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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Sunday, April 30, 2006

More office cleanup reading...

Here’s another interesting article from back in Janaury I just read while sorting through the stacks of magazines in my office. From January's Technology Review: "The Internet is Broken." by David Talbot. You can find it online here.

Most of what we read about internet innovation these days focuses on "Web 2.0", on all the new interactive internet applications coming on-line. But this article talks about Internet 2.0 from the point of view of the network infrastructure itself, focusing on a massive multiyear National Science Foundation project to redesign the technology used for the net at its most fundamental level.

Why would we need to rethink the net at this level? Because the original internet protocols did not provide for a number of basic capabilities that are added-on as a patchwork of tools, utilities, and applications. We Internet users are so used to this situation that it seems like a natural state of affairs.

The prime example: security. While local area networks and the applications they support devote more and more energy to defending themselves against attack over the Internet, little is being done to make the Internet itself less permeable to malware.

Simply put, the Internet has no inherent security architecture -- nothing to stop viruses or spam or anything else. Protections like firewalls and antispam software are add-ons, security patches in a digital arms race.

Closely related to security is Identity Management. We're accustomed to establishing usernames, passwords, and password recovery rules with each site we use. In the new internet, identity management and authentication at the network level would replace the crazy-quilt of site-specific authentication.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Online Content and its Discontents

I hope most of you have checked out the Non-Profit Blog Exchange that I refer to over in the left sidebar. It's a great way to keep up with the non-profit blogosphere. This week another of the "virtual events" is underway, where we all get paired up and write about each other. When the music stopped, I was dancing with Hilary Marsh, author of Online Content: Thoughts and Ideas.

When you see this blog, you first think: "Wow, no-one else I read is focusing exclusively on issues of content. This is interesting." Then you notice that the last post was in January and there have only been ten or twelve posts in the last year. It's a real shame because Hilary discusses stuff of interest to bloggers and anyone else who is trying to communicate using online media. That January entry, for example, points us to MediaShift, the PBS-hosted blog of media pundit Mark Glaser. Mark is focused on the impact of new media on our society in the broadest sense, and is well worth subscribing to!

So why isn't this blog being maintained? I wrote to Hilary to ask her just that. It's really a question of time, she says; she's taken on a fulltime job. She wrote back to say:
I think about online content issues all day. At the National
Association of Realtors,
my job is to oversee the content for our
8,500+-page member website. I'm the evangelist for the concepts
involved with content management, the person who figures out how our
information should be translated for the Web, who works with our CMS
developer to identify which business rules can be executed
technically, and who oversees the editorial team that supports every
department in the organization.
Hilary, I wish you could find the time to share a bit in your blog about the challenges your Association faces in maintaining a site of this size and complexity! I think we'd all gain from your insights. I'll chip in for the coffee.
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Sunday, April 23, 2006

When Worlds Collide

The latest ideas on collaborative software tools, AJAX web applications, and that mainstay of bread-and-butter business apps, the spreadsheet, are coming together in wikiCalc, a new application being developed by my old dormmate and VisiCalc originator, Dan Bricklin.

Considering Dan invented the entire idea of the electronic spreadsheet as we know it, we'd be fools not be interested. The history, as Wikipedia explains it, goes like this.
The generally recognized inventor of the spreadsheet is Dan Bricklin. Bricklin has spoken of watching his university professor create a table of calculation results on a blackboard. When the professor found an error, he had to tediously erase and rewrite a number of sequential entries in the table, triggering Bricklin to think that he could replicate the process on a computer, using the blackboard as the model to view results of underlying formulas. His idea became VisiCalc, the first application that turned the personal computer from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a business tool.
You can download the wikiCalc program, and find links to other relevant info, at the AlphaTest Homepage on Dan's company website. It's being provided under the GPL License. And his link on the architecture of the application will be interesting to the technically minded. In particular it describes his solution for allowing simultaneous multiuser access to the sheets.

The current version is fairly limited, but it certainly gives you a sense of the editing style, and the overall intent of the project. Take a look.
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Saturday, April 22, 2006

You Tube embedded player

I'm a little late, I guess, in discovering how cool You Tube is. The ability to place a video directly on your site in a visual player component is fantastic. I've been avoiding getting a video camera because I know how much time I'll waste with it... but I may not be able to resist. Meanwhile, just to show you what this tool looks like, here's a Kentucky version of an oldtime fiddle standard, Katy Hill, played by Michael Garvin.
This resource will make the incorporation of video directly into a non-profit's website a breeze!
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Friday, April 21, 2006

Increasing operational efficiency

Just something else I came across cleaning up my desk - consulting giant Accenture released a report the other day on non-profit management. The study, Executive Issues in NonProfits, found that while most non-profit executives identify increasing revenue as their greatest challenge, they fail to realize the importance of increasing operational efficiency - that is, in stretching the value of their revenue.

The studies recommends :
...improving internal efficiencies, investing in better technologies, implementing relevant metrics, and cultivating a broader and more engaged volunteeer network.
Yet they found these improvements were relatively far down on the non-profit executives top-ten issues lists, when compared to simply increasing the number of donors and getting larger gifts from existing donors.

The study specifically recommends the following actions -
  1. Make better use of technology.
  2. Overcome inherent limitations in headcount by more effectively organizing and managing volunteers as an extension of paid staff.
  3. Explore and adopt new collaborative business models with complementary organizations.
  4. Convince corporate and private-sector donors to fund general operations instead of “signature” or “vanity” programs.
  5. Adopt appropriate metrics that enable organizations to evaluate the success and impact of their delivery of services and programs.
  6. Engage board members to ensure quality governance structures.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Office clean-up Part 1 :Open-Source and the GPL

I decided it was really time to clean-up my office the other day. And what happened is I ended up sitting on the floor all day, reading through the piles magazines that have come in over the last few months and just stacked up. Over the next few days I'll talk about a few that caught my eye and got me thinking.

Let's start with one from February's Software Development: Licence Overload, opinion by Warren Keuffel. This is a musing on the current state of the Gnu Public License, which governs a preponderance of open-source software projects. You can find it online here.

But first, let's talk about what open-source means for a minute. I know a lot of people in the in the non-profit community think of Open-Source software as "free", as not requiring a license agreement. Indeed, software released as open-source is usually governed by a strict license agreement limiting, as all software licenses do, how the product may be distributed.

Software that is released without copyright or license is termed Public Domain software. Since it has no license, users are free to redistribute it however they want - without source code, for example - so Public Domain is clearly not Open Source.

By far the most common open source license is the Gnu Public License, (GPL) which currently governs 67% of all free and open source applications. The license grants the license holder four "freedoms" - freedom to study, copy, modify, and redistribute the software.

Free as in "Free Speech", Not "Free Beer"
Importantly, it allows the license holder to redistribute the application or deriviative products at a price - it does not require that the application or related services be provided for free. This is what has permitted such widespread commercial adoption of the open source idea. As leaders in the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement like to remind users, the word is Free as in Free Speech, not Free as in Free Beer.

The Free comes from the fact that the GPL requires that any redistribution must also be provided under the GPL -- whether it is of the original product or derivative works -- and thus also must grant the four freedoms . For this to work, the application must be governed by a copyright - this is what gives the original copyright holder the legal power to dictate how it may be duplicated. This use of the copyright law to encourage copying is refered to in FOSS circles as Copyleft.

The GPL has been critical to the open-source movement - the next most popular open-source license accounts for only 6% of FOSS projects. But Keuffel suggests in this piece that GPL is seriously out-of-date and needs to be rethought. Some of the problems:

(1) the license leave holders and redistributers open to charges of patent infringement.
(2) it is written in a way that makes it unclear how it can apply to newer forms of redistributable work - such as web-services.
(3) many open-source projects are international in effort. But the GPL very much reflects US copyright law.

Two, three many license agreements
Developer sensitivity to issues like this have led to a proliferation in new license agreements by major players such as MIT, SUN Microsystems, and the Mozilla Foundation. Wikipedia has published a list of software licenses that can give you some sense of how the definition of FOSS has fragmented. This "license overload" makes it difficult for organizations to develop policies around the acquisition of FOSS, or for developers to make a decision to release their products as open-source.

Currently a GPL draft for version 3 is under discussion - some 8000 organizations have been involved in it. The success of this revision could have a major impact on the future of free and open-source software.
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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Michael Stein East meets Michael Stein West!

In one of my more exciting moments at the NTC Conference in Seattle last month, I finally got to meet the west coast Michael Stein in person. Smiley lot, aren't we?

This photo was snapped by Doria on WestCoast Michael's camera, and uploaded by someone to the NTEN site as "Michael Gilbert East meets Michael Gilbert West". Not quite.

There is no evidence yet that there are two Michael Gilberts in the non-profit tech community. But the one we know of is well worth meeting. His Non-profit Online News is a good place to start. You can subscribe to his news for free and get it in your inbox once a week.
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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Links Roundup - April 1-10

Here are a few sites and resources I've found worth bookmarking in the last week or so:

1. On the Office on the Web front - here's the first creditable database offering I've seen so far: Lazybase lets you create tables, link them, share them, and view them in a variety of ways, including on maps and graphs.

2. And here is Near-Time, a wiki/blog/calendar tool that seems elegant and free of feature bloat. I've set up an evaluation site for my office to play with; seems like all the tools you need for a tidy little intranet. They've been getting a good bit of favorable press. Try out a free beta account!

3. Britt has done it again - a while back I linked to Britt Bravo's Introduction to Blogging tutorial, which seemed to cover all the bases - content, style, tools - very nicely. Here's an article she's just posted on podcasting. Not a how-to , she's put together a list of possible applications for this technology in the non-profit arena that - especially if your a text-based dude like me who has not gotten too excited about audio media yet - may get you thinking about buying a good microphone before the week is out.

4. Another nice educational piece: RSS Explained, by D.C. area community technology activist Phil Shapiro. If you have not yet quite figured out what the talk about feeds and feedreaders is all about, pour yourself a nice cup of coffee and settle in with his article. Phil doesn't just explain the nuts and bolts, but makes it clear how this tool can actually be of value to you and/or your organization.

5. Tim Anderson tackles an issue I've troubled over in the back of my mind but never quite articulated. In his posting Software Contracts and Agile Methodology, he comes out and asks it: is it possible that today's new methodologies, emphasizing incremental design and development in shorter cycles, require a whole new approach to contracts between developers and their users?

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Friday, April 07, 2006

More on the Apple announcement

Apple stock climbed about 15% on Wednesday and Thursday after the announcement of the BootCamp Windows loader convinced most observers that Apple's share of the pc marketplace would expand. But on Friday prices fell as Apples lowered its projections for iPod and Macintosh computer sales.
But much more interesting than market moves is this spirited debate about the meaning and implications of Windows on the Mac hosted on Nicholas Carr's Rough Type blog.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Apple supports Windows; Sun rises in West

It's the announcement you never thought you'd read: Apple officially supports the use of the Windows operating system on the Mac. The Boot Camp product, available as a free download from the Apple web site, creates a second partition for Windows and allows the system to be boot up under either sytem.
The public beta of Boot Camp is available immediately as a download at, and is preview software licensed for use on a trial basis for a limited time. The final version of Boot Camp will be available as a feature in the upcoming Mac OS X version 10.5 “Leopard.” Apple does not provide support for installing or running Boot Camp and does not sell or support Microsoft Windows software. Apple welcomes user feedback on Boot Camp at
Of course, the wags are already having a lot of fun with this - check out this little video on You Tube. But by voiding the twenty-year holy war between the Mac platform and the Windows OS with its enormous software base, this move should remove a major barrier to purchase and enable Apple to increase its market share greatly.

At least most analysts are seeing it this way.
But there's another view as well. Freelance writer Ian Betteridge, who often devotes ink to the Mac, suggests that those who want Windows as their primary OS will still find that they do better, both in terms of cost and performance, to buy a PC built for Windows. He concludes
For home and business users who want a Mac and who occasionally need to run Windows, this is a great solution. But I doubt it will make much difference to businesses or education.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Defeating Feature Fatigue

Harvard Business Review does not let you read their articles online, so I can only point you to an abstract of this interesting piece from the February issue on the HBR site. I'm back on the complexity in IT design issue again: this article provides some empirical support for the argument I was making in that post - that following users requests for system features can lead developers to build software too complex to use effectively. The three authors of this paper (Roland T. Rust, Debora Viana Thompson, Rebecca W. Hamilton ) were looking at a different domain - consumer electronics - but my observations are that their conclusions are right on. From the abstract:
...even though consumers know that products with more features are harder to use, they initially choose high-feature models. They also pile on more features when given the chance to customize a product for their needs. [Boldface is mine] Once consumers have actually worked with a product, however, usability starts to matter more to them than capability.
And indeed, in the study, they found that additional features lowered customer-reported usability and satisfaction. The researchers provided prototype 7- and 21-feature dvd players to the survey participants for actual home use in the final stage of the study. Despite the fact that users in the "customization" part of the study overwhelmingly favored adding features, users in the "actual use" component were happier with the units with fewer features.

So this is a real conundrum for folks like us who customize software applications and database systems for non-profit organizations. How do we convince users that some of the complex feature requirements that they present us with may in fact make their systems less usable, not more? Even better, how can we identify those feature requests? More on this later.
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