Friday, November 30, 2012

Which house would you live in?

I re-discovered a wonderful analogy from The Economist's 'Babbage' column dating to 2011:

  1. Would you like to live in a gated community where you show your passport or driving licence to a security guard who then walks you to your home and lets you in through the front door?
  2. Or would you rather live in a gated community where you get to choose your own door lock and key; with the risk that you might lose your key and not be able to get in?
The first is like Dropbox, and pretty much every cloud-based data storage service from major players like Microsoft, Apple, Google and more. And it's like your Facebook account and, probably, your photo storage site. And so on.

Even before reading that last paragraph, most of us instinctively would choose the second option. But that's not what we do in practice! In reality, we know that there's normally a fall-back if we do in fact lose our key to the house: maybe we've left a window open, or the back door unlocked. If worst comes, we can always smash a door down or break the glass in a window to get back in before changing the locks and getting new keys cut...

In the computer world, we don't have that convenience. If we set our own keys to the computers we use and the data we store then we have a major difficulty if we forget what we chose and didn't risk the compromise to security by writing down a back-up copy somewhere. 

Last weekend I re-visited an old laptop that I'd not used for a year, intending to refurbish it for my daughter. It was only as I powered it on that I realised that I had no clue what password I'd used for it. Once so familiar because I was logging in to that machine most days, now the letters, numbers and symbols seemed to have evaporated from my brain. What might have been 'just' a catch-up on all the software updates since I last used the machine turned into a much bigger re-build job!

So, let's ask again, which community would you live in? In practice, judging by the user numbers, almost everyone chooses the first kind. We have a naive trust in the companies that supply our computing convenience; and we're not prepared to bear the cost of keeping our own keys safe.

How can we build a better solution? How can we combine the convenience of option 1 and the privacy of option 2?
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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Private browsing vs iCloud Tabs convenience trade-off (iCloud Tabs)

"Private browsing" sounds like a good thing, right? You don't have to be surfing for bad stuff, just have a reasonable wish for less profiling of your interests with the associated targeted advertising.

In iOS 6 on iPhone and iPad you can enter the Settings area; find the Safari section; and turn Private Browsing to 'On.' In OS X Mountain Lion open Safari and select "Private Browsing..." from the Safari menu.

But wait, the Safari browser on iPad and in OS X Mountain Lion has a cute cloud button a little to the left of the browser's address bar. (Get to the the iCloud Tabs section on your iPhone from within the Bookmarks button at the bottom of the Safari browser.) This great feature will let you see the browser tabs open on your other devices.

Find a great article on the iPhone; and continue reading on the bigger screen of the iPad or Mac.

The trouble is, you can't have both Private Browsing and iCloud Tabs. It feels a little counter-intuitive as I'm often sitting with the iPhone and iPad or Mac within sight and reach of each other.  But for iCloud Tabs to work, every web page I open is sync'd via Apple's servers, not directly between my devices. So my browsing is no longer 'Private' because Apple's iCloud servers are storing my browsing patterns, at least for as long as the tabs are open, and for who knows how much longer after that?

If the UK Communications Data Bill comes into force then all of this, along with an awful lot more, will be stored by law and available easily to a very wide range of organisations. Hmmm
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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SharePoint 2013 - Hunting for the business case

I had a good time yesterday at a briefing on SharePoint 2013 hosted at Microsoft' UK campus. The presentation concentrated on the following new features:
  • Social - (My site), including the giving of points to build "reputation" awarded for comments and contributions.
  • Search speed improvements - Continuous crawling
  • Document management - Drag and drop files from PC desktop into a library, across browsers (not just IE). And sync docs with SharePoint using cloud-based SkyDrive Pro.
  • Web content management - Design manager gives a branded veneer over SharePoint and there's Channel support for mobile and other devices (though it took the partner company presenting 6-8 weeks to implement for PC, phone, iPad, tablet!)
  • Apps - There's another Microsoft App Store, for plugins to SharePoint. This'll prove useful especially for larger organisations with in house development teams.
  • Shredded storage minimises disk demands
So those were the "major" new points I noted: nothing big regarding workflow, Lists, business intelligence reporting...

Given the half hour sales pitch from a company offering 2003/2007/2010 to 2013 migration services, I was left wondering where the business case for the upgrade lies? How do I sell the cost of doing this to a finance or senior business manager?

There's got to be something of more substance than merely declaring this to be the "latest and greatest" ad one of the PowerPoint slides did.

I'm going hunting for that business case...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy #Thanksgiving

Today is America's Thanksgiving Day holiday. Having lived there for a few years we grew to appreciate the helpful significance of this day along with our many American friends who consistently astonished us with their warm and open hospitality. Our very first Christmas saw friends spontaneously run round and jump with us into our hot tub on Christmas morning, knowing that we were missing family back home; others invited us to dinner in their home each Christmas or Thanksgiving and we were made truly welcome.

It was through these experiences that we learned some of the practical and helpful significance of pausing on the third Thursday in November and taking a day of Thanksgiving.

For many it's an excuse to eat too much; but in the midst of that it's good to focus on what we have rather than, as so often, on what we're lacking.

Today, I'm taking those practices into business as well as my personal life: focusing on what's good and not what I think I want.
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Friday, November 16, 2012

So when can I have that?!

We had fab feedback yesterday from a customer who is field-testing some of our new technology. She was able to replace paper and work effectively away from her office, sharing data with colleagues back at the base.

Two things encouraged me:

  1. She immediately wants to extend what we did; with more capabilities and in more areas of her business

  2. She says that a colleague who saw what she was doing immediately reacted with, "When can I get to do that?

These are encouraging signs that our development is on the right track and a spur to keep pushing through the technical barriers.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Questions over cloud word processor privacy

I sometimes use Apple's Pages software which makes good use of their iCloud facility to sync documents between devices. And I understand the new Microsoft Word 2013 has a big emphasis on cloud storage too.

My question is around the privacy of my text:

  • I open a document in, say, Pages and edit away.

  • When I come to close Pages the software invites me to keep my document or to delete it from iCloud storage.

Does that mean my text has already left my computer and been sent to Apple iCloud? If so, how can I be certain that when I delete it that it's not just my access to it that gets deleted and that it's not still out there lurking on some disk space somewhere, out of my control?

To be clear, I'm not dealing with anything that sensitive; I'm just wondering how private my business planning documents can be if I use cloud-enabled applications on my own PC. Naturally, I have no expectation of privacy if I use something wholly cloud-based like Google Docs; but it seems that I might no longer have that expectation of privacy if I use something that runs on my own computer, but is cloud-enabled.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Automating across the supply chain

Well, this could be game-changing. A new (internal) release of our software overnight brings some new capabilities that have made me very productive today.

From the train while travelling I was able remotely to build the back-end database and workflow system that I need.

Then I was able to replicate part of a key business process for one customer and for their customer so that documents will flow between companies in an automated fashion, taking time, cost and errors out of the equation.

Astonishing what we can achieve so quickly and I can't wait to roll it out to the client so they start to get the benefits.
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Monday, November 12, 2012

iPad development anguish

One of the challenges with developing application software is deciding when we have done enough. The reality is that we've never really done all that we could do, and rarely have we achieved all that we want to do. The temptation is always to be doing a little bit more...

I often characterise this with the word "just:" either I, or a customer,will use words to the effect of, "This is great, but can we just also..." As my programmer colleagues know, "just" often involves quite a lot of additional time, effort and careful thought to make sure we have covered all the angles.

So right now we are coming close to one of these decision points. I very much want to get the next version of the software out and into customer hands. But it's so very tempting to "just" add in a couple more major features that will really add value and distinguish us from competitor products.

This week will bring the decision about what to do .

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Geo-patterning game, anyone? We've got our ducks in a row

Now all four of us have an iPhone we've begun to use the free 'Find my Friends' app.

  • It's really comforting to know our daughter's arrived home or at school.
  • It's really useful to arrange a pick-up when someone's coming home on public transport and needs collecting from a station.
  • It was great (if a little freaky) to get a call from my sister in New York as I walked in front of Buckingham Palace to tell me that my nieces were nearby and could we meet?!

However, we've discovered a new game: we're calling it geo-patterning. Here, for example, is a shot of all four of us yesterday. My wife called it "Ducks in a row."

What other patterns can we and our friends make across the UK landscape?!
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Going all in

It was just great to spend time with one of our clients yesterday. We made a few changes and trained them in our new technology.

Then, later in the day, I got a message: "Perfect - thanks for your time today. Is all looking really powerful which is great. And fine re: switching off [the previous solution], happy to go all in with Starfish at this point!"

And I spent this morning setting up a system for another new client who is excited to use our technology.

They'll get direct cost savings, significant improvements in speed and a drop in errors and lower costs of keying information together with a massive competitive edge. Who wouldn't want all that?!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - Rapid application development

This morning I found myself chatting with a customer. They were looking for a way to help their customer who has a problem with asset tracking: computers, printers and other equipment get installed on site then end users apparently pick them up and move them around to other offices, and even different locations. So far as the IT director is concerned it is tantamount to theft!

Within minutes, we'd begun brainstorming a way to capture and track information about these assets. A few minutes later we'd used our software to build a solution. Within an hour we'd got the whole thing working, from scanning a tracking number attached to a device with an iPad or similar; storing the GPS location along with date and other details; and submitting it all to a SharePoint List ... And it only took an hour because we also took the opportunity to teach a new colleague how to do all this.

So my customer colleague is taking this to their client tomorrow. Back in my office I was able to continue to make a couple of tweaks remotely and I know from personal experience we can even do this sort of thing while travelling on the train to London.

It's an astonishingly productive way of working; and I can't wait to produce the cost-benefit analysis!

Friday, November 2, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - Develop and deploy while travelling

Yesterday I had a really successful trip to London on UK public transport. Well, 'successful' apart from the reflection that it should be illegal to sell unlimited phone talk plans to people who get bored while travelling!

As we pulled out of town very early in the morning I plugged into onboard power and switched on my iPad, tethering it to the mobile data connection of the iPhone.

As we swept through the Cotswold countryside I was able to sign up for a Microsoft Office 365 trial account. This gives my customer a complete, hosted, back-end solution with many, many features; though all we're really interested in right now are the document storage and collaboration features of SharePoint.

Then, I fired up our app on the iPad to drag data fields on to the page and connect them to SharePoint.

Before we arrived in London I'd got a working solution and a happy customer. And not a line of code to write! :)
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