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With the end of year rapidly approaching, I have decided to look back at a blog I did back in January where I was highlighting what things I’d be trying to do differently with a thought to what will be different again in 2012.

So here it is point by point…

I’m going to give up using Microsoft products. It’s time I gave some of the other software providers a go — I’m a bit tired of constant re-boots, security holes and crashes.

I did. I’ve been using a MacBook Air, I’ve owned an iPhone 4 and am now trying out a Samsung Galaxy.

Guess what?

I’ve decided I don’t like the Mac OS and will be back on Windows in week or two’s time. Better the devil you know at my age…

I’m going to reduce the amount of miles I do and do more over the Internet… more Web Ex and Go To Meeting sessions, more webinars…less driving, less airmiles better qualified opportunities.

Bit of a given here. The cost of fuel has made me trade in my petrol guzzler for a diesel and GoToMeeting and Skype are the most used apps on my machine.

A few trips to Dubai, Holland and Germany, so air miles down on last year…

I’m going to stop buying servers and hire more capacity on the cloud. Why worry about the maintenance of a rack of servers when I can get someone else to do it at a fraction of the cost?

We’re migrating our email and document sharing services to Google next week.

We had a catastrophic disk crash on a main server a couple of months back too so we are starting to move back office services to the Cloud as it’s not worth the hassle.

Tick in the box here.

I’m going to watch less telly and spend more time social networking — face booking, tweeting, linked-in — catch up with old friends and make some new business connections.

Not sure I’ve completely succeeded on the telly front, but I’ve tweeted out a couple of hundred times to any one who cares to follow me.

I’ve posted a dozen or so videos on YouTube which was fun if you like recording yourself creating dashboards and crosstabs using Jing.

I’ve doubled my Linkedin connections although compared to many of the people I’m “Linkedin” to, I look like “Billy no mates” with a mere 171 connections to my name so far…

I’m going to stop buying newspapers and books. I’ll start reading them on-line via my iPad and laptop. I’ll buy a kindle and see if I can still read the screen in the blazing sun on the beach.

I now read the Times on my phone and only take a paper at weekends but I’ve not yet stretched to a Kindle. I still find flicking through the pages of a book when I’m on holiday too satisfying for me to throw my books away.

Maybe next year?

I’m going to stop buying CD’s and download all my music from the Internet. I’ve no more room to store CD’s so I might as well store them on my iPhone or laptop.

I haven’t bought a CD all year and have bought what music I have bought via iTunes so another tick in the box…

I’m going to eat less, drink less and sleep more.

No, No and No…

Now to start thinking about 2012… I’m going to start it off by trying to win the lottery, anything else is academic.

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At the start of this year I was really excited about what the Cloud can offer and how the current economic downturn was the ideal draw for companies to start taking it seriously.

How tempting is it to be able to off-load some of your back office systems and more mission critical systems and services onto the Cloud and save yourself a load of time, effort and money?

At the start of the year, I blogged enthusiastically about the Cloud.

It’s out there, it works and our own Business Intelligence software, CXAIR is a perfect fit for this kind of environment.

We have had some success! We have had some disappointments—

We have partners who are now deploying our software in the Cloud, however the take up of subscribers is slower than we had expected due to a mixture of paranoia and misconception.

Over the year there have been availability issues with the Amazon and Microsoft Clouds and of course the big hoo-ha surrounding hacked data from the Sony PlayStation Network—

All of these incidents strengthen the argument for having your software hosted on premise or in a secure hosted environment and weaken the argument that you’d be better off in the Cloud.

So what’s the perfect profile of a potential Cloud customer?

Someone willing to stick their toes in the water by moving non-critical systems to the Cloud?

New startups that don’t want any upfront hardware costs and don’t have the technical resource or time to run things for themselves?

Organisations deploying new services where the systems can be designed specifically around the Cloud without the legacy of a version that’s “worked” perfectly well as an on-premise solution prior to switching to the Cloud?

I have been approached recently about moving our email services to the Google Cloud.

What’s more, I have also started looking at some of the document and collaboration services available in the Google stack which are, lets face it, cheap as chips—

My main bug bare and probably most critical resource is Email.

We run Exchange internally and the hardware is starting to creek a little. Today I lost my email and was fiddling around on Microsoft Knowledge base, grasping at any straw available for a potential fix that would not result in me having to do a re-install.

To help, I asked one of our techies to try a few things out, wasting valuable time and money.

When I set off for work this morning with a list of tasks as long as my arm, I did not have “arse around with Outlook and Exchange for 2 hours” on my “todo” list.

So what’s the perfect profile of a potential Cloud customer?

Me.

Time is money and I’d rather log a call with a help desk and leave people to it to get a fix than spend my and my team’s time trying to track down a fault at the Companies expense.

Perhaps to move to the Cloud we all need to be bitten a few times by machine crashes and internal delays before we see the bigger picture. On premise is not without its issues and fixing these issues are often an intangible cost that might be more than you expect.

So going back to our Cloud solution, I think patience is the key. In the end we’ll all recognise that the Cloud is our friend.

Every Cloud has a Silver Lining—

Security will get more secure, networks will get faster and costs will get driven down.

And in the meantime, I’m never going to ask for our own Companies email server to get re-booted again! Google here we come.

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It’s a sad state of affairs when I order a new set of Jean’s and I get delivered these low-slung skinny affairs, which I wear for a week before the top button pops off.

Why? Poor design (obviously) and the fact that my waist is not quite what it used to be. Like it or not, I’m gradually expanding…

I read an interesting article today that was titled “Getting Rid of Data — Why is it so hard” and for some reason found some parallel in what’s happened with my jeans…

The article is about Information Governance and how important it is to have good processes and policies in place so that you know with confidence what data needs to be retained and what data can be disposed of — stopping the burgeoning, un-wielding growth of data (or my waist as I continue to try to draw some sort of parallel…)

Some of my previous blogs have been talking about the Tsunami of data from social media — Supersized data that is both difficult to make sense of and expensive to retain.

It’s easy to understand why doing a bit of data spring cleaning can clear out some space and enable you to carry on cramming stuff into whatever storage is currently available (my jeans again) just in case you need it sometime in the future.

However… More than ever, technologies are changing and evolving as data continues to grow and grow.

Disks are cheap and with the adoption of “big data” solutions such as Hadoop and our own search engine based technology CXAIR, size is less and less of an issue.

When I started in IT back in 1987, I was working on mainframe systems written in Cobol and IDMSX. I was working on hospital Patient Administration Systems where due to limitations in hardware we were always extremely careful of data storage and retention. We used to hold current and historic data for about 3 months before it was archived off to tape and microfiche.

These days we can slap it on disk and keep it there virtually indefinitely. With all of the laws around compliance and transparency, keeping your data available is a good and comforting thing.

The only issue is when you do need access to some old data, how do you find it?

If it’s stored in an old legacy database, then expect to have to get IT on the case and wait for hours for the data to come back.

If it’s stored in something like a search engine then users can search around perform ad—hoc queries and analysis across the data themselves and get results back in seconds.

Times are changing and the way we store access and retain data is going through a technical revolution at the moment.

Data Governance is important but so is the ability to keep hold of data for historical analysis and that “just in case, ad-hoc” requirement that bites you on the backside as soon as you’ve deleted or made the data less accessible.

So what choices do I have?

Get rid of some of the excess (go on a diet) or buy some bigger (more scalable) and more appropriately designed (latest technology) jeans.

Time to get the credit card out…

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As a developer and UI designer, I have always been fairly conservative when it comes to colour and how much information to put on a screen, however I am starting to wonder if a bit of bling on a new set of reports we are posting on the web would be “just the job!”.

Corporate branding and the economical use of fancy controls and charts has been the norm for me in the past, however ultimately, it’s down to your target market and not everyone wants Corporate.

I expect that the average football fan who looks at www.footystatsonline.com will want to see something a little more jazzed up than a boring “pie” (no half time pun intended) or “mixed bar and line” chart.

I’m sure they would prefer something that catches the eye, gets right to the point and can be digested quicker than a half time foot-long hot dog and cup of Bovril.

Thinking how we have presented things in the past, salesmen have understandably wanted to present the latest, greatest and sexiest software out there to give them that little bit of “wow factor” or “sizzle” when showing off to prospects. Something to give the an edge…

Whether this is by demoing on the latest tablet PC, Android or iPhone, or by showing an early release (a pre-alpha version? Sketch? White board scribble?), of some upcoming software where you have to tippy-toe around the application, clicking on the buttons and widgets that you know will work.

On the flip side of things, also being someone who has been on the receiving end of a demonstration, sex and sizzle is not always what I want to see… I want substance with a bit of style thrown in, not the other way round.

Who really uses 3D charts to explain away to people why your profits are on the wane or your pipeline is growing?

Who really wants to have to keep buying colour ink cartridges so that they can print off their multi-coloured reports when a black and white copy should suffice?

So why am I now looking at pimping up our reports?

Because my Sales Director thought our reports looked boring.

…Too corporate. Not eye catching enough.

This puts me in a bit of a quandary. My previous experience says make your charts 2D, use simple and limited colours, make sure it’s not too busy but my head says “make it fun”, “make it modern and stylish”, “be inventive”.

In reality it’s all about the target market and how you plan to attract new users and retain their interest.

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean doesn’t meant you need to spend any less attention on the appearance of the application than you would if you were implementing the solution to a Corporate.

Being aware of the age of your target market, the fact that you’re pushing new services out to the new iPhone, Tablet, Gamer aware, free to use or cracked market means we need to take more care not less care than you would with selling to a Corporate.

The potential user base for any new service over the web is huge so coming up with a look and feel that appeals to a high percentage of Joe public is key.

So we’re looking at adding a bit of bling and a bit of the X-Factor to our reports. I’ll be watching the feedback with interest.

Follow @footystatsuk and let me know what you think!

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Some time ago I wrote a blog about auto updates having just fell victim to an inopportune re-boot when I briefly left my desk to make a coffee…

Well, I am now a “Mac” owner and have recently fell victim of “Software Update”, a subtle alternative to Windows sneaky “he won’t notice that we’ve just fixed a problem he didn’t think he had whilst he’s nipping to the loo” approach.

The Mac OS tries to put the decision process “slightly more” in your hands by making things a little less automated however the updates that end up on your machine still have the potential to explode at the most inopportune moment possible.

Although my team has been working on a new software release, I have made sure not to take any interim version because I need to have a stable environment to demonstrate to potential clients.

In a moment of weakness, I upgraded my browser version (Safari) as I didn’t see that this would be a problem. To make things even more entertaining, I upgraded my backup browser too (Firefox). What harm could it do?

Last week I had the most disastrous demo for years. The browser locked up, the machine locked up, the fan turned on, images didn’t refresh properly, popup menus occasionally stopped working. Switching browsers mid-demo, images stopped animating, windows stopped refreshing properly…

Aghhhhhhh!!!

I should have taken note of “Safari has been re-engineered for improved stability and responsiveness.”

Re-engineered for goodness sake, that’s not a patch it’s a re-write!

I failed to read what I was taking on with the Firefox upgrade but I am sure it would have been something harmless like “Firefox has just been updated by our latest developer who is a lead architect at Microsoft” or something like that…

When will I learn? As the old adage goes… If it’s not broken don’t fix it! For the benefit of a new spangly button, a bit more speed…

In the world of Corporate IT, software upgrades are scheduled. For systems that are key to the business, it would be folly not to arrange for the upgrade to happen out of core office hours and make sure everything is backed up just in case something goes wrong.

There are still companies out there using legacy software. Financial and Insurance system, running on old main frames and keeping the COBOL developer industry ticking along into another decade with bespoke development and application support.

When you invest big bucks on an IT system and it forms part of your core business, the last thing you want is for an auto update to kick in and introduce a bug that costs you down time, lost business and a big support headache.

Locking systems down is critical because if you don’t you are at the mercy of armies of developers who are rolling out fixes and patches like there’s no tomorrow to cover up for the fact that systems are now so complex that producing bug free code is virtually impossible.

Just because my laptop didn’t cost a fortune, I use it to run my business and use it to show off our latest technologies so I need to be more careful about what gets installed on it and by who (or what in the case of auto updates).

From now on, I will be treating all updates on my laptop with increased suspicion. Software updates are dangerous and should come with a health warning.

… just say no to software updates!

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This one made me laugh when I read this on the BBC website this morning…

Internet Explorer users have a lower than average IQ, according to research by Consulting firm AptiQuant.

The study gave web surfers an IQ test, and then plotted their scores against the browser they used.

IE surfers were found to have an average IQ lower than people using Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Users of Camino and Opera rated highest.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14370878

What did Mark Twain say?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics…”

What can you read into this survey?

Firstly, there are more people using IE (figures taken off the extremely ‘reliable’ Wikipedia site)

Source Internet Explorer Firefox Chrome Safari Opera Mobile Unknown
Net Applications 52.81% 21.48% 13.45% 8.05% 2.90% 5.47%
StatCounter 42.45% 27.95% 22.14% 5.16% 1.66% 7.02%
W3Counter 35.60% 27.70% 19.60% 6.40% 2.30% 8.40%
Usage share of browsers for July 2011

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_web_browsers#Accuracy

When doing a survey, does the sample size effect accuracy? Well yes. So was the proportion of people surveyed representative? Doubt it. Were some of the people volunteering, trying to massage the results? Probably.

One way of interpreting the results is that if these figures are true, Internet Explorer must be easier to use than other browsers as you obviously don’t need to be the sharpest blade in the cutlery draw to surf.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s too difficult for the majority of IE users to work out how to install an alternative browser and stop IE from being their default browser?

All in all, it’s a load of fun and a great example of how to potentially alienate a group of people through by spinning a negative vibe about how if a Neanderthal man was given the choice as to what their preferred OS and browser was it would most likely be Microsoft and Internet Explorer.

For info, as I am involved in the development of web applications, I use all of the above.

I’m not letting on what my IQ is and won’t be sitting the test myself — just in case I have a shocker and lose the ability to answer simple multiple-choice questions!

I will, however, be looking forward to hearing what further spin gets spun from the original article!

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Job Security is as important today as it’s ever been. There are lots of people out there in the job market vying for the same job.

The other day, a colleague said to me:

“Well what do you expect, you can’t expect a Turkey to vote for Christmas”

True words indeed!

Selling software that is going to make things easier, reduce the impact on IT and empower the business user is a hard sell if you’re talking to the head of IT… less so if you are talking to the CEO or FD where the bottom line and shareholder value are more important than propping up the job market.

People’s perception of software is changing.

For the current generation of School and College leavers using software is an everyday way of life.

Whether playing Angry Birds on your phone, posting a YouTube link on someone’s wall, writing a Thesis or keeping track of your finances, we are all using software to make life easier and entertain ourselves most of our waking and working day.

People expect things to be simple, people don’t expect to go on a training course when they download the latest phone app or try out the latest Social Media gizmo over the Web.

If things don’t work or are too complicated to use, people won’t use it. They’ll look elsewhere. People are more and more independent and want to choose their preferred laptop, OS, mobile phone and applications and won’t much care for people pushing their own preferences, as there is so much choice.

So when it comes to business, who decides on what applications and gizmos you use on a day-to-day basis? Who decides what’s best for you?

Traditionally there has always been a gatekeeper when it comes to buying software.

… the IT department.

The IT department has to support the system, therefore, the IT department must be involved in the buying process.

This all sounds very reasonable however the motives of IT and the business can be in conflict with one another. Is efficiency top of the requirements for IT?

Is empowering the business user to be able to service their own information requirements top of the bill? If there is an option to buy in a product or service that will benefit the business by taking money away from the IT budget and potentially reducing the demand on IT seen as a priority?

There is a lot more choice out there today but for the traditionalists, the IT department still has a hold over which external products and services are purchased because IT, in general, is still regarded as “technical” and “too specialist”.

The new generation is a lot more IT savvy and is going to want a much bigger say in decisions over what to buy and what not to buy.

These new business users are measured on productivity, increasing sales and generating profit. These users won’t want to be held up by having to use antiquated, one style fits all products that need the nod and assistance from IT whenever the business user wants to find out something that isn’t serviced by a standard screen or report.

Our Business Intelligence product CXAIR is written for business users. Business users just get it… It uses search technology. It’s self-service BI. It’s easy and looks like and behaves like all of the other modern applications that are being used today.

So where am I going with this?

When we demonstrate our software, we demonstrate it to the business user, not IT. Trying to get IT to propose a solution that reduces the need for their services is a bit like getting a Turkey to vote for Christmas.

Unlikely to happen at best and pretty foolhardy from a Turkey’s point of view.

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One of the first ever blogs I wrote was more a semi-biographical review of my experiences in IT than the kind of blogs I write today…

Heartfelt, writing something that could be shared with anyone who cared to read it, light hearted but also full of frustration.

Full of the frustration of how difficult it can be to get your voice heard when you have something really good but don’t have the reach or the brand recognition to get enough people to hear about you.

For a bit of nostalgia, try the following and see if anything here rings true…

https://www.connexica.com/blog/brand_over_substance

Almost a year on, a lot has changed.

One of the things that I am openly excited about is the proliferation of social media tools and the ways in which individuals and companies can reach out to a worldwide audience.

All of this is now possible without having to spend tens of thousands of pounds on TV and Radio Commercials, Magazine Advertisements and hard copy Marketing Collateral.

We now have YouTube, Banner Ads, Ad words, SEO, On-line Newsletters and Magazines, Blogs, Tweets, Facebook, Linkedin and much, much more.

All of these things are available to anyone and if used thoughtfully can generate interest in what you’re doing and build a following that helps you increase awareness in what you do and ultimately build a brand.

We have been doing quite a lot of work on Twitter and looking in particular how to develop a following that consists of people that should be genuinely interested in what we have to say.

There are loads of tools available to help but what is the point of having thousands of followers if they are really just making up the numbers and unlikely to take notice of what you have to say?

Is building a big following on Twitter any value? How do you monetise the value of your following?

Is it the number of followers?
The number of people that read your Tweets?
The number of people that get driven to your website?

For B2B, I think it’s a case of quality over quantity.
For B2C and C2C perhaps it’s a case of quantity over quality.

To us, the value of our following will be determined by the good PR we are able to generate and how far the Connexica brand can be established not necessarily sales. I see sales as a by-product coming out of good PR and brand awareness.

With all the tools available to us today, perhaps it will no longer be a case of “Brand over Substance” but a case of “Brand due to Substance”.

Time will tell!

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I remember my time at AT&T some 10 to 15 years ago, when I first heard the expression “eat your own dog food”.

Our head honcho was singing the merits of using our own software for our own business needs not just pushing it out for other users to test drive and find fault with.

…If the software is not good enough for us, it’s not going to be good enough for anyone!

The less said about that particular brand or flavor of dog food the better, as the project was not a total success however as a concept it was bang on.

Years later I head up UK based Business Intelligence Company and make a big play on using our own software for analyzing our customers, our prospects, financial performance, external data, web traffic and much, much more.

As a pretty “anal” kind of guy when it comes to detail (just ask our developers), I have found this experience really useful in refining the product, ensuring quality as well as understanding how best to integrate our software with other 3rd party tools and allow things to evolve and move with the times.

Our latest “dog food” is around the analysis of Twitter and other forms of Social Media to see how we can use the Tsunami of Social chatter to build brand, identify potential partners, sales opportunities and understand the sentiment behind what people are Tweeting.

Never has “dogfooding” as the expression is also referred to, been more appropriate in gauging the effect and benefits of our software than in monitoring its usefulness over Social Media.

Two weeks into beta testing and the dog food diet is going well!

Semantic vectors over Twitter profiles and Tweets are throwing up (no pun intended) some very interesting links and associations in the information that people are tweeting and the roles and interests of the Tweeters.

VENN diagrams over followers of competitors is throwing up (there I go again), some weird and wonderful patterns that give you real insight into peoples passions, interests and the way people are directly and indirectly networked together.

Ad-hoc analysis over big data, be it structured or unstructured, is fun when you get the answers out immediately. Not so much fun when everything takes hours to return and brings the machine to its knees. Every day I am finding out new things about our competitors, our market and what the movers and shakers are saying about big data, social intelligence and other highly relevant issues and challenges.

Soon we will be pushing our forensic Twitter analysis capabilities out to our partners and look forward to hearing their thoughts and suggestions (and success stories) as to how it benefits their businesses through laser targeted analytics.

If I can be heard above the constant noise of social chatter.

“If anyone out there would like to see what we’re up to and test drive CX SOCIAL plug-in for CXAIR, drop me an email at richard.lewis@connexica.com or Tweet me @ConnexicaUK”.

We have a new brand of dog food to try and I can confirm at first hand, it really hits the mark!

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In these days of austerity more and more people are looking for the next bargain and trying to find ways of slashing costs and trimming what fat they can to increase margin and profit.

When it comes to IT spend, we have noticed a change in peoples and companies mindsets over the past couple of years around their buying decisions and changing priorities as companies cope with a contracting economy.

Many people are giving more time to “Software as a Service” or “Pay as you go”.

“Software in the Cloud” to cut out IT hardware-spend and reduce on-going support costs.

“Hosted Applications”, the all in one, one-stop-shop for back office systems and data.

We’re involved in all of these through our partners and can see that there is definitely a lot of opportunity and momentum building up for externally managed services and SaaS in general.

Many other potential IT buyers are treading water. Sitting tight until their “readies” become more ready or looking to their own internal IT departments to “self-build”.

…Looking to build their own solutions using “Free software” and some corporate glue that can be supported and managed in-house and hopefully save the company time and money.

We use Open Source Software in our own BI stack but this does not mean our software is free to build or can be bought for free.

A lot of what we use are standards based components that allow you to integrate with other standards based components.

Why?

“Because it provides you with a quick way of integrating two technologies but without any firm technology lock-in.”

Nearly all of the standards based components we use can be swapped out with commercially available alternatives so the choice is really down to how much the customer wants to pay, and whether they are happy to use Open Source technology within their organisation.

Hundreds of man-years of effort have gone into the development of our product and millions of pounds of cost. All this to come up with something that combines the best of Open Source with the best of what a team of Business Intelligence, Search Engine and UI experts can conjure up over 6 and a half years.

So what do I mean by “How free is free?”

Not everything that comes without a price tag is free.

In the world of software, complex problems often require complex solutions even if that solution is broken down into a set of manageable units of work.

Re-assembling these small units of work and getting them to communicate with one another in a manner that works in complex environments is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

Supporting these complex environments is also expensive.

How much does it cost to change the software when the business changes? How many people need to be employed to manage the software and how do we share the knowledge of how things have been built to protect the business when key staff members are on holiday or leave?

It’s all money and risk, and in times like these they are all things that need to be thrown into the pot when acquiring software or services off a supplier or considering a self-build.

Software choice is greater than ever as is the pressure to get value for money and deliver a return on any investment in as short a time scale as possible.

Talking specifically as a Business Intelligence supplier, if you are looking at the world of free BI tools, look closely at what the true costs are of implementing a solution over what is often a complex, multi-system, multi-database environment.

Don’t just count the external consultancy costs but look closely at how many people you will need to configure and maintain your solution over a period of 3 to 5 years.

Think of the hardware costs and how this might compare to other alternatives as you scale-out the solution across more and more systems and users.

Think of the solution’s value to the business and whether or not it will do exactly what you want and what compromises you might have to make over other commercial alternatives and what this might mean to your bottom line.

Think of what the users will be able to get out of the software and calculate what savings will be made through more efficient working and improved access and see how this stacks up against other alternatives.

Above all, compare this to our product CXAIR.

A typical on-premise implementation is 5 days. This includes training, setting up the data sources, building the indexes, configuring the search engines and creating a load of reports.

In the Cloud you can upload your data and start writing your own reports in a matter of minutes.

How free is free? We’re not free but a lot “freer” than other “free” alternatives.

A bit of a tongue twister, but I hope you get my point…

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My development team would nod their heads in agreement to this statement.

No one wants to find that they are being replaced with a cheaper and more flexible option that operates out of a different continent and time zone.

From a commercial perspective the benefits can be huge but for our business it’s a big no no.

I’ve been around in IT for the best part of 25 years and have worked for small and huge corporate beasts that go about their businesses in completely different ways.

Specs written on the back of a fag packet to not being able to lift a finger until the PID has been written and signed off in triplicate before the army moves in.

Swarms of business analysts, project and test planners, change management teams etc… start chewing the fat for 6 months and documenting anything that moves and often things that haven’t moved and won’t move for the duration of the project.

At one point in my career, I ended up working on R&D type projects at AT&T where I got into rapid proto-typing.

Iterative small developments where we would try different ways of achieving a target goal and measure where we were at regular intervals but always with a mind to take a step back when required before moving forward again.

We use rapid proto-typing in my current company and it works for us.

We are constantly looking to innovate and find new ways of doing things. We make extensive use of white boards to explain and share ideas and try to test the limits of different technologies and how they may be used to create something new or do something in a better way.

Spontaneously coming up with and sharing new ideas and turning them into code is a liberating and rewarding experience that would not be possible were we to use more traditional design methods.

Allowing developers to express themselves (in every aspect other than the UI…) and try new things out works really well for us and allows us to be sure that a development is going to work and helps us understand the cost and time implications of turning a proto-type into a polished, integrated product.

Most recently we have been extending our BI software to integrate with unstructured Twitter feeds.

As we use search technology we can handle the deciphering of unstructured chatter fairly easily however the skill is then to make sense of it.

We have been proto-typing over Twitter.

Doing interesting things with the Twitter APIs. Doing interesting things with our VENN technology over Tweets. We have been looking at extracting sentiment out of Tweets and looking at how you can categorise Tweets based on things that are of interest to you.

Most interesting of all is that we have been using semantic vectors over the data to see what additional value can be made out of 140 character Tweet’s.

It is amazing what you can get back if you search for “Giggs”…

A byproduct of this work is what you can get out of semantic vectors over structured data, which is something we thought we’d try following the results over Tweets.

The first time someone tried to explain semantic vectors to me, my ears started to bleed and my brain attempted to shut down so I’m not going to go into any detail here. Needless to say you’ll find it on Wikipedia and Google!

We have created a load of building blocks, which are now in the process of being arranged into a uniform and easy to use application.

It’s been rapid in its conception, rapid in it’s production and will be available for general use at the end of the month.

Not a spec or project plan in sight for this one so here’s a pat on the back for in-house development!

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Although I have had a Twitter account for 9 months or more, I only really started to Tweet in April this year. The reason for this is that I saw it as the poor man’s Facebook and a quick fire gossip generator.

What value is there in a 140 character Tweet I asked myself?

If the numbers you get back off the Internet are even remotely close; 200 million Twitter accounts, 50 million Tweets a day, the answer is pretty clear.

There is a lot of value in a Tweet.

So what made me realise that there was more to Twitter than being an on-line tool for stalking celebrities?

The answer is easy. The answer was TweetDeck.

Now I’m sure there are other tools that do similar things to TweetDeck but this is the tool I downloaded to my laptop that made me see the power of Twitter.

A bit like watching the green characters and symbols flicker on the screen in the Matrix, TweetDeck finally allows me to see, sense and touch the social chatter that is clogging up our cyber airwaves.

The “almost” sale of TweetDeck to UberMedia for a cool $30 — $40 million followed by a bid from Twitter itself for an even cooler $40 — $50 million shows how valuable the world of Tweeting is.

Sure there is an element of the “dot-com boom” about some of the more recent social media acquisitions but it’s down to the reach of Twitter and the pull of the tools that are rising to the surface of a very crowded social intelligence application pool.

With a reported 5.5% of Tweets originating from Twitter equating to 27.5 million Tweets per day, I would imagine that this means there are a hell of a lot of people that are like me and have TweetDeck ticking along throughout the day.

It’s this coverage that is worth the money not the code, it’s the marketing and up-sell opportunities of having a captive Twitter audience that can be used to push highly targeted banner adds and drive sales.

It makes you wonder whether soon we’ll be hearing about someone bidding vast quantities of money for someone’s Twitter account because they have 50 million followers… having a captive market or direct access to so many people must have some value?

With Linkedin recently floating for £5.5 billion there’s a current clamor for a piece of the social networking pie.

So what is the value of a Tweet?

In February this year, I read that Twitter was valued at around $10 billion I make that just over $70 million per character and growing!

Amazing!!!

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Who would have imagined 20 years ago that the cyber airwaves would be jam packed with chaotic social chatter?

That people would be sharing everything about everything with everyone, in real time?

Through our constant Tweeting, Blogging, Face-booking, You-Tubing, Skyping, Linking-in, Instant Messaging and general need to communicate on a micro and global level our lives have changed forever.

On a social level it’s liberating and on a business level it’s empowering. The world has shrunk. Everyone can contact anyone at any time and more or less for free.

Wow!

So out of this plethora of data, companies are looking at new ways of harvesting the information. How do you pick out the most relevant sound bites, trends and ultimately opportunities to help turn thattorrent of data into gold?

The opportunity to develop the killer App for social media is there for us all to see. For software developers this is the equivalent of the Californian Gold Rush.

The new 49’ers are entrepreneurial start-ups, media junkies and chancers who are dipping their toes into the social media maelstrom.

The problem is that the data has been super sized. It’s not a case of panning for information gold in a slow running river or stream but casting your net into a Tsunami of data.

Pack your water wings and hold on tight because to get something “really” useful out of this lot is going to take a lot of sampling, a lot of bandwidth and a whole lot of imagination.

I’ve been looking around at some of the new applications and services that are being launched on an almost daily basis.

I’ve been tweeting and listening to the social chatter and adding a bit of my own.

I’ve been watching closely what the BI providers are doing and how they are looking to integrate with social media.

I’ve been watching what the big database boys are doing to scale their databases to support “big data” and doing the same our selves with our search technology.

There is so much going on in the BI world because the data landscape has changed forever.

What legacy BI products have done for the last 30+ years has not changed very much because the data environment (capture and storage) up until recent years had changed very little. The explosion of data over the last few years has been a “game changer” for any supplier who claims to offer any enterprise a holistic view of relevant data.

These are challenging but exciting times in the world of BI and Social Media so start panning for gold and prepare to get very wet!

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So what happens when a new innovative product starts to get some traction in the market?

Does it get supported, backed and propelled into the market as the new big thing?

Does it get plagiarised and belittled by competitors as being lightweight and technically immature?

Do the competitors go head on and try to bury it under the corporate weight of their huge marketing machine?

“Usually all but the former, and when the innovation still has legs and can’t be buried it’s move to phase 2.”

Buy the company, it’s technology and most importantly it’s customer base and then either bury the product or mothball it for a couple of years whilst the company thinks about what to do next.

So where am I heading with this?

As the MD of an innovative and forward thinking company specialising in Business Intelligence, we obviously compete against all sorts of different companies and technologies.

The market is in constant consolidation mode, no more so than when new clients are harder to find and organic growth all the more difficult to generate.

The innovative products get snaffled up by the biggest BI providers, and the BI providers are being absorbed by the “even bigger”, ERP providers. We are generating the BI Red Giants of the 21st century that absorb all that there is around them until they eventually implode on themselves and shrink down to virtually nothing.

I see clever products, either disappearing from trace or losing their identity and their Raison d’être and becoming just another BI tool.

Right now with my eye on social media and the impact this is having on CRM and its potential to influence the roadmaps of the newest search based BI innovations, I can see just how many innovative products are out there and yet so few of them are becoming mainstream.

The legacy suppliers continue to influence what people are buying and are depriving businesses and users from getting access to something that offers real value and differentiation, which for me, is where the real innovation is.

What do we do differently from everyone else that helps customers gain competitive advantage?

At www.connexica.com we use search technology to simplify the process of querying and analysing data. By making the process of joining up data as simple as you could make it and the process of getting the data out even simpler, we make everyone in the business able to get at information important to them without having to involve the IT department. We have a roadmap that is based on what’s happening now rather than one drawn up 2 years ago, as we have quarterly major releases not annual or bi-annual.

Some of the bigger boys would look at what we do and say to potential clients: “ahhh but they don’t do X, Y, and Z and don’t turn over billions of dollars a year…” …which roughly translates to “ahhh but you don’t need an army of staff to run this system and implementation is only 2 weeks not a year and don’t expect your supplier to pass you onto a call center in another continent to sit on your support calls…”

We are not alone; there are lots of innovators out there driving technology forward based on the latest social and technological buzz but what we have is better than the big boys and we’re determined to keep it that way.

Check out http://www.youtube.com/user/connexica and see for yourself.

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As more and more companies turn their attention to their Business Intelligence strategies, many are shifting their attention towards Social Media and trying to fold this into their corporate stack.

All the traditional BI players are scrabbling for position to align their offering with a growing clamor to make sense of the social noise that is out there through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and LinkedIn etc.

So much noise and chatter and yet how powerful is that information if you are able to harness it for the benefit of your business and your customers?

If you know how to use social media for process improvement, identifying current market trends, listening to what’s in and what’s out, what the competition are doing, what people are saying about you – your business is going to be in a better place.

So how do you get Old Traditional Business Intelligence to provide you with the elusive 360-degree view of your business?

You don’t.

The big players have been able to extend the life of their creaking systems through advances in hardware and improvements in network bandwidth and make it appear as if the technology has moved on with the times.

New and faster chips, solid-state disks and scaled up RAM have conveniently ramped up the power and capacity of legacy systems but the scale of Social BI is something else!

In 2010, the human race created 800 exabytes of information, from tweets and Facebook updates to PowerPoint presentations and photographs. That’s 800 billion gigabytes, or the amount of data you can fit on 75 billion 16-gig iPads. To put that into context, between the dawn of civilisation and 2003, we only created five exabytes; now we’re creating that amount every two days. By 2020, that figure is predicted to sit at 53 zettabytes (53 trillion gigabytes) – an increase of 50 times. (Google)

As Chief Brody once famously said… “We’re going to need a bigger boat”.

Or

We’re going to have to have a re-think about how we go about things and start looking at and developing some new technology that can cope with the sheer scale of data being generated on a daily basis.

So a bigger disk and whacking in a bit more memory is not really the answer from a raw power perspective, so how can we bring the social media side of things into our BI stack?

Putting scale to one side, making sense out of a twitter feed and making sense of a stock table in an ERP system are chalk and cheese.

A database requires structure be it through a relational schema accessed via SQL or an OLAP cube accessed via MDX. How far apart is this from making sense of a conversation and some links to web pages from a Twitter feed?

Social media demands a new kind of solution to a relatively new problem. A new solution that augments your existing BI stack by providing a fast and efficient layer, designed for free text search, designed for scale and focused around finding and extracting value out of the myriad of social media systems popping up on a day to day basis.

For once, this is an opportunity for the innovators. Old BI won’t cut the mustard however Social BI + Old BI might just do the trick if you can plug the gaps and gaffer tape a few things together.

It’s going to be interesting watching which innovations rise to the top and then see who buys who because I believe the value of Social BI will out muscle traditional Business Intelligence in a couple of years. Exciting times!

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Before I start, I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I think OLAP was a great technology and innovation, and when I first got introduced to it, I was blown away.

Although OLAP had been around a while, the first time I really started to become familiar with it was around the turn of the Century.

This makes me sound old but also shows how long OLAP has been around.

Coming from a relational background and spoon-fed on Oracle, Informix, DB2, Sybase and SQL Server I was firmly in the world of “Structured Query Language”.

I found great joy (and success) in learning how to do clever, unfathomable stuff joining as many tables as I could together in one go and exploring the limits of what was possible from one database supplier to another.

However, SQL was and is slow to retrieve data AND SQL is difficult and often a step to far for non-techies to understand and become proficient in.

When I saw OLAP and how easy it was to build a cube it came as a bit of a revelation. Why hadn’t I used this before? Why doesn’t everyone use it?

Well…

It works well because it’s working over pre-aggregated data.

“OK so there is MOLAP, ROLAP and HOLAP, all different variants of OLAP that either pre-aggregate, partially pre-aggregate or don’t aggregate at the expense of reduced performance… so if you want it to be fast it’s OLAP all the way.”

Building a cube takes time and over large data sets andfor really big cubes, can take hours. It’s this pre-aggregation that give you performance so that’s the trade-off.

OLAP only gives you half the story.

You can only see the data in an aggregated form and can’t drill through to the transactional data quickly as you have to go from the world of OLAP back to the world of SQL as soon as you go from a number to the raw data.

OLAP gives you flexibility through hierarchical dimensions and multiple measures but this is down to the programmer, the person who builds and maintains the cubes often hasn’t a clue what the business really needs and is trying to come up with structures that satisfy the many as opposed to YOU.

Move over OLAP and move over SQL.

There is a new way of doing things. A way that gives the business user access to the information they need that is quicker than OLAP, destroys the performance and flexibility of SQL and can be used by non-techies.

BI has been around for decades. There are so many products that do more or less the same thing in more or less identical ways.

Lipstick on a pig is a good description for modern day BI. At the end of day it’s still a pig.

A new layer of make up to provide a thin veneer over a fossilised architecture that is based on outdated ideas.

Search technology has been designed for speed. Designed for ease of use and designed for the non-techy (and it can be made to run real time…) and the 21st Century.

It’s about time someone thought about “Re-inventing Business Intelligence” by starting with a fresh way of thinking. By embracing the latest in search, social media, networking, web and phone.

When it comes to BI, move over OLAP and SQL, your time is up!

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Feeling totally underwhelmed with this weeks budget, I picked up the paper the other day to read in the Times a quote from the Government that the 1 pence reduction in fuel duty would save the average car owner £3 when they fill up.

Hmmm, what sort of car does the average household own?

£3 of savings equates to 300 litres, which in UK terms is about 66 gallons.

Apparently a Formula one car is limited to 220 litreswhich is just shy of 50 gallons, so what is everyone driving?

Either there are a lot of people driving around in HGV’s or the way this statistic was reported was a little misleading.

I assume this is a monthly saving not every time we fill the car up however this kind of misrepresentation of the facts is far from unusual.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” as they say.

It’s really easy to put spin on a set of numbers but how do you see through it?

How do you get to the truth?

For decades now people have been fed off reports that have built from incomplete and inaccurate data. People have had to make do with second hand information generated by the IT department and delivered as a print out or a spreadsheet.

Do the people writing the reports know if the data they end up with is true?

Do they know enough about the business to question why certain values are higher than others or why certain scenarios return no data?

The problem is that the people in the business are better equipped to understand information but not as well equipped in getting it out.

Relying on someone telling you or interpreting a situation based on a set of invalid assumptions can be damaging to the business and in todays dog eat dog environment, your own livelihood!

With more at stake, more and more data to sift through, more and more decisions to make based on things you get told or shown, its time to take control!

Self-service reporting has been promised for decades but only now can you really get it.

Roll-out self-service BI to the business where the business users can drill into the detail and find out the facts themselves and we’ll all make better, more informed decisions.

Listen to political spin or take everything you hear as real and we’ll all end up with egg on our faces.

But back to the fuel duty cut…

I am going out to blow my £3 on a happy meal. I need cheering up!

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With all the issues in the Middle East and the UK Government’s continued efforts to Tax us into surrender, the cost of fuel is now prohibitive.

I was going to say, “ starting to become prohibitive” but I think things have gone way too far already.

With the exception of the cash rich or generous companies paying out decent mileage allowances, a lot of people are genuinely trying to cut down travel expenses. People are finding it increasingly difficult to leave their homes.

Ever thought, “ what should I buy my wife for her Birthday?”

How about something rare, something valuable, something that will rise in value? An investment?

Buy her a can of petrol and see how your investment will rise in value quicker than any diamond or gold jewellery that’s for sure!

From a company perspective, there have been cases, too numerous to mention, where sales and sales support staff have travelled hundreds of miles only to be contacted just as they pull up to their destination to be told that their meeting has been cancelled due to an unforeseen dentist appointment or clash of diaries.

Why do we continue to do it when there are so many other ways of communicating that don’t mean you getting up at five in the morning to avoid the traffic for a four hundred mile road trip and a one-hour meeting?

With everything else that is going on in the economy, people are constantly re-evaluating what they spend and how they spend it.

When I wrote https://www.connexica.com/blog/strip_back_the_excess in November I was talking about how everyone was looking at tightening their belts and what this might mean from a consumers point of view in IT. I think these views still stand true and are in many ways exacerbated by the current fuel pricing and a stalling economy.

But stiff upper lip and all that, we can beat this. We can turn it to our advantage. We can improve the quality of our lives, we can save money and we can still run our businesses and produce and sell products.

Technology has made and is making life easier and easier by mobilising the workplace.

We have Skype, GoToMeeting, WebEx, iPhones, Androids and Tablets. We have access to information from the web through Google and social networking applications such as Facebook and Twitter.

From a business-to-business perspective, we have Video Conferencing, Webinars, Linked-in and Plaxo and of course the Cloud (my personal favourite).

All of these are not only convenient but save money… and fuel. It is inevitable that the virtual office and home working is going to be increasingly acceptable in modern day computerised businesses.

People can be just as efficient and in many cases more efficient by logging on via VPN and chatting to the team over Skype.

Everything is in place to revolutionise the way we do business.

Stick a couple of well-directed fingers up to the politicians and oligarchs and make them start to realise that we can’t be played with.

Business will find a way of surviving and flourishing against adversity.

We have never been in a better position to innovate and shift old-fashioned dependencies away from oil and petrol.

… Now if they started to charge a fortune for the Internet we’d really be in the…

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I remember someone telling me years ago when I used to work for AT&T that “You can’t mix technical with the artistic…”

This was a statement from a Technical Author who saw themselves as creative (despite having Technical in their title) and thought they knew better when it came to how to present text and pictures on a screen than a geeky programmer.

This person ended up working at Microsoft as a Human Factors Engineer so I thought she had a point. I think she ended up working on Vista so perhaps she didn’t…

From my own experiences I have always seen the way a screen looks and the way, the user interacts with it the single most important thing about good User Interface (UI) design.

I have seen many techies design screens with fields that don’t line up; meaningless field labels; odd and inconsistent behaviour when you click on something; unnecessary and over-use of colour — you name it I’ve seen it and fought it over many years.

Techy geeks should not design screens. As my TA friend said: “Leave this to the artistic”.

Many years later, through my introduction to the iPhone (a combination of curiosity and peer pressure), and me breaking away from an over-reliance on Microsoft through branching out into Java and Open Source, I was introduced to the incredibly sexy world of the MacBook Air and everything else that goes with the delights of owning a Mac.

From a machine perspective, its UI is amazing. It’s sleek, it weighs nothing, and the screen resolution is fantastic. It runs silently, its battery lasts ages etc.…

I couldn’t be happier — or could I? Well… I have one or two gripes about the software:

I have watched with interest over the past 15 years as Microsoft improved their Windows OS. I have seen many new attempts at trying to do the same thing over and over again, addressing the same problems but in a slightly better way. Trying to differentiate and standardise at the same time.

When I saw Vista the first thing I tried to do was to make my installation look like Windows 3.0. In reality, I have tried to do this with every edition of Windows that followed, be it Windows 95, Windows 97, favoriteWindows for Workgroups, NT and XP (which endefavourite).

For me though, Vista combined with the most recent version of Office went that step too far. It tried to make things so easy I couldn’t find anything. … too big a change in one release.

So now I have my Mac and this is completely different too! It’s great and has some amazingly clever and innovative features… but it’s different and sometimes not all that obvious to me…

I can see the overlaps between the Mac, Linux, Windows Vista and Windows 7 but everything is slightly different. Things don’t work the same way. My familiarity and apparent dependence on the way things used to work is making me fight against the interface.

For me, the OS UI for Vista in particular was been designed by too many people; many of the apparently ex Mac looking at some of the strikingly similar “recent innovations”.

For some of the less obvious new features, I can imagine an army of Human Factors experts, fresh from their degree courses, trying to come up with something new and to make their own stamp deliberately different.

So what’s my point?

My company — Connexica — writes business intelligence tools for the web, which are now going to be available over the Cloud. So what’s my mantra for good UI design?

I don’t let any of our techies anywhere near any screens and have been reigning in the more enthusiastic and off-the-wall creative ideas in an attempt to come up with something that feels familiar…

Something where everything has a place and those places are obvious to find.

What it really boils down to is this: “Don’t mix technical with the artistic…” and “don’t let the artistic try to be too artistic”… Plagiarism is not a crime, if done correctly it’s what we all do. We just need to plagiarise the right things! We can always call it standardisation…

Here is my formula for a perfect UI:

(Bits of Windows 3.0 + Bits of XP + Bits of Windows 7 + Bits of iPhone + bits of Android + bits of Mac OS + bits of Google + bits of Google Chrome + bits of Safari + bits of Firefox + bits of MS Office) — (anything to do with Vista that’s still in Windows 7) = “Perfect UI”

And of course, make sure you have really great graphics and screen designer(s) that don’t have big egos but really know their stuff and care about what they do. Make sure it’s them and not the techies that are involved in the standardisation the look and feel of the whole application. We do and this helps a load!

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I was reading an article on the web today about the modern day business information needs and an argument that ‘The good news is that existing BI architecture and its infrastructure, which includes powerful BI and database servers, are able to transform and adapt to meet the new analytical requirements’ of today.

What a cop out!

A skeptical way of interpreting this is ‘don’t worry… with a little bit of sellotape, a lick of paint and some marketing spiel that albatross of a system will evolve into a butterfly and solve your every problem’.

Cynical but true.

Strap a V8 to a milk float and it will go like the proverbial. It might not corner well and may no longer be the ideal storage medium for milk but it will meet your performance requirements.

It’s no longer good enough to make do with what we had.

You can’t just spruce it up, add some gloss and spangly bits and pretend you now have something new and made for today.

Talking about technologies such as OLAP as the answer to our analytical needs (a product of the 90’s), object databases (product of the 80’s), or relational databases (a revelation dating back to the 70’s) is pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

Just because the hardware is getting more powerful you can’t keep claiming that the same old antiquated way of doing things is the right way of doing things today. True adding a V8 helps but it’s not the solution.

It is true that search engine technology started cropping up as early as the 90’s.

Google came up with their BETA release as early as 1994, however, it’s really 2000 onwards where Google started to become the great new thing that everyone embraced and became a standard part of everyday life.

The rest, as they say, is history. Google is now a verb, you can use it with confidence in scrabble (although it’s worth a lot fewer points than it is pounds).

Google is referenced in the Oxford dictionary.

I am not a shareholder in Google (more’s the pity), however, I am an admirer in their technology.

Don’t be fooled by the legacy database providers. Things have changed. A fundamentally better way of doing things exists that is visible to everyone with a computer, phone or another gizmo on the network.

Transform and Adapt — it depends on how old the things are that you’re trying to transform and adapt. For me, I’m following the innovators and looking for the next new thing not trying to re-invent the wheel or strap on some extra boosters to tide you over for the next 12 months.

Read the small print and don’t be short-changed!

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