Saturday, May 31, 2008

One possible future for mobile computing

Before I got my smart phone I used a Palm Life Drive as my PDA. One neat feature was the wireless folding keyboard that let me work on documents without taking my laptop on the road.

The Life Drive was about the same size and weight as the I-phone which does everything my PDA did and a lot more. The I-phone coupled with applications over the internet and a bluetooth connected keyboard and mouse could replace the larger and heavier laptop for some mobil computing uses.

How about this:

The phone has at least 10 Gig of memory, a wireless link to your server and the internet, a bluetooth link to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. When you get to work, you just touch the “work link” icon on the screen and automatically connect to the peripherals and your office network. When your done for the day you log out and take your phone home with you. At home, you touch the “home link” icon and you have access to all the files on your device and your home peripherals.

For people on the go, a folding keyboard and mini-mouse would allow you to use the small screen until they finally perfect the roll up flat screen. True mobile computing without having to carry a comparatively huge laptop.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tech Support

I just had my first problem with my MacBook. I couldn’t send emial. I could receive but not send.

Step one was to look at the support page at Apple and after stepping through that, I still had the problem. I then called the help number and was told that while my hardware was still under warranty, I would have to pay for phone support (sounds more like Microsoft than Apple).

I was directed to the “dotmac” web site and used the chat function. Turns out that Apple is having problems with their mail server and that the “port 25” error message refers to that port on their server and not on my laptop! Now why should I pay for phone support if the problem is on the Apple server?

This called several issue to my attention.

First, Apple needs to make sure that they are not the problem BEFORE telling customer’s that they will have to pay for support.

Second, while we were able to fix my problem by simply changing which port my email application was attaching to, the chat process added a significant amount of time compared to a simple telephone call.

I spent 12 years supporting a large amount of hardware for one of the worlds largest defense contractor followed by 11 years creating technical documentation for big aerospace corporations. Getting the client’s concerns handled quickly and efficiently is the key to keeping customers. The times I’ve used the chat function for technical support it seems to take a lot longer, and I touch type 25 to 30 words a minute. Imagine how much time it will add for a hunt and peck typist! And it’s not just the customer’s time away from their work, you are paying the help desk person on your end of the chat.

A third item that will go along way to shorting the support cycle is plain english error messages. Microsoft is notorious for the “Error 404” kind of error message, but the “Unable to connect to port 25” I got in this case is not far behind. How about a message like “Unable to connect to the Mac mail server port 25”. Tells me it’s not my computer and when I do call or chat it tells your help desk exactly what’s wrong right away.

My last pet peeve is the failure of companies, both hardware and software, to have an explanation of their error messages. Just try typing the error message into the help query and all you get is the computer equivalent of a blank stare. If, for some technical reason, you just can’t use plane english for your error message, try putting the explanation in your help documentation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Staying ahead of the game

I just saw a question on the Fast Company web site asking “Why didn’t AOL leverage its community to become what Facebook is?”

Since the people who makeup AOL are just folks like you and me, the problem has more to do with corporate culture than with the individuals within the company.

At the end of the 1970s I got tired of the get hired, work a few months and get laid off cycle common for an electrician working for small contractors. I started my own burglar alarm business, later going into partnership with another alarm company.

Owning and managing a small business taught me to pay attention to industry trends and always look for new ideas, methods, and products. My business partner was much older than I and ready to retire, but I couldn’t afford to buy him out and have enough cash to run the business. We sold the business and I went to work as a manager for a defense contractor.

Working for that large company, I found them focused on daily operations to the exclusion of looking for new ideas and methods. In the book “Barbarians to Bureaucrats” Lawrence M. Miller, the author, talks about the stages that organizations go through and some of those stages are driven by size. The bigger an organization gets, the more it must rely on people following the established processes. The upside is that it gets the daily work done efficiently and on time. The down side is that it makes it harder to get new ideas considered.

All businesses are started by an idea for a product or service, an individual or small group of individuals bring that idea to market. At some point the culture changes from getting the new idea to market and accepted to producing the product or delivering the service.

Profit abhors waste! Free time for your workers is not free, they are being paid for their time, so the system is designed to eliminate paid-for-but-unfocused free time in their daily schedule. The problem is that an awful lot of new ideas come out of just sitting and thinking “what if ..” or “what is a better way to do ...”.

There are two key steps to ensuring that your company doesn’t fall in this trap. First, ensure that everyone has some time to look at your industry and seen what the trends are. I mean everyone, not just your senior executives and it must be part of their working day. If you’re not willing to spend your money (in the form of time) to keep up with your industry, why would you expect your employees to spend their money (in the form of their free time) to keep up with your industry?

Second, you must have a process for even the cleaning staff to suggest new ideas. Remember that people will tell you about things they think are useful and cool and that’s what your customers want. Things that are useful and cool. In most cases the person reporting the idea will not know how to present that new and cool idea or how to monazite it. They just know it’s cool and they like it.

Management’s job is to collect these new ideas, then research them, separate out the ideas that represent real opportunities for your business, and lastly to figure out how to make money from that idea.

If that sounds like a lot of effort, that’s why it’s called work. It’s also the cost you must pay to not be caught making wagon wheels while some modern day Henry Ford is producing the Model T.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Flex work locations and hours.

Why haven’t flex hours and working from home become much more common than they seem to be?

Someone writing about how and when new technologies are adopted said “People will railroad when it’s time to railroad”. Their position being that once the various technologies exist, someone will make use of them. If that gives them a competitive advantage, then others will follow.

Many people now collaborate using teleconference and online audio and video meetings even when the participants are in the same building. Most of the people I work with think it’s much better than looking over each others shoulders at a single screen. They also like it much better than gathering in a meeting room to look at a computer screen from an overhead projector. As managers see the effectiveness of teleconferences coupled with online computer screen sharing, they will accept that people’s physical location no longer matters. At least in some occupations.

Once all the technology to make steam engines and steel rails became available, and the methods of financing large projects became available, railroads were inevitable. So too, now that virtual workplaces are a proven technique, people will inevitably begin to use it. If this capability makes some companies more competitive, then, inevitably, other companies will copy the idea.

Friday, May 2, 2008

What the politicians don't know

I watch the news early in the morning and I’m just watching the politicians floundering around on CNN and noticed something interesting. One of the candidates was campaigning in Allentown, PA. That reminded me of the Billy Joel song of the same name, talking about job loss.

The politicians are just now talking about job loss and Mr. Joel released his song in 1982!

All the stuff that the politicians are now talking about “real” people have been fighting for over 20 years and seen it getting worse all that time. Doesn’t matter which candidate you favor, none of them have a clue as to how hard most people have been running just to stay in place for almost a full generation.

In case you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the lyrics.

Does this mean that the song writer is smarter than the politician? Not really, but it does show what living in the cloistered atmosphere of politics can do to intelligent people. It cuts them off from their sources of information and that gives them a distorted view of what’s really happening and of the possible solutions.

The founding fathers never envisioned professional legislatures, they expected small business owners, farmers, and regular folks to take time off, manage the business of government - then go home! They counted on the common sense of the common man. And too few common men and women are serving now.