» Archive for March, 2009

In The Briefing Room: Skype for Business

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira and Cody Burke

Skype is perceived as a consumer service that lets computer users make inexpensive and/or free calls to friends and family near and far.  It isn’t necessarily a service one would associate with business users; however for the past few years Skype has been moving more and more into that territory.

Josh Silverman, Skype’s president, recently estimated that 35% of its customers use Skype for business purposes in addition to personal use.  Especially in a world where distance is shrinking (along with the economy), having a service that provides local numbers in multiple countries around the world, as well as the ability to call them for pennies if not free, has become a necessity for many knowledge workers.  Business travelers, especially those who travel internationally, are also demanding more sophisticated and less expensive communications alternatives.

This week, Skype launched the beta version of Skype For SIP, a new offering that connects to corporate phone systems that support Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).  SIP is the prevalent open standard for business telephony networks and supports “sessions” in an IP network.  A session could be as simple as a standard phone call between two people or it could be a multimedia, multi-party conference call.

Skype For SIP will allow users of SIP-enabled phone systems to use Skype to make calls from a standard office telephone, instead of requiring the user to plug a headset into a personal computer.  The service supports calls placed to any phone number, be it landline or mobile, and also supports  inbound calling and the establishment of local numbers, available in many regions around the world, that then connect into the corporate telephone system.

Skype clearly recognizes that corporate voice traffic is a serious business where it will compete with traditional carriers as well as newer Voice-over-IP providers.  Along with some strategic rebranding on the Skype for Business Web site (a very serious darker blue and grey color scheme has replaced the bright blue and cloud theme of the consumer site), the SIP integration will open up myriad potential applications for the deployment of Skype in the enterprise.

Skype is already integrated with Digium’s open source Asterisk telephony platform, which allows Asterisk users to make, receive, and transfer Skype calls from within their phone system.  Skype For SIP for business makes it possible for any SIP-based PBX system to integrate with Skype features.

Skype sees SIP for business as a major component of its strategy to attract corporate customers in addition to individual business users.  In order to fully develop this channel, however, Skype will have to form partnerships with telephone system providers in the SMB market.  It plans to certify partners to sell and support Skype business offerings although details on this front have yet to be released.  For the large enterprise space, should Skype choose to solicit business there, the company will need to develop a corporate sales force as well.

Regardless of how it is achieved, support for business users will be crucial and Ian Robin, head of sales and marketing for Skype For SIP for business, told us that, insofar as individual user support is concerned, he is aiming towards being able to support business users in their native languages anywhere in the world quickly and efficiently.  It was only 19 months ago that Skype went dark for two days for almost all of its users  and the company clearly wants to avoid such a repeat performance when it is offering services in the enterprise space.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. Cody Burke is a Senior Analyst at Basex.

The Googlification of Search

Thursday, March 19th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

Google’s clean home page, combined with the simple search box, has made it easy to look up something online.  Indeed, using Google may just be too easy.

Google uses keyword search.  The concept sounds simple.  Type a few words into a search box and out come the answers.  Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple and it doesn’t really work that way.

Search is a 50-50 proposition.  Perhaps 50% of the time, you will get what appear to be meaningful results from such a search.  The other 50% of the time, you will get rubbish. If you’re lucky that is.

Why does this only work sometimes?  This is because there are two types of searchers, or more accurately, two types of searches.  One is keyword search, the second is category, or taxonomy, search.

It is possible to get incredibly precise search results with keyword search.  Indeed, there is no question that keyword search is a powerful search function.  Being able to enter any word, term, or phrase allows for great precision in some situations – and can result in an inability to find useful information in many others.

However, the use of a taxonomy, or categories, in search, allows the knowledge worker to follow a path that will both provide guidance and limit the number of extraneous search results returned.  Using a taxonomy can improve search recall and precision due to the following factors:

1.)    In keyword search, users simply do not construct their search terms to garner the best results.
2.)    Users also do not use enough keywords to narrow down the search.
3.)    Google’s search results reflect Google’s view of the importance of a Web page as determined by the company’s PageRank technology, which looks at the number of high-quality Web sites that link to a particular page.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the first pages in the search results have the best content but only that they are the most popular.
4.)    Web site owners can manipulate Google and other search engine results through search engine optimization (SEO).  There is an entire industry built around this service and the use of SEO can dramatically impact the positioning of a Web site on the results page.

Unfortunately, in part thanks to Google’s ubiquity as well as its perceived ease of use, the concept of search to most people seems to equal keyword search.  As more and more Web sites and publications (the New York Times being one prominent example) move to a Google search platform, the ability to find relevant information may be compromised.

In the case of the New York Times, much of the functionality previously available disappeared when the Times deployed Google Custom Search.  Only those visitors who know to click on “advanced search” can specify a date range and whether they want to search by relevancy, newest first, or oldest first, although even the “advanced” search experience is still lacking compared to the Times’ earlier system.  Thanks to the Googlification of search, however, most visitors only access the search box, and their ability to find the answers they are seeking is hobbled by the system’s limitations.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Smartsourcing with the Mechanical Turk

Thursday, March 19th, 2009 by Cody Burke

Smartsheet Smartsourcing is a new offering that provides on-demand access to virtual workers who can be employed on a task-by-task basis.

Amazon.com originally developed the Mechanical Turk for use in projects for the company’s e-commerce site.  It was so well received that the company then decided to open up the service beyond its originally intended in-house use to external customers.  Unfortunately, many potential users were turned off by an unfriendly user interface,

Enter Smartsheet.  The company’s management recognized that the existing Smartsheet collaborative spreadsheet product could serve as an easy-to-use interface to the virtual worker cloud.

Here’s how it works.  From the Smartsheet interface, users enter a detailed description of the task and indicate how much they are willing to pay for it (rates can be set anywhere between $0.01 and $5.00).  They then select parameters such as a due date, number of workers, and the minimum approval rating of workers that will be accepted.  The rating is a percentage that reflects any time that workers’ work was rejected by a user.  Paying more and accepting only higher ranked workers should result in higher quality output.  Smartsheet links the request with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, connecting the user to the virtual workforce, which then picks up the task and completes it.

Smartsourcing seems best suited for research, transcription, image tagging, copywriting, and other discrete tasks that can be broken out and are simple and clear in nature.  For example, we used Smartsourcing as a kind of brainstorming tool to solicit examples of an information overload problem.  The service did work and we did get a few usable results. In hindsight, our query may not have been the best use of the system, perhaps due to the difficulty of explaining exactly what we were looking for.  In Smartsourcing, the final work product is largely dependent on the clarity of the query.  Tasks that can be communicated clearly, such as filling in cells on a spreadsheet, or developing lists of contacts with biographical information, are well suited for Smartsourcing.

With this new product, Smartsheet is offering organizations new ways of managing work by allowing them to outsource tasks that are time consuming and of lower value than other work.  By allowing knowledge workers in an organization to focus on higher value work, Smartsourcing ultimately allows managers to deploy resources more intelligently and maximize the efficiency of knowledge worker assets.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Cut and Paste

Thursday, March 19th, 2009 by David Goldes

Cutting and pasting, who doesn’t take this simple and age-old concept for granted?  Even before the advent of desktop computers, layout artists, armed with X-Acto knives and glue, manipulated text for documents and presentations.  The technique has been used in desktop computers for decades and most PDAs and smartphones also support this function – except for one: the Apple iPhone.  That all changed this past Tuesday.

Once Apple releases iPhone OS 3.0 this summer, iPhone and iPod touch users will be able to select text from one source, for example a flight number in an e-mail, and paste it into another application, an airline’s flight information Web page for example.  Since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has maintained that it would add cut-and-paste and copy-and-paste functionality once it had developed a user interface worthy of the iPhone.  The feature works by tapping on the text, dragging it to the new location or application, and tapping once again.  To undo, simply shake the iPhone.

Apple is adding other functionality as well, which we’ve covered in this issue and we’ll report on how well this works as soon as it becomes available.  In the meantime, prepare to discard your X-Acto knives.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex

Whither Nortel? To the competition…

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

Back in January, in writing about Nortel’s trip to bankruptcy court, I commented that one possible outcome might be that the company break itself up into pieces and that a likely acquirer for the enterprise unit might be Siemens Enterprise Communications.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Nortel may be in talks right now to do just that – and possible acquirers of the enterprise unit include not only Siemens but Avaya.  Nortel has several strong businesses, including its wireless unit, which has continued to see strong sales from U.S. mobile operators, and the enterprise unit, which despite the company’s travails, has a strong customer base and equally strong sales.

The company’s fate may not be determined yet for months but the bankruptcy process in the U.S., as well as in Canada, requires the company to seek the most value for its creditors, so ultimately this scenario may play out.  The Journal article reported that one possible purchaser of the wireless unit might be Nokia Siemens, a joint venture of Nokia and Siemens.  If Nortel’s assets were swallowed whole by the two units Siemens AG spun off, the irony would not be subtle.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: SenderOK

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 by Cody Burke

In the Briefing Room: SenderOK

We recently took a look at SenderOK, an e-mail sorting and management system.  SenderOK uses algorithms to sort e-mails according to a variety of criteria including how often the sender’s e-mail messages are answered, if the e-mail originates from a domain that the user has recently been to, and the recipient’s e-mail reading habits (i.e. deleting without reading or manual importance designation).  If a sender’s e-mail is always opened or answered by the recipient or others using SenderOK, then the system will place the e-mail in a folder for important messages.  Conversely, if the sender’s email is answered less frequently or often deleted without being opened, then it will be placed into the routine inbox.  E-business card information is presented as well for each e-mail, in a box located on the upper right of the Outlook inbox, in a style similar to xobni.

SenderOK also allows companies to insert logos onto e-mail that appears in the inbox.  For a monthly fee, a corporate logo will appear as the sender in the inbox, and the e-mail itself will be expedited to the inbox in an attempt to avoid the junk folder.  To qualify for the logo, companies will have to comply with the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), which assure the recipient that the e-mail is from a reputable source.  Simply put, this aspect of the offering is designed to help senders stay out of the junk folder.  SenderOK believes that the presence of a logo will dramatically increase the likelihood that the e-mail will be opened, a premise we sincerely doubt.  In discussing this, my colleague Jonathan Spira suggested that replacing sender names with logos in the inbox may turn out to be as useful as third brake lights, which were found to be effective only when they were found on relatively few cars.  If most e-mail arrives with logos, it will, similar to the third brake light, just become part of the scenery.

SenderOK addresses two different areas: e-mail sorting and management on one hand and adding corporate logos to expedite e-mail delivery on the other.  However, we are a bit confused as to which direction SenderOK is focusing on.  The most important area of opportunity for SenderOK (in our opinion) is the ability to intelligently sort e-mail and reduce information overload in the inbox.  SenderOK shows promise in this respect, analyzing inbox behavior to determine the importance of e-mail and float the most critical to the top is a great idea, and SenderOK’s system seems to work rather well, albeit with limitations (it only analyzes behavior of others using SenderOK for example).  Solving that problem for the end user and bringing discipline to the inbox would address a huge pain point in the enterprise.  Unfortunately, SenderOK seems more focused on creating a corporate branding opportunity for e-mail rather than solving e-mail overload.

SenderOK also bills itself as a spam reduction mechanism, but we feel it falls short of the effectiveness of an appliance sitting on the edge of the network, such as IronPort.  In addition, we think this may be a short lived opportunity, once everyone else figures out how to get their branding onto email, then whatever advantage there was will be rendered moot.  SenderOK promises to keep “good” e-mail from being “spam-filtered” but “good” e-mail turns out to be a message coming from a company that is willing to pay the monthly fee.  The benefit to users in terms of managing one’s e-mail inbox and spam seems specious at best, a real pity because a tool that actually delivers on what SenderOK promises would be of great benefit.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Assess Your Organization’s Information Overload Exposure

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by David Goldes

Information Overload costs companies billions of dollars in lowered productivity and throttled innovation and its impact on the bottom line isn’t something you can ignore. But how much does it cost your organization?

Information overload causes:

  • Diminished comprehension levels
  • Lower individual efficiency
  • Compromised concentration
  • Lost opportunities

Raising awareness of the problem is the best first step so, as part of our Basex InfoBox series of online events, we are inviting you to attend a workshop on Assessing Your Organization’s Information Overload on Friday, March 13, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. EDT/9:30 a.m. PDT.

You are invited to attend as our guest.

In this one-hour session, you will learn:

  • How to begin to assess your organization’s exposure, financial and otherwise, to Information Overload
  • What tactics and strategies other companies are successfully using to fight Information Overload
  • How to assess the toll on knowledge workers
  • How to lessen the impact of Information Overload on the bottom line
  • Six key ways to help reduce the impact of Information Overload on your organization right now

Be sure to join us on March 13.

David M. Goldes is president and senior analyst at Basex.

Cloud Content Management with Salesforce Content

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Cody Burke

Cloud computing, for better or worse, is a hot topic right now.  We recently took a look at Salesforce Content, an integrated content management system (CMS) for sales teams using salesforce.com.

In an effort to make knowledge workers more efficient, Salesforce has created a unified workspace where the user can access content from multiple sources, including a cloud-based repository that is part of the Salesforce.com platform.  This keeps the knowledge worker from having to open  other applications when he needs to locate a piece of content.   Integration with Google Docs, for example, allows documents to be created and opened from within the Salesforce user interface without having to leave the environment.  In addition to the content residing in the cloud, the system can also access content from other repositories via  pointers.

When searching, users have the ability to view results based on factors such as high ratings by their peers or numbers of downloads.  The results can be further refined though custom fields that sort content based on relevance and user defined parameters.  Additionally, the knowledge worker can subscribe to content based on a variety of factors, including authors, topics, and tags.  When new content that fits the parameters is added, the knowledge worker receives an e-mail notification linking him to the content in the repository.

Salesforce.com has added other new content management functionality to the platform that increases knowledge worker efficiency.  To facilitate the assembly of slide presentations the knowledge worker can search through existing slides from across the organization to find relevant material.  Once the slides are found, they can be assembled into slide decks through a drag-and-drop interface, without having to download or copy and paste.  Salesforce Content also features a preview option for PowerPoint, Word, and Excel documents that allows the user to see the content without downloading it.  Additionally, the content can be sent via e-mail as a hyperlink, without the actual file being attached.  Once the material is sent out, the sender can track it to see when the link was opened, when and if the file was downloaded, how long it was viewed for, and, if need be, even discontinue access to the material.

The addition of CMS functionality to the Salesforce platform is a big step in the right direction towards building a true Collaborative Business Environment, a workspace for the knowledge worker that supports access to all applications and resources under one virtual roof.  Enabling knowledge workers to stay in one environment, create linkages between disparate repositories and Web services, and assemble and distribute content with no downloading or bulky file attachments is laudable, and organizations looking to gain efficiencies for knowledge workers who need to track interaction with multiple parties should give this due consideration.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Daylight Saving Time: Spring Ahead with Caution – and Double Check Your Appointments

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

This coming Sunday morning, while most people are asleep, the United States and parts of Canada will switch to Daylight Saving Time at 2 a.m. local time.  This is in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and once again is three weeks earlier than in previous years.  If you don’t think that these changes are a big deal, change the time on your laptop by an hour and see what happens.  The impact of this seemingly minor change extends well beyond computers, to legions of business travelers and mobile knowledge workers, among others.

Once again, the United States will be out of sync with the rest of the world for longer than usual.  Europe used to change its clocks to “Summer Time” (in the U.K., it’s BST or British Summer Time; in Germany and Austria, it’s “Sommerzeit”) one week before the U.S.  Now most of Europe will switch to Summer Time on March 29, three weeks later.  [Most of Asia, Africa, and South America do not observe Daylight Saving Time at all.]

As if to illustrate this specific point, I just discovered that a recurring bi-weekly meeting that was scheduled by a client based in Israel using Microsoft Outlook mysteriously moved to noon EDT on my calendar for its two occurrences in March.  For meetings in April, it remained at the original time, 11 a.m. EDT.

Daylight Saving Time ends on November 1 in North America; in the European Union, Summer Time ends on October 25.

Daylight Saving Time is a system of managing the changing amounts of daylight that occur during the year, with a goal of maximizing daylight hours during typical waking hours.  It was first proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1784, who believed it would save an “immense sum.”  It was not broadly adopted until the early twentieth century when the U.S. temporarily enacted Daylight Saving Time as an energy-saving measure.

By adjusting clocks ahead by an hour, people can have more daylight available during the workday.  For example, in the case of someone who typically awakens at 7 a.m., since in the spring the sun rises earlier each day, an individual would have to wake up at 6 a.m. to take advantage of the additional daylight.  Instead, by moving the clock ahead by one hour, that person can continue to wake up at 7 a.m. and enjoy more daylight in the evening hours.

The last change to the Daylight Saving Time schedule was in 1986, when legislation changing Daylight Saving Time from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April was enacted.

But recent studies indicate that the savings may be illusory.  One study demonstrated how a switch to Daylight Saving Time across the entire state in April 2006 cost Indiana households an additional $8.6 million in electricity.  Another study suggested that the temporary extension of daylight-saving in two Australian territories for the 2000 Summer Olympics increased energy usage.

On the other hand, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group, estimated that the cumulative benefit of the change through the year 2020 will be a savings of ca. $4.4 billion and 10.8 million metric tons less carbon sent into the environment.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, for every day we are on Daylight Saving Time, we trim one percent of the country’s electrical consumption.

Last year, companies sent out all-hands memos to employees asking them to help identify systems that might be impacted by the time change.  These systems ranged from automated wake-up systems in hotels to systems that schedule airline crew members and slot aircraft for gates.  In addition, many computer-to-computer systems might have also been impacted.

Most knowledge workers should be covered by now, at least insofar as their desktop or laptop computers are concerned.  Microsoft released a single global time zone update for Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 (and for Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1) that automatically installed.  This update included updates for all DST-related changes from 2007 or that have taken place since the operating system’s original release.  The updated time zone definitions ship with Windows Vista.  Windows XP SP1 and older operating systems have passed their end of support dates and did not receive the update although they can be manually updated in some cases.

That covers operating systems but doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods yet.  Most current programs with calendar support should have been updated by now but if yours has not, any meetings that fall within the extended Daylight Saving Time period before the application of extended DST rules will appear incorrectly after the extended DST rules have been applied, namely they will appear an hour later than originally scheduled.

What you can do to avoid problems:

First, double check any calendar entries or plans for the period March 9 -  March 30, 2009.

Second, make certain to adjust or update your operating system to apply the changed Daylight Saving Times rules if this hasn’t already taken place.  PDAs such as Palm Treos or BlackBerry devices should also be updated.

Third, remember that Daylight Saving Time is not observed in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Arizona (with the exception of the Navajo Nation).  Until 2006, the counties in the Eastern Time Zone of Indiana did not observe Daylight Saving Time and remained on standard time year round.  As of April 2006, all of Indiana observes Daylight Saving Time.

Finally, get a good night’s sleep.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Review: Amazon Kindle for iPhone and iPod touch

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira
The Amazon Kindle for iPhone Reader

The Amazon Kindle for iPhone Reader

On Wednesday, Amazon.com released Kindle for iPhone and iPod touch, a program for reading electronic books on those devices.  The software is available free from Apple’s App Store and allows users to read books purchased on the Web or via a Kindle eBook reader.  I downloaded it to an iPod touch shortly after it became available.

Based on what Amazon has mentioned publicly, the company doesn’t believe that the free application will cannibalize sales of the dedicated Kindle device but sees it as complementary.  After using the app to read several books, I am not sure they are right.

As regular readers know, I was not a fan of the original Kindle and I haven’t yet tested Kindle 2 , although its design does appear to address a few of the shortcomings I noted in the original.

If you already own a compatible Apple device, however, the new Kindle app may be the best eBook reader for you.  Indeed, if you don’t already own one, you still may wish to consider an iPod touch for your eBooks.  Text is clear and navigating from page to page is simply a matter of touching the screen.

The app makes excellent use of the iPod touch’s small screen and I found the books I purchased very easy to read.  You can change the font size to get more text on screen or to make the text easier to read.  To flip pages, swipe the screen with your thumb or other finger.

I found the iPod’s backlit screen to be a vast improvement over the original Kindle’s; the Kindle 2 uses the same E Ink screen technology and is reportedly sharper than the original model.

The app lacks direct access to the Kindle store and does not support newspapers, magazines, and blogs (despite reports in the media to the contrary), however the devices themselves support Web access and thereby provide free access to almost all of the very publications Amazon.com sells, plus many more not available at the Kindle store.

Two major flaws, which one hopes will be remedied in future versions: there is no search from within the book and graphics can’t be resized.  In addition, there is no landscape reading mode and the software does not support annotations.

If you do own a Kindle, Amazon’s Whispersync service will keep track of where you are on either device and synchronize the two.  Books purchased on the Kindle are automatically available on the Apple device as well.

There are other eBook options for the iPhone and iPod touch. Shortcovers allows users to purchase and read books on the iPhone and iPod touch and Google supports eBook reading on a Web site optimized for the iPhone, although the books available from Google are out-of-print.

If you are looking for a good eBook solution, the Kindle for iPhone and iPod touch merits strong consideration.  The reading experience, while not book-like, is pleasant, the software is free, and the books themselves are far less expensive than the original paper versions.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.