Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cloud Chicken Companies and Watson

There's no doubt about it, the concept of cloud and social computing is scary, particularly if you're a lawyer. 

On the cloud front, everyone is so fearful of data theft and disclosure that they dig their heels in at the slightest mention of cloud, totally oblivious to the repeated warnings from security researchers that the majority of data theft occurs from within the organisation. 

On the social front, things are even more shaky with executives fearful of the power of negative commentary. It’s not unusual to hear business leaders saying, “we can’t have a twitter, linked-in or facebook account because someone might say something bad about us”.

Guess what. If people want to say bad things about your company in a public forum, then they most likely already are. By denying the company an official platform, you’re not denying your customers a chance to speak about you, you’re denying your company the opportunity to provide timely and “official” responses..

Like it or not, the future is cloud, the future is social. We have to embrace it.

On Prem vs Cloud

Unless you're in a company with military-grade security requirements, the choice of "on-prem" versus cloud needs to be more than a vague suggestion of security. In IBM Connections for example, there’s a very compelling reason to choose the “on prem” (on Premise) version over the cloud version.  It’s to do with customisation as the on-prem version can be customised much more that its cloud-based counterpart.

Of course, the on-prem solution is also much more expensive. Not just in terms of licensing but overall.  If you host your own connections system, then you’re taking onboard the costs of running hardware, keeping firmware, drivers and software up to date, performing backups and failovers and tests, and of course, troubleshooting.

Unless you really can’t live without the customisations that the on-prem solution offers, you’d  be far better off letting the cloud take care of things for you. 

This…  is the Internet

There was an interesting set of questions in one of the IBM verse sessions at IBM Inform 2016 in Sydney (and I'm sure that similar scenarios were playing out at Inform sessions globally).

The presenter asked how many people were using Connections.Cloud and Verse, then asked how many were waiting for the “on Prem” versions because their companies were too scared to put their data in the cloud.

The overwhelming majority of attendees fell into that category. 

At the end of the session, where the IBMers demonstrated many of the amazing features of Verse, they opened the floor to questions.

One of the first questions was;

“Since my company is planning on staying with the on-prem versions of this software for security and privacy reasons, what is the deal with getting access to IBM Watson?”

I was somewhat flabbergasted, as was half of the room and, it seemed - and so were the IBM presenters. They handled the question far better than I would have though. In my case, scenes from the IT Crowd flashed through my head -- particularly the episode where they give their boss “the internet” to take and show people.



I could just imagine them giving this guy a box with perhaps a plasma ball in it and saying, “this is Watson, take good care of it”.

Of course the presenters said, “Well obviously we’re not going to be able to give you Watson to install at your site, I imagine the data will need to be sent offsite”.



Having your cake… 

Now although I'm having a bit of a laugh at someone’s expense, it was by no means a dumb question; merely an interesting one -- and one which makes a great example to use when explaining the boundaries of these “on-prem” solutions.

The professional asking the questions, followed his question up with a few more about the safety of data in transit and the ability of other IBMers to intercept and read the data being sent to Watson but in the end, I felt that he more or less gave up. IBM didn't have the answers he wanted.  It’s far too early to make calls about the accessibility of Watson in on-prem solutions.

What I felt didn't get explained very well was that Watson doesn't operate terribly well with a single piece of data. In order for Watson to work effectively, it needs to be exposed to all of your data. This is what helps it to spot trends and themes and provide real business-value to the organisation.

Sending a random email off to Watson uses some basic capabilities but not full-fledged AI. It may be able to translate the document into another language but can't we already do that with Google Translate?  It doesn't mean that Translate is an AI, it's merely a very good interpreter.

In the end, you really can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t have the privacy offered by on-prem solutions while also having the benefit of systems which rely on significant levels of access to your data. You have to start trusting somewhere.

It’s clear that the next frontier (after social computing) is AI. IBM has Watson, Microsoft has Cortana and Tay (In Tay’s case it’s probably A without the I), Google has Google Now and Deepmind and Apple has… well, Apple has Siri (and perhaps Emotient).

If you’re planning to stay ahead of the competition, you need to be prepared to use AI. If you’re planning to use an AI from the market leaders, you’ll need to decide who you want to trust.  Right now, my best guess would be IBM’s Watson. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Trouble with IBM Connections.Cloud

I'm finding myself being increasingly frustrated by IBM Connections.Cloud. It’s a great product, don’t get me wrong. Arguably the most full-featured of its kind. Unfortunately it’s mired by some terrible executive decisions. 

In fact, the problems are so great that it’s pushing us to investigate other products which are “like” connections but are provided by other vendors. 

I came away from an investigation of Microsoft’s Yammer system yesterday shaking my head and saying, “that’s it. Game over”. 

Yesterday afternoon was one of the few times I've found myself in the uncomfortable position of recommending Microsoft over IBM. 


Today of course is another day. I'm a dedicated IT professional, so when I can’t sleep because a system is overwhelming my thoughts, I get up and make a list of my problems.  So, IBM, it’s 3.30am and this one’s on you … and you owe me at least 2 hours of sleep.

Overall thoughts

I can’t fault IBM’s support teams both locally and internationally. They have been brilliant throughout the whole process. Far better than anything Microsoft or Google have ever managed. For the most part, I can’t even fault the product.  It’s technically sound and it does more or less what it’s supposed to, give or take a few silly limitations. Nope. Most of the blame  goes to the licensing team and to management for some truly horrendous decisions.

On-boarding

The gateway to any system is the on-boarding process. At the very least, you have to get this right. There are two parts to on-boarding;

  • On-boarding a Company
  • On-boarding Users


IBM Connections.cloud manages to screw both of these processes up, so if nothing else, at least it’s consistent. 

On-boarding a Company

Without covering old ground too much, (even though we still haven’t received a licence for our second company -- after about a month of waiting) there are three things wrong with the company on-boarding process;

Real Companies with ABNs Only Please

IBM feel the need to prove that the company is “real” - for example, in Australia, companies need to have an ABN (Australian Business Number). This is fine for registered companies but what happens if you want to on-board something larger than a company, perhaps an international forum?  A fledgling sub-company?  Good luck to you… if it doesn't have an ABN, it doesn't exist.

Microsoft’s Yammer on the other hand happily on-boards anything that has its own domain. 

A Fast Onboarding Process that Fails to Collect Information

Then there’s the on-line forms process for on-boarding.  It’s really slick and fast but it doesn't actually ask any of the questions that need to be answered. There’s a separate paper and signature based form for that -- and even then, the IBM provisioning team seem to ignore what you write and make their own choices. Again, Yammer wins hands down with a complete process that takes only a few minutes.


Segregated Data Centres

I said before that this was the single failing of IBM Connections.Cloud.  I was wrong, there are many other failings but I’d say this one is still the worst. When your company is created, it gets put (almost randomly) in one of three data centres (the US, Europe or Asia). This would be fine except that communication can’t happen between the data centres.  That’s right, people in the US can’t communicate with people in Asia.  For a platform based on collaboration, blocking messaging is a big, big mistake.

On-boarding a Person

The on-boarding process for a user is much better. It’s a bit wordy and “disclaimery” and a bit disjointed too but I would have said it was pretty good - if I hadn't seen the Yammer on-boarding process.  The two big flaws with personal on-boarding are;


  • Single-Emails: If you've already used your email address somewhere else in connections, for example at one of the other data centres, then it’s “dead”. It’s tied to that data centre and as mentioned previously, there’s no communication between data centres. This might be fine if you have a single organisation collaborating together but if you’re an association which collects members and guests from other organisations around the world, it makes business impossible. 


  • A lack of Wizardry: The Yammer on-boarding process used some very slick screens to navigate the new user through setting up their account, joining companies, adding friends, setting up their profile and introducing the system.  The IBM on-boarding process simply dumps the user in connections in the hope that they’ll figure out where to go to from there. 


Friends and @Mentions

This was bit that “broke” the system for our people.  They presumed that that, as with most social platforms, they could add guests and then draw their attention via @Mentions.  This works extremely well within companies, so clearly there’s no technical problem with the @Mention system itself.

Unfortunately, without some very, very painful user-based processes, you can’t @Mention anyone who is not a member of your company.  You can’t @Mention guests even though they are members of your community.

The Worst Friend-Request System Ever

In order to @Mention a guest, you need to “Friend Request” them first. Then they have to accept. This might not be so bad but the Friend Request system is absolutely terrible. In order to Friend Request someone, you need to go into your personal contacts and add the person manually to your contacts. To do this, you need to type in at least their name and email address. If you don’t know which email address they’re using for connections, then you can’t add them.

Once people are added to your contacts list, you then need to go in and individually send them “invitations to connect”, and then you have to wait for them to accept.  By this time, your requirement to @mention them has pretty much expired.

Of course, I found a way to upload a CSV file which takes a little of the pain out of the first part of the process but considering that Microsoft’s Yammer lets you talk directly to members in your community without any further action, I think it’s too little, too late.

Broken by Design

The worst part about this however is that it was apparently “broken by design”.  The earlier versions of IBM connections.cloud were far more open and for legal or other reasons, those loopholes were closed. This means that there is no technical reason why the system couldn't be better.  It also means that because the “holes” were clumsily closed, the system tends to go to horrible error-message screens when you hit parts of the old functionality.

This is simply a very bad choice of reaction from IBM. A much better choice would be to change the person profiles so that you could have a choice of;


  • A community-public edge to your profile (ie visible to all - @mentions within shared communities without needing explicit friendships)
  • A completely hidden to all profile (ie: the current friend request system)
  • A list of Trusted domains or companies (ie: @mentions restricted to domains/companies and profiles visible to certain domains/companies only).


All existing Connections.cloud profiles should default to “completely hidden” and all members of the community should be sent a message explaining the differences and how to change it. This would fix the problems in the current system.  From there, all new users could be asked to make the choice as part of the user on-boarding process. The default setting could be set at the company level too.

It’s a simple fix that IBM needs to implement ASAP.


The Capabilities of Guests

One of the most important features of IBM Connections is the Guest System.  The idea that you can invite a guest to connections in order to exchange files with you or participate in your communities.

Apart from the guest problems I've discussed earlier;

  • A sloppy on-boarding process 
  • Inability to invite guests if their email has been used at another data centre
  • Inability to @mention guests without completing a process too complex for new users


There’s also a few other issues;

Lack of Status Updates

One of the first things I noticed about Yammer was that guests have a status update bar. That’s right, guests can post updates (which can include @mentions and hashtags).  In fact, Yammer encourages guests to introduce themselves when they are added to a community. Connections on the other hand does not allow guests to post status updates.


No Collaborative Document Editing for Guests

Then there’s collaborative document editing. If you’re a fully paid subscriber of IBM Connections, you can edit documents using the built in “IBM Docs” editor.  It’s not a particularly good editor, not compared to Office 365 online or the even better (in my opinion) Google Docs but it does the trick.

Unfortunately, if you’re a guest, you are denied the use of these tools and have to download documents, edit them and then re-upload them.

Initially I was okay with this but then I looked a Yammer. Yammer lets people use the online versions of Office 365

Really?  If Microsoft can run their flagship cash-cow product on a freemium model for Yammer users then IBM must be able to offer IBM Docs to guests. In a world full of free apps (thank you Google Docs) and quality open source alternatives (thank you Libre Office), who pays for the bare essentials of content creation these days?

This is simply unacceptable. 

The Outline Screen and Clutter

The last major flaw of IBM Connections.cloud is, in my opinion, the outline screen. As I said before, connections is far more fully-featured than any of the competing systems. It has great sub-systems like wiki’s, blogs, surveys and activities … and it seems that new modules are coming all the time.

There’s nothing really wrong with these options. It’s all a matter of the outline screen.

The focal point of any community is its start page and in IBM connections, you can choose from several options for the start page. The Wiki is offered as an option but it’s restricted to the welcome page -- and you can’t have any “side apps”, such as tags and calendars.

The outline page is really the best start page of the lot. Unfortunately, there are a few major flaws;


Graphics can't be Directly Added to Outlines

Despite years of badgering (I've read the forums), you can’t add graphics to the outline, at least not directly. You have to upload them to the Wiki (or files if you enjoy lots of broadcasts) and then link to them from there. Since the rest of connections seems to support uploads, it makes no sense why the one part that would benefit from this feature misses out.

All Components (except updates) Must be Shown on the Outline

If you decide to have a component in your community, for example a survey or a wiki, then you MUST show it on the outline screen -- even if it’s not relevant at the time. You can collapse these items to start with but they still expand for new users.  There’s an option to “hide” these items but hiding them essentially removes them from your community. If you’re going to use the outline screen, you’re going to have to get used to clutter.

Compare this to the Yammer screens, they’re calm, clean and easily navigable. 

Community Status Updates Cannot be shown on the Outline

You can’t include community status updates on the outline screen. This is pretty amazing, as one of the most important things about any community is the status updates.  You’d think that the outline layout which introduces far too much clutter would at least be all-inclusive but it’s not. Status updates are simply not available there. It’s a shame because people have been asking for them too, for years, in the IBM forums.

No HTML in the Outline

If there's one part of Community that would benefit from HTML, it's the outline page. This would allow you to integrate your own systems (via iFrames and other devices) and it would allow you to use widgets from other sources. More importantly, having HTML would allow you a lot more control over the layout of the outline.

Where to Now?

I really can’t be sure where we are going now.  For a while there I was so sure that our future was going to be IBM Connections but it’s really not looking like the product will meet our needs. It’s a big decision to make because it won’t just affect connections going forward. It will affect all of our systems, our domino systems, the intended move to bluemix and our xpages development plans.

If nothing else, I’m at least reassured. If we lose IBM now, it won’t be for lack of trying and it won’t be because people made an emotional decision to go to Microsoft.  It will simply be that IBM has “mismanaged” themselves into delivering a sub-par set of rules around an otherwise quality product.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chrome Remote Desktop - A Better VPN and RDP Solution

About Chrome Remote Desktop

Remote desktop is one of the great ways to access data from offsite because it not only gives you access to your data, it also gives you access to your applications. So, if you've got applications which you don't have at home, on your laptop, phone, android or ipad, then remote desktop is the answer.

Unfortunately, the key to remote desktop is (usually) having a good VPN.  VPNs rely upon infrastructure and they need to be secure. For example PPTP VPNs are so insecure that they typically last under a minute in the wild.

The more secure VPNs, like Shrew, are more robust but offer little compatibility for other types of devices, like Macs, iOS, Linux and Android.

There's a few good point to point remote desktop solutions about though and these don't need a VPN. Even better, some, like the Google Chrome Remote Desktop are constantly being updated (as if simply being "free" wasn't good enough.

The other thing that I like about Chrome Remote Desktop is that it has three factor authentication;

  • You have to be logged into your Google Account in order to see the remote PC
  • You have to enter a pin number
  • You have to enter the password for the PC or Domain.

Sure, there are some limitations, such as sloppy copy and paste between the systems, some less than intuitive controls and some refresh delays but overall it's a quick and easy way to get a remote session going.

Getting Chrome Remote Desktop

To get Chrome remote desktop, use the Chrome Browser and browse  to the Chrome Web Store. Type in Chrome Remote Desktop and it should be the first item you see.  Click Add to Chrome and follow the prompts.

You'll want to install it on the computer to be controlled AND the computer you'll be controlling from. If you're using a phone or a tablet, you'll want to get it from the relevant App Store or Google Play store.

Enabling Your Computer for Remote Desktop

On the computer to be controlled, click on the Google Apps Bar.  If you have a lot of apps, you might have to do some scrolling.

Locate the Chrome Remote Desktop App and choose it.

It will open to a dialog screen.

If you're doing a one-off share, perhaps helping a family member, then you should teach them to get to that screen and click Share this computer.  They'll be able to do a temporary share (it will generate a pin and ask the remote user to enter it).

For a permanent share, you need to put your own pin in. I'd suggest that it should be more than 4 digits long.




Enabling Curtain Mode

One of the troubling things about Chrome Remote Desktop is that by default it shows your screen to others while you are working. This is by design because it's primarily an instructional screen-sharing tool.

One your home computer, this probably doesn't matter.  In fact, you're probably using C.R.D. to help the less computer literate members of your family.  In the workplace however, this is a different matter altogether.

In order to use Chrome Remote desktop in the workplace, you really need to enable "Curtain Mode". Unfortunately the instructions for this aren't very clear -- hence this post.

First of all you'll need admin rights to your Windows computer.

Next, fire up the Registry editor (if you don't know that you can click Start, Run  and type Regedit, then maybe you shouldn't be in the registry -- it's a dangerous place to be).

Navigate to: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Google\Chrome

Chances are, you won't find it. In fact, you'll probably only get as far as

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies

That's okay.  We can create it from there.


Right-click on Policies and Choose New, Key.  Name the Google (and press Enter).
You now have a Google Key.

Click on the Google Key.
Right-click on the Google Key and choose New, Key.  Name the new key Chrome (and press Enter).
Now we need to create the DWORD Value. 


Find some space in the right hand pane and right click on it.
Choose New, DWORD Value.
If you're running on a 64 bit system, it will probably say DWORD (32-bit) Value.

This creates a new value.
Name it.  RemoteAccessHostRequireCurtain

Now, double-click on the new DWORD value and a dialog box will appear.
Type 1 as the value and click Okay.

Now, you'll just need to reboot your machine and it should all work.




Friday, March 11, 2016

Buy... or Die Trying - An IBM Connections Story

You simply have to get IBM connections cloud. It's not only the "best of its breed" but it also has some very impressive licensing structures. It's not a choice of whether or not, simply a choice of when.

I'll elaborate on those words in another post because I desperately want to get back to telling the positive stories about IBM but for now, the message is simply “I am convinced”.

Let's buy this baby!
A few posts ago, I went through the Google Apps for Work setup. Google have a pretty impressive cloud product too… In fact, I'd say that if you're running a very small business - or if you're looking for a system for an individual, then Google is your system.

I was particularly impressed with Google's "New Company Setup" process which took half an hour. Of course if I wasn't documenting every step, it would have been 10 minutes.

I wanted to prove that IBM could compete at that level, that you can set up connections cloud without needing a business partner. I tried. I really did…  but now I have to admit defeat....


The IBM Connections.Cloud product is simply brilliant and the licensing is brilliant too but the registration and setup is still very much done according to IBM’s old standards. Right now I'm committed but waiting for things to find their way out of the trail of paper forms.

Choose Your Site 
I started trying to explain the site part of this problem but the explanations became so convoluted that they grew into a post of their own (See here for details).

The online form for connections cloud has some pretty major holes in it to say the least. For a start, there's no explanation of the two data centers and no way to select one over the other.

I contacted IBM and was told to place the order and then get the receipt number and send an email to the connections cloud team stating my preference.

Someone without a direct IBM contact would have come unstuck at that point. 

The other thing about this bizarre scenario is that you have to hope that they open the email and act on it before creating the connections environment.

What we, Wanted.... did .... and Got
In my case, my company (A) was setting up a smaller company (B) to do specific work with a high likelihood of the new company (B) eventually splitting off to operate entirely without the parent company. As such, company (B) wasn't a real company yet... but there was no sense in creating it as part of company (A) given that it would probably split.

I put the new company name on the form and used an email address from our current domain being careful to use one that wasn't already in connections - at least I didn't think I had used it in connections before,  though I knew that it had been used on passport advantage.

I put the new system on the company card and then emailed the team as instructed and explained the situation in the email.

When nothing happened we followed up with IBM (because they didn't contact us).  It turns out that they completely ignored the company name at the top of the form because I used an email address which was known to the passport advantage system.  Instead of a new environment, we got one extra licence added to our existing account.


On the second attempt, we used a business partner. After a few initial problems, IBM initially refused to create a new company because our “fledgling” company didn't have an ABN (Australian Business Number), our business partner filled the forms in and liaised with IBM. This resulted in a new company being set up under the right name… but on the wrong server.

Being Upfront 
One of the problems with this whole approach is that IBM change you upfront for the licensing, where in a traditional model you can force a supplier to “get it right” before handing over the money. I can't really blame IBM for this because this is the "internet model for service".

I would point out however that Google doesn't do this. They give you the first month free so that by the time you do get charged, you've been happily working on your new environment for a month. It's a good feeling and one that IBM would do well to try to replicate in their own customer base. 

In my case I was lucky because I only wanted to start with a single license. I wonder what would have happened if we'd bought a hundred.. Twice.

The Current Status 
In case you're wondering,  the current status of this request is that after 2 weeks,  we still don't have a license.  I have people at work putting pressure on me for not having built a system that I don't have the keys to yet but I'm hopeful that IBM will pull through on this eventually. I've still got 24 hours before I reach the deadline for delivering the project.

It's clear that IBM still has a lot of work to do on the new company part of the Connections.Cloud registration system. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Explaining the Limitations of IBM Connections.Cloud Global Signon

I've mentioned this in passing before but it's important enough to be worth reiterating in a post of its own. In my opinion, it is the single technical failing of IBM connections.Cloud and the one technical issue I want to see resolved ASAP.



There are currently two sites that you can choose to host your IBM Connections.Cloud data in; the United States and Japan (there might be a third site but I'm not sure, so I'll be sticking with the two for now). You can only use your email address for connections once in the world and it limits the people that you can invite to your communities.

For example, say you didn't know about the two sites and you (Bill) just went through the default setup, your data would end up in the American data centre. Then say, Fred, who works at a more legally minded company decides that his data can’t be on American servers 



The Problem
In any case, Bill is now set up on the American server and he has a nice little community going. He decides to invite his friends, Bob, Jane and Fred. 

  • Bob is already set up on the American server because he’s part of another community there, so his existing password just lets him access Bill’s shared content.


  • Jane has never used connections, so she’s now invited to set up a FREE new account. She does this and then suddenly she’s got access..


  • Fred however, can’t be invited. He’s already a member of connections. You’d think that he could login using his existing credentials and access Bill’s systems but he can’t.  People on the Japanese server can’t see data on the American… and vice versa.



This also means that if Fred creates a community then he can’t invite Bill, Bob or Jane. Unless they use a different email address.


Moving
In our case, being in Australia, you'd think that the solution would be for the newer communities to move to our region. We asked IBM about this but it turns out that moving is not a simple matter. In fact, the recommendation was to set up again instead.

The reason for this is fairly obvious if you think about it. If the connections server farms are closed environments then moving would break any comments, shares and discussions that you've had with other people in your "previous" region.

Moving is clearly not an option.

Setting up Two Sites
Setting up two sites is a much better option, so let's presume that Bill is an Australian who wants to engage Australian businesses. Bill wants to set up a second site.

Then there's the hurdles of setting up a second site where IBM expects a different domain name (more on that in another post), for simplicity, let's assume that Bill creates a new second site with a different email address.

Bill can now recreate his community on the Japanese server and engage Australian Businesses. Of course, while he can now engage Fred, he's no longer able to engage Bob and Jane because they're on the US server.

Bill now has a problem where he has two communities and no way to replicate data between them, other than manual intervention.

Where to from here?
I was going to go into detail and explain why simply moving users by letting them expire would still not fix the problem but I think it's fairly obvious (and tedious). Even if you let the licensing expire in the US and then tried to create the users on the Japanese server, you'd still face the problem of not being able to use the same email address and the loss of "historical data", such as likes, comments and even Verse emails.

I can see why IBM have done made the choices that they have. It’s a way of getting around the "fear factor" of the patriot act but unfortunately, it breaks connections. What connections needs more than anything else is a "connection" between their data centers... and with the Australian data center (and presumably a few others) looming on the horizon, it's clear that they need to resolve this problem quickly.

Google has perfected global single sign-on so I don’t see any reason why IBM shouldn't too. 

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Notes/Domino is Dead, Long Live NoSQL/Domino!

I was having a conversation recently and there was a couple with no kids who were annoyed that their friends were saying “the club scene is back!” when in their mind, it had never left.  They pointed out that it was the other couples who’d left the scene to raise children and that now that those kids were old enough to stay home on their own, they were able to return to the club scene. It was not “back”, THEY were back.

It’s like the concept of object permanence doesn't apply. People assume that things are long gone, simply because they personally are no longer using them.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard IBM Domino pronounced “dead” over the years and yet it keeps going. People move to all-Microsoft companies and then they start at ours and say "I thought Notes was dead."

No, it's not dead... in fact, we’re still developing in it now and its future today is much more assured than it was five years ago. 

The fact is that the model still works. The access controls on domino databases (nested groupings, database access controls, reader and author fields) run rings around most other systems. Sure, the user interface is "clunky" at best but the model still works very well indeed. Even IBM Connections, the most likely successor has far less functionality and much more inflexible security than domino. Connections is good but it's never going to be a complete replacement.

A State of Change
Over the years, there have been a few half-hearted attempts to re-skin the interface (Notes 7 and 8) or to produce "lightweight" versions of it (iNotes and the Firefox plugin). These have inspired developers to produces equally half-hearted attempts at porting apps to the web - and I've seen some shockers.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I've been responsible for more than a few of those "shockers".

There have also been many attempts to replace the system with other "prettier" ones, like Websphere and Workplace but for the most part, these were slightly less clunky interfaces built in far less capable models. In fact those systems did far more damage to Notes/Domino than the competitors ever did.

To everyone’s surprise, of all the interfaces, it was Traveler that caught the imagination. IBM jumped off the Blackberry ship at exactly the right time.  Far enough in front of the iceberg that by the time Blackberry was sinking, most of us had a pretty effective upgrade path.

It's no exaggeration to say that Traveler almost single-handedly decided IBM's current path.... Mobile FIRST!

Then there’s Verse, IBM’s revamped mail which simply couldn't get here fast enough. If you haven’t tried it, you really ought to. It’s great.  There’s still a lot of features missing but it’s getting there.

What’s really funny is that people at work are pushing me to get them off that old clunky mail system and onto Verse. I no longer try to explain that they’re the same thing, I think that the rebranding is a very good move.

Speaking of rebranding, I've noticed that IBM is increasingly referring to Domino as "NoSQL". That's what they seem to be calling it on Bluemix.



I can remember having to write papers to justify building databases on Non SQL platforms. I explained that SQL is only good for certain types of data.  It was hard work and everyone was focussed on this “newfangled SQL”…. until finally I mentioned that SQL was in fact invented by Edgar Codd of IBM back in 1970. It wasn't “newfangled” and it certainly wasn't "Microsoft’s idea".

Finally, Finally!!! IBM is getting it.  The Notes client is dead. It’s fine as a development tool but it’s dead as a user tool.  The engine is still Domino NoSQL and the future is web and apps. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Computing and Evangelism - How Evangelistic Leadership Styles Help and Hinder the Majors

Computing has long been described as something similar to religion. There have been “nerd-wars” fought over Windows vs Mac and Word vs Wordperfect vs Wordstar, for decades so it’s really no surprise that the leaders of many computer companies are becoming “God-Like” in their evangelism -- but is it a good thing?

To a certain extent, yes… it’s a good thing to have a person as a focal point for your company.  It's kind of like having a thought-leader as a "mascot" and it's particularly important in the early years as it helps to build recognition.  After a while though, the focus switches from the company to the person, and that’s not a good thing. 

Apple
The case in point is Apple. If Steve Jobs was the messiah for Apple, including being “killed” by his own people and resurrecting himself, then Tim Cook is his Saint Paul.  Tim Cook is full of letters and quotes but he’s simply following in Steve’s footsteps.  He’s not really adding anything particularly new to the mix.

It's not that Tim isn't innovative or that he isn't trying to add anything to the mix, it's simply that he can't compete with Steve's legacy. It's too tough an act to follow.

In Apple’s case, the whole “leader-messiah” complex did wonders for the company, particularly in the recent revival but it’s now caused the company to become a one-trick-pony. There's little to follow it up with. The focus is barely on Apple, it’s still on Steve - and it's certainly not on Tim.

Microsoft
Then there’s Microsoft, who arguably had the first of the tech-Messianic CEOs, Bill Gates. While Bill was recognised for his genius, he did a great job of keeping the focus where it was needed, mainly on the Microsoft name. Things changed when Steve Ballmer took over though, Steve’s focus was much more on his own larger-than-life presence than on Microsoft. The repercussions for the company were severe, especially as his leadership was less than stellar.


New CEO, Satya Nadella seems to have his work cut out for him getting the company back on its feet but he’s made a pretty good start, keeping his personal profile low and Microsoft’s high. That’s a good start but personally, I think he needs to set up a few additional “evangelists” within Microsoft to ensure that the leadership is a “joint one”.

IBM
IBM is probably the exact opposite of Apple. A company trading solely on its name. There have been a couple of IBM evangelists over the years but every time one of them seems to be getting too much of the spotlight, they seem to be promoted into a less evangelical position. There’s really nobody to follow at IBM, no thought leaders.

In my opinion, that’s a big problem because to the larger world, IBM appears to be a largely leaderless giant. 

I'm not suggesting that Ginni Rometty is doing a bad job, in fact, IBM have made some great steps forward in the past few years.  The problem is simply one of being largely “faceless”.

In the old world, you could trade solely on your company's name but today's tech environments are all about "social computing"  - and you can't have social computing without at least a certain level of personal interaction.

Google and Alphabet
In some ways, Google represents the perfect balance of evangelism vs corporate image.  There are at least three names which are synonmous with Google, current CEO Sundar Pichai and former CEOs, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. There’s also Marissa Mayer, if she ever returns from Yahoo.

What is interesting though is that Google seems to encourage thought-leadership and many of the google developers and internal thought-leaders communicate through blogging, twitter and even facebook.

In doing this, Google has become like the proverbial hydra; "cut off one head and another two grow to replace it". 



This approach seems to be working very well, Despite their size, Google is more approachable than ever and have a great rapport with their customers. In fact, like Apple, many of Google’s customers are doing their evangelism for them.

Now that’s an idea…. crowdsourced corporate evangelism!