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MobileMe: It’s Not Apple’s Usual ‘Laughingly Simple’ Effort

MobileMe, Apple’s service formerly known as .Mac, was never particularly interesting to me since I have so many other current services that meet my needs for online storage, photos, and syncing. Still, I bought it for $99 per year since the “Back to my Mac” capability was so laughingly simple that it alone was worth the dough for me.

Those words, laughingly simple, are the ones to key in on since .Mac/MobileMe was specifically geared for consumers who do NOT have a propeller on their beanie and an interest in using a lot of disparate web hosted applications, but rather have everything useful in one place.

Now that I have an iPhone 3G — and the promise of sync’ing my data between my three Apple devices (MacPro, Macbook Pro & iPhone) was too compelling to ignore — I’ve been particularly chagrined over the hiccups Apple has had on getting this service up-n-running.

Unprecedented for the usually opaque Apple, there is a MobileMe Status page keeping people appraised of fixes for the critical problems of this new service. But one thing that’s not anywhere to be found is something I experienced earlier this morning: uploading photos to a gallery didn’t work as the first image in a series of 122 ‘hung’, even after repeated attempts.

What Apple is attempting to accomplish with this level of coordination and orchestration between devices and the cloud isn’t trivial, and I’m willing to cut them A LOT of slack. The photo upload problem, along with other bugs I’ve discovered such as deleting/managing contacts which often ‘hangs’ after a period of time deleting or editing contacts, really gives me pause.

Here’s the kicker though: knowing all the people I assist with their Mac/iPhone investments — and their respective levels of fairly non-technical competence — makes one thing crystal clear to me: most consumers experiencing these MobileMe hiccups are quickly developing a lack of trust in Apple’s MobileMe effort. If you don’t care to take my word for it, take a peek at the MobileMe Discussion forum at Apple and you’ll see what I mean.

To add to this trust issue is the fact that sync’ing itself is also NOT laughingly simple. I’ve found that understanding the selection of which device to first sync to MobileMe in the cloud and then sync’ing other devices to that main set of data is something most non-technical folks just don’t get. This is, IMHO, one of the key causes for so many problems experienced by people on the Apple MobileMe forum.

Perhaps this is telling as well: even though I’m the sysadmin for my family (now a three iPhone one), I’ve not yet rolled out MobileMe to anyone else since I’m not yet comfortable it works. Apple will get there, though, and I’m willing to hang in there with them.

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Relying on Applications in the ‘Cloud’

If you have been a Twitter user for any length of time, you won’t be surprised that Twitter is down right now for the umpteenth time this year.

In a recent presentation and ideation with a client, one of the company functional area leaders leapt in with this question: “Twitter is getting so much buzz in BusinessWeek and on blogs, is this something we should make key to our social media strategy?

I did a bit of a humma-humma and ultimately advised them to have an account, begin to participate, watch it (especially for their brand mentions), but make it very peripheral to the rest of their strategies since the service simply isn’t reliable. Many people I know are slowly moving off of it as the ongoing service interruptions are maddening and not worth the effort.

The more time you and I invest online means we’ll actually experience periodic and lengthy outages that heretofore only the hardcore users would. With Amazon’s S3 storage outage taking down Web 2.0 sites that relied upon them, Apple’s botched launch of MobileMe (which now is running perfectly, I might add), Gmail‘s periodic (but quickly repaired) outages, to my own experiences with MediaTemple whom I rely upon to serve a dozen sites, relying upon applications in the cloud that fail is making many of us skittish.

Once per quarter for the last 11 quarters I’ve invested some time each day to look at every one of the “Web 2.0″ applications in the cloud off of lists like this one.  I’ve learned that many with an appearance of a strong value proposition, solid and scalable technology, are in the deadpool or been acquired.

Will this cause you or I to eschew apps running over the internet? Nah. I know that I’ll continue to invest more and more of my participation and functionality on the ‘net since it’s just simply too useful…especially with my mobility demanding constant access to my data. You’re probably like that as well, especially if you’re a member of the smartphone club.

Choose wisely though. Don’t overinvest or map mission-critical processes to applications in the cloud that you’re not certain will function, scale or be acquired in the near term. I know that’s hard to do, but it’s also why the big-get-bigger since they have the resources to keep our fear at bay and ensure apps will run.

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Textbooks, Kindle, the Apple Tablet, PDF & RIA’s

In 1994, I was hired as a consultant to Harcourt Brace College Publishers in Texas, due to my background in interactive videodisc, authoring tools and multimedia and their high degree of need to stem the downward trend of falling college textbook sales.

They were searching for ways to add value to new textbooks in order to incent faculty to specify the latest version and create a disincentive in the used book market. I was instrumental in assisting them to create an interactive CD-ROM (and saved them several hundred thousand dollars in development costs over what they thought needed to be invested!) so that the disc could be affixed to the back of the book and contain so much additional material that faculty and students would be hardpressed to ignore the newest book.

Didn’t really work, though the practice of bundling has become widespread in the college publishing marketplace. Book sale increases at Harcourt were modest at best, and the CEO and head of New Media both left within a couple of years after that (to the now defunct UOL Publishing, an online university concept). I’ve not kept appraised of this space, but my daughter buying textbooks for this coming Fall has brought this issue to the forefront once again.

Bear with me for a moment as I connect some dots surrounding the textbook space, Amazon’s Kindle, the rumored Apple Tablet, the shifts in Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) and the category known as rich, internet applications, and how I am certain we’re very, very close to the tipping point for textbooks being delivered electronically.

[Read more…]

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WordPress: Too many variables?

This blog runs on the Typepad hosted service (the smartest decision in 2004, IMHO) but I’ve become a fanboy of WordPress and quite fond of this project over time.

Like any ‘relationship’ one enters into — be it a friendship, love or even a partnership — nothing is perfect and not without ups-n-downs, but I’m seeing this lack of perfection in WordPress and other open source projects and wondering how the sheer number of variables with plugins and such can continue.

My other blog, Minnov8, runs on WordPress. One of my fellow geeks on the team is a WordPress junkie and knows the platform incredibly well. Since I was out of the country the last week and half, he graciously agreed to upgrade our 2.5.1 installation to the new 2.6.

I was really keen on this upgrade since the image uploader for posting in the admin area of WordPress didn’t work and many, many people were experiencing this issue. Since I had to FTP the images for posts in to our WordPress content directory and then hardcode a URL link to the image in each post, my fellow contributors were sending me their content and I was uploading and posting. What a pain!

Checking the Minnov8 blog Wednesday evening at about 9pm (in my highly jetlagged state of mind), I discovered that the 2.6-driven site — which had been working for 24 hours without a hitch — was no longer displaying the theme! I put up a “closed for maintenance” page and invested three hours trying to get it back online but to no avail.

My colleague and I both invested about four more hours each the next day (yesterday) trolling the WordPress forums and trying out fixes proposed there, deleting database tables, going through each PHP file with a finetoothed comb, turning off all plugins (and double-checking which were ‘version 2.6 compliant’), and rechecking the clean-coded theme we’re using to ensure that wasn’t the problem.

I finally got so frustrated that I wholesale deleted the entire WordPress installation and re-uploaded the entire WordPress software along with my saved content files and database backups.

It got restored and is now working…but neither of us has a clue why and it might as well be magic.

There’s a pretty big gap between someone who uses a hosted service like Typepad and WordPress.com, and those of us who choose our own hosts and install the software ourselves. The amount of “gotchas” in the latter is such that often a person needs to be highly technical or experienced in order to rely upon installed, open source software and the supposed ‘support’ that comes from a discussion forum most open source projects deliver, but the upside of the installed software (vs. the more run-of-the-mill looking hosted stuff) is too great to choose the former.

With an ecosystem of developers creating plugins, themes and other extensions for WordPress (and the same holds true for other projects like Joomla and Drupal), one needs to approach an open source install or upgrade with the same attention to detail a programmer and developer would with exhaustive testing before going in to production. Unfortunately, most users don’t have the time, the wherewithall or the desire to do so.

If guys like us can’t get stuff like this to work without hours of futzing and tweaking, imagine someone with half our combined skills doing so AND having a site offline that they’re using for a mission-critical site for their organization or business.

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Melbourne: Impressions Down Under

Been in the land down under for two days and I’m delightfully impressed with the country, the people, and the little things I’ve become aware of in our brief stay.

From our flight crew on Jetstar from Honolulu to the hotel and yesterday’s walking trip of the city, virtually everyone we’ve come into contact with has been remarkably nice.

I’ve not heard one car horn honking; music blaring or people making a spectacle of themselves. In a city of 3.8M people, one would expect a lot more of all three. Though some graffiti was in evidence, it’s pretty clean here too.

But what struck me were the little things I didn’t expect:

  • Prices on items like videogames, soda and gum are double what they are in the US (the US and Australian dollar are nearly at a 1:1 exchange rate). $25 per day ‘net access is also a huge bummer since I’m not about to schlep my laptop around to ‘net cafes and such as they’re too far from our hotel
  • All channels on the flat screen in our hotel are in HD…but that’s not the surprise. Instead, it was the volume of discussions about the world economy and the waiting for moves by the US Treasury and Federal Reserve due to the impact on Australia
  • The challenge in coordinating communications with folks in the US — even with today’s synchronous and asychronous ways of doing so — since it’s 3:41pm on Wednesday in Minnesota right now but it’s 6:41am on Thursday in Melbourne
  • How IMPERATIVE Skype has become in my travels. I’m sitting here now on the ‘net with my IPEVO phone plugged into USB. I transferred all my calls to my SkypeIn line so I have one place to retrieve voicemails.

Yesterday and today is our workshop, tonight a dinner, and then on to a few days of adventure before a looong trip back to the middle of the US. Sure wish I could stay for a month or more, see Tasmania and New Zealand, and have a complete experience in this wonderful place.

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iPhone 2.0: You Should Probably Wait to Upgrade

Here’s some quick advice for all of you folks who want to upgrade to the iPhone 2.0 software, especially if you need a usable iPhone in the next few hours: WAIT!

Apple’s servers are clearly slammed (Me.com is virtually inaccessible) and after installing the 2.0 software and firmware, my phone couldn’t access the iTunes Store and has been rendered inoperable. Good thing I don’t need it right this minute and can retry in an hour or so.

A few others are having the same problem.

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Australia

Thought I’d give you a heads-up that posting will be either light or non-existent for the next 10 days. Heading to Australia (we’re running a workshop there) with a two day stop in Hawaii on the way over.

Still amazes me that we could get all the way to Australia within one, 24 hour period and how long it took people a century ago.

Feeling irritated over fees for checked luggage, having to sit in coach since the cost of business class tickets would equal the cost of a new car instead, coupled with outrageous fees for text messaging and phone calls from there (and internet access), seem incredibly petty when you think of our forebearers who made the trip down under by spending a month or more traveling there on some ship, sick from scurvy and covered with lice.

My only regret is not having a month or more for exploration. Going to Tasmania, New Zealand especially, and the dream I’ve had since college of scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, will all have to wait for a pure pleasure trip at some other point.

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TinyURL: A Minnesota Story

Did you know that a tiny service used 1.5 billion times per month was created in Minnesota?

TinyURL is a service I’ve used often (especially when using Twitter) and this creation by Blaine, MN developer, Kevin Gilbertson, is quite popular.

I was first alerted that this was a Minnesota creation by St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Julio Ojeda-Zapata (column, blog) when he put out a ‘tweet’ on Twitter about the service’s Minnesota connection. Of course, I poked around to find out more and was just delighted on what I discovered.

Then sitting down to breakfast this morning with the StarTribune, I saw this article entitled, “TinyURL developer basking in website’s success” which covers the man behind TinyURL and a bit about the service. The article lays out how Gilbertson could make ~$1 million per month but chooses not to have annoying popup ads (thank you Kevin!). He makes enough per month that he apparently doesn’t need to work outside of making TinyURL better and is able to focus on his passion for unicycling (peek at the Strib article for more).

Julio’s writing, the Strib’s coverage and ours is fantastic for a new and successful Minnesota startup, but not everyone agrees that services like TinyURL are ones we should rely upon.

[Read more…]

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Schwans: Strategic Planning for the Long Term

Rarely do I watch local news, but a couple of weeks ago I happened to catch a story on our local CBS affiliate’s 10PM newscast about Marshall, MN-based Schwans and their amazing propane trucks. This is a lesson in strategic planning for the long term, and how gleeful they must be in a day when diesel fuel is approaching $5 a gallon!

Schwans is a company that got into the home delivery business when in 1952, Marvin Schwan packed his beat-up 1946 Dodge panel van with 14 gallons of his family’s signature ice cream and delivered it to rural families in western Minnesota. At the end of that historic trip, all 14 gallons were sold and the Schwan home-delivery business was born.

Now a multi-billion dollar private company with 22,000 employees and a dependence on trucks to deliver their goods — especially the sizeable home delivery portion of their business — they were admittedly stunned and taken aback during the oil crisis of the 1970’s and initiated a very long term strategic plan to ensure they weren’t in that position again.

This article (and the accompanying video there which I watched that night) says in part, “Our sales were based on the fact that we’re driving down the road and going to people’s houses, and so that’s really where the concern came in and said ‘We need to do something different,'” said Shannon Lens, Director of Fleet Acquisition at Schwan Foods.

What they did was take the mandate of Schwan Foods founder Marvin Schwan to find an alternative fuel. They discovered propane being used on a very small scale in Ohio. They eventually bought the propane technology and started converting their trucks. By the 1980s, most of the fleet was propane powered.”

This company is now paying $2 per gallon for propane fuel that runs the 5,200 trucks in their fleet nationwide.

Propane is no panacea since it’s a byproduct of oil refining. Still, as I’ve said before in many ways on this blog, there’s been a lack of leadership exhibited in the last eight years on finding any alternatives to oil, motivating we citizens to conserve, and going to war to ensure we get the last remaining oil resources vs. those emerging economies China and India.

Strategic planning, risk management and leadership are things one would hope for in our Federal government and not just with companies delivering pizza and ice cream.

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Technology and the Credit Crisis

Cutting costs and leveraging technology is a smarter play right now than ever before. My bride and I have slashed our personal and business costs, are foregoing major expenditures, strategically planning for tighter times, and are focusing our client engagements in the same direction.

There is a tremendous amount of information about the credit crisis, but this morning I came across this article (scroll down for article) about the size of the problem:

Bridgewater Associates is estimating that the costs of the credit crisis may be a lot higher than previously assume at a staggering $1.6 trillion. At the current time, approximately $400 billion has been accounted for and writedowns taken. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated a cost of just under $1 trillion, Goldman Sachs at $1.1 trillion, and hedge fund manager John Paulson at $1.3 trillion. The analysis by Bridgewater was dug up by this Swiss newspaper.

Gulp.

The magnitude of this problem, its intricacies and the complexities of the global monetary system is beyond my ability to understand or control — and I’ll wager you’re in the same boat. What I can control is my preparedness and the strategic steps taken to guard against devastating losses.

We’ve taken a lot of tactical steps: from no debt, to ordering a 2009 Prius for its gas mileage, to the investments we’re choosing and even things like moving from shipment of products to digitally delivering those we can. There are even times we’ve delivered talks online that previously we would’ve delivered in person, primarily due to the venue wanting to save money as transportation costs have risen.

With the acceleration of web applications to mobile telephone and broadband speeds, there’s no better time to begin to examine parts of your business or personal lives that could be slightly modified and be delivered virtually. I’m not recommending you stop traveling and use webinar technology in its place, for example, but instead replace one trip. The bonus is you’ll also learn how to use it, if it is effective (and how to make it so) and whether or not it actually saves money.

The point is to plan….now.