Monthly Archives: February 2009

Media and Mediums

 

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

Those of us who actively create internet content — which includes many nonprofits, at this point – were fairly blindsided by a small, subsequently revoked change in Facebook’s terms of service this month. The earlier terms allowed Facebook to use any content that a user publishes to the site in a variety of ways, as long as the user kept the content on the site. The change extended Facebook’s rights to use beyond it’s time on their system. They could keep using it after the user removed it, and they could even keep using it after the user cancelled their account. Facebook’s defense of this action, in a blog post by Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO, was that the intention was to insure that people whom you shared information with, such as emails, links or notes, didn’t lose access to that information if/when you removed it. But, since the policy didn’t isolate that use example from the broader uses, such as Facebook advertising their services with your content, or providing it to third parties, the reassurance left a lot of us cold. A use policy on a social networking site should establish, clearly, what will and won’t happen with the content that you post to it, not leave it open ended to this extreme.

This incident prompted a fascinating post by Dr. Amanda French, comparing the license agreements of a variety of popular social networks. This is an important read, but the upshot is: Google services and MySpace have pretty clear terms; Facebook and LinkedIn claim a broad range of rights to content that we publish on their systems.

To me this is a bit like the separation of church and state. I expect that a social networking site, like an ISP, is a medium that I can use to communicate and share things, including things that i create and hold copyright to; not a magazine that licenses and retains ownership of works that I submit. If that’s not the case, then I want to know that and be very careful about what I’m putting up there. In my case, I’m trying to protect my works and personal reputation; a nonprofit should be just as concerned about how a business like Facebook might portray them as they repurpose their content.

There is media — content, that we create — and there are mediums, and in the print world the issues of content ownership are very clearly outlined in contracts. Facebook and their ilk should be applying the same standards, maybe even more so, since they are publishers on a much more massive scale than, say Ms. Magazine or Popular Mechanics.

Heart Beat

I’ve always been a poster child for the Peter Pan complex. In fact, I wore out an LP of the Mary Martin score when I was a kid. I’ve always looked younger than my age (I’m 52, regularly guessed as early 40’s). I’ve sported a lifelong love of comic books, and my wife will be the first to tell you that the duty of watching Clone Wars and Batman cartoons with my 9yo is one that I readily accept, and probably would if we were childless, all the same.

So it was a blow to my sense of immortality when I was rushed to the hospital on the possibility that I’d had a heart attack Monday night. The actual diagnosis, as I suspected, was heartburn. Really bad heartburn, that had me doubled over for close to five minutes, throat constricted in a way that made it a little difficult to breathe. My wife called 911; the EMTs insisted that I get it checked out. Probably the worst part of it was seeing my boy on the front stoop watching them wheel me away on a stretcher.

So, between Monday night and this morning, when I went for (and passed) a full stress test, I’ve had five doctors tell me that the concern was well-justified and it was worth the disruption, discomfort and expense of treating a case of heartburn as if it were cardiac arrest. My take on it is this: my grandfather died of a heart attack at age 45. His daughter, my Mom, has had chronic heart trouble throughout her 70’s. For me, it’s not a question of if I’ll have heart problems; it’s one of when. I really hope that the when is, at a minimum, two decades away, preferably three. I eat well, don’t smoke, am generally healthy.

Ironically, the guitarist for one of my favorite bands actually had a heart attack Monday night and passed away yesterday at 53. Other people might consider all of this some kind of wake-up call. I guess I’m too pragmatic for all of that — I’ll consider it incentive to work more exercise into my routine, but I’ll stop short of writing a bucket list or finding religion. All the same, it’s sobering. I’ve got a lot of things that I still want to do before I go, like raise my son to adulthood and write that book I’ve always dreamed of writing. Here’s hopin’.

Tweaking Twitter

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

Twitter is my favorite social network. Why? Because it’s easy to use (type a short message and hit enter); it’s easy to follow (just keep scrolling through the main page); it’s more casually interactive than the competitors; and, because I follow it in Twhirl, which is always in the upper-lefthand corner of my desktop, it’s always there. To contrast, I usually have Facebook open in a Firefox tab, as well, but I can go for hours without thinking to click on it.

If you’ve been curious about Twitter, or you tried it, once, but couldn’t see the utility, now might be a good time to try again. Getting started with Twitter can be a bit of a challenge if you don’t know many people who are on it, but we have an active community that Idealware readers should fit right in with. The nonprofit Twitter pack gives you a quick index of people that you might actually want to follow. And as we move into nonprofit conference season, with NTEN’s big shindig up in April and Techsoup’s Netsquared a month behind it in May, there are a lot of people joining in. Just be sure that, before you follow a bunch of us, that you tell us who you are in your profile, and maybe post an introductory Tweet — most people will not automatically follow back a blank slate.

Convenience, simplicity, immediacy, camaraderie — these are the terms that I associate with Twitter. There are some features that I’d love to see, though. These could all be implemented by Twitter, or some by a clever third party.

First, I’d like to have the option, and for my followers to have the option, of typing an introductory note to appear in the email announcing that someone has a new follower. That way, if I follow you (assuming that you’re on Twitter), I can say “Hi, you, I’m following you because I can tell by your tweets that you read the Idealware blog, and that indicates a refined taste in blogs” or “Hi, you, I see that you have all sorts of tweets about Android and the T-Mobile G1. I’m a fellow G1 user.” Make this optional, sure, but the ability to set some context when I’m establishing a social relationship would be a welcome addition.

Second, please, make the user lists (followers and followees) into a manageable interface. Let me sort them by name, location, average number of tweets a day, whether they’re following me back, how long since they last tweeted, how many tweets they’ve posted total. These are all useful metrics, and I can gleam some of them on Twitter; others via useful tools like Tweepler, which takes a stab at this type of manageability. And let me add people to groups, something that I really appreciate in Facebook’s feature set. This can be done, in a fashion, by Tweetdeck, but only if you want to donate that much of your screen’s real estate to your Twitter client. Twhirl added spellcheck this week, so I’m not going anywhere soon.

Third, while we all appreciate innovations like “Mr. Tweet“, a service that analyzes your Twitter connections and makes additional recommendations, the main algorithm for this service seems to be “who are your friends following? You should follow them, too”. Seems logical. But the result is that Mr. Tweet tells me, and everyone else, that we should follow the Twitter superstars, mostly social media gurus with followers in the thousands. Analysis of my profile should reveal that I use Twitter to converse with friends and associates, and follow very few people like that to begin with. So a recommendation engine based on my behavior, as well as my friends lists, would be great — the current options are like a Google without the option to search on terms, just a button that returns the most popular sites on the web.

Those are my top three — add your Twitter wish list requests in the comments.

NTENsity

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It’s T minus 67 days and counting to the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference, which has risen to THE social and professional peak event in any given year for me. The conference runs from Sunday, April 26th through Tuesday, the 28th this year, and it’s at the Hilton in downtown SF, quite convenient to Bay Area based Techcafeteria. Let me tell you how excited I am, then share a couple of recommendations on how you can have a great time and support the work that NTEN does.

This will be my fifth year attending, and, working my way up to the conference, I co-hosted a pre-conference event at Techsoup last week; I’m doing two NTEN Webinars on Personal and Server virtualiation next month; I’m celebrating the release of my first chapter in a book next month, when NTEN’s Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission comes out; and I’m hosting another pre-conference meetup the night before at a great brewpub in Berkeley. If you’re going, be prepared to meet a lot of really interesting people and to soak up a lot of challenging and helpful thinking about nonprofits and the web, all at one of the best-run tech conferences that you could hope to attend. If NTEN’s CEO and perennial party planner Holly Ross knows one thing (and she knows a lot of things, including how to play the trombone!), it’s how to plan a conference.

Those two things: First, if you’re going, do what you can to participate in the Day of Service. What’s that? I put together a slide show to tell you:

You can sign up and choose a Bay Area charity to advise or help out at NTEN’s site. This is what it’s all about – not just talking, sharing and socializing with peers, but practicing what we preach while we’re at it. I can’t recommend this enough.

Second, if you are or aren’t going, but you recognize, as I do, the value that the most web-savvy group of socially minded techies can bring to nonprofits who are struggling to keep up in this economy, support the NTEN Scholarship fund. Holly is going as far as one foolis–er, brave woman can to inspire us to help her raise $10,000 by the end of the month. Convio will match what we give and send 57 people who can’t otherwise afford it to the event. Give right here!

Let me know if you plan to attend, and/or you want to party with us beforehand. I hope to see you there!

The Road to Inbox:0

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

In the last week or two, Google’s GMail app added a bunch of new features, at least three of which are, to my mind, insanely significant. As you probably know, GMail is about three years old, still in beta, and from it’s release, the most innovative approach to email that we’ve seen since the whole folder metaphor was first thought up. The three new features are Offline, Keyboard Shortcuts for Labeling, and Multiple Inboxes. Offline and Multiple Inboxes are added through the “Labs” section in settings;if you use Gmail, you can use the label if you have Keyboard Shortcuts turned on.

I love Gmail because it is designed to do a lot of my maintenance for me, and I can keep all sorts of mail (I’m up to 729 MB) and find anything instantly. Key to all of this is GMail’s gleeful abandonment of the file cabinet metaphor, an imposition on computing from the early days that is intuitive to humans, yes, but not the most efficient way to manage online information. And maybe this is why I’ve always appreciated Google – they got from the start that you don’t organize massive amounts of information by sorting it all into separate piles, an idea that most of their competitors have not let go of.

Here’s how I use Gmail: Using pop forwarding, I feed three separate email accounts into my primary GMail account. I have it set up to reply using the address that the email was sent to, and each account is automatically labeled with a specifically colored label identifying it’s origin. I have 36 labels defined, and 66 filters that primarily label messages as they come in. I “star” messages that relate to current projects, and I try to keep my inbox to less than 50 messages at any given time. Cleaning up the inbox is a matter of labeling the messages that aren’t accounted for by the filters, deleting the ones I don’t want, and archiving.

Offline, of course, simply gives me a local copy of my inbox for those rare times when I’m out of plugged in, wireless, or AT&T 3G range of a connection. But having a local backup of my inbox is, um, priceless.

Last week, Google introduced new dropdowns for labeling and “moving” messages. The “Move To” tab is somewhat ironic, because GMail doesn’t store messages in different places. It identifies them by their labels. New messages, on arrival, are labeled “inbox”, and “archiving” a message is simply the act of removing the “inbox” label. So the “Move To” menu was strictly a concession to those who can’t let go of the folder idea, so I have little use for it. But, in addition to the new dropdowns, Google also introduced a keyboard shortcut. Typing “l” (lowercase “L”) brings up the labels dropdown; typing the first few letters of a label takes you to that label, and hitting “Enter” applies it to the current message or the selected ones. This allows me to select and label messages far faster than was possible when the mouse was required to open and then scroll through the dropdown menu.

Multiple Inboxes allows you to put as many boxes of messages meeting specific criteria (“has label”, “is starred”, “is a draft”, any search criteria) on your GMail home page. For users with wide displays, these can be placed to the right or left of your inbox. Since I work a lot on my 15″ laptop screen, I chose to add inboxes under the main inbox. To start, I’ve added starred items in a box under my inbox, which lets me keep things that don’t need immediate responses, but should be handy to refer to, right where I want them. Another creative use (as tweeted by Sonny Cloward) is to have a box with all items labeled “task”, but I actually use the recently-added “Tasks” function for that.

Regardless, you’ve heard me rave about Gmail here if you follow my communication posts, but that was all before they added these features, making GMail another 33% more awesome than the competition to an information management geek like me.

Balancing Act

My friends at Blackbaud referred me to this excellent post by Jay Love, CEO of ETapestry, once a small donor database service, now a subsidiary of the mother of all donor database companies. Jay’s timely caution to nonprofits is that they be skeptical about all of the for-profit folk answering their employment ads in the face of the poor economy. People from that side of the dollar fence are generally unprepared for the culture of nonprofits. His story about vendors trying to break into our sector with no experience or research into our needs is fascinating. But I have a different take on hiring people from the for-profit world, and while Jay seems t be saying “don’t do it”, I’m on the “be sure to do it – in moderation” side.

Of course, the healthy disclaimer is that I never worked for a nonprofit, or knew all that much about the culture, before I took a job at Goodwill in late 2000. But I did have enough sense to pick an NPO that ran more like a traditional business than most, at least in some ways, and I took some time to adjust to the culture before I tried to push through any changes. Which isn’t to say that I blend all that well – I’m one of the people complaining that we move to slowly and that consensus is not a value, it’s a tool that, like most tools, is better suited for some tasks than others.

Any business (and nonprofits are businesses) benefits from diversity, just as any business benefits by retaining internal expertise. Businesses suffer when they lean too far in one direction or the other. If your hiring policy is to only hire people who are lifetime nonprofit workers, you run the risk of stifling innovation and you court stagnation. The world doesn’t sit still around us, so we have to dynamically adapt to it. A key tool for managing that adaption is to maintain a diversity of experience and skills in your organization.

Think about it: ten or fifteen years ago, non-profits were largely unregulated. There was no HIPAA. There was no Sarbanes-Oxley, which, while not designed for NPOs, is generally agreed to impose guidelines on us. There was no PCI compliance, the next wave of external oversight that will demand that we modify our processes and investments. Beyond the 990 and what we chose to disclose about our outcomes, there was little demand for detailed metrics. These are all circumstances that the for-profit world, with traditional government oversight and accountability to shareholders has dealt with for decades. We need some of that expertise.

Of course, it’s a scale, and just as we can suffer from cultural insulation, we can suffer by turning over too dramatically. While I would steadfastly debate that we need some of that for-profit perspective on board, I’ve seen a few examples of for-profit executives that take over as CEOs and — because the nonprofit style is so antithetical to the big business style — quickly replace everyone that, to them, looked like they weren’t up to the task of running “a business”. This type of culture change, in a nonprofit, is deadly, because it is a misconception to think that we can run like normal businesses. When that happens, the nonprofit runs the risk of losing all of the internal historical expertise, as the people who aren’t squeezed out don’t stick around for the cultural change, and the new execs face the budgeting challenges with no perspective to draw on.

So, a businessman like me – and I absolutely consider myself a businessman — gets frustrated with the slow pace at the nonprofits that I work for. And I beg, moan and try and shame my boss into adopting more business-like practices. But I don’t sweat it too much, because, at the end of the day, even if we don’t do things in the efficient and productive ways that I’m so stuck on adopting, we still do an amazing job of defending the planet, or, you can fill your mission in here. I’d hate to see it fall apart because we didn’t properly comply with regulations or we simply didn’t manage our resources well, and we have to staff to address that. So my shoutback to Jay Love is that the bunker mentality is a bit much. Let a few for-profit types in the door. But, until they understand and value our culture, don’t let them drive.

The Sky is Calling

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

My big post contrasting full blown Microsoft Exchange Server with cloud-based Gmail drew a couple of comments from friends in Seattle. Jon Stahl of One/Northwest pointed out, helpfully, that MS sells it’s Small Business Server product to companies with a maximum of 50 employees, and that greatly simplifies and reduces cost for Exchange. After that, Patrick Shaw of NPower Seattle took it a step further, pointing out that MS Small Business Server, with a support arrangement from a great company like NPower (the “great” is my addition – I’m a big fan), can cost as little as $4000 a year and provide Windows Server, Email, Backup and other functions, simplifying a small office’s technology and outsourcing the support. This goes a long way towards making the chaos I described affordable and attainable for cash and resource strapped orgs.

What I assume Npower knows, though, and hope that other nonprofit technical support providers are aware of, is that this is the outdated approach. Nonprofits should be looking to simplify technology maintenance and reduce cost, and the cloud is a more effective platform for that. As ReadWriteWeb points out, most small businesses — and this can safely be assumed to include nonprofits — are completely unaware of the benefits of cloud computing and virtualization. If your support arrangement is for dedicated, outsourced management of technology that is housed at your offices, then you still have to purchase that hardware and pay someone to set it up. The benefits of virtualization and fast, ubiquitous Internet access offer a new model that is far more flexible and affordable.

One example of a company that gets this is MyGenii. They offer virtualized desktops to nonprofits and other small businesses. As I came close to explaining in my Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine post, virtualization is technology that allows you to, basically, run many computers on one computer. The environmental and financial benefits of doing what you used to do on multiple systems all on one system are obvious, but there are also huge gains in manageability. When a PC is a file that can be copied and modified, building new and customized PCs becomes a trivial function. Take that one step further – that this virtual PC is stored on someone else’s property, and you, as a user, can load it up and run it from your home PC, laptop, or (possibly) your smartphone, and you now have flexible, accessible computing without the servers to support.

For the tech support service, they either run large servers with virtualization software (there are many powerful commercial and open source systems available), or they use an outsourced storage platform like Amazon’s EC2 service. In addition to your servers, they also house your desktop operating systems. Running multiple servers and desktops on single servers is far more economical; it better utilizes the available server power, reducing electricity costs and helping the environment; and backups and maintenance are simplified. The cost savings of this approach should benefit both the provider and the client.

In your office, you still need networked PCs with internet access. But all you need on those computers is a basic operating system that can boot up and connect to the hosted, virtualized desktop. Once connected, that desktop will recognize your printers and USB devices. If you make changes, such as changing your desktop wallpaper or adding an Outlook plugin, those changes will be retained. The user experience is pretty standard. But here’s a key benefit — if you want to work from home, or a hotel, or a cafe, then you connect to the exact same desktop as the one at work. It’s like carrying your computer everywhere you go, only without the carrying part required.

So, it’s great that there are mission focused providers out there who will affordably support our servers. But they could be even more affordable, and more effective, as cloud providers, freeing us from having to own and manage any servers in the first place.

Colossus vs. Cloud – an Email System Showdown

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

If your nonprofit has 40 or more people on staff, it’s a likely bet that you use Microsoft Exchange as your email server. There are, of course, many nonprofits that will use the email services that come with your web hosting, and there are some using legacy products like Novell’s Groupwise or Lotus Notes/Domino. But the market share for email and groupware has gone to Microsoft, and, at this point, the only compelling up and coming competition comes from Google.

There are reasons why Microsoft has dominated the market. Exchange is a mature and powerful product, that does absolutely everything that an email system has to do, and offers powerful calendaring, contact management and information sharing features on top of it. A quick comparison to Google’s GMail offering might look a bit like “Bambi vs. Godzilla“. And, as Michelle pointed out the other day, GMail might be a risky proposition, despite it being more affordable, because it puts your entire mail store “in the cloud”. But Gmail’s approach is so radically different from Microsoft’s that I think it deserves a more detailed pro/con comparison.

Before we start, it’s important to acknowledge that the major difference is the hosted/cloud versus local installation, and there’s a middle ground – services that host Exchange for you – Microsoft even has their own cloud service. If you are evaluating email platforms and including GMail and Exchange, hosted Exchange should be weighed as an additional option. But my goal here is to contrast the new versus the traditional, and traditional Exchange installations are in your server room, not someone else’s.

Server Platform

Installing Exchange is not a simple task. Smaller organizations can get away with cheaper hardware, but the instructions say that you’ll need a large server for mail storage; a secondary server for web and internet functions, and, most likely, a third server to house your third party anti-spam and anti-virus solutions. Plus, Exchange won’t work in a Linux or Novell network – there has to be an additional server running Microsoft’s Active Directory in place before you can even install it. It can be a very stable product if you get the installation right, but getting it right means doing a lot of prep and research, because the slim documents that come in the box don’t prepare you for the complexity. Once you have it running, you have to run regular maintenance and keep a close watch – along with mailbox limits – to insure that the message bases don’t fill up or corrupt.

GMail, on the other hand, is only available as a hosted solution. Setup is a matter of mapping your domain to Google’s services (can be tricky, but child’s play compared to Exchange) and adding your users.

Win – GMail. It saves you a lot of expense, when you factor in the required IT time and expertise with the hardware and software costs for multiple servers.

EMail Clients

Outlook has it’s weaknesses – slow and obtuse search, poor spam handling, and a tendency toward unexplained crashes and slowdowns on a regular basis. But, as a traditional mail client, it has a feast of features. There isn’t much that you can’t do with it. One of the most compelling reasons to stick with Outlook is it’s extensibility. Via add-ons and integrations, Outlook can serve as a portal to applications, databases, web sites and communications. In a business environment, you might be sacrificing some key functionality without it, much as you often have to use Internet explorer in order to access business-focused web sites.

But where Outlook is a very hefty application, with tons of features and settings buried in it’s cavernous array of menus and dialog boxes, Gmail is deceptively uncluttered. The truth is that the web-based GMail client can do a lot of sophisticated tricks, including a few that Outlook can’t — like allowing you to decide that you’d rather “Reply to All” mid-message — and some that you can only do with Outlook by enabling obscure features and clicking around a lot, like threading conversations and applying multiple “tags” to a single message. Gmail is the first mail client to burst out of the file cabinet metaphor. Once you get used to this, it’s liberating. Messages don’t get archived to drawers, they get tagged with one or more labels. You can add stars to the important ones. It’s not that you can’t emulate this workflow in Outlook, it’s that it’s fast and smooth in GMail, and supported by a very intelligent and blazingly fast search function. Of course, if that doesn’t float your boat, you can always use Outlook – or any other standard POP3 or IMAP client – to access GMail.

Win – GMail. It’s more innovative and flexible, and I didn’t even dig deep.

Availability

Exchange, of course, is not subject to the vagaries of internet availability when you’re at the office. Mind you, much of the mail that you’re waiting to receive is. And Outlook – if you run in “Cached mode” – has had offline access down for ages. GMail just started experimenting with that this week. If you’re not in the office, Exchange supports a variety of ways to get to the mail. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is a sophisticated web-based client that, with Exchange 2007 and IE as the browser, almost replicates the desktop Outlook experience. OMA is a mobile-friendly web interface. And ActiveSync, which is supported on many phones (including the iPhone) is the most powerful, stable and feature-rich synchronization platform available. Exchange can do POP and IMAP as well, and also supports a VPN-like mode called Outlook Anywhere (or HTTPS over RPC).

GMail only supports web, pop and IMAP. There’s a mobile GMAIL app which is available on more phones than Activesync is, but it isn’t as robust or full featured as Microsoft’s offering.

So, oddly, the Win for remote access goes to Microsoft over Google, because Microsoft’s offerings are plentiful and mature.

Business Continuity

So, not to belabor this, Exchange is well supported by many powerful backup products. In cached mode, it mirrors your server mailbox to your dektop, which is additional redundancy.

GMail is in the cloud, so backup isn’t quite as straightforward. Offline mode does some synchronization, like Exchange’s cached mode, but it’s not 100% or, at this point, configurable. Prudent GMail users will, even if they don’t read mail in it, set up a POP email program to regularly download their mail in order to have a local copy.

Win – Microsoft

Microsoft also Wins the security comparison – Google can, and has, cut off user’s email accounts. There seem to have been good reasons, such as chasing out hackers who had commandeered accounts. But keeping your email on your backed-up server behind your firewall will always be more secure than the cloud.

But I’d hedge that award with the consideration that Exchange’s complexity is a risk in itself. It’s all well and safe if it is running optimally and it’s being backed up. But most nonprofits are strapped when it comes to the staffing and cost to support this kind of solution. If you can’t provide the proper care and feeding that a system like Exchange requires, you might well be at more risk with an in-house solution. The competence of a vendor like Google managing your servers is a plus.

Finally, cost. GMail wins hands down. The supported Google Apps platform is free for nonprofits. Microsoft offers us deep discounts with their charity pricing, but Dell and HP don’t match on the hardware, and certified Microsoft Administrators come in the $60-120k annual range.

So, in terms of ease of management and cost, GMail easily wins. There are some big trade-offs between Microsoft’s kitchen sink approach to features and Google’s intelligent, progressive functionality, and, in well-resourced environments, Microsoft is the secure choice, but in tightly resourced ones – like nonprofits – GMail is a stable and supported option. The warnings about trusting Google — or any other Software as a Service vendor — are prudent, but there are a lot of factors to weigh. And it’s going to come down to a lot of give and take, with considerations particular to your environment, to determine what the effective choice is. In a lot of cases, the cloud will weigh heavier on the scale than the colossus.