Sunday, March 8, 2009

The cloud is winning.

Seated in front of the PC in my home office just the other day, I started MS-Outlook to check my email. As the program started, it flashed the Outlook-2000 banner. It had not occurred to me until that moment that I was using 9-year old software to handle one of the most critical communication tasks in my life.

That flash screen got me to thinking about my email use, needs, and the systems that provide the essential services. I use at least five different computers in my daily work and personal life. Three of them are Win-XP PCs. One of those is a laptop. The other PC is an iMac. The XP machines are: (1) My work PC - a five-year old Gateway; (2) My laptop - a three-year old Gateway on which I write this post at 24,000 feet above Arkansas; (3) My home-office PC - a home-built machine of undertmined age. I think the oldest component is probably over ten years old while the newest (the flat screen monitor) is about two years old. This machine has been "upgraded" one piece at a time for so long that I simply don't know its heritage. The fourth machine is an iMac 24" at home. I love it for its great display, for iPhoto and iTunes and streaming NetFlix. I hate it for how clumsy I am at using the Apple differences when I've become so smoothly practiced with XP. I am not ready to migrate for all home-office uses, and won't be until Quicken and my genealogy programs provide the same functionality on the iMac as on XP. In the meantime, I'm working toward a virtual XP machine on the iMac. The fifth is my Palm Centro smartphone.

For this menagerie of machines and systems, there is a similary diverse set of software providing email client servies. As I mentioned above, the home machine uses Outlook 2000. At work I have Outlook 2003, while I use Mozilla Firebird 2.0 on the laptop and the iMac Apple Mail program on that machine. The Centro uses VersaMail 4.0. Each of these email clients interfaces across the Internet with two mail servers. My company has an Ability server which handles my work email. My personal email resides on a Go-Daddy server somewhere. The three XP machines, the iMac, and the Centro all access those emails using the Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3), itself an antiquated protocol. Let's add one complicating factor: I also maintain a Yahoo! email account as a backup and to use for registering software and Internet shopping sites. (Yes, I know I'm Bloggin on Google, but I don't use GMail simply because I've had the Yahoo! address for so very many years.

I mentioned earlier that I'd been thinking about my use of email. And here's what I thought: Why does this need to be so complicated? Why keep email clients on my PCs? Why not just access the email in the cloud Netbook-style as my daughter does on the Netbook I gave her for Christmas? This leads to another step: Why not simplify one step further and consolidate all of my email into one cloud system, like, for instance, GMail.

I need my work email address with its "professional" domain address and I like having my personal email using my vanity domain. It has been nice to keep my Web registrations and such on Yahoo! mail as that keeps a lot of spam and such away from my POP3 email. But I can access the Internet from nearly anywhere (Delta tells me I can even do it from here at 24,000 feet, soon.) If a Web email can consolidate all of my email in one place, still tell me which system received the email, and send and reply from the preferred domains, why, that would be nice.

I alread use Google Docs and have found it to be a wonderful way to share documents and to collaborate on work. A large client I work for is moving all of their documents from PCs and small networks into MS Sharepoint server. My early experience with the system has me impressed with the possibilities the system represents. Think of it as Google Docs on steroids and inside a fence.

So I'm considering moving more of my work and my information to the cloud. I'm not sure whose cloud it will be, yet, but I don't think it will be MS's OfficeLive. I've looked at it and have not seen much that impresses me. I know that some companies and local governments are getting great mileage out of Google applications (for an example, see Where will it be? I'll have to look and learn, and I'll keep you posted as I learn enough to start making some decisions. Maybe the main point here is that PC applications do not currently seem to be the future of computing. Several years ago, there was a move to the "dumb terminal" for personal computing. What a dumb name. But the concept seems to be winning, we are just calling it cloud computing now.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First impressions of a city.

I am in St. Louis for a few days attending a training symposium and trade show. It is the first time I've been to this city on the Mississippi for quite a few years, and my impressions are quite mixed. My hotel is very old but recently renovated. My assigned room on the 17th floor is small but nicely appointed. I have a view east to the river and the Veteran's Memorial/Martin Luther King bridge. The view of the famous Arch, though, is blocked by a tinted-glass and steel office tower. Just across the street is the impressive America's Center convention center. People I've dealt with so far, in the hotel, convention center, restaurant, at the airport, have been friendly and helpful. Much of this part of St. Louis seems to be modern and vibrant and based on a foundation more than a century old. The city has a website that offers convenient services to the citizens (including a way to report potholes) and there is even a link on the website to a map of free wi-fi spots in the city. From my window I can see public art, a small park, and things seem clean and well maintained.

But these are kind of secondary first impressions, and quite different from the FIRST first impressions. After claiming my bags at Lambert Field, I travelled the 13.8 miles from the airport to downtown on the MetroLink light rail. Inexpensive, but impressive for all the wrong reasons. Getting to the airport's East MetroLink stop was an adventure in itself. The path led across streets, through parking garages and tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, inside, outside, inside again, and finally up two levels on an elevator. The route was, at least, well marked with signs pointing the way. I'm not sure how well lit the area is at night. I don't think I'd want to take that route at night. Had there not been clear signs with arrows indicating the way to the MetroLink, I would never have gone there in the daytime. It is hard to describe how ugly and uninviting everything looked along the way--how inconvenient it seemed. The floor in most places was wet and/or oily (the weather was warm and dry). The ceiling, when indoors, was low and the passage way narrow. For distances of 10s of meters at a time, the passageway was not wide enough for two people to pass in opposite directions without turning sideways to each other. On one ramp, the walkway was so narrow I could not carry my bags at my side, but had to drag them behind me. When indoors the smell was rank. And everything, walls, ceilings, railings, bannisters, stairs, were all unpainted (except for grafitti) concrete--much of the concrete was stained or crumbling. The feeling was that of an abandoned (hopefully!) war bunker. One's imagination could cause palpitations here! At the elevator, signs indicated two higher levels, "Ticketing," and "Platform." I boarded the elevator and pressed the button for Ticketing. The elevator rose, stopped, the doors opened...onto a completely empty and open area with no attendants, booths, or vending machines visible. I got back onto the elevator and pressed the button for Platform.

Upon arriving at the train platform I found ticket dispensing machines. Cash only. When was the last time you saw that? There were a variety of tickets listed, each with a button to push: One hour; two hours; day pass; week pass, etc. But nothing that told me how long it took to get from the aiport to downtown. I chose the two-hour pass, figuring that to be a good compromise between overspending and not having enough fare for my destination. The machine did, at least work well, and gave me back a quarter in change from my four dollar bills.

I'm glad the weather was nice. The exposed and un-roofed platform was in the middle of two open train tracks, one for an eastbound train and the other for westbound, and I'll bet it can get very uncomfortable here in windy and cold weather. There was no signage or maps telling a passenger which train to get onto to go downtown. A lady at the information desk in the airport had told me to be sure to get on the right train. A loudspeaker did make occasional announcements. For instance, it told the few waiting souls that the westbound train would arrive in 5 minutes and that the train would be out of service on Sunday, sorry for any inconvenience. From a paper map I'd picked up in the airport terminal, I determined that I needed to go East, so I let the westbound train come and go. I asked another waiting person if she knew how often the trains came by and she said she thought every 10 minutes. I did not tell her that I'd already been on the platform for over 20 minutes. Perhaps every 30 minutes is the schedule, for within another 10 minutes an eastbound train was announced and arrived. The train was labled "Shilo/Scott" with no mention of downtown, or of any other intermediate stops, for that matter. Once again, the paper map from inside the airport was the only source I found for the information that I needed. Did I mention that no copies of the paper map were available at the platform?

Once on board, I found the train was clean and relatively comfortable. A map of MetroLink stops posted inside the train did identify the intermediate and ultimate stops. As we rumbled along the driver announced stops, which side the doors would open on, and which bus lines served the upcoming stop. As the train prepared to pull away from each stop she would announce that the doors were closing and you were aboard the eastbound Shilo/Scott train. At least I think that's what she was announcing. I really could never clearly understand the announcements due to a combination of accented dialog, background noise, and a static-y loudspeaker system. During my 40 minutes or so on board many of her announcements were repeated often enough that I managed, I think, to figure out what she was saying. I still don't know where, or what, Shilo/Scott is, since it does not show up on the paper MetroLink map that I got, which ends its coverage at the Missippi River, while the MetroLink apparently goes on eastward into Illinois for some distance.

After we left the airport, the landscape rolling by was striking in the visible blight and decay displayed. Burned-out, tumbled-down, boarded-up, litter-strewn, a nightmare scene of former industrial strength. Right there, naked, in living color for all visitors and natives alike to see. Kabul looks cleaner, more modern, and better maintained. This part of St. Louis truly looked like the aftermath of a war. Perhaps much of our nation will look like this before the current economic crisis ends. I pray not. An old cemetery, headstones askew, seemed to speak of decades, centuries, of human dreams and disappointments. The scenery did improve a bit as we passed UMSL and some medical centers.

Passengers came and went with the stops. Working men and women, some perhaps homeless, college students, college professors, one very well-dressed and distinguished looking man on a power scooter, one young attitude-bearing urban male wearing the lowest sagging pants I've ever seen. As we approached my stop, the rail went underground. Leaving the train, I exited the station over wet tile floors and up concrete steps into the sun, and found myself disoriented. I knew I had to walk west about two blocks to my hotel, but I had no idea which direction was west. I looked for clues on the street signs but did not find anything helpful. I looked for street numbers on buildings. None visible. So, I flipped a coin, turned left and walked that way along Washington Avenue, dragging my luggage along, noisy with its well-worn wheels against the rough concrete.

Now, in an attempt at fairness, I should mention that the St. Louis MetroLink has a helpful website where you can plan a trip in advance. You tell it where you are and where you want to go and the website will provide a detailed itinerary with times, stops, train and bus IDs, and costs. I had not preplanned the trip. I've used light rail in Japan, Europe, other US cities, and the Middle-East and have never needed to pre-plan a trip to get from the international airport to a local convention center. Signage and announcements are generally well designed and posted for the convenience of a stranger. My trip on the red-and-cream colored St. Louis MetroLink was not an unpleasant experience, but, for this stranger, neither was the trip EZ.

Partial update on storm door.

Well, the manufacturer did respond to my email, and quickly, but not with an answer to the problem. They provided a toll-free number and suggested I call during business hours. I've not taken time to do that, yet. And here I was hoping it would be EZ. More as (if) it happens.