Month: September 2009

Adventures in Netbook’ing

In my last post, I recounted using the Kindle DX and how the actual experience of e-reading with the market-leading device doesn’t quite hold up to the promise, in my opinion.

To reprise something else I said in my last post, I also self-identify as a “PC,” as in “pragmatic computing” user. For me, as a software and services industry professional for more than 27 years, this also translates into being an intractable Wintel user, frequently shading towards the hometown favorite, Dell.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Mac hater. The very first PC I used at a client in my first out-of-office staffing assignment as a “green bean” consultant for Arthur Andersen & Co’s management information consulting division was an Apple II running Visicalc at Apache Oil. I first became an Apple product owner when I bought one of the first iMacs, back in the day, when Jobs first returned for his current run. And, since then, I’ve purchased two Macbooks, two iPhones, and iPods more numerous than I can recall.

For me, it’s all about pragmatism at this point. Windows works for me, Office apps are the tool of trade in the business world, and Internet Explorer is still practically universal, even with the inroads of Firefox, Safari, and newbies like Chrome.

However, month-in and month-out, I remain in search of lighter, cheaper compute power to get the same job done as well or better. It was with this search in mind that I thought I would give one of the newer Netbooks a test drive earlier this summer.

AcerThe early entrants in the U.S. were Acer, Asus, and MSI. HP was fairly early as well and, of course, now you can find models from Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba and many others. I decided to try an Acer model that was well-reviewed, although about to be one-upped by some newer models. I got it on sale at Office Depot and decided to put it to a real world test on a quick trip to New York. (It appears the model, while available at stores like Walmart, is no longer available online at Office Depot.)

What did I find? While I might be apt to try another model in the future, for now Netbooks are not for me. Slow speed, lack of internal memory, and annoying usability design points were all negative elements of the experience that ultimately compelled me to return the Acer to the good folks at Office Depot, who took it back within their specified two week refund window.

Granted, I knew going into the test drive that there would be some tradeoffs. But, it was the unexpected things that proved to be most annoying, like being unable to push the screen back far enough to get a proper reading angle. Instead, I was faced with hunching over in my seat (remember: roundtrip flight from Austin to NYC) or propping up the bottom of the Acer, below the mouse pad, so that it balanced on its spine. Try typing like that!

In the end, while I so desired to find an affordable compromise device between my fully loaded, industrial sized (and weighted) Dell laptop and my keyboard-and-Office-apps-challenged, but “Swiss army”-esque iPhone, the Netbook just wasn’t up to the test. Not yet. But, let me hear from you, Net book users. I want to know what model has worked for you and your work tips to go with it.

Adventures in E-reading

I’ll admit it: I’m a PC user…as in a Pragmatic Computer-user. I’m also a PEA, as in Post-Early Adopter. Meaning, I’m rarely the first one out of the gate on the newest gizmo. For example, you’ll never find me standing in the line at Best Buy at 3am waiting for the doors to open for Day 1 sales of the newest gadget.

However, I do love my tech and, thus, my PEAbrain frequently compels me to try the new software or purchase a copy of that newest gadget anywhere from a week to six months later.

Amazon's KindleAnd, so, it was with interest when I read a recent article in the New York Times about Best Buy and Verizon Jump[ing] Into E-Reader Fray.” In particular, two early quotes in the article leaped out at me:

“By all accounts, e-readers are set to have a breakout year. Slightly more than one million of them were sold globally in 2008, according to the market research firm iSuppli. The firm predicts that 5.2 million will be sold this year, more than half of them in North America, driven by the popularity and promotion of the Kindle, which is available only through Amazon’s Web site.”

…and…

One challenge for the entire digital reading market is the price of these new devices. A recent report from Forrester Research suggests most consumers will buy a digital reading device only when they cost less than $100.

No kidding!

However, I’d add a few personal observations from having purchased (and returned) the Kindle DX. The response time is slow (screen refresh, navigation, etc.), the plain black & white display is dreary, the lack of graphics is sad, and the built-in browser is horribly difficult to use.

Sure, all of the cool things you’ve heard or read about the Kindle are there as well: e-ink technology provides a really read-able display in just about any lighting situation (full sun outdoors to low lighting indoors), the wireless download of reading material is cool (although you have to take care not to accidentally purchase a book you didn’t intend to order…I did and it was impossible to get a refund), and the Kindle form factor is super-sleek.

Unfortunately, after 30 days, the coolest thing my family and I were unanimous about regarding our DX was the lovely, intricate drawings of various great classics authors that the display left on the screen when it was in sleep state. In fact, we got a little wire picture/plate holder and set our Kindle in it when it wasn’t being used – which was most of the time – so it could add a little artistic accent to our breakfast table.

But, for the several hundred dollar price, I could get a lot of Kodak e-picture frames!

All that said, I remain an Amazon fan and customer and, true to their word, the return process of the Kindle DX was mostly effortless, with the purchase price credited in full. Thank you, Amazon.

For my money (meaning “free” download), the Kindle reader app on my iPhone does the job just fine with the little bit of content I purchased while I had the DX. (Plus, I can read the books in sepia tone if I want!)

So, take it from this PEAbrained, PC user, if you have been thinking about it, but haven’t yet purchased a Kindle or a comparable book reader, think really hard about how much you would use it versus all of the other alternative forms of reading you have that are either free (like books from your public library) or more convenient, like using your smart phone, laptop, or that new Net book you may have just bought.

Speaking of which, next time I’ll share my Net book experience. Meanwhile, let me hear from you E-book users!

Gov 2.0 Favs – Content and Style: Part 3

So, this is the 3rd in a 3-part series on presentations that were my favorites among the many given at the O’Reilly Government 2.0 Expo & Summit last week in DC. In my opinion, these 3 had great personal styles – each different, but fitting in their personal own way – and compelling content.

Eric Ries (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) – http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/ – I mentioned Eric’s excellent commentary in my post about initial impressions from the Summit a few days ago. When he first walked out onstage, I’ll have to confess – being a veteran of sitting through dozens of VC and start-up talks (including my own) where you hear the same pointers rehashed the 100th different way by the latest VC clown, as Guy Kawasaki would say – I was prepared for the 101st version of the same old thing.

But, I was pleasantly surprised: his style and substance on lean start-ups was thoroughly engaging. In just the few minutes he had to speak, he conveyed a core familiarity with the issues that gave you a sense of someone speaking from experience, combined with a studied observation of the larger dynamics of the subject. I would definitely invite him to lead a workshop on the subject.

James Heywood (PatientsLikeMe ) – http://www.patientslikeme.com/ – The Summit program described PatientsLikeMe as committed to providing a better, more effective way to capture valuable results about disease and share them with patients, healthcare professionals, and industry organizations that are trying to treat the disease. And that word “committed” is perhaps the strongest word I can use to capture the essence of James’s presentation.

The compelling back story to his web service is the desire to help save his brother’s life from the effects of a degenerative disease. But, without relying on sentimentality, James illustrated the power of quantitative and qualitative data, when available, in the pursuit of a patient’s gaining greater control over his or her medical destiny. If I was ever going into a healthcare battle, I would totally want this guy on my side of the table.

Michele Weslander Quaid (US Government) – The phrase that comes to mind for Michele is “kick ass.” She was one of three people on a panel discussion. Seated demurely in black dress between two agency heavyweights from the TSA and DoD, Michele held her own and then some. In the Q&A, she came across as a super-sharp bureaucrat…a straight-shooter, clearly in command of her facts and opinions.

Her comments about the realities of leadership and making realistic, tactical progress with IT initiatives – Gov 2.0 or otherwise – in the U.S. defense and intel communities struck the listener as razor-sharp and authentic. I have little doubt that she’d be a killer workshop leader on the subject of “How to actually get a significant project done in a major federal agency.”  Catch the video of her panel when it get suploaded to Blip.tv.

So, that’s a wrap on my speaker / presenter impressions. I commend them all from the past 3 posts. If you really interested in what to expect “over the horizon” with respect to Government 2.0, then I also recommend you consider requesting an invitation to attend nGenera’s All Members meeting for our Insight 2.0 programs. Scheduled for December 1-3 and hosted at Federal Express in Memphis, we will be presenting a slew of new research ranging from Participatory regulation to Prediction markets.

Gov 2.0 Event Favs – Style: Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned some “content” favorites from the presentations at the O’Reilly Government 2.0 Expo and Summit last week in DC. Today, I’m highlighting “style” favorites.

Melissa Jordan (Bay Area Rapid Transit) – http://www.bart.gov/ – I loved Melissa’s presentation. On the one hand, the BART site is probably more clever for all that it does with a staff of two than for it is for innovative services or technology.

However, Melissa’s perky presentation, which was almost word-for-word both days, felt fresh each time with her own distinctive San Francisco zing. Made you feel like Bart.gov was worth checking out for being both pragmatic and fun – who could resist!

Rita King (Dancing Ink Productions) – http://dancinginkproductions.com/ – Rita was a winning presenter in her track for the Gov 2.0 Expo and rightly so. She and her team have taken what has become a pretty familiar environment like SecondLife and applied it in such a rich, culturally significant way to a problem of international significance.

Her first-day presentation, when she was able to control the pace of her story, was absolutely captivating. Through her presentation, you could really see how effectively the teaching principles of Muslim cultural and religious diversity could be reinforced using SecondLife. 

By the way, you can watch and/or listen to recaps of both Rita’s and Melissa’s presentations on Blip.TV, with Rita’s atrting around the 19:00 minute mark and Melissa’s, the 23:00 minute mark. 

Andrew McLaughlin (Deputy CTO) – Andrew got what some would argue had all the potential to be the least desirable speaking slot possible – he was the last second stand-in for the featured closing speaker from the U.K. government who couldn’t attend. However, instead of being anti-climactic, Andrew’s genuine, thoughtful reflection on the topics that had impressed him during the three-day event was the perfect coda the conference.

As Andrew read through the top items from his (what he reported to be rather lengthy) personal to do list, he had the audience wishing (me included) that we could have heard more from him from the stage. He came across as a super-sharp tech guy – only on the job as the deputy CTO for 2 months – but totally approachable and open to good ideas. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Next time: Favs with Both content and style

Gov 2.0 Event Favs – Content, Style or Both: Part 1

At the inaugural O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Summit and Expo, there was something at the event for everyone.  I refer to it as an “event” in singular because although they were billed as two events, they functionally flowed as one event, since very little of the content across the three days was duplicated and a large number of the attendees went to all sessions.

As I reflected in a previous post, I felt the event was fairly Silicon Valley, dot-com coder heavy, which is perfectly ok – it leaves room for new, unexplored topics for others to cover (like the enterprise-class focus of nGenera’s Government 2.0 members programs) and for future O’Reilly Government 2.0 Summits and Expos.

That said, I (like everyone) had some favs from the event. And here are some of them, which I’ve categorized entirely arbitrarily by content, style, or both. I’ll cover my picks in this post and two subsequent ones.

MAJOR DISCLAIMER: (especially for any of the presenters themselves or their fans that may read this post) – just because I listed you as a “style” favorite doesn’t mean I don’t think you have great content as well. It’s just that something about your style left a stronger impression with me. Likewise, on “content” favorites.

Content

Schuyler Erle (Entropy Free LLC) – http://unicefinnovation.org/ – I loved Schuyler’s enthusiasm, especially in facing the deployment challenges he described, but I was most taken with the technology content of his presentation. The products he described were developed as a response to the communication challenges that young people and development professionals face.

The range of these products extends from writing software for mobile phones and the web to building physical hardware. The commonalities between the products is that they are specifically designed for low bandwidth situations, built in collaboration with others and meant to improve the way people work and communicate.  I was very impressed with their solutions and their dedication to mission.

Joe Pringle (Forum One) – http://www.datamasher.org/ – Compared with many others who had the stage, especially on Day One, Joe was a very polished, confident presenter, but it was really the elegance and potentiality of the solution his team created with Datamasher that really took the day for me.

Datamasher.org example
Datamasher.org example

In some ways, it’s the simplest of problems: what would you get if you took dataset “A” and compared/contrasted (via Boolean operator) with dataset “B”?  

But, doing this with a tool that opens up the possibility for exploration and discussion is very powerful. I endorse the selection of Datamasher as the Apps for America 2 competition winner. 

Try it for yourself…it’s totally cool to fiddle with the data that your tax dollars financed! 

[Although in my example (in the figure), I could never quite figure out what conclusion to draw from the mash I created, which shows total political contributions divided by the number of new AIDS cases reported in the most recent year.  Something about South Carolina coming in 51st, i.e., with the lowest political contributions per new AIDS case, and it being the home state of Joe Wilson must be trying to tell  us something?] 

Philip Ashlock (The Open Planning Project )- http://openplans.org/ – As explained in comments at the event and on their website, technology can be a powerful tool for helping people work together, sharing best practices and enabling communities.  TOPP builds software, new media outlets, and other tools that bring democracy closer to its potential.

As I began seeing, within the space of a single day, that certain web services implementations began to look eerily similar, it was crystal clear to me that the work of an outfit like TOPP was important in promoting best practices, strongest code, a spirit of leverage among approaches, and common, high-value problem domains and use cases to be tackled. I hope their work and that of similar parties gets traction so that all Gov 2.0 producers can benefit.

Next time:  Style

Gov 2.0: Silicon Valley-style

Last week, I attended the inaugural Government 2.0 Expo and Summit by O’Reilly Media, co-produced by Techweb. It was a well-attended event and I learned a lot – much more than I could talk about in any one post. So, over the coming days, I’ll be highlighting a series of posts about the topics, people, and technologies that were featured at the event.

Before diving into any one area, though, I’ll share a few high-level impressions…

First, Tim O’Reilly, namesake of O’Reilly Media, has done a nice job of using his access to (and support of) administration principals as a way to build relationships with leaders in agencies and is an unabashed cheerleader of “government as a platform.”

Even though others – including my own company, New Paradigm / nGenera – have had active “Government 2.0” syndicated research programs and member events for a couple of years, O’Reilly has used his attribution for coining the phrase “web 2.0” as an opportunity to (re)claim “government 2.0” from a publishing and thought leadership perspective.

Second, not surprisingly, given the organizer’s tech-heavy center of gravity, the audience composition felt like it was evenly composed of one-part Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and one-part DC-based large systems consultants/contractors, with a tiny dash of attendees from the “fly over” heartland of the US or international. 

And, as one might expect from those two main locations, the average age difference between the West and East coasters was about 8-10 years, by my anecdotal guess, with Easterners being the elders. Given this concentration of youth and valley tech:  

  • There was an obsessive over-representation of the visual, programmatic and evangelical, but a large-scale lip service under-representation of critical process change, methodology, cultural dynamics and impacts.  (More about that in a future post.)
  • In fact, the only ones that spoke intelligently about those issues were the government reps themselves, although it was clear they were relying heavily on existing, traditional SDLC frameworks, leadership approaches, etc. 
  • The one exception was Eric Ries of Kleiner whose “lean start-up” discussion was an insightful reference, but again, moreso from the perspective of the “developer of a product” and not “the implementation of an in-house enterprise solution” – see:  http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/
  • But to balance Eric’s keen-eyed observations were some almost comically evangelical presentations by a couple of the web 2.0 outfits, perhaps made more frenetic by a Demo-esque “rapid fire” format used several times to pack some quick examples into a series of 5-minute pitches by company founders. A memorable one in this vein was MeetUp.com in which the co-founder spoke so fervently about the miracles of human, social interaction you’d have thought they invented it.

Third, while the overall theme was “government as a platform,” the descriptive sub-heading to that theme might well be have been: “federal government as a provider and protector of public data, and private sector a developer and implementer of web 2.0 services at all levels, from hyper-local to national.” Because of this sub-heading, there was enormous focus placed on data.gov and advocacy of further release of all forms of data via the open gov initiative.

There were some truly amazing web services that were demonstrated in healthcare, public safety, intelligence and defense, and municipal services, including:

  • At the federal level, I was very impressed with the Apps for America winners:  Datamasher, ThisWeKnow and Govpulse. 
  • At the state level, I was surprised at the lack of applications targeted specifically for the needs of states or similarly large geographic regions, such as provinces.
  • And at the local level, I felt there was significant redundancy in some of the business implementations and objectives of several of the gov 2.0 services described, such as: http://www.neighborsforneighbors.org/, http://seeclickfix.com/, and http://fixmystreet.com.

To that end, I was pleased to see the work of TOPP and its objective to serve as kind of a gov-oriented sourceforge for services developed by different groups and jurisdictions, to promote a much higher degree of repeatability and improvement of best practices/strongest common code bases.

In summary:  a strong inaugural event that has good momentum going into 2010, during which the Expo and Summit will be split on the calendar as spring and fall events.  And, for everyone that was unable to attend, I encourage you to catch a large majority of the videos on BlipTV.

Security Roundup: Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe

I love it when the NPR Cartalk guys – Click and Clack – give the closing credits of their show each week and credit their law firm “Dewey Cheatam and Howe” along with their other various pun-derific service providers and sponsors. Besides bringing a smile to my lips, the name is a constant reminder to me of how you can be getting robbed right before your eyes and not even know it.

One of the benefits (occasionally, co-workers would say a curse) that I received during my tenure leading the IT services practice of Bridgepoint Consulting in 2006-2007 was gaining a healthy respect for systems security, compliance, and IT general controls.

Not that I’m any better than the next person in securing my day-to-day personal and work IT assets; but, you might say I’m a bit more likely to browse the headlines concerning security issues than my average colleague. With that in mind, what follows are a couple of headlines that have caught my attention recently.

There’s a great article by the BBC that describes how bad guys are increasingly operating like small business. I love the quote by the Cisco security researcher when he talks about how “One of the most important themes for a business is customer acquisition.” He then goes on to document how the hot memes and search terms of the day, combined with web 2.0 mass communications platforms like twitter and Facebook, make for a major boon to online criminals.

The moral of the BBC article: it’s all about knowing who it is you are dealing with and, for the moment, the easiest way for the average Joe or Jane to ensure the authenticity of the party on the other end of communications is by using a digital signature. If you are a MS-Office user, like much of the business world, then you can read all about activating a digital signature from Microsoft.

Moving on from signatures to other forms of identification (or ID), I found this article in InformationWeek about the increasing ease of cracking American social security numbers (or SSNs) a good reminder of the need to rely on multi-factor unique identifiers to protect one’s privacy. Since basic identity theft normally relies on the three essentials of ID – SSN, name, and date of birth – this article is a rude awakening.

In the article, it describes how a research team was able to predict SSNs with 60% accuracy after 1,000 attempts, among those born recently in small states. It goes on to describe the staggering potential street value of credit cards obtained using swiped identities, by deploying a large botnet. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour! Definitely enough to persuade your average criminal into a hiring a couple of ethically ambiguous computer science majors.

So, with all of this risk, what does one do? My experience, and what I’ve repeatedly seen advised by the security professionals, is to create a layered approach to security. As with all things, stay informed about the latest recommendations, like this Top 20 security controls list from ZDNet.

An industry colleague, Susan Scrupski, is fond of offering the simple rule “blog smart” when asked what the policies ought to look like for well-run online communities. Co-opting that rule for purposes of security, I would “compute smart” when it comes to conducting your business and personal interactions online.