Applications are what really matter

I’m coming up on the one year anniversary of the purchase on my first tablet and I was thinking about how big an impact this device has had on the way I use or don’t use my laptops any more. My expectation wash that I would be able to use my iPad to consume content ( check email, browse websites, listen to music, watch videos, etc ) and possibly create some simple content ( take meeting notes, create and reply to email messages ). I didn’t expect that I would be able to stop taking my laptop to client sites and that I would be able to perform so much of my work on my iPad. This change was able to happen because of the applications that come delivered on an iPad and the applications available through iTunes. While using the iPad together work done I found that I didn’t have to worry about things that didn’t matter, I was able to focus on using applications that filled specific business needs. I don’t know why it has taken so long but I finally realized that applications are what really matter.

My small business is much like many other small business. I have computers running Windows 7 that I have to maintain on a regular basis. There are Windows updates to install, disks to defragment, problems to troubleshoot and every few years I have to buy replacements. I hate to think about how much time I have spent over the past year just trying to keep my main laptop running. Twice over the last year i have encountered errors and had to reinstall the operating system from scratch. I lost days of productivity while I rebuilt and restored my laptop back to normal. Why does any of this matter? It matters to me because I have realized how much of my time is sucked up maintaining an operating system. Operating systems need to exist only as a means to allow applications to run, operating systems don’t make me any money. Applications that run on top of the operating system are what I use to create content for my clients and this is what makes money.

It took me a little while to find a collection of applications that I was happy with to provide me with enough functionality to stop carrying my laptop and I have refined this set of applications over time into a collection that I think work as well or better than similar applications on a Windows based laptop. I will go into the details of this collection of applications in a future post.

One big upside to using an iPad as my primary computing device is that I am now only carrying a 1.4 lb tablet instead of my 8.5 lb laptop. Now I leave this laptop in my home office and connect to it over the Internet when I need the horsepower that this laptop can provide. Again, it took me a few attempts at finding a solution I was happy with for remotely connectivity but I now have someone that works really well.

Another interesting lesson was that I don’t need Internet connectivity all of the time when I am using my iPad. Yes, it is very convenient to have a full time Internet connection so that I can continuously receive email on my iPad but my iPhone has a full time Internet connection and it notifies me any time I have email. If I need to get out to the Internet on my iPad I can turn on the hotspot feature on my iPhone or use WIFI access to get out to the Internet. I’m finding this is becoming less of an issue because it isn’t that hard to find a WIFI hotspot and my main client has WIFI in their office.

I think it still might be a little early for many people to make the switch to a tablet as their primary computing device but for many this day is getting much closer. The applications available for the iPad keep getting better and more feature rich. Life isn’t perfect using an iPad. There are things that aren’t as easy as they should be ( just try to reply to an email and include an attachment ) and hopefully Apple will solve these problems but there is no way I’m going back. I want to work on a device where the operating system is just something that is in the background, something I don’t have to spend time on so I can focus on creating content using what really matters, applications.

What an IT Department should be

I just read a great article over on TechRepublic about it departments being the Department of No. I’m sure anyone who has asked their IT Department for help knows exactly what this means. Far too often The default answer from the IT Department is no. No we don’t have the resources, no we don’t have the time, no we don’t have enough money, no that won’t work.

Imagine if your IT Department tried as hard as possible to always find a way to say yes. Or what if they spent some time asking some questions to see if there is a simple way to meet many if not most of your needs. Too many times I have seen IT people say no because they are locked into their “standards” or at least their standard way of doing things.

I have worked in the IT field long enough to know how important standards and standard approaches are to IT Departments. They allow them to minimize complexity by reducing the number of different combinations of technical solutions. It becomes too easy to hide behind these standards and then give the no answer when asked about a new business need.

Much like the writer of the TechRepublic article, I worry that IT Departments that use no as their beginning answer will find themselves irrelevant because the business will find other ways to meet their needs without engaging their IT Department. IT Departments need to get out of commodity services like web servers, email systems and even shared drives for corporate file storage. I am not trying to suggest that these aren’t worthy or important technologies but there are a number of solutions available that can provide these services which would then allow th IT Department to focus more on emerging business needs.

It is time for IT Departments to have a good look at how they operate and find ways to work differently. IT Departments need to change their mode of operation so that their clients call them because they want to call them instead of being forced to call them. If you can make this change you will be able to secure your role within the organization. If you can’t make the switch, you risk being eliminated.

You will be able to measure your success by how often your phone rings. I plan on making sure my phone rings often.

Time to take the plunge and put all of my data into the cloud!

A couple of weeks ago I started my weekly ritual of copying my data to an external hard drive, then I trigger an image backup of my C: and D: drives just as an extra precaution in case of a hard drive failure (This is over and above the offsite backups that I have automated using Backblaze).

When I started up my image backup software it told me that there was a problem with my C: drive so I started a chkdsk to repair any problems. This too has become a routine, although I’m not sure why. I find that around once a month Windows 7 has some kind of problem that requires me to run a chkdsk on my hard drives. I never had this problem with Windows XP but it happens way too frequently for my liking with Windows 7.

No big deal, or so I thought. The chkdsk ran, found a few problems and it indicated that they had been repaired. The system rebooted and ….. nothing. Just a blinking cursor in the upper left hand corner on my screen. It spent quite a bit of time, in fact way too much time trying to see if I could fix the problem, but finally gave up.  I figured that I had my data backed up in two places so I would just restore my most recent image backup and any data that was missing by using my Backblaze service.

I booted from my recovery disc but it failed to detect my external hard drive that contained my backup images.  I then connected my external drive to my backup laptop and same thing.  I have no idea of what the odds are that the Operating System (OS) on my laptop would become corrupted and my external hard drive would fail at the same time but I knew this was going to make my recovery much more difficult.  Again, I spent way too much time trying to see if I could get my external drive working but like with the OS on my laptop, decided it was time to move on.

This now meant I had to pull out my original Windows 7 DVD, find all of my licenses keys and install EVERYTHING from scratch.

Initially the reinstall went well, but after the OS was installed and I started installing my software, I began having problems.  I still can’t figure out what went wrong but after a couple of days I started having problems installing software.  The software would begin t install but it would hang before completing the installation.  I tried everything, I searched through Microsoft’s knowledge base and tried everything that seemed might help.  Reluctantly, I pulled out my Windows 7 DVD again, reformatted my C: drive and installed Windows 7 again.  This time everything went smoothly, just as it should have the first time.

Lessons Learned

That was as close as I wish to get to losing all of my data.  Thankfully I had multiple backup methods in place to deal with a failure that would keep me from my data.  I did make some mistakes though and have adjusted my strategy so that I can recover more easily in the future.

Things that worked well:

  • having an image backup should have allowed my to avoid reinstalling the operating system and installing my software manually.  This should have/will save me time if I have a problem in the future.
  • using Backblaze to backup my data to the cloud.  This allowed me to get back my critical data by selecting and downloading the files I needed back.  This is really importing in the event something happened to my office and my laptop was taken/destroyed.  Having offsite backups also protects against a failure of your onsite backups which is what happened in my case.
  • having my original media (CDs/DVDs) all in one place and having a record of my license keys.  While it was a pain to install everything manually, at least I had all of my software and didn’t have to purchase any of it again.
  • keeping most of my data on a separate drive from the operating system.  Most of my data was on my D: drive, but not all of it.  This meant that after I reinstalled the OS on my C: drive I only had to recover the files that I lost on my C: drive.

Things that didn’t work so well:

  • Windows 7.  It bothers me quite a bit that I have had so many problems with Windows 7 and disk corruption.  Most of it was easily corrected but I shouldn’t have had to deal with these problems.  I can’t say for sure that there wasn’t some kind of hardware problem, but it seems unlikely.  I ran the Seagate SeaTools software, ran multiple scans on my hard drives and didn’t find any problems.  There could have been a problem with the hardware of my ASUS laptop but this also seems unlikely as everything has been working properly ever since the reinstall of Windows 7.  There could have been some kind of interaction problem between Windows 7 and some of my software but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to determine if this was the case.
  • Zonealarm Datalock.  Prior to my disk corruption I had used the Datalock software to encrypt the data on my hard drives.  I never had a single problem until I ran into my disk corruption problem but one it happened I couldn’t run any diagnostic/repair tools to try to get my data of the bad drive.  I haven’t reinstalled this software on my newly rebuilt laptop.  I’m going to try o avoid making my laptop configuration too complex.
  • My Westernal Digital Essential 2TB external hard drive.  Hard drives fail all of the time.  I should have had a backup of the content on this drive.  I will in the future.
  • My backup configuration on Backblaze.  I modified the exclude list to skip large files (>200MB) and some iTunes files under the assumption that I could easily get the iTunes files back easily and that I would count on getting the large files back from my external hard drive.  Neither of these worked out very well.  I have decided to make some changes to my backup strategy and have already started down the path to implementing these changes.

 I will save the details for a future post but I have restructured my data so that it is all contained within Dropbox.  This means that any files I create or change will by synchronized to the Dropbox cloud service.  These files will also be synchronized to my backup laptop that also runs Dropbox.  I am also going to purchase a second external drive to make sure that my image backups are stored in two places as well.

I am going to keep using my Backblaze service for now as another level of protection.  It may be that it is redundant now that I am saving everything in Dropbox but I’m going to wait a little while before making any decisions about this.

For me, using Dropbox is about much more than keeping my data in more than one place to minimize the impact of a hardware failure.  It is about keeping my data in the cloud and allowing me to access that data from any device that I have handy.  It could be that I need to open a Word document on my iPad or quickly view a spreadsheet on my iPhone.  It could be that I am in another city and quickly need to make a change to a file.  As long as I can use a computer with a browser, I can get at my files.  In my mind not only will this protect me against the inevitable hardware failures, but this increases my productivity and is well worth the $200 per year for the service.

Tablets: Why you should pay attention

My core business applicationsA few months ago, like many others, I purchased an

Apple iPad.  I chose the Apple iPad because I already own an iPhone 4, an iPod Touch and an Apple TV. I wanted to be able to leverage the applications that I had already purchased on my iPhone and have something that would integrate well with my other devices.

I had decided that I was going to purchase the 64GB Wifi only model because I was concerned that I can’t upgrade the storage of the device (ie. no expansion slots) and I didn’t need the 3G communication capabilities because I could tether my iPad to my iPhone if I needed Internet connectivity but couldn’t find free Wifi.

Before I purchased the iPad I expected to use it mainly as a book reader, a way to showcase photographs and a more portable way to consume digital content.  Now, five months later, I am using it for all of the reasons I expected as well as for presenting slide shows, brainstorming, creating diagrams, project management, meeting minutes, website mockups, monitoring web sites, creating and editing documents (Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint), interacting with Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), blogging (using the Squarespace app), education (Kelby Training), video creation, audio recording, and photo editing. 

I think the thing I find the most surprising is how much I use my iPad instead of my laptop.  I find that I can perform many core business functions just as well or more easily on my iPad.  I have access to all of my email accounts in a single view using the built in mail app and can schedule meetings or check my schedule via the calendar app.  I can create or modify Microsoft Office documents using the Documents to Go application or Office documents can be viewed using the built in viewer in Dropbox.

I quickly found that my concern about the inability to expand the storage of the iPad was unfounded.  Using Dropbox I can expand my storage as much as needed.  The key to managing the storage on an iPad is to keep as much as needed in the cloud.  Also, where possible, use services that are web based or have aweb interface in addition to a native IOS application.  This way you can access your data using a standard browser from any PC should you need to view or make changes to the data and the iPad interface is too limiting.  For example, there are times when I need to edit or view spreadsheets with multiple worksheets and each worksheet has a lot of data.  I can be awkward to view a large spreadsheet due to the amount of scrolling needed to get to the extreme edges of the data.

While I find that I use my iPad more often than my laptop, there are times when it makes more sense to work from my laptop.  There are some programs that just don’t exist on an iPad and some applications require more resources that what are available on an iPad.  I’m also not trying to suggest that anyone ditch their laptop or PC in favour of an iPad but you may want to look closely at how an iPad or any other tablet may improve your productivity.  Many articles have been written and will continue to be written about how tablets will replace laptops.  While tablets may not replace laptops or desktop PCs completely, it is very likely that there will be a tablet in your near future.



Recipe: Low Cost Web Presence

Today I am going to provide two solutions for creating your own web presence that will keep your operating costs to a minimum and won’t require you to have any servers located at your business. These solutions won’t be perfect for everyone but might work very well for small and medium sized businesses that don’t need some advanced web site features like e-commerce or dynamic content.


 Simple Site


My web site is an example of what I am calling Simple Site.


  1. A custom domain (ie.
  2. WordPress


  1. Go to, create an account and register your own custom domain.
  2. Go to, create an account and then Register a New Blog.


  1. Go Daddy charges $11.77 US per year for a .com domain and $12.75 US per year for a .ca domain. Other options are available on
  2. WordPress charges $12 US per year for Domain Mapping so that your custom domain maps to your WordPress blog

Fancy Site



The Markham Stouffville Hospital Foundation web site is an example of what I am calling a Fancey Site. Using Showit you can create a web site that will allow you to integrate text, pictures and video content. The Showit service uses Flash to enable animation such as transitions, embed photos and video on your web pages. You can also detect mobile clients such as iPhones and iPads so that you can automatically switch to a HMTL5 version of your web site so that it can be properly display on your mobile phone or any other device that does not support Adobe Flash.

Note: The Showitfast service was built for photographers so that they could create web sites to showcase their work. Generally, photographers don’t want to spend too much time building their web site, so the interface is simple to use and many templates exist so that they can quickly get content onto their web sites. You don’t need to be a photographer to leverage the capabilities of Showit though. Many other companies can take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of Showit promote their products or services.


  1. A custom domain (ie.
  2. Showit subscription


  1. Go to, create an account and register your own custom domain.
  2. Go to, download and install the Showit client.
  3. Launch the Showit client and then create an account.
  4. Sign up for a subscription.
  5. Choose a style for your site from one of the templates or create your own site from scratch.
  6. Add your content to the site.
  7. Publish your site.


  1. Go Daddy charges $11.77 US per year for a .com domain and $12.75 US per year for a .ca domain. Other options are available on
  2. Showitfast charges $429 per year for 10GB of storage and the web hosting.

There are many other services available that will let you create your web presence and keep it updated while minimizing your ongoing costs.

MSH Gala web site – Le Cirque Ball

2011 Markham Stouffville Hospital Foundation Gala Earlier this week I helped Markham Stouffville Hospital Foundation launch the 2011 edition of their Gala web site.  The process of updating the Gala web site was able to happen much more quickly this year because we chose to use one of the available Showit templates and make minor modifications as needed.  This approach allowed the Foundation two major benefits.  The first is that the web site was assembled much more quickly this year.  The second was that the Foundation staff were able to do most of the work on their own instead of having me build the site for them.  It was very satisfying to see our strategy beginning to pay off.


Around this time last year I began working with the Foundation to build a collection of web sites that would help them promote their fund raising efforts for the Markham Stouffville Hospital.  We have been using the Showit service to host and build most of the web sites because it would allow them to create the web sites they needed but would keep operating costs as low as possible.  The cost of the hosting service is very reasonable at $429 U.S. per year but the more important factor for keeping the costs low is that the Showit interface allows non technical people to build and maintain web sites.  For more information have a look at some of the tutorials over at the Showit web site.

Cloud Technology

Many companies host their applications on servers that reside on premise but there are other options.There are plenty of articles on what cloud technology is and how it works so I won’t be covering it in this post. What I want to cover is how you can leverage some cloud based technology to move your business forward quickly and in some cases very inexpensively.

I have most of my career working in large corporate IT environments where everything was built and hosted internally. Web servers, email servers, file servers and application servers. In many cases this may still make sense but in some cases there are opportunities to leverage new services to get the same job done faster and for less cost.

The traditional approach would be to buy a server or servers then have either internal IT staff or hired IT staff set up your servers and install your applications. Once running there is a good deal of energy and resources that go into keeping all of these servers running the latest patches on the latest operating systems on the newest hardware. For specialized applications that are critical to your business this approach makes a lot of sense but for commodity applications there is another way.

There are now a number of cloud based services that are available on the Internet that can provide your company with commodity application services for a monthly fee that is probably much cheaper than what it would cost for your own staff to set up and operate the service. The best two examples are email services and web hosting services.

Both Microsoft and Google offer email services that are hosted in the cloud but allow your staff to use them as if they were still hosted inside your company. Most people are familiar with using the Microsoft Outlook email client to access their email and they can continue to do so if you were to use either Google or Microsoft to provide your email service.

There are also quite a few companies that provide hosted web services and have been doing so for quite a while but what I find really interesting is the newer breed of web services that are more than just a server in a rack somewhere on the Internet. Two that have caught my attention are Squarespace and Showit. Both of these companies provide you with web hosting but also provide you with an interface that you can use to build your web presence. The interfaces provided by both of these services give you templates that allow you to quickly get your content on the Internet and maintain your content without having to be a web programmer. I will provide more information later on Showit and how I have used this service to help the Markham Stouffville Hospital Foundation create a web presence for their fund raising efforts.

The Cloud Based Company – Part 1

Over the last while I have been looking for solutions that will allow me to be more efficient, keep data off my computers, and create more complete business infrastructure. I am a small business owner and I have to look after everything myself so I always need to find ways to save myself time and effort.

Well, I don’t look after everything myself. I think I have the best accountant on the planet and he is worth every penny. He and his staff look after my books, make sense of my receipts and tells me where to sign. Other than this, I have to worry about managing my clients, find new clients, track my time, create invoices, collect payments, etc.

Until a few weeks ago I had been using a collection of spreadsheets to track my time, create invoices, and track payments. I had been listening to one of my favourite photography podcasts ( when an ad for one of their sponsors caught my attention. They described as a simple and fast way to handle creating invoices. I went to the web site, signed up for a free account and was hooked immediately. I then spent the next day switching all of my time tracking and invoice management over to

Why? Simple. I now have my own web portal with my company logo that allows me to track my time, create invoices, send invoice notifications to my clients and track payments. I can even provide my clients access to this web portal so that they can see how I spend my time, see the invoices that I have sent them and see when I have received their payment. As an added bonus I also have an iPhone application that I can use to perform many of the same time tracking and invoice management activities. I can do this at any time from anywhere.

More importantly, to me anyway, the service is now a big piece of my overall Cloud Based Company strategy.

Long overdue

I have finally decided to create an online presence for my company.  Over the next little while I will flesh out what my company does, who are clients and the kind of services that are available for prospective clients.  I will also use the site to offer opinions on a variety of technology products, my experience using a variety of technologies and some of my day to day experiences.  Stay tuned…..