March 8, 2010 9:11 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, cellular handsets
, cellular service
One of the more frustrating aspects of buying any high-tech, and especially consumer-electronics, product is that the price will be lower only moments after you sign the credit-card receipt. Inflation does not apply as a consideration in personal electronics; with the possible exception of exotic, high-end A/V gear, whatever you buy will be essentially worthless within a few months.
This is especially true of cellular handsets, where models change every 15 minutes by law, but they’re getting very cheap to begin with. I mentioned last time that there are two-for-one handset deals around these days, and Verizon Wireless is heavily promoting theirs. Assuming you are already a customer and renewing for another two years, you can get two BlackBerry Curve 8530s, a very respectable handset indeed, for free. If you’re not already a customer, the price increases to a whopping $29.99. You can also get two of the very nice Droid ERISes or Palm Pixi Pluses for that same $29.99.
Get the idea that money spent on most handsets is inconsequential? It is – because, remember, you’re making a two-year commitment and the full price of the handset is in there somewhere. The good news is that service prices have, much to my surprise, I must admit, fallen significantly lately, in response to both the recession and heavy-duty competition across the board. Verizon’s unlimited talk plans are down to around $70, and unlimited data to around $30. So, for $100 a month, talk, e-mail and surf to your heart’s content – and note you can do all of this on Sprint for only around $70/month – what was that I was saying about competition? BTW, I am a Verizon customer because I’ve found their network to have the best coverage and reliability. If there were an iPhone from Verizon, I’d seriously consider that – but there are problems with the iPhone that, even as a Mac user, still give me pause. And the iPhone (new models undoubtedly on the way here as well) will remain relatively expensive, because of supply and demand. More on the iPhone later.
In the meantime, though, the low prices on cellular handsets and service might enable you to drop your landline altogether. Does that make sense for an SMB today? More on that next time.
March 5, 2010 6:58 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, platform phone
The term “smatphone” has been around for a long time, and the word has become so diverse and amorphous that today it may have little meaning. Originally, cell phones were truly dumb – no dialing directory, let alone anything else apart from the send and end keys. But they worked just like landline phones – provided one was in an area of coverage, a dicey proposition back in the ’80s. As is usually the case with high tech, it wasn’t long before the microprocessor and software started us down the road to where we are today – handsets with a huge range of internal features, and power and services akin to the desktop or laptop computer – albeit in a small form factor, that factor introducing a whole range of compromises that we’ll likely be living with forever. Regardless, the smartphone has become indispensible for business users, and there’s a good chance you already own one. A simple feature phone won’t cut it, although I must admit I do own one small flip phone which actually fits into a pocket without risk of damage – a topic for another day, to be sure.
But we really need to separate today’s smartphones into two broad categories. The first, which I would still call a smartphone, has the familiar PDA form factor, a physical micro-keyboard of virtual display-based keyboard being the key differentiators among products, along with whatever software features the vendor and carrier choose to include. These devices aren’t programmable, and are often more media-oriented to appeal to the buyer who just can’t stand to be separated from their tunes for more than a few seconds.
The second category, though, is much more interesting to business users today, and I think this one deserves its own name. The key differentiator here is programmability, which stems from the inclusion of a “real” operating system designed to run third-party applications. Apple is clearly in the lead here – the iPhone runs a scaled-down version of the Mac’s OS X, itself a derivative of UNIX, and there are now too many apps in the App Store to count. Most of these are front-ends for Web services, but all run some native code right on the handset itself. And all of Apple’s competitors here – BlackBerry, Palm’s WebOS, Windows Mobile, and all derivatives of Linux, also support the ability to run third-party programs.
That’s why I think we should call this class of handset “platform phones”, to provide some distinction from the long line of far-less-capable smartphones that are more consumer-grade than business-class. Now, the question: could you run your SMB with a contemporary smartphone, or do you need a platform phone? I suspect many would have little problem with the smartphone, especially if it sports a capable browser. But, just to be on the safe side, a platform phone is my suggestion as to the way to go. You never know when the flexibility inherent in programmability will become important. And, if you’ve not noticed, prices of platform phones are falling rapidly. You can get into the iPhone for as little as $99, and I’ve been seeing two-for-one deals for as little as $150 – but that may not be such a good deal once you see the associated monthly charges. More on that later.
March 3, 2010 5:55 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, disaster recovery
If you’ve not given sufficient thought to how your business will survive a disaster or other exceptional event, now’s the time. Just for starters, there are stories all over the news about problems with weather this year. Suppose you suffer a flood or prolonged power outage? There are always the usual possibilities of fire and theft. No matter what, you need a plan to keep operating, well, no matter what.
Interestingly, small mobile businesses have a real advantage here, because they’re mobile to begin with. Could you run your business, at least for critical operations and at least for a few days, using just a handset and a cellular connection, or a notebook and a public-access Wi-Fi link? I’ll bet you could. The key is really in managing your data. As you know, I recommend a disk array and frequent backups. Internet-based storage (not just backup, but real file-based storage) is a good idea as well; I’ve been researching these and once I’ve satisfied myself that security is assured, I will be contracting with one of these as well. In the meantime, a fireproof safe to hold those frequent backups is a great idea, as is an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) for critical infrastructure.
It’s hard to give broad advice given the correspondingly-broad range of possible business requirements. My SMB fundamentally deals in information and knowledge, so my problem is a bit easier than one that involves manufacturing. But here are two important suggestions. First, move as much of your infrastructure into the cloud as possible. I use Web-based e-mail, for example, which provides access from any browser on any device and eliminates duplication and the requirement for mail servers. And keep fully-charged spare or auxiliary batteries for your key mobile devices available. You never know… And you can’t afford to be out of business while waiting for normalcy to be restored.
March 1, 2010 8:41 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
Farpoint Group policies
, FTC blogging regulations
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year posted new rules for bloggers regarding the endorsement of products – a step I personally applaud. In the good old days, writers, reporters, analysts, and publishers of all forms had editors to keep everyone accurate and honest. But the Web is the Wild West; protections against lies, conflicts of interest, and fraud (as opposed to honest mistakes, which, while always regrettable, do happen) are rare, as are, sadly and all too often, failures of business ethics. Blogs are, by their very definition raw, unedited, unchecked by third parties, and rife with opportunities for all manner of malfeasance.
Moreover, my particular business, technology analysis, is fraught with opportunities for ethical problems, and I feel it’s important to state our policies here. I hope every other self-publishing author and blogger, and, indeed, everyone else who publishes anything, will do the same.
Therefore, for the record:
- Farpoint Group, my employer, is in the business of providing technology analysis, strategy development, product specification and design, and product marketing services, primarily to vendors of wireless and mobile technology products, across a very broad range of markets, applications, and geography. We also work with carriers and operators, end-users, and the financial community. With respect to the latter, we are not licensed to provide advice on or sell securities, and we do not.
- Farpoint Group works on a project basis. We have no retainer-based (ongoing) relationship with any client; all projects have a finite duration and, when they end, we have no relationship (beyond, we always hope, another happy and satisfied client) with the project’s sponsor. Most projects last a few weeks to a few months. We consider all client relationships confidential; we do not now, never have, and never will publish our client list.
- Farpoint Group owns no equity in any firm of any form involved in wireless and mobile anything. I also personally own no such securities, except perhaps through managed instruments like mutual funds, over which I have no influence or control.
- Farpoint Group publishes a wide variety of documents under our brand – White Papers, Technical Notes, columns, articles, and this blog. Sometimes we get paid for these; sometimes we don’t. Regardless, Farpoint Group retains editorial control over any self-published documents bearing our brand, with no exceptions. We will not make any particular statement in exchange for payment. Our published work is ultimately our own, and our opinion is not for sale.
- Farpoint Group receives a very small stipend, assuming we publish at least 12 blog entries per calendar month, for producing this blog. IT Knowledge Exchange receives, as I understand it, compensation from advertisers, whose messages appear on pages with my work. However, no opinion expressed in this blog, or in anything else we publish, is ever influenced by a particular advertiser or sponsor. Farpoint Group has no influence of which ads appear. I am very proud to be associated with IT Knowledge Exchange and Tech Target, but their business relationships are not, have never been, and never will be a consideration in what I write – and they have never asked me to do otherwise.
- Occasionally, product vendors will send us products for review, and these reviews are occasionally published here and elsewhere, with acknowledgement as to the source of the product. Vendors regardless have no control, editorial or otherwise, over what is written about a particular product. All products used in production at Farpoint Group, without exception, are paid for and owned by the company. This includes all wireless LAN equipment, cell phones, wireless services – everything. This practice is not always common in the analyst business, but it is very important to me that we be independent. On the other hand, I admit to being biased, but those biases are based on experience and mine alone.
- And, finally, and this should go without saying, but, just to be clear, I would never knowingly publish anything that is false or misleading. I’ll acknowledge any mistakes that I find or that are brought to my attention. And I will always try to do better than whatever it was I did the day before regardless. We owe that to our customers, and our readers – and, after 18 years in business, I think we always get this right.
Please let me know if you have any questions – I think the company and I are being as open as possible here. Trust and reputation are hard to build and easy to lose. After almost 19 years in business, we value both above everything else.
February 26, 2010 11:46 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, network management
, wireless LAN
I’m often asked why access points for enterprise-class wireless LANs cost around US$1,000, while one can buy a wireless router with similar specs at a retail store for perhaps US$75. Well, of course, volumes for the enterprise products are lower so costs are higher, but, much more importantly, enterprise-class APs are designed to be centrally managed. Network management isn’t a topic that most SMB managers have a lot familiarity with, but don’t feel bad – even in larger organizations that have dedicated network management and operations teams, network management seldom gets the visibility it deserves.
Network management, wired or wireless, literally involves hundreds of functions, including planning, deployment, troubleshooting, alerts and alarms, performance monitoring and tuning, security and integrity, monitoring, reporting, and much, much more. Think of network management as the front panel or dashboard of your network infrastructure, and you’re getting the idea. Even retail wireless routers have some management capability, usually accessed via HTTPS or a dedicated client, as is the case with Apple’s products.
And this approach can work fine if you have only one or two APs, but beyond that you need a centralized console to make sure everything is working properly. A little error in the configuration of even one AP can truly ruin your day. One company that’s taken the lead here is Netgear, a company perhaps better known for their residential-class products, but they also have a fairly broad SMB offering as well. The company recently announced new management software and controllers, which allows an SMB to get into centralized network management for as little as $50 (!). Now, you may only have one AP today, but growing businesses need to plan for the eventuality of expanding mission-critical operations. I recommend that you start thinking now about how your network will grow without disruption, and you’ll quickly see the importance of putting a network management strategy in place sooner rather than later.
February 25, 2010 12:44 PM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, cloud computing
, mobile operating systems
, mobile OS
, Web services
, Windows Mobile
, Windows Phone 7 Series
My history with operating systems goes way back to my time in college, when I was a systems programmer – writing operating systems, communications code, and generally caring a lot about machine architecture and such. Today, however, most people really don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) give their OS a second thought; today it’s all about the applications. That’s why I can easily use Linux on the road – I’ve got Firefox and OpenOffice; what more do I really need? I use a Mac for its speed and mostly its reliability; I actually like the Windows user interface better. But Windows (I don’t have a lot of experience with Windows 7 yet; I’ll wait for SP1 and then we’ll see) itself is slow, buggy, complex, and generally unreliable, so I’ve phased it out here for critical production use. Regardless, I don’t spend a lot time anymore thinking about traditional operating systems.
Except on handsets. The world of mobile OSes is like the world of the PC back in the early ‘80s, with lots of competitors, claims, and counterclaims. Do we really need 20+ mobile operating systems? No, of course not, and a shakeout is inevitable. This is important – if you run an SMB, you don’t want to end up with a staff skilled in technology that isn’t going anywhere, and then not only have to buy new handsets, but also re-train everyone as well.
And so my fearless predictions for the future of mobile platforms: Blackberry has a huge installed base, but RIM is at a cost disadvantage having to build its own unique BlackBerry OS. They’ll eventually switch to Linux, but their platform and user interface will remain relatively stable except for evolution dictated by competition. The iPhone OS will also evolve, and will continue to remain its own little world. Apple is perhaps the only company today that can get away with that. On the other hand, Windows Mobile (now Windows Phone 7 Series and Symbian are likely going to be marginalized; Symbian is viewed as being old technology, and Windows Mobile is just expensive, with the WM 7 version just announced clearly little more than an effort to keep up with the iPhone. Ditto, likely, for Palm’s interesting WebOS – it just won’t get the traction it needs to survive. All of these will disappear over time.
But that leaves Linux, again, as a key direction. Linux is free, open-source, and programmers around the world know and like it. But which Linux? Don’t assume that Google’s efforts here (primarily Android) will dominate – Google is a marketing company and many of us are suspicious of their gathering of all kinds of personal data, no matter what they say. There are lots of other Linux distributions that will likely have a significant impact – for example, I’ve got my eye on the Intel/Nokia joint venture which merges their Linux efforts (Moblin and Maemo, respectively) into Meego, what might very well become a powerhouse OS for smartphones and well beyond.
So my money is personally on Linux, with the evolved BlackBerry OS and MacOS on the iPhone also surviving if not prospering. It will take 3-5 years before we know which version of Linux ultimately dominates the mobile space, but I’d be really surprised if Linux didn’t have at least 65% market share of all handsets by 2015.
And, ultimately, the mobile OS will dimply disappear into the woodwork – I expect that most handsets will just be front ends for Web and cloud services, as is the case with many, many apps today. But that’s a topic for another day.
February 23, 2010 4:04 PM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, work/life balance
I remember many years ago having a conversation with an early BlackBerry user (I was personally using at the time the predecessor to the BlackBerry myself, a RIM 957) who referred to his device as an “electronic leash”. Indeed, the social status associated with e-mail and messaging devices flipped shortly after this time, early pagers being associated with blue-collar tasks, kind of the way the typewriters and keyboard (and even computers) were associated with clerical tasks. But it soon became apparent that anyone who didn’t have a mobile messaging device was out of the loop, too unimportant to be included in key corporate communications. The backlash occurred because said communications could literally take place anytime, anywhere, leading to all kinds of questions about when the workday ended and personal time began – and subsequently to the rise of term “work/life balance”. Know the saying “be careful what you wish for – you just might get it”? Or perhaps something about the law of unintended consequences?
Any SMB owner knows that there is no such thing as work time or personal time or work/life balance. A fellow entrepreneur told me many years ago that our lifestyle offers amazing flexibility, allowing us to work any 80 hours a week we want. How true! But that still doesn’t mean one needs to work all the time. Unless, of course, like me you’re a workaholic, and I say that in a good way. Really loving one’s work is a privilege, and one I wholeheartedly enjoy.
So I still have the problem of knowing when to hit that off button. Such goes hand in hand with knowing what projects to take on, and what strategies to use in completing those projects – life itself, after all, is 24/7. We’ve always had a policy here at Farpoint Group of making ourselves available to our clients on their terms, not ours. Need us a teleconference to South Africa at 2:00 EST in the morning? Done it. A conference call with clients in Hong Kong on a Sunday night? No problem. But I’m not wedded to any of my mobile devices. I seldom receive calls on my cell phone. I don’t use push e-mail. Reaching me on a moment’s notice, then, is often difficult. That’s my personal workstyle. I don’t need to feel I’m constantly in touch to be in touch. And I do turn my handsets off at night.
If you need to reach me, try my office phone or my e-mail address. Just give me a little advance notice. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can – which is usually pretty soon.
February 22, 2010 7:43 PM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, notebook PC
I recently wrote about my personal fondness for netbooks, but it suddenly occurs to me – is there really such a thing as a netbook anymore? Originally, netbooks were very small notebooks (like my original Asus 701/Surf 4G) that ran a Linux derivative operating system and cost much, much less than notebooks. Gradually, however, netbooks have gotten bigger (with screens ranging from 9 to 11 inches) and now almost always ship with Windows, usually the marginal Windows 7 Starter version. But, yes, you can even run Windows 7 Ultimate on most netbooks today, and with only 1 GB of memory, begging the question – does the netbook category even still exist?
Consider also the rapidly-falling price of traditional notebooks, with 14 and 15-inch displays, often selling in the $500-$600 price range, and down in netbook territory ($300-$400) refurbished. So, if a notebook is available for what a netbook costs, and netbooks run notebook operating systems, and thus providing the same user experience and applications as their larger cousins, should we even have a category of mobile computer called netbooks?
I suspect the netbook name will stick for any notebook with less than a 12-inch display and running (or capable of running) Windows. But what this means to you is that you’re free to pick a mobile computer with a size appropriate to your mission and requirements without having to worry about compatibility and other such issues. Me, again, I’m still going with Linux on netbooks (again optimizing for size, weight, and cost for my mobile arsenal), although I do think a refurbished MacBook Air might be a nice addition to my personal arsenal.
February 19, 2010 9:46 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, wireless LANs
I was reading an article yesterday on upgrading to Windows 7 – something I have no plans to do. I mostly use Macs these days, and Linux on the netbooks, but I still have eight Windows XP machines used primarily for lab and testing apps, and occasional legacy tasks. There’s no way I’m going to upgrade all of these to Windows 7. What do I get for all that time and money? The XP machines are working fine and will remain supported, as best as Microsoft does support, anyway, for two more years.
But any new PCs, again bought for client projects, testing, or use in the lab, will most assuredly be W7-based. I avoided Vista, as I’m sure many of you did, and W7, after SP1, anyway, should be mostly fine.
A similar strategy is appropriate, I think, when it comes to 802.11n. Now, if you’re still using 802.11b, it’s probably time to upgrade. .11b is woefully obsolete, no longer supported by anyone, very weak in terms of both throughput and security, and completely inappropriate, IMHO, for business use. But .11g, and, if you’re using it, .11a remain serviceable today and it’s usually not worth the effort to upgrade these. There’s no real return on investment here, since broadband links are typically limited to no more than 10 Mbps or so, and, except for backups and other bulk file transfers, 802.11n isn’t going to offer higher performance. I usually recommend upgrading in the case of larger organizations, where the improved capacity (but not necessarily per-user throughput), range, and reliability of 802.11n shine. In smaller organizations, though, .11g will continue its happy life for a few more years. Absolutely, when buying new PCs or WLAN adapters, insist on 802.11n. Make sure whatever you buy is dual band – use the 5 GHz. spectrum for best performance (there’s no interference there, at least in most cases). And, of course, gradually cut over to all 802.11n. But you don’t need to do that today.