5 Steps to Time Management in the Cloud

February 13, 2011 at 12:45 am | Posted in Collaboration, Home Office, Remote Working | Leave a comment
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How many times have you agreed to a meeting  (or conference call or webex) and then, when you got back online, found that it clashes with another commitment?  No?  Well, it’s happened to me often enough that I decided I need to do something about it.

Up until the time (nearly 2 years ago now) when I stepped out of the corporate world and into independent consulting, I was happy to manage my work commitments through Outlook and Exchange server, conveniently relayed to me wherever I was through Blackberry.

When I set up Identigrate UK, the Outlook calendar on my home desktop PC became the heart of my time management strategy.   Judicious use of categories allowed me to distinguish between business and domestic commitments, while allowing MrsV1951 to act as unpaid diary manager in my absence.  Fine for starters, but as I figured out how to run a consulting operation, so I needed to add some sophistication.

Step 1 – Add a laptop

The ability to work at a client site makes a decent laptop an essential item of kit for any consultant.  The problem is, how to maintain a single coherent diary across both desktop and laptop, with the ability to make changes to either.  The answer proved to be very simple and – like a lot of things these days – came from Google.  I already had a Google account and, though I didn’t (and still don’t) make much use of Gmail, I am a big fan of Google Reader.  It was a simple matter to add Google Calendar and to install and configure the free calendar sync application on each of the two machines.

I have both machines set to sync once per hour, so on average their Outlook Calendars are up to date within 30 minutes.

Step 2 – Sync to iPhone

My next acquisition – and destined to become a vital part of my travelling toolkit – was my iPhone.  Now, I could send and receive emails on the road, in much the same way as I used to do with Blackberry.  Initially, I chose to sync the iPhone calendar to my Outlook calendar when I connected to iTunes.  Of course, this meant remembering to do this before setting out on each trip.  I needed to do better than that.  Once again, the answer lay with Google Calendar.  The iPhone can be configured to sync to Google Calendar, by adding it as a new Microsoft Exchange account.  If the iPhone is configured for Push delivery, then it will sync whenever you start the calendar app.

So, now, I have calendars on the desktop, laptop and iPhone.  I can add, delete or modify entries on any one of those devices and within a short time (say 30 minutes), it’s propagated to the other two devices.

Step 3 – Lotus Notes

In May 2010, I joined IBM Global Business Services and found myself with yet another laptop and yet another calendar to include in my synchronisation scheme.  This time however, I had to find a way of dealing with Lotus Notes.  The solution came in the form of CompanionLink,the only paid-for commercial product in my strategy.  CompanionLink is actually a very versatile tool, which can sync events, contacts and to do lists between a wide range of applications and mobile devices.  The version I used, CompanionLink Express limits you to one from each category to sync.  Once installed, it runs in the system tray on the laptop and connects to sync (you choose either one-way or two-way) according to a pre-defined schedule.

This brings our running total to 3 PCs/laptops and one iPhone all synchronised through a single Google Calendar, still with a latency of around 30 minutes to propagate a new entry to all the devices.

Step 4 – Add travel destinations

I’m a long-time user of LinkedIn and in the past, have occasionally used the built-in TripIt application for travel planning.  It occurred to me that, whether I use TripIt (on LinkedIn or through its website) to plan the details of a trip or not, it might be a useful way of just recording my whereabouts geographically.

TripIt supports iCal as a mechanism for keeping a calendar up to date with travel plans.  This facility is available for all the components of my sync strategy, with the exception of Lotus Notes, where I would need to upgrade to v8.5 to get iCal support.  However, there’s a small catch in this plan.  Subscribing a device (with Outlook, Notes, Google Calendar or iPhone) to an iCal feed actually creates a separate calendar on that device.  Google Calendar and iPhone will happily display all calendars simultaneously on a single display, but Outlook only allows you to view two separate calendar panes side by side.

Notwithstanding the small problems over display, the effect is that I can quickly and easily publish my whereabouts in advance and show them as an all day event on the calendar.  I can do this from within LinkedIn, via the TripIt website or using the TripIt widget in the Lotus Notes sidebar.

Step 5 – Publishing a schedule online

So, now I have a (more or less) single consistent view of my diary across all the devices I use and that view will update everywhere as soon as I make a change.  The last challenge then is to make that information available to others.  Of course, I could just give access to my Google Calendar, but that contains a lot of detail about my activities, both business and personal.  The solution came from fellow IBMer Emily O’Byrne.  I noticed that Emily points people to Tungle.me to view her schedule.  Tungle.me publishes your availability in real-time to interested parties and allows them to schedule a meeting or call with you at a time when you’re free.  Tungle does this by syncing with your existing calendar and works for people inside and outside your organisation.  It can sync simultaneously with multiple calendars and you have control over how much detail to share.

So, you can check out my schedule on tungle.me, which uses Google Calendar to show times when I’m available and uses TripIt to show where I am on any day when I’m travelling.

Try it Yourself

Back in the 1980s, as PCs were becoming available for the first time, the Managing Director of a major British computer company was asked if he’d be using one of his company’s new PCs.  He replied that if his life ever became so complicated that he needed a computer to manage his time, he’d change his lifestyle.  Now though, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine not using PCs, laptops, smart phones and the web to plan our activities and track down those that we deal with.

I’m not saying what I’ve described is the only way to get a single synchronised view, nor even necessarily the best way.  But, I am saying it works for me.  Try it out yourself and let me know how you get on.  If you find a neater way of doing things, I’d really like to hear!

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Social Media and Me – Pause for Thought

June 18, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Posted in Social Networks | 4 Comments
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It seems scarcely possible that it’s a year since I made the decision to strike out on my own as an independent consultant. One of the first things that struck me was that I would need to find a way to replace all the information resources I’d become used to after nearly 10 years with a major software vendor. The next thing that struck me was that I’d better learn a bit about marketing – quickly! I remember asking my friend and colleague Simon Perry of Thinking String whose blogs I should be reading. His answer surprised me more than a little “You shouldn’t be reading blogs, you should be writing one.” It’s nearly a year ago that I took the first tentative step on this site, devoting my very first blog post to a description of how I would bend social media to meeting these two needs in my fledgling business.

So, one year on, as I pass another milestone in my career, it seems appropriate to look back on that strategy and to consider what I’ve learned – what worked and what didn’t; what’s coming along that might help and what I’d still like to see.

Clearly, a blog needed to be at the heart of my strategy, giving me a platform to showcase my skills and experience and to engage in discussions with experts in the field. After seeking advice from established bloggers, I settled on WordPress. I decide to have my blog hosted on wordpress.com, to give me the simplest possible start. Does it damage my “brand” because it’s not hosted within my domain? I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

One thing that doesn’t seem to have worked for me has been social bookmarking.  Watching the statistics on my WordPress blog, I noticed eventually, that I was getting traffic via sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.  This prompted me to look at whether I could encourage readers to tag a blog post they found interesting, by providing the buttons on the page, through AddThis .  This is where I started to run into the limitations of hosting my blog on wordpress.com.  Unlike the hosted version of WordPress, which has a plug-in to implement the AddThis menu, in the wordpress.com layout, I have to place it in the sidebar and I’m not convinced it works properly anyway.  In any event, since I added the button bar, I’ve seen no clicks to bookmark posts.  Is it because of the position of the toolbar or is it because no-one thinks the material worth bookmarking?  I don’t know.

The biggest problem I face with blogging – and I’m sure this is true for many bloggers – is actually writing the posts!  It’s not a matter of thinking of topics or deciding what to say, although that’s what I thought would be the limitation when I started.  Rather, it’s the time it takes to actually write the article, polish it into satisfactory style and grammar and assemble suitable graphics and links.  I tend to make my blog posts moderately long, compared to what seems to be the norm.   Writing 1,000 words to a standard that I’m happy with can take me 4-5 hours, even when I have a very clear idea of what I want to say.  Finding the time to do that is always a problem – especially recently, since I switched from self-employment back to a permanent role – and it’s fatal if I interrupt the writing before it’s finished.  This post sat untouched as a half-written draft for 2 weeks before I came back to finish it off.  I’m not sure what I can do about that, although one approach that looks promising is using the iPhone app for WordPress.  I wouldn’t want to mess around with formatting using an on-screen keyboard – my HTML’s just not that good.  However, if I can do the basic layout, add the graphics and some text, it’s certainly feasible to add body text offline through the iPhone and sync the changes back to WordPress.  That will make use of dead time while I’m travelling, which is one of the major pressures on my time recently.

I’ve also been trying to reuse the material I do write.  I started by publishing some posts at Ezine Articles (you’ll also find an index of them on my blog here).  Not very post is suited to this platform though.  There are automated mechanisms to allow blog posts to be sent direct to Ezine Articles, but the site only accepts articles subject to strict rules.  You’re only allowed 2 links in the article body and there’s no graphics, so any of my posts requires modification first.  However, it’s worth the effort, generating a significant number of views.  It was here that I learned another valuable lesson about content:  by splitting long posts into smaller, linked articles, you get more chances to attract readers and they’re more likely to stay, following through the set of articles.

The next thing I’d like to try builds on this, by offering the same content in multiple different formats:

  • Write a blog post and publish it here
  • Simplify and publish as one or more articles on Ezine Articles
  • Produce a slide show to summarise  the topic, add the article text as speaker notes and publish it to Slideshare
  • Add an audio narration of the speaker notes, convert to a video at authorSTREAM

I have a topic already – a slide deck I prepared for a job interview some months back. All I need to do is find the time to produce the additional formats and publish them.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how a comment by my friend and small business marketing coach Greg Spence led me to investigate how to use Google Alerts to search for news stories around your main key word phrases. Since I posted that article, I’ve gradually migrated all the RSS feeds for blogs that I follow and added Twitter searches for those keywords as well. I’ve already described how I rely on the “Feeds” iPhone app

to synchronise with Google Reader, allowing me to browse all those items offline and mark the few that are sufficiently interesting to follow-up on. It did eventually occur to me that other people might find the same things interesting – after all, if you follow me on Twitter or read my blog, we’ve got something in common, haven’t we? While investigating a problem between Twitterfeed and ping.fm, I discovered that I can use ping.fm to monitor for new additions to the “shared items” list in Google Reader and then post the link to my contacts on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

In my next post, I’ll look at the social networks I use to maintain my circle of contacts and how I notify those contacts of new content.

How Was It for You?

April 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Collaboration, Home Office | 3 Comments
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Credit & Copyright: Marco Fulle (Stromboli Online)

  So, how was the office when you arrived at work on last Monday morning?  Quiet?  Like all good disasters, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was the first of a cascading series of events.   The eruption occurred at a time when, unseasonably the prevailing winds across the UK were from the North West (typically at this time of year, our weather comes from the South West), carrying the ash cloud over Northern Europe.  In truth the authorities had no choice to close airspace until the picture became clearer.  But, you know all this.  The key thing, is it happened on the final weekend of the schools’ Easter holidays, leaving thousands of families stranded. Up to 100,000 Britons were caught up in the chaos, so chances are, at least some of your staff didn’t show up on Monday morning and some of them may not be back yet.   It’s always inconvenient when staff are absent, but what if they’re key workers?  While we’re prepared (at least to some degree) to cope with major disruptions to our IT infrastructure, or even our physical premises, there’s an increasing awareness that people also affect business continuity.   When disaster strikes, the first priority is to stop events spiralling out of control and developing into a crisis.  In his book “Managing the Human Factor in Information Security“, David Lacey describes how the most sophisticated organisations have standing crisis management teams and conduct regular exercises for those team, anticipating a wide range of situations, however improbable, and planning the business response to protect reputation and customer confidence.  A little over a year ago, we were listening in horror to apocalyptic forecasts of the impending Swine Flu pandemic.  Mercifully, that didn’t happen to anything like the level feared.  But hopefully, the  planning you did then (you did make plans, didn’t you?) will have helped you this week.  As we emerge from the recession, staffing levels have been pared to the bone; plus, we know that many families barely cope with childcare provisions, particularly during school holidays.  So, it’s prudent to assume that loss of key workers is to be a recurring problem.  

 To prepare your business, you need to be able to answer the following questions:       

  1.  Do you know who your key workers are?
  2. Do you know where they are at the moment? 
  3. What critical activities are they handling in the short-term?
  4. What information do they need to keep those activities moving?
  5. Can they access it remotely if necessary?
  6. If a key worker becomes unavailable, who could deputise?
  7. Do those deputies know what  the priority actions are?
  8. Can they reach the necessary information?

One important thing you could do, which is specific to the recent problem, is to provide assistance to key staff when they’re travelling, either on business or for pleasure.  Until last year, I worked for a very large global software vendor.  When I booked a trip through the corporate travel booking system, my itinerary and contact details were automatically passed to a partner organisation.  I carried a card with telephone numbers for a 24 hour emergency contact centre and, if needed, the partner could arrange direct assistance including evacuation if needed.        Once you understand the “who” and the “what”, you can turn your attention to the “where” and the “how” by preparing mitigation strategies:       

  1.    Equip your key staff to work off the premises —  many of your key workers may already be equipped with laptops and smart phones, to fulfil their day-to-day responsibilities.  Do they need to be given additional equipment?  3G dongles or modems?   Would it be wise to provide more key staff with laptops and smart phones?
  2. Make sure your key staff are set up to work from home — As well as providing the necessary equipment, you need to be sure that home workers have adequate facilities.  The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development offers advice on managing home workers.
  3. Make sure your key staff have access to audio/video conferencing and online meeting facilities — Providing access to an audio conference bridge is easy to set up.  You can relay the bridge details by mobile phone or email as needed.  Where staff need to use this facility with customers or partners, they’ll need their own bridge account with your supplier.  There are a range of online meeting systems, such as Microsoft Live Meeting, Citrix Goto Meeting or Cisco Webex.  Many organisations ban the use of Skype on corporate networks, but in an emergency, it’s simple to use and many people already have access from their home PCs.
  4. Rethink your admission control for personal devices — Organisations are understandably reluctant to let staff use personal devices (PCs, smart phones) to access the corporate network.  But, in an emergency, this could be the only way to reconnect key workers, who can’t make it into the office.  Consider whether you can pre-approve home PCs for some key staff (Do they have up-to-date anti-virus/spyware?  Is Windows Update turned on?) and relax network admission controls to allow their use in an emergency (you don’t use admission controls?  We really need to talk!)
  5. Decide how you’ll cope with the additional connections through your VPN gateways and firewalls — The likelihood is that your contingency plans will mean a large increase in the number of staff access the corporate network from outside.  It’s wise to hold discussions with the vendors of your perimeter security solutions beforehand, to decide how any licence “overdraft” can be handled.
  6. Make sure that deputies can access all the data they need in the absence of key staff — This is a procedural issue, to provide elevated access privileges to those staff who will deputise for missing key workers.  The procedures for requesting and approving elevated privilege, and for “break glass” access in a fast-developing emergency can be built into your identity and access management systems, but that’s a subject for another post on another day.
  7. Consider how you can arrange for collaboration on key project information —  I’ve written before in this blog about how you can organise information in Microsoft OneNote and synchronise it between an office PC and a laptop.  I’ve also written about how this synchronisation can be extended to the iPhone.  In the corporate environment, collaboration using OneNote notebooks can be managed through the (increasingly ubiquitous) Sharepoint portal.  Using a combination like this, the key information needed for critical activities is shared between all the members of your team and can be accessed almost wherever they are.  For now, the solution for iPhone is limited to read-only, but even that is due to be rectified very shortly.

One final thought — like all contingency plans, you need to test your arrangements.  There are bound to be things you’ve forgotten and you’ll only find out what they are when you do it.  Online tech news website Silicon.Com arranges periodic “Work at Home”  days, where all the editorial staff stay out of the office and they try to run the business day as normal.  It’s an excellent way to find out what works and what needs tweaking.  

Lost Connection

April 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Home Office | 3 Comments
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If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you have regular access to an Internet connection, either at home, or at work , or both.  So, let me start by asking you some questions:

  • How important is your Internet connection to your every day life?
  • How long can you afford to be without the connection?
  • Have you made any plans to cope with the loss of your connection?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we’re all becoming dependent upon Internet-based communications.  10 years ago, dial-up modems were the norm and home access to the Internet was only for the technically savvy.   Over the last decade, I’ve moved through unlimited evening and weekend access, to unlimited anytime access and onto broadband, first at 512Kbps and by increments up to 8Mbps (as luck should have it, the local BT exchange is around 150 yards from V1951 Towers, so we do actually get a reasonable speed).  We use that connection for 3 different PCs, an internet radio, my iPhone, my home office phone, our Nintendo Wii (for BBC iPlayer), MrsV1951’s Nintendo DS and anything else we can think of.  And the trend is bound to continue.  More and more devices are now internet-enabled.  Did you know that you can even buy TVs with built-in Skype?  No?  Well, take a look at this

We use our internet connection as the platform of choice for banking, managing insurances, researching new purchases (and often making those purchases), booking holidays and countless other day-to-day activities.  We’re currently looking forward to being able to make and change appointments at the local doctors’ surgery online.  Plus of course, as a self-employed consultant, I mostly work from home! 

So, a few weeks ago, I was running seriously late (for a variety of reasons) on the promised delivery of a draft report to a customer.  At around 7pm that evening, my broadband connection failed.  Disaster!  MrsV1951 and I were due to leave at 5am the following morning for the airport, en route to a few days holiday.  A quick investigation showed that while all my devices were connecting to the wi-fi element of the Home Hub, none could reach the outside world.  The hub however seemed to be synchronised with the ADSL service.  Having first got an apology off to my customer (thank heavens for iPhone and 3G – the customer kindly agreed to a generous extension to the deadline), I phoned BT’s help desk (inevitably, it’s in India).  I explained the situation – I have identical symptoms from multiple PCs, so it looks like the hub – but the help desk agent was clearly following a script and insisted that we slowly and painfully check configuration settings and Internet Explorer settings on the PC, and then repeat it all on a second PC and then change the connection from wireless to wired and do it all again.  After 2 hours, during which I’d been told to click the reset button in Internet Explorer (“Don’t worry, it won’t change your configuration.”  Yes it did! For a start, it disabled all my add-ins), I was close to hysteria.  My comments about single point failures were totally ignored, but finally, I got the answer (“We can see the sync signal from your ADSL hub, so it must be a problem on the hub.  We’ll try a hard reset and, if that doesn’t work we’ll need to replace the hub.”) that I’d been hoping for at the start of the call.  Fortunately, that restored the connectivity, just leaving me another couple of hours, resetting all the configurations I’d lost during the troubleshooting.  The following morning, tired after only a couple of hours sleep and a long drive to the airport, I vented my frustration on Twitter.   I was quite surprised to get the following reply:

Useful to have a fairly direct line of communication to people who can help.  If you’re a BT Total Broadband customer, it’s well worth following this account on Twitter (@BTCare) for service updates.  Interestingly, I’d not seen this publicised anywhere until they contacted me.  Incidentally, a little detective work revealed that the fault coincided with BT pushing a firmware update to the hub and also that I wasn’t the only person to lose their service as a result.

So, given that I work from home, I should have had the sense to make provision for this sort of failure, right?  Well, maybe, but it seems to me that we’ve already come to regard our broadband connection as just another utility.  We assume that it’s going to be available and working, whenever we choose to use it.  Product assurance engineers will explain that component failure rates mean there will always be a degree of unreliability.  However, that can often be unacceptable.  In the military, some systems are classed as militarily essential.  Thus, they are designed with multiple levels of redundancy and spares are carried, even for components that are never expected to fail.  David Hart Dyke was Captain of HMS Coventry during the Falklands War.  He once commented that “To me, reliability means that, when I push the button, it works.” 

So,  when I returned from holiday, I bought a 3G dongle and tested it from my desktop PC and my laptop.  I’m not going to get caught out again.

Looking to the future, my neighbour and his neighbour are both consultants, also working from home offices.  We’re discussing the possibility of introducing routers and CAT 5 cables between our 3 houses, to provide a fallback capability if any one of us loses broadband connection.  We might even look into broadband aggregation services, to permanently combine our bandwidth.  Peter Cochrane describes how aggregation services work in his blog.

Finally, I found a series of short videos by journalists, scientists and technologists, speculating on what the World be will be like in 10 years’ time.  You can find these thought-provoking pieces on  the Huffington Post.  The last video, is by Johan Bergendahl, VP of Marketing at Ericsson and discusses the importance of broadband.  Take a look at it below.

Short and Sweet

March 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 1 Comment
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As I continue to develop the information management strategy that I first laid out in my very first blog post, it’s becoming clear that the two applications at the heart of this strategy (and pretty much always open on my desktop) are Outlook and OneNote.  Of course, as I’ve often pointed out, when I’m on the move, I don’t have the backup of a sophisticated unified messaging infrastructure sitting behind Outlook; rather, I need to do the best I can to synchronise between those two critical applications back at base and my iPhone.  I was reading a blog post recently from the MobileNoter developers, which was looking for opinions on additional features that might be useful in this great little app.  On offer were:

  • Improving control of the iPhone camera from within the MobileNoter app;
  • Adding the ability to import SMS messages into (presumably) Quick Notes.

 I do use the camera on my iPhone, mainly to capture hardcopy documents and the contents of flip charts and white boards.  I use an iPhone app (Document Scanner) to do this, and it gives me all the capabilities I need to correct the perspective, adjust the image properties and so on.  It even provides OCR to to capture the text.  The result can be saved as a jpeg or multi-page pdf.  The jpeg can of course be attached to a Quick Note, while either format can be emailed back to the office PC.  So, do I need more camera facilities within MobileNoter?  Probably not.

The second option is more interesting.  In the early 1990’s, I was working as Head of IT at a UK defence contractor.  One of my priorities was to migrate our (for that time) fairly large population of mobile phone users from analogue car phones onto the new digital GSM service.   One of the first things we discovered on our new phones was the message displayed on the screen to notify the arrival of voicemail.  This was the first use of the Short Message Service (SMS).  SMS began its life in 1992, utilising unused bandwidth in the out-of-band signalling system used to control traffic.  This meant that these messages could be carried at virtually no cost – indeed, when we started, SMS was a free service, but you had to explicitly ask for it to be enabled for your phone – provided the messages were limited to 160 characters (to fit in with the existing control message formats).  At the start (around 1993 for us), our Motorola 5200 flip phones could only receive SMS messages, not transmit them.  However, we found that we could generate messages to these phones, by establishing a telnet connection to Vodafone’s SMS Service Centre in Newbury (over a 2400baud dial-up modem – yes, really!) and typing the message.  We built on that by writing an extension for Microsoft Outlook in Visual Basic, to allow our users to select a colleague by name (we used a simple file of names and phone numbers, not the Global Address Book) and then type and send their message.  The VB program then dialled the SMSC and sent the message.  Not very elegant, but it worked!  For the first time, a secretary in the office could send messages to the manager in their car – our first tentative steps towards mobile messaging.

Of course, SMS developed rapidly – much to the amazement of the GSM operators, who thought it was likely to remain an interesting engineering trick, with little practical application.  Once all digital mobile phones had the ability to both send and receive text messages (Nokia were first to achieve this across their product range, by the end on 1993), SMS was quickly adopted by younger users, not least because of the very low cost.  According to Wikipedia, the average cost of sending an SMS message is US$0.11, while the cost to the network operator is virtually zero.  By 2008, 4.1 trillion messages were sent world-wide.  For business users, the attraction was the ability to send a message to virtually any mobile from anywhere. 

Although SMS was not the only text based messaging service available, it was not really until earlier this decade that a viable alternative became available with the arrival of the BlackBerry in 2002. I didn’t get my hands on a BlackBerry until around 2006, but when I did, it certainly changed my dependence upon text messages.  The simplicity of sending “proper” emails wherever I was made that the obvious choice and I only sent text mesages when I knew that the recipent was out of the office and didn’t have a smart phone.

More recently, since I became self-employed, my usage pattern has changed again, because:

  • I’ve changed to using the iPhone, where the simple intuitive screen layout and threaded messages make it a far more powerful tool and
  • Data roaming charges for the iPhone when I’m travelling are prohibitive, while SMS charges are still modest.

So, a quick scan through the SMS messages currently on my iPhone shows countless pieces of information (URLs, contact details, addresses …) that I’ve manually transcribed into OneNote notebooks.  So, no doubt in my mind –  the facility to import text messages into MobileNoter will be yet another step towards converging those two critical applications.

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Have I Got News for You

February 15, 2010 at 11:32 pm | Posted in Research, Social Networks | 5 Comments
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(with apologies to the wickedly funny BBC panel game of the same name)

Meet Greg Spence.  Greg and I first met more than 25 years ago, when we worked together for a small, specialist engineering consultancy.  We worked on some early distributed database projects, using Oracle’s SQL*Link and SQL*Connect components and Greg went on to become the first Chairman of the Oracle UK Users Group.

We lost touch when Greg left the consultancy and it was only recently that I received a message through LinkedIn from him.  By this time, he had moved from technology into sales and marketing.  Currently, he helps small business owner to improve their sales and marketing results through the innovative and effective use of internet marketing.   If, like me, you’re intrigued by the use of social networking and blogs for marketing, I strongly recommend subscribing to Greg’s blog.

If you’ve been following my posts over the last few months, you’ll remember how my very first post described how I use RSS feeds into Microsoft Outlook to keep track of what’s happening and to populate Microsoft OneNote, ready for drafting new blog posts.  So, newly connected to Greg, I was interested to see a comment he posted, explaining how to use Google Alerts to search for news stories around your main key word phrases and how to forward that to Google Reader.  A little research showed that Google Reader is in fact a very easy way of aggregating these searches with RSS and Atom feeds from blogs and other static web pages.  All I needed to do was to create an account on Google.  Incidentally, this gives another opportunity to create a profile, linked to your blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on.  You can check out my Google profile here.

So far, so good – but you know me.  I have to find a way to integrate my iPhone into everything.  So, a little more research led me to the Unofficial Apple Website and an excellent review by Jason Clarke, comparing Byline and Feeds, both of which sync with Google Reader.  I settled quickly on Feeds:

With this new set-up, it’s simple to sync Feeds with my Google Reader account before leaving home, or whenever I find myself within free wi-fi coverage.  That leaves me with an offline copy of the latest news on my topics, for me to read on the iPhone while travelling.  The options menu allows me to very simply tweet anything that catches my eye or to email a page to a friend.

So, back to Greg.  This very useful tweak to my notification set-up encouraged me to investigate Greg’s blog and web site.  There, I found a very useful (and free!) 28 page report on Automated Marketing, which describes how to use content to drive your internet marketing efforts.  You can get an idea of how it all works from this pictorial overview:

I’d managed to work out a lot of this by trial and error over the last few months, but I found a number of things that are worthy of immediate attention, including:

  • Publishing slightly longer, factual articles at (for example) Ezine Articles;
  • Using Hootsuite and ping.fmto publish a snippet of comments on other blogs, together with a (shortened) url to those blogs.

I hope to persuade Greg to write a guest post for me in the near future, but for now, I thoroughly recommend that you download his report.

Send Back Pictures to OneNote

January 26, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 1 Comment
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I’ve written before on how Microsoft’s OneNote 2007 makes the ideal repository for collecting and organising unstructured information from multiple sources.  To get the most out of this versatile application, you really need to be able to take the content of your note books on the road with you.  If, like me, you switch between a desktop in the office and a laptop for travelling, keeping the note books in sync is easily arranged by using a cloud service, like Live Mesh.  However, for short trips, or for meetings where it might not be appropriate (or practical) to use the laptop, what’s needed is to be able to sync the contents of those note books (complete with formatting) to your iPhone – and that facility is provided very simply and cost effectively, using MobileNoter.

One of the shortcomings of the first release of MobileNoter has been that the note books are not editable on the iPhone.  The MobileNoter developers assure me this is coming in a future release, but for now, you’re limited to creating text-only “Quick Notes”.  These are synchronised back to your PC, where they’re added to a special MobileNoter notebook in OneNote 2007.  From there, they can be simply dragged and dropped into any other note-book, in the same way as content in the “Unfiled Notes” note-book.

When I connected my iPhone today, to sync from the PC, I found that there was an update (v1.2) for the MobileNoter cloud edition app.  I downloaded and installed it and when I checked, there was also an update for the desktop sync client on the PC.  With both components safely updated, I took a look at the MobileNoter developers’ blog, but thus far, there’s no news on the new release.  So, what follows is my first thoughts after experimenting …

I wrote recently, that MobileNoter were planning a new release for the first half of February.  It seems that this is that new release, several weeks ahead of schedule.  The major new feature appears when you create a new Quick Note on the  iPhone.  After entering your text note and tapping “Done”, the Quick Note displays 4 icons at the bottom, each of which can be used either to attach a picture stored on the iPhone camera roll or to take a picture with the camera and attach it to the Quick Note immediately.  Once the Quick Note is synchronised back to the PC, the pictures are displayed in the body of the OneNote page.

I also use the DocScanner app on my iPhone to capture hardcopy documents (particularly whiteboard and flip chart contents, after meetings and workshops).  The beauty of this app is its ability to accurately detect the borders of a document and to deskew the image to allow for camera angle.  The app allows you to email the resulting picture as either a JPEG or PDF document.  Significantly, you also save the document to the camera roll and hence attach it to a Quick Note.

The MobileNoter team introduceed a search function to v1.0 of the iPhone app, but it’s not obvious how to access it.  This has been dramatically improved in this latest release, with a search icon appearing on the bottom of the screen.  The operation of the search function can now be configured through the “Search Settings” button.  This allows you to limit which notebooks are included in the search.

You should bear in mind that these useful new features are only included in the Cloud Edition of MobileNoter.  The developers plan to add them to the Wi-fi Edition in a future release.  It’s possible that this will coincide with the release of a unified (cloud and wi-fi) app for the iPhone.

So, no doubt in due course,  more information will appear on the MobileNoter developers’ blog about this release.  I thought it might be interesting to describe my first reaction – and I have to say, the new features make an invaluable tool even more productive.

Update (27 January):  You’ll now find official details of the new features in v1.2 at the MobileNoter developers’ blog here.

OneNote, iPhone and Wi-Fi

January 15, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 9 Comments
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I’ve written several times about how my new life as an independent consultant requires me to organise large amounts of (often unstructured) information and to share it across my desktop PC and my laptop, for when I’m working away.  At the heart of this strategy is Microsoft’s OneNote 2007 and, like many other users, I was desperately keen to find a way to copy all that information to my brand new iPhone.  So, when MobileNoter was released for public beta, I was quick to sign up.  The first version was released to GA in November last year and I’ve been successfully using it ever since.

Congestion in the Cloud

MobileNoter works by periodically synchronising changes to your notebooks with a copy, stored on the company’s servers.  This of course depends upon a connection (either wireless or 3G) from your iPhone to the MobileNoter servers, to retrieve a copy of your notebooks – even if the iPhone and the PC are in the same room.  If your notebooks are large, then the transfer time could be a real issue.  Tech guru Peter Cochrane has written in recent days on the impact of bandwidth (or more particularly latency) issues on productivity.  At the same time, the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones has written about the increasing inability of 3G networks to cope with data hungry applications on the iPhone and other smart phones

Before You Go

Of course, if the content of your notebooks is likely to change while you’re travelling, then you have no choice but to accept the time it takes to refresh.  However, lots of independent specialists, like me, will travel, knowing that nothing will change before they return.  For them, the logic is to load a copy, direct from their desktop PC to their iPhone, without going through a cloud service or long haul network connection.  For these users, MobileNoter introduced the Wi-Fi Edition in December of last year.  This new edition has 3 significant differences from the cloud edition:

  1. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition does not use web server for synchronization process, but a registration process is still necessary to set up an account and confirm the purchase. While using Wi-Fi synchronization, your files are not being sent anywhere in the Web, so you don’t need to worry about security of your data.
  2. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition is purchased by a one-time payment instead of subscription fee. The price is higher, but there is no time on using the app.
  3. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition is more suitable for those who have large volumes of OneNote data.

How it Works

By dispensing with the MobileNoter servers, the wi-fi edition becomes a peer-to-peer process.  To make this work, the first step is to configure your iPhone to connect to your home wireless router.  Now, gadget freaks like me will have long since done this anyway, but for those readers who actually have a life, it’s quite simple.  You’ll just need your home router’s SSID and encryption key.  If your router doesn’t enforce WPA encryption, PLEASE go and turn it on right now.  If in doubt, you may find the instructions here helpful.  Alternatively, you can find detailed instructions in the iPhone User Guide.

The next step is for your iPhone and PC to be able to discover each other, register and form a “pair”.  MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition uses Apple’s Bonjour service discovery protocol to achieve this.  The necessary components are downloaded and configured by the installer for both desktop sync client and the iPhone app, so you shouldn’t need to do anything.  If you do have problems though, you can find extra help on the MobileNoter development blog.  The main thing to remember though is that Bonjour is a non-routable protocol.  If you connect your iPhone to a public wi-fi network, it won’t work.  If you have more than one home router and your iPhone and PC are connected to different routers, it won’t work.  If you have a BT Home Hub, configured for FON and your iPhone connects to the FON segment, it won’t work. 

With all this done, you should be able to initiate a sync from the iPhone app.  However, it’s still possible to hit problems.  The first release of the Wi-Fi Edition used TCP Port #80 on the PC.  It soon became apparent that on many PCs, other applications were using this port and TCP port sharing was not allowed.  So, a maintenance release changed the default port number to one far less likely to be in use.  The installer attempts to configure the PC to allow the use of this port, but the sheer number of permutations of PC security tools (firewalls, intrusion prevention systems) and their configurations means that sometimes, permissions need to be set manually.  You can download a simple command line utility to do this from the MobileNoter website.

This can all seem quite daunting, but my installation worked first time, without any intervention on my part, so don’t be put off!

Cloud or Wi-Fi?

Which edition you choose depends very much upon how you are going to use the product.  I outlined the principal differences earlier, but probably it all depends upon whether (through collaboration or otherwise) the notebooks could be changed by someone else while you’re travelling.  The two editions share a common desktop sync client but have separate iPhone apps.  I have both apps installed together on my iPhone and can use either to sync with my desktop PC.  However, as things stand, the apps each produce their own copy of the notebooks and you can’t specify which notebooks are synchronised over wi-fi and which through the cloud.

What Next?

There’s a new version of the Cloud Edition  iPhone app planned for February, which will provide improved search capabilities and will also allow pictures to be added to Quick Notes (to be synchronised back to the PC).   At a later stage (no date yet) these features will be added to the Wi-Fi Edition and it’s probable that at this point, the two iPhone apps and their data files will merge into a single app.

Still further down the line, there are plans to allow the notebooks to be edited on the iPhone with changes synchronised back to the PC.  There are a number of ways this could be achieved, but the first possibility is already being tested.

OneNote in your Pocket

November 2, 2009 at 11:36 am | Posted in Collaboration | 6 Comments
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MobileNterIn a previous blog entry I described my experiences using the beta version of MobileNoter to access my Microsoft OneNote notebooks from my iPhone, while out and about.  Remarkably, the development team had managed to include everything planned for the first production release in the beta and it had proven very stable and (at least in my opinion) extremely useful. 

So, it comes as no surprise that the release of v1.0 (which is currently in review for the iPhone Appstore and is expected to launch in around 2 weeks time) contains more features, taken from the beta testers’ wish list.  You’ll find all the details of these new features in the MobileNoter development blog, so I’ll just point out the highlights:

  • Better use of iPhone features (landscape mode and swipe to delete quick notes);
  • Better implementation of the OneNote structure, including Section Groups and Sub-pages.

However, I’m particularly pleased to see some enhancements to the solution’s security features.  Firstly, both the iPhone app and the Windows sync client will optionally support encryption of data at rest on the MobileNoter servers.  AES-256 encryptionEntering a passcode in the Phone app is offered with a symmetric key which must be entered into both components.  As always with symmetric encryption systems, the devil will be in the detail of how to manage the shared secret.  The second feature implements an optional pass code in order to be able to access the iPhone app.  While I see and support the logic of providing protection against someone accessing data on a lost, stolen or even unattended iPhone, I have a concern over the implementation.   The screen shot shows that the app is expecting a 4 digit numeric-only pass code.   Based on the PIN used to secure our use of ATMs, this only gives 9,999 unique combinations.  This is generally considered enough to protect access to an ATM where the time to enter each combination is significant and the machine (and the intruder) are in plain sight.  However, a lost or stolen iPhone can be attacked off-line, with no witnesses.  So, the utility of this protection depends on whether intruder lock-out is implemented.   Then there’s the question of how do you reset intruder lock-out if you make a mistake?  A simpler solution would be to forego some of the capabilities of the iPhone’s UI and just offer a text box, which masks entries and gives no clues as to length or composition.  Do security and usability always have to be a zero sum game?

The final point to note on the upcoming release is that it will require payment of a subscription.   Comments on the development blog have criticised this decision, but the MobileNoter team (rightly in my opinion) point out that they have to maintain the servers and storage to implement the solution.  Unlike the development costs for the two software components, which can be apportioned over the predicted number of users, these infrastructure costs are both variable and recurring.

For those that really object to the subscription model, a variant is planned for the near future, which will link directly over wi-fi between the iPhone app and the Windows sync client.  This will be offered for a onetime payment.  

Personally, I think the small cost ($15 per year) is well worth paying for the utility I get from this solution, especially since this includes free support and upgrades.  There are plans (still at an early stage) to make this work with cloud storage solution, like Microsoft’s Live Mesh.  That’s more than enough to keep me involved to see how the solution evolves over time. 

MobileNoter isn’t the only way to synchronise OneNote notebook content onto your iPhone, but to me it’s the simplest and most elegant – and that’s worth $15 of my money any day.

Danger in the Cloud?

October 13, 2009 at 9:37 am | Posted in Systems Management | Leave a comment
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10 years ago, I was interviewed for a position within the newly formed eTrust security practice at Computer Associates (now CA).  The Consulting Director who interviewed me asked how much I knew about the eTrust product set.  I reeled off the list of products (I know how to research!) and explained which of them I had firsthand experience with.  I concluded by saying “Oh, and we use Arcserve for all our backups.”  The consulting director pointed out that Arcserve (CA had recently acquired Cheyenne) is a storage product, not a security product.  My response “It is where I come from!”  I got the job anyway.  

The point of this anecdote is that security is based on that well-known triad Confidentiality-Integrity-Availability.  In fact, Dorothy Denning makes a compelling argument for expressing both confidentiality and integrity in terms of availability.  So, of course backup and recovery – the first line of defence for availability – are part of security.

Backups matter!More recently, as I was setting up Identigrate UK, my desktop PC suffered a catastrophic failure.  Things rapidly deteriorated until I couldn’t even start the machine in SAFE mode.  However, as a long-time paranoid security specialist (even paranoids have real enemies, right?) I had set up regular backups to an external eSATA drive (stored in a fire and water proof safe).  I had also set up to backup critical documents (business plan, budget spreadsheets …) as they changed, using BT’s Digital Vault service.   Finally, the PC manufacturer had had the good sense to configure a recovery disk, based on the excellent Norton Ghost.  So, after half a day of hard work, my PC was restored, all applications re-installed and virtually all data recovered.  It reminded me of a (somewhat cynical) definition of backup as “something you start doing immediately after your first hard disk failure”.

On 10 October, after a week of escalating outages, T-Mobile was forced to announce to it’s Sidekick users that their data had been lost and that recovery was extremely unlikely.  For those that (like me) haven’t come across the Sidekick beforeTrain Wreck!, it’s a smart phone, manufactured by Danger Inc.  Microsoft acquired Danger Inc in February of this year.  The important thing is that the Sidekick doesn’t store data (contacts, calendars, to do lists, photos) locally, but rather stores it  “in the cloud” or more accurately on Danger’s servers.

It’s still not clear what actually happened, but there’s speculation about a bodged SAN upgrade.  However it happened, how can you possibly run any enterprise IT setup and not have fully functioning – and tested – backup and recovery processes?

Now, I use an iPhone, so could the same disaster befall me?  Well, no.  My iPhone stores most of its data locally on the device.  When I connect the iPhone to my PC, it makes a backup on the PC (which is then backed up to the external disk).  I do use cloud services with my iPhone – MobileNoter, Google Calendar and so forth – but these are just synchronising data between my iPhone and my desktop/laptop.  So, the cloud data is not the only copy.

I suppose the moral of this story is that people are carrying ever more sophisticated computing devices in their pocket and they’re using them in conjunction with ever more complex cloud services.  For many people,  this is all new and bewildering, but that’s going to change.  As Larry Dignan comments on his blog, “As we rely on the cloud more there will become a day when everyone will have some basic knowledge of IT management. Rest assured, Sidekick customers will know you’re supposed to back up your servers better. Gmail customers may learn a bit about scalability. And TD Bank customers certainly know that you can’t merge systems without a fallback plan if things go awry.”

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