our infrastructure fail. Just because it's in the cloud, doesn't mean it can't fail!

We intentionally keep company blogs on platforms other than our main website: if the company website fails (which can happen for any number of reasons outside our control) then the blog will still operate so that we can communicate status updates to customers. That got put to the test last week when Blogger, host of our blog, itself failed! I never thought I'd see that day - but the company website was still up and running so our backup plan worked the other way around!

So, if you're using cloud computing for your customer relationship management data, great: but what's the backup plan in case your internet access fails (can staff work from coffee shops?); and what happens if your CRM hosting provider fails, perhaps because someone has stolen network equipment from one of their data centre hosting providers? Think through the scenarios before they happen and make appropriate plans!
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Anonymous user data

Increasingly it seems that users are concerned about the safety and privacy of their data stored online in "the cloud." The recent widely-publicised leak of name, address and possibly credit card details for around 100m users of Sony's Playstation Network is just the latest in a series of data breaches. Multi-national companies and governments on both sides of the Atlantic are just as vulnerable as small companies and individuals.

But what to do about it?

As a matter of principle, we have set out to put user data under user control, stored safely in an encrypted database that can be securely backed up. We let the user choose what to share, and with whom; and we know only the absolute number of users, not who they are - the link between their 200-digit UserID number and their real name is made only on their local machine...

Our goal is to make user data anonymous. But this is harder said than done and it's almost impossible to ensure that all user data is utterly anonymous. An article by Pete Warden asserts "Precisely because there are now so many different public datasets to cross-reference, any set of records with a non-trivial amount of information on someone's actions has a good chance of matching identifiable public records."

The idea is simply to map information in one set of data and to cross-reference it with other available information to form conclusions: The sort of activity that helped Allies win WWII when carried out in a military context, but now available to marketers and made easier by powerful computers able to crunch through increasingly large and public datasets.

So it may in practice be hard to ensure the anonymity of users. And does it really matter if others can work out that I'm a customer, say, of this company rather than that one - it's hardly life-threatening info!

The frustration is that users care in different contexts: on the one hand, I object if I can't get easy WiFi access to the Internet wherever I am; on the other hand, attempts by Apple and Google to crowd-source information about where those open access points lie (by gathering information through roaming users' hand sets) leads to a public outcry.

Nothing's new: we want to have cake and eat it! Perhaps the lesson for now is that ethics is firmly on the consumer agenda, even though the majority haven't studied or thought about moral philosophy! And the way users react to the products we build will depend in part on how we treat them, inform them and present what we've built to them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Questionnable productivity

How terribly hard it is to get any real work done as I try to move files from my old laptop to the new one; and get a clean backup of everything to the RAID Network Attached Storage in the process.

The thing is, I know that one day I'll be glad of the backup copies, if they work. That means I'll have to make time to test the Restore process also...

I can understand why most computer users just don't bother: it feels like I'm wasting days of my time, just watching files copy from one place to another. But I've been around computers long enough to know that trusting to good luck is not good enough. Sooner or later everyone loses something, for one cause or another. It's when that happens to me that I'll be glad I took time out now.

So how?
  • Software like Norton 360 comes with a limited amount of cloud-based storage, with more available on subscription. And there are cloud solutions such as DropBox, though they've got significant security concerns. And neither option gave me enough space for all my music, video and photos as well as the work files I want to keep secure...
  • Buy either an external hard drive that plugs into your PC via a USB cable; or, like me, a 'Network Attached Storage' device that sits on your network, plugged into the router. (Mine, from Western Digital, is configured as 'RAID 1' which means that it has two disk drives built in; and everything I store on one is automatically copied over to the other without me having to think about it. This means that, if one of those disk drives crashes, I should still have intact copies of everything on the other.)
  • Hopefully, your shiny new disk drive will come with some backup software; if not, there's always "Windows Backup" or some other alternatives you can buy online. Follow the instructions to set up your backup profile and be prepared to leave your computer running for a very long time the first time the backup process runs. It'll go a bit faster if you plug your computer in to the LAN with a cable and don't try to rely on WiFi connection, which is a fraction of the speed. If everything's running right then, depending on your software, it should just backup the files that have changed in future.
  • Another useful trick is to store the main copies of your documents, spreadsheets and other files in a folder on that Network Attached Storage. But recent versions of Windows give you a great option: in Vista (I'm now using Windows 7) I discovered a great option: with a simple right-click of the folder(s) on the Network Attached Storage device when viewed in Windows Explorer, I noticed the option "Always available offline" ... Select that option and Windows will automatically make a copy of the folder(s) and contents on your local machine. Each time you're connected to the network, Windows will synchronise the files with the folder(s) on the Network Attached Storage; but you can safely work on them when disconnected. You're effectively keeping a copy of your selected files on your local machine and the Network Storage, with the Windows operating system keeping everything in sync.
  • Yet another useful option: my Western Digital drive came with a copy and subscription to 'MioNet' - and it took only minutes to set it up. With a secure username and password I've found I can easily access my folders and files from a coffee shop WiFi network while travelling: it's like having my own private 'cloud' storage network, but a lot more private than something like DropBox!
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Monday, May 16, 2011

Ethics in business

I've had cause again this week to think of my early business training over seven years working for IBM in the UK. Before starting work all employees had to agree to work according to the company's ethical principles outlined in Business Conduct Guidelines; and we all had to sign to say we'd read them and would continue to abide by them regularly thereafter. I saw a quite senior manager lose his job when he was found to have operated against the Guideline principles.

One of the IBM principles that stood out and stuck with me was a quaintly-worded "don't disparage the competition." As I recall, it was something along the lines of "We won't sell IBM products and services by knocking those of our competitors."

That was in the 1980s and I don't see quite the same wording in Section 4 of the current edition of Business Conduct Guidelines. There, the company speaks of competing vigorously for business, but 'fairly' and 'ethically' and in compliance with applicable laws and IBM policies.

Last week there were revelations that Facebook has hired a PR firm to seek to tarnish the public reputation of rival Google. That's a good example of what I understood IBM's "don't disparage the competition" to mean. Faceboook doesn't claim to operate by ethical values and guidelines. And IBM's weaker wording of the Guidelines may mean their practice would now be OK at IBM also. But I just don't see how the Facebook actions can be good business.

Google famously claims to operate a motto of "Don't be evil." And it leads to conflicts - is it better to offer filtered Google Search to the Chinese, about 20% of the world population, than no Google Search at all? Originally the company thought so, then pulled out of mainland China operations...

I think the point is that in the last millennium business-at-any-cost ruled. In the movie Wall Street Gekko famously claimed, "Greed is good" and the iconic moment was picked up in the movie sequel and modified to "Greed is good - and now it appears it's legal." But consumers are increasingly bothered about this. It doesn't feel right, and consumers are willing to pay a little bit extra to work with companies that operate ethically, or in an eco-friendly way.

It seems to me that Facebook's aggressive PR will backfire. We don't like giving our business to companies that operate like that and I suspect that consumers will make a move, if they can, to a better alternative if one comes along. Facebook may have pointed a finger at Google, but in the process has pointed three back at itself.
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Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Do as you would be done by"

One of my favourite childhood books was Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies which had a couple of memorably puzzling characters including Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. I thought of them again as my own daughter is reading the book, and as I met a couple of business associates today:

  • In a local network of small businesses, redRockIT is typical in forming alliances and strengthening the company's offering by sub-contracting work and referring others. Mark Scarborough, the proprietor, explained to me how he'd brought in another company to recover a client's computer after a hard disk failure when the problem extended beyond his own company's capacity, for example. And how he's able to extend his geographical reach through alliances with other similar businesses who act under the same brand.

    It reminded me of a business model I used to be involved in where a dozen separately owned and managed businesses around the UK agreed to operate under the same branding and naming conventions, each with complementary specialities so that we could morph to meet client needs or scale to bring in additional staff to meet requirements.
  • At #LaptopFriday recently I mentioned that I'm looking for additional office space and quickly those present got to work, making suggestions of venues to consider and making personal recommendations.
  • Yesterday I was looking for a WiFi-equipped venue that offers food and seclusion within easy reach of certain junctions on the M4 motorway ... Within minutes of my appeal on Twitter I'd got some public and direct message responses with a list of places to consider.
  • In terms of my office space, there's a local business with excess capacity. They've got empty space sitting doing nothing but generate cost. I've been able to make an approach and suggest an arrangement that benefits both operations and spreads risk.
All of these are examples of what Wikipedia calls the ethic of reciprocity in action. The attitudes are those of a typical 'catalyst' (in the terms of The Starfish and the Spider) - someone who has the fundamental stance of 'How can I help you?' 

My experience is that those with this attitude experience success in life as well as in business, though not always when measured on the typical scale. But then most of us realise that 'whoever dies with the most toys' does not in fact win, even if day to day we forget that in our pursuit of materialism!
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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Issues of power lie behind expectations of privacy

I've been reflecting on the draft publication of research by danah boyd (sic) and Alice Marwick, two researchers from Microsoft, into Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies

Their suggestion is that teenagers still hold to a strong notion of privacy, but that they lack the power to enforce their expectations because 'Those who have power over them – their parents and the police – can use their power to violate teens’ norms, using accessibility as their justification' (p6). This last point about 'accessibility' is just simply the argument that because what's written on the Internet is essentially public information, those publishing it can have no expectation of privacy.

The suggestion from the research, though, is that teens still expect much of what they publish to be private - 'just because teens are socializing in a public setting doesn't mean that they want to be public figures' - but that the tools and systems available to them don't allow them to have granular control over what is published and to whom.

The problem, of course, is that the tools and systems available are made available free of charge simply because information is published in such a public form that it can be harvested to target advertising to fund the cost of servers and bandwidth.

Is there any alternative? Would users be prepared to pay directly for a service that offered them granular control over their privacy? Or would such a system only be the realm of criminals, paying for their use of the service with the stolen credit card details of those who pay for the use of more open alternatives by consuming advertising?
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Starfish and Spider reflections

Each time I re-read The Starfish and the Spider I gain new insights, often from seemingly throw-away comments that turn out to have profound implications. If you've not read the book, read the first chapter and buy it!

Explaining their metaphor, the authors note "If you cut off a spider's head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish's leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an early new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world."

There are links to some of my old blog posts on the key topics below. And here's a useful tool from the book. Analyze your organisation and see where on the scale of spider vs. starfish you fit:
Spider Starfish
Someone is in charge No one is in charge
Headquarters exist

There are no headquarters
Thump its head, then it dies

Thump its head, it survives
There's clear role division

Amorphous role division
Take out a unit, harm the whole

Take out a unit, there's no harm
Concentrated knowledge & power

Distributed knowledge & power
Organization is rigid

Organization is flexible
Organization funds the units

Units are self-funded
Can count the participants

Can not count the participants
Communicates through intermediaries

Direct communication between units


See also

Monday, May 9, 2011

Indexing the world's information

I've been reflecting on Kashmir Hill's article in Forbes about "Six Key Privacy Moments" in Steven Lev's 'biography' of Google In the Plex:
  1. Even Google executives can be unhappy with the information revealed about them in a Google search
  2. CEO Larry Page thinks there are greater privacy concerns people should react to
  3. Google face recognition exists, but is held back as being 'radioactive'
  4. Google's "Privacy Council" didn't see the hatred of Buzz coming
  5. Google's purchase of user-tracking DoubleClick enables it to track user activity "to every corner on the Web"
  6. The Wi-Spy WiFi tracking scandal was a Google privacy policy disaster
If you want more on the detail of these six, read Hill's article. For me, the important bottom line was the quotation on which her article ended: “There’s so much Google has in terms of information about people that they have to be super careful,” says Levy. “Any mistake they make gets amplified and seen in regards to all the other information they have.”

Google famously sets out to 'index [all] the world's information' and claims to hold a core value, 'Don't be evil.' Increasingly the company finds commercial pressure from rivals and internal ambition to tempt it to compromise on the latter in pursuit of the former.

Expect users, perhaps irrationally, to fixate on unexpected privacy concerns - Larry Page may be right that users fixate on the wrong concerns. Expect the market increasingly to demand re-gained control of information and genuine privacy assurances. But, these goals deeply conflict with the commercial realities that provide the services we all take for granted, 'free' of charge.

As we consistently argue, the services are not free; they come at the price of an almost Faustian pact, the cost of our privacy. Most of the time, we don't care about our privacy. But individuals do begin to care, under almost random and essentially unpredictable circumstances. By then it's probably too late.
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Friday, May 6, 2011

Too clever?

It's always a good idea in business to bring in more than you let out of the door! Recently I've been putting enthusiastic effort into business start-up on a budget. This week's experiences include:

  • Hiring in the services of an ex-BBC man to advise on the right way to capture video and edit it in the way we need to for the final cut, losing minimal quality along the way ... It's cheaper, and better, to buy in that expertise as we need it, but retain the core skills in-house so that we can produce material in a rush when necessary. That's not to say that we won't use professional media productions teams in future, but only when the scale of the projects warrant it.
  • My next task this week was renting additional office space to use as a video 'studio.' There's a lot of snobbery in business, aspiration to be using 'quality' materials to project something other than what you are. I'd love to have hired a plush room in the first impressive office building I saw. But that wasn't worth a premium of more than double what I'm paying for a less gorgeous space, but a space that no one other than me and my team will ever need to see.
  • We needed additional file storage space for the huge quantities of material that video and audio requires. We could have bought in expensive servers, but found that consumer-grade devices now include 'RAID"' disk-mirroring in a plug-and-play box that sits in a cupboard, and just works. Previously we've spent thousands identifying file server hardware, software, backup combinations - and the staff to set it all up. Now it's barely multiple hundreds to do the same thing.
  • This week, too, we've brought additional staff on to the project and need to expand the phone system to cope. Traditional land-lines have probably had their day; mobile calls internationally are too expensive; it has to be some variant of VOIP. But my telecoms supplier tells me he just can't compete with Skype, a proprietary VOIP technology.

    Here's where some of that snobbery can come in: it's tempting to hire-in the services of a human answering service company, or go for a higher-profile VOIP company. But our callers would never know we're using Skype! The phone 'clients' are free of charge for each staff member, and we can easily bring temporary staff on and off the project as needed. And we can use the 'PrettyMay Call Center' to produce full auto-attendant switchboard and voice mail capabilities...
This, though, is where I think I'm being a bit too clever: PrettyMay sits on a PC somewhere and I didn't really want to have a PC dedicated to that humming noisily in the corner of the office, dependent on us to keep the Internet access flowing. As we shortly need additional server capacity anyway, yesterday I contacted one of our hosting providers and within hours I had a brand new Windows Server 2008 machine at my disposal, on a monthly rental. Another few minutes and PrettyMay was installed and ready for its first test. Doh! It works, in that it answers the calls, but I'd forgotten that a cloud-based server isn't going to have a sound card in it; so the calls get answered in silence! 

I'm kicking myself for missing that one in my haste, but resigned to having to run a cheap PC dedicated to our voice switch facilities. It's still cheaper and easier than having a person sit there to do it.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cookie tracking kills privacy. Get used to it

Read Siobhain Butterworth in today's Guardian bit.ly/lNrFgE

Last week I changed Internet Explorer settings, to require my confirmation of cookies. That makes the Internet experience slow and frustrating to the point of unusability so I absolutely do not recommend it. But for me it was a (temporary) and useful experiment and a shocking revelation of just how impossible it is to visit any modern website without many, many statistics about your visit and browsing history being compiled and stored.

But the choice is stark: there really is no alternative but to accept the tracking. The alternative effectively means a loss of service usefulness.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Basic business challenges

It can't be a surprise that the business environment is especially tough in most industries in many economies.

Last night I enjoyed watching the BBC's latest edition of "Britain's Next Big Thing" (It's so much more positive, encouraging, practical and informative than the gladiatorial Dragons' Den). I'm sympathetic to the enthusiasm that causes entrepreneurs to invest money as well as time in their projects; but mystified as to why you'd build up large quantities of inventory (stock) without having firm orders to turn the goods into cash quickly...

I'm about to view possible additional office venues: the space will be nice, but we've held off on any decision until the lack of facilities has begun to hamper business operations. It's still not a given that we'll commit to additional rent unless we can be convinced that what we spend will add positively to the bottom line in short order.

It's the same with staff: common sense says to hire if the person will save more or make more than they cost and/or if hiring can help to meet a strategic goal. For that reason, we prefer to buy-in services as they're needed until it becomes definitively cheaper to add a cost that's almost fixed.

Basic stuff, but easy to miss in the enthusiasm of expansion.
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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Clouding over? No. Absolutely not. Not yet.

Yet more bad news for the 'cloud computing' marketplace today as Sony warns that a further 25 million gaming users may have had their details hacked, in addition to the 77 million last week!

As a reminder, names, home addresses, e-mail addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers and gender information were taken and most people find that shocking and scary. Last week there were reports that un-encrypted credit card information was also stolen.

And this comes hot on the heels of Amazon's very embarrassing failure of its cloud data centre hosting which brought a number of high-profile web services such as Foursquare down, too. The Economist is far from alone in warning businesses of the hidden costs of cloud computing that must be factored in to the headline cost reductions that make the services seem so attractive in the first place.

Further, last week also saw concerns about unexplained location tracking being compiled automatically by Apple and Google through the use of their iPhone and Android devices. The brouhaha was sufficient to drag Steve Jobs briefly out of medical leave to try to calm anxieties...

Meanwhile, TomTom (makers of SatNav GPS devices) has admitted selling data to police who then know where to lay speed traps!

Does this mean that cloud computing is over? Not likely, at least not yet. But expect users increasingly to demand strong encryption of their data by service providers; expect end users increasingly to want to control access to their own information; and expect businesses to be suspicious of the risks of putting all of their business eggs into someone else's basket held up by clouds.

There remain just three options, for most of us:

  1. Learn how to use the technology and take the risks associated
  2. Don't bother to learn how to use the technology; expect the risk level to be increased
  3. Don't use the technology, but be aware that your 'invisibility' will cause disadvantageous conclusions to be drawn about you anyway

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