What Users Should Require in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

We, the users, should stop thinking about software as a thing to own. The direction is toward a service model for better and worse.

What should a keen-eyed shopper value?

  • No data lock-in – the user should own their data and be able to export it at any time through the native user interface without having to jump through hoops (except for encrypted data – see below). The export should be in a common format like plain text, XML, CSV, etc. and not a proprietary format.
  • Direct support – a web interface, email address, and chat at a minimum is required. Any service only offering support through an app store is a major red flag.
  • Multi-platform – unless you only live in Apple’s or Google’s ecosystem any SaaS must at least support your top two platforms. If you are GNU/Linux or Windows on your desktop, this is a must-have for your mobile devices.
  • Multi-cloud – unless you only live in Apple’s ecosystem any SaaS must support Dropbox as a second option at a minimum. iCloud is limited to macOS, iOS, and Windows but the Windows support is abysmal IMHO.
  • Mobile support – must handle landscape and portrait layouts and support tablet sizes. I am surprised at the software that still does not do this basic task.
  • Encryption – must support industry standard best encryption options. If a SaaS offers its own custom encryption RUN AWAY! Exporting encrypted data should offer unencrypted and GPG-passphrase-encrypted options though few do today.
  • Active development – this is easiest to verify if they have a public GitHub or similar repository. App stores will also show when the last update hit. Careful reviews of app store ratings can help figure out the historical time line. Check in Reddit and StackExchange and other public forums.
  • Native (non app store) desktop releases – on the desktop the ability to get the software outside of the Apple or Microsoft or Google app stores is a plus. Even if you prefer the app store version – and most users should for the added security – the developer’s willingness to offer a direct-to-the-customer version of their software with a license is a good sign. Also, any revenue the developer gets from these direct sales is 100%. Apple app store versions costs the developer 30% or so.
  • In App Purchases – not bad in and of themselves, a developer should not “nickel and dime” customers with small features. There should be an option for some kind of a premium bundle which offers all add-ons for a reasonable 1 time fee.
  • Data sync – this is a tough one. Most SaaS developers will come up with their own sync solution after changes to DropBox made it more difficult for developers. iCloud on iOS & macOS works in the Apple ecosystem. OneDrive might eventually for Microsoft and some Android stuff, and Google Drive for the Google stuff. I think so long as the sync adheres to the above you are good.
  • Local storage – some apps like 1Password and TextExpander offered local repository options but deprecated them for IMHO less than compelling reasons related to sync and cloud. Users should have the option to store sensitive data locally and forgo sync & cloud for that data.
  • Feature & scope creep – watch out for Saas that suddenly introduce changes for enterprises and large groups while removing or reducing functionality for individual users in order to accommodate the expansion.

What else should users look for in a SaaS product?

[2017] Emergency Preparedness

I am a big fan of planning for “the Big Dark”, where the power is out for more than 3 days. Analog systems, like printed and hand-written records, will be more useful. 

Remember: Emergency preparedness isn’t only for you. it is also so others can contact you when something bad happens to them.

There are drawbacks, mostly around family dynamics this article assumes are moot when emergencies happen.

Note: These are my recommendations. Your mileage may vary. I look forward to constructive input on how best to prepare in the digital age.

Keep an off-line list of emergency info & numbers with you

There was a time where people either knew important numbers and information or carried a address book – a printed out, dead tree address book – and a much of change to use a pay phone (remember those?) to call people. We need to embrace at least a subset of that.

Your health insurance information should be in here. Insurance providers, policy information, doctors information, and maybe prescriptions information should be included.

In certain countries you may need your ID number as well (though US residents should NOT carry their Social Security card or number).

How about this: keep the numbers of your family and close friends in case your phone dies. I could not call anyone except my children if my phone failed, and they don’t often answer their phones – especially from an unknown caller.

As I’m living in a foreign country I carry a card or two that I can use to get me home. In case you’re traveling, disoriented, or inebriated having a card or two to help you get home can be a life saver.

Carry a bit of cash with you, too, in your wallet.

Keep an off-line list of emergency info & numbers at home

This should be a superset of what you carry with you. Your actual cards and birth certificates and stuff (if they are not in a safe deposit box already) should be in a ready-to-carry locked fireproof box in case of emergency. Bank account information, other financial records, and whatever else needed to rebuild after a disaster should be in here.

Throw some currency in the box, too. While it is in there it isn’t working for you, gaining interest or buying food. But if the power goes out no credit or debit card will help. Having cash will help.

[iOS] Enable Emergency Bypass in iOS 10:

I’ve used the Do Not Disturb feature in iOS since it was introduced. This feature allows you to set “quiet times” when your device won’t alert you with notifications, including phone calls and text messages. It can be activated manually or set to activate at recurring times. I have my set to activate from 10:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m. each day, mainly to avoid “wrong number” calls at all hours of the night.

You have always been able to set a specific group of people you want to exclude from the Do Not Disturb settings. This can be a group you designate in your Contacts or your iPhone’s Favorites list. For years I’ve created a contacts group called “VIP” that I had excluded from Do Not Disturb that included family and a few close friends and other important numbers. While this is handy, it may not cover everyone you want to be able to reach you in the event of an urgent matter. With iOS 10, you have more granular control and can now set contacts on an individual basis to bypass the Do Not Disturb Settings.

To activate the feature select the contact card you want to exclude, edit the contact and select ringtone. At the top of the ringtone menu you’ll now see a toggle for “Emergency Bypass”.

… This is a segment of an article that first appeared in the November Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly on the iPad. You can find out more at https://www.screencastsonline.com/membership_benefits/

(Via KatieFloyd.me)

I am not sure if Android offers a similar feature.

[Android] Use Google’s Trusted Contacts App

Trusted Contacts runs on top of a pretty simple concept, with the tap of a button an approved list of people can request your location from wherever they may be. Users will need to manually approve who can request their location, and once a request is sent, the user will have 5 minutes to approve or decline the request before the app automatically approves and sends it.

This app takes things up a notch as well by adding offline support, in a sense. If a user heads outside of active cell service and internet access, the app will report the last known location for that user 5 minutes after a request is sent. Contacts can also “walk each other home,” virtually. This essentially enables one user to keep track of another user’s location as a live feed.

… Before you can share your location, though, you first have to go through the process of adding contacts to the application…

How to add contacts:

  1. Open the Trusted Contacts application
  2. If this is the first time setting up the application, Trusted Contacts will walk you through adding contacts
  3. To set up new contacts, either tap on the Add contacts button found at the bottom of the home screen or open the menu by selecting the Menu button in the upper left-hand side of the screen and tap on the Add contacts option
  4. Here you can search through the contacts on your device and select Add next to the individual to send them an invitation to be a trusted contact

(Via 9to5google.com)

i am not sure if iOS offers a similar feature.

Set up lock screen emergency information

This is a old tip but still useful.

Basically take a picture of contact information and make it your device’s lock screen. Tailor the content to provide what is needed without going overboard. Imagine you are passed out on the sidewalk and the only thing people can get to is your phone’s lock screen. What is the critical information you can provide on there that doesn’t open you up to identity theft?

I find this more useful than the login banner message most devices support. One doesn’t have to wait for the message to scroll, where almost all users put the contact email or phone number.

What else?

What other things, simple and inexpensive and effective, that folks should do?

Motorola Provides an Argument for Apple as a Corporate Mobile Standard

I’m unlikely to recommend Android devices until Google and the hardware providers get the upgrade situation under control. I might make an exception for the Nexus and Samsung devices, but as I write this I have no faith in the rest of the Android ecosystem.

As I often do, let me tell you a story to illustrate this opinion:

When I started with IBM I chose the Motorola Droid Maxx over other Android phones and Apple iPhones.

My choice wasn’t arbitrary. I did my research.

The decision of iOS versus Android wasn’t a fair fight. KitKat made it easier to be effective. Sharing data between apps was not just easier, it was POSSIBLE on Android. iOS could copy and paste, but not much else.

The Maxx offered excellent battery life (I easily get through a full day on a single charge), a decent screen, an adequate amount of storage, and a rugged build according to my research. Two other major reasons I went with it was that Motorola was a part of Google (at the time) and they listed it as on the upgrade path to Android Lollipop.

14 months later and the only thing still true is the battery life. The screen cracked easily and repeatedly with regular use, the 16GB storage barely keeps up with my minimal workload, and it quickly becomes sluggish unless I close apps and/or reboot.

As for the upgrade to Lollipop, Motorola changed tack yesterday:

We apologize that we will not be upgrading DROID Ultra/Mini/Maxx to Android Lollipop, as we had hoped. We know how important software upgrades are to our customers, and we’re very sorry that we are unable to provide the upgrade.

The Maxx is still on 4.4.2 while Marshmallow (version 6) is the release du jour on Nexus. Verizon released few updates (and they’re complicit in the upgrade mess) but not at the cadence required. I’m sure my Maxx is vulnerable to many issues long since fixed on other platforms. Corporate mandates and enforces robust mobile security, yet I only use my corporate issued phone for email, calendar, tasks, and internal instant messaging. I don’t trust the phone to do much more. I’ve removed almost all non-stock applications.

My personal phone, the older OnePlus One with the Cyanogen Android flavor at 5.1.1, sees vastly more attention than the Motorola. On the 1+1 I do my social media and podcasts and RSS feeds and whatnot, much of which is work related or adjacent.

The funny thing: I used to carry a second phone to protect me from my benevolent corporate overlords. Now my personal phone protects my clients.

iPhones receive regular updates – some better than others, but Apple updates viable phones for a long time (the iPhone 4S, anyone?). Apps have to keep up, for better or worse. Newer iOS versions addressed the data sharing issue, making Apple  devices more useful to me as productivity tools.

The moral of my story is that I’m going through the process to replace the Maxx with an iPhone, but it’s a bureaucratic mess that takes time. Now that Motorola came clean, the upgrade path theoretically eases.

What about you? What are your experiences in this space? Have you standardized on iOS or Android or Windows? Or do you struggle with the mercurial nature of the vendors and your users? What about when vendors pull the rug out from under you? Are you considering alternate platforms like Microsoft Windows Mobile and Ubuntu?

Full Disclosure: I work for IBM. IBM and Apple are partners (who would have thought that in the 80’s?). My opinions are mine alone.

What I’m Not Missing – the iPhone 5

I don’t normally miss things, but I find myself missing my work laptop. It’s funny, since I tried to return it for being too big. It ran Ubuntu Linux well. It was maxed out with CPU, memory, disk, display, and on and on and on. I miss the dual head monitor setup in my old office.

What I don’t miss is the iPhone 5. I didn’t realize it until I read this article about Apple cutting orders of iPhone parts due to low demand.

Last year I upgraded my iPhone 3GS work cell phone with a shiny new iPhone 5. The speed was nice. The additional screen space was nice. The new Lightning connector sucks if you, like me, own a bunch of the all ready inconvenient 30-pin accessories. The iPhone 5 is light and slick and thin. While it slips into a hip pocket easily it also lends itself to drops and slips.

I was never wowed by the phone.

My personal phone is an iPhone 4S. It’s a bit heftier. It’s more energetic. Vibrate notification feels like it could fell the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It’s the same OS but seems easier to navigate with one hand. It’s fast enough. And my iPhone 4S has more space than my former employer was willing to provide with the work iPhone 5, so music and podcasts are no problem.

Will my next phone be an Apple product? Setting aside whatever my next employer offers, my next personal phone probably won’t be an Apple product, at least not one of the current models.

Refactoring Emacs’ Org-mode, GTD, Information Capture, Good Data, 6 W’s, & the Kitchen Sink

This post can use a serious refactoring all by itself. I won’t. This is more of a thought experiment, internal discussion open to all, and a mild rambling brain dump. If anyone gets any value out of it (including me), excelsior!

I use EmacsOrg-mode for my GTD workflow. Emacs is ubiquitous for me on my computers. Org-mode is an add-on that I place a lot of stock in for information management and GTD. Mobileorg, the method/app that gets the Org-mode data to and from smartphones and tablets, is installed on my mobile devices.

Right now I use Org-mode mostly for work. Everything is in three basic files: inbox.org for capture, notes.org for note handling, and todo.org for task handling. These are more theoretical than practical. For example, I configured the org-capture function in org-mode to completely miss the inbox and place captured notes and tasks into their respective files. They should go instead into the inbox where I daily and weekly review and refile.

I also need my personal life captured in here. The line between personal and business time is beyond blurry. It’s more of a wind blown wave in the sand. Because of that and the highly similar nature of my day – it’s usual if not common for me to step out of the office for an hour or so to run an errand while I can be up the wee hours in my home office or hotel room working on budgets – I need to reflect my whole life in there and obliterate the microscopic distinction between the two. Plus my work life is generally more interesting of the two these days. Correcting that is a task in the new system.

This leaves me with a few open questions I’ve been pondering for a spell:

  1. Is org-mode the right choice?
  2. Is a one large file approach, several files approach, or a file per topic/project approach going to work out the best for me based on my current understanding and assumptions?
  3. How will I share this information with others as needed?
  4. How important are contexts in this new mix? For instance, will I care if I’m in the office or at home when doing most tasks? Do I care about a phone context since I always have at least one phone nearby? Same with a computer (though a keyboard context for writing might be good).
  5. How much of the rest of my time is spent in Emacs?
  6. How to keep safe, secure, and available?

The last shall be the first, the first shall be the second, and the rest shall fall where they may.

6 – I will keep my org files in Wuala. My mobileorg publishing will be done with Dropbox. Both are cross platform and cross OS options. Wuala is encrypted for data in transit and data at rest with me holding the keys. Dropbox isn’t as secure, but it is the only method I can make work of disseminating the data between my device platforms. Mobileorg allows for simple encryption for the data in transit. I hope the developers continue to improve it and maybe offer different cloud storage options. I don’t like using external services for such things. There is no similar solution in-house, and no explicit prohibition of a public option for tangentially relevant data. Until there is a viable internal option I am using the tools that are available. Having two separate solutions will allow provider diversity, though I could integrate an internal SharePoint option later. I continue to take appropriate actions, such as checks for data integrity and

1- I think Org-mode and Emacs will stay my tools of choice, at least for now. I need to affix GTD as a habit more than I have. The tool used is largely irrelevant. When I bust out org-mode I not only feel like I have a better grasp on what I am doing, I actually accomplish things in a more strategic fashion. This is especially true in comparison to my Inbox. I always get burned when I use my Inbox as my todo list.

5 – Quite a lot of my time is spent in Emacs, actually, considering that my technical role is wafer thin. It is almost always running. Probably my best use is again with org-mode, but for doing presentations. I like drafting it in org-mode before subjecting it to MS PowerPoint or Keynote. It’s my external editor for Lotus Notes and my default for many file types in Windows. I used to use it for my Twitter client. I should dust that off. Emacs’ w3 is a great distraction-free web browser.

4 – I will ditch contexts in my GTD except for two – detached and keyboard. “Detached” (or maybe untethered) is for those times when I don’t need a network connection to work. These contexts should have all of the information needed stored locally. The other, keyboard, I need as mentioned above. Other tasks I can complete using an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or whatever. These contexts will be managed as tags on existing entries prefixed with the ‘at’ sign (@).

3 – Sharing information outside of org-mode is both incredibly easy and insanely difficult. org-mode uses flat text files. Internal logic presents the data in an efficient manner. While any old program can open text files, they can’t necessarily understand them. I think I can get around this by setting up agenda views published to HTML on the corporate SharePoint portal, for example. My group uses Lotus Notes for email and calendar, so I need to come up with a workable way to share at least the calendar stuff. Email I’m less concerned about at the moment, though if I can convince the powers that be to turn on secure IMAP …

2 – How to structure the file(s)? This is really where things go wonky for me and why I kept it for last. I love the idea of "one file to rule them all". A monolithic file will eventually get too big, too unwieldy, and too vertical for me to get Emacs and org-mode to handle it all. Too many small files takes the vertical problem and makes it horizontal. Having a separate file for each project, for example, is a great idea until one note or one task needs to be shared between two or more projects. My current sparse files option might be the best, but not how they’re currently setup. Notes and tasks need to be together.

I think my inbox.org concept is sound if I just use it.

I will kick things off with three main files: inbox.org, world.org, and archive.org. All of my daily capture will go into the inbox. All of my current stuff will reside in world. Nothing should go into world directly. Older items will go into archive. Daily I will empty my inbox. Weekly, monthly, and annually I will review the world. I will quarterly and annually review the archive. I will also have a “Someday/Maybe”-type file and a “reading room”-type file. I was going to have some miscellaneous files, but I don’t want to go too far afield on what I can see. Miscellaneous files may end up being out of normal view. I will reconsider this as things go.

I will keep my work calendar in Notes for the time being. If I can figure out a way to automate sharing the calendar between that and org-mode/Emacs calendar I will do so.

I will make projects contexts, tags prefixed with a ‘@’. A note or a task can be tagged with as many as needed.

Another thing I can do, and this is something of an aside but an important one, is I will be able to open notes and tasks associated with my team (and others). So, when I’m with them on the phone or standing at their desk I should be able to pull everything up about them as a tag filter across projects and everything. That kills off the far too frequent "What was that other thing I wanted to talk with you about?" query.

This reflection and rambling course of action brings up another issue, one that is not specific to any tool or method. I need to capture better information. I had a conversation with one of my bosses not too long ago. It was a long chat. There were many concrete tasks I needed to deliver. One item should have been concrete and easy to do but I wrote it down incorrectly. By the time I got back to it in a late review I couldn’t remember the "what" and "why" of the conversation though I had a time frame.

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was a Journalism and Broadcasting major in college. I trained for capturing accurate information. I did this by asking six simple questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Why I don’t do this at certain times is fodder for yet another post yet another time.

Some of you may ask, "But I don’t need all of those when capturing data, do I"?

No. A good rule of thumb is no fewer than three. In my vague example above what, when, and why would probably have been sufficient. Who was a given value of "me". Where and how wasn’t part of the equation.

My management style rarely has a "How" or "Where" component to tasks I assign, though from time to time one of those can be introduced. Since I travel constantly for work, the "Where" bit can play a role.

Before sharing your data with others, especially higher ups and customers, you need all W’s answered. You should have references where possible.

I think the most frustrating thing around this process is that it’s not as simple as it should be. A colleague of mine constantly rails against managing to the exception (pot-kettle-black; another post), and he’s right, but how do you define what constitutes an exception. That takes us off into yet another post for another day.

Am I addressing my personal life, such as it is, in this? Is this actually going to help or hurt or make no difference? I won’t know until I take the plunge. One thing that I might alter will be the Someday/Maybe stuff. Items for my employer I will want to separate from my personal stuff. There will be an occasional overlap. I’ll deal with those as they come.

Another issue that is still out there is the data. If I leave my employer, who owns the data? If I mix the personal with the professional with the employer-specific stuff, how do I divorce it if need be?

I need to make a task to roll in my aborted OneNote experiment. I tried using OneNote. It’s a surprisingly great tool. The lack of an easy-to-use internal reference system, the inability to dock it at login, difficulty in reorganizing or refiling data, no overarching view of tasks, and its GUI-only nature limits its usefulness. Maybe if I was on Outlook & Exchange and never left a Windows/iOS environment it would work better. It does have a lot of things I quite like: templates (though not as easy to use as they should be), audio capture as part of note taking, tabs & pages & notebooks as its metaphor, OS-integrated capture, some third party tools to fill some gaps, and integration with SharePoint and MSN/MS Live with strong encryption for the data in transit (not sure about data-at-rest). I can see using it as a replacement for org-mode, but it will take a lot of work and decisions by people senior to me to make it a true replacement for work.

Two other things play a role in org-mode: Emacs calendar/diary and BBDB. The calendar is as described. The Big Brother DataBase (BBDB) is another animal. BBDB is a contact list. More value comes from using it in an integrated Emacs environment. My contacts are all over the place and in serious need of review. BBDB will be my main contact repository. I can move things in and out somewhat easily.

This post exceeded any reasonable expectation for length, breadth, and buckshot content.

It brings up another important point. I should be able to edit posts in Emacs, too! Someday/Maybe, perhaps. There must be a WordPress option for Emacs.

I have some concrete deliverables from this, some things to work on, and some “nice-to-haves” down the road.

Here endeth the … whatever this is.