Tag Archives: Apple

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.

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.

Better Business Software

Can Business Software be Better?

We have all heard the horror stories regarding business software systems: The tremendously expensive system. The system that didn’t work. The system that couldn’t grow with the business. The provider who wanted $50,000 a module and five modules would be needed. Critical software changes that take weeks or months.

With fast-changing markets, demographics and new regulations, businesses need to be nimble and fast in their reactions. The last thing a business needs is to hampered by expensive and time-consuming system implementations. Hearing about the bad experiences of others’ raises the question, what are the characteristics of good business software?

Thinking from a business owner’s perspective, better business software should:

  • Work reliably and securely
  • Be adjusted to take into account the uniqueness of the business’ operation
  • Come at a cost that doesn’t break the bank
  • Come with easy access to the software’s actual developers for the best possible technical support
  • Be quickly extendible when new features are desired
  • Not be locked in to a specific platform that doesn’t have a bright future or comes with high monthly expenses
  • Maximize connectivity from anywhere using mobile devices

A tall order, right? Not so with us. With DataPlex and AmpUp – our rapid software development tool for business enterprise applications – you get business software that offers modern capabilities that can easily be altered to meet changing needs, possibly giving your business a competitive advantage.

By leveraging AmpUp, you get:

  • A reliable and secure system that take into account the uniqueness of your business’ operation. We start by doing a free assessment of your current operation and then work with you to develop effective new displays and processes.
  • A system at a fraction of the cost of other commercial systems, including those that claim to be “off the shelf.”
  • Easy access and great support. We are the developers, and you have our direct phone numbers. (Email too.)
  • The ability to add new features quickly and at any time. We’re happy to be your technical advisors on anything daunting.
  • A web-based system that can be easily ported to your favorite cost-effective hosting service including those “in the cloud.”
  • Connectivity from Internet-enabled mobile devices whether they be Android-based, Apple, Blackberry, Microsoft or something else.

We introduced AmpUp six months ago because, frankly, we were shocked at what some of our clients were telling us about what they had to put up for systems and support. We didn’t think that a small business needed to spend six figures for a new system, wait six months for their so-called customizations, and then wait weeks for bug fixes which sometimes added even more bugs.

AmpUp logoAmpUp, it turns out, is a software development game-changer. It is a stable “software as a service” or SaaS platform that is shared among many different applications. In four months, we have been able to implement four very sophisticated enterprise systems. That’s one per month. Yes, you read that correctly – you could have one of our completely customized enterprise-wide systems working for you in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Interested? Feel free to drop us a call or note. We look forward to chatting with you soon.

Android-based Smartphones – Google’s Nexus One and Motorola’s Droid

Will Motorola’s Droid or Google’s Nexus One trump Apple’s iPhone?

The latest entries into the mobile computing market are the Motorola’s Droid and Google’s Nexus One, both based on Google’s powerful new Android 2.0 Operating System. Some reviewers have called these smartphones “iPhone killers.” Are they really? What does Android represent to mobile computing?

The Droid and Nexus One are both very capable devices, and they outperform the iPhone in several ways. Some if not most of their specifications indeed surpass those of the iPhone 3GS, Apple’s most recent offering, which, by the way, isn’t terribly surprising for two-year newer smartphone designs.

The Android devices tout a larger screen size, the ability to replace batteries, better voice control, application multitasking, turn-by-turn navigation like a standalone GPS device, and a less restrictive app marketplace. The iPhone has much more and better managed memory, seamless integration with its iTunes and app stores, a more protective app marketplace, a more fluid gesture-based interface, and a greater variety of more polished apps.

At DataPlex, we think of Android 2.o devices as different animals, less as direct competition for the iPhone and more as a gap-filler, particular for Verizon, the cellphone carrier that desperately needed a smartphone facelift. Many people will select Verizon smartphones because of their high-quality 3G network which is arguable better than that of AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive carrier. Others will cite the lack of availability of add-on apps for the Android devices as compared to the enormous quantity and variety of apps available for the iPhone.

We see the Droid and Nexus One dropping into the space between the uber-business-focused Blackberry and the sleek, arty iPhone, and some new apps will just make more sense for the Android platform than they will on those for other smartphones. Android will help make more accessible business and enterprise applications.

Don’t feel bad for Apple. Apple has never sought purely to dominate a market. Rather, it looks to make its offerings attractive and easy-to-use, particularly with the overall intent of integrating them seamlessly with the rest of its product line. Alternately, the Droid and Nexus One come across as capable, feature rich devices, but ones with some rough edges and some complexity in the veins of the longstanding PC vs. Mac debate. Apple has its followers and the attraction of its more polished market. Rumor has it that Apple will releasing its next iPhone version mid-2010, that is, after it releases its also-rumored tablet. Don’t be surprised if it incorporates some of Android’s new features.

To learn more about the differences between the Droid, Nexus One and the iPhone, read the following posts. As you mull over what they say, you’ll identify with what is important to you.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg on his first impressions of Google’s Nexus One as compared to the iPhone:

http://ptech.allthingsd.com/20100105/googles-nexus-one-is-bold-new-face-in-super-smartphones/

GoGrid’s Technology Evangelist Michael Sheenan reports on a week he spent with the Droid:

http://www.hightechdad.com/2009/11/20/a-week-with-the-verizonmotorola-droid-by-an-iphone-addict/

Here, Technologist and TV Journalist Shelly Palmer provides a clear report card comparison of the iPhone, Droid and RIM Blackberry:

http://www.shellypalmermedia.com/2009/11/29/my-new-verizon-droid-plus-the-iphone-blackberry-droid-report-card-and-review/

Ars Technica has posted a very complete and technical analysis of the Droid sprinkled with comparisons to the iPhone:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/reviews/2009/12/review-of-the-motorola-droid.ars/

A bunch of pictures of the Nexus One:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2010/01/photo-gallery-googles-nexus-one.ars

Also, don’t forget that the Droid and Nexus One are only the first swath of Android 2.0 devices rolling out over the next several months, so be sure to watch for the latest in smartphone offerings. A good site to do that is:

 http://www.phonedog.com

Should you like any advice on your smartphone selection, feel free to drop me a note. Also, if you’d like to stay on top of things electronic from my perspective, you are invited to follow me on Twitter @DataPlexCEO.

iPhone Development

DataPlex plans to offer some if its classic products for the Apple iPhone and iTouch. Over the past twenty years, DataPlex has provided a number of useful applications for mobile computing including Time Tracker, Mileage Logger, To Do List, Query Tool, and Easy Data Manager. While DataPlex’s exact offerings are still under wraps, long-time users of DataPlex DataKeepers (a custom handheld device built by DataPlex in the 1980′s and 1990′s) can expect the same high level of useful features and reliability.