Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Ever-Decreasing Dependence on Microsoft, aka My Growing Dependence on Community and Open Source

Ten years ago I was an IT executive at a Fortune 500 financial services company, and I had overall responsibility for all the desktop and server technology that ran our internal applications. At the time we were on the leading edge of Microsoft technologies, and had rolled out Windows NT-based desktops to the entire company along with hundreds of Windows servers that ran everything from our corporate email to our internal CRM application. I was a staunch proponent of Microsoft during this time, as not only were their solutions a lot cheaper to run than the alternatives at the time (mostly UNIX-based) but the tight integration between Windows-based apps and the relative simplicity of dealing with a single platform seemed to make a lot of sense to me. Plus, some of their apps were clearly the best at the time, e.g. Microsoft Exchange which arguably still provides the best email experience out there.

Fast forward now to present day. I am now the co-founder in a Web 2.0 startup with less than 40 employees, and like most startups we try to do as much as we can on the cheap. How much Microsoft technology am I using today? Well, I am still quite dependent on my Windows laptop which is now running the latest and greatest OS, Windows 7. And I do spend a great deal of time within the Microsoft Office suite, whether it's managing my calendar and email or working on slides for a presentation. But that's pretty much it. Our major IT expense outside of people costs are the hardware and datacenter fees associated with running our website, but outside of that our IT expenses are close to zero. Let's look at some of the details.

The Wigix website is run completely on open source, mainly the LAMP stack plus some Java that is required for our search engine, which is also based on open source. The corporate IT types may shudder at the thought of relying on the community for support instead of going with one of the big players (e.g. IBM, Oracle), but my experience has been that the community provides a level of support and interaction that often exceeds that of the big software companies. And from an installation, integration and ease-of-use standpoint open source tends to be far easier to deal with than their licensed software counterparts. We are not in the minority here, as nearly all startups are heavy users of open source technology. BTW, does anyone even care about IIS anymore?

Like all other companies we are quite dependent on email. While I would love nothing better than to have the rich experienced associated with Exchange, I find that the free mail service provided by Google Apps (based on Gmail) is more than sufficient for our use. In fact, in this day and age of "real-time" I believe most people place a higher priority on accessibility and ease-of-use over pure functionality. Google has been nothing short of masterful on this front. I still use Outlook in order to access my mail, because I never got used to the way Gmail threads its discussions. But my fondness for Outlook is diminishing over time as well...right now it is the one app that routinely seems to bog down my laptop. Some of my employees have been pleading with me to switch to Thunderbird or another open source solution. I may eventually do that, probably at the same time I ditch my Blackberry Curve and switch to the upcoming Google Phone.

Another good example is the web browser. Up until 2 years ago I used Internet Explorer exclusively, as I felt I needed all of its rich functionality, all of its toolbars and plug-ins, etc. But when Chrome came out I decided to give it a try, and I haven't looked back since. The speed and simplicity of the browser seemed to outweigh everything else, and I realized that I didn't even really miss all the add-ons and extensions of IE. In fact, in the time it just takes to launch IE 8 on my laptop I could bring up Chrome and already be browsing a few websites...seriously. And now that Chrome supports extensions and does so in an elegant manner that does not bog the system down there is simply no reason to ever go back.

Microsoft has a huge challenge in front of itself competing with free. For sure, they can feel secure for awhile that the Fortune 500 types will continue to provide a steady revenue stream for them, but for how long? Except for Windows itself and the Office suite I've completely removed my dependency on them, and I suspect it won't be too long before I no longer have a need for Office either. And I have to think that many others feel the same way that I do too. This is unfortunate, because despite my commentary I've always had much admiration for the company, its leadership and the innovative technology they've brought to the market over the years.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Windows 7 - Nothing to Write Home About

A few of my co-workers had been playing around with Windows 7 for the past few months, so I finally bit the bullet myself and upgraded one of my machines to the RTM code, specifically the 32-bit Ultimate version. Before the install I had to make the always difficult choice of performing a fresh install or upgrading from my current OS (Vista Ultimate). I decided on the latter, because I was feeling lazy and didn't want to bother with figuring out all the apps that needed to be re-installed, configuring them correct post-install, etc. This actually turned out to be a mistake, which I will talk more about in a second. I was also disappointed to discover that there was no option to upgrade directly to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 from my 32-bit Vista, although I guess in putting on my techie hat and thinking about this more I have to admit it would be a difficult process for Microsoft to pull off.

The actual upgrade process itself is easily the most straightforward and hassle-free upgrade that Microsoft has ever come up with for any of its operating systems, so congratulations are in order here. Once the upgrade begins you're asked just a minimal amount of questions and once the process gets going it's pretty much hands-off until it completes. One of the really nice things it does right at the beginning of the process is take inventory of all your applications and tells you which ones it thinks has known issues and what the workarounds might be, along with other warnings. For example, even though iTunes is compatible with Windows 7 it reminded me that I should deauthorize my machine from iTunes before the upgrade and reauthorize it afterwards. I've often forgotten to do this, so that was a great reminder!

Anyway, I began the upgrade around 11pm and things were chugging along pretty well, but at around midnight or so I hit upon what I thought was a major snag. The upgrade was in the final step, which was titled something like "transferring program files and settings". The progress bar had gotten "stuck" at 42%, and didn't move at all for the next hour and a half or so, though you could still hear constant disk activity on my machine. Feeling a bit panicked I did a bunch of Google searches on the problem and found that a number of other users had come across the same issue. Some of them decided to just abandon the process and reboot their machines...fortunately, the install process detects this and restores the prior OS properly, according to the reports I read. Others claimed that the upgrade will actually complete given enough time and patience. Since it was nearly 2am by now and I was getting sleepy, I decided to take the "hope and pray" approach and went to bed.

Fortunately, when I got up the next morning my prayers were answered and the install completed successfully - all I needed to perform was one final reboot. So now this begs the question...Is Windows 7 really worth the upgrade? I would have to say that generally speaking the answer is no. Probably the biggest benefit I've seen so far is that fact that the OS loads a fair amount quicker and generally speaking apps seem to be more responsive when compared to running under Vista. It seems like Microsoft devoted much of its efforts to streamlining the OS and making it less resource intensive. Outside of the performance improvements I think the other changes are relatively minor and are mainly UI tweaks...In fact, I can't even think of a single "must have" feature that the OS provides. Check out Engadget's Windows 7 review for more specifics on all the new features.

The other problem I ran into is that several of my applications no longer worked correctly post-upgrade. These were mainly shareware-type applications that installed their own device drivers, and for the most part all it took was a simple uninstall/reinstall for the app to begin working correctly again. Some apps require being run in "compatibility mode" in order to work correctly, and Windows 7 provides a nice wizard to help you select which mode to run in. I only have one application, Acronis TruImage, that doesn't run 100% correctly.

In conclusion, here are my recommendations for those of you considering the upgrade:
  • If you are already running Vista and are happy with its performance, stick with it unless you just need to have the latest and greatest.
  • If you're stuck on XP and haven't upgraded to Vista because of its stiff hardware requirements and/or were concerned about performance, Windows 7 might be the ticket here.
  • If you do decided to upgrade, do so by performing a fresh install. Even though you'll have to hassle with reinstalling your applications, I think at the end of the day it will be less time consuming for you.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Portable GPS is Fast Becoming a Dinosaur

As we were driving down to our monthly Wigix board meeting last week, I was looking down at the Garmin Nuvi 260W GPS in our car and remarked to my co-founders how I felt the standalone GPS device will soon become extinct. The technology behind them has become quite commoditized, as evidenced by the incredible drop in prices over the past few years...the GPS you can now get for $200 outperforms the $700 GPS from just 2 years ago. But price isn't the only thing at play here...there are a couple of other significant factors that weigh into my assertion:

  • Automobile manufacturers make it very difficult for one not to purchase the navigation option on new cars. Despite the fact that built-in navigation typically adds $1000 or more to the price of the car and the units are generally less feature-rich than their standalone counterparts, the tight integration they have with the car itself outweighs this and so people don't seem to have a huge problem paying for it. Plus, since most people finance their automobile purchases adding another thousand bucks to the total cost isn't going to make a huge difference in their monthly payments.
  • The proliferation of smartphones such as the latest iPhone 3G S allows for GPS applications to be run from the phones themselves. Many smartphones now include an embedded GPS chip, and it won't be too much longer before mapping applications will rival those now seen on the standalone units. In fact, I believe TomTom announced during the 3G S launch that plan to release a full-fledged mapping app for the iPhone this summer. In this era of device convergence this is another nail in the coffin for the standalones.
What will save the GPS companies is their ability to recognize the above and to adjust their business models accordingly. I really don't follow the specific companies too closely, but I will say that Garmin seems to have a done a pretty good job in tweaking their model in anticipation of this technology shift. A few years back they launched their first activity-specific units, i.e. devices for specific activities that benefit from having built-in GPS. As an avid cyclist I jumped on this immediately by purchasing a Garmin Edge 305, which I still use on a daily basis. The nice thing about the 305 is that it offers all the standard functions of a cycling computer (time, distance, altitude, etc.) but other capabilities such as course mapping and integration with Google Maps that would be impossible without GPS technology. And no ugly wires, magnets or wheel sensors to mount on the bike either...very cool. Anyway, I recently noticed that Garmin has expanded their offerings to include a golfing device which allows you to display where you are on the course and determine your distance to the pin, and believe it or not...a dog collar with built-in GPS that allows you track the whereabouts of your furry friend. Now how cool is that?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tivo Just Keeps Getting Better

I bought my first Tivo right around the time they first came out, about 10 years ago now. I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store at the time, as this completely changed the way I viewed television, and since then it's changed the way most everyone viewed television and made VCR's a thing of the past. As I recall, I also switched from TCI Cable (remember them?) to DirecTV right around the same time, so when the Philips DirecTivo came out which combined both the satellite receiver and Tivo onto one box I snatched up a couple of those to replace my original Tivo. Then a couple of years after that DirecTV came out with the excellent HR10-250 which supported high definition broadcasts over both satellite and over the air (i.e. antenna). I was happy as a clam at this point. Unfortunately, not too long after the HR10 was released DirecTV and Tivo decided to part ways, and DirecTV decided to go forward with its own DVR technology. They initially launched the HR20 and a few follow-on models, and though they were pretty good units and DirecTV was adding lots of bells and whistles like media serving, they never matched the ease of use and intuitive UI of the Tivo. To DirecTV's credit they still supported the HR10, but unfortunately the unit was destined for obsolescence because its internal hardware was unable to support the newer MPEG-4 video streams DirecTV was rolling out for all the newer HD channels.

Well, about a year ago I ended up switching from DirecTV to Comcast, and during that span of time I endured the pain of having to use the incredibly horrible Comcast HD DVR. Why I lived with it for so long I have no idea, but after putting up with its multiple quirks and screwups, and having suffered through the occasional missed or premature stoppage of a scheduled recording I could put up with it no longer. I went out and purchased a new Tivo HD unit, and after getting it all setup I really question why I waited so freaking long to do this...the unit is simply awesome! Since I hadn't used Tivo in a few years I discovered a whole raft of new functions that I hadn't been exposed to before; in no particular order:

  • The new Tivos appear to be quite a bit speedier than my old HR10; there isn't nearly as much delay when setting up season passes, setting up complex searches, etc.
  • The free Tivo Desktop software that you can download from is very handy, as among other things it allows you to download recorded shows to your PC for offline viewing; definitely a great thing to have for those long plane trips. One caveat, though....the transfer rate is pretty slow, so if you're thinking about taking HD-recorded content on the road then you might consider recording the non-HD version of the show first.
  • Multi-room viewing, which allows you to stream content recorded on one Tivo onto another Tivo within your home. You can even pause a show on one Tivo and resume it on another!
  • Built-in support for Netflix and Amazon video streaming. I had previously purchased the excellent Roku box that support both Netflix and Amazon, but now that I have these services on the Tivo I can conveniently switch from DVR to on demand all on the same box...might be time to sell the Roku.
  • YouTube access - Wow, I think the Tivo folks delivered as good of a UI as possible here short of having an actual browser and keyboard. Very, very nice implementation.
  • Pizza anyone? Yes, you can order a Domino's pizza right from the need to break a sweat and move off the couch!
  • A mulitude of other on demand and content subscription options, too numerous to mention here. Many of these are free.
  • Real-time traffic and weather reports - Yes, it's easy enough to get these on my PC and/or Blackberry, but if I'm already watching TV and need to check the weather or traffic I can do so with a few button clicks and not have to budge.
  • Media serving - The Tivo has the ability to serve up video content from your PC. If your PC is running the free Tivo Desktop software, then your Tivo can serve up a few basic video formats such as MPG. If you upgrade to Tivo Desktop Plus ($25) a few additional file formats are supported. But if you're a little more technically inclined, then the absolute best solution is to download and install pyTivo. This is a fantastic piece of software, as it supports every video file type under the sun, even ones which the Tivo doesn't natively support (e.g. MKV) - those are re-encoded on-the-fly as they are sent to your Tivo.
  • Need more storage space? Sure, like all models of Tivo you hack into it and replace the factory drive with a larger one. But if you don't want to spend the time playing tech geek and/or don't want to void your warranty Tivo makes it super easy to add more disk space if you purchase the Western Digital MyDVR Expander. All you have to do is turn off the Tivo, attach the Western Digital to the Tivo's eSATA port, turn on the Western Digital and then turn on the Tivo. After a few minutes to initialize, whoala...instant storage added!
Whew, that's a lot of cool stuff...and there's even more available that I neglected to mention. Suffice it to say that the Tivo continues to be the king of DVR's and set top boxes in general. I can't imagine settling for anything else now!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Netgear ReadyNAS Duo - Enterprise-Level NAS at a Consumer-Friendly Price

I just picked a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo after struggling for months with finding enough hard disk space to store all my backups, media files, etc. We have a ReadyNAS NV+ at the office, so I was already familiar with the ReadyNAS product line and its setup and UI. The Duo is nearly identical to the NV+ except that it supports only 2 drive bays and has a few less security options - for example, it doesn't support Windows domains or Active big deal for most home users. Setup is fairly straightforward, although there are so many bells and whistles that it's often difficult to find what you're looking for using the built-in Web UI. On the other hand, most users won't need all of these features and so the default settings should be fine.

The unit came with one 500 GB hard disk, so I purchased an additional 1TB Seagate Barracuda disk for redundancy. Adding the 2nd disk was simple...just screw the drive into the supplied mounting bracket, plug it in and away you go. No fuss, no needing to turn the unit off...pure plug and play. I now have instant RAID in the home!

For those of you tech geeks, the platform is built on top of Linux and is hackable/extendable. It supports a plethora of file access protocols, including CIFS, AFP, FTP and HTTP. It also comes with a few built-in services to handle multimedia - for example, there is an iTunes server that your PC or Mac running iTunes can easily connect to. Finally, there are a variety of "add-ons" available to do all sorts of cool things with the device. The unit came pre-installed with an internet photo-sharing app as well as a Bittorrent client, and there are a number of other add-ons that people have written which you can find by visiting This site is a terrific place to find most everything you want to know about the ReadyNAS product line, and then some. I've already found a few tips and tricks on the site that I used to improve the performance of the device, and fairly soon I think I'll upgrade the memory card to give it another performance boost.

It wasn't so long ago that you had to spend thousands of dollars in order to get this type of performance and capability. Now, for just a few hundred dollars you can get something that is truly enterprise-class for your home!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Overpriced Kindle?

The Kindle is kinda neat, but don't you think it's just way overpriced for what you get? I think if Amazon wants the Kindle to be the de facto eReader standard that it should subsidize the heck out of its manufacturing costs and sell them for less than half of the current price (app. $350). This is not rocket science...For example, Microsoft has successfully used this strategy in making the Xbox and Xbox360 top sellers. I guess the counter argument is that Apple didn't need to subsidize the cost of the iPod in order for it to be enormously successful, which is true. However, I don't see anything so gee-whiz cool about the Kindle and Kindle 2 or their respective UI's that is going to blow people away like the iPod.

I would also like to see the Kindle come out with a color display. I really don't read all that many books, but I do read a lot of newspapers and magazines. And especially when it comes to magazines I think a color display is a necessity for a rich reading experience. Anyway, just my two cents.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Amazing Decline in Memory and Disk Prices

A couple of recent purchases I've made brought to light the amazing reduction of prices for both memory and disk space.  When I purchased my Lenovo S10 a few weeks ago I decided to upgrade its memory, so I purchased a 2GB memory card for the ridiculously low price of $30.  And the net price was actually half that amount, as the manufacturer had offered a $15 rebate as well!  It seems like it wasn't so long ago that 512MB SIMM cards were in the $300 range, so over a relatively few short years we've seen nearly a two orders of magnitude difference in prices...pretty amazing stuff.

What's even more amazing is the drop in disk storage pricing.  One of our servers at Wigix needed some additional hard disk space, so I went and purchased a Seagate Barracuda 750 GB drive  for $156.  A couple of things went through my head as I made this purchase.  First off, it seems like we almost take for granted the amount of disk storage that we use.  750 GB is an absolute ton of storage.  But when I look around my home and take inventory of my DVR's, external hard drives, etc. I probably have close to 2 TB of storage myself, and even with that amount of storage I constantly scramble to look around for more disk space to store off my media files or backups.  My god...when I was in the corporate IT world 10 or 12 years ago there weren't many Fortune 500 companies with a terabyte of data across their entire enterprise, let alone in somebody's house.  And the prices are so ridiculously low now too....750 GB for $156 comes out to about 1/5th of a penny per MB. Again, going back to my corporate IT days I can recall that in the early to mid-90's we were paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 per MB....and we thought we were getting a pretty good deal back then.  A good deal?  That's a thousand times more per MB than what I'm paying now!  No wonder our EMC sales rep had such a smile on his face every time he visited our office back then.

Next up for me...a RAID-enabled NAS drive for the home...stay tuned.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I've Become a Fan of the Netbook

I've just become a fan of a relatively new class of laptop computers called Netbooks.  Netbooks are much smaller and lighter than your typical notebook, with screen sizes in the 9-10 inch range plus a reduce-sized keyboard.  They typically run off of a lower-end, energy efficient processor such as the Intel Atom, and are designed primarily to run browser based applications.  I recently purchased a Lenovo S10 Netbook for just under $400, and I have to say that this little unit has impressed the heck out of me and at its price point is really hard to beat!  In the spirit of being very "lightweight" it runs Windows XP instead of the bloated Windows Vista, and comes with a 160GB hard drive as well as 1GB of memory.  With memory being so cheap these days I immediately upgraded to 2GB, which was a snap with the S10 since both the memory SIMM as well as the hard drive are easily accessible from the bottom of the unit.  And unlike many of the Netbook vendors, Lenovo does not void your warranty should you choose to upgrade either of these yourself.

Aside from having to deal with a smaller screen resolution (1024x600) than normal, the S10 ran browser applications just fine and with no significant reduction in speed when compared to my normal laptop, a Lenovo T500.  I would venture to say that for 90+% of users that a Netbook is totally sufficient to handle their computing needs.  In fact, it looks like many of the Netbook vendors have caught onto this as well, as now they are trying to introduce new Netbooks with larger form factors but using the same lower end processors.  My understanding is that Intel is pretty furious about this since it is basically cannibalizing sales from their higher-end (and more expensive) Pentium-based processors.  Whoops.

Other cool things about the S10 include a built-in webcam, a one-touch backup and recovery system that can save off and restore entire disk images, and a highly customizable touchpad.  In general I am not a big fan of touchpads, as I prefer the Trackpoint and still think it's the most efficient pointing device.  However, the S10's touchpad is a marked improvement over others I have tried in the past due to the level of customization it offers.  Lastly, the built quality and finish of the product are just top notch and belies the price I paid for it.

Downsides?  Sure, there are a few.  The reduced keyboard does take some getting used to, and the right shift key is very poorly placed.  And if you do a lot of multimedia stuff then you might be disappointed with the slowness of the graphics.  When watching videos and fast forwarding or jumping to a specific location it will often take the video several seconds to "catch up" to the audio.  And finally...if you've become accustomed to huge widescreen displays then you may get annoyed pretty quickly by the reduced resolution imposed by the S10's 10.2-inch screen.

Overall I really love this unit, and though it will not replace my existing laptop it will serve as a useful backup as well as a lightweight travel unit.