Tag Archives: microsoft

It’s Time For A Tech Industry Intervention To Address Misogyny

News junkie that I am, I see a lot of headlines.  And four came in over the last 30 hours or so that paint an astonishing picture of a  tech industry that is in complete denial about the intense misogyny that permeates the industry.  Let’s take them in the order that they were received:

First, programmer, teacher and game developer Kathy Sierra.  In 2007, she became well known enough to attract the attention of some nasty people, who set out to, pretty much, destroy her.  On Tuesday, she chronicled the whole sordid history on her blog, and Wired picked it up as well (I’m linking to both, because Kathy doesn’t promise to keep it posted on Serious Pony).  Here are some highlights:

  • The wrath of these trolls was incurred simply because she is a woman and she was reaching a point of being influential in the sector.
  • They threatened rape, dismemberment, her family;
  • They published her address and contact information all over the internet;
  • They made up offenses to attribute to her and maligned her character online;
  • Kathy suffers from epileptic seizures, so they uploaded animated GIFs to epilepsy support forums of the sort that can trigger seizures (Kathy’s particular form of epilepsy isn’t subject to those triggers but many of the forum members were).

The story gets more bizarre, as the man she identified as the ringleader became a sort of hero to the tech community in spite of this abhorrent behavior. Kathy makes a strong case that the standard advice of “don’t feed the trolls” is bad advice.  Her initial reaction to the harassment was to do just what they seemed to desire — remove herself from the public forums.  And they kept right after her.

Adria Richards, a developer who was criticized, attacked and harassed for calling out sexist behavior at a tech conference, then recounted her experiences on Twitter, and storified them here. Her attackers didn’t stop at the misogyny; they noted that she is black and Jewish as well, and unloaded as much racist sentiment as they did sexist.  And her experience was similar to Kathy Sierra’s.

These aren’t the only cases of this, by far.  Last month Anita Sarkeesian posted a vblog asking game developers to curb their use of the death and dismemberment of female characters as the “goto” method of demonstrating that a bad guy is bad. The reaction to her request was the same onslaught of rape and violence threats, outing of her home address, threats to go to her house and kill her and her children.

So, you get it — these women are doing the same thing that many people do; developing their expertise; building communities on Twitter, and getting some respect and attention for that expertise.  And ferocious animals on the internet are making their lives a living hell for it.  And it’s been going on for years.

Why hasn’t it stopped?  Maybe it’s because the leadership in the tech sector is in pretty complete denial about it.  This was made plain today, as news came out about two events at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference running this week. The first event was a “White Male Allies Plenary Panel” featuring Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer; Google’s SVP of search Alan Eustace; Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy; and Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit.  These “allies” offered the same assurances that they are trying to welcome women at their companies. A series of recent tech diversity studies show that there is a lot of work to be done there.  But, despite all of the recent news about Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, etc., Eustace still felt comfortable saying:

“I don’t think people are actively protecting the [toxic culture] or holding on to it … or trying to keep [diverse workers] from the power structure that is technology,”

Later in the day, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, stunned the audience by stating:

“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”

Because having faith has worked so well for equal pay in the last 50 years? Here’s a chart showing how underpaid women are throughout the U.S. Short story? 83% of men’s wages in the best places (like DC) and 69% in the worst.

Nadella did apologize for his comment. But that’s not enough, by a long shot, for him, or Eric Schmidt, or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their contemporaries. There is a straight line from the major tech exec who is in denial about the misogyny that is rampant in their industry to the trolls who are viciously attacking women who try and succeed in it. As long as they can sit, smugly, on a stage, in front of a thousand women in tech, and say “there are no barriers, you just have to work hard and hope for the best”, they are undermining the efforts of those women and cheering on the trolls.  This is a crisis that needs to be resolved with leadership and action.  Americans are being abused and denied the opportunity that is due to anyone in this country. Until the leaders of the tech industry stand up and address this blatant discrimination, they are condoning the atrocities detailed above.

Postnote: The nonprofit tech sector is a quite different ballpark when it comes to equity among the sexes.  Which is not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s much better, and certainly less vicious. I’m planning a follow-up post on our situation, and I’ll be looking for some community input on it.

 

What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

This post was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2011.

Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk last month at TED on climate change. His overall point was dead on—we need big solutions for a big problem. And he’s a man who is willing to back what he speaks about financially. But, it was interesting to see him dismiss the small steps in a somewhat cynical fashion, characterizing home installations of solar panels as an ineffectual fad for the rich. Gates said:

The solutions that work in the rich world don’t even come close to solving the [energy] problem. If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.

There are numerous problems with this characterization of home solar customers and the impact they have on the climate. First, solar panels have dropped in costdramatically, to the point where middle-class families can lease them and, under the right conditions (roof design and placement) pay less per month for the lease and tiny energy bill than they would for their former electricity costs alone. We’ve hit a point where the economics are compelling, even if you aren’t on board with the carbon reduction goal. And, hey, my solar lease even came with a free iPad 2. There are plenty of incentives.

Secondly, the “cuteness” dig is pretty ironic, as the former president of IBM was rumored to have said of early graphical operating systems:

“Executives don’t want to click a ‘mouse,’ they want to issue commands!”

PC’s won out over the mainframes the same way that solar might ultimately win out over coal and nuclear: they were trendy at home, and the home users brought them to their businesses. Why wouldn’t the Microsoft model work for solar?

Of course, the climate crisis won’t be solved by homeowners alone. Businesses need to be on board and the energy providers have to transition from the legacy power sources. But that doesn’t mean that individual actions are worthless—far from it.

It’s not just that every little bit counts. It’s that winning the battle to embrace alternate power sources, like every battle, is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. And nobody should know that better than the man that took down the mainframes with his personal computers one house at a time.

Hearts and Mobiles

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in March of 2010.

Are Microsoft and Apple using the mobile web to dictate how we use technology? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

Last week, John Herlihy, Google’s Chief of Sales, made a bold prediction:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant.”

Herlihy’s argument was based on research indicating that, in Japan, more people now use smartphones for internet entertainment and research than desktops. It’s hard to dispute that the long predicted “year of the smartphone” has arrived in the U.S., with iPhones, Blackberries and Android devices hitting record sales figures, and Apple’s “magical” iPad leading a slue of mini-computing devices out of the gate.

We’ve noted Apple’s belligerence in allowing applications on their mobile platform that don’t pass a fairly restrictive and controversial screening process. It’s disturbing that big corporations like Playboy get a pass from a broad “no nudity” policy on iPhone apps that a swimwear store doesn’t. But it’s more disturbing that competing technology providers, like Google and Opera, can’t get their call routing and web browsing applications approved either. It’s Apple’s world, and iPhone owners have to live in it (or play dodgeball with each upgrade on their jailbroken devices). And now Microsoft has announced their intention to play the same game. Windows Mobile 7, their “from the ground up” rewrite of their mobile OS, will have an app store, and you will not be able to install applications from anywhere else.

iPhone adherents tell me that the consistency and stability of Apple’s tightly-controlled platform is better than the potentially messy open platforms. You might get a virus. Or you might see nudity. And your experience will vary dramatically from phone to phone, as the telcos modify the user interface and sub in their own applications for the standard ones. There are plenty of industry experts defending Apple’s policies.

What they don’t crow about is the fact that, using the Apple and Microsoft devices, you are largely locked into DRM-only options for multimedia at their stores for buying digital content. They will make most of their smartphone profits on the media that they sell you (music, movies, ebooks), and they tightly control the the information and data flow, as well as the devices you play their content on. How comfortable are you with letting the major software manufacturers control not only what software you can install on your systems, but what kind of media is available to them, as well?

The latest reports on the iPad are that, in addition to not supporting Adobe’s popular Flash format, Google’s Picasa image management software won’t work as well. If you keep your photos with Google, you’d better quickly get them to an Apple-friendly storage service like Apple’s MobileMe or Flickr, and get ready to use iPhoto to manage them.

If your organization, has invested heavily in a vendor or product that Apple and/or Microsoft are crossing off their list, you face a dilemma. Can you just ignore the people using their popular products? Should you immediately redesign your Flash-heavy website with something that you hope Apple will continue to support? If your cause is controversial, are you going to be locked out of a strategic mobile market for advocacy and development because the nature of your work can’t get past the company censors?

I’m nervous to see a major computing trend like mobile computing arise with such disregard for the open nature of the internet that the companies releasing these devices pioneered and grew up in. And I’m concerned that there will be repercussions to moving to a model where single vendors are competing to be one stop hardware, software and content providers. It’s not likely that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or anyone else is really qualified to determine what each of us want and don’t want to read, watch and listen to. And it’s frightening to think that the future of our media consumption might be tied to their idiosyncratic and/or profit-driven choices.

NPO Evaluation, IE6, Still Waters for Wave

This post was first published on the Idealware blog in January of 2010.

Here are a few updates topics I’ve posted on in the last few months:

Nonprofit Assessment

The announcement that GuideStar, Charity Navigator and others would be moving away from the 990 form as their primary source for assessing nonprofit performance raised a lot of interesting questions, such as “How will assessments of outcomes be standardized in a way that is not too subjective?” and “What will be required of nonprofits in order to make those assessments?” We’ll have a chance to get some preliminary answers to those questions on February 4th, when NTEN will sponsor a phone-in panel discussion with representatives of GuideStar and Charity Navigator, as well as members of the nonprofit community. The panel will be hosted by Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy, and will include:

I’ll be participating as well. You can learn more and register for the free event with NTEN.

The Half-Life of Internet Explorer 6

It’s been quite a few weeks as far as headlines go, with a humanitarian crisis in haiti; a dramatic election in Massachusetts; A trial to determine if California gay marriage-banning proposition is, in fact, discriminatory; high profile shakeups in late night television and word of the Snuggie, version 2 all competing for our attention. An additional, fascinating story is unfolding with Google’s announcement that they might pull their business out of China in light of a massive cybercrime against critics of the Chinese regime that, from all appearances, was either performed or sanctioned by the Chinese government. There’s been a lot of speculation about Google’s motives for such a dramatic move, and I fall in the camp that says, whatever their motives, it’s refreshing to see a gigantic U.S. corporation factor ethics into a business decision, even if it’s unclear exactly what the complete motivations are.

As my colleague Steve Backman fully explains here, here’s been some fallout from this story for Microsoft. First, like Google and Yahoo!, Microsoft operates a search engine in China and submits to the Chinese governments censoring filters. They’ve kept mum on their feelings about the cyber-attack. Google’s analysis of that attack reveals that GMail accounts were hacked and other breaches occurred via security holes in Internet Explorer, versions six and up, that allow a hacker to upload programs and take control of a user’s PC. As this information came to light, France and Germany both issued advisories to their citizens that switching to a browser other than Internet Explorer would be prudent. In response, Microsoft has issued a statement recommending that everyone upgrade from Internet Explorer version 6 to version 8, the current release. What Microsoft doesn’t mention is that the security flaw exists in versions seven and eight as well as six, so upgrading won’t protect you from the threat, although they just released a patch that hopefully will.

So, while their reasoning is suspect, it’s nice to see that Microsoft has finally joined the campaign to remove this old, insecure and incompatible with web standards browser.

Google Wave: Still Waters

I have kept Google Wave open in a tab in my browser since the day my account was opened, subscribed to about 15 waves, some of them quite well populated. I haven’t seen an update to any of these waves since January 12th, and it was really only one wave that’s gotten any updates at all in the past month. I can’t give away the invites I have to offer. The conclusion I’m drawing is that, if Google doesn’t do something to make the Wave experience more compelling, it’s going to go the way of a Simply Red B-Side and fade from memory. As I’ve said, there is real potential here for something that puts telecommunication, document creation and data mining on a converged platform, and that would be new. But, in it’s current state, it’s a difficult to use substitute for a sophisticated Wiki. And, while Google was hyping this, Confluence released a new version of their excellent (free for nonprofits) enterprise Wiki that can incorporate (like Wave) Google gadgets. That makes me want to pack up my surfboard.

Things You Might Not Know About…

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

…or you might. I find that, in a 25 year IT career that has always included a percentage of tech support, human nature is to use the features of an application that we know about, and only go looking for new features when a clearly defined need for one arises. In that scenario, some great functionality might be hiding in plain sight. Here are a few of my favorite “not very well-hidden” secrets. Share yours in the comments.

Google Search Filtering

google options 1.png
Have you ever clicked the google options 2.png “Show Options” link on your results page? Do a search for whatever interests you and try it (it’s located right under the Google logo). This will add a left navigation bar with some very useful filtering options. Of note, you can narrow to a trendy real-time search buy clicking on “Latest” under “Any Time”; choose a date range,filter out the pages that you’ve seen, or haven’t seen yet – how useful is that for finding that page that you googled last week but didn’t save? The funny thing is that Google has an “Advanced Search” screen, which, of course, can do many things that this bar can’t (such as searching for public domain media).

Microsoft Outlook Shortcuts

If you use Outlook, you know how simple it is to find your mail and calendar. Other common folders are conveniently placed in your default view. Outlook shortcuts 1.pngBut if you’re the slightest bit of a power user, or you work in an environment where users share mailbox folders or use Exchange’s Public Folders, than keeping track of all of those folders can get a bit tedious. Outlook Shortcuts 2.pngThat’s what the Shortcut view is for. Buried below the Mail, Calendar and Task buttons, you can move it up to the visible button list by right-clicking on the bar area (in the lower-left hand corner of Outlook 2003 or 2007’s screen) and choosing “Navigation Pane Options”. Highlight “Shortcuts” and then click “Move up” enough times to get it in one of the first four positions. Click OK, then click on the “Shortcuts” bar. From here, you can add new shortcuts and, optionally, arrange them in shortcut groups. You can rename the shortcuts with more meaningful titles, so that, if, say, you’re monitoring a norther user’s inbox, you can give it their name instead of having two folders named “Inbox”. One tip: to add shortcuts to a group, right-click on the group title and add from there.

Facebook Friend Lists

Nothing makes Facebook more manageable than Friends Lists, and, with the new security changes, this is more true than ever. If you’re like me, your connections on Facebook span every facet of your life, from family to childhood friends to co-workers. Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to send links and messages to all of your co-workers but not your friends, or vice-versa? Click on “Friends” from the Facebook menu, then all connections. If you’ve become a fan of a page or two, you’ll see that Facebook has already created two lists for you: Friends and Pages. To make more, scroll through your connection list and click to “Add to List” option to the right. You can create new lists from there, and add friends to multiple lists.

facebook friends.png

When you share a link, note, video or whatever, you can choose which list to send it to by clicking on the lock icon next to the “Share” button and choosing “Customize”.

There Are More

Did you know about these features? Are there other ones that you use that make your use of popular applications and web sites much more manageable? Leave a comment and let us know.

Microsoft’s Secret Giveaway

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

Sometimes it feels like the bane of my existence is my office phone. It’s so bad that I rarely answer it, preferring to forward it to Google Voice where I can peruse the barely readable transcripts just well enough to filter out the 90% cold sales calls I receive. So what a pleasure it was to answer my desk phone on Thursday and have an illuminating conversation with my Microsoft Licensing representative. He called to tell me that I own some awesome benefits that come with my Software Assurance program. I’m betting that I’m not the only one who was clueless about these benefits.

Microsoft Licensing, as you know, is the little-known tenth circle of hell. It’s a conceptual labyrinth of terms and conditions that was likely conceived by a team of the writers of the original “Prisoner” series with the advice of contract attorneys that graduated from law school 30 years ago and have never since seen the light of day.

Software Assurance is the tax we pay on our MicroSoft purchases that allows us to upgrade to the newest versions without paying upgrade fees (as long as we’ve paid our software assurance fees, of course). I assume that this is of interest to Idealware readers because most of us pick up a lot of our MS software from Techsoup Stock, and the Techsoup Stock donations come with Software Assurance, not without.

But Microsoft isn’t evil; they’re just bureaucratic, and every now and then a few smart people step up out of the morass and do things that I appreciate. These Software Assurance benefits include:

The Microsoft Home Use Program provides staff with ridiculously steep discounts on MS Office. Register this benefit, and the allowed number of users (which I’m unclear as to how they calculate) at your company can purchase MS Office 2007 Ultimate Edition (or Office 2008 for Mac) for $9.95. That’s not a trial edition, and it’s the opposite of crippled — Ultimate is the “everything but the kitchen sink” edition and it comes with a license key.Microsoft ELearning is a series of online classes in standard MS products like Word and Excel, and Server products like MS SQL Server or Windows 2003. I did note that the list of available classes that my rep sent me looked a little behind the times; no 2008 or 2010 products covered, but many of us aren’t on the bleeding edge anyway.

Microsoft Technet gives you access to forums and experts, as well as evaluation copies of new technologies. For example, as I write this, I just learned that I can pick up Office 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 betas via my MSDN or Technet subscriptions to try.

And the Office Multi-Language Packs let you deploy office in additional languages.

This isn’t fluff. We’ve been paying full price for Office at home (more than we do at work) and I’ve purchased E-Training on MS products and an MSDN subscription (fairly equivalent to Technet) because I had no idea that I already owned them. It makes me feel much better about what seemed like a pre-emptive insurance program that makes me commit to the next version of MS products before I’m ready to make that commitment, at times.

Of course, this is smart business for Microsoft. With Google announcing that their Google Apps offering will be on a feature par with Office within a year, and OpenOffice under active development as a pretty comparable alternative, you don’t want your business customers to get too comfortable with those free alternatives at home. It’s just surprising to me that, for years, this was buried in the small print section of eOpen, and not broadcast widely. So I’m doing MS a favor and blowing the horn on this one.

To access these benefits, log onto eOpen (which I hope you’re using to manage MS licenses!) and once you’ve signed in and clicked “unhide licenses”, find your last Techsoup order (or a similar large purchase) and open it up. The very first link in the license detail should be “Start and Manage your Software Assurance Benefits”. Clicking on that will pop you to a paragraph that includes a link to the “Software Assurance Benefits Management Tool”. Click on that to get the benefits. The more MS software you’ve bought, the more tedious this will be: there are benefits associated with each Software Assurance purchase, so you’ll need to register this way for every relevant order. But it sure beats paying for these things at Best Buy!

The Case Against Internet Explorer 6

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

tombstone.jpg
Photo courtesy JChandler’s Tombstone Generator

Internet culture addicts like me have taken gleeful note of Mashable’s campaign to rid the world of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 6.  Anyone who develops public web pages (and cares if they are compatible with other and/or modern browsers) is sympathetic to this cause.  The hoops that we have to jump through to make our pages look acceptable in IE6 while taking advantage of the nearly decade old CSS positioning commands are ridiculous.  When I was doing web consulting a few years back, IE6 compatibility coding generally took up about 20% of the total project time.

Microsoft’s response to the Mashable campaign was to defend the brontosaurus-like pace of corporate IT Departments in performing application updates. Here’s the pertinent MS Spokesperson quote:

“[Corporate IT departments] balance their personal enthusiasm for upgrading PCs with their accountability to many other priorities their organizations have. As much as they (or site developers, or Microsoft or anyone else) want them to move to IE8 now, they see the PC software image as one part of a larger IT picture with its own cadence.”

Huh! This from the company that kept threatening to drop Windows XP support in order to force us to Vista.

But, sarcasm aside, this is a flawed argument.  The “cadence” in which an IT Department upgrades software should be influenced by changes in the general technology landscape. Business (and nonprofit!) networks use the Internet. Those networks are already integrated with the world at large. Since the web browser is one of the primary interfaces to external data, it’s easy to make the case that it needs to be upgraded more often than word processors and spreadsheets.

Many major webs sites are design with CSS 3.0 formatting. IE6 doesn’t fully support the  11 year old CSS 2.0 specification. IT departments that aren’t prioritizing this upgrade are providing poor support for users who need such websites.  They’re also creating more work for themselves supporting the workarounds. Large companies might have far more computers to upgrade, but they also have software that automates that process.  The key issue is training. Microsoft dramatically changed the user interface of Internet Explorer with version 7, but there are options to default back to the IE6 layout. The hassle of learning the new interface is certainly not as bad as not being able to properly use websites that are designed for more modern browsers.

What really irks me is the way that Microsoft has described the “IE6 must die” campaign’ as being intended to appease “technology enthusiasts”. The push to move users to modern browsers is not about my desire to use non-business applications like Facebook, Digg and YouTube (and classifying these web sites as “non-business”is a pretty debatable point as well).  It’s about my desire to benefit from advancements in web technology, and provide my staff with new tools that promote their mission-focused work.

With the HTML 5 specifications about to become the new standard, IE6 is obsolete. The types of things that IE6 doesn’t support are the things that are making web-based applications viable, affordable alternatives to traditional software.  Microsoft has been in the driver’s seat of the companies that set the pace of technology advancement. They should be consistent in supporting the migration and adoption to those new standards, given a reasonable amount of time.  Eight years is reasonable.  IE6 must die, and Microsoft should join the chorus.

Word or Wiki?

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

An award-winning friend of mine at NTEN referred me to this article, by Jeremy Reimer, suggesting that Word, the ubiquitous Microsoft text manipulation application, has gone the way of the dinosaur.  The “boil it down” quote:

“Word was designed in a different era, for a very specific purpose. We don’t work that way anymore.”

Reimer’s primary reasoning is that Word was originally developed as a tool that prepares text for printing. Since we now do far more sharing online than by paper, formatting is less important. He also points out that Word files are unwieldy in size, due to the need to support so many advanced but not widely used features. He correctly points out that wikis save every edit, allowing for easy recovery and collaboration. Word’s difficult to read and use Track Changes feature is the closest equivalent

Now, I might have a reputation here as a Microsoft basher, but, the truth is, Word holds a treasured spot on my Mac’s Dock. Attempts to unseat it by Apple’s Pages, Google Docs and Open Office have been short-lived and fruitless. But Reimer’s absolutely right — I use Word far more for compatibility’s sake than the feature set.  There are times – particularly when I’m working on an article with an editor – that the granular Track Changes readout fits the bill better than a wiki’s revision history, because I’m interested in seeing every small grammatical correction.  And there are other times when the templates and automation bring specific convenience to a task, such as when I’m doing a formal memo or printing letterhead at work.  But, for the bulk of writing that I do now, which is intended for sharing on the web, Wikis put Word to shame.

The biggest problem with Word (and its ilk) is that documents can only be jointly edited when that’s facilitated by desktop sharing tools, such as GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk, and now Skype. In most cases, collaboration with Word docs involves multiple copies of the same document being edited concurrently by different people on different computers.  This creates logistical problems when it comes time to merge edits.  It also results in multiple copies of the revised documents on multiple computers and in assorted email inboxes. And, don’t forget that Track Changes use results in larger documents that are more easily corrupted.

A wiki document is just a web page on a server that anyone who is authorized to do so can modify.  Multiple people can edit a wiki concurrently, or they can edit on their own schedules.  The better wiki platforms handle editing conflicts gracefully. Every revision is saved, allowing for an easy review of all changes.  Earlier versions are simple to revert back to.  This doesn’t have to be cloud computing — the wiki can live on a network server, just as most Word documents do.

But it’s more than just the collaborative edge.  Wikis are casual and easy.  Find the page, click “edit”, go to work.  Pagination isn’t an issue. Everything that you can do is usually in a toolbar above the text, and that’s everything that you’d want to do as well.

So when the goal is meeting notes, agendas, documentation, project planning or brainstorming, a wiki might be a far simpler way to meet the need than emailing a Word document around. Word can be dusted off for the printed reports and serious writing projects. In the information age, it appears that the wiki is mightier than the Word.

Next week I’ll follow up with more talk about wikis and how they can meet organizational needs.

Why SharePoint Scares Me

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

For the past four years or so, at two different organizations, I’ve been evaluating Microsoft’s Sharepoint 2007 as a Portal/Intranet/Business Process Management solution.  It’s a hard thing to ignore, for numerous reasons:

  • It’s an instant, interactive content, document and data management interface out of the box, with strong interactive capabilities and hooks to integrate other databases. If you get the way it uses lists and views to organize and display data, it can be a very powerful tool for managing and collaborating on all sorts of content.  As I said a year or two ago in an article on document management systems, it has virtually all of the functionality that the expensive, commercial products do, and they aren’t full-fledged portals and Intranet sites as well.
  • Sharepoint 2007 (aka MOSS) is not free, but I can pick it up via Techsoup for a song.
  • It integrates with Microsoft Exchange and Office, to some extent, as well as my Windows Directory, so, as I oversee a Windows network, it fits into it without having to fuss with tricky LDAP and SMTP integrations.
  • All pretty compelling, and I’m not alone — from the nonprofit CIO and IT Director lists I’m on, I see that lots of other mid to large-sized organizations are either considering Sharepoint, or already well-ensconced.

So, why does Sharepoint scare me?

  • What it does out of the box, it does reasonably well.  Not a great or intuitive UI, but it’s pretty powerful. However, advanced programming and integration with legacy systems can get really complicated very fast.  It is not a well-designed database, and integration is based on SOAP, not the far less complicated REST standard, meaning that having someone with a strong Microsoft and XML programming skill set on board is a pre-requisite for doing anything serious with it.
  • MOSS is actually two major, separately developed applications (Windows Sharepoint Services and Content Management Server) that were hastily merged into one app.  As with a lot of immature Microsoft products, they seem to have been more motivated by marketing a powerful app than they were in making it actually functional.  Sharepoint 2013 or 2016 will likely be a good product, kind of like Exchange 2007 or SQL Server 2003, but Sharepoint 2007 makes a lot of promises that it doesn’t really keep.
  • Sharepoint’s primary structure is a collection of “sites”, each with it’s own URL, home page, and extensions. Without careful planning, Sharepoint can easily become a junkyard, with function-specific sites littered all over the map.  A number of bloggers are pushing a “Sharepoint invites Silos“ meme these days.  I stop short of blaming Sharepoint – it does what you plan for.  But if you don’t plan, or you don’t have the buy-in, attention and time commitment of key staff both in and out of IT, then silos are the easiest things for Sharepoint to do.
  • The database stores documents as database blobs, as opposed to linking to files on disk, threatening the performance of the database and putting the documents at risk of corruption. I don’t want to take my org’s critical work product and put it in a box that could easily break.
  • Licensing for use outside of my organization is complicated and expensive. MOSS access requires two or three separate licenses for each user – a Windows Server licence; a Sharepoint License, and, if you’re using the advanced Sharepoint features, an additional license for that functionality.  So, if I want to set up a site for our Board, or extend access to key partners or clients, It’s going to cost for each one.  There’s an option to buy an unlimited access license, but, the last time I looked, this was prohibitively expensive even at charity pricing.
  • Compared to most Open Source portals, Sharepoint’s hardware and bandwidth requirements are significantly high. Standard advice is that you will need additional, expensive bandwidth optimizing software in order to make it bearable on a WAN. For good performance on a modest installation, you’ll need at least two powerful servers, one for SQL Server and one for Sharepoint; for larger installations, a server farm.

I can’t help but contrast this with the far more manageable and affordable alternatives, even if those alternatives aren’t the kitchen sink that Sharepoint is.  Going with a non-Microsoft portal, I might lose all of that out of the box integration with my MS network, but I would jettison the complexity, demanding resources, and potential for confusion and site sprawl.  I’m not saying that any portal/intranet/knowledge management system can succeed without cross-departmental planning, but I am saying that the risk of a project being ignored — particularly if the financial investment was modest, and Sharepoint’s not cheap, even if the software can be — is easier to deal with than a project being fractured but critical.

If my goal is to promote collaboration and integrated work in my organization, using technology that transcends and discourages silos, I’m much better off with apps like Drupal, KnowledgeTree, Plone, or Salesforce, all of which do big pieces of what Sharepoint does, but require supplemental applications to match Sharepoint’s smorgasbord of functionality, but are much less complicated and expensive to deploy.

After four years of agonizing on this, here’s my conclusion: When the product matures, if I have organizational buy-in and interest; a large hardware budget; a high-performance Wide Area Network, and a budget for consulting, Sharepoint will be a great way to go. Under the conditions that I have today — some organizational buy-in; modest budget for servers and no budget for consulting; a decent network, but other priorities for the bandwidth, such as VOIP and video — I’d be much better served with the alternatives.

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.