Be the IT guy: Using a Blackberry for reporting on your freelance work

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I'm an IT Guy. I'm human, but I do make a living in Information Technology. I'd like to give you a peek at some of the things I do when I'm after something. My hope is that you find my adventures interesting - and, yes, feel free to correct me!

One of the most amazing things about technology is how easy it can make our everyday lives easier. This is apparent in everything from tablet computers to smart phones. But, one of the most under appreciated things I see every day with technology, is when all sorts of things are used in unconventional ways to make tasks easier.

One such task is the "Report". Most IT consulting companies make reports about work they perform on a customer's site - some make reports based on network health - and some just make notes on what they may have seen at a location. Over my years of writing reports for Calwell they have gone from being named "Activity Report", "Service Log, and finally "Service Activity Report". This is generally a necessary evil so the customer is informed of the kind of work that was performed - you might think of it as making sure the customer is aware of what they pay for. The problem with reports, is getting them finished in a timely manner, accurately and concisely.

The challenge was met in a number of ways over the years - anything from writing the report at a customer's office while working there, to running a reporting tool while remotely connecting a Calwell internal server. All of these reporting methods lacked the ability to report on service in real-time - causing accuracy of the reports to suffer. Then, I got ahold of a Blackberry and had an idea.

At the time, it was kind of an epiphany - I would use the Blackberry to create and send an email to a reports@ email address (I created a reports@mydomain.com). These reports were simply just the customer name and actions I took while at the customer's location. The person handling the accounting could then simply log into the reports@ email account and attach these reports to an invoice.

This was great - I would use the blackberry to write reports in (somewhat) real-time as I performing the work. The report would be (in most cases) finished by the time I left the client. This wasn't enough though - while looking for shortcut keys for the blackberry, I had another idea.

On the blackberry, there are a number of AutoText shortcut combinations you can use to expand a field while typing. One such popular shortcut is "mypin" which will translate into something like "pin:00900000". Other shortcuts would help me attach more valuable details to reports. I would use the "LD" shortcut to start a report and use "LT" to start a line of a report. The typical report would look like this:

Thu, Jan 28, 2010
9:35:07 AM - text of entry
9:35:13 AM - text of entry
9:35:20 AM - text of entry
(X Hours)

That simple addition would allow me to expand on timing information as well as adding multiple dates of work to a report. When I decided to write it in reverse chronology, I was able to solve the problem of constant scrolling inside of a the message. If you have a long report - it can be a real pain tying to constantly save that. With that - had a way to make real-time reports, and have them done when I left the client. Great, but still not exactly where I wanted to be.

Often, I would make a report anticipating more work on a another day; when the day came I either created a new report or forgot about the previous report. This would lead to the possible loss of a report because the blackberry doesn't keep drafts on top it's message list. If I wasn't keeping track, these messages would be buried and potentially lost forever. I needed to find a better, and safer way to report - after some thought - I came up with the calendar.

Using the Blackberry calendar with the Google sync utility I was already synchronizing reports with the Google's Apps. I decided to add calendar entries for upcoming customer work (planning) and then turning the calendar entry into "Report: Customer Name" when I started to do the work. The best part was that Blackberry shortcuts work when you're typing in the notes of a calendar. Perfect, no reports would be lost this way since Accounting can just search on Google for "Report:" in the calendar app.

This is where I am now with Blackberry technology and reports - the Blackberry was certainly never intended to perform this type of work - but it has worked well in this unconventional way. This is the promise of technology - the power of a useful tool can be morphed into any sort of thing - limited only by what a user can imagine. What can you use the technology you have for? Do you run a consulting company? How do you write you're reports?


I would  love to hear what you think, comments are welcome.

My thoughts on the new Apple Tablet

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By now, you probably have heard of Apple's new tablet device named iPad. Coverage of this device can be found all over the Internet.

Apple's iPad is the new tablet/slate computer that will provide a new touch-based experience that will play movies, music be a book reader and run most of the applications written for the iPhone. Here's a video provided by Apple regarding the new features of the iPad:



Those that have been in the industry know that the tablet PC has been released before (I actually use a Lenovo X60 Tablet to write this blog), take a look at what my Tablet PC looks like:



But, will this work? Is this a product that will make the tablet pc a viable product?What will this new product mean for the market?

I think first of all - the iPad is a device suited and marketed for the consumer - this is new for the tablet pc. This will be the first time the tablet is recognized by non-tech or business people. This will be a big hit and create an entirely new market for books - I expect the iPad to revolutionize books and possibly really hurt the Kindle (although the iBook interface looks more flashy than practical).

What will be the best device for web browsing? It will still be a PC. In fact, if you're looking for a slate/tablet for webbrowsing and more versatility than the iPad, check out HP's offering:



If you're looking for a cool product that will play iTunes music and is essentially a large iPod Touch? That iPad is for you - but this is no revolution.

Update: I found a funny video thanks to the Huffington Post regarding the iPad - apparently MadTV predicted this product some time ago:

What to do when Ping.Fm adds text like "=?windows-1252?" to email posts

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This morning I was posting a couple links onto Twitter and Facebook using my Ping,Fm account. This is simply done by sending an email message to my custom Ping.Fm email address and the subject line of my message is posted on the various services I subscribe to.



Today I intended to post the following message:
I agree, these guys even did better: http://url.cwl.cc/xzyah - read "Ballmer’s tablet bumble" - http://bit.ly/aJ3ER3

When I checked Twitter later, however, the following was posted:

And on Facebook, it looked like this:

I had seen this before and hadn't had the time to stop and take a look at what was going on. This time was different - I decided to take a closer look at what was happening. Was this Ping.Fm doing this? Was it my email application?

On Ping.Fm, I looked at recent posts and the above post looked like this:

It seemed possible that Ping.Fm was causing this issue somehow - really, the email message I sent was simply text in the subject line. Right? actually, wrong. I used Gmail to send this message and when I opened the message and selected "Show Original" in Gmail - I was able to see what the raw subject line of the message was looking like. Here's how Gmail sent it:


When I modified my message sightly to remove the ' in Ballmer's name and send the subject of my message as:

I agree, these guys even did better: http://url.cwl.cc/xzyah - read "Ballmer’s tablet bumble" - http://bit.ly/aJ3ER3

This is what  "Show Original" revealed in Gmail:


So, clearly, when the message is sent with certain characters like the apostrophe - Ping.Fm is sent a bunch of legacy (Wikipedia) encoding details and can't handle or decode it. I have also seen this problem when quotation marks are used twice. This same message sent to other mail readers, smart phones, etc seem to handle the encoding fine.

Since this happens extremely rarely, it's probably not that pressing of an issue for Ping.Fm to fix. The trouble is that I (and other users) don't know what character usage will force legacy encoding - essentially making it impossible to predict what message will cause this issue. If you use Ping.Fm, be aware of what you send. I see that they are working on a possible fix (more here), let's hope they get it sorted out soon.

Update - Feb 4th 2010: I have encountered this a couple more times, and, in my frustration I've found an online conversion tool that will strip out the characters that cause this. Use this tool to clean your characters before posting. Go to the Character Set Converter tool and choose "ASCII" as your input encoding and "UTF-8" as your output encoding. Place your text in the box and click convert. Copy the resulting text into your email to ping.fm and send it.I also found some more on this from Google at their help pages - what's interesting is how they don't mention Chrome on the page.

Limiting or Disabling PST use in Outlook (03, 07) with Group Policy ADMs

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It might seem somewhat difficult to find the information you're looking for on restricting Personal Folder Storage file (PST) usage in Outlook - if that information also relates to using the Group Policy editor to achieve this - even worse. The Group Policy (especially in a Active Directory domain) is great for controlling certain settings for Windows or user applications. One particular situation the group policy is great for is to control some of the Office 2003/2007 settings that you might not want the user to mess with. Users often have the habit of just saying yes to questions like "Do you want to Autoarchive?" and then looking confounded when they can't find important email messages.

Life after Windows? If Microsoft dies, we'll be ok!

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Earlier today I read a blog entry by Randall C. Kennedy of Infoworld that spoke of a world without Microsoft and Windows that would be more of an apocalypse. At first, I thought: "This is junk, I wouldn't share it" and I kept reading. After I finished the article, I just sat on it and I kept coming back to how utterly ludicrous it was. The preposterousness then turn to more of a WTF - this is more than crazy, it's dead wrong.

Randall's first argument is that we would have to kiss Client Application consistency goodbye. That client application user interfaces and programming APIs will be so all over the place that they'll "vary widely among implementations". Here's the thing Randall, if Microsoft were to die, dissolve or otherwise just disappear (they won't,we all know that), applications on the client side won't just up and die. They won't be completely replaced by web applications. The two biggest "other" platforms that exist today, Linux and Mac both run local client applications and have an incredibly robust client application platform and API from which application programmers can write for. If Microsoft were gone today - the client application would live on and quite possibly be stronger than ever.

Even worse, however, is that Randall forgets that all of the thousands of Win32 applications that exist today - they aren't just going to turn into space dust. Yes, with out Microsoft's developer support they may not be updated until a mass of developers carry the Win32 API forward - but most of these applications can now run on the current iterations of Mac and Linux through emulation. Heck, getting rid of Microsoft doesn't even mean that Windows will die either, this may mean that Microsoft's truly useful Operating System's can live on in other ways that Microsoft may have stifled in the past (For example: an extremely fast Windows PE implementation of Windows 2000?).

Even more amusing is Randall's "bright spot" about the traditional software distribution. Why, without Microsoft's method of licensing, those rocket scientists and brain surgeons that are required to understand Microsoft's licensing rules can now get back to what they do best. I say a net win for society as a whole.

His second argument is one that seems to be thinner that the first. The lack of Microsoft/Win32API means "the developer tools landscape will be fundamentally altered by the inevitable decline of the Win32 API.". Wow, the win32 API will decline? Lets looks at that for a second. This sort of argument seems to pre-suppose that Microsoft created the idea of an API and without Microsoft, the API will die with it. The truth is, without Microsoft's support - every version of windows will still exist in the same form, maybe not even the same form - but the the idea of an API will live on well past Microsoft's reign on the PC platform. Every single major Operating System today has some sort of API and each one of those user interfaces has some method of closing the application that is standard across the User Interface. Microsoft  didn't create standardization Randall.

I will, however, give Randall the third argument. Hardware will be in "Chaos until a new overlord rises". I do think that Microsoft has had a calming effect on the hardware ecosystem and without that influence Hardware and driver support would be much more chaotic until a large vendor comes in to calm that chaos.

The sad truth of all this is that the technology industry would probably be better off without the Microsoft of today. The heavy-handled licensing would not be missed. The minor incremental changes to products that are cash cows for them - just to generate more cash. The control and power over OEMs. The monopolistic rise of Internet Explorer. None of this will be missed in this theoretical post-Microsoft world.

A new utility from Nirsoft - ShellMenuNew

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Nirsoft has a great history of making utilites, these are free and very useful. Just today, Nirsoft released a new one that, as he says he "created this utility within a few days without planning to create it before". I like it!

Here's what it does:
In the Wndows X/Vista/7 Explorer interface, there is a context menu that can be accessed by right-clicking from most locations. This includes folders, and the desktop. The context menu sub-items this utility changes are the ones in the "New" tree. You may want to disable some or all of these items if you want to speed up you're PC, or you have an application that has, without you're permission, decided to add way more items to that then you actually want. Use this utility to disable them.

Where to get it:
Main utility page: here
Nirsoft's Blog Entry: here
Download: here

 Anyone else use Nirsoft's great utilities?

My predictions for the next decade

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This is another one of those posts that that give you a far-to-distant look into the future. I want to take this time to predict what will occur (mainly in technology) over the next ten years. I'm late, and that ok because I'm looking ten years forward. Here's what I think will be a reality in 2020:

Apple will have dominated for most of the decade - Apple will continue to be the model for how to run a company. It will not introduce anything revolutionary - but it will continue to improve on what exists and earn the most profit in the process. In 2020, Apple will be the biggest seller of all forms of consumable media and in addition to the iPhone, iPad, and iLCD - they'll be imminently releasing a massive computer that takes up so much space, it will be called the iSore.

Google will have ruled everything else - Yes, Google will be the main center for all applications and the standard. Google will also be your Telco and will also be your source for  other services as it continues to destabilize brick and mortar companies. In Canada, Rogers and Bell will be severely impacted by this (possibly one of them will die in a major bankruptcy). The Canadian government will attempt to stop this by regulation, but it will be too late.

Device input will be via touch - Expect touch interfaces to be vastly different in 10 years. Computers, Phones, and other personal devices will be driven less and less by mouse/keyboard and more by touch gestures, muscle movements and yes - by the end of the decade, thoughts, eye movements or the by-products of certain thought patterns. In 2020, it will be difficult to find a media player that has physical buttons that you press. Expect people in 2020 to be talking about the side effects of repeated clenching of certain muscles (get you're mind out of the gutter).

Attention spans will become much shorter and longer -  In 2020, expect to see Twitter to have more users than Myspace and Facebook combined as more and more people turn to using very short messages to express themselves. All of Friendfeed's feature will be inherited by Facebook and Friendfeed will no longer exist. There will also be a continued movement to longer prose, many bloggers leading the way to longer and more detailed posts. This will give rise to a special group of bloggers that only exist to sell product, expect them to be called floggers.

Web services will rule the decade - the biggest story is going to be the evolution of web services as they're transformed into full-scale applications. The Operating System (and essentially all local computing on any device) will be rendered mute with most major applications moving to (what we call now) the web. This won't be called "The Cloud" in 2020 because of a major mid-decade backlash, but most, if not all data will reside in the cloud (for ubiquitous access on all devices). Because of the Uber-Commodization of the base Operating System, Microsoft Windows will be forced Open Source/Free. In another possible huge move, by 2020, Microsoft shifts from making new Operating Systems and turns to updating/patching any and all Operating Systems from the past. Silverlight on Windows NT 3.51 anyone?

More about "The Cloud" backlash - somewhere in the middle of the decade, Cloud Computing is going to take a major hit. The power of data centres and the increasing amount of downtime that continues to occur to all services will start a major counter-movement towards non-cloud computing. Expect to see the decade end with most applications and services either on a Hybrid-Cloud system or seeing the possibility of turnkey Cloud systems that are implemented on premises. In 2020, there will be a new name for this: "Parallel Applications" that make use of both the cloud and something of a locally run locker or storage point to mirror your data and make it easy to get it back independently of the application your using.

Microsoft will stagnate for most of the decade, two big things will happen - first, Steve Ballmer will leave during this decade - he'll probably be pushed out; but I expect that if you look behind the scenes, he'll have been forced out by the shareholders. The next CEO will make waves late in the decade. Secondly, Microsoft will redefine touch computing further with a massive touch API and the Surface PC will be available everywhere. Expect Microsoft's biggest killer new app to be the Cloud-Based Windows system management tools. Windows will be mostly Free/Open Source by then.

..and an totally unrelated-to-tech prediction:

Obama will win the next US Election - but after that it will be a white republican - Yep, 2012 will be much of the same, Obama will be the next US president. He'll be the first US president that I can remember who wasn't subject of impeachment. Both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end this decade. The 2016 election will be won by a rather unknown (in 2010), young white republican.

Be the IT Guy: 6 free ways to work with PDF files (decrypt them too)

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I'm an IT Guy. I'm human, but I do make a living in Information Technology. I'd like to give you a peek at some of the things I do when I'm after something. My hope is that you find my adventures interesting - and, yes, feel free to correct me!


PDF files, or "Portable Document Format" (wikipedia) files, are as close to near-ubiquity as anything can be in the technology world. If you have a file, and you want to share it in the format you originally had it laid out in - you're probably going to be using a PDF file to do that. For many years folks have been creating PDF files with the Acrobat Application and reading them with the Acrobat Reader (get the official free reader here). What many do not know, however, is that the PDF format is so mature now that many of these things you do (and often pay for) can be done without the use of the often slow-and-bloated official applications or can be done completely free. I'll give you a few scenarios and then the alternative method to go about this - please note, the application listed are for Windows.

Scenario #1: Create PDF files
When you want to pay use: Acrobat Full, PDFFactory
When you want to do it for free use: PDCreator (recommended), Green Print

If you want to create PDF files, and you're probably like 90% of those who do - you probably want to take the content of a web page, application, or a document and place it in a PDF file to be sent by email or stored on a drive. The most common method is by using a virtual PDF printer and creating a PDF file with what your printed. You may have seen my article on Green Print previously, that utility is great if you would like a preview of the PDF before you print it - PDFcreator is even better because of it's no-nonsense utility and powerful options.

Scenario #2: View PDF Files faster
When you want to pay use: ?
When you want to do it for free use: Foxit PDF Reader, Acrobat Reader Lite

One of the bigger complaints I see with the Acrobat Reader is that it's just too darned slow to load. if this is also something that annoys you, using these alternative ways to get PDF files loaded faster on your computer may save you time and money. Foxit reader has been around for sometime - it allows other more advanced functions, but it has always been a straight-ahead faster-to-load reader than the Acrobat Reader. If what you want is to keep the Acrobat Reader, but make it faster - take a look at the Acrobat Reader Lite - this is a customized version of Acrobat that removes much of the bloat. If you don't have time to test the application, you can use the tutorial to custom-make it yourself here.

Scenario #3: Share PDF files easily over the web
When you want to pay use: ?
When you want to do it for free use: Google PDF Viewer, Scribd
 
You may want to make the process of viewing your  PDF file ultra easy for the person you're speaking too. Given the number of options out there, the number of operating systems and applications - you can usually be sure (at least) that the user has a web browser. With that, you can provide your audience with your PDF very easily over the web. Use Google's PDF viewer if you have that file online and accessible - Google will provide you with a link and/or embeddable code so the file can be viewed (such as this). You may not have an easily accessible location (or URL) that Google can use, in this case, use the Scribd online tool (registration required) to share a PDF file (check this one out).

Scenario #4: Remove security restrictions from PDF files
When you want to pay use: ?
When you want to do it for free use: PDFToolsPDFfill

Another common request I get from users is how they might take a PDF file and remove the security restrictions from them. Often files that are intended to print have the option removed or copying text would be useful to a user - yet the author of the file decided to restrict this ability. You might be surprised to know that there are tools out there that let strip these restrictions from the PDF. You can use the free PDFfill utility to open up a file for printing and viewing.

Take a look at PDFfill in Action (Go full screen for best results):


With PDFtools, you can also decrypt files - but you'll need the owner's password (if there is one).

Scenario #5: Edit PDF Files
When you want to pay use:  Acrobat Full,
When you want to do it for free use: See below

Editing PDF files is an interesting thing - if you're interested in the high-end features such as form creation,enterprise features, and certain type of programability - the full Acrobat may be you're only choice. Ther are other interesting options for editing and manipulating PDFs, however. Here are some things you might want to do with PDFs and the corresponding FREE application to do it:

Merge PDFs: PDFToolsPDFfill, PDCreator, PDFhammer
Split PDFs: PDFToolsPDFfill
Add annotations to PDFs: Foxit PDF Reader
Clear, edit and add text: PDFEscape, PDF-XChange Viewer,

Scenario #6: Convert PDF Files
When you want to pay use: ?
When you want to do it for free use: Zamzar, Free File Convert, ConvertPDFtoWord,

File conversion is really no the domain of online web services. The number of online web services that do file conversion is quite staggering right now. The most useful conversion (and the most difficult) is the conversion from PDF to Word (editable) Document. The results are often not the greatest, but what you get might do the trick. Also, a word of warning, as you are providing these files to online services - you should be aware that this information is public and you should treat it as such.

That's it for now, I would love to know what you use, and what tools you feel are the best for your Operating System. There are a number of other applications that can be included in this list, I'd like to hear what you use to open, edit, and modify PDF files.


Be the IT Guy: Using an Unlocked Blackberry in Venezuela

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I'm an IT Guy. I'm human, but I do make a living in Information Technology. I'd like to give you a peek at some of the things I do when I'm after something. My hope is that you find my adventures interesting - and, yes, feel free to correct me if you wish.

Using an unlocked GSM cellphone. I've known this was possible for some time, but I had not really attempted to do it. When I recently purchased a Blackberry Bold smart phone unlocked, I planned to attempt local roaming of data instead of using Rogers for this purpose.

A note: Getting an unlocked phone can be a bit daunting, if you have it unlocked by a third party or buy your phone used, make sure the unlocking process works (if you need too, have the seller do it in front of you) and also ensure you get the unlock code.
 
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