Lloyd Borrett's Blog
Are we there yet?
The third generation of Lloyd's web site
Just a few weeks ago, I switched to a new web site hosting provider, www.jaguarpc.com, and gained access to a wide range of new features and services, including support for CGI, Perl and PHP languages, plus MySQL databases. However, an initial look at how to use those features in a way that fitted in with the existing web site design revealed that a design refresh would be a good idea.
Another goal was to make site navigation easier, by implementing the method I had first developed whilst building the Omniton web site, a few months earlier.
Anyway the job is done. The 3rd generation version of www.borrett.id.au is now online, complete with phpBB based forums, plus some updates to the content as I worked through the web pages.
Anyway, check it out and let me know what you think. Try using the forums to provide some feedback.
Free vector-graphics program
Microsoft purchased the Creature House technology and development team in 2003. Creature House had an innovative vector-based illustration and graphics tool called Expression available for both MS Windows and Mac OS. Before Microsoft changes its mind, you might want to check it out, as Expression 3 is available as a free download at: www.microsoft.com/products/expression/
Expression has the features you'd expect in a vector-based illustration package, but in addition it has the ability to mimic brush, pen, pastel, wash and palette knife effects. In essence, you can create graphics that have the look of traditional media.
If you're on a tight budget and looking for a good drawing tool, check it out. But be warned, it is a 57 Mb download.
Symantec, Brightmail and Microsoft
While sorting out a potential virus problem for friends recently, I noticed Symantec has purchased Brightmail, a high flying anti-spam provider, for US$370 million. Seems like company valuations reminiscent of the dot-com boom are back if you are an anti-virus and/or anti-spam company. Brightmail had only just posted its first profit (US$1.2 million) in fiscal year ending January '04, with revenue jumping from $12 million to $26 million. Symantec had already invested US$18 million in Brightmail back in 2000 for an 11% stake. Apparently Brightmail receives about 85% of its revenue from only 5% of its customer base, with Microsoft alone accounting for more than 10% of total revenue and the world's larger ISPs around 50%.
Microsoft is working on building its own anti-spam software, as well as an anti-virus offering that will compete with Symantec. So I guess Symantec now has 370 million more reason to cry foul when Microsoft properly integrates these solutions with its various operating systems, desktop and enterprise business software solutions.
I can remember when one had to buy expensive memory managers, defrag tools, PC interconnect and a host of other utilities as third-party party add-ons, simply in order to get things done. They often didn't properly integrate, which caused many more headaches than I care to remember. Yet today, when Microsoft bundles some utility into its operating systems they cop a lot of flack. That is why we don't already have excellent backup, defrag, anti-spam, anti-virus and other system utilities built into the operating systems instead of nothing or, at best, crippled versions.
The same people that complain about everything not being properly integrated, and having to remember about so many bits and pieces in order to run a reliable, stable, protected system, also accuse Microsoft of being a powerful monopoly when they bundle in a new utility or service that is already available from a third-party company. I hope Symantec aren't paying dot-com type prices because they think they can win the PR war and stop Microsoft from bundling anti-virus and anti-spam solutions into its operating systems anytime soon. Let's hope that common-sense will prevail and Microsoft is allowed to do the right thing.
Getting to know your friends
Welcome to the newest edition of "getting to know your friends" a little better! What you're supposed to do is copy (not forward) this entire e-mail and paste it onto a new e-mail that you'll send. Change all of the answers so they apply to you. Then, send this to a whole bunch of people you know INCLUDING the person who sent it to you. The theory is that you'll learn a lot of little known facts about your friends.
WHAT TIME DO YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING?
Around 5:00 a.m. But not by choice. A certain brown heeler dog forces this upon me.
IF YOU COULD EAT LUNCH WITH ONE FAMOUS PERSON, DEAD OR ALIVE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
Jesus. I'd like to find out what he was taking.
GOLD OR SILVER?
WHAT WAS THE LAST FILM YOU SAW AT THE CINEMA?
That recent one about the US civil war. It was so forgettable I can't even recall its name.
FAVOURITE TV SHOW?
Currently... Enough Rope and The Sopranos. Waiting for the next season of The West Wing.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST?
Usually nothing. Sometimes boiled eggs, or bread with peanut butter and apricot jam.
WHO WOULD YOU HATE TO BE LEFT IN A ROOM WITH?
George W Bush. I'd feel compelled to knock some sense into him, but they put you away for a very long time for messing with a US president.
CAN YOU TOUCH YOUR NOSE WITH YOUR TONGUE?
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
WHAT'S YOUR MIDDLE NAME?
BEACH, CITY OR COUNTRY?
SUMMER OR WINTER?
FAVOURITE ICE CREAM?
Vanilla with chocolate topping.
BUTTERED, PLAIN, OR SALTED POPCORN?
Honey popcorn. (Hey, so I won't conform to the boundaries set!)
All colours are good. Though what's the name of that shade of blue patented by the modern artist who's name I can't recall?
Chooky's hoon machine... my Monaro.
BELIEVE IN LOVE?
Yes, of course.
WHAT CHARACTERISTICS DO YOU DESPISE?
Fundamentalism. Greed and envy.
Sturt desert pea.
FAVOURITE WEB SITE?
www.borrett.id.au Someone has to like it!
WHAT IS YOUR BATHROOM LIKE?
WHERE WILL YOU RETIRE?
Likely... where I live now.
I wish... on a yacht cruising the oceans of the world.
CAN YOU JUGGLE?
Nope, not even poorly.
FAVOURITE DAY OF THE WEEK?
POETS day. As in "Piss Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday"
WHITE OR RED WINE?
Neither thanks. Got any Coke? No, post-mix won't do!
WHAT DID YOU DO ON YOUR LAST BIRTHDAY?
Went to work and later tried to have a quiet night at home. But the phone kept ringing.
WHO IS THE PERSON THAT SENT THIS TO YOU?
Andre. That lad has a lot to answer for!
WHO DO YOU LEAST EXPECT TO SEND THIS BACK TO YOU?
WHO IS THE PERSON YOU EXPECT TO SEND THIS BACK FIRST?
The Diva. It's the sort of thing she would enjoy.
My web site has gone ballistic again
Back in late October 2003, traffic to my web site suddenly spiked from an average of 5,000 hits per day to a peak of 215,000 hits per day. And over the months since then, the site has been averaging around 50,000 hits per day.
I first noticed this major increase in site traffic back in November 2003 when I got a huge bill from my hosting provider, WebCentral, for excess data traffic. Something must be wrong I thought. In more than five years of hosting with WebCentral, I had never come close to exceeding my hosting plan's built in data traffic allowance. But no, my web site had suddenly gone ballistic.
It seems the world had switched on to "Petals Around the Rose". Interesting given that the challenge / brain teaser had been online since early in 1996!
Indeed, when talking to WebCentral about it, their technical support guy said, "Oh, so you're the one behind that web site. I played and solved Petals Around the Rose just the other day!"
A search found Petals being referenced from discussion forums all over the web. There are even teachers using it as a part of their learning curriculum. Go figure!
Well I came up with some strategies for getting rid of the excess data charges, implemented them, and quickly got the cost of running my site back to normal. Phew!
Ash Nallawalla suggested I also sign up for Google AdSense and use my site's popularity to get some revenue to help subsidise my costs. However, it turned out Google AdSense weren't supporting personal web sites back in November 2003, so they rejected my application. But late in April 2004, Google came back to me saying they had changed their policy and invited me to apply again. So I did and was accepted.
Unfortunately though, the Google AdSense algorithms just don't seem to be able to classify the pages with adverts well. Thus they are serving up very few relevant adverts. The result has been an extremely low click through rate and thus very little revenue. It seems I just can't win. (I've since contacted Google AdSense and they are looking into it. Problem sites like mine actually help them to improve their advert deliver system.)
Anyway, it appeared that everything had finally settled down into a regular pattern. But then on 24 May 2004, my site traffic suddenly spiked again. Now instead of averaging 50,000 hits per day, I'm getting over 250,000 hits per day!
I'm now looking at more excess data traffic bills from WebCentral. Yet another cost reduction strategy has to be devised and implemented.
The World Wide Web certainly is a weird and wonderful place. Anyone that says they truly understand it is lying. No-one, but no-one, would have predicted what's been happening to my web site of late.
Omniton goes online
Off and on over recent months, I have been building a web site for Tim Norton's technology business and strategy consulting company Omniton. Well last Monday the site went live at http://www.omniton.com.au
There are still a few things to be finished off, like client testimonials and better pictures of Tim, but on the whole the site is pretty complete. It will take some time for the site to be indexed by the major search engines, and the site search won't work properly until Google has done that, but that's just the way it is.
Site Implementation Description
The site uses very few graphic files, which makes it quick to load on low bandwidth connections. Cascading style sheet (CSS) sytles have ben used much more than on any site I'd built previously.
With the omniton site I have tried a new navigation design principle. Like many sites today I've used a menu tree at the top of the page which lets users navigate to almost every page on the site. And of course there is the plain HTML menu at the bottom of the page that can be used to navigate to the beginning of each main section of the site. Nothing new about that.
But I've also placed the context based navigation menus on the right hand side of the page instead of on the left as is commonly done today. The scroll bar is on the right, so that is where users typically have their mouse to move up and down a page. By putting key navigation options near there, it's easier and quicker to use them. The other benefit is that it moves the important content to the left side of the page. Thus when users print pages out, nothing is lost. I don't know about you, but I get so frustrated when I print out a page and I get the navigation details, but the content I want is cut off.
I understand the main reasons why most sites use the left column for navigation. But I figure if the page design is fairly clean, simple and uncluttered, users will still see the menus on the right clearly, and be able to use them more easily.
Well anyway, so far it seems to be working and feedback to date has been encouraging.
One thing I am considering implementing is a mail list system for the newsletter subscription and distribution. Right now it's a manual process for the admin team. Implementing something like Dada Mail, MailMan or such would make it a lot better. Plus having an automated subscription confirmation and unsubscribe process would make life easier for everyone. Any suggestions from those that have done this before would be most welcome.
New ways to implement the Melb PC vision
When we founded the Melbourne PC User Group (Melb PC) back in 1983, there were two phrases we regularly used to describe the group and our vision.
"Users helping users," was the first phrase. It was a basic, fundamental vision for what we do and how we do it. Sure it could be expanded as "computer users", "PC users" etc. but that was just extra padding. Everyone knew we weren't referring to drug users!
"Melb PC is the RACV for computer users," was the second phrase. That made the vision clearer to Melbourne people and put it into a context that more people could easily relate to.
Many computer user groups of that time were about users getting together and pirating software, or simple bulk discount buying schemes. Melb PC was not about any of that. Our vision was much greater, and that vision has been faithfully handed down to subsequent presidents and management committees for implementation. Thankfully those who followed believed in the vision and, I believe, that is why Melb PC is still around today.
Doubts Beginning to Surface
For some time now I have been concerned that the implementation of Melb PC's vision may have stagnated. Charles Wright, a former president and life member, in his "Bleeding Edge" column in "The Age Green Guide", 27 May 2004, page 12, made it obvious that I wasn't the only one having some doubts. (See his column online here.)
Now I'm not about to question what the present committee is doing about accommodation changes. Nor what they have recently done on the ADSL front. Charles raised some questions and I'm sure the committee has valid responses.
Having never personally visited the current offices of Melb PC, I'm not in a position to comment with any authority on the group's accommodation needs. I simply trust that a new facility is needed, and that the committee will make an excellent choice, as I am sure would do the majority of the membership. Hopefully there will be sufficient space to accommodate future member services, but more on that later.
I am also confident that the decision to become a WestNet reseller as the way to deliver ADSL to the membership is sound. Though I do have a few concerns about the implementation.
Melb PC members don't seem to get any better pricing from WestNet; they just keep access to a few additional Melb PC Internet services. Sure WestNet charge $30 extra per year for email virus checking and email spam filtering, and it is my understanding that Melb PC members will continue to get that for free via Melb PC, so that's a real benefit to members. (Though I notice on the ADSL Application Form in PC Update, Melb PC members are being asked if they want to sign up and pay for this.)
WestNet clients get 6 email addresses and 20 Mb of web space. Do Melb PC members get those facilities in addition to the 1 email address and 10 Mb of web space from Melb PC?
Interestingly, the arrangement with WestNet doesn't seem to be reciprocal on the marketing front. WestNet don't seem to be encouraging their existing and/or potential new customers to join Melb PC and access additional services and facilities.
I suspect now that the ADSL deal is done, someone will spend some time thinking such issues through and spelling out a more compelling value proposition for Melb PC members. My concerns about Melb PC's ADSL offering are probably just teething problems that will no doubt be resolved in due course.
Is Implementation of the Melb PC Vision Stagnant?
Earlier this year I again attended the annual event Melb PC has to thank its volunteers. It was a joy to talk to those actively contributing to the ongoing success of Melb PC and feel their enthusiasm.
One volunteer asked me, "You must be very proud of what Melb PC is today and where it is heading?"
My reply was that pride doesn't really come into it. The past is the past. I'm more concerned about trends I'm observing which are raising some doubts in my mind about Melb PC's future.
At age 47, I think I might have been one of the youngest people in the room at the volunteer's event. Yet in the early days of Melb PC, at age 27, I was one of the older active members. Now there are some obvious reasons for the change, and I am in no way knocking the great efforts of our older volunteers. However the age demographic of our membership is significantly older today than it once was. We should be asking ourselves the question, "Are we providing services to attract younger members?" And sadly, I think the answer is, no!
Why is the size of our membership base so stagnant? Let's face it, for a number of years now the membership size has been relatively stagnant in the 10,000 to 12,000 range. Why are we not continuing to grow at rates that match the growth of the PC marketplace? The RACV continues to grow at a rate that matches the increase in cars on our roads. What can be done to reverse this trend and see Melb PC increasing its relevance to the community and hence its membership numbers?
I think the above factors are strong indicators that the implementation of the Melb PC vision is stagnant. It's time for some serious questions to be asked, new opportunities looked in to, and for new paths forward to be found.
Putting People in Touch
Users helping users. That is what Melb PC is about. Yet we are not effectively using today's available collaborative solutions to help users to help each other.
Where are the online discussion forums on the Melb PC web site?
I'm sorry but newsgroups just don't cut it today. We should have online discussion forums for all of the active areas of Melb PC. Each SIG should have a discussion forum. The various committees should have discussion forums. Each Dial Help topic should have a discussion forum.
It would be so simple and cheap for Melb PC to set up discussion forums using an open source solution like phpBB, or a similar offering. So what is stopping us?
But don't stop there. Give each SIG, committee, dial help volunteer etc. a blog. Again, using an open source solution, this is simple and cheap to do. Then the various volunteers need have no knowledge of HTML to communicate about their activities to the rest of us. And the rest of us can stay informed via RSS feeds of the topics we are interested in.
Should a blog not prove to be a sufficient solution for some of the larger SIGs, let them use an open source content management system, like Mambo Open Source or similar, to manageme their web site. Again, all of the communication facilities you could want for in the hands of our volunteers without the barriers of having to learn about HTML etc.
Today I get more of a sense of community from many company and private individual web sites using such tools than I get from Melb PC. And yet Melb PC truly is a huge, self-help community.
Even Microsoft has incorporated collaboration facilities into their standard software offerings. That's how mainstream this stuff has become. Yet Melb PC has done little in the way of enhancing channels for collaboration for quite some time. It's time for us to get with the programme and put more people in touch with each other online.
New Member Service Ideas
Are the services we are providing today enough? What more could Melb PC be doing?
Think about how the whole Internet Cafe concept has caught on. You can even go into many small rural and regional towns and find one. Yet Melb PC doesn't provide a single Internet Cafe facility anywhere in Melbourne, let alone Victoria. I would have thought that was a natural thing for Melb PC to have got involved in. Perhaps that opportunity has passed us by, but maybe, just maybe, it hasn't. Could our new office accommodate an Internet Cafe?
The youth of today are flocking to gaming events, and other such group gatherings, taking along their PCs. Has Melb PC ever considered getting involved? Would the new office location be able to accommodate such events?
Why does our Internet service not include gaming servers?
Though I only got there the once, I loved the annual SeaMist weekend, started by Tom Coleman. Why not take some of the essential ingredients of that event and host two-day sessions at the Melb PC office on say a quarterly basis?
It would seem Melb PC has chosen to maintain the existing dial-up access service and contract out the provision of broadband access services. But is it just status quo from here? What can Melb PC do to further enhance its Internet Service offerings?
Only a small percentage of Melb PC members using our Internet Service have active member web sites. Yet I'm certain that many would like to have one, it's just that they aren't interested in becoming web site designers and programmers. So why not provide them with the ability to run a selected open source content management system so that they can have a web site without the hassles. Making a content management system part of the standard Melb PC Internet service offering would put Melb PC way ahead of most of today's ISPs.
A friend of mine came to me seeking a better solution than HotMail. For $30 every two years he can register a .id.au domain name. For $20 per year he can get an email hosting package. So for $35 per year my friend, his wife, his two kids, and other extended family members can each have a unique email address that relates to their surname. They can all change ISPs as much as they like without changing their email addresses. Wouldn't it be nice if Melb PC offered such a simple email hosting option as part of its Internet Service?
Wouldn't it also be nice if Melb PC's Internet Service enabled users to use have their own domain name? I'm sure there are quite a few people that might prefer this option and become/stay a Melb PC member because of it.
Should Melb PC move into offering more advanced hosting solutions? We don't have to be the hosting provider, simply a reseller of one, just as we now are a reseller of WestNet's ADSL service. We just have to come up with attractive value-added offerings that our current and potential members would desire.
Should Melb PC get involved in providing Wireless Internet Access to its membership? Now that Melb PC members have broadband access, why not use that to extend their Internet access? If each member with broadband access were to install the same secure WiFi hardware, and we were to put in place the right access and control services and protocols back at Melb PC, we could gradually cover Melbourne with our own standardised WiFi network. With the right advertising or vendor assistance, we might even be able to get those access points extremely cheap. For free even! Think about that. Being a Melb PC member with broadband access at home could give you WiFi access throughout much of Melbourne.
It's time for Melb PC to catch up in some areas we have let pass us by. It's time for us to also look around at new and emerging areas and embrace them.
"It's Time," as most of you reading this would recall, was the catch phrase that saw Gough Whitlam coming into power as Prime Minister in the early 1970s. Most of the population under 30 years of age probably wouldn't know that, which I think highlights my point about the age demographics of our membership. They simply weren't around at the time. It's modern Australian history to them.
I believe "it's time" for Melb PC to become more active in seeking out new ways to benefit its membership. We have let too many opportunities pass us by.
There was a time in the history of Melb PC where we were extremely active when it came to new opportunities. We introduced lots of new services. Some were great successes. Others were dismal failures. But it's hard to have the great successes without having a few failures.
I believe today's Melb PC is stagnating because it has become too risk adverse. That Melb PC is sitting on the large cash reserves it has is a symptom of the problem. Think about what could be achieved if Melb PC were to make just 20% of that cash reserve available to fund new services over the coming 12 to 24 months.
There is little risk and cost in actually going ahead with most of the ideas I have raised here. And I'm sure there are plenty of members who would have other more valuable ideas that are just as cheap and risk adverse, which could be easily implemented. I'm also sure that we could come up with some interesting ideas that might be a tad risky and/or costly, and yet agree that they are worth the risk/cost for the benefits achievable. But sadly we don't have an online discussion forum for such ideas. No wonder we seem to be stagnating.
It's time for some fresh new ways to implement the Melb PC vision.
(Lloyd Borrett is the Melb-PC founder, inaugural president and life member.)