Case Study: Removing regionalization from your business

I was talking to a single person business today, and the subject of de-regionalization came up. This individual has clients all over the nation, primarily corresponding by telephone and mail with those outside of the Des Moines metro. He has a three year old Windows PC, which is used as the sole computer for his business.

I quickly defined two ways that a Mac would improve his ability to communicate remotely using iChat, which is built in to Mac OS X.

First, I started up a video session with my wife, showing the fact that you can embed virtually any file within the video stream, making it very easy to share concepts; whether they are easily spoken about, drawn, presented, or written.

Second, I showed the built-in ability to share screens via iChat. The nice thing about this is that it automatically creates a voice chat session at the same time, so the two individuals can talk about what is happening on screen. This is useful for both my clients as well as those that are teaching computer-based concepts to remote clients.

Finally, I demonstrated what is quickly becoming the greatest benefit of utilizing Macs in business- Automation. I will talk about my general automation demonstration later.

I realize there are third-party solutions available to do all of this in Windows. However, the tools that I demonstrated were built in Mac OS X, and do not incur additional costs for software.

The individual in this case study is now considering how he might afford to replace his HP a couple years early, given the benefits of using a Mac, and the additional revenue opportunities it provides in de-regionalizing his business.

iChat Video Freezing in Snow Leopard

Since buying a MacBook Pro for my wife (which also serves as a backup machine in case mine disappears) I’ve had the opportunity to use the video chat feature more often than I have before. However, it seemed to not work nearly as well in Snow Leopard as it had in earlier version of iChat. The video on both of our ends would freeze, with the only remedy being to end the video chat and start over, only to have it freeze seconds later. To add insult to injury, iChat seemed to have an eye to always pick an inopportune frame to freeze on. Needless to say, this issue makes iChat video unusable.

There’s a fix for that.

First, you need to find iChat in your Applications folder. I usually tell people to click on the desktop, then go to the ‘go’ menu, and select ‘Applications’ from the options. Single click on iChat.

Next, either select ‘Get Info…’ from the ‘File’ menu, or press ⌘-i on your keyboard to open the Information panel.

In the information panel, there should be a checkbox next to “Open in 32-bit mode”. Put a check mark in that box and close the window.

Finally, quit iChat and open it back up again.

Your video problems should have gone away.

Remote Access (and storm pictures)

So, Iowa has been inundated with snow. In fact, I spoke to a person responsible for removing snow from the Evolve office parking lot, and he indicated to me that there was as much snow in the last two days as we had for the entirety of last year. His metric was the mountain of snow that he had just pushed. I realize that this is an imperfect metric, as 2008-2009’s snow pile had time to compress and melt. It’s still an impressive indication as to how much snow we did get.

Much of Iowa was closed, with travel not advised. The state was “open”, which was really an excuse to for state employees to use one of their required unpaid furlough days. Even the police and snow plows were getting stuck.

Evolve was still open.

One of the key aspects of modern IT management, is that most of the work can be done remotely. Over the course of two days, I’ve been working on servers and workstations as if it was business as usual. Having a snow day for these businesses was actually productive, as I could work for extended periods on issues without having to balance office productivity loss due to downtime. Remote access also allows me to deal with clients that are not located in Des Moines, Iowa, the Midwest, or even the USA, provided that there is sufficient bandwidth.

End users can also operate in a similar fashion, allowing themselves the ability to connect back to their office computer from their home, or vice versa. This allows them greater flexibility in how they work, as they can retrieve documents that they may have forgotten on their other computer, or access a program that is only located on that computer. A business can even have working snow days, where the employees telecommute.

Now, I do understand that there are issues that require my physical presence, which is why I usually recommend regular visits. However, these visits are often shorter and more spread out for users where I am able to remotely administrate their network.

All in all, giving Evolve remote access means that you receive faster service, as we’re more flexible in how we can service you.

Finally, here are a few pictures from around the Evolve office:

Online shopping and coupon codes

Mike Sansone at ConverStations suggested that I write a post about a tip that I’ve been using for quite some time to get deals online. I was quite surprised this morning when none of the people that showed up at Central Iowa Bloggers at 6-7AM had heard of using Google to search for coupon codes. The concept is rather simple. Just enter the website name into Google with the words “Coupon Codes” and a list of websites and online forums will appear listing deals for said website. These then are entered into the box on the website, usually labeled “Coupon Code,” “Promitional Code,” or something similar.

As for the information that comes into the search, I usually look for www.retailmenot.com, which is a website dedicated to cataloging these types of codes, and it is always a good idea to return to the website to tell them whether the code worked for you. Not all of the deals work, as most have expiration dates, or quotas of some kind. The websites will usually give an error when the code does not work, which gives you an opportunity to enter a different code. Most often, these codes offer free shipping, percentages off, or a set dollar amount off.

Whenever I order something online, this is the last step that I perform before putting my credit card information into the website. It just makes sense to see what deals others are getting.

(FYI, the actual C.I.B. networking starts anywhere from 6-8, and gets over officially at 9, although there were several people there at 10:30 when I left.)

The impending death of the Mac Pro

For those that don’t follow the Mac web, Ted Landau founded a little website called MacFixIt, which has since been sold to CNET. He now writes for The Mac Observer. In a recent article, he made the claim that the Mac Pro is going to be dead in a year. He then slightly softens his position in a follow up article that the Mac Pro’s market will get smaller and smaller until Apple decides that it is not worth being in.

Bollocks.

The Mac Pro’s market is as solid as it was a year ago. The machine is not for the web designer, game developer, magazine editor, graphic designer, CEO, CIO, CTO, or your mother. It is definitely not designed for the gamer.

It is for the video editor.

They’re the ones that need RAID0 arrays for uncompressed HD. They’re the ones that need Fibre Channel to connect to even larger storage solutions, such as XSan storage pools.

These people require Mac Pros. No other machine will do what they want. In fact, if Ted’s prediction of the Mac Pro’s demise is to be taken seriously, I would expect the announcement of the discontinuation of Final Cut Studio and XSan on the same day, because neither of those products really make sense without the Mac Pro to back them up. Sure, you can run Final Cut Pro on a Macbook, but chances are that you have a Mac Pro sitting at home to do the real editing on. And the big shops have a couple hundred Terabyte XSan that won’t run on an iMac, Macbook, Mac Mini, or iPhone. Their editing bays are Mac Pro through and through.

In fact, the total number of the G5/MacPro towers that I have been involved in purchasing in the six years since the Power Mac G5’s introduction is one- a video editing bay. I know of several other ones being bought as well- all video editing bays. I’ve been putting iMacs and Macbooks/Powerbooks on business desks for years now, including web designers. In my experience, the market has already shrunk, and Apple is still playing ball in it.

Now with that said, will the MacPro change? Absolutely. I expect Fibre Channel over Ethernet to make an appearance at some point.

MacBook Pro Graphics chips

Apple makes all MacBooks with NVidia GeForce 9400M graphics chipsets, which is also the memory controller for the processor (an integrated graphics chip.) This is not new. The older MacBook Pros all had intel integrated chips as well, although they were disabled by the presence of a dedicated graphics chip.

Their higher end MacBook Pros also come with a Nvidia 9600M GT with 256MB. This is a faster graphics chip that also reduces your battery life by an hour when it is active. Since the Mac OS is utilizes a lot of graphics calculations in its normal operation, I have been a fan of faster graphics processors. As such, I have generally argued for dedicated graphics chips.

With the 9400/9600 combination, NVidia has done something interesting. They’ve made it possible to choose which chip runs your computer at any given moment. Doing so allows the user to balance between the lower power consumption of the integrated chip and the higher graphics capability of the dedicated chip.

However, for most users, I recommend not getting the 9600. The reason I recommend this is simple. I have a MacBook Pro with the 9400/9600 combination. I have never switched over to the 9600. I run video compression on the 9400. I play games on the 9400. I don’t feel like I am suffering by not using it.

Part of this is energy consumption, and the fact that I run on battery quite a bit. However, the majority of the reason I have never used the faster chip is that you actually have to log out and back in to utilize it, then log out and back in to switch back to the lower energy chip.

I was hoping that Snow Leopard would bring the ability to change graphics chips on the fly (or better yet, utilize the higher power chip for encoding only.) Alas, that has not occurred.

As I am writing this, I have 18 programs running, with files in various states of saved and not all over the place. It is a big deal for me to log out. However, if there was really a truly compelling reason to use the 9600, I would do it. A truly compelling reason would be like the difference between encoding video on a PPC Mac Mini, or a Intel Mac Mini. That transition took an H.264 encoding from 24 hours per encoding down to two hours for the same video file.

I haven’t had a compelling reason once in the year that I’ve had this MacBook Pro. Thus, once again, I have never used the 9600 in my MacBook Pro. I doubt that most users will either.

Mac OS X 10.6.2

Mac OS X 10.6.2 is out.

It fixes quite a bit of issues, including a long-standing issue that I’ve had with Apple Remote Desktop, and its daemon build_hd_index freezing my machine for fifteen to thirty minutes every night at midnight.

It also fixes a rather nasty bug that deals with guest user accounts. In fact, if you have guest user accounts enabled, you should update immediately. Otherwise, I recommend waiting a few days for your production environments, for any new issues to float to the surface and get squashed.

Managing Email Mailing Lists

I am an active participant in many mailing lists related to Macintosh computers, IT, and system administration. Because of this, I get a deluge of email from these lists, most of which is noise.

I say noise because, if it is not something that I am able to assist with or have an interest in, its presence distracts me from doing whatever else I am supposed to be doing. This has been a long term problem, and I have dealt with it differently over the years, most of the time by just allowing emails to build up unread, skimming through the subject lines to find ones of interest, then mass deleting the others, unread. This of course is a bad solution, especially if you, like me, don’t like unread counts in your email.

However, I have now migrated all of my list memberships to a single address, and have begun using Google Mail’s webapp to manage them. It provides a superior interface for dealing with mailing lists than any other interface that I have worked with. The primary passive benefit is it’s how it automatically cleans the clutter of replies from posts. However, to harness the real power of the interface, you need to setup and utilize a workflow for mailing lists.

Here’s how…

  1. Get an email address just for mailing lists. Why is this important? Mailing list traffic is different than normal traffic, and by routing it to a second email address, you aren’t forced to change your normal conduit for email. I still use Apple’s Mail.app for normal communication. But I can now use gmail for mailing lists. Furthermore, this workflow is all that I do in this email account, so
  2. Get the Google Labs extension “Send and Archive”. This saves a couple clicks for every topic you decide to converse about.
  3. Get the Google Labs extension “multiple inboxes”. This allows users to have inboxes based on a search parameter. I create one inbox, using the parameter. “is:starred” which creates a second inbox that lists all starred conversations, archived or not. I know that you can do the same thing with the starred label, but that is a second screen that I have to maintain, which I don’t want in this workflow.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the Archive button. It just means “I’m done until there is more traffic on this subject.”
  5. Don’t be afraid of the Mute button. (It’s located in the more actions menu.) This means, I’m done with this topic, and I don’t want to see followups.

So, with those items in mind, my workflow for an incoming email is to do one of five things..

  • Archive – I am watching the conversation, but not an active part.
  • Mute – I have no interest in the conversation, it’s noise.
  • Reply and Archive – I am taking an active role in the conversation.
  • Star and Archive – I am thinking of taking an active role, but have not done so yet.
  • Forward to non-list email address, archive – This is a special action for when I have received an individualized email from another list member, so I need to re-route it to my normal address, where I deal with it using my non-list workflow.

Now, I do realize that I could do very similar things with my non-list traffic as well if I were to switch to gmail. However, I do prefer Mail.app for normal traffic, which doesn’t quite lend itself to this format.

Quicktime and friends

In general, my default installations add two different free plugins into Quicktime to handle files which Quicktime cannot handle by itself. Both of these plugins are very well implemented and tested, and both are rock solid in terms of stability.

  • Telestream Flip4Mac Player – This application/plugin allows the user to view unencrypted Windows Media Files within Quicktime. This is especially important, as Microsoft no longer makes a Windows Media Player for Mac OS X. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not shared their DRM with Telestream, so any WMF file that is encrypted cannot be played on the Mac.
  • Perian – Perian is a open-source application that installs as a System Preference, and extends Quicktime to read “everything else.” Basically, if it isn’t supported by Quicktime or Flip4Mac, Perian will.

I’m sure there are a few formats out there that this trifecta doesn’t support, but I haven’t found them (Encrypyed WMF excluded.) Furthermore, by having them installed by default, my users have to worry less whether a particular video will run or not, allowing them to be more flexible in how they perform their job.