Social Networking for Business 2009

There has been a lot of buzz lately about “social media” and other “web 2.0” technologies that can supposedly “change the way we do business” and all that. A lot of it is hype and nonsense, of course, but there are still useful and serious ways that small businesses, groups and individuals can use services such as Linked In, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and media-sharing through Flickr or YouTube to improve their visibility and make themselves more accessible and useful to clients. The trick is in understanding what business purpose social media fulfills and not wasting time on things that don’t have a clear business purpose.
Sample Social Media Strategy

As a general rule, social media is most useful when it serves the same purpose as newsletters or small advertisements have done in conventional, brick-and-mortar business. Understand where you are saying something, to whom, and why.

Have a Purpose to Your Presence

In helping real-world businesses think about and deploy social media it is vital that one understand the business: what the product is, the market, how that market thinks and what message one wants to convey. In the mid 1990’s, for example, many people thought that they needed a web site, and hundreds of them spent thousands of dollars on nonsense to become “modern.” During this time I turned down a number of folks who wanted web sites because I did not think it made sense for them to have one when they could not answer two simple questions: (1) what business purpose does a web site serve and (2) what is the very next thing you want a client to do upon visiting your web site?

If one cannot answer these questions of market, business purpose and result, I recommend you not deploy any sort of social media.

Top of Mind, Easy to Find, Trusted Advisors

In general there are three things that almost every business wants from social media, all of which are related to accessibility and credibility. First is presence, to be “top of mind.” Coca-cola does not spend hundreds of millions each year because people have not heard of them, but because they want to be foremost in our thoughts. The first vendor one thinks of when a need comes up is at the top of the customer’s mind, making the customer more likely to initiate a transaction. Once the customer thinks of you, the second key thing is that you are “easy to find” with an Internet or local search. By listing oneself on a few social media sites (with a web site and phone number) one dramatically increases one’s chance of being found. Once they find you, though, why should they bother? The third key thing is to use social media over time to establish oneself as a “trusted advisor.” Through blog posts and occasional, carefully-considered updates, a business or individual can dramatically increase their credibility and usefulness in a way that draws clients and opportunities in the future by increasing the value of the Internet today.

Understanding the Tools of Social Networking

“Social media” is a sub-set of various “web 2.0” technologies which focus on creating connections between and amongst a variety of user-generated content. For a business, this makes it is easier to share information on the Internet without understanding the technical aspects of writing HTML or scripting, as well as to keep in touch with colleagues in a non-invasive way as time allows. Social networking tools include sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, each of which has its own idiosyncracies and uses.

MySpace is for Teens, Bands & Comics

MySpace was an early break-out site which has always suffered from a variety of social and technical problems. The technical problems are not worth going into, but the site is mechanically unreliable and untrustworthy. Socially, MySpace is primarily used by bands, comedians and very young people who largely use it as a free and easy way to put up a web site to exchange notes with other MySpace friends. Unless you are a stand-up comedian, a band, or your business requires extensive connection to this demographic, I would never recommend MySpace. From 2007 on, the primary use of MySpace has been to establish one’s identity through a simple presence which points elsewhere. The less time one spends in creating a MySpace “profile” the better.

Facebook Business “Pages” (not Profiles) for Business

Facebook was originally more selective than MySpace and has always been more sophisticated and stable. Initially encouraging people to use their real names and building from a moderately elite group of college students and faculty, Facebook had more users, with better demographics and more stability. In many ways Facebook has been able to do what Friendster hoped to do, and has a logical business plan. I encourage business users who wish to establish a personal profile on Facebook to do so, for social contacts, but to create a separate Facebook “page” for their business, and to use that for business visibility.

Facebook “pages” and “groups” are very much *not* personal profiles, and can be used to broadcast information about one’s business to Facebook users (of which there are millions) or (in the case of organizations) to encourage interaction among Facebook users. Facebook profiles, groups and pages all allow the sharing of “notes,” “links,” “events,” pictures and videos. A Facebook page is like a web page, primarily for Facebook users, and businesses can easily use it as a way to broadcast information about business events such as presentations, new products or sales. Behind the scenes, it also provides demographic information on “fans” and allows demographically-targeted notices. Since Facebook users tend to be socially and geographically focused, a page where customers can become “fans” makes a lot of sense for local, service-oriented businesses. It tends to be less relevant for other businesses, but may be incorporated into a general marketing strategy.

Linked In as a Resumé Hub for Other Connections

Early on I referred to as “MySpace for grown-ups” and the primary use of Linked In is to post one’s resume and develop contacts to other professionals one knows “in real life.” One can ask for and give recommendations for others, much as one would leverage personal contacts for a job search or at a cocktail party. Linked In has superb penetration in search engine results, and is the single resource I suggest for job seekers and small business owners for whom name-recognition and “findability” is key. Unlike focused “job boards” such as Monster, Linked In has a variety of professional groups one can take part in as one chooses, and options to post links to other resources such as online “google doc” presentations or professional-presence pages such as professional blogs where one can provide short and relevant reviews or articles. Linked In “status updates” can be used to highlight professional events or tell others of relevant professional resources in a non-intrusive way that helps to increase professional credibility.

Twitter and the Proper Place of “Tweets”

As one of the newer technologies, micro-blogging tools such as Twitter are relatively new, but I suggest that most businesses use them as they might radio or print advertising: for occasional updates on special events. To think of Twitter as a very short newsletter is best for most businesses, in my judgement, and a Twitter feed should almost always be linked to Facebook status if there is a Facebook page, with Tweets providing links to other resources (such as an online calendar or blog article) if possible. The primary value of Twitter at the moment is (A) to remind people of one’s existence, (B) providing timely reminders of special events and (C) sending traffic to more substantive resources or updates. I absolutely discourage personal use of Twitter or direct messaging for most business users.

Industry-Specific Sites

There are some professions or professional organizations where common directories exist, and it is always a good idea to take advantage of those. Local Harvest is a free directory that showcases agricultural businesses, for example, while state bar associations also list lawyers. There may be other organizations you are part of and if these are real directories that you feel your colleaugues, clients or customers might actually use to look for you, take the time to create a basic profile there, especially if it can be used to point toward your main web presence. Generally I discourage people from taking part in “pay to play” directories, as these are mostly a waste of money, but you probably know your industry better than I.

Blog Technology

If there is an uglier word than “blog” in modern English, I don’t know it, and the associations that it brings are almost as ugly. When I use the term “blog” I am referring to the technology behind web pages that makes it possible for ordinary people to quickly create web content through a combination of SQL databases, scripting and CSS. For most people “blog” means a self-indulgent diary, and understanding the difference between these two things is crucial to using blogs intelligently for business purposes.

Although blog technology can be used for puerile narcissism on sites such as LiveJournal and DiaryLand, it is also used quite usefully by serious publications such as the New York Times, O’Reilly and CNET. For small groups, individuals and businesses, blog technology and sites such as Blogspot, WordPress and TypePad are far and away the simplest way to establish web pages, simply by removing obvious date references, and each technology has its advantages. Much of the content your business has already created can be productively repurposed for a blog.

Blogspot Is Simple, With Many Solid Widgets

Blogspot is owned by Google and makes it very easy for individuals to begin writing on any subject that interests them, while providing rich multimedia tie-ins to other sites such as Flickr or content hosted through Google Docs or YouTube. Blogspot does this through various code plug-ins it calls “widgets” and Blogspot is a very useful tool for business folks who wish to easily present a series of educational essays or pointers toward trends within an industry. The sorts of things one would publish in a newsletter lend themselves quite nicely to blog posts, and the ability to post pictures makes them an excellent way to publicize events or sales. Consultants and others who need to educate the public about a given topic, point out good articles or books that help people understand the value that they bring might also benefit greatly from blogspot’s technology. Blogs are a terrific way to repurpose a variety of content that one is already creating, and archive it in a place where it continues to build web hits and value, demonstrating one’s skill and abilities over time. The trick is to use the blog to store and promote material that is timely or has already been created, not to add one more task to an already-busy business day.

WordPress is Versatile, Static and Widely Deployed

WordPress is a widely-used platform for many bloggers, and can be installed on most web servers or hosted commercially through services such as Yahoo or GoDaddy. To help familiarize people with the technology WordPress also provides free accounts at, and web pages created with WordPress are all the web presence that many small businesesses need. WordPress is designed in a way that makes it very easy for web developers who understand CSS to change the “look and feel” of a WordPress site in a way that makes it difficult for non-technical people to even recognize where the pages come from.

Other Options such as TypePad and Movable Type Exist

TypePad is the commercially-hosted version of Movable Type, and a venerable choice for individuals such as authors or speakers. I am very fond of Movable Type as a back-end for business web pages and keep my own blog site with this technology, although WordPress is more popular.

Support Sites for Media Hosting

Most businesses won’t benefit from hosting large numbers of pictures or videos, but if your business might, sites such as Flickr and YouTube allow you to post and host these easily, whence they can be referenced or embedded in other web pages or blogs. Realtors, artists, instructors, hairdressers, landscapers and event planners are just a few of the professions that might.

In addition to posting albums that showcase your products or present terrific “before and after” examples, some professions (such as language, music or physical instruction) may benefit from an occasional video or audio podcast. If yours is one, GarageBand comes bundled with every new Mac and provides a simple way to create and share podcasts with the public. iMovie can also be used to create videos and presentations to share online, although other tools may be better for more static presentations.

Another simple way to use YouTube is simply as a pointer to content created by others. Even if your business only has a single, 45-second commercial to post to YouTube, you can still use other features such as YouTube “favorites” to provide links for your customers and clients to other, relevant and useful content.

Google Apps, Docs, Sites and Calendars

I have written of various “Google apps” before but it is worth mentioning both Google Docs and Google Calendars again. If your business or professional is such that a calendar of events or available times might be useful to embed on your web site, Google calendars provide an easy way to do so. If you find yourself creating presentations for clients or to showcase a particular project, process or property, “Google docs” and particularly the presentation module are a simple way to create an online presentation which can be embedded in a web page or used as a stand-alone. My own Linked In profile, for example, includes a basic Google presentation as well as links to my blog, which occasionally incorporates Google documents.

Use of gCals, gDocs and hosted media such as YouTube or Flickr is a simple and inexpensive way to leverage social media as multimedia, as are various aspects of Facebook for those with Facebook groups or pages.

Tying It All Together: Some Examples

However one chooses to deploy social media, it is important to have a schedule and a plan. I personally don’t recommend that any business owner spend more than thirty minutes per week on social media. Jobseekers and those who are actively recruiting for work may spend much more, but it is vital to not do things that may be seen as unprofessional or distract you from a clear business purpose. If you understand who you are and exactly why you are deploying social media, this discipline will be much simpler. Remember the two questions of (1) what business purpose does it serve and (2) what do you want people to do just after contact. Does what you are doing make you more visible and credible? If not, I would suggest you not do it as any part of your business’ social networking strategy.

What your social networking strategy looks like will vary dramatically depending on what sort of business you have, but generally I suggest physically diagramming whatever strategy you have and to understand (A) where you want to be, (B) where you want to send people, (C) why and (D) how. Toward this, I suggest that people identify one or two clear targets, deploying other sites as “feeders” for this site or as media support. Below are four examples of ways that I have advised clients to deploy social networking in support of their business.

Social Media for the Job Seeker

Someone who has recently been laid off or is otherwise looking for a job will use social media differently and I would usually suggest some combination of Linked In, Facebook and perhaps a blog. Facebook helps you connect with friends and schoolmates so that you can project a positive image and make people who care about you aware of your job search. That is all. Make sure that your Facebook profile is very positive, restricted or both, and if you are on Facebook at all, be certain that there are no pictures there you would not sitting out on your desk at work.

Linked In is a useful web site for job seekers because it was designed for professional networking. At its most basic level, a Linked In profile allows you to post a resume, but it can also be used to showcase other aspects of your professional life in a way that draws inquiries or interviews. Linked In encourages connections with past colleagues and makes it easy to give and receive recommendations. There are professional organizations where one can demonstrate one’s skill and knowledge, but don’t spend too much time there that could better be spent on work. Linked In also has the option to provide links to other web sites, blogs and even videos or Google doc presentations. How many of these are appropriate to you depends on many things, but a Linked In profile is a very simple way to brush up one’s resume and stay connected. Even if one is currently employed or not looking, a Linked In resume helps to begin accumulating connections and recommendations now, for established presence and more credibility later.

If one is a knowledge worker of some kind, a professional blog might also be worth establishing. A health worker, massage therapist or teacher may wish to post general wellness articles or book reviews, as a way to keep themselves in the public eye, providing extra value to established clients and giving them a simple way to refer others to them. Even if one only updates the blog a few times each year, it can become a helpful resource to others and something of an online portfolio.

Social Media for a Grocery Store or Cafe

A physical store without any substantive web presence should probably begin with a Facebook page or blog, depending on their clientele. If the clientele is already on Facebook, start there and begin to develop connections as your current customers become “fans.” Photos of sales and events can be shared, as well as store hours and events. A Twitter feed can be created to streamline “status updates” and the goal here is simply to become “top of mind” and part of folks’ cognitive landscape.

When someone searches for you or your business online, what do they find? Make sure that it includes your phone number, store address and hours. A basic blog may contain little more than directions and store hours and still be a valuable resource. Usually the sort of questions that people ask when they phone are good to answer online and taking the time to post those in one stable and good place is time well spent.

Social Media for Professional Trainers

For a company that does professional trainings to Fortune 500 corporations I recently suggested that they have staff remove most mentions of the company from Facebook pages and instead post substantive resumes and a company profile online, where it is easier to network professionally and they can begin to accumulate testimonials and recommendations. The reason for this was their audience. I also suggested a single company blog with multiple authors, which could be linked to various Linked In profiles. When the strength of your business case is the quality of your people and their resumes, put those all out there in a way that makes them easy to find and connect. Showcase them where clients are likely to look, and avoid primarily social sitses such as Facebook and deeply unprofessional sites such as MySpace.

Social Media for Mixed Martial Arts

In the case of a Mixed Martial Arts gym, my advice was exactly the opposite. After creating a basic web page I suggested that they put their class schedule onto a Google calendar where a link could be posted so that folks can always see what is going on. Since their demographic is largely young people, I suggested they configure a MySpace profile (a standard in their industry) and a FaceBook page where news of upcoming events (and photos of past ones) could easily be posted. Huge parts of the MMA experience are social, and young people tend to use their phones for all sorts of things. A Twitter feed can be used to announce changes in the schedule, which are automatically forwarded to the gym’s Facebook page, saving time all around.

Have A Plan

By considering the value and purpose of social networking tools, you can avoid wasting a huge amount of time, and deploy them in a way that helps your business. In summary I suggest that all business users consider a few basic questions.

  1. What business purpose does this technology serve?
  2. Who is our market or the audience for this content?
  3. What do we want them to do immediately upon receiving it?
  4. Is the content useful?
  5. Does the content make us easier to find?
  6. Does it make us more credible?
  7. Does the content remind them of us in a professional way?

If one doesn’t know or understand the answers to those questions, I would suggest a thoughtful pause.

A Super-Simplified Presentation to Share

Some Good Examples

What sort of ways can you use social networking and media to be more useful to current and future customers?

Social Networking Strategy and Deployment

If you would care to schedule an appointment to discuss the possibilities of social media and how it might be intelligently deployed in a logical way to help your business, please consider phoning MacRory for a consultation at (360) 666-7679.

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Google Docs at PMUG General Meeting, 13 July 2009

One of the most interesting developments in software for small businesses over the past two years have been various “web 2.0” technologies such as blog software and “software as a service” options for collaboration such as Google Docs. These have the potential to change the way we work as much as local networks or the Internet did, and so I think it is important to help people learn about them, since these technologies offer amazing tools for students, educators, community groups and even people who don’t own their own computers.

As part of my goal to make folks more aware of these I plan to do several free presentations over the next few months. The first of these will be at the general meeting of the Portland Macintosh Users Group at 7pm on Monday, July 13, 2009. Please consider joining us at the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center “Ecotrust Building” at 721 NW Ninth Avenue, Portland OR 97209.

Demonstration Documents for the Presentation

During the presentation I will make reference to a variety of links, which I’ll include below.

An Embedded Google Doc Presentation

Examples of Other Google Docs

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Connecting Wirelessly with Mac OS X

One of the more common questions I hear is how complicated it is to connect a computer wirelessly, but “connecting wirelessly” can mean a variety of different things. Most wireless technologies use radio waves of some sort, and almost all can be used with Mac OS X.
Wireless connections

Different Wireless Connections

Just as there are different kinds of cables and wired connections, so there are different kinds of wireless connections. Some are used to connect devices to your computer, and some can be used for Internet connectivity. None is as fast as the wired alternatives, and all are prone to security concerns, range problems or interference.

Infrared Connections

The earliest form of wireless connections for most Macs was infrared, and this is still used by the iPod-style Apple Remote, which can be used to control your Mac at a distance for viewing media through the Front Row application or to work with slide presentations in Keynote. Infrared is the same technology used by most television remote controls and connections are limited in range and line-of-sight. Before the introduction of Bluetooth, infrared was also used to “tether” some cellular telephones to laptops, allowing for mobile Internet, but this technique is rarely used today.

Short-Range Wireless before Bluetooth

Some wireless keyboards and mice will use a special “USB dongle” that communicates only with those devices.

Bluetooth “Personal Wireless Networks”

Bluetooth is an open standard intended primarily for peripherals and mobile devices within a “personal wireless network.” All current Macs ship with bluetooth built in and bluetooth is used for short-range wireless peripherals such as Apple’s wireless mice and keyboards. Bluetooth is also commonly used for headsets and telephones, and some new automobiles have bluetooth integration built in. Bluetooth is less commonly used to connect printers and PDA’s, with effective range for most bluetooth devices twenty feet or less.

For security and to avoid confusion and interference, many bluetooth devices must be “paired” with each other, and Mac OS X includes a “bluetooth setup assistant” which can be accessed through the system preferences for “network” and small local area networks can be configured for file sharing.

802.11 Airport or “Wi-Fi” Wireless Area Networks

For Internet connectivity, the most widely-used type of network is 802.11 “wi-fi,” referred to as Airport within the Apple brand. Wi-fi is commonly used in offices and public “hot spots” where the wi-fi “base station” or “wireless sharing hub” is connected to an existing high-speed Internet connection. Although early versions of the Airport base station included a modem port for connecting to an ISP, this is almost never used today. The analogy I usually make is to a wireless telephone, as compared to a cell phone. Just as a wireless telephone does no good without a telephone line to connect it to, so a wifi connection cannot be used without another ISP of some sort.

Every Mac for the past several years has shipped with Airport built-in, and so can be used to create an ad-hoc network or to share an Internet connection from one Mac to other computers through wi-fi. This feature is turned on or off in the Mac OS 10.5 preference pane for “sharing.”

Cellular Networks, Such as Edge or 3G

Since cellular phones are telephones, they have long been usable as telephone modems, although early cell-phone connections were so slow that this was often painful. Using a cell-phone as an Internet connection for the computer is commonly called “tethering” and can be done with a physical cable or over bluetooth, depending on the telephone. Other options include built-in Internet connections such as those on “smart phones” such as the Palm Pre, Blackberry or iPhone. The fastest among these is currently the third-generation “3G” networks for the latest iPhone, which in the Portland area are available through AT&T or T-Mobile’s Edge networks.

For those who wish to connect to cellular networks directly from their computers, AT&T and T-Mobile both offer small USB “dongles” which plug into the USB port on a computer, effectively functioning as USB modems. Usually these require a separate “data plan” with the mobile phone company, such plans usually starting at around $25 per month, and can be much more. High-speed connections are usually only available in urban areas, but slower connections are available in most areas where there is cell-phone coverage.

WiMax (sold as Clear in the Portland area)

“WiMax” is a microwave technology, heavily marketed in Portland under the brand-name “Clear.” One signs up for it as one would for cell-phone service, either using a fixed receiver or a portable USB dongle that plugs into one’s computer. WiMax speeds are comparable to DSL and prices start at around $35 per month.

First available in January of 2009, WiMax is sometimes called “4G” and is appreciably faster than 3G. USB dongles for the Mac became available in summer of 2009 for approximately $50 and Sprint has announced plans to tap into this network, which is only available within the core urban area.

Satellite Internet

The most expensive option for wireless Internet is satellite Internet, with much faster “download” than upload speeds, which begin at around $60 per month, primarily in rural areas or for recreational vehicles.

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Professional Ethics in Macintosh Consulting

I recently had the unfortunate experience of cleaning up after another “Macintosh consultant” who, by all evidence, seems to have misled and taken advantage of a client. Things were not set up according to standard practices, equipment was purchased but not delivered, passwords and configuration information was not documented, and the entire relationship seemed designed to keep the client dependent. This prompted me to think back on my own code of ethics, and appreciate the role ethics plays in all I do.

Codes of Ethics and Why They Matter

Most codes of ethics are developed and adopted by professional associations as a way to police themselves. Therapists and lawyers have codes of ethics, as do librarians, CPA’s and doctors. These are distinct from legal statute and regulation in that they function primarily as guidelines enforced by professional censure, not law. Since computer consultants have technical certifications but no special governmental licensing, it is something of a wild west. Anyone can call themselves a “computer consultant” and there is scant recourse for deceptive practices.

One of the great ironies of trustworthy people is that, for the most part, they don’t expect you to trust them. They welcome second opinions, questions and challenges, as a way to demonstrate their reasoning and competence. A good code of ethics and the “best practices” it encourages not only protect the client against incompetence and graft, but also provide a set of guidelines to encourage more professional practice. Almost every professional organization I have ever been part of has some code of ethics, as I do for myself in my business.

Key Aspects of Ethical Responsibility

Each organization phrases its code of ethics, generally, but some things are common to almost all code of ethics.

Duty of Competence

An ethical consultant is technically competent, and never misrepresents their skill or abilities. My own rule of thumb is that I try never to undertake any task that I don’t feel I have a two-thirds or better chance of completing sucessfully. If a task is outside my normal scope of practice or experience, I refer it to someone else or tell the client that it is a borderline case so that they can decide. The duty of competence also requires that the consultant stay abreast of developments and have a program for testing and improving their skills, through continuing education and periodic certification.

Duty of Honesty

Implicit in the duty of competence is the duty of honesty, of being forthright with the client as to the options available and our own best judgement as to the the likely success or utility of any option. Frequently I have counseled clients out of plans that would have been financially beneficial to me, but were not in the client’s long-term interest. If asked for my personal opinion, I will usually give it, but my professional duty is to honestly convey the technical issues as I understand them in a way the client can understand, and not to intimidate or bedazzle them with jargon. Clear and accurate communication is crucial.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

An ethical consultant understands exactly who they are working for, and clarifies that as necessary. Referral fees are a common thing in the computer industry, whereby someone pays a commission or kickback to another for recommending or delivering a customer. I tend not to take part in these at any level, or to disclose relationships when they exist. When recommending other vendors or options I usually try to provide at least three quality options, rather than substituting my preferences for the client’s best judgement.

A lot of retail stores have service departments whose primary job seems to be selling new boxes of equipment or software, or creating a dependency relationship where the client doesn’t really have an option to go elsewhere. This is one of the reasons I do not deal in hardware or software sales, although I am happy to recommend multiple vendors or to purchase things at reimbursement cost only.

If I get a kickback for selling Microsoft Office or am expected to sell a certain number of Mobile Me subscriptions, it is more difficult to be honest and “think outside the box” for the best long-term interests of the client.

Respect for Privacy and Duty of Confidentiality

Because I am often invited into people’s homes and necessarily come into contact with their private data, it is important for me to be circumspect in what I notice and absolutely discreet in what I say. It always delights me when two clients whom I know are acquainted find out (after several years) that they share me as a computer consultant. If I work for you, that is between you and I, and I do not share that fact with others. If the courts would like to subpoena my testimony, they are welcome to do so, but otherwise it is my professional duty to respect and protect your privacy, including business information and processes.

Legal Compliance

It may seem odd to have to say, but I try to obey the law. This means that I will not help you to pirate software or support illegal software. Although I am happy to help you monitor computer use for your minor children, in Oregon (where there are no community-property laws) I will not help you to spy on your spouse or break the encryption on a wireless network to get free Internet. There are often technical ways to accomplish what you want to do within the law, but please don’t expect me to help you break the law. Just because something is technically possible does not mean it is legal or ethical, and I am glad to explain what I will do, what I won’t do, and why.

There is a dramatically lower expectation of privacy in workplace situations, of course, but those are best addressed in advance through clear terms of use and consistently communicated standards. I don’t want to embarrass anyone and am happy, of course, to help you understand how better to protect your own privacy, both online and off.

Preserving Client’s Independence and Autonomy

Every technician or professional has ways that they prefer to do things, but there are also “standard practices” and ways of doing things that are generally accepted and understood. In performing work for a client, I have a responsibility to do so in a way that will be clear to other professionals and which does not make the client dependent on me or my special knowledge to access your own data. As much as possible, I do not not want to know your passwords and I want to leave documentation so that another technician who may come after me will understand what I have done. If someone else can do something less expensively or more competently than I can, I will refer you to them or at least make you aware of this. You may choose to go with me for various reasons, but it is crucial that you make an independent and informed choice. A client’s data is the client’s data, and the client should always have full access to their own data and an understanding of how it is stored.

Client hardware and property (including data) should never be taken off-site without the client’s knowledge and permission.

One Sample Code from 2001

Below is a code of ethics that I suggested to a local group of Macintosh consultants back in 2001. Modeled on the “Scout Law” of 1908, I think it covers all the basics.

  • TRUSTWORTHY: Macintosh Professionals preserve client confidentiality, observe the law, refuse bribes of any kind and disclose any possible conflicts of interest to their clients.
  • LOYAL: Macintosh Professionals place the client’s best interests first, undertaking projects only within their expertise and referring clients to other professionals or vendors when that best serves the client.
  • HELPFUL: Macintosh Professionals work with others and help others improve their skills and abilities in all areas, for the good of humanity, the community, the individual and the Macintosh platform.
  • COMPETENT: Macintosh Professionals work to keep their skills current, stay abreast of new technologies and promote competence in all areas, openly admitting when things are outside their expertise and never misrepresenting their understanding of a subject, situation or problem.
  • THRIFTY: Macintosh Professionals work to preserve value of old and new equipment, so even older technology remains in use to make a positive difference.
  • REVERENT: Macintosh Professionals respect all individuals and do not discriminate based on race, gender, disability, religion or other lifestyle choices. We respect civil liberties, individual privacy, conscience and free speech in all its forms.

Other Codes of Ethics

In the 1984 film Repo Man, the character named Amphetamine Bob conveys a simple code: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof. Nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm,” saying “That’s what I call the Repo Code, kid. Don’t forget it: Etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by anymore.” Below are a few of the other professional codes that inform my understanding of professional ethics.

Other Considerations

There are other considerations of course, but these are the major points, and areas where another “consultant” had let their client down. When engaging a consultant, please consider asking them about their affiliations and code of ethics if those matter to you. I am always prepared to discuss and explain mine at (360) 666-7679.

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Mobile Meh

In summer of 2008 Apple announced that it would integrate various web services with the iPhone under the brand name “Mobile Me.” Existing “dot Mac” (.Mac) customers were migrated in what was billed as “Exchange for the rest of us,” but it didn’t go well. Synchronization that that worked well under dot Mac became spotty, and things my clients relied upon were broken. Recognizing this, Apple gave all subscribers a few free months of service, and hoped that problems could be resolved. Not all were, though, and key parts of Mobile Me do not work for many subscribers, even today.

When it works, Mobile Me is terrific. When it doesn’t, it can induce swearing or bring tears.
Mobile Me logo courtesy of Apple

History of iTools, Dot Mac and Mobile Me

To understand the history of Mobile Me one has to go back to MacWorld 2000, when a free suite of tools including “Mac dot com” email accounts was launched for OS 9 as a way to showcase brand loyalty and reward Apple customers. Steve Jobs initially promised free email accounts and more, but this came to an end within two years, as more features were added and the service became a paid one, which emphasized online sharing. Under the new name of “Dot Mac,” the subscription service made it easier to create and share a variety of web pages, from online “iCards” from one’s own photos to web-page creation and hosting tools. Integration between iLife programs such as iPhoto and iMovie became tighter, and the primary market remained upscale home users who wanted a simple way to share multimedia content.

Synchronization and Sharing as Small Business Tools

More important to businesses, though, was the introduction of iSync, which allowed coordination of key data such as Safari Bookmarks, iCal and OS X Address Book data across multiple computers. This was a huge boon to many families and small businesses, in that it allowed just a few people to share and coordinate calendars across the Internet. Workgroups could now do three and a half useful things.

  • Synchronize with PDA’s and share calendars across space
  • Share key files amongst distant locations with iDisk
  • Consolidate business contact information in Address Book
  • Share and coordinate Safari bookmarks to aid in projects

This was a great boon to a variety of my clients. A consultancy with three locations hundreds of miles apart could very easily share files, stay abreast of schedule changes and follow client contacts between all three, while storing key project files on their iDisk for collaboration. A family with two working parents and two teenagers could share calendars to stay abreast of each other while teaching the children basic scheduling skills. The contractor who worked on Macs at three different locations could have current data at all times, and co-workers could at the different locations could easily find them. For a few years, it was a terrific tool, but that changed with the iPhone and Mobile Me.

What Mobile Me is SUPPOSED to Do

The theory behind Mobile Me is brilliant, as was the goal of integrating the device with the iPhone. Using concepts of “software as a service” and decentralized notions of server-driven “cloud computing,” Mobile Me was supposed to serve not only as a repository for data sent by individual devices, but also as a sort of air traffic controller. Any change on any device could be sent up to the Mobile Me “cloud” and then would be distributed like rain to other devices. Mimicking the behavior of Microsoft’s temperamental server software, only with an individual focus, Mobile Me was supposed to be “Exchange for the rest of us.” For those who have ever been charged with babysitting an Exchange server, this proved all too true.

Common Problems Since 2008

Since its debut in summer of 2008, Mobile Me has been plagued with problems, the most enduring of which are synchronization issues. The architectural change to “push” technology broke some things, which Apple immediately responded to by giving free months of service to all subscribers. After a few months of this, and continuing problems, Apple dropped all telephone support for Mobile Me and synchronization issues, essentially abandoning those customers for whom the service did not work. Given that some of these were my clients who had begun to rely on a service which HAD worked, this was an annoyance.

It is my estimate that approximately 10% of current Mobile Me accounts cannot synch properly, ever, and another 5% or so will synchronize sometimes but not others. The problem seems to be tied to the account itself rather than any given machine, and an affected account does not ever seem to get better. This has cost me dozens of hours in frustration and (with frustrated clients) is enough of an issue that I no longer recommend Mobile Me to anyone, warning them against possible future dangers the way I’ve previously warned against other tools such as the mail-destroying email suite from Microsoft. Fortunately, there are alternatives.
 A surer way to synchronize contacts for online and mobile use.

Workarounds and Alternatives on Mac OS 10.5

Since the late 1990’s there have been a variety of online services which combined email, address books, calendars and task or memo lists. A popular “portal” strategy at the time, players in the space began with Yahoo but also included companies that have passed such as Excite and Go.Com. Of the first wave, only Yahoo remains, and Google is the dominant player at the moment, with its powerful suite of Google Apps including GMail and Google Calendar. Beginning with Mac OS 10.5, various combinations of these play well with iCal and Address Book.

OS X Synchronization with Yahoo Address Book

Although Yahoo’s online tools work very well, it is possible to synchronize the Mac OS Address Book with Yahoo addresses, beginning with Mac OS 10.5. Simply open Address Book and within the general preferences choose to synchronize it with Yahoo address book. It will ask you for your Yahoo account and password information, and has worked remarkably well for over a year. A less robust application within Yahoo’s current calendar beta also allows one to coordinate a single Yahoo calendar. Sharing of web links, files and calendars within a group may be done using Yahoo groups but only through a web browser.

iCal and Address Book Synchronization with Google

Google Apps provides the most robust integration with Address Book and iCal at present, with Mac OS 10.5.6 adding the option to synchronize directly with OS X’s Address Book. iCal has long supported a variety of WebDAV calendars, including Google Calendars, and instructions for configuring those (along with their addresses) may be found in the “Calendar Address” section at the bottom of “Calendar Details” viewable from individual Google Calendar settings. With options to modify specific calendars “subscribe” to others and even “publish” some to the world, this makes a very useful group tool, indeed. File sharing and other collaboration can be done using Google Docs and Google Groups as well, and Google Apps is working to add more sophisticated mobile and shared-contact features.

Synchronize Directly to iPod, iTouch or iPhone with iTunes

One of the simplest alternatives to Mobile Me for the individual user, though, has long been embedded in iTunes. The last several generations of the iPod music player (including the iPhone and iTouch) have included a built-in ability to synchronize contacts and calendars to the device, making these music players a handy PDA. Most devices must be paired with a single user on a single machine, but with the iPhone and iTouch’s ability to enter events directly into the device, this is for most folks a perfectly adequate replacement for the false promises of Mobile Me.

Spanning Sync Makes Google the “Cloud”

Yet another option is a piece of commercial software called Spanning Sync, which is explicitly designed to do what iSync used to do. By using Google servers as its central touchpoint, Spanning Sync aims to coordinate multiple computers and mobile devices at a one-time cost of $65 or for $25 for the first year, with a $15/year subscription thereafter.

Updates Since Original Posting

Updates to Mac OS have made CalDAV synchronization between Google Calendar and iCal much simpler, as detailed by Google. There is also improved CalDAV support for iPhones and iPod Touch devices.

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Presentation on Basic Business Planning

With the downturn in the economy since mid-2008, I have found that I am speaking with clients much more about fundamental issues of business planning and logistics at levels they hadn’t considered or really expected from “the computer guy.” These are important issues, though, and need to be considered. Attending a basic presentation by a local chapter of SCORE was a watershed moment for me, many years ago, as was my first business plan.

We Do Not Plan to Fail, but Fail to Plan

The idea of creating a business plan can be intimidating, and I find that many organizations either don’t have a plan, have not reviewed it lately, or are too intimidated to get a plan together. With this in mind, I have recently taken to using a fairly simple structure to help clients and others think more clearly about larger issues: the simplest of simpleton tools, “the power-point.” For some reason, people are buoyed by the friendly and forgiving structure of a slide show, and this is a simple way to begin considering and capturing a few ideas. With Google docs and online sharing, it is relatively easy to do so, and the product is easily shared with staff and employees.

To feed two birds from one hand, I embed an example below: one I use with my clients to begin the planning process.

Tactics Change and Vary with Terrain

Any realistic and useful business plan is a living document, and all should be evaluated every few years. My own business plan for has changed dramatically over the years as the general economy, infrastructure and technology have changed. This is natural and to be expected. In the mortal words of business guru Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.”

It is important to have a plan, to know that plan, and to adjust it. It is also important to know that it was just a plan and that things can change. Know that whatever plan you develop (including supporting documents such as financial data, policies and operations) should and will change. Clients die, structures change, credit dries up and worse. Plan on it.

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Media Management w iPhoto and iTunes

Most people have more things than they use each day, and many more than they use each year. For whatever reason we want to save things such as a high-school jacket or a book read long ago, but not necessarily carry them with us. Computer files are similar, especially in the age of podcasts, digital photos and portable computers. Fortunately, both iTunes and iPhoto have solutions to this problem already built in.

Where Did All My Storage Go?

If you read the the earlier piece on home folders you know that most programs store your files in particular places unless told otherwise. A long-term task that most people have, though, is deciding how to organize and store more files than they have an immediate need for. This is where a better understanding of programs and file management comes in.

If one travels a lot, takes photos, enjoys podcasts or is into music, it is relatively easy to accumulate several gigabytes worth of pictures and music. Depending on what one’s long-term goals are, it may be simplest to just upgrade the internal hard drive in your Mac to accommodate them, but it might also make more sense to move them to external hard drives for backup or archival purposes. The simplest way to do this, if everything one cares about is on a single machine, is simply to copy the entire home directory, “Music” or “Picture” folders to the other drive. It is also possible to copy them onto optical media such as DVD’s for backup. A third option is to adjust programs so that they store key folders on another drive, depending on one’s budget and preferences.

Distinguishing Backups from Archives

Programs such as Time Machine (which is part of OS 10.5) are designed for disaster-recovery backup, and should be distinguished from long-term storage in archives. Most businesses and serious data collectors should have both a backup and one or more archives, including at least one archive off-site. While a back-up may restore work from a week or two ago, archives are used to organize data from years ago, and preserve it indefinitely.

My general recommendation and rule of thumb for backups is to have a backup drive twice as large as the main drive it backs up. If your MacBook has a 250GB drive, for example, back it up to a 500GB external drive or Time Capsule, using Time Machine. If one can afford it, it is also a good idea to switch backup drives weekly or monthly, so that one is “off site” in another building or at a friend’s house (to protect against theft or fire).

For archives, I am a huge fan of purchasing external hard drives and clearly labeling them, with files immediately accessible from the Finder, not compressed or formatted with proprietary backup software. Archived files should be in common interchange formats or file formats that current machines can read, and if discontinued programs or hardware were used, these must also be kept. For most businesses I suggest making a full copy of cumulative archives (for the present year and all previous) at least annually. Physically label these drives and store them someplace that is recorded in an operations manual. So that there is less risk of obsolescence or media failure, I suggest that all data be completely recopied to new media every two years. It is a bad feeling to realize that the only copy one has of a key document is on a Syquest cartridge in MacWrite Pro format. For music and pictures, the interchange formats I prefer are MP3, AIFF, JPG or TIFF, for a variety of reasons.

Exporting Raw Files from iTunes or iPhoto

The simplest way to backup media files from iTunes is to select them from the iTunes library and then “Show in Finder” from the iTunes File menu. By default, iTunes puts all of its files into the OS X home folder “Music” folder, with one folder for each artist, then subfolders for each album and a file for each track. These can simply be copied to a CD, DVD or external drive. Another option is to select files and then create a “playlist” in iTunes which is then burned to CD. Other options such as the “Library > Back up to Disc” are okay for the short-term, but I avoid them for a variety of reasons. To get as many tracks as possible onto a given disc, use the “data disc” format. In older versions of iTunes this was a preference setting, but is made at the time of burning in iTunes 8 or later. Audio discs will play in most CD players, and MP3 discs will play in some newer portable or car stereos. Data discs will only work on a computer, but if burned from iTunes will show all iTunes information later.

iPhoto also has the option to burn a CD or DVD with photos, and will preserve iPhoto features such as picture titles, comments and ratings. For most people, burning albums to DVD’s is a good way to go. If one wishes to export photos so that comments can be shared with a PC user, one will probably want to use the File menu to “Export…” them as a web page, which is then burned to disc. To export only the basic photos, export them as files from the same menu. Exporting as files or as a web page loses most iPhoto information.

Storing Libraries on External Drives

Preferences within iTunes allow one to change where iTunes music is stored and whether new songs are copied into that folder. For serious music lovers or podcast addicts, it might make more sense to have a separate drive where the files themselves are kept, periodically “consolidating” the music library to that folder. The problem with this is that iTunes will default to the home “music” folder if this volume is not available, which can create problems. If this is the case, it may make sense to add them manually to that external drive and then incorporate them by reference (without copying). Preferences within iTunes allow either behavior.

Earlier versions of iPhoto were not so forgiving, however, and by default would only look for its library within the “pictures” folder of the current home directory. To designate a library other than this one, I suggest a wonderful piece of donation-ware called iPhoto Buddy. iPhoto Buddy allows one to designate a folder pretty much anywhere as the iPhoto library. iPhoto will then open using that folder the next time it launches. If you use iPhoto Buddy, please be sure to make a donation so that Rick Neil can keep it current. My general rule of thumb is to suggest that people use iPhoto Buddy to try and keep their iPhoto libraries under one thousand photos if possible. If one keeps different types of photos or photos across many years, organizing libraries by year or project with iPhoto Buddy is often the simplest strategy.

Option-Start to Choose Libraries in iLife ’09

Current versions of iPhoto and iTunes which came with iLife ’09 contain a new feature which allows one to hold down the “option” key while clicking the icon which launches then. This invokes a “library chooser” which allows one to select among multiple libraries (even libraries on remote volumes). A first for both programs, this can be quite useful and the program will “remember” its last library. When an external volume or library is not available, the program defaults to its standard within the home folder’s “pictures” or “music” folders, respectively.

For professional photographers or those who need to manage more than 10,000 photos, I suggest more robust programs such as Apple’s Aperture.

Have a Plan to Manage Your Photos and Music

The best time to begin thinking about how to logically organize and categorize media is before you start to collect it, but the second best time is now. Whether you organize it by year, work and personal files, by individual clients or projects, having some strategy is better than having none, and your strategy will improve over time. If using iPhoto and iTunes, taking the time to properly label your files and include descriptions and keywords over time is also very useful. Take some time to explore what sort of information each program keeps for your files, and make sure that basic things such as dates and musical genre are correct. The half-dozen names that you take the time to put into a file now, while the memory is fresh, may be the ones that make your life simpler years from now.

Our Mac tools are amazing, if we have the skills and foresight to use them.

Download a copy of iPhoto Buddy from

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Useful and Free Online Tools for Groups and Business

When I first started as a full-time consultant in 1998, it was a pretty neat trick for most people to learn they could connect two or three computers together to share a single printer or plug in to this odd thing called the Internet through a special telephone modem. Today, only ten years later, it is nothing to teach a grandmother how she can use her iPhone to find nearby pizza for the grandkids. A surprising number of private clubs, neighborhood groups, non-profits and small businesses, though, are still conducting their meetings and distributing information the same way they did twenty years ago, which is a shame. From FaceBook to Yahoo to Google and more, there are many free Internet technologies that can make sharing information and working in small groups much easier.

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Laptop Basics

A key part of how consumerism works is to create more demand for products, whether through advertising or the creation of new markets. Is there a laundromat? Try and replace it with a washing machine (and then dryer) in every home. Does a family own a radio? Create a market for televisions in every room. If you want to sell cars and fuel and knick-knacks, create a suburban illusion and expectation of manorial splendor. One of the ways this manifests for computer users is in the increasing tendency of technology to become personal, as demonstrated in the ubiquity of cell phones and laptops. More and more people are replacing home or desktop computers with laptops, so this article will focus on some absolute laptop basics.

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As a computer consultant I get to walk into and clean up a lot of messes. Sometimes these are messes created by months of misunderstanding or simple neglect: logical misarrangement or the organic detritus of any natural process over time. Sometimes these messes are caused by a single catastrophic mistake on the part of the operator, what in the airline industry would be called “controlled flight into terrain.” But sometimes these messes are both systematic and willful. The stories behind these methods usually begin with a single sentence: “I have this person I know who knows all about computers.”

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