11 Nov

Zoho Gets on Public Health Status Train

Kudos to Zoho for introducing a detailed dashboard monitoring the health of their online applications. I’m very pleased to see more and more web app vendors delivering on transparency I advocated as early as 2001 for online apps and services.
At Watershed we have our own mini health portal with tabs for our internal and external apps. Most of our vendors now at least have some sort of blog keeping track of scheduled downtime and unforeseen issues. We’re lobbying those who still don’t so they get on board. And this is part of my default checklist each time I’m considering potential online software vendors.
Off-topic notice to the non-existent readers mourning the long-gone days when I used to blog more often. You can get more frequent Olivier fixes on Twitter. One liners work well for me as I rarely find the time to research and write longer blog posts anymore. Speaking of micro-blogging, we’re also satisfied Yammer users, which is really filling a gap for distributed teams.

10 Nov

Plowing through Unstructured Data

Jon Udell just experienced some of the practical limitations getting in the way of sharing and representing structured data easily that I’ve been running into myself. To produce an entry about Circuit City’s store closures, I had to spend a lot of time massaging the source data (coming from a PDF) in Excel so that it was properly mappable and chartable. Tasks that add little value and should take 5 minutes easily balloon into hours of menial work to renormalize and restructure data that should have been published as csv or xml in the first place. “Fake” digital content is going to get in the way of publishers for the foreseeable future. The challenge is to optimize workflow to get a decent production cost/time for enhanced news coverage. It’s all about making things replicable.

26 Sep

Dept. of People Who Know What They’re Doing: DabbleDB

I’ve looked at online databases and spreadsheets rather extensively a couple of months ago, and DabbleDB had hands down the most powerful yet usable user interface of the bunch, significantly ahead of what Zoho or Google (among others) have to offer. Too bad DabbleDB is right now heavily focused on private use. Its dynamic features cannot be embedded in a high-volume public site though it’s on their roadmap to support such scenarios. All you can share publicly are static snapshots which don’t reflect the added value of what their UI does in the backend. Their pivot table-like functionality and mapping integration not only show the way of what modern intranets should embed – this is also what professional online news publishing should be about.
Now, look at their snapshot archive. It’s a calendar-based interface (no doubt inspired by Windows Restore) that lets you roll back to older versions of your online database. This is, again, a level of control that most web app vendors don’t even think of, let alone execute properly. Go go DabbleDB, you stand above the crowd!

20 Apr

Newsflash to HP: The Internet Is a Global Marketplace

Hilarious email from HP today:

“On Thursday, April 17th, HP suspended operation of the HP Upline Service. We fully anticipate that suspension of the Upline Service will be temporary and short in duration, and will notify you when the Upline Service is operational again.
Please accept our sincere apology for this unanticipated interruption of your access to the Upline Service. We appreciate your patience as we launch this new service, and are working hard to minimize inconvenience caused by this service interruption.
If you are a resident of the United States, your subscription will remain in effect and you will be able to continue using the Upline Service for the duration of your subscription period once the Upline Service is operational again. Thank you for your patience, and we look forward to providing you with the HP Upline Service.
If you are not a resident of the United States, we regretfully must inform you that the initial launch of the HP Upline Service was intended for United States residents only. Unfortunately, our filtering tools did not adequately screen for subscribers residing outside of the United States. We thank you for your early adoption of the Upline Service, and look forward to being able to provide the HP Upline Service to you when we launch it in your country of residence. Since the HP Upline Service is presently offered for use within the United States only, we will be discontinuing your current subscription.”

So let me get this straight. Any fledging start-up worth its salt goes global right out the door, but a behemoth like HP can’t? FAIL. Memo to HP: stick to hardware and stop embarrassing yourself on the web. Too bad, I was considering subscribing.

26 Mar

Blist Gets It

In August 2005 I wrote The Microsoft Office I Really Want. When I tried to engage Robert Scoble at the time on the topic, he showed he relied too much on speed reading to properly address my points and/or was quickly out of his depth (I’m betting on a combination of both factors). I don’t want to turn this entry into a personal attack, my point is the openness and dialog through corporate blogging act is hard to get right. Nonetheless the conversation at the time really pushed me to pay attention to Salesforce.com, which we finally adopted in December 2006 (we’ve been real happy customers ever since). SFDC recently added inline editing which speeds things up and helps deliver on the product vision I had outlined at the time.
There’s also a new generation of software companies that try to push the envelope when Microsoft is sleeping, such as Tableau, Blist, EditGrid or Proto. Watch the demo, I’m glad to see Blist delivering on my half-baked high level spec from 2 years and a half ago. I tend to think it’s not a coincidence that it’s led by a former Microsoftie who probably got tired of the lack of progress within the behemoth.
As an aside, two of these four companies are based in Seattle, one in New York and another in Hong Kong. Atlassian is kicking ass out of Australia. People who think you have to be in the Silicon Valley to innovate crack me up. The truth of the matter is that the Valley is currently producing a wave of useless crap almost as high as the one it delivered a decade ago. If Twitter is the best they can do… not that Twitter is necessarily a bad application, but I’ve been using it and I’m not overwhelmed by the value creation there (unlike Blogger, which I instantly liked). We’re past the time when people confused products with companies, we now see people confusing features with companies, and not very compelling features at that. Businesses start with customer problems and needs, end of story. I know Salesforce.com is in Nocal, but it’s also eight years old. Silicon Valley is a washed out whore with occasional flashes of brilliance (Splunk comes to mind). It’s too focused on consumer fads and reflects the extractive mentality California was build upon. You get 100 gold diggers for one builder. That’s fine. What’s tiring is said gold diggers self-portraying themselves are entrepreneurial geniuses. The only people you guys are fooling is your peers and the occasional gullible journalist.

12 Mar

WordPress, Don’t Touch My Content!

Lately we’ve been struggling with WordPress and its HTML shenanigans. Not that they are new but we’re more actively pursuing a number of bugs that have been open for a while. Even after you remove TinyMCE, WP will insert closing paragraph tags within an entry if the visual editor checkbox is selected in user settings. Not cool, WordPress. Then there’s the whole concept of the Loop, the way WP filters things in the background, and poor documentation. And don’t get me started on plugins or security.
Besides, and this is more important for us, Automattic is pulling a SixApart circa early 2007. It’s all about pageviews at WordPress.com and how they’re one of the biggest sites in the universe. Look, decide once and for all whether you want to be in the GeoCities business or the software business. It’s irritating when giants such as Microsoft or Google pretend to be everything to everyone, but it’s downright ridiculous from start-ups, even if they’re well funded (how can a company get so much funding when it doesn’t even know what it wants to be when it grows up boggles the mind). I thought we’d throw ten grand at Automattic for a support contract but got cold feet when I saw them starting to chase consumer social fads. At least SixApart divested LiveJournal, got a new CEO and seems to be tightening their focus a little bit these days.
We’re just starting to research options to complement WP for some projects, and maybe replace it altogether eventually (no, Anil, we’re not going back to MT!) On that front, I like the philosophy behind ExpressionEngine:

“This is really a philosophical issue. Should it happen when a page is rendered or when it is delivered into the database? I

05 Feb

Offline Web Apps: Not Just for Offline Use

Excellent post last month on the Google Gears blog. We have a few people that like to live in the countryside where all they can get is high-latency satellite broadband. I’m myself considering buying land here in Chile where the best internet access I may get for the foreseeable future is 3.5G (UMTS/HSDPA) (not sure what the latency is, but probably not too good). Waiting 10+ seconds between each salesforce.com page load for instance is a real productivity killer. Google Gears is important infrastructure stuff that Microsoft should pay very close attention to.

30 Jan

The Web App Orchestration Dance

As of early 2008 besides the basic LAMP stack we use the following to run our business: Salesforce.com, Trac, Subversion (hosted at CVSdude.com), Basecamp, Fusemail (don’t run your email off your web servers), Authorize.net, WordPress, Feedburner, OpenAds, Bronto, Google Analytics, Google Web Optimizer, Cacti, Nagios, and I’m probably forgetting a couple other services we may be using less frequently. A few applications are resisting webification, mainly spreadsheets (online spreadsheets are just sluggish toys compared to my Excel pivot tables and charts) and Quickbooks (QB Online has plenty of foibles so we’ve passed).
Some of the web apps in the list above are great – we couldn’t live without SFDC for instance. Others have shortcomings that we’ll probably want to address at some point. Replacing GWO with Offermatica comes to mind as GWO requires a boatload of traffic to provide conclusive data, which is not so great in B2B because any test takes weeks to complete. More generally speaking, what I’ve come to realize is that the process of selecting, adopting, and integrating these applications together is really a core competency for an internet business. Then you need to milk them for all they’re worth, which is a lot of work in its own right (Google Analytics is a good example here).
For all the “no software” claims, you’re pretty much in software up to your neck, all day long. There’s still a lot of configuring, learning, training, and scaling going on. People just getting started running an online business need to realize that just because you don’t install software doesn’t mean the whole thing is a free ride. There is still a significant learning curve.

31 May

Google Goes Offline

Google GEARS. Now we’re talking. I’ll watch how fast this makes it into Google’s own web apps, email and calendaring being the obvious candidates. Now Microsoft can feel threatened for good reason.
However, and that’s really ironic, right now browser-based apps are way more costly in system resources than well written desktop software. Yep, you read that right. If, like me, you have two browser windows open at all times with half a dozen tab each, several of them loaded up with web apps, and add up browsing session protection on top of that, you’ll end the day with Firefox eating 250+MB of RAM and performing noticeably more slowly, even if you have RAM to spare. (BTW don’t get the impression that my virtual desktop is a mess – my main screen is a 24″ at 1900×1200, I have a 19″ CRT on the left and a 15″ laptop on the right and things are pretty neat and tidy, thanks. I just have a bunch of different things to juggle during my typical day.)
I should give IE7 a try to see how well it handles the load, but Firefox after a day’s worth of web browsing + Salesforce + GMail + Basecamp and whatnot begs to be closed and restarted. Offline support with extra browser extensions and all that caching is only going to make it worse. A decade later, the browser wars are not over.
Of course everyone is eagerly waiting to see what Salesforce and Google are going to do together. Because I’m an ancient fossil in my mid-thirties, that gets much more my attention than Facebook gizmos. Come on, who cares about most of their college buddies once you have a family? Anyway, GEARS is not the first javascript offline library, but that it comes from Google can make a world of difference.
Updates: additional info on Evan_tech; Google Reader first dog food software.

01 Feb

Olivier’s Old School Rant about Intuit and Stuff

As we’re winning more business, growing the size of our team, and adding more sites to our stable, I’m spending a fair amount of time looking at how we operate and where we need to change our ways to be able to scale. Small and profitable is nice, big and profitable sounds even better!
This led to the recent adoption of Salesforce.com, which we love so far. It really beats the alternative of moving Excel lists of customers around. This, along with migrating our properties from Movable Type to WordPress, seemed like a no-brainer — don’t let software drag you down if it’s ill-suited to your requirements. Now I want to see how we can better support our whole sales cycle from prospecting to making proposals to closing them, to trafficking the ads, to billing them and getting paid. On paper, integration between SFDC and Quickbooks Online looks compelling and is made possible by a third-party app. But once you start doing practical due diligence, here’s what you find out:

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