Tag Archives: Open Source

Upgrading to MindX

I had coffee with Dan Dobos last week who’s been busy launching his new business, in Australia, which is a wonderful web based marketing engine that combines offline and online seamlessly – eg a an enquiry from your website automatically generates a printed card that gets sent out.   As an aside – It appears from the relationship I have with baristas in a variety of locations, that I spend half my life drinking coffee with people.

Anyway, Dan and I were discussing open source tools, and if you’ve read any of my articles before, you will know I am a bid advocate.  But one area where I hadn’t done much research was mind-mapping tools. Mostly because I didn’t feel the need for them up until I started the Churchill Club and had to deal with emergent topics on a day to day basis. Traditionally I had used a product called free mind, which which was java based so it pretty much ran on any operating system plus it was open source, free of cost and it could be downloaded easily.  Dan however was using a product called XMind which he strongly recommend.

I liked Freemind and had previously written about it here, but was willing to give the new product a go (hey its free so why not).   So when I got back to the office, I downloaded a copy.  To my surprise was almost instantly converted. Here’s why:

  • Its Open Source – which means you can download and use it for free or even mess with the code if that’s your thing.
  • It has a web based viewer – do you can plunk your mind maps up on your blog.
  • You can embed mind maps with mind maps.
  • You can also use it to draw Org Charts other special purpose maps.
  • It has inbuilt a nice project management tool.
  • You can import Freemind, Mind Manager and other common mind map formats.
  • You can export your map as HTML (a web page), text, image or other MindMapping formats.

None of which (other than the import and export) Freemind can do.

And as a bonus to make me the consummate connected professional, It turns out to that if I give $6.99 to Simplemind I can also get access to the mindmaps I have whipped up on my iPhone using SimpleMindX whilst waiting for meetings.

Super8 living forever

super 8
One of the things I find terrific about being alive today is that we can actually see what people whom are no longer in their prime or have passed away, were actually like.  Not just movie stars, but old documentary footage of leaders such as Churchill and Kennedy.  We also get to see old home movies.  Contrast this with my grandparents who if they were lucky, only had an oil painting to go on.

But to the point of this weeks post.  My wife’s parents found a whole lot of old super8 movies that they had taken in the late 60s & early 70s.  They decided that it would be a really good idea to get them converted to DVD before they deteriorated much more.  Apparently the pitch is that DVD will last for  at least 100 years whilst their super8 film was getting nasty 35 year later.

Watching these silent movies from the past was of course fascinating and sometimes just plain weird (note is it okay to find my wife attractive when she was just 14?).  My wife then mentioned that there was only this one lot of DVDs and we had to pass them over to another sibling when we were finished with them.  This of course struck me as odd, and before I knew it, out of my mouth came “Do you want me to make a copy?”. Faced with big teary eyes and a “would you?”  I couldn’t resist.  Despite the fact I had no experience ripping a DVD.

You see DVDs don’t just contain one file like an AVI or MPEG movie file.  They contain a whole hierarchy of folders, with the top (root) directory normally called VIDEO_TS .  Video and audio tracks are kept separately, because amongst other reasons, their may be more than one language audio track.  So whilst copying a file is simple, ripping involves merging audio & video files back together, encoding them and creating an output that is a useful single file called something like myvideo.avi or myvideo.mov

The payoff is that once I had ripped the DVD, I would have a digital copy on a hard disk which was no longer locked into the medium and could last forever.  Because this was a once off for me, I decided to find out what free software was available that I could acquire and test without paying a cent.  I typed into Google “Open Source DVD ripping” and came up with a huge variety of offerings.  I was looking for software for Windows (their are plenty of offerings for unix and mac out there as well) and noticed I seemed to get plenty of hits on a product called Handbrake.

HandbrakeHandbrake is hosted in France  but the website and software is all in English.   The software appeared to do the job being available for Windows, designed to rip DVDs and could output in a variety of formats, including avi and mpeg.  It also seemed to be reasonably current as updates for it had been released this year.  And as open source it was free to download the software.   I then did a Google search on “handbrake dvd ripping” to see what other people were saying about handbrake.  Happily it seemed to be the goods so I downloaded a copy.  It was a small download (6.3MB) for the version with an easy to use GUI (GUI = a pretty Graphic User Interface, CLI = text only Command Line Interface).

It was also easy to operate with an idiot mode.
1.    Select the source – The VIDEO_TS directory on the DVD in my disk drive
2.    Set the output location – A new file called Super8.avi on my desktop
3.    Confirm the file format you want – In my case I wanted avi
4.    Press the start button.

It appeared to take around 45 mins to rip an hour and a half worth of movies.

Result  – browny points for me.   And since my parents inlaw owned the copyright on the film, there was no copyright issues for me.  I am now going to start on my catalogue of video recordings I have made at work (stored on DVD) so that they can live forever as well.

Cloud Money

In 1998 I stopped getting paid to be an Accountant. I came to the conclusion that being a scorekeeper wasn’t satisfying enough for me, I want to be kicking goals, not cheering from the sideline. I called it – Getting in touch with my inner salesman.

I said “stopped getting paid” rather than “stopped working” as I always seem to be keeping a closer eye on finances than anyone else, and always end up being company secretary in my ventures. So as part of my “Moving into the cloud” project, I took a particular interest in the accounting system I was going to use.

Because I am a tightarese, I looked decided to take a look at open source offerings. I started my search at www.osalt.com which is a nice website that offers up open source alternatives to commercial software. The software available seemed to be : Grisbi, jGnash, GnuCash & GFP. All of them nice packages, but much more along the lines of personal finance managers, not accounting packages. Apart from that they were all designed to run on your desktop, not on the web,

Next off to Freshmeat where a search on accounting came up with 208 hits. A closer look brought up 2 candidates: Accounting & GnuCash. Both of which were just personal financial managers Damn.

Finally over to Sourceforge. I tend to search Sourcforge last for software because you have to really know what you want before you get there. With 135,000 Projects registered, its easy to get bogged down. Under Financial | Accounting Systems there was over 1200 projects. Flicking through (90 pages) I came across some interesting prospects such as WebERP which runs in the envirnoment I want and does everything I want plus a whole lot more. A google search for “WebERP Crap” came up with some interesting comments on it though. But at the end of the day, I didn’t like its usability as you need to to do an awful lot of configuration work before you could make anything happen.

SQL Ledger also looked promising, but after having a closer look I decided my bookkeeper would absolutely hate it and be massively inefficient for the first couple of months.

Time to broaden the search and just have a look around the web. And that’s where I ran into SAASU. SAASU is an Australian (tick) Web based system with lots of users (tick). It has a nice interface (tick) and comes preconfigured (tick). It also has some nice features such as auto generating invoices as PDF’s and emailing them off (tick). You can use it for free if your doing under 15 transactions per month, or have the unlimited versions is $59 a quarter. I went with SAASU as it was an easy choice. And now I don’t have to fart about emailing the myob files over to the bookkeeper and holding off invoicing until I get them back.

I also got to configure the chart of accounts so that I could get really useful information out of the system (people who don’t customize their chart of accounts drive me mad).

I didn’t end up getting a free a solution, but close to it. My banking and accounting now all happens online. My finances are in the cloud.

Life is good.

Skinning Cats on the Internet

After email and web browsing, the number one tool I use on the computer would have to be the standard office suite. You know; Word, Excel, Powerpoint. But if you have read any of the previous weeks blogs, you would also know that I have just moved over to a Linux based Netbook .   And in the world of Linux; Word, Excel and Power point don’t exist. So I had a problem to solve.

Being a good technologist, I had to come up with a conceptual framework first that dealt with the different ways I would need to generate documents. Answering questions like whom am I creating it with, sharing it with, in what content and in what format. Once I had figured that out I went looking for answers.

Bugger me though if I didn’t come up with more than one solution.

No. of Documents Creator Reader Final Format Solution Chosen
Single Me Private Individual PDF or Microsoft Office. Open Office
Single Me & Private Individual Me & Private Individual Web Google Docs
Many Me & Private Team Me & Private Team Web Wiki
Many Me Public Web Blog

Probably best then if I explain each solution I decided to use.

Open Office

Open Office is a full blown Open Source office suite that runs on Linux and Windows. It is now fully compatible with Microsoft Office, that has all the same functionality plus a bit extra. Therefore its the obvious choice for when I want to whip up a document, spreadsheet, drawing or presentation. A couple of other cool things about Open Office.

  1. Its Free – a saving of $200-$600 per user.

  2. You can get it in Linux, Windows & Mac flavours, so I can use the same product at home and at the office.

  3. The user interface now looks a hell of a lot like Microsoft Office (making a really low learning curve).

  4. Open Office natively stores its document in ODF format , the open standard, rather than Microsoft’s proprietary standards. So I am unlikely to get stuck with document I can’t read in a couple of years.

  5. Open Office can save documents in Microsoft’s proprietary formats if you need to (you know .doc, .xls, .ppt). This interoperability is seamless in all but the most complex documents.

  6. Open Office natively prints to PDF format , so you don’t have to purchase PDF generating software. Another cost saving.

  7. Did I say its free?

Google Docs
Sometimes though I realised I wanted to communicate something with one of my Flinders Pacific clients, but didn’t want to get caught up having to constantly resend a document that was changing. For instance when I arrange a dinner, I normally get harassed for the minutiae of what’s going on, “has so-and so got invited yet?” , “what did they say?”, “how many are coming now?” etc. things get worse too, if I create a spreadsheet but leave it on the wrong computer. The solution therefore was Googledocs . For small lists, I create a spreadsheet, then share it with the client. I can then update it from wherever I am, and the client is satisfied that they can get up to date information simply by checking on the internet.

Wiki
Sometimes though its not just one document I am collaborating on but a whole suite. For instance the operations manual for the Churchill Club is a whole series of documents covering accounting, marketing and event management. These documents are always a work in progress as we add new bits as we run into them. In fact sometimes they’re just a couple of dot points. I say we as there is a small geographically dispersed team building and using them, however they are not for public consumption. Since there is a suite of documents, I decided a Wiki is a much better solution as its:

  • Native web format (html)

  • Searchable

  • Pages can be edited by anyone (just click the edit button at the bottom of each page).

  • Can be secured or made private (just turn on security and authorise users).

  • Natural environment for developing documents that are always changing

  • Lends itself to a team constantly editing, rather than two individuals going back and forth.

I chose dokuwiki as the wiki solution as its just too easy to deploy, it doesn’t even require a database back end, and it is designed for small team document collections.

Blog
Finally I decided that the blog format (web pages through a blogging engine) is best suited for the blogs I write for Smartcompany. I realised its just silly to write a document in say word format, the have it edited to be suitable to be printed as a web page. Why not make it a web page in the first place. So I set-up a WordPress Blog at http://wordpress.l2i.com.au. Its where I keep all my completed articles, and partially written ideas as drafts (note you won’t be able to see anything there that you can’t already see on Smartcompany).

So I have now solved my documentation problem and all the other major problems other than accounting software.  Next week I will cover off the new Accounting solution implemented and the benefits I have discovered from moving it off the desktop.

Newslettah!

2000 I was running a multimedia business called Carradale Associates and had the opportunity to vend it into a new IT support business. I pretty much let all the contractors I was employing go, other than the oldest one who I really wanted to look after. Unfortunately he and I had a difference of opinion. I wanted to make a lot of money, and he wanted to work in a New York style loft office, with a cool coffee shop downstairs.

Slight disconnect.

Anyway fast forward 8 years and my friend now has his own IT business. Amongst the product set he has developed is an email marketing solution. And everyonce in awhile when we get together, he suggests I should be using it to send out my Churchill Club emails (at about $200 a go). Traditionally I kind of wanted to, but the CRM system I was using on my windows based laptop was working just well enough and it was free.

However, now that I have moved to a linux based netbook (as discussed in previous weeks blogs), I had to come up with a new solution.

Unfortunately for my friend, a quick look around the open source solutions, and I came up with a free product called PHPlist . PHPlist seemed to be the goods, and when I compared it to my friends solution, I knew I had to give it ago. (My features comparison table is below).

Feature

The Mates Paid Solution

The Open Source Free Solution

Expected cost PA

$5,000

$0

Send HTML & Plain text emails

Yes

Yes

Send attachments?

Yes

Yes

Reusable templates?

Yes

Yes

Personalised emails, eg: Hi Brendan

Yes

Yes

Track emails opened?

Yes

Yes

Track click throughs to links?

Yes

Yes

Bounce management

Yes

Yes

List cleansing

Yes

Yes

Scheduled deliveries

Yes

Yes

Throttled delivery

No (Not Necessary)

Yes

Inifinite users

No (but over 100K+)

No (but over 100K+)

Infinitie Lists

No (one at a time)

Yes

User subscribe

No

Yes

User unsubscribe

Yes

Yes

Languages

English

English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Traditional Chinese, Dutch, Vietname and Japanese

Automatically send updated content from websites to your list?

No

Yes

Integrated into your website? no Yes

Getting it going was easy and took me around 10 mins to setup (note the more you mess with this stuff the easier and quicker it gets). The steps (using only a web browser) were:

  1. Download the zip files from http://www.phplist.com/download (actually it flicks you across to sourceforge then automatically downloads the product).
  2. Logged on to one of my unix based webhosting services Bluehost (www.bluehost.com) and used the graphical control panel there to upload the zip file.
  3. Used the control panel to unzip the PHPlist package and install the files into their own subdirectory (which I cleverly called /phplist ).
  4. I then went to the website I used and typed in the address for the installed phplist package. In this case it was a work area I happened to call http://churchill.l2i.com.au/phplist
  5. I then followed the instructions on the screen which involved creating a database (sounds scary but that the graphical control panel made this easy to do).

This PHPlist appears to be pretty cool and the concepts behind using it are fairly easy to understand.

  1. You have email templates that you can put content into.
  2. You have users whom you can put on one or more mailing lists.
  3. You send the email (template & content) to a mailing list and chack the stats fior what happened.

So, I can now send out the fortnightly newsletter from a web based solution which costs me nothing. The best things is though that other directors of the churchill club can now add or delete members from the list with out me getting involved = forces me to be a better collaborator.

And in regards to my friends email marketing solution? Sorry mate– but at least you’ve still got the funky office.

Next week I thought I might go through how I am handling documents: without paying for software, freeing up my time, and becoming a better collaborator.

Who can you trust?

The other week I caught up with one of my brothers for lunch, and as per usual we spent a while character assassinating members of the extended family, before moving on to the main topic of the day which was expert advice.  My brothers position that was that business is simply too complex and you can’ operate without getting expert advice.  I, more cynically, felt that most advice was worthless because if you asked around you were sure to get opinions both for and against any subject.  Especially when the question was something along the lines of “will this idea work”.  I say most advice is worthless because the closer the advice is to the “fact” end of the scale than the “opinion” end of the scale, the more likely I am to value it.  However facts are also of course open to interpretation which causes further issues.

Getting back to the office, I mentioned my position to our office techo (studied politics, philosophy and computing before dropping out).  He mentioned that the issue is actually a classic problem. As the world becomes more complex and you need to rely on experts, the question is whom do you trust and how do you determine whom you will trust.?

Certainly I look around I find that that my level of trust is low:
•    Politicians appear to be pretty much self interested after their first term.
•    Lawyers, Accountants and Consultants have their own commercial objectives they are trying to meet.
•    New reporting organisations are only interested in today’s stories that they decide to be “news worthy”.
•    And having worked in IT for many years, I am comfortable with the concept that every expert can make a convincing argument why their software is the only choice I should ever make.  They can’t all be right.

I feel therefore that trust,  is one of the major emerging issues of the western world.  For example who do you trust re climate change?  Their appears to be expert voices both for and against.  As the total volume of information available in the world is increasing at an almost exponential rate, and I am forced to trust others just to cope with living.

Determining how I will determine whom to is difficult.  On the couple of occasions I have purchased something on eBay , I have noticed that their trust system has been compromised.  Many sellers, have a 99.9% confidence rating. But when you dig deeper you find the underlying patterns are too strange to be real (thousands of positive recommendations, all one sentence long, posted 6 seconds apart).

I get the impression that one of the reasons social networking sites have developed is based on the fact that Gen Y find the recommendations of their friend far more trustworthy than any third party expert or advertising.

I am only just starting to think about systems for generating trust as I think this area will be huge in the future (if not covertly now), however Open Business Models have really caught my eye. So much so that we are having a look at it tomorrow night at the Churchill Club .  Some of the basic principles of Open Business models inherently make products developed from it more trustworthy.  Principles such as:

  • Unrestricted access to all information
  • Management by Meritocracy [pls link to the definition of meritocracy on wikipedia ]
  • Licensing arrangements that encourage innovation

These types of principles make software products inherently more trustworthy as you know they haven’t been bastardized by overt or covert commercial agendas.  Outside the software area you can see Open Business Models being applied in a wide variety of areas from education, to football teams to just recently a boutique brewery.

My thought is then that Open Business models are recognized as attractive because they generate trust, and trust is increasingly becoming a rare commodity.

Membership Options

Does it date me to say “What Cheeses me off”?

So the other day I want to edit some audio files I have recorded on the new Digital Voice recorder (sweet gadget but I will deal with that another day). Basically I just want to chop the files up into the separate speeches. Peter the techo at the office suggests his preferred beastie for the job is a product called Audacity. Apparently he uses is for doing things with bird sounds.

First I go to my friend Google and type in Audacity. The very first response is a paid result, which tells me Audacity can be downloaded from http://download-audacity.org the second response tells me that Audacity can be downloaded from http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

The first response is a nice looking website, that tells me Audacity is incredibly powerful software and I can download it here. I then have the option of signing up to the network for a low, low cost so that I can access the servers from their high speed network and access their support files.

The second option is a less nice looking website. Its less user-friendly abut I can download Audacity for free.

So what’s going on?

Well the second website is called source forge and is a repository for Open Source software which generally means you can use the software for no charge, but there are some restrictions. One of those restrictions happens to be along the lines of “Because we are giving you the software for free, you can’t resell it”.

In regards to the first website:
1. It was in first position because it’s a paid link.
2. It cannot sell me Audacity because that would be a breach of the licence to use it. But it can achieve the same outcome legally by forcing me to be come a member of their network before downloading files from them.
3. Its network and additional services appear to have absolutely no value.
4. It appears that is happy to take your money to download a product you can get for free.

I suppose the adage that applies is “don’t tell someone they’re stupid, borrow money from them”.

Cheeses me off though.

Deploying Open Source

Normally when we go to the supermarket, my wife normally doesn’t like me unpacking the trolley at the register, in case I put things in the wrong order for the checkout chick to pack them (who would have guessed that washing powder shouldn’t be in the same bag as red meat?). So normally what I do is flick through the magazines: checking out whether Jennifer Hawkins and Megan Gale have secret angst, or what recipes are “must do’s”, or what’s the current list of must have free software.

Normally the list of “must have free software” starts with – replace Microsoft Office with Open Office . The list then normally goes on with a whole lot of other bits and pieces, normally cool but useless tools. Now since Microsoft Office can cost you around $850 for the full box and dice, a free alternative isn’t something that should be ignored.

I’ve had a go at replacing Microsoft Office with Open Office in one of my businesses (30 IT staff = near of $25,000 of software), and made some interesting discoveries that I thought I should pass on. Effectively, I discovered 4 rules for a successful change over, all of which are kind of obvious in hindsight. These are of course on top of the standard change management principles, such as getting buy in from staff, plenty of discussion etc, etc.

1. Make sure all your templates are created in Open Office. Obvious yeah? You would be surprised how many templates and base documents we forgot to change over. Any excuse to go back to the bad old ways and people will.

2. Audit peoples computers. When you have a company full of IT literate people, you will be surprised how many will load unlicensed software on their computers if they think they can get away with it (the managing of licensing is a completely different discussion).

3. Make sure you have Microsoft Office on at least one computer. You may think you can go without it, but your business partners probably can’t. There will always be someone whom wants a presentation or spreadsheet in Microsoft Office format. Additionally, you will find that some documents just don’t cleanly transfer from one format to another. “Compatibility with all major software suites” doesn’t necessarily mean that your open office document will look identical if opened by Microsoft Word.

4. Only ever send out text documents on email as PDF’s. Apart from this being good practice, from a layout point of view, it means that your customers won’t know/won’t care whether you are using Open Office.

Now I didn’t have the issue of having to retrain people on the new software (techo’s remember) but I did have a lot more trouble with staff thinking I was wrong and simply wanting to do their own thing. The major lesson was that you may not have to pay for free software, but that doesn’t mean there’s no cost.

Open Sauce

When I moved out of home I basically lived on pies, pizzas and takeaways. At the end of the first year, a friend of mine, Stewart, moved in and pointed out that he suspected that the black slime at the bottom of a cupboard had started life as a potato. I wanted to argue against his point but I hadn’t looked in the cupboard for months so wasn’t in a position to do so.

It occurred to me that my eating habits were so poor I risked dying of malnutrition, so I got my first recipe book. Actually my Mum bought it for me (thanks, Mum!). I had never been taught how to cook but I gave it a try and, as the years have gone past, I have improved. Today I cook probably 10 meals a fortnight, seven of which I have never cooked before and have chosen at random from a cookbook.

So the other night when we were at the local Chinese restaurant I started to wonder what the restaurant industry thought of recipe books. Clearly they are different business models, both chasing my food dollar.

This then led me to thinking: maybe this is what open source software is, rather than the great evil as it’s normally portrayed by mainstream software companies. Open source software is basically software that you can use for free and you can access the source code. The licensing means you can’t resell it, even if you alter it.

The mainstream software industry, comprising such companies as Microsoft, Adobe and Oracle, argue that because the programmers aren’t paid to produce open source software, there is no business model. Therefore if you support it, you will stifle innovation because no one will get paid, plus you will get a shoddy product as there is no champion to invest millions over years of product development.

My experience is quite different. Sure, there are no paid programmers producing the software, however there are a swathe of system administrators developing it for free, then being paid to support it. And I assure you, if you want to deploy a piece of open source software on a server, you will need to pay someone to help you do it and manage it in the future.

When I studied information technology in the 1980s there was basically only one type of computer person: “the computer person”. Today there are specialists: operators, system administrators, network engineers, programmers, database analysts, etc.

Open source software isn’t the devil, it is simply an aspect of competition between the programmers (who want to get paid to write the software) and the system administrators (who want to get paid to support the software).

From the user point of view it’s a bit like cooking for yourself. The first time you try it, it’s very scary, but after practice you realise its no big deal at all; in fact it will take you into some very interesting areas. A great place to start is www.sourceforge.net.