Category Archives: Computers and Internet

How to run a small non-profit core processes on virtually no budget? Part 2

Once the base storage and communication processes are in place (see part 1), the next step is, arguably, the most critical one: to optimize the communication with the organization’s supporters.

One key element that we quickly recognized is that people are different also in how they want their news. Some are more email centric (by articles, daily summaries or weekly newsletters), others are all about Facebook, other about Twitter or LinkedIn and some are still hard-core RSS fans. To ensure we would make it easy and effective for people to follow us we had to find a way to target all these in a way that would be effective.

4) Communication to major social sites (and newsletter)

To achieve this we are using a set of (still) free tools:

  • www.ifttt.com – which helps you build automated actions based on event
  • The RSS feature of wordpress.com
  • www.Mailchimp.com free tier of email campaigns

Here is how we set it up in a way that would allow us to post once and target all our digital presences:

  1. Post news on our wordpress.com blog
  2. In IFTTT, create 3 rules that will monitor new blog posts and post these to our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn Profiles each time a new one is posted
  3. Use the capability of MailChimp to create an RSS-content based email blast. Once a week, MailChimp will automatically fetch all the new articles from the blog since last week and put them in a pre-formatted email (newsletter-looking) that will be then be sent to all the subscribers. Not only MailChimp will build and send the newsletter, it also manages subscriptions and unsubscriptions for us. A true zero-touch newsletter.

    We even used out ufeseattle.org domain to build a friendly URL (news.ufeseattle.org) for people to access the customized sign-up page we easily built on MailChimp.

The only manual process is that there is no (or at least we haven’t found one) automatic way to post in a LinkedIn Group so this has to be manually done.  Therefore, to publish news the steps are:

  1. Create you blogpost, I personally really like LiveWriter as it’s super straight forward and easy to use
  2. Publish it
  3. Use the “share on LinkedIn” button of the published post to share it on UFE Seattle’s LinkedIn Group
  4. All the rest is done automagically: Post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn Profile (not group), RSS feed, email for subscribers by email to the blog itself, and once a week a newsletter with all the articles in it.

However, as Facebook filters page’s posts and both Twitter and LinkedIn create very large news flows, it’s easy for people to miss some news.

Therefore, we are encouraging people to subscribe to the newsletter, the only way to ensure they will get the info and won’t miss it (unless they never read their emails of course Smile).

<to be continued>

How to run a small non-profit core processes on virtually no budget?

A few years ago, a small group of us took the leap of faith and launched a not-for-profit organization to welcome, support, and foster the Puget Sound (Seattle’s region) French and French speaking community.

One of first thing we realized was that we had virtually no budget and very limited time to spend on it so I had to look for ways to achieve a few key goals we had set for ourselves:

  • Communicate broadly on the various media our community was using, whatever they were, in a way that was as cost and time effective as possible
  • Ensure communication was simple within the board and that this communication was archived as board members churn was expected over time
  • And finally, find a way to share content of all sort with our community.

After some tests and trials and errors we converged, thanks to the help of a few free or low cost tools, to a solution that is scalable, fairly simple to maintain, and efficient from a cost and effectiveness standpoint.

I will now list these various tools within the context of the scenarios they relate to. The name of the non profit is UFE Seattle…

  1. Branded URL for UFE Seattle website and emails, including personalized UFE emails for the board or specialized services we may offer
  2. Email and content storage for the organization itself
  3. Website and blog
  4. Communication to major social media sites
  5. Then the rest, as it was coming up.

1) Branded site and email addresses.

This is the only actual spend ($25 a year) that we needed. For this amount we opened a GoDaddy.com account that provided us with the ufeseattle.org domain (with free URL forwarding), and as many as 100 free @ufeseattle.org forwarding email addresses.

That was easy.

2) Email and content storage

For this one, as a Microsoftie, the solution was quite obvious too: Outlook.com and OneDrive.com (at that time Live.com and Skydrive Smile).

The former provided us with an UFE email, the latter, with lots of free storage, to put events photos, documents we share with the community, but also private folders shared with the board or specific volunteers for any documents we had, such as our list of French speaking babysitters.

Using the GoDaddy feature of forwarding specific emails to multiple ones, we were able to create a board-level @ufeseattle.org alias, by just having this email forwarded to all the board member’s own @ufeseattle.org alias. This also allowed us to use a simple contact (at) UFEseattle (dot) org email address instead of having to use the Outlook.com address itself.

Then, with a simple rule in Outlook.com, each email sent to this board alias is automatically moved to an “archive” folder in the organization’s outlook.com email. This allows each new board member, at any time, to go back and check every single email the board exchanged from the association launch to his or her arrival. An easy and effective way to get more context on previous discussions.

3) Website and blog

For that we went with the free WordPress.com sites. Not only it allowed us to create a blog (with its automatic sign-in for email alerts when new posts are published) but also a set of webpages with different type of relevant information for our followers.

What was trickier to manage was the lists (Addresses, etc.) that we wanted to build. As we started these were small and we needed an easy way to update them. Always updating a WordPress page was not the most effective path.

The solution to this was a small “hack”.

Indeed, a OneNote online can be private, shared or made totally public (read-only). So, from a user standpoint, pointing to a OneNote page online is just an (oddly looking) webpage. Check this out for instance: http://adresses.UFEseattle.org

<to be continued>

A first look at Amazon’s Echo

After months of wait our Echo finally reached the Fontana household last week. As a Prime subscriber it was so inexpensive ($100) that I did not think twice about whether I needed it or not. It was just a fun thing to test. (note: it’s now back down to $150 for Prime Members, $200 else).

Here are my first impressions 10 days into it…

First, if you are not familiar with Echo, think of it of Jambox, meets Siri/Cortana, meets an embedded music player.

Now for more details…

The set-up is really simple and straight-forward, similar to the Chromecast one. You plug it in a power outlet, go to the Echo setup site, sign-up to your Amazon account, connect to the Wi-Fi network your echo broadcasts, enter your home Wi-Fi credentials and that’s it! Echo will then be online and you will control it from your browser (or Kindle Fire app) via the cloud and Amazon backend (see diagram below).

 image

Now what can you use it for?

First, it’s a fairly good wireless speaker (hence my Jambox analogy) with really good 360 degrees microphone (it also comes with a wireless remote with microphone on it for when you’re really far from it. But so far at up to 5 meters it works great).

It connects to and plays your music library on Amazon (whatever your bought plus uploaded on Amazon cloud storage music service), Prime playlists, Pandora channels, TuneIn radio stations and iHeartRADIO. Just wake it up by saying “Alexa”, and then say “Play” and what you want to hear. My first attempt, just to make our youngest happy, was “Alexa, play Taylor Swift”. From that moment on she was hooked on Echo! (our youngest, not Taylor)

After 10 days this is by far (80%+) how we use use Echo the most. Just as an easy to use media player+speaker. Which is already really nice and worth the $200 current list price. You can also control and search music from the app or a browser if needed.

Other scenarios that Echo enables (as of May 1st 2015…):

  • Ask a random question: “What is Barack Obama’s age? “, “ How many people live in Washington state”, etc. It’s similar to what you would do with Siri or Cortana but – at least for Cortana- with an even lower success rate unfortunately. It’s a V1 product so let’s be patient here… There are also a few Easter eggs (such as “who’s your daddy”, but not as funny an answer as with Cortana) if you want too look for them.
  • Ask about the weather forecast or traffic on your commute
  • Ask about sport results
  • Ask Echo to tell a joke (another favorite of our youngest!)
  • Set a timer (only one so far)
  • Set an alarm (only one so far, and not possible to chose anything specific –like music- as an alarm sound)
  • Add something to a to-do list. A plain list you can print. That’s it. Not super useful alone, but potentially a nice back-up
  • Add something to a shopping list. It’s one plain list too so I don’t plan to use it to replace the current per-store list I maintain on a family OneNote, but it’s a nice add-on for when you hands are taken while making food and your don’t want to forget to purchase a missing item.

On the last one I finally understood what was in it for Amazon with Echo: under my shopping list item a “search on Amazon” was displayed on the web interface. I was able to click to get on Amazon’s search results, select, purchase and got it delivered for free (remember, I’m on Prime). Very smart move from Amazon! image

Following this I tried to purchase some music directly from Echo. It worked..ish. I finally was able to purchase it but it took me maybe 15 tries before I found the right way of asking for it. Still some progress necessary here though the concept is interesting (especially for Amazon top line). Nice little security feature: you can setup a pin through the web interface. Pretty useful if you have little kids at home I think.

The full web interface:image

You can also set Echo up as a IFTTT.com channel. It’s brand new (and the channel is called Amazon Alexa, not Echo) and has some nice potential. However, for now, it only supports your Echo to-do and shopping list . For instance, each time a to-do is added in Echo, it can be added to your OneNote (or Evernote). Ditto for shopping lists. You can also trigger an email to be sent time you say “review my shopping list” on Echo. The full list of IFTTT triggers supported so far is:

  • Asking Echo what’s on your to-do or shopping list
  • Each time an item is added, edited, completed or deleted on your to-do or shopping list

Finally, Echo supports Bluetooth connections with phones, tablets or PC. Not only it’s a cool feature on its own but, if worse comes to worse, you can repurpose it as a Jambox-like device and stream music or anything from your device to Echo. One feature I’m missing though is the ability for Echo to support the headset Bluetooth profile to be able to use it’s amazing microphone array and good speaker as phone or Skype external speaker and mic. Something my Jambox can do.

A nicely done Echo demo video

Echo’s site: http://smile.amazon.com/oc/echo/ref_=ods_dp_ae

What PC should you buy?

Having been in the technology industry for so long, and specifically Microsoft for the last 10+ years, I often have friends, family or even random encounters at social gatherings asking me about which device they should be buying. With the launch of the new Surface 3 this is even truer than ever.

So, if you are in the same situation, here is the types of questions (and my answers) I usually ask people to help them make their choice.

Disclaimer: I’m talking here about Windows devices. Even if Macs are actually really good Windows machines, my focus will be on the Windows ecosystem. You will also see that my guidance is more about form factors than actual devices (with the exception of the Surface 3 pro that I call out by name as it’s -so far (may 2015)- quite a device type on its own).

To help people chose I usually start with the following questions. Unfortunately, with 4 questions and not being on a simple 0-10 axis, a simple 2-D graph cannot be used to directly map the answers to a particular device. Still, answering these questions should help get someone to the best possible device for his or her needs and budget.

  1. What is your budget? A $300 or a $2000 target budget modifies the options quite a lot!
  2. What apps do you plan to run on it? How much storage would you need? (I bundle these because apps –like video editing- will influence storage needs)
  3. Do you think your needs will evolve quickly in time? (particularly useful to go either the cheap and change often or more expensive and keep routes, or to go for all-in-ones vs. desktop one)
  4. How do you plan to use your device? (in % time for each usage)
    • At a work desk (when you know you’ll have access to (a) large display(s), keyboard and mouse, maybe wired Ethernet connection)
    • On a table (be it in your kitchen, at Starbucks, on a touch-down space at work)
    • In a plane – working
    • In a meeting (presenting and/or taking notes)
    • On your coach at home, on a plane entertaining yourself, on a treadmill – all types of “content consumption” scenarios.
    • Other modes?

I will use this framework applied to a few particular scenarios to show how I come to my conclusions. No rocket science here, just a bit of structure.

But first, let me list what are the devices form factor options:

  • Traditional desktop machine, whether a low, mid or high-end one.
  • All-in-One integrated Display+PC
  • Traditional Laptop (touch or not)
  • 2-in-1 Laptop (that can convert from Laptop to Tablet either by folding or removing the keyboard
  • Surface-like device: a Tablet with an good Laptop-like keyboard and stand experience
  • Tablet (of various sizes, 8” to 12” mostly)

Usually, question 4) is the one to get started with: how will you use your device the most?

Here are a few scenarios:

  • A: A typical knowledge worker, I’m working most of the time on my office desk with my large 23″ display but I regularly go to meetings where I present and/or take notes. I also need to be able to works for several hours in a row on my laptop when I travel. Finally I seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. I have a typical corporate budget for this machine.
  • B: I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks. I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening. I don’t want to spend much on this device.
  • C: I’m a stay at home mom. I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a storage place (shelf…) to the dinner table. I don’t really use it for any content consumption, mostly to take care of kids and house stuff so my typical apps are my browser, Word, Outlook, Skype and I love to have some music playing in the background (Pandora, Spotify, etc.) while doing this.
  • D: I travel a lot, use my “free” time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product, and like to watch Netflix in bed on my device. I can spend around $1,500, give or take a few hundred dollars.

I could probably come up with another dozen examples but these should suffice to explain the thinking and decision process.

Scenario A:

Assuming I have a decent budget (~$1,500-2,000) in this case I would advise a mid to top of the line (i5 or i7, 6-8GB RAM) 14” touch laptop, with a SSD drive, with a USB 3.0 port replicator and large displays. Here is the rationale:

  • I’m working most of the time on my work desk with my big display => Need to use both my internal display and an external large display(s) therefore a PC with a graphic card powerful enough to drive this/these display(s).
  • Regularly go to meeting where I present and/or take note => Avoid laptops with display sizes >14” else it will be too cumbersome to walk around with.
  • Need to be able to works for several hours from the laptop when I travel => Need good battery life (so SSD definitely better than regular HD), and a display large enough that it is not too strenuous on the eyes. I personally find 13.5-14” to be a good size/legibility compromise.
  • Seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. => Don’t really need a Tablet mode. Therefore, 2-in-1, Surface-like and Tablet computers are therefore not necessary. However, if I do use it to consume content on a plane I definitely don’t want a display larger than 14” (unless I can convince my boss to always fly me business Smile)
  • I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. : Lots of editing, so I want a real full-fledge keyboard for my travels (for meetings a Surface-like keyboard could suffice but if I do a lot of data entry I’d rather go for a real keyboard), and enough memory and CPU power to have all the apps opened at the same time.

Scenarios B: Mostly work from my laptop

A 13-14” 2-in-1 would be probably the best option for this person. Alternatively, depending on the budget, (s)he could also go the 2-devices route with a cheap 8-inch tablet (such as the Dell Venues) for content consumption, and a regular low to mid-end laptop for the rest.

  • I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks => A real laptop is needed to get a decent sized display and a real keyboard. However it should not be larger than 14” for portability reasons.
  • I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening => 2-in-1 to be in Tablet mode for your treadmill/TV, or buy a second, inexpensive, 8” tablet.

The beauty of this 2-devices solution is that even a cheap $200 Windows 8/10 tablet supports all your PC apps and can be used as a spare device (in case of problem with the first one), or for “just in case” times when you don’t want to carry your main machine (weight, size, risks of being broken or stolen) but where a 8” tablet, maybe with a small mobile keyboard, can work good enough for a little while. You can even plug this tablet at home or work to an external display, a keyboard and a mouse and use it as a full featured –though not very powerful- desktop PC!

Scenario C: Stay-at-home mom

A 14” to 15” low to mid-range laptop is probable the best bet.

  • I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a place I put it away to the dinner table. => Need a laptop/Tablet/2-in-1, not a desktop or all-in-one, to be able to use it around the house then store it when done.
  • I don’t really use it for any content consumption => No real need for a Tablet or 2-in-1.
  • mostly to take care of kids and house stuff =>  No need for high-end device CPU, RAM and HD-wise
  • I don’t want to spend a lot => An inexpensive (<$500) laptop would be sufficient here. 14” or 15” will provide her with enough screen real estate to work comfortably and as weight and size is not an issue, would cover her needs from a mobility standpoint.

Scenario C’: What if she does want to do the same plus lots if content consumption (web, videos, etc.) while not on her kitchen table?

In this case, as content consumption becomes important, a device like the Surface 3 (not Pro 3) would be a good bet if the display size (10.5”) is sufficient. Affordably priced ($500), she could use the nice type-cover keyboard, or if she wants a cheaper/better one use any $20-$40 Bluetooth keyboard. This Atom-powered Surface 3 and its small display could be the best compromise in this case. However, this won’t work if the 10.5” display size is too small.

The alternative in this case, for probably a total budget of $100 more or so than a Surface 3 + keyboard, she could also find both an inexpensive Laptop and an 8” tablet and buy both. The obvious advantage of the 1-device (Surface 3) solution being that if she also plan to carry the device around this is a much more convenient (keyboard, weight…) solution than the 2-devices one.

Scenarios D: The road-warrior

For this scenario, depending on the user, either a 2-in-1 or Surface Pro 3 device would be the best bets.

  • I travel a lot => Has to be a light device with good battery life.
  • Use my free time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product => Powerful (i5, i7) machine. Not an Atom processor. Also a real keyboard. I can’t use an onscreen one only.
  • Like to watch movies in bed on my device => should be able to easily go into tablet mode.

Depending on the person own preferences or priorities (including budget), the scale will tilt towards the 2-in-1 (potentially larger display, better keyboard, potentially lower cost) or a Surface Pro 3 like device (weight, width, ratio consumption/production of content). Either one of them could them have a docking station/USB 3.0 port replicator at home or work for desktop-like usage. A nice icing on the cake.

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits all device. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the Windows ecosystem to the Mac one. Scenarios, budgets, etc. all have influence on what the best device is. Hopefully the framework above and the examples I gave will help you find you “perfect” device(s).

If you have a specific scenario not covered here and you can’t figure out what to buy using the framework above, leave me a comment and I’ll try to help you figure this out. Just answer the questions 1 to 4 above first.

Image resizer tool for Windows

Windows XP had a useful photo resizer tool that would not work with Vista and later versions of Windows.

A new version of this tool is available on www.codeplex.com and works with all Windows versions from Vista onward. It has been in “Preview 3″for almost 2 years but still works great. It allows you to quickly right-click on one or more pictures in file explorer, click “resize picture” and select the size you want to get. Great for emailing for instance.

And of course it’s free.

http://imageresizer.codeplex.com

Quick device shutdown with Windows 8.1

With Windows 8.1 (for ARM or x86), there is rarely the need to shutdown a device anymore. Most of the time I just come in and out Standby and that’s about it.

However, when one want to shutdown (e.g. to preserve battery even more) the “default”  Windows 8 mechanism is neither obvious nor simple:

  • Swipe from the right/click bottom right/Windows key + C to show the charm bar
  • Click/tap on Settings
  • Click/tap on Power
  • Click/tap on “Shutdown”.

Of course there is always the old CTRL+ALT+DEL which bring up the screen that allows you to hit shutdown in the bottom right, but it’s not intuitive either.

CTRL_ALT_DEL

Here are 3 other options for quicker shutdown menu access.

1) Easy – no set-up – 3 clicks: From the Start Menu

Windows 8.1 adds a quicker (though not an obvious one for most user) way to do this by right-clicking on the start menu icon and selecting the “Shutdown or sign out” menu:

image

2) Fairly easy – limited set-up – 2 clicks: Add a link to a little know old “Windows Phone like” feature

In the c:\Windows\System32 you will find an app called “SlidetoShutDown.exe”. Just add it to your taskbar and/or start menu (right-click in file explorer). When you click on it (start it), it will show a “slide down to shutdown” Window.

3) More complex – shortcut creation needed – 1 click: use a shortcut with the right parameters to call the shutdown app and pin it on the start/taskbar.

In the same Windows/system folder you will see an app called “shutdown.exe”. Easy enough Smile. To use it as a way to shutdown in  one click you need to

  • Create a shortcut to the app wherever you want (e.g in your My Documents folders).
  • Right click and select properties and add (without the “) the following after the “.exe”: ”/s /t ss” (ss = a number in seconds between 0 and 10 years before the shutdown is effective.
  • You can use the “change icon” option to select the icon you like, such as below with the “old” shutdown symbol.
  • Add a link to your Start Menu and/or Taskbar through the same process as 1) and 2)

You can use /r instead of /s to restart the computer versus just shutting it down. The /l parameter will log you out.

image

A first look at Chromecast

I just received my new toy. For $35 and despite the fact that with all the high-tech gear we already have I could not resist but trying it.

The one line summary is that Chromecast, especially for a v1 product and at this price, is a steal and everyone should just have one hook to all their TVs at home.

Set-up:

  • Hardware: I plugged it in a spare HDMI connector on my TV and used one of its USB connector to get power and that’s it. Nothing dangling. No need to plug it in the wall. It would be better if the micro-USB connector was on the side vs. the end (would stick out less) but it’s OK like this.
  • I could not connect on wi-fi from my Carbon X1 with Windows 8.1 preview. Not sure if it’s the Lenovo wi-fi driver, or the Windows 8.1 preview but I had to do it on a 4 years old HP laptop (on wIn8). However, once setup, I could use my Lenovo laptop without problem.
  • Once the hardware was connected and I started installing on this other laptop, the set-up (counting installing the Chrome browser) was maybe 5 minutes and super easy with basically 2 steps: 1) Go to the website (google.com/chromecast/setup) to install chrome and the set-up app. Click “connect” (dongle connects through a point to point wi-fi between the laptop and Chromecast). Then 2) Once connected enter the home wi-fi password

That’s it! Nothing else to do to get started Chromecasting.

Actual use

The default screen has no menu.  just a ready to cast message, time, a nice changing background and a text and icon to see if it’s connected to my wi-fi

homescreen

I tried first Netflix.com and it worked great and was easy to pick (see below).

clip_image003

note: The icon only appears with Chrome not IE.

I then tried a regular text/photo website and used the Google cast icon on Chrome. It worked great too.
clip_image005

Similarly when I played video from a French news website (TF1.fr) it worked immediately, both in regular and full-screen mode.

Xfinity worked too but I had to reduce video quality to 480p for the video to work without being choppy. Not sure if it’s my wi-fi, my Comcast Internet connection or Chromecast though.

However, Amazon Videos did not work (just the background website showed, not the video). But this is not a big deal for me as I am not using them.

Bottom line

  • $35
  • 5 minutes install
  • Sleek device, bare bone UI with just what’s needed
  • I can now can watch (almost) any internet content from any PC (no Windows 8 app yet so won’t be able to use my Surface for this Sad smile ) on my TV.

Very Apple-like experience at an impulse buy price-point so why not have one for each TV in the home?