Thursday, October 07, 2010

YOU can be a Computer Consultant!

That's right, YOU have the ability to become a Person of Importance in the computing field. Make your own hours, earn unlimited wealth, be the center of attention! Just purchase my easy-to-understand guide, The Inner Geek for only $9.99 and you'll be on your way. Here is a brief outline of the five important concepts covered more depth in the guide:

1. Find an area of interest. PC or Mac? How about Linux (no, not Linus, the Peanuts character, the operating system, silly!)? What about HTML, javascript, jQuery, PHP? Boxers or briefs? Or approach it from an industry – say graphic design, medicine, accounting or electrolysis. It's better if it's something you're already familiar with. For me, it was marketing and design.

2. Immerse yourself. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Find industry rags (magazines, that is), blogs, whatever news source you prefer, and get to know the industry leaders, the software, hardware, trends, what they like in their coffee, etc. I had been reading MacUser, MacAddict and MacWorld, but now I am only down to one printed mag, and I do some reading online, including Slashdot.org for general tech news, MacInTouchMacFixIt and MacOSX for support issues as well as the discussion boards for several of the major players like Apple and Adobe. Sadly, VersionTracker.com, my go to site for updates, was bought out (along with MacFixIt) by CNet, which now offers similar information.

3. Follow the Plan. I love it when a plan comes together. And when the A-Team is not available, I rely on this diagram to often get me through a tough tech session. Is it magic? No. It simply uses some rather basic logic to help you diagnose and solve your tech problem. It really works, try it! You can even get it on a t-shirt now!

4. Gotta Laugh. Not so sure about the singing and dancing, but laughter, after all, is the best medicine. So make sure to find humor in the stuff that you do, or it will drive you completely bonkers. For me, the Joy of Tech (JOT) and xkcd are two fun places for techies to find some humor. While you're at it, check out the stuff at ThinkGeek.com, it's geek heaven! Why, you might even like some of the stuff there, too (check out the Enterprise Pizza Cutter, I so want one).

Looking for Step 5? This concept is so simple, there isn't one! Just follow these 4 steps as fully discussed in my book and be guaranteed that your tech troubles are over. Tech nirvana is available for less than $10, can you believe it? And, as an added bonus, on the inside back cover is my personal Find-Me-Anywhere™ phone number, that you can use to reach me anytime, should you throw your hands up in despair. Meanwhile, I'm back to the beach chair and fruity drink with the little umbrella. Mmmm.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

WordPress Gets Good Press

I have been around the HTML block a few times, from straight coding in a text editor to using PageMill, GoLive!, Dreamweaver (always makes me think of the song), and open source software like Joomla! (what's with exclamation marks in product names?) and Drupal. There are also the web-based alternatives too, that allow for the creation of websites. But I have got to tell you, I have been working on a project for a client in WordPress (WP), and I have to admit, I like it a lot.

Blogging software was typically a link from an existing site that provided supplemental information for the end user or used solely as a means of publishing discussions on various topics. Now it is becoming more common to use the software as your primary site. Many, if not most, web hosts offer one-click installation of WP through their hosting control panel. It is also offered as a download from the main WordPress site.

And the software is free. Don't you just love open source software?

At it's heart, WP is powered through the use of PHP scripts and MySQL, but for most users, this is not usually something you need to mess with unless you're doing a manual install or making some significant alterations. It's Admin home page is nicer looking than many web hosting control panels and easier to navigate, grouped on the left hand side in useful categories.

The program has built-in search, menuing, archiving and RSS feed, it practically builds itself. Add static pages and group them into menu and sub-menu items, set their visibility and even the URL naming architecture for optimum SEO adherence.

Where I think the software shines is in its extensibility. Adding features is as easy as pie. Go to Plugins, click Add New, search on what type of feature you are looking for, pick one out of the search results, click Install, then Activate. Don't like it? Deactivate it, Delete it, then pick another option. The Dashboard and Plugins page show you when there has been an update to a plugin and you have the option of installing it or not.

What about design? WP is themes-based, and you can go crazy with all the sites that have WP themes available, or do what I did and pick up a copy of Artisteer and use it to generate one based on a provided design, roll your own, or let the application pick for you. In any case, you end up with a theme folder you upload to your WP theme directory and then choose it from the Appearance menu. That's it.

Support is as wide-ranging as your plugins. Most of the plugins have their own support sites, and if not, WordPress itself is a repository of useful information. Mind you, I didn't crack a single manual or electronic document to get up and running initially, and I had only a single issue I couldn't resolve, which I was able to find help with online. Remember the old slogan from Boston's Museum of Science, "It's fun to find out."? WordPress is just such an application. It's fun to play around with it. Go ahead and try it yourself.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lost in Transition (Part 2)

So there it was – a nice, new, shiny, silvery monstrosity on my desk, ready to be activated. I prefetched the Firewire cable I knew I would need to move the contents over from my elderly iMac and groped behind the left bottom corner for the power button. The familiar startup sound greeted me and away it went into the overly self-indulgent introductory animation.


It inquired whether I wanted to move the contents of the previous Mac over and I said yes. Then I waited for it to calculate the amount of storage required. And waited. And waited. Nothing. I started over and tried again. Still nothing. Oddly, I remembered having this same problem on my previous iMac. So I ignored the file transfer and proceeded to the desktop.

For the uninitiated, the transfer of information from one Mac to another is handled by the Migration Assistant found in the /Applications/Utilities folder, and can be used after the setup of a new Mac.

A note for those who choose to use this method: If you think you are smart and setup the new computer with the same user account name, then be prepared, the Migration Assistant won't allow you to overwrite the same named account if it is the currently active account. You will need to create a second (temporary, if you wish) admin account in order to run the application.

So attach your previous system via Firewire, and start it up holding the "T" key down, which starts the system up in what is called Target Disk Mode. If successful, you'll see the Firewire symbol on the screen. It should also then appear on the desktop of the new Mac under the icon of the internal drive. Then you can run the Migration Assistant application.

A second note for smarty-pants consultants (like me): Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you are using Time Machine to backup your system and want to continue using the same backup drive for the new Mac, then when the application prompts you to choose what you want to transfer, touch nothing! I thought I didn't need to copy over the Network settings, so when I did this the first time, the new computer didn't recognize the external drive as an existing Time Machine backup, it wanted to create a new backup on it. No, no, no. Make sure to not deselect any item unless you are sure you don't need it, and if you have the space on the new system, go ahead and leave it, you may be able to delete it later.

Ok, now we begin the transfer and go away for an hour or so...

I'm back! See how fast that was? Now my new iMac is like the old iMac except bigger, stronger and faster. Now let's see what applications I have broken. Inevitably, when transferring files from one Mac to another, applications will stop working. The best thing to do is to make sure that you take some preventive actions in advance to curb their number prior to the data transfer.

Adobe Creative Suite: open one of the applications in this suite and run the Help -> Deactivate command.
QuarkXpress: open the application and run the QuarkXpress or Utilities -> Deactivate command.

Some apps are going to just need the license codes re-entered. You are using a license tracker, aren't you? If not, this is a good time to start. Try LicenseKeeper or 1Password, both excellent options. If not, you're going to need to rummage around your shelves or back room to find all those software packages, or your old email messages. With one of these apps, it's as easy as Copy/Paste.

Other apps I had issues with: Savings Bond Tracker (only allows a certain number of activations), SWF 'n Slide Pro, SWF Lock 'n Load, Text-Osterone (who comes up with these names?), Suitcase Fusion (lost track of the Font Vault location), Microsoft AU Daemon (needs Rosetta installed, which you'll be prompted for).

If all else fails, try to remove the application. This can best be accomplished using the application installer itself (if it's an option), an app delete program, or by dragging the app and associated files to the Trash. Make sure to remove the app's preferences in /Library/Preferences and /homeuser/Library/Preferences as well as files in the /Library/Application Support and /homeuser/Library/Application Support folder. There may be stragglers left behind, but they should be fine to leave, since you are re-installing anyway.

Whew! That's all there is to it. Now I can begin using my new machine. You have no idea how cool it is to play Call of Duty on a 27" display... or watch a movie. Even working on it is nice... see ya next time!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lost in Transition (Part 1)

Well, it was about that time. More than three years old and outside of the AppleCare warranty, getting full, getting slow, no more RAM slots to fill, my trusty iMac was ready for the bone yard. There were new machines to check out, new Vista™s to explore (over my dead body), new programs to conquer.

So, what to get. Hmm, let's run down the basic questions:

Q. Apple or PC? 
A. Apple, duh.

Q. iMac or Mac Pro?
A. I pretty much made that decision buying my current Apple machine. There is really no reason to go to a tower anymore. I have all the power, memory and storage I need in a one piece system that sits on my desk. No more banging my knees or getting under the table to plug/unplug an external device.

Q. Screen Size?
A. Well, I have a 24" already and stepping down to a 21" seems silly. However, 27" seems ridiculous, it's the size of my previous TV for crying out loud. But since they don't make the 24" anymore... 27" it is.

Q. Processor and Speed?
A. My current machine is an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.33GHz. The new machines sport an Core i3 (dual-core), a Core i5 (quad-core) or a Core i7 (quad-core) running at various speeds. Getting the 27" pushes me into the latter 2 models and I always opt for the second best, being the best balance of cost vs. performance, so it looks like the Core i5 is the choice. 2.8GHz is the standard speed.

Q. Video?
A. My current machine sported a 256MB NVIDIA 7600GT. Good at the time, but I can't run most recent Steam games on it. The iMac I chose has a 1GB ATi Radeon 5750. Sweet. Although I have moved most of my gaming to a PC running Windows 7, it's nice to know I can fire up a game on the iMac with no trouble.

Q. Cost?
A. Seems we get more and more for the same money these days. My previous machine cost me $1,999 over three years ago. This one was $1,999 as well, but look how much more I get with it – 1TB of storage, 4GB RAM and all the other specs mentioned above. Seems like a good deal.

Q. AppleCare?
A. Oh, yes. This is not your father's Apple. Can't just open up the hood and poke around. With a mere $169 investment, you are protected for a 3 full years, top to bottom.

Next time we'll what a moving experience I had porting over my existing data and getting my new iMac set up. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Boy, Am I Steamed... And You Should Be, Too!

I bet you think this is going to be a rant about some application... and you'd be right. But what if I was to say that is was going to be favorable rant? It's true. You see, I had recently begun to use the new Mac version of Steam, the online game store, where many games, once only for the PC, are making their debut on the Mac. But before I get into the games, let me talk about Steam.

Steam is a game store, an online community, a chat client and more. You can purchase new and older PC and now Mac games or games converted from PC to Mac, download them and play them right through Steam, like GameTap, which I was also at one time a member of. A Steam account is free and you are not obligated to purchase anything. Their are frequent specials, mid-week deals and outright steals. You can login from as many different machines as you wish, but have only one active session at a time. You can download the games onto as many machines as you have, but again, can only play on one machine at a time.

You can add friends, become part of groups, see and join friends playing online, and find out how much time you are wasting playing each of your games. Also, Valve has introduced the concept of Achievements, where awards are given for certain accomplishments which are kept track of and broadcasted to your friends.

The Steam client is similar to a browser, with it's own look and feel.



Steam is also owed by game producer Valve, so of course, their games are available here. They boast such titles as Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Left4Dead, Left4Dead2, Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Killing Floor. All of these titles with the exception of the L4D franchise are not only available for the Mac but they now support SteamCloud, which saves games online so you can access your saved games from any Steam-enabled computer.


In addition, they also support SteamPlay. That means you can play your game from any PC or Mac. That's right. Buy it on the PC, play it on the Mac, at no extra charge. I know I am using a lot of italics here, but I am really excited. I had never played these games before, and Steam gave away free copies of Portal for Mac and PC users during the release of the Steam client for Mac. So of course I downloaded it.

*insert sound of revelation here*

I am a sucker for a good puzzle game, like Myst. Combine that with physics and you have Portal. It's a FPNS (First Person Non-Shooter) Although it plays like a FPS, there is no killing, just obstacles to overcome. You have to think your way through the various challenges, but it requires action to extricate yourself. Graphics are great and the storyline is good. Toss in some quirky humor and ta-da! Instant hit.

Then I was persuaded to pick up the Orange-Box, which in addition to Portal, comes with Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 1, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast and Team Fortress 2. I had heard about Half-Life but never played it. For the most recent past I have been playing adversarial games online and had not played single player for a while.

Then I tried Half-Life 2. 25 hours later, I was hooked.

The gameplay, depth of story, graphics are all top-notch. They keep you intrigued and entertained throughout. Although I played them backwards, I found that having already played Portal, I better understood how the game was to be played. Maybe that's a cheat, I don't know, but it certainly helped me to enjoy the game more. The Episodes are part of trilogy and I am stuck at the end of Episode 2. Episode 3 is expected... sometime.

For all you retro and OS 9 gamers out there, remember all those games you like, but no longer work under OS X? Well, if they are on Steam, they do now. Games like The Dig, Loom, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, all work under Steam. No need for keeping ancient computers or old CDs (and floppies). Have some blocky, bit-mapped fun! Graphics aren't as good but sometimes that forces the story to be better!

All in all, if you like games, Steam is a must-have.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bloggermania!

In this corner, the heavyweight MacJournal faces off against the trendy MarsEdit and the relative new comer Blogo in this knock down, drag out contest to see who will be the the reigning blogging champion. Ok, boys, let’s have a clean fight!

Now I know three’s a crowd, but there are a crowd of applications that are fighting for your attention, I picked these three in a completely subjective manner. After a recent scare when I thought I had lost one of my posts to espionage, I finally realized that if something catastrophic happened, I would loose everything I had ever written for my blog because I had no local backup (don't get me started with the whole notion of cloud computing). So now I need to decide upon an application that will aid me not only in keeping local copies, but maybe even help to facilitate how I write my posts.

MacJournal 5.2.3 $39.95
tzb_mj2-thumb.jpgSetup was confusing, like the software was designed to make the signup process more generic, but ended up making me crazy as to where to put my password in for the blog. I deleted the journal and tried again, this time I just entered a name for the journal (“TeKno Ziz”) and Whammo! Everything materialized without a single input from me. Was that because my user and password were already in the keychain? Did it look at common blog sites for my blog? Frankly, it was kind of scary.


tzb_mj1-thumb.jpgInspector is a little confusing, maybe it could use a feature that would highlight the section you're in like Document, Journal, Article. The layout seems hierarchical, but is a Journal within a Document? Maybe a tabbed interface like Apple's inspectors would be more appropriate (and smaller).








Gak! I just uploaded and previewed my document and all my images are missing! I panicked for a minuted and realized they were still visible in the document, so that must mean I was not doing something right. Opened the manual and read that MacJournal usually will setup the blog automatically (and correctly) but in some instances, manual adjustments may need to be made. I saw I needed to set my image upload settings using Picassa for my Blogger blog. I didn’t have to do anything for the other two apps. Silly me. 

Pros: Articles all maintained locally (this is key for me). Preview mode (whoo-hoo...). Spelling & grammar checker. Can record audio and video for blogging or personal journals. Drag resizing of images. Can create other types of documents other than blogs. Uses Growl notifications. Can post as draft. 

Cons: Can’t publish in draft mode. Auto-format can be vexing. Inspector too unwieldy. Expensive. Images can be side-by-side but apparently only locally. Cannot numerically determine size of images. Images don’t link to full-size versions. Can’t see any indication of upload progress until finished. Annoying error message when editing previously uploaded document. 

Conclusion: This program was not designed specifically for blogs and therefore does not directly address all the specific needs of a blogger. That and at almost double the price of Blogo, makes me hesitate to recommend this specifically for people wanting just to blog.

MarsEdit 3.0.1 $29.95
Logo reminds me of MarsRising from Ambrosia, fun game... The 2-step setup process is dead-simple. Enter the address of the blog and then the user name and password and poof!, you're all set. In the MarsEdit main window – I would opt to add the "-" button in the bottom left next to the "+" to remove blogs as is typical in addition to putting it into the popup. Standards are beautiful... but otherwise, no complaints. Standard Apple app interface, clean Mail-like appearance. Images appear in your posts with previews, which I like. There is a preview mode, but it looks nothing like the actual layout of your blog. You can customize it some degree, but it ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.


tzb_me4.jpg
Windows, windows, too many windows. There is the Main window, the Edit window and the Preview window. Makes it hard to keep track ofeverything, especially on smaller screens. Also what is in the Edit window won't be what is in the Main window until you send it to the blog. I thought I had lost a chunk of text until I figured that one out. Again, enter the tabbed interface or maybe just allowing editing in the Main window. Format commands available via popup or keyboard commands. More than what is available in Blogo's main window, but maybe not as convenient.

Images are next. So I started writing this in Blogo and now am in MarsEdit. I go to the Media Manager to see the images associated with this article, and... nothing. There is nothing there. But I had already uploaded a bunch of images and they show up in the Edit and Main window. So... where are they in the Media Manager? I go to the On My Mac tab and find the pictures locally but I can only select one a time. Yes, I can scale it proportionally (though there is nothing in the interface that mentions this, I was just playing), but what about multiple add? Another bonus, I can drag pictures side-by-side, I couldn't seem to do that in Blogo. Paragraphs and text wrap appear automatic, although not always consistent, sometimes there is a pad of space, sometimes not. It would be nice to have a "stick to paragraph" option. Images placed with MarsEdit also don't have an option to view the full-size image. D'oh! Hard to do reviews if you can't show screen shots full-size. Blogo does this auto-magically. Ohhhh, CRASH! Program just crashed on me. But I lost no text! Auto-recover saved the day. Nice. Makes me wonder if they expected this to happen...

Had to turn off the option to close the edit window each time I post in Preferences, because I send my post to the blog many times before I publish. Trust me, you want to do this too. 

Pros: A specific blogging app, no unwanted features. More affordable.Uses Growl notifications. Can post as draft.Auto-recover. Can work offline. Has bookmarklet to Blog This! from a web page.Less expensive than MacJournal. Can edit in external apps. Can have side-by-side images.User can edit Preview template to reflect actual blog design.Maintains copies locally.

Cons: No full-sreen mode (not that I care, but someone might). Only app to crash on me. Tough to position graphics even though you can make them side-by-side. Seems not to be able to find previously uploaded images not uploaded through the app. Preview pops up every time I open a post to edit. No resizing of images in edit window. No links to larger images. No view published version in website. 

Conclusion: I want to like this app. It definitely hits closer to the mark than MacJournal. It's less expensive and can preview in the design of your blog, if you are willing to tweak the template code. But image handling isn't quite perfect, side-by-side, yes, but no links to larger images, no spaces between images, no resizing in edit window. If you can live with these, then MarsEdit is the one for you.

Blogo 1.3 $25.00tzb_bl1-thumb1.jpg

A 2-step process as easy as MarsEdit, with the addition of some helpful tools like a bookmarklet that sends content from specific sites direct to Blogo or the ability to send highlighted text as a quote. Pretty nice.

 

Adding graphics is a drag and drop affair, drag them into the image list window, size, align and link the thumbnails and throw them into the page. Easy. Click once to preview the image, click twice to edit. Would have liked to see the preview of the image right in the article just to verify the right image was in the right location. I don't think I would use full-screen mode in general, but I like the way Blogo looks over MacJournal's green-on-black display. Completely personal preference.

tzb_bl6-thumb.jpgAlso sports a "Mircoblog" interface for Twitter and Ping.FM, for posting to all your social software services. What goes out is posted to all your favorite social sites.

Pros: Modern, sleek interface, love the logo (Lugaru anyone?). Awesome preview feature shows you what the article looks like with the real format of your blog, complete with graphics (best feature of all 3), no coding or tweaking required! Formatting commands on screen or as shortcuts. Full-screen if you want it. Images link to larger versions. 

Cons: Only maintains local copies of new articles. Articles don't appear if you are not connected to the internet, even draft ones. Preview refresh sometimes is longer than it should be, especially if it's caching the files. 

Slight annoyances: Splash screen appears where main window last was, not in center of the screen. However, you can turn off the splash screen in Preferences. Sometimes it appears that the program isn't keeping up with your typing. There is also a slight drawing error in the bottom right corner of the Preview window. 

Conclusion: I really like this app. Clean, fresh, functional. Has more features at a better price than MarsEdit. If the author could take care of the archiving of existing articles, and off-line editing, it would be perfect. But for people just starting out with a blog, or starting a new one, it's just the thing, especially at the price of $25.

Addendum: Having reviewed and re-reviewed this post, I happened upon an issue I needed to fix, so I went into Blogger instead of one of the editing apps I reviewed. Somehow the paragraph spacing got all messed up while editing inside of the web app. So if you plan on using one of these apps, plan on using it solely to write and edit your blogs. Otherwise, you might get cranky... and have to fix the code in BBEdit, like me.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Turning the Tables or The Great DIVide

With some good-natured needling from a friend and with much sadness, I have turned the tables on using tables in my HTML and have crossed over the great DIVide to using DIVs. Now to be honest, DIVs may be more like what I was used to coding, way back in the day when I was a photo typesetter and used to have to hand code my layouts and preview them on another monitor. What is photo typesetting? Check it out, here. But, as the saying goes, to go forward you must look back.

DIVs are containers. If you have ever used QuarkXPress (note proper spelling), you know exactly what I am referring to. You make a text box or a photo box and then dump stuff in it, and then you can drag it around on the page and do stuff with it. Same idea. If you're using a tool like Dreamweaver, you can place a box on your page and then use CSS to format the box and the content within. Or if you like, you can use a text editor like BBEdit and code it, then preview it in a browser.

While tables did give you the ability to keep things together, it was a pain sometimes to have to work within its confines. For example, while creating a navigation menu, Fireworks would create a table where every menu item was a separate cell in a table and when it went in the layout sometimes adjusting the table would pull the menu out of alignment. Then I would have to spend the time to pull each menu item out of the cell, place them all in the same cell, then combine all the cells into one.

With DIVs you can numerically position items on the page and format each DIV separately. Making changes or tweaking position is a simple matter of changing a line or two in the CSS. Granted, it will be a little harder for some people to wrap their brains around, but in the end the code is cleaner, easier to read and most likely a little faster loading than tables. Discrete boxes also offer the ability to integrate backend code, say, from a database, more simply.

Downsides? Well, duh. Aren't there always? In this case, the downside is browser interpretation. Some browsers may interpret the code a little differently and therefore your page may vary slightly from one to another. However most browsers like Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera are pretty consistent. The bad boy on the block? Of course, Internet Explorer. You can forget version 6 altogether (it was given an internet funeral this past March) and plan on testing using version 7 and 8.

I am in the process of redesigning the TeKno Ziz site, and I am using DIVs. Stay tuned for the upcoming release. What's your experience with tables and DIVs and all things HTML? Let's hear what you have to say.

Friday, April 02, 2010

I want my CMS!

Content management is all the craze these days. Server-based, web-based, local, remote, templates, themes, databases, plugins, extensions, PHP, MySQL and all those other things you hear – what's it mean for your website? What's the advantage? What's the cost? Maybe most importantly, what are the downsides? Let me try to make some sense of this for you.

Simply put, a Content Management System (CMS) is a way of managing your website without the aid of the programmers who built the site and without having any knowledge of programming. Ideally. In reality, it's a little more complex than that, depending on the method you choose.

Some mid level web design applications like iWeb, SandVox, RapidWeaver allow you to "skin" your website – that is, use new designs simply by selecting one from a menu and applying it to your site. Neat. Now you can change the look anytime you want. You are limited to layouts provided by the developer or third parties and sometimes you may need to pay extra, but for those who don't have any aspirations to design, it may be the perfect solution. This is a real basic form of content management. Well, design management anyway.

Another method harkens back a couple of years to Macromedia's Contribute, now owned by Adobe. In this scenario, the developer builds the site with "editable" regions that the client can access using a special browser application. There, they can make edits to text, insert images, links and even new pages, without compromising the integrity of the site or the design. This is kind of the reverse of the first method, where only the content is managed, not the design.

Adobe has taken Contribute and now has made it available online as InContext Editing. The backend works pretty much the same, but the front end can be accessed via any browser. A free service now, Adobe plans at some point to make it a subscription-based service.

Open Source Software (OSS), free software supported by the developers and users, moves us into another realm of possibility where you have much more power but also more complexity. These CMS apps are often based on PHP and MySQL, a programming language and database respectively, which are administered via your browser. There are three main categories that I will mention, community software, blogging software and discussion boards. They all are variations on a theme, so to speak, and deal with communicating either one-to-many or many-to-many.

Two of the more popular packages for use in community sites are Drupal and Joomla! They offer a boatload of features and third party developers have created many more. However, these are very structured applications and therefore you must work within their strictures. And partly due to their impressive feature sets, they are somewhat more complicated to set up and maintain. Design in particular is difficult and you may need to look to others to provide you with a theme you can purchase and install. You can view my GratefulTread mountain biking site I built using Joomla! You can have articles, images, even slideshows and videos. You can attach documents, and the site can also have many contributors. Polls are another popular feature that is available.

When discussion and many-to-many interaction is required, bulletin board (or forum) software is the way to go. It can be used as a stand alone site or as a bolt on to an existing site. Often times, it is used as a source of support and community discussion about that particular company's site or product. Its focus is mainly textual although you can attach images and documents to your posts. Think of it as big chat room where all your posts are permanently stored. phpBB and SMF are a couple of examples of the many options out there.

Lastly, when the speaker is primarily a single person wanting to communicate to a group, a blog might be just right for you. Easy to manage, you can publish articles, images, slideshows and more. People can link via RSS feeds (many of the other app mentioned here can also), as well as leave comments, and some packages can link to other products by the same company. Two of the most familiar would be WordPress and Blogger (from Google). The web design tools I mentioned at the start of the article also have built-in facilities for generating and maintaining blogs. This category of apps is maturing quickly and provides many of the same features as some of the big boys, but without the complicated overhead.

In response to the inherent complexity of theme design for some of these software packages, a company called Extensoft has provided a solution. Their application Artisteer allows you to design a template and then export it in a format that can be used by several of the apps described in this article. It's available on both the Mac and PC platforms. Download the trial and check it out.

To ease the complexity of installation many web hosting companies have resorted to One-Click installs of many popular open source applications. Some feature both total automation and partial automation for those who wish to work beyond the basic install options. Check your web host's Control Panel for more information. Those of you using my web hosting service can log in here, and go to InstallCentral to check out the offerings.

Oh, and one more thought to mention. When the abilities of these apps are either too much, too complicated or just not right, you can look into a custom-designed CMS by TeKno Ziz. We can build it right into your existing site or integrate it into a new site design, but in either case it will be ready to meet your needs now and in the future. The great part of our solution is that 1.) it is specifically tailored to your needs and your business and 2.) we make it easy for you, through our web based administration page, to post, upload and edit your content. Call or email us for more information. See live working samples of our custom CMS work at HPS Wine, FutureChefs and Agnes Strecker Dance Studio. More jobs currently in production.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Same As It Ever Was... Or not.

Trying to be a good manager of my finances, I looked at the new FIOS service to replace my existing Comcast service. This is the first time that Comcast has had a significant competitor in their market. So, that should be good for the customer, right? Well... let me tell you. I made the switch, and here are my results. Your mileage may vary. When I can, I will give comparisons to Comcast.


Verizon FIOS First Impressions

1. Sales
As you might imagine, Verizon is very eager to get your business. We had a couple of sales associates going door-to-door, pressing the flesh and talking up the services. I was one of the only people on my street to give them the time of day, and we chatted about the services. Funny thing is, I ended up telling them more about the service than they told me. However, a sucker for the direct sale, I agreed to the install. The two items here to mention are the fact that there is an early termination fee of $360 that is amortized over the first year of service and there is a 3-day option to cancel service. Three days is not nearly long enough to determine whether you like the service. I am still working out the kinks after a couple of weeks... Comcast says they have a 30-day money back guarantee and there is no early termination. So like them or not, I am stuck for a year.

2. Installation
They claim installation is a 6-8 hour process, from bringing the fiber from the pole to hooking up the box and then setting up the service. Yow! I think it took my installer about 4 hours. He didn't have everything that he needed, so he had to run out a couple of times. And the install order was never put through so he had to call it in while he was there to get it turned on. But he was informative and professional and courteous. That goes a long way for me. Of course, I made his job easier because I helped him with the internet and computer setup. Now I hadn't yet cancelled my Comcast service, because I wanted to make sure everything was working, so I had no clue that when the phone was disconnected I would lose my home alarm service connection to the main office. Someone is supposed to be out today to look at it. They had to place a battery backup unit inside the house which is a little invasive, Comcast had a battery backup built into the modem.

3. Service

  • Phone - No discernible difference in call quality. I guess this is good. Verizon has a separate number to retrieve messages (Comcast uses your own number), but you CAN delete a message in the middle (you have to wait to the end of a message for Comcast). Most of the other services appear similar. What I am having trouble with is the Caller ID on the phone. Sometimes it recognizes a number, sometimes not, CallerID Call Waiting doesn't appear to work, and the option to get this information on the computer is way screwed up.
  • Television - I was supposed to be bowled over by the improved video quality fiber makes over cable. Well, HD is HD and yeah, it looks good, but better than what I was already seeing? Not certain. I was supposed to see fewer instances of artifacting, which are little glitches in the video signal that look like black boxes in the picture, and I have seen fewer of those so far (in fact only once last night). Their Video On Demand cannot pause, fast-forward, or rewind. You can stop and resume. Comcast is ahead on this one. Having to be forced to watch commercials is criminal. Verizon has Widgets that give you some web functionality like weather, news and Facebook access. Some of this can be useful, but for any serious access, hand me my laptop.
  • Internet - Speed. Well, I have noticed some impressive speed improvements here. Even with the 25/25 versus 15/5 question, there is no doubt that there is a speed improvement. But let's be real. It almost doesn't matter what your connection speed is these days because the bottleneck is the server sending or receiving the data, not the pipe used to connect the two systems. So if you have a speed of 25/25 and the server's speed is only 1mbps then you're suck at the lower rate. Granted, it is useful for downloading large files, like movies or for streaming, but for everyday stuff you might not see as much improvement.
4. Hardware
Verizon uses a Motorola set top box and DTC (digital converter). Pretty much the same as Comcast. The modem is pretty cool though. Having trouble logging into it at times, but the interface is pretty nice. And it doubles as a wireless router and 4-port switch. Cuts out one box for me. You can also optionally use your own router. Only supports 100mbps speed, which is fine unless you are moving some major traffic on your local network. The DTC is used to connect other TVs or devices that don't require HD (or that you don't want to pay an additional $10/month for). 




5. Support
Ordered 25/25 service, but they seemed determined to give me 15/5. Still working out who thinks I have what speed. We'll see what my first bill says. Customer Service appears to have too many layers which makes it seem like they are trying to avoid you, and they also appear not to be from local offices. Once on the phone, they seem very nice and are reasonably helpful. However, one one call, they took my phone numbers, the connection was lost, and they never called back (I did get an email). Comcast had local reps taking support calls which is nice and it doesn't appear as convoluted to get through to someone.

6. Compatibility
Verizon loses big time here. Pretty much all of Comcast software services support the Mac. Their computer CallerID service uses AdobeAir which is cross platform, their SupportAgent also works on the Mac (though I never used it), and their Mobile App works on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Verizon's In-Home Agent and Call Assistant are not available on the Mac and the Mobile Remote is not yet available on the iPhone and iPod. Boo! Good thing we have applications like Boot Camp, Fusion, Parallels and VirtualBox to allow us Mac users the ability to run Windows on our Macs. Comcast and their XFinity service is also connected to Fancast which allows you access to many of its onDemand services online. Haven't seen anything like that from Verizon, unless you are subscribed to additional packages. Verizon does have it's MediaManager software which allows Mac and PC users to share their photos and music, but you have to have the DVR option to be able to use it. *sigh* Everything is extra.

Other Thoughts
Verizon is Verizon, no? No. verizon.com and verizon.net are two separate entities, the first dealing with phone and the other dealing with internet. Imagine the confusion people are having over this. You need two different sets of userIDs and passwords in order to login. And supposedly, you can't use the same userID on both accounts (one would think they were connected somehow...). In order to use Call Assistant and other phone related services, you need to be registered on the verizon.com website. And after speaking to customer service (again), they said it takes between 4-6 weeks in order for the new accounts to be processed. Umm, hello? And again, they make no mention of this during the install or in the literature. You just assume you are hooked up and on your way to internet Nirvana.

Verizon's online design is old. The site is too busy and hard to navigate between .com and .net. You having to login and relogin each time. Should be a universal login or a universal website. Yes, Comcast has a .com and a .net as well, but you can use the same account on both and they are not segmented by service type.

The Verizon sales reps said there was a notification system for moving your previous address from my previous service to Verizon, but I couldn't find the service online or in print for the life of me. Had to find out from a customer service rep. 2 weeks later. It's called TrueSwitch. Unfortunately, it requires you to retain your previous account for it to function. I want to pay Comcast while I am using Verizon? Umm, no. Also not sure if it supports secondary accounts like the ones I have for my wife and 2 kids. And surprise! It doesn't work on the Mac. D'oh!

Lemme Sum Up
Phone - About Equal
Internet - Verizon on speed only, all other things being equal, Comcast is better
Television - Verizon on features and a somewhat better picture
Usability - For Mac users, Comcast is more compatible, and generally easier to get around

It seems like Verizon is the new kids on the block and acting like it. From a strictly speed perspective, it wins, but I think the service has a lot of maturing to do to bring it up to Comcast levels. Make the switch? For cost savings and raw internet speed, yes. Otherwise, you might want to stick with Comcast and see what happens over the next year or so. I am sure Comcast will be pulling out all the stops not to lose its customer base and to recapture some of the switchers... like me. And I want them to! Don't you love competition?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cats in the Hat

I feel like I'm writing a Dr. Seuss book, but there is more than meets the eye here with a plethora of Mac software bundles and special deals out there. You only have to know where to look. And I am here to tell you what they are and how to find them. Sort of letting the Cats out of the Hat. Sure you may own some of these apps, but for the price of one upgrade, you can grab a bunch more to try, use if you like or pass on to a friend. Nice!

Thing 1 – Daily Single Deals
MacUpdate Promo – I have been following this one for a while. They typically provide productivity apps during the week and entertainment apps on the weekends. Have seen some apps reappear on occasion, but since the sale lasts only 24 hours per app, that is not a bad thing, per se. Email signup. At times the current sale lingers but at a slightly lower (i.e. more expensive) discount, but often still a good deal.

MacZot – I just signed up for this one so I haven't got too much data. One app a day, generally 40-50% off. Email signup.

Thing 2 – Occasional Bundle Deals
MacBundleBox – I just came across these guys, have no clue what the deal is, but it's coming soon (here is a rumor). Always worth checking out. They seem to have a little competition going with MacHeist, but hey, competition is good... for us!

MacHeist – These guys just finished their latest promotion, sorry, but sign up for the next one and I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Everything is done right, from the promotion design to the bundle receipts to the fact that you can even split your order so you can gift some of the apps you already own to others. Sweet! A bonus to the bonus, 25% of the sales of their last bundle went to humanitarian relief ($440,000). Very cool.

MacUpdate Promo – On occasion, MacUpdate has a bundle sale. And whaddya know, they have one going on now! The two apps I favor in this bundle are WebSnapper for web page captures, Parallels 5 for PC and other operating system virtual machines and Bee Docs Timeline 3D. Like I said, for the price of one upgrade, it's like getting all the other apps free...

Thing 3 – Go to the Bodega
Don't want to wait? Like browsing? Then Bodega is the place to do it. It is a virtual store that has news, reviews, and apps galore from freeware and shareware authors download and purchase right in the app. It also tracks your installed apps and lets you know if there are updates, just like Versiontracker, but free. Lovely interface, fun to use. Better than the mall, with no parking problems!

Epilogue
Always, always review the software. Go to the developers sites and read the descriptions. Download the trials and play with them, see if they would be something worth while having. Just because they might be a good deal does not always make them a good deal for you. Did I miss any? Let me know and I will add it to the list.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Transporter



No, I am not talking about the latest Jason Stratham film, neither am I talking about the device aboard the starship Enterprise that whisks your molecules from one place to another. What I mean to say the latest means of file backup/syncing/sharing... I mean Dropbox. Got Mac, PC, Linux? An internet connection? Here is a software solution that allows syncing on all these platforms as well as access via the internet and even sharing via embedded HTML links. Oh, and did I mention it's free?

Yup. Free. Nice way to begin the new year. In less than a couple of minutes you can setup a Dropbox account, download and install the client for your respective machines and you're done. The software integrates right into the OS so on the Mac and Linux it displays in the menubar and on the PC it's a system tray icon. It also appears in the Mac directory under Places and even adds a command in the toolbar of the Finder windows. Unobtrusive but always available. Pop the folder open, move a file into it and voila, it appears shortly thereafter on all your machines.



Ok, a little qualification here. It's free up to 2GB (a smallish thumb drive), then if you want additional storage it's $9.99 for 50GB and $19.99 for 100GB of storage. I would like to have the ability to upgrade in increments of 5GB or 10GB since 2GB might be a little small for some people but 50GB may be too much for most and certainly not for $120 a year. Barring that maybe raise the free amount to 10GB which may be more in keeping with the thumb drive concept.



There are a couple of other features that are pretty neat as well. Create a folder and drop a bunch of pictures in there, then add them to the Photos directory... poof! Instant slide show. See a sample on my Dropbox here. You can share files with anyone using the Public folder. Just drop some files in there and right click to copy the link and share it on IM, email, etc. There is even a collaboration feature that allows Dropbox users to share files amongst each other as well, just by inviting them via email. Nice! You can even manage to earn a free additional 1GB in storage by doing just a few easy things like taking the tour, installing the software and adding a few files.

A big surprise here is every time you save a file in Dropbox, Dropbox syncs it to their secure servers. Dropbox keeps a history of every change made so that you can undo any mistakes and even undelete files. By default, they keep the last 30 days of undo history for all your files. They also have an unlimited undo option called "Pack-rat" (available in only the paid versions). Think of iDisk and Time Machine online with multi-platform capability.

So what's not to like? Get it. Now!