DataPlex designs Website for The American Monorail Project

In preparation for the December 2011 MonorailEX trade show in Las Vegas, DataPlex has developed a full-featured website for American Monorail, Inc., a 501(c)(3) education organization. The goal of the American Monorail Project website is to make the public aware of the benefits of modern monorail systems particularly when compared to other much more expensive forms of mass transit.

The American Monorail Project website can be accessed at:
http://www.theamericanmonorailproject.com/

The website has over 200 pages with information, editorial, maps and videos about mass transportation systems and monorails. It is outfitted with a custom-designed home page that provides a slideshow of pictures that automatically convert to videos and play when clicked. Following its educational mandate, the site allows public comments on virtually every page which are moderated by website administrators.

The website demonstrates some state-of-the-art features such as social media connectivity on every page, rich menu drop-downs, and the use of a special scripted font for artistic flair that works in all modern browsers.

DataPlex now consulting for Microfabrica

Microfabrica gear microassembly
DataPlex is pleased to announce that it is now providing technical consulting services to Microfabrica, Inc. of Van Nuys, California. Microfabrica develops and manufactures micro-scale devices and systems for medical device, electronics, and defense applications. The company utilizes proprietary, patented technology for manufacturing clinical and tissue removal and suturing instruments, subsystems and components for imaging and sensing devices, radio frequency devices, semiconductor wafer probes, inertial and timing devices, and precision, self-assembled miniaturized metal parts.

Death To The QR Code?

Recently, a business journalist posted an article suggesting that the use of QR codes should be dropped. He says in part “Mobile barcodes can be confusing and can waste time. And as mobile technology progresses, they probably aren’t even necessary.”

We disagree.

DataPlex QR CodeThis is one of those “insights” where the author doesn’t make his case. On one hand he presumes that technology will remain static and that the barriers to QR Code scanning — locating the right scanning app, waiting for the camera to focus, etc. — won’t improve and therefore users will be turned off. On the other hand, “near field communications” may arise in the next generation of smartphones to render QR code scanning obsolete. Which is it, is technology static or evolving?

We think that QR codes are a perfect ‘tweener technology that has virtually no extra printing cost and works with all smartphones. Yes, you have to be sure to use a compatible application, but once you figure that out for QR Codes (and again for Microsoft Tag codes), you’re set. Launching the app, waiting for the camera to focus and having the app autodetect the QR code and link to the corresponding URL takes no more than a few seconds. That is much faster than typing in a URL or keywords, if you don’t make mistakes or get distracted before you finish.

Also, when coupled with the right type of business software such as that based on our web-based, Rapid Enterprise Deployment engine known as AmpUp, the added cost of putting together a QR-code marketing campaign is negligible, so therefore the resulting ROI can be huge. Such systems can produce all of the differing QR codes, maintain a database, and then provide URL landing pages with corresponding and compelling content. Through web dashboards, company execs continuously monitor a campaign’s performance and even tweak it midstream if necessary.

The author suggests also that image recognition is a reasonable alternative. Not so. Mobile devices do not have the processing horsepower to implement broad-range image recognition, so they would have to upload the captured image to a capable server and receive the results. This might work for low-frequency use, but all the cell carriers now impose limits on data bandwidth, so this type of solution would really only be economically attractive when using WiFi networks, a severe limitation indeed.

It’s more likely that the author is taking a devil’s advocate point-of-view to make people think through their adoption of new technology, a process we employ as part of our technology strategy consulting services. If that is really the case here, then this author is to be commended.

Please feel free to contact us if you are thinking of using QR codes.

Personal Computing Comes Full Circle

Revisiting the Lessons of Timesharing

by Warren Juran

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana, might have been talking about how today’s Internet-based computing echoes computer timesharing from the 1960s and 1970s.  How can the lessons learned from that early era of computing help us to design better systems and applications today?  The tale of personal computing’s evolutionary path shows what experienced engineers and developers can bring to the design table.

Once upon a time, computers were so large and expensive that hardly anyone could afford to have one.  Computer users punched their program instructions and data into cards and brought the decks of cards to a computer center.  Operators at the computer center fed the cards into the computer’s input device.  The printed results were available after a considerable wait.  This inconvenient system seemed to take forever to debug software because of the delays after each cycle of correction and re-submission.  There wasn’t much ready-to-use software and the benefits of computing were available to very few.

Computer timesharing let more people enjoy the advantages of “personal computing.”  Hundreds of users could use their own keyboard/printer terminals to share the resources of one central computer.  In the 1960s and 1970s, computer timesharing companies spread around the world, operating large data centers and communications networks to provide dial-up services for their users.  Timesharing companies opened branch offices in large cities and employed armies of salesmen to locate and cultivate new customers.  The new customers could do their own interactive programming, or use extensive libraries of ready-to-use software for their computing needs.

The timesharing companies provided the central computers, communications networks, software libraries, customer support and education, printing services, remote job entry for traditional “batch” computing jobs, client data storage, and a one-stop-shop for word processing, accounting, messaging, engineering analysis and other customer requirements.

Developers of early timesharing systems dealt with issues like utilizing limited bandwidth, providing rapid access to large amounts of data, and insuring that individual users didn’t monopolize computer resources. Tools like “linked lists,” “sparse matrices,” “hashing,” and priority queuing helped improve timesharing systems. Today’s computers and communication networks are vastly more powerful than their early counterparts, but disciplines like Information Theory, Queuing Theory, Distributed Computing and Peer-to-Peer computing can still enhance system performance and reduce costs.

Mobile Computing: Native Apps versus Web Apps

What it Means to Your Organization

by Harry Tarnoff

Our clients often ask about the advantages of mobile applications and the differences between mobile “native apps” and “web apps.” They ask, “How would a mobile app relate to our business, our people, and the products and services we offer? Should our mobile app be a native app or a web app? Should we consider corresponding changes in our business’ IT systems?”

A well-designed mobile app can certainly complement a business’ website and aid in the marketing and sales of the business’s offerings. The selection of a native or web platform will affect an app’s characteristics, what services it can readily provide, and the app’s future evolution. A wrong choice could cripple a start-up or a company launching a new offering. A poorly designed app may never become popular enough to gather a following.

Even more striking is how mobile apps are growing in importance. The percentage of mobile-only users, at 25% today, is estimated to be more than 65% in 2015. This means that, instead of your website, it could soon be your mobile app that tells your customers about you, your company and its offerings. Your mobile apps need the same care, professionalism, and polish as your website and marketing brochures. The quality of your brand must be high for all elements of your public persona.

Fundamental Differences

A “native app” works on only certain devices for which it is targeted. It is written in one of the development languages supported by the target device. A native app runs on the target device and typically stores its data on the device. Native apps can run very fast and can easily interface with any of the device’s hardware and operating system features.

The flexibility of a native app comes at a price, however: Native apps written for one platform, say Apple’s iOS which drives iPhones and iPads, are not compatible with other platforms like Android or BlackBerry OS. Developers spend significant resources to translate, or “port,” their applications to run on each additional device family. Supporting and maintaining similar software for multiple platforms is expensive.

On the other hand, a “web app” is developed using standard web technologies like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The resulting program, typically accessed through a URL web address, requires only a device with a standards-based browser. An iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android phone, or Android tablet can all be suitable clients for the same application.

A web app pulls content from a remote server, so it needs an active WiFi or cellular link. A web app running within a mobile browser generally runs slower than a similar native app, has some restrictions on its user interface, and often cannot take full advantage of special device features.

But the extent of these differences is narrowing. Native and web apps are breaking through their stereotypes. New development platforms let native apps share a common codebase, easing development. Improvements in mobile browsers and new mobile OS features, let web apps mimic their native counterparts and access special device hardware features. Cross-compiling development platforms improve the performance of web technologies.

New Venture – Viderics

Along with Prof. Jesse Yen of USC and Mr. Richard Koffler of Koffler Ventures, DataPlex CEO Harry Tarnoff is co-founder of Viderics, Inc., a medical start-up advancing miniaturized medical ultrasound technology.

DataPlex now offers Web Hosting Services

Rather than having a client for whom DataPlex has developed an enterprise application arrange to have the application hosted separately, DataPlex now offers a cost-effective add-on web hosting service. Our engineers can more readily match the application requirements to server solutions, thereby bringing its clients an appropriate combination of performance, security and reliability.  The DataPlex data centers:

  • use TLS (SSL) to secure communications
  • have successfully completed multiple SAS 70 Type II audits
  • are HIPAA applications compliant
  • have achieved Payment Card Industry (PCI) DSS Level 1 compliance
  • have achieved ISO 27001 certification

To learn more, visit the DataPlex Web Hosting webpage.

Business Card QR Codes and the Apple vCard Problem

by Harry Tarnoff

You may have heard the buzz on “quick response codes” – QR codes, typically one-inch square barcodes that are appearing on advertisements, coupons, in stores, even on T-shirts and shopping bags. The idea is someone interested in the product, store or event could whip out their cellphone, take a picture of the code and have the phone’s browser instantly bring up their associated web page with more information. Wouldn’t it be nice to do something similar on business cards so that someone can scan a code and have the contact information automatically added to their electronic address book?

As we opened up our new offices in Downtown Los Angeles, we wanted to do exactly this, not only because it would make it easier for the people to whom we gave our business cards to add us to their devices’ contact list, but it would also demonstrate some high-tech capability on an otherwise non-technical piece of paper – perfect for a technology strategy company. Well, it’s good that we know technology because there were a couple of issues along the way, the solutions for which we are more than happy to share.

The vCard and the QR Code

The generally accepted format for a electronic business card is called a “vCard.” It has been around since the mid-1990′s and is supported by all the major email and CRM programs. A vCard file can be attached to an email message or linked on the web. It is a readable text file with fields for names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personalized data.

QR or Quick Response codes represent an improvement over their UPC bar code ancestors because they can reliably carry more information for easy access by a business’ customers. Instead of a series of parallel lines as with UPC bar codes, QR codes are in a two-dimensional matrix with blacked out squares at certain row-column intersections, much like a crossword puzzle. Customers use smartphones to scan these codes to see more information – typically a web page associated with the codes – about whatever it is that these codes are associated with.

Let’s now say you want to put the equivalent of your vCard on your business card as a QR code. It may be a natural thought to simply put all of the vCard information directly into the code. This is not a good idea. Besides the code becoming too detailed and harder to scan, when someone scans it using a typical scanner app, they would get only the vCard text. The vCard information does not get added automatically to the Address Book unless the app itself is aware that the data represents a vCard and adds it to the Address Book itself. Your potential customers lacking an appropriate scanner application could become frustrated.

What you do instead is what the advertisers do, that is put a single web link into the QR code. This approach has wide support and will undoubted work fine. After all, that is the primary purpose of QR codes, to be scanned and take a user to a predefined web address.

The plan, then, is to create a code that takes the user to a web address which has a vCard file. The device’s browser, seeing that the “web page” is a vCard, will download the contact information and allow the user to add it to the Address Book.

The Apple Mobile Device Issue

While this approach works on virtually all desktops, notebooks, and many mobile devices including those based on Android, there is a big snag when it comes to Apple mobile devices. For years, Apple has supported vCards as the only easy way to export Address Book entries.  However, Apple’s mobile device browsers do not support vCard files. If you scan a link to a vCard file, all you get is a “Safari cannot download this file” message. Oops.

While this oversight will most likely eventually be fixed, it is probably not prudent to march forward adding QR codes to business cards and hope that Apple fixes this problem. Some kind of hopefully temporary workaround is in order.

You could email the vCard to the Apple device. The device will then ask the owner to confirm adding the data to the Address Book. The disadvantages to the approach are:

  1. It is not automatic since the user needs to enter an email address on which to receive the vCard
  2. The user has to give up his e-mail address which he or she may not want to do
  3. Emails are not always fast and reliable, so the user is forced to wait and possibly retry

The Solution

Fortunately, we have a much better workaround. It requires an entry in Google Places (or Google Maps) and administrative rights to a website.

Our DataPlex entry with Google Places has a bunch of business-related information and is a fine place to send someone who scans in the QR code from the back of our DataPlex business cards. The solution is to forward someone on an iPhone or iPad to this alternate URL. If you haven’t already, set up your entry in Google Places.

The Technical Part

The key part of the solution is adding a URL rewrite rule. Although the following is for Apache, there is a similar process for Microsoft’s IIS.

Here are the lines to add to the .htaccess-file on the website for the folder that contains the vCard:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} .*Mobile.*Safari
RewriteRule ^(.*)vcard.vcf$ http://maps.google.com/maps/place?hl=en&georestrict=input_srcid:0d6a82b1f62d0d2b

Your technical staff should, of course, change the third line with the “RewriteRule” to link to the proper map reference. If it is not already active, your staff also should enable the mod_rewrite module.

How this works is, when an Apple mobile user snaps a pic of the QR code in some scanner app, that app launches Mobile Safari to bring up that web page. The .htaccess tells the Apache server, when it sees that the “user agent” (browser ID) has contained within it the text strings “Mobile” and “Safari” to redirect the browser to the URL specified in the RewriteRule.

You can continue to use the same QR code pattern and URL but update the information on your website-based vCard and in Google Places without having to necessarily reprint your business cards.

Demonstration

Visually, what happens after the Apple mobile device user snaps the pic of the QR code, is, within seconds, he or she is looking at a Google Maps page for the business. Once there, the user can click on “more info” (the right-facing arrow in the blue circle) and then “Add to Contacts” at the bottom of the page. It is a bit unfortunate that the Add Contacts button, along with those for “Share Location” and “Add to Bookmarks” are off the bottom of the screen so the user would have to scroll down, but most experienced Apple device users would know this.

If you want to see a working demonstration of a working QR code-based vCard link, just scan the QR code below. It has the link to a vCard on the DataPlex website. If you are using an Apple device, you’ll end up in Google Maps as described above. Otherwise, you will be prompted to download the vCard directly into your Address Book or Contact List.

vCard for DataPlex

Barcodes, especially the new matrix codes such as QR, can be wonderful time-savers for businesses, but they have to be implemented smartly. If you would like to upgrade to the latest in barcode technology, let us help in your deployment of an easy-to-use yet robust system.

A Quick Primer on Quick Response Barcodes

There are regular enterprise business systems, and then there are those exceptional systems that connect to sensors and allow integration with the real-world, simplifying logistics, lowering costs and saving money. We build such systems, and one of the areas our customers ask us about are barcodes. There is a new type of barcode that is sweeping the world, and you should know about how it may improve your business.

It is known as a Quick Response code or QR code. We’ve put together this QR Code Primer in Q&A form to answer the more common questions, and, should you have more, please feel free to contact us to have a no-obligation discussion.

 What are QR codes?

QR codes are bar codes similar to the UPC codes you see at the market but they are organized into rows and columns and therefore are able to contain more information. Customers use their smartphones to scan these codes to see more information – typically a web page – about whatever it is that these codes are associated with. QR Codes caught on big in Japan a couple of years ago and are now just beginning to appear in the United States. The codes can be used for other purposes too, say, within an enterprise to improve workflow (more on that below).

What do they look like?

While the can be any size, they are square and usually not more than an inch high.  Depending on how much data they contain, the dots (or pixels) will range from large to small.

Here are some sample QR codes:

QR code #1 QR code #2 QR code #3

The first code, on the left, is lower-resolution than the others because it contains the least amount of data. As more data is put into the same size QR code, the dots shrink to accommodate. Larger dots are generally better because the scanner is better able to distinguish them. The third code shows that there can be some creativity; some people even alter the dot pattern to show readable letters or images, but that comes at a cost of lower reliability.

How does a business use them?

There are a myriad of uses, even inventive new ones such as scavenger hunts, green ticketing, and furniture assembly. Common QR code uses are for the purposes of marketing, promotion, entertainment, education, information transfer, sales and retail, and workflow:

Marketing increase a business’ exposure and market
Promotion promote new products and special events
Entertainment e-ticketing, paintball targets
Education tests, lessons, report cards, museum guides
Information Transfer transferring business card information
referencing newspaper articles and online sources
Sales and Retail payments, track units sold, units returned
Workflow sequencing, provisioning, inventory control

sample promotional use

Are there alternatives?

Yes, there are the QR code’s ancestors of single row of parallel lines like the ubiquitous UPC code, and there are other matrix bar code formats including specialty ones used in manufacturing to work across longer distances between objects with the code and the scanner. There are new codes being invented all the time such as Microsoft tags, but unless there is a compelling overriding reason, typically we recommend sticking with one of the more common and better supported formats.

What apps are already available?

General-purpose scanner apps for mobile devices are everywhere. Just go to your favorite app store and search for “qr code.” The real challenge is for a business to set up an appropriate system and then generate the codes to be useful in some way. Sometimes based on the nature of the business use a custom scanner apps needs to be developed.

How can my business make use of QR codes?

If you are asking this question, then you already have some idea of how QR codes may be able to streamline your operation or be used to promote some product, service or event.  Some uses are straightforward and require not much more that creating a landing webpage, generating a code with its URL, and printing the code on promotional materials.

cute QR coded presentAs system developers, we are also interested in the area where QR codes hold tremendous promise but not much has yet been done … with business enterprise. These more sophisticated uses require finely tuned apps particularly when the codes are used to track workflow through various states and statuses. For a large operation, the scanning of codes feeds a company-wide enterprise system to keep important databases up-to-date automatically. As one quick example, Starbucks recently announced that it is now accepting QR code-based mobile device payments at 7,500 locations.

Depending on the application, there can be some “gotchas,” even with seemingly benign uses, for example the problem we identified with Apple mobile devices.

cute QR coded presentOur experience with barcodes and scanning goes back a few years when some of our team members designed printers and scanning equipment. As a result of our rapid development ability, our customers have been very happy with our systems including the good folks behind the NBC game show “1 vs 100.” Let us know how we might assist you.

DataPlex opens Downtown Los Angeles Office

We have opened a Downtown Los Angeles office, in the Financial District, to be closer to our Downtown customers and to be better positioned to utilize the Internet hub for the Pacific region as the Internet transitions into its “video” phase. The downtown address will serve as our primary mailing address, and our website’s contact information has already been updated. Please update your records.

For your convenience, our new corporate mailing address is:

DataPlex, Inc.
545 South Figueroa Street, Suite 1236
Los Angeles, CA  90071

Our new phone numbers are:

1-213-814-4680
1-800-650-5140

The existing 818 phone number will continue to work and will ring our engineering lab in the San Fernando Valley.

Being a major business hub for over a century, Downtown Los Angeles has recently undergone a significant revival in terms of both business and entertainment to return to a vibrant city center appropriate for a 21st Century world-class city. We are proud to be more involved with the “new Downtown.” Let us show you around on your next visit!