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Skype helps people stay in touch with friends and family overseas. It is hard to use for business because it is unreliable.

The problem isn’t Skype‘s technology, but my broadband connection. My Telecom NZ broadband speed is unpredictable because I’m on a plan which gives me uncapped downloads but for most of the day means I share pooled bandwidth with other users on the same plan. In other words, one minute my connection is 3.5Mbps, the next minute I’ve got only 100kbps or so.

Google’s Gtalk voice over IP service copes with the fluctuating bandwidth better than Skype. I suspect this is because it chews through less data.

In general I find there’s otherwise little to choose between the Skype and Gtalk experience. Skype can give better quality audio, but there are times when it is just appalling. Gtalk never reaches the highs or the lows.

For me Google’s voice over IP service almost beats Skype. Consistency is a good thing. I also like the way it integrates smoothly with Gmail – which is my main email client, and the Gtalk instant message tool.

But there’s one big problem. Almost nobody I know uses Gtalk for voice calls although a lot of people use it for messaging. I have dozens of contacts on Skype, but scheduling Skype calls is much harder.

Which means I need to keep both programs installed.

My weekend search for a boxed copy of Quicken Home and Business 2010 drew a blank.

When I couldn’t get anywhere with physical shops I went to Quicken’s website, then clicked through to the point where I could, in theory, buy a packaged copy of the program online.

I stopped when I reached the confirm purchase page which said; “Quicken will send out your purchase within 7-14 working days after payment”.

That’s 14 working days AFTER receiving payment.

Does Quicken want to sell?

Paperless journalist: Business cards points out it took nine days for Moo cards to accept money, print cards and send them from California to New Zealand.

Why is Quicken so slow? Perhaps someone has to get the CD burner out of the cupboard to make the discs for packaged software.

Next. I went back through the site, found a contact email for Quicken’s ‘presales’ department to query this speed. I needed the software fast, the end of the financial year is approaching and I had a GST return to get out.

On Saturday I emailed this message to presales@quicken.co.nz:

I’ve been all over the North Shore looking for Quicken Home & Business 2010. There are boxed in Harvey Norman at Wairau Park, but no disks. Otherwise no-one seems to stock the software. Is it still available? If I buy direct from Reckon can I come and pick it up from the office?

I never heard back.

The money was in my hand and Quicken didn’t want to take it. Something is wrong here.

In the meantime, I’ve switched to Xero.

Technology changes at a frightening rate. If you pay the IT bill, depressing might be a better word.

Take the shelf life of a new personal computer. It is now down to just nine months.

More worrying, some PC makers estimate you’ll use a desktop machine for just 18 months before needing, not merely desiring, a replacement.

File servers and other larger computers last longer. Manufacturers expect you to get two to three years use from such a machine.

While software and operating systems change less often, the changes need extra spending elsewhere as other software, hardware and support will all need updating.

Network technology may not change at the same rate, but your communications needs will.

Choose your own time to update

Of course, you don’t have to allow the people who sell technology to dictate your replacement schedule.

If you aren’t continually re-evaluating, upgrading and improving systems you could quickly fall behind competitors. It isn’t going to matter if you wait an extra year before following the herd to a new technical nirvana, but you will need to move on at some point.

In information technology, standing still is not an option—try buying a mainstream application for Windows XT to see what I mean. Vista replaced XT only a couple of years ago, yet Microsoft treats XT like ancient history. So do other PC application suppliers.

While you don’t want to be a hostage to fortune, your organisation’s IT plan must include an orderly renewal schedule. A good plan takes expected technical advances into account as well as the hardware, software and support costs of regular upgrades and replacements.

This need not be as expensive or as difficult as you might fear. There are cheaper ways of squeezing more performance from an existing technology investment than throwing everything out and starting again.

Plan for future needs

This is true if you can devise a forward-looking IT strategy putting systems and policies in place to take your organisation through the next few years without expensive discontinuities. This kind of planning is the core idea behind future proofing.

Or, more accurately, it is the core idea behind the usual meaning of future proofing.

Like many IT terms, the word is hijacked and misused. Some advertisers use the word to imply a product or technology won’t be outdated for a long time. That’s a part of future proofing, but it isn’t the whole story. Nor is it the most important aspect.

At the core of future proofing is the idea today’s decisions affect future decisions.

Most importantly, you shouldn’t commit to technical dead-ends. Buying the best tools for today’s needs is not enough. You need to look over the horizon as well. There are two types of changes to consider, those inside your organisation and those outside.

A good organisational IT plan should closely align with the business plan. It needs to look forward to tomorrow’s needs. A growing organisation should put IT systems in place that can expand to meet future capacity and application requirements. An organisation expecting to get smaller might need to add IT capacity to compensate for workers or it might just need less IT.

Support

Externally, you need to read the IT industry. Will company X continue to market, develop and support software Y?

Is the feature being heavily promoted by company A likely to become an industry standard as promised or will it go the way of the Betamax video and EISA bus?

This can mean using an inferior technology because it is a standard. Standards tend to hang around longer than non- standards and new standards tend build on old ones. Of course there is the question of `which standard?’ but, on the whole, standards make a good starting point.

Similarly, there is safety in numbers. Products that sell well are more likely to survive than those that don’t. They are more likely to be developed, improved and updated. The companies making the products are more likely to be around to give support. So picking industry winners can help.

On the down side, if you play safe and opt for obvious standards and industry winners, you’ll have systems that look a lot like everyone else’s. This might be comforting, but you won’t gain a strategic advantage over your rivals this way. Your system might be future proof, but your organisation might not.

In some respects building a future proof system is like the way exporters buy currency options. Both processes reduce risk. You take a small hit now to cut the chance of a big hit later. In some cases those yet to happen big hits are fatal.

You’ll need to do plenty of homework. Reading the technology press, keeping track of marketing material, paying for expensive analysts’ reports and attending seminars is part of this process.

As an IT journalist with some 30 years experience, I want to warn you companies don’t always tell the truth and other times they get it wrong.

Sorting good information from bad is hard enough for those who do it for a living. For people with other responsibilities it is almost impossible. Listen to what people say by all means, but don’t bet the business on a supplier’s promise.

Future proof too hard?

At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that future proofing sounds good, but belongs in the too hard basket.

Thankfully, there is a way around the problem. To find it, consider how company’s reduce currency risk. Few organisation’s handle their own currency risk management. Most contract specialists who agree to deliver a predetermined set of results.

There is no direct equivalent to currency hedging in the IT world. But organisations can move to IT arrangements where they buy predetermined deliverables and not specific tools and technologies.

For example, you might hire or lease equipment, not buy it outright. More specifically, an organisation could future proof payroll processing by hiring a service provider who delivers an agreed number of correctly processed pay transactions within a fixed time at an agreed cost. This approach explains the success of software-as-a-service vendors.

In an arrangement of this nature, the customer doesn’t need to know or care about the technology used or how the payroll is processed, merely that the job is done.

Contract clauses can account for any efficiencies gained by technical advances during of the contract, or they could be put aside until contract renewal. Competitive tendering means service providers can bid on a combination of service quality and cost.

Finally, future proofing is about managing risk, not necessarily eliminating it. You need to develop a realistic awareness of your organisation’s IT risks and the impact these risks have on your organisation’s main business. Learn where you can take a punt and where you can’t. If you start to think about your IT in terms of risk, you’re part way to building a future proof organisation.

Some months ago I set out to review FileMaker Pro version 10. I’ve used earlier versions of FileMaker and built an invoice system which I’ve used for the last ten years to handle the billing for my freelance journalism business.

The invoice system converted to FileMaker Pro 10 without a hitch, but I wanted to give the software more of a workout and try a different project. So I rebuilt my List of New Zealand media people and organisations on Twitter as a relational database.

In the original list I grouped names under various headings, but some people qualify under more than one heading, so I wanted to build a relational database which could be sliced and diced, but which specifically could treat headings as tags to reorganised the entire list in a more useful format.

I’d already been through this process using Microsoft Access 2007 to build the NZ media people on Twitter list. Although there were problems with using Access 2007  the basic database design was trivial, it took me less than a couple of hours to covert the HTML list into a Excel spreadsheet, import the list into Access, create extra tables, make the relational database links and pretty things up for the web.

FileMaker Pro is often easier to use than Access, but this time it wasn’t the best tool for the job. I went through the same basic steps, but couldn’t figure out how to use FileMaker to build the tags. I’m sure it is doable, but there’s nothing intuitive about structuring databases and in this case, I found Access way easier.

 

An annoying aspect of moving home was the sheer volume of paper we moved between houses. Despite living in a digital age, it was a third of the total weight moved.

We’ll put books and magazines – probably the largest part – to one side and concentrate on other paper. It is time to become a paperless journalist.

Home business is paper-centric

I run a home freelance journalism business and my wife also has a writing business. We have plenty of paper. Our three two-drawer filing cabinets are full of business documents. We store at least the same amount in boxes.

We’re journalists, so we keep archive copies of newspapers, magazines and other publications we have written for in the past – about two filing cabinets. Reference material fills another cabinet.

There’s another cabinet of non-work related documents. Add in our children’s old schoolbooks and their junk.

All-in-all our paper collection would fill a room. Around six full-sized filing cabinets.

Admittedly we’re at the high-end of the scale, but our hoard is not abnormal.

Clearly I need to get rid of as much paper as possible. Ideally we’d have none, we’d be paperless. But that’s unrealistic.

I’m aiming to cut the paper mountain to just two two-drawer filing cabinets and my scanner is my friend.

Before starting, remember paper is:

  • Awkward to move
  • Heavy
  • Bulky
  • Relatively fragile
  • Many documents are badly faded or torn
  • Combustible
  • Prone to mould (and therefore unhealthy)
  • Difficult to search.

Move to paperless started years before

We knew the move was coming, so I started scanning documents well in advance. Six months later I estimate I turned around 10 percent of the total pile into digital documents. The process is far slower than you might expect. And even if you take care, some scans have to be done two or three times. At this rate it could take four years to reach my paperless target.