Tag Archives: email

Wave Impressions

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

A few months ago, I blogged a bit about Google Wave, and how it might live up to the hype of being the successor to email.  Now that I’ve had a month or so to play with it, I wanted to share my initial reactions.  Short story: Google Wave is an odd duck, that takes getting used to. As it is today, it is not that revolutionary — in fact, it’s kind of redundant. The jury is still out.

Awkwardness

To put Wave in perspective, I clearly remember my first exposure to email.  I bought my first computer in 1987: a Compaq “portable”. The thing weighed about 60 pounds, sported a tiny green on black screen, and had two 5 and 1/4 inch floppy drives for applications and storage).  Along with the PC, I got a 1200 BPS modem, which allowed me o dial up local bulletin boards.  And, as I poked around, I discovered the 1987 version of email: the line editor.

On those early BBSes, emails were sent by typing one line (80 characters, max) of text and hitting “enter”.  Once “enter” was pressed, that line was sent to the BBS.  No correcting typos, no rewriting the sentence.  It was a lot like early typewriters, before they added the ability to strike out previously submitted text.

But, regardless of the primitive editing capabilities, email was a revelation.  It was a new medium; a form of communication that, while far more awkward than telephone communications, was much more immediate than postal mail.  And it wasn’t long before more sophisticated interfaces and editors made their way to the bulletin boards.

Google Wave is also, at this point, awkward. To use it, you have to be somewhat self-confident right from the start, as others are potentially watching every letter that you type.  And while it’s clear that the ability to co-edit and converse about a document in the same place is powerful, it’s messy.  Even if you get over the sprawling nature of the conversations, which are only minimally better than  what you would get with ten to twenty-five people all conversing in one Word document, the lack of navigational tools within each wave is a real weakness.

Redundant?

I’m particularly aware of these faults because I just installed and began using Confluence, a sophisticated, enterprise Wiki (free for nonprofits) at my organization. While we’ve been told that Wave is the successor to email, Google Docs and, possibly, Sharepoint, I have to say that Confluence does pretty much all of those things and is far more capable.  All wikis, at their heart, offer collaborative editing, but the good ones also allow for conversations, plug-ins and automation, just as Google Wave promises.  But with a wiki, the canvas is large enough and the tools are there to organize and manage the work and conversation.  With Wave, it’s awfully cramped, and somewhat primitive in comparison.

Too early to tell?

Of course, we’re looking at a preview.  The two things that possibly differentiate Wave from a solid wiki are the “inbox” metaphor and the automation capabilities. Waves can come to you, like email, and anyone who has tried to move a group from an email list to a web forum knows how powerful that can be. And Wave’s real potential is in how the “bots”, server-side components that can interact with the people communicating and collaborating, will integrate the development and conversation with existing data sources.  It’s still hard to see all of that in this nascent stage.  Until then, it’s a bit chicken and egg.

Wave starting points

There are lots of good Wave resources popping up, but the best, hands down, is Gina Trapini’s Complete Guide, available online for free and in book form soon. Gina’s blog is a must read for people who find the types of things I write about interesting.

Once you’re on wave, you’ll want to find Waves to join, and exactly how you do that is anything but obvious.  the trick is to search for a term “such as “nonprofit” or “fundraising” and add the phrase “with:public”. A good nonprofit wave to start with is titled, appropriately, “The Nonprofit Technology Wave”.

If you haven’t gotten a Wave invite and want to, now is the time to query your Twitter and Facebook friends, because invites are being offered and we’ve passed the initial “gimme” stage.  In fact, I have ten or more to share (I’m peterscampbell on most social networks and at Google’s email service).

Twitiquette

This post first appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

Social networks provide nonprofits with great opportunities to raise awareness, just as they offer individuals more opportunities to be diagnosed with information overload syndrome. To my mind, the value of tools like Twitter and Facebook are not only that they increase my ability to communicate with people, but also that they replace communication models that are less efficient. Prior to social networks, we had Email, phones, Fax and Instant Messaging (IM). Each of these were ideal for one to one communication, and suitable for group messaging, but poor at broadcasting. With Twitter and Facebook, we have broader recipient bases for our messaging. Accordingly, there’s also an assumption that we are casual listeners. With so much information hitting those streams, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone to listen 24/7.

Geek and Poke cartoon by Oliver Widder

twittercartoon.jpg

Twitter offers, in addition to the casual stream, a person-to-person option called direct messaging. This is handy when you want to share information with a twitter friend that you might not want to broadcast, such as your email address, or a link to a map to your house. You can only direct message someone who is following you — otherwise, it would be far too easy to abuse. Direct messages have more more in common with old-fashioned IM and EMail than Twitter posts. You can’t direct message multiple recipients, and most of us receive direct messages in our email inboxes and/or via SMS, to insure that we don’t miss them.

So I took note when a friend on a popular forum posted that his organization was launching a big campaign, and he was looking for a tool that would let him send a direct messages to every one of his followers. This, to me, seems like a bad idea. While I follow a lot of people and organizations on Twitter, I subscribe by email to far fewer mailing lists, limiting that personal contact to the ones that I am most interested in and/or able to support. I follow about 250 organizations on Twitter; I have no care to receive all of their campaign emails. But i trust that, if they are doing something exciting or significant, I’ll hear about it. My friends will post a link on Facebook. They’ll also retweet it. The power of social media is — or, at least, should be — that the interesting and important information gets voted up, and highlighted, based on how it’s valued by the recipients, not the sender.

Social networks differ primarily from email and fax in that they are socially-driven messaging. The priority of any particular message can be set by each persons community that they tune into. My friend thinks his campaign is the most important thing coming down the pike, and that he should be able to transcend the casual nature of Twitter conversation in order to let me know about it. And, of course, I think that every campaign that my org trumpets is more important than his. But I think that proper campaign etiquette and strategy is to blast information on the mediums that support that, where your constituents sign up to be individually alerted. If you want to spread the word on Twitter or Facebook, focus on the message, not the media, and let the community carry it for you, if they agree that it’s worthy.

Smartphone Talk

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

The last few weeks saw some big announcements in the smartphone world:

  • Palm released the phone that they’ve been promising us for years, the Palm Pre, with it’s new WebOS, to reviews that were mostly favorable and summed up as “The iPhone’s baby brother“.
  • Apple stole some of Palm’s thunder by dominating the press two days later with news of their relatively unexciting new phones and 3.0 software.
  • In the weeks prior, news came out that about 18 more Android phones should be out in calendar 2009 and that, by early 2010, all of the major carriers will have them.
  • And Nokia’s E71 hit our shores, an incredibly full-featured phone that you can get for just over $300 unlocked, and use the carrier of your choice. While this isn’t a touchscreen, and is therefore suspect in terms of it’s ease of use, it is an amazingly full-featured product.

Left in the wings were Blackberry, who keep producing phones, including their iPhone competitor, the Storm — to yawns from the press, and Microsoft, who are talking a lot about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 7.0, but seem to have really been decimated by the ugliness of their mobile OS when compared to just about anyone else’s.

What’s clear is that a few things differentiate smartphones these days, and the gap between the ones that get it and the ones that don’t are huge. They are:

Responsive Touchscreen Interfaces. The UI’s of the iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS get around the sticky problem that phones were just to small to support anything but simple functionality without requiring an oppressive amount of taps and clicks. This is why Microsoft has fallen down the smartphone food chain so far and fast — their mobile OS is just like their desktop OS, with no flagship phone that does the touchscreen nearly as well as the new competition.

Desktop-Class Web Browsers. This is where Apple and Google have drawn a huge line, and it looks like Palm might have joined them. All three use browser’s based on Webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari and Chrome. On a 3G phone, this makes for a fast and complete experience that puts the Blackberry, Mobile Internet Explorer and the Treo’s hideous Blazer. Add Google’s voice activation (native on Android and available for iPhone), and their smartphone-optimized results (which don’t work on the non-webkit browsers) and the task of finding a Starbucks or hotel on the road takes seconds, instead of the average ten to 15 minutes on the old, lousy browsers, which simply choke on the graphics.

Push Email. If you connect to Exchange servers, the iPhone and Pre have Activesync built in. If your mail is with Google, you’re connected to it as soon as you tell an Android phone your login and password. And the Android phone app is the best out there, with Apple’s mail running close behind it. What’s ironic is that Microsoft targeted their biggest threat with Activesync — the Blackberry’s kludgy, but, at the time, unparalleled email forwarding — and gave it wings by licensing it to Palm, Apple and others. This is fueling corporate acceptance of the iPhone and Pre, meaning that this Blackberry-beating strategy might have worked, but more likely it did it for Apple and Palm, not Microsoft.

Music. The iPhone is an iPod; everything else isn’t, meaning that, if having a high quality phone and music experience on one device is a priority, you’re not going to go wrong with the iPhone. I love my G1, but I weigh my value of the real keyboard and awesome, open source OS on T-Mobile over the iPhone’s built-in iPod and Activesync on AT&T. As OSes go, Android is only marginally better than Apple, but the Apple hardware is much better than the G1. Newer Android phones are going to show that up.

People make a lot of noise about the apps available for the iPhone (and Windows/Blackberry) as opposed to the newer Android and Pre. I think that’s a defining question for the Pre, but it looks like companies are jumping on board. For Android, it’s quite arguably a wash. All of the important things are available for Android and, given that it’s open source, most of them are free. And with those 18 phones due out by year end on every carrier, the discrepancies will be short-lived.

I have to wonder how long it will take Microsoft to “get” mobile. They have a heavy foot in the market as the commodity OS on the smartphones that can’t get any buzz. But the choice to bring the worst things about the Windows Desktop experience to their mobile OS was unfortunate. Should I really get a pop-up that has to be manually dismissed every time I get an email or encounter a wireless network? Do I have to pull out the stylus and click on Start every time I want to do anything? What’s even more worrisome is that Windows Mobile is a separate OS from Windows, that merely emulates it, as opposed to sharing a code base. Apple’s OS is the same OSX that you get on a MacBook, just stripped down, and Google’s OS is already starting to appear on Netbooks and other devices, and will likely fuel full desktops within a year or two — it is, after all, Linux.

So, the state of the smartphone market is easily broken into the haves and have-nots, meaning that some phones have far more usable and exciting functionality, while most phones don’t. There’s a whole second post dealing with the choice of carriers and their rankings in the race to offer the most customer disservice, and it does play into your smartphone decision, as Verizon might be a very stable network, but their phone selection is miserable, and AT&T might have the best selection but, well, they’re AT&T. I love Android, so, were I looking, I’d hold out until four or five of those new sets are out. But I don’t know anyone with an iPhone who’s unsatisfied (and I know lots of people with iPhones).

Oldstyle Community Management

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

pcboard_disk.jpgPhoto by ferricide
It’s been a big month for Online Community Management in my circles. I attended a session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference on the subject; then, a few weeks later, ReadWriteWeb released a detailed report on the topic. I haven’t read the report, but people I respect who have are speaking highly of it.Do you run an online community? The definition is pretty sketchy, ranging from a blog with active commenters to, say, America Online. If we define an online community as a place where people share knowledge, support, and/or friendship via communication forums on web sites or via email, there are plenty of web sites, NING groups, mailing lists and AOL chat rooms that meet that criteria.

The current interest is spurred by the notion that this is the required web 2.0/3.0 direction for our organizational web sites. We’ve made the move to social media (as this recent report suggests); now we need to be the destination for this online interaction. I don’t think that’s really a given, any more than it’s clear that diving into Facebook and Twitter is a good use of every nonprofit’s resources. It all depends on who your constituents are and how they prefer to interact with you. But, certainly, engagement of all types (charitable, political, commercial) is expanding on the web, and most of us have an audience of supporters that we can communicate with here.

Buried deep in my techie past is a three year gig as an online community manager. It was a volunteer thing. More honestly, a hobby. In 1988, I set up a Fidonet Bulletin Board System (BBS); linked it to a number of international discussion groups (forums); and built up a healthy base of active participants.

This was before the world wide web was a household term. I ran specific software that allowed people to dial in, via modem, to my computer, and either read and type messages on line or download them into something called a “QWK reader“; read and reply off line, and then synchronize with my system later. There were about 1000 bulletin board systems within the local calling distance in San Francisco at the time. Many of them had specific topics, such as genealogy or cooking; mine was a bit more generally focused, but I appealed to birdwatchers, because I published rare bird alerts, and to people who liked to talk politics. This was during the first gulf war, and many of my friends system’s were sporting American Flags (in ASCII Art), while my much more liberal board was the place to be if you were more critical of the war effort.

At the peak of activity, I averaged 200 messages a day in our main forum, and I’m pretty sure that the things that made this work apply just as much to the more sophisticated communities in play today. Those were:

    • Meeting a Need: There were plenty of people who desired a place to talk politics and share with a community, and there wasn’t a lot of competition. The bulk of my success was offering the right thing at the right time. It’s much tougher now to hang a shingle and convince people that your community will meet their needs when they have millions to choose from. How successful — and how useful — your community might be depends on how much of a unique need it serves.
    • Maintaining Focus: many of the popular bulletin boards had forums, online gaming, and downloads. My board had forums. The handful of downloads were the QWK readers and supporting software that helped people use the forums. The first time you logged on, you were subjected to a rambling bit of required reading that said, basically, “if birdwatching and chatting about the issues of the day interests you, keep on reading”, and I saw numerous people hang up before getting through that, which i considered a very good thing. The ones that made it through tended to be civil and engaged by what they signed on for. By focusing more on what made for a quality discussion, as opposed to trying to attract a large, diverse crowd, my base grew much bigger than I ever imagined it would.
    • Tolerance and Civility: We had a few conservatives among our active callers, and that kept the conversation lively. But we had excellent manners, never resorting to personal attacks and sending lots of private messages to the contrarians supporting their involvement. We really appreciated them, and they appreciated semi-celebrity status. It was all about the arguments, not about the attitude. Mind you, this was 1989/90 — I’m not sure if it’s possible to have civil public political debates today…
    • Active moderation: My hobby was a full time job that I did on top of my full time job. I engaged with my callers as if they were sitting in my living room, being gracious and helpful while I participated fully in the main events. There was a little moderation required to keep the tone civil, and making the board safe for all — particularly the ones with the minority opinions — required having their trust that I wouldn’t let any attacks get through without my response.

I think that the biggest question today is whether you should be building a community on your own, or engaging your community in the ample public places (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that they might already hang out in. In fact, I think that where you engage is a fairly moot point, what’s important is that you do engage and provide a forum that helps people cope and learn about the issues that your organization is addressing. Pretty much all of the bulleted advice above will apply to your community, or out in the community.

How to Send an All Staff Technical Email

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

I had big plans for another insightful, deep, break-down-the-walls-of-the-corporate-culture-that-diminishes-use-of-technology post today, but I think I’m gonna save it for a rainy day and write something a bit more useful, instead.  I have a big nonprofit technology conference coming up this weekend, as you might, as well, and I think we should all be resting up for it.

The most important skill for any IT staff person to have is the ability to communicate.  All of the technical expertise in the world has little value without it, because, if you can’t tell people what you’re doing, what you’re doing won’t be well-received.  And there is an art, particularly with tech, to telling people what you’re doing, whether it’s taking the system down for maintenance of upgrading staff from Notepad to Office 2007.

Here are my five rules for crafting an technical email that even my most computer-phobic constituents will read:

  • Let no acronym go unexplained

The simplest, worst mistake that techies regularly make is to tell people that

“The internet will be down while we reconfigure the DHCP server” or

“The database will be unavailable while we replace the SCSI backplane”.

Best practice is to avoid the technical details in the announcement, if possible.  But if it’s relevant, speak english: “In order to accommodate the growth of our staff, we need to reconfigure the server that assigns network resources to each system to allow for more connections.”

  • Be clear, concise and consistent in your subjects

Technical messages should have easily recognizable subjects, so that staff can quickly determine relevance.  If your message is titled “Technical Information”, it might as well be titled “You are getting sleepy…”  But, if it’s titled “Network Availability” or “Database Maintenance Scheduled”, your staff will quickly figure out that these are warnings that are relevant to them. Don’t worry about the Orwellian aspect of announcing system downtime with a message about availability.  The point here is that using the consistent phrasing will grab staff’s attention far more effectively than bolding, underlining and adding red exclamation points to the email (see rule 4).

  • Keep it short and simple

It’s about what the staff needs to know, not what you’d like to tell them.  So, the network maintenance email should not read:

“The systems will be down from 4:30 to 9:00 tonight while we replace drives in the domain controllers and run a full defrag on the main document server”

It should read:

“The network will be unavailable from 4:30 pm until 9:00 pm while we perform critical maintenance”.

If it’s only a portion of the network, but something useful will be up – as when the file servers are being repaired, but email is still available, make a note of that: “While the main servers will not be available, you will still be able to send and receive email”.

  • No ALL CAPS, no exclamation points!!! and go sparingly on the bold

System downtime might be urgent to you, but it’s never urgent to the staff.  It’s a fact of life.  A reply from the Director of Online Giving that the downtime will jettison a planned online campaign is urgent; not your routine announcement.

  • Tell the whole story

…even if this sounds like it conflicts with rule 3.  Because there are two types of people on your staff:

  1. The majority, who want simple, non-techie messages as described above
  2. The rest, who want the gory details, either so they can rest easy that you aren’t making anything up, or because they’re actually interested in what you’re up to.

My approach is to do the simple message and, below it type, “Technical Details (optional reading)”.  In this section I might explain that we’re replacing the server that processes their network logins (I won’t use “DHCP” or “Domain Controller” if I can help it) or that we’re upgrading to the new version of Outlook.

The key concepts here are consistency, simplicity, and a focus on what impacts them regarding what you’re doing.  Stick to it and, miraculously, people might start reading your all staff emails.

Using RSS Tools to Feed Your Information Needs

This article was originally published at Idealware in March of 2009.

The Internet gives you access to a virtual smorgasbord of information. From the consequential to the trivial, the astonishing to the mundane, it’s all within your reach. This means you can keep up with the headlines, policies, trends, and tools that interest your nonprofit, and keep informed about what people are saying about your organization online. But the sheer volume of information can pose challenges, too: namely, how do you separate the useful data from all the rest? One way is to use RSS, which brings the information you want to you.

rss-40674_640 Many of the Web sites that interest you are syndicated. With RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, you subscribe to them, and when they’re updated, the content is delivered to you — much like a daily newspaper, except you choose the content. On the Web, you can not only get most of what the newspapers offer, but also additional, vital information that informs your organizational and mission-related strategies. You subscribe only to the articles and features that you want to read. It’s absolutely free, and the only difficult part is deciding what to do with all the time you used to spend surfing.

Since TechSoup first published RSS for Nonprofits, there has been an explosion of tools that support RSS use. There are now almost as many ways to view RSS data as there are types of information to manage. Effective use of RSS means determining how you want your information served. What kind of consumer are you? What type of tool will help you manage your information most efficiently, day in and day out? Read on to learn more.

What’s on the Menu?

You probably already check a set of information sources regularly. The first step in considering your RSS needs is to take stock of what you are already reading, and what additional sources you’d like to follow. Some of that information may already be in your browser’s lists of Bookmarks or Favorites, but consider seeking out recommendations from trusted industry sources, friends, and co-workers as well. As you review the Web sites that you’ve identified as important, check them to make sure you can subscribe to them using RSS. You can find this out by looking for “subscribe” options on the Web page itself, or for an orange or blue feed icon resembling a radio signal in the right side of your Web browser’s address bar.

Consider the whole range of information that people are providing in this format. Some examples are:

  • News feeds, from traditional news sources or other nonprofits.
  • Blogs, particularly those that might mention or inform your mission.
  • Updates from social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace (for instance, through FriendFeed).
  • Podcasts and videos.
  • Updates from your own software applications, such as notifications of edits on documents from a document management system, or interactions with a donor from your CRM. (Newer applications support this.)
  • Information from technical support forums and discussion boards.
  • All sorts of regularly updated data, such as U.S. Census information, job listings, classified ads, or even TV listings and comic strips.

 

You can get a good idea of what’s out there and what’s popular by browsing the recommendations at Yahoo! Directory oriGoogle, while a tool like PostRank can help you analyze feeds and determine which are valuable.

RSS also shines as a tool for monitoring your organization and your cause on the Web. For instance, Google Alerts lets you subscribe, for free, to RSS updates that notify you when a particular word or phrase is used on the Web. (To learn more about “listening” to what others are saying about your organization online, see We Are Media’s wiki article on online listening.)

How Hungry Are You?

Dining options abound: you can order take-out, or go out to eat; you can snack on the go, or take all your meals at home; you can pick at your food, or savor each bite. Your options for RSS reading are equally diverse, and you’ll want to think carefully about your own priorities. Before choosing the tool or tools that suit you, ask some questions about the information you plan to track.

  • How much information is it? Do you follow a few blogs that are updated weekly? Or news feeds, like the New York Times or Huffington Post, which are updated 50 to 200 times a day?
  • How intently do you need to monitor this information? Do you generally want to pore over every word of this information, or just scan for the tidbits that are relevant to you? Is it a problem if you miss some items?
  • Are you generally Web-enabled? Can you use a tool over the Internet, as opposed to one installed on your desktop?
  • Do you jump from one computer to another? Do your feeds need to be synchronized so you can access them from multiple locations?
  • Is this information disposable, or will it need to be archived? Do you read articles, perhaps email the link to a colleague, and then forget about it? Or do you want to archive items of particular interest so you can find them in the future?
  • Will you refer a lot of this information to co-workers or constituents? Would you like to be able to forward items via email, or publish favorites to a Web page?
  • Do you need mobile access to the information? Will you want to be able to see all your feeds from a smartphone, on the run?

Enjoying the Meal

Once you have a solid understanding of your information needs, it’s time to consider the type of tool that you want to use to gather your information. First, let’s look at the terminology:

  • An Article (or Item) is a bit of information, such as a news story, blog entry, job listing or podcast.
  • A Feed is a collection of articles from a single source (such as a blog or Web site).
  • An Aggregated Feed is a collection of articles from numerous feeds displayed together in one folder.

So, what RSS options are available?

Tickers

Like the “crawl” at the bottom of CNN or MSNBC television broadcasts, RSS tickers show an automatically scrolling display of the titles of articles from your RSS feeds. Tickers can be a useful way to casually view news and updates. They’re a poor choice for items that you don’t want to miss, though, as key updates might move past when you’re not paying attention.

Snackr. For a very TV-news-like experience, try Snackr, an Adobe Air application. You can load up a variety of feeds which scroll in an aggregated stream across your desktop while you work.

Gmail users can use the email browser’s Web Clips feature to create a rotating display of RSS headlines above their inbox and messages. Because Gmail is Web-based, your headlines will be available from any computer.

Web Browsers

Your current Web browser — such as Internet Explorer (IE) or Firefox — can likely act as a simple RSS reader, with varying functionality depending on the browser and browser version. Browsers can either display feeds using their built-in viewers, or associate Web pages in RSS format with an installed RSS Feed Reader (much as files ending in “.doc” are associated with Microsoft Word). Even without an installed feed reader, clicking on the link to an RSS feed will typically display the articles in a readable fashion, formatting the items attractively and adding links and search options that assist in article navigation. This works in most modern browsers (IE7 and up, Firefox 2 and up, Safari and Opera). If your browser doesn’t understand feeds, then they will display as hard-to-read, XML-formatted code.

Firefox also supports plug-ins like Wizz RSS News Reader and Sage, which integrate with the browser’s bookmarks so that you can read feeds one at a time by browsing recent entries from the bookmark menu.

Portals

Portals, like iGoogle, My Yahoo!, and Netvibes, are Web sites that provide quick access to search, email, calendars, stocks, RSS feeds, and more. The information is usually presented in a set of boxes on the page, with one box per piece of information. While each RSS feed is typically displayed in a separate box, you can show as many feeds as you like on a single page. This is a step up from a ticker or standard Web browser interface, where you can only see one feed at a time.

Email Browsers

Asmany of us spend a lot of time dealing with email, your email browser can be a convenient place to read your RSS feeds. Depending on what email browser you use, RSS feeds can often be integrated as additional folders. Each RSS feed that you subscribe to appears as a separate email folder, and each article as a message. You can’t, of course, reply to RSS articles — but you can forward and quote them, or arrange them in subfolders by topic.

If you use Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, the very latest versions (Vista’s Windows Mail and Outlook 2007) have built-in feed reading features. (Earlier versions of Outlook can support this through powerful, free add-ons, such as RSS Popper andAttensa.)

Mozilla’s Thunderbird email application and Yahoo! Mail also allow you to subscribe to RSS feeds. Gmail doesn’t, however, as Google assumes that you’ll use the powerful Google Reader application (discussed below) to manage your feeds.

RSS Feed Readers

Another advantage of the full-featured feed readers is that you can tag and archive important information for quick retrieval. The best ones let you easily filter out items you have already read, mark the articles that are important to you so that you can easily return to them later (kind of like TiVo for the Web), and easily change your view between individual feeds and collections of feeds.

In practice, feed readers make it very effective to quickly scan many different sources of information to filter out items that are worth reading. This is a much more efficient way to process new information on the Web than visiting sites individually, or even subscribing to them with a tool that doesn’t support aggregation, like a Web browser or portal.

Feed Readers come in two primary flavors, offline and online. Offline feed readers are Windows, Mac, or Linux applications that collect articles from your feeds when you’re online, store them on your computer, and allow you to read them at any time. Online feed readers are Web sites that store articles on the Internet, along with your history and preferences. The primary difference between an online and an offline reader is the state of synchronization. An online reader will keep track of what you’ve read, no matter what computer or device that you access it from, whereas an offline reader will only update your status on the machine that it’s installed on.

Offline feed readers, such as FeedDemon (for PCs) and Vienna (for Macs), allow you to subscribe to as many feeds as you like and keep them updated, organized and manageable. During installation, they will register as the default application for RSS links in your browser, so that subscribing to new sites is as easy as clicking on an RSS icon on a Web page and confirming that you want to subscribe to it.

Online feed readers, such as Google Reader or NewsGator, offer most of the same benefits as desktop readers. While offline readers collect mail at regular intervals and copy it to your PC, online readers store all of the feeds at their Web site, and you access them with any Web browser. This means that feeds are often updated more frequently, and you can access your account — with all your RSS feeds, markings, and settings intact — from any computer. You could be home, at the office, on a smartphone, or in an Internet cafe. The products mentioned even emulate offline use. NewsGator can be synchronized with its companion offline browser FeedDemon, and Google Reader has an offline mode supported by Google Gears.

Online Readers also provide a social aspect to feed reading. Both Google Reader and NewsGator allow you to mark and republish items that you want to share with others. NewsGator does this by letting you create your own feeds to share, while Google Reader lets you subscribe to other Google Reader users’ shared items. Google Reader also lets you tag Web pages that you find outside of Google Reader and save them to your personal and shared lists. If your team members don’t do RSS, Google has that covered as well — your shared items can also be published to a standalone Web page that others can visit. You can, of course, email articles from an offline reader, but any more sophisticated sharing will require an online reader.

For many of us, mining data on the Web isn’t a personal pursuit — we’re looking to share our research with co-workers and colleagues. This ability to not only do your own research, but share valuable content with others, ultimately results in a more refined RSS experience, as members of a given community stake their own areas of expertise and share highlights with each other.

Online browsers are less intuitive than offline ones, however, for subscribing to new feeds. While an offline browser can automatically add a feed when you click on it, online browsers will require you to take another step or two (for instance, clicking an “Add” button in your browsers’ toolbar). You’re also likely to have a more difficult time connecting to a secure feed, like a list of incoming donations from your donor database, with an online reader than you would with an offline one.

The online feed readers are moving beyond the question of “How do I manage all of my information?” to “How do I share items of value with my network?”, allowing us to not only get a handle on important news, views, and information, but to act as conduits for the valuable stuff. This adds a dimension we could call “information crowd-sourcing,” where discerning what’s important and relevant to us within the daily buffet of online information becomes a community activity.


In Summary

RSS isn’t just another Internet trend — it’s a way to conquer overload without sacrificing the information. It’s an answer to the problem that the Web created: If there’s so much information out there, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? RSS is a straightforward solution: Pick your format, sit back, and let the information feast come to you.


Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article. Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb, Laura Quinn of Idealware, Thomas Taylor of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Marnie Webb of TechSoup Global, also contributed to this article.


Peter Campbell is the director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the earth, and blogs about NPTech tools and strategies at Techcafeteria.com. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin Counties, and has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years.

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.

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.

The Death of Email (is being prematurely reported)

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

Friends of mine who are active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are fond of proclaiming that email is dead. And, certainly, those of us who are active on these networks send less email to each other than we used to. I’m much more likely to direct message, tweet, or write on someone’s wall if I have a quick question, comment or information referral for someone, the latter two if it’s a question or info that I might benefit from having other people in my online community see.

But I don’t see these alternatives as ships carrying the grim reaper onto email’s shores — I think they’re more likely the saviors of email. As I said a couple of weeks ago in my “Myth of KISS” post, email applications are heavily abused, and they’re not very good at managing large amounts of information. This hasn’t stopped a good 90% of the people online from using email as their primary information aggregator. We get:

  • Personal emails
  • Mailing List items
  • ENewsletters
  • Automated alerts
  • Spam!
  • and a host of other things

in our email inboxes every day. The inbox places new messages on top and older messages scroll down and out of sight. Almost every email program on earth lets you, as you make time for it, pull emails into named folders, mark them as important, order them by name or date or subject, search for them, and archive them to some other part of your storage space, but none of them do more than some basic filtering and prioritizing for you, perhaps IDing 90% of the spam and, if you’re a power user, allowing you to place messages from certain people in special folders.

The exception to the standard email processing rules is Google’s GMail, which does innovative threading and labeling, allowing for, in my opinion, a superior tool for information management, but it’s still a lot of work. The tools will improve, but it’s kind of like hiring a better maid service to clean up congress – they’ll make the halls shinier, but the same legislators will show up for work on the next day.

The answer is to acknowledge that email applications, as we know them, were never meant to process upwards of twenty or thirty messages a day. The information management defaults assume a manageable number of items, and many of us are way past that threshold. The power of alternative messaging mediums is that they are tailored to the types of messages they deliver, and their tools sets are accordingly more refined and targeted. If you get newsletters and alerts in your email, switch to RSS. If you do a lot of short messages or work coordination, look at IM. If you announce or broadcast information, or survey your contacts, use Twitter or Facebook. These mediums are, so far, much less susceptible to spam, and you can ignore messages once you’ve read them or skipped them, they don’t have to be deleted. The closer you get to only receiving personal email in your inbox, the easier it will be to keep up with it

So these new mediums aren’t gunning to eliminate our old, old electronic friend – they’re just allowing it to go on a long overdue diet.

Help for the Helpers

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

If you’re in a job that involves supporting technology in any fashion, from web designer to CIO, then the odds are that you do help desk. Formally or not, people come to you with the questions, the “how do I attach a file to my email?”, the “what can I do? My screen is frozen”, the “I saved my document but I don’t know where”. Rank doesn’t spare you; openly admitting that you can do anything well with computers is equivalent to lifetime membership in the tech support club.

A full time tech support job is, for the most part, an extended roller coaster ride with more down slopes than up. People who are drawn to this work are generally sharp, eager to assist, and take pride in their ability to debug. The down side is that, day after day, it’s grueling. There’s always a percentage of people who would just as soon smash the machine and go back to their trusty Selectrics. They aren’t always happy or polite with the friendly tech who comes to help them.

But the most debilitating aspect of the work is that support techs don’t manage their workload. It’s randomly and recklessly assigned by the varying needs of their co-workers and the stability of their systems. They never know when they’re going to walk in the office to find the donor database is crashed, or the internet line is down. The emails come in, the phone rings, and, to the people calling, everything is a crisis. Or it certainly seems that way. The end result is that career support techs often develop a sense of powerlessness in their work, and the longer it goes on, the less able they are to take proactive action and control of their jobs.

So here are two complimentary actions that can be taken to brighten the life and lighten the load of the support tech.

1. Deploy a trouble ticket system. And make sure that it meets these specifications:

  • Incredibly easy for staff to use. Web-based, linked from their desktop, with, ideally, three fields: Name, priority and problem. The software has to be able to grab additional information automatically, such as the time that the ticket was submitted, and, optimally, the user’s department, location and title, but the key point is that people won’t use the system if the system is too annoying to use.
  • Every update is automatically emailed to the user and the tech. This is critical. What an automated trouble ticket does best is to inform the customer that their issues are being addressed. Without this communication in place, what stands out in user’s minds are the tickets that haven’t been resolved. Confirmations of the fixes, sent as they occur, validate the high rate of responsiveness that most help desks maintain.
  • Be clear that the scope of the problem will influence the response time. Fixes that require spending or input from multiple parties are not slam dunks. This communication might warrant additional checkboxes on the submission form for “requires budget” or “requires additional approvals”, but formalizing this information helps the customer know that their issue hasn’t just been dropped by the tech.
  • Have a default technical staff view that puts open tickets on top. In environments where the telephone is the primary support funnel, things get forgotten, no matter how good and organized the tech is.

There’s more to it – good ticket systems feed into, and include links to additional support resources. And they don’t replace the telephone – IT has to be readily available. But there should be an understanding that users follow up phone calls with tickets. These are the key strategies that help the seemingly unmanageable stream of support calls fall in line.

2. Allow the support staff to breathe. There has to be an understanding, primarily understood by the support tech, but reinforced by his or her manager, teammates and staff, that only emergencies demand emergency response times. In fact, treating every call as an equally important, must be fixed immediately situation is a strategy for failure. Support Techs need to do effective triage, and put aside time to analyze and act proactively to solve user problems. If they deal with the same questions over and over, they have to write and publish the solutions. If the calls indicate a common problem that can be solved with a better application or an upgrade, they need to be able to step back and assess that. Smart managers will enforce this measured approach. At first, it will go against the grain of service-oriented staff, but it’s a must, because the measured response begets the more comprehensive solution to any problem.