Monday, July 28, 2008

Office Depot Good Deed

It's not often that you hear of a corporation going out of its way to be a good citizen, so I figure when I see one that does, I should publicize it. Office Depot just sent me a rebate check - but not one they owed me. They paid me the rebate I was owed from the manufacturer. Granted I bought the product at Office Depot, but they could easily have just hoped that I'd forget about it. Instead they made good on the manufacturer's promise. Here's the letter they sent me:

Dear Office Depot Customer,

Enclosed is your rebate payment in connection with your purchase of [...]
from Office Depot [...] We understand that the receipt of your rebate may have
taken longer than anticipated, and we regret any inconvenience that this delay
may have caused you. As you may know, this particular rebate was not
issued by Office Depot; rather it was issued by a vendor, from whom we acquired
the merchandise you bought at Office Depot. This vendor was directly
responsible for funding the rebates, but failed to do so.

In light of that failure and because Office Depot values you and your
expectations as an Office Depot customer, Office Depot has determined to satisfy
the rebates itself. Please accept your rebate with both our apologies for
the delay in getting it to you and our thanks for your loyalty and

Thank you again for your understanding.

John Lostroscio,
Vice President, Merchandising.
Good job, Office Depot. You've scored a point with me, and hopefully with the people who read this blog.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Highly Recommended Programs and Services

There are a lot of interesting and compelling programs and services - more than any single person can keep up with. But out of this multitude, there are a limited number that I think everyone should seriously think about using. This is a table of contents to a list of articles about the software programs and services that I highly recommend.

Keeping online backups with Syncplicity

For a while I've been wanting to write a set of articles discussing the programs and services for Windows users that I most highly recommend. There are a lot of interesting and compelling programs and services - more than any single person can keep up with. But out of this multitude, there are a limited number that I think everyone should seriously think about using. So I'm finally getting around to it. This is the first of those articles.

Here's the issue: your pc can be stolen, it can die, it can burn up in a fire, you can take a hammer and destroy it in frustration ;^) And unless you have backups of your important files, you are up the proverbial creek.

What's the most common response to this risk? Copy your files to a usb drive, write them to a CD/DVD, or write them to an external hard drive.

But there are two problems with this solution. One, you have to remember to do this (or actually do it when your backup program prompts you). And two, unless you store the backup somewhere other than where you live (e.g., a safe deposit box), a fire or theft leaves you up the same creek. Oh, and a third problem - this method is an ongoing pain to do.

So here's my strong recommendation: use Syncplicity to automatically keep up-to-date copies of your important files on Syncplicity's disk storage.

When you sign up with Syncplicity, you will be provided with 2GB of storage space. If you pay $10/month, or $100/year, you will be provided 40GB of storage space. And you can get another 50GB by paying another $10/month or $100/year.

And - most importantly for the purpose I'm discussing - Syncplicity makes available a software program you can use to automatically keep your important files up-to-date on Syncplicity's disk storage. Use it!

Syncplicity has a couple other nice features:
  • You can access your files from anywhere you have an Internet connection.
  • You can share any of your folders with other people.
  • You can keep files synchronized between multiple pc's. I have several files I want both at home and at work, and this service allows me to edit the files without worrying that they will get out of sync.
Now you may be concerned about security - can other people on the Internet (or, for that matter, Syncplicity employees) view these files? In the spectrum of reckless abandon to total paranoia, I tend to lean toward paranoia. Syncplicity states that your files are strongly encrypted on their servers. Even so, I encrypt my important files on my pc before I let Syncplicity at them. It adds an extra step with some of my files, but that's what I get for leaning toward the paranoid side of the spectrum. Note: I'll take about encryption utilities in a coming article.

Bottom line: until now, keeping backups of your important files has always been a painful process, so most people don't do it. Syncplicity makes this a no-brainer. Just do it!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

OSCON 2008

I've been going to these for several years now, and it's great to see that each conference is better than the last - the sessions are more interesting, and the expo hall has more - and more interesting - vendors.

Evan Henshaw-Plath and Kellan Elliott-McCrea gave a very thought-provoking - and entertaining - presentation offering a way to provide subscription updates when RSS becomes untenable. Kellan gave an eye-opening example: on 7/21/08, FriendFeed requested RSS updates from Flickr almost 3 million times! That alone caused the audience to laugh. But then he said that these requests were for updates of only 46,000 Flickr users, and only 6700 of them had logged onto Flickr in the past 24 hours! And he hadn't gone one step further - only a subset of those 6700 actually uploaded new pictures! That's so head-slapping that I have to state it once again - 3 million update requests for less than 6700 updates! So is there a better way? Evan and Kellan's idea is to use the Jabber XMPP protocol. The client (in this case FriendFeed) opens a connection with the server (in this case Flickr) and tells the server what updates it wants (in this case the web pages of the 46,000 users). The server then communicates updates to the client when one of those web pages is updated. Much more efficient than RSS. Check out their slides - they are entertaining as well as informative.

Dave O'Flynn gave an interesting presentation about Atlassian's attempt to define a generic set of api's for authentication and authorization. A couple months ago Atlassian realized that its separate solution for each product was becoming more and more burdensome. Rather than creating a solution for them alone, they decided that a public, open specification would be good for the whole industry. With a generic api, the back-end implementation could be swapped out without breaking the client applications. Several people in the audience were skeptical, mentioning that alternatives already exist, such as OpenID, Higgins and OAuth. Dave's response was that the current options are either incomplete or too difficult to use; and that, under the covers, implementations can use those utilities if you want - the api's would simply hide a lot of the complexity. It's a good idea that, if it comes to fruition, could make application development easier within organizations by leading them to the development of common authorization/authentication utilities.

John Ferraiolo gave a hopeful presentation on the OpenAjax Alliance, and its work to create a standard for Ajax frameworks and widgets (allowing them to coexist and interoperate) and a framework that enables widgets from different domains to communicate with each other on a single page. It's a great idea - as he said, right now we're building a tower of Babel. I've already seen how frustrating it can be to not be able to use multiple Ajax frameworks simultaneously, so I applaud their work. And I look forward to seeing how valuable multi-domain mashups become.

On the Expo floor, I talked with Yahoo about Zimbra. Yahoo is providing a valuable service in offering a compelling alternative to Exchange and Outlook for the enterprise space (competition is always good). My initial concern was about committing to this given Microsoft's interest in acquiring Yahoo. I'm sure Microsoft would love nothing more than to kill this product. It is open source, so Microsoft can't kill it outright; but if it acquires Yahoo, it could kill Yahoo's commercial licensing and support. The Yahoo representative I spoke to believes that Zimbra customers would be so up in arms that they would force Microsoft to continue supporting it. For example, Comcast is licensing Zimbra for its millions of customers. Angering customers so large would be a risky move, but Microsoft doesn't seem to mind making risky moves sometimes. Even so, my belief is that, even if Microsoft were to acquire Yahoo and kill Zimbra support, another organization would immediately offer Zimbra support. I have one recommendation for Yahoo - if a Microsoft acquisition ever gets to the point of seeming imminent, Yahoo should open source the closed-source, value-added functionality of its commercial offering.

I had also hoped to learn more about Yahoo's plan to make IndexTools freely available. The Yahooites I spoke with today didn't know anything about this. Hopefully I'll be able to find out more tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lunch 2.0 at Souk today

Went to Lunch 2.0 at Souk in downtown Portland today. As usual, met interesting people:
  • Jim Helms, the blogger behind Today's Best Tools. A medic/soldier turned blogger.
  • Lea, blogger behind A.R. and Proud and Camp Naughty, and half of team that published the widget treasurelicious. Blogged about a greater variety of subjects until a posting about Oprah's use of the word "vajayjay" resulted in a surprising number of comments. So now she's spending more blogspace on sex education.
  • Dawn Foster (aka famous GeekyGirlDawn), social media consultant and a driving force behind the Portland tech community.
And if you need flexible office space, check out Souk.

Taking a step back, once again I'm impressed with the Portland tech community. It seems that Portland has a natural attraction for friendly, creative, open-minded people interested in sharing their knowledge and opinions and building interesting tools and technology together.