Apple, featured, Microsoft, Mobility

Thank You Steve

6 Oct , 2011  

Steve Jobs has been a part of my career in computer and networking since it began in the 1980’s. My first computer and business were based on the Apple II Plus, creating medical office software and consulting to the State of Nebraska Education Department while attending college at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (then Kearney State). I also worked in the college computer department supporting other students in our computer lab using Apple II’s and our timesharing mainframe computers. As a computer science student, I practically lived on my Apple II, writing software, playing games and experimenting with everything I could do with my Apple II. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two of my first heros in the computer industry.

My Apple II followed me to my first post-college job building banking software. While others thought I was crazy, I brought my Apple II into work to write software requirements and designs while others turned in handwritten pages for the word processing pool to type up. While living in NY, I saw the introduction of the Macinotsh and the Lisa, neither of which I could afford at the time. My first Macintosh was actually purchased by my employer EDS, and a few months later I was able to buy my own Macintosh.

During that time I was working on a lot of projects using Apple technology and working on EDS’s Apple account in Cupertino. For a while I even toyed with the idea of moving to Silicon Valley and signing on to work at Apple. I was able to attend a couple of Apple events, MacWorld conferences and a TED conference where I saw Jobs in his element, pitching Apple and its products. I also had the privilege of presenting a Mac-based product I was a part of creating to then Apple CEO, John Sculley. Those projects also gave me a chance to meet Apple Fellow, Alan Kay, and Hypercard creator Bill Atkinson.

Macs were my primary computers at work and home until the mid-90’s, when I made the switch to Windows. The Mac operating system had become too unstable, slow, and lacked the software options available on Windows. Windows was catching up and the Mac no longer held the advantages over Microsoft it once had. Jobs was no longer at Apple and Apple as a company was a mess. I felt Apple had let me down on so many fronts and it was time to move on.

courtesy of wikimedia commons

It wasn’t until Jobs returned to Apple and made the decision to abandon the proprietary Mac operating system and Motorola processor dependency by switching to the Linux Unix-based Mach OS kernel that I felt there was hope for Apple. I wasn’t enamored by the iMac, the cube Mac or other plexiglass generations of Macs, but today Macs are provided as an end user computing option where I work right along with Windows. Despite my dire (and insanely stupid) predictions the iPhone would succomb to other smartphone devices, it was developing software for the iPhone that brought Apple products back into my professional and personal world. For me, the iPhone and iPad were the revolutionary equivalent to the Apple II and Mac products of their day.

Apple’s launching of the personal computer (Apple II), their approach to ease of use and user interface design, the 1987 “Knowledge Navigator” concept video (link) and the ground breaking iPhone and iPad products have all had profound impacts on me. All of these innovations helped shape my own deeply held beliefs about designing for the user experience, creating usable software, innovation and customer service. And Jobs was at the heart of these and so many other innovations.

The loss of Steve Jobs on Oct 5, 2011, didn’t come as a surprise. When Jobs announced he was stepping down as Apple CEO, I knew the end was near. For Jobs to step down, I sadly knew he had to be living out his last weeks or maybe even days.

I heard of Jobs death while driving on my way to meet my wife for dinner and a movie. I told Jodi I was surprised how strongly his passing struck and saddened me. And then I realized that Jobs has been with me since the time in college when I discovered computers and creating software were my passion, hobby and vocation. Steve, his philosophies about products and customers, and many of the products he helped create have been a part of my journey, and while I’ve had my serious disagreements with and disappointments in Apple and Jobs, there are so many more things I love, appreciate and admire about them both.

Three of the things I appreciate most about Steve Jobs were his infectious passion, his visionary product innovation and his fundamental belief in the customer experience.

Thank you for everything, Steve.


Apple, featured, IT, Microsoft, Product Mgmt

Dear vendor, no more “only IE supported”

22 Jun , 2011  

Thou shalt only use Internet Explorer. Gone are the days of the “one official browser” corporate IT standard. At least that’s the principle I operate under. I’ve vowed not to purchase or select a product, application or SaaS service that restricts itself to Internet Explorer, or any other single web browser.

The world of web browsers is just simply too diverse for most organizations to truly operate under a one web browser only policy, which has traditionally been Internet Explorer in most IT shops.


Users demand choice. Users have very strong preferences. Whether it’s Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer or whatever… many (most?) end users want to use the web browser of their choosing, not the browser dictated by the company or by IT.

Web access from multiple devices. If I’m on my phone, my laptop, my computer, it doesn’t matter – I want to get to all applications, sites, etc. from whatever device is in use when the need occurs.That means it could be an iPad or iPhone one moment, a Windows 7 device another, or a MacBook at another time.

More and more users aren’t running Windows (or don’t want to.) What about Linux or Mac users? Why should they have to use a remote desktop, run a virtual Windows machine locally, or use or borrow another Windows computer to access an application or site that only supports IE?

Why don’t all vendors products support the most commonly used web browsers?

Supporting multiple browsers means adding code specific to browsers, supporting multiple versions of each browser, dealing with the myriad of browser idiosyncrasies, exponential testing variations, and ultimately added cost to create and support products. Having designed and built commercial web based software products, I know it’s hard and complex. While I sympathize with vendors, users don’t. If they prefer to use Chrome, Safari or Firefox, well… they expect your site, application or service to support their browser of choice.

It used to be acceptable for a product to start out only supporting a single browser, most often IE, and then add support for additional browsers further down the product roadmap. Not any more. Users expect products to at least support IE, Firefox and Safari, on Windows (IE), Mac and Linux platforms with product version 1.0. Chrome also has a loyal following.

My recommendation is bite the bullet and design for multi-browser support right up front. It’s much easier to do as you incrementally add features, versus retrofitting an entire product 2, 3 or more years down the road. And you won’t be facing the negative cost-benefit dilemma of retrofitting multi-browser support vs. adding features needed to make sales or customers happy. By the time you get to that point, you’ll be so proficient at cross-browser support, you’ll be rockin-and-rollin at creating new features that also work across browsers.

Apple, featured, IT, Microsoft, Product Mgmt

My Story of the Ribbon Menu

19 Dec , 2010  

If you're upgrading to Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010, or recently upgraded, then you're in the thick of relearning all of the Office products. It's a bit daunting at first. I remember when the first Office 2007 and 2010 public betas came out. I hated the new ribbon menu and all that entailed learning how to perform the same tasks I already knew using the old dropdown menu metaphor. I thought things were perfectly fine and Microsoft was making a huge mistake, and I didn't have any plans on changing my views about it… mostly because I was not happy about the significant drop in productivity when switching to Office 2007 ribbon menus.

Fast forward to about a year ago plus. It wasn't until I began using Office on my Mac (Office Mac 2008) more frequently that I really appreciated, and dare I say "miss" the Office 2007/2010 ribbon menus. Once you find the functions you commonly use, the ribbon menu is much quicker to perform everyday tasks, and faster finding those features you used to have to hunt down hidden inside one of the old Office menus.

Note: Here's a fantastic video about the history of the ribbon menu and how Microsoft UI designers came to develop this new user interface paradigm… It's a bit long but worth it if you into this sort of thing.

Do I "love" the Office ribbon menus? No, can't say I'm sold to that degree but now that I've become accustom to them I find I prefer the ribbon menu to the old Office 2003 (and older) interface. Office Mac 2011 brings ribbon menus to the Mac, and with them, much more consistency between Office on these two OS platforms.

If you're knee deep trying in the middle of learning the new Office 2007/2010 ribbon menu interface, hang in there. It will start to become familiar. You may have a love-hate relationship with them for a while but they'll eventually grow on you.

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featured, Microsoft, Mobility, Network, Podcasts

Podcast: Windows Azure, Windows 7 zero day and 2nd iPhone worm

24 Nov , 2009  

Welcome again to the Alan and Mitchell Podcast. We're still working on a new podcast name so hang in there until we have something better.

During the podcast, Alan and I talk about:

1. New security features in Windows Azure
2. The first zero day for Windows 7
3. 2nd iPhone worm
4. HP/3Com
5. Why is security so hard
6. Fortinet's IPO
7. Cloud Computing becoming part of the pop culture

Thanks for joining us and enjoy the podcast!

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featured, Microsoft, Podcasts, Security

Reintroducing The Alan and Mitchell Podcast

12 Nov , 2009  

New_podcast_big_2_sm Well, we're back at it again. Alan and I are doing the podcast again and we are enjoying it even more. 

During this episode, Alan and I talk about:

  • Is the CISO role really just a consulting gig?
  • Microsoft Security Essentials free malware software
  • Microsoft Forefront 2010 for Exchange
  • and Alan's leaving StillSecure

The podcast is full of the usually banter and tomfoolery so join us for thirty-five minutes of fun and good security information. 

And don't forget to send us your podcast name ideas. The winner will receive a free t-shirt (the valuable part of the prize) and get to appear on our podcast. Email me at <mitchell at mitchellashley dot com>.

featured, General, Microsoft

This Is The Matrix… On Microsoft Windows

25 May , 2009  

   My editor at Network World Microsoft Subnet, Julie Bort, posted this video parody of the movie The Matrix that pokes fun at Microsoft Windows. No matter if you’re a Linux fan, Mac user or you use Windows regularly, I think everyone will enjoy this video.>

Cloud, featured, Microsoft, Mobility, Product Mgmt

Product Bistro: A Product Manager’s Dream and Nightmare (cont’d)

15 Jan , 2009  

Continued from a previous blog postThe Digital Age Will Save Us… Uh HuhIf you haven’t noticed our world of software is changing right from under us. We rarely receive CDs or DVDs when you buy software. All the Microsoft products I use in my business all come direct via the web, downloading an installer or the ISO image of the DVD to my computer. We buy and download our music through Amazon and iTunes. Now customers have much greater access to products, and we have instant delivery of online services and software products to our customers.Fall 2008 at the Microsoft developer’s conference, Microsoft announced Windows Azure, their strategy for bringing applications and infrastructure services into the cloud. It’s a bold step but nothing short of bold will do to be able to compete against the lead created by Google and Amazon. We’re entering an age where computing power, storage and network bandwidth are services we can spin up or wind down as needed. That’s a product manager’s digital dream, right? Well, it’s never that easy.Yes there are automated processes for provisioning services and bringing new servers online, and they work, but not always in peak situations. There’s always more to it than standing up a dozen or more servers and “bring them online”. Databases, load balancers, firewalls, application software, backup/recovery, bandwidth, failover schemes… it all plays into the equation.Microsoft was down for nearly a full day reconfiguring their service to be able to handle the huge demand for the Windows 7 beta. We don’t yet think of Microsoft as hosting thousands of computers like a Google or Amazon EC2 and S3 (Amazon’s hosting and storage services). But Microsoft runs a huge infrastructure that delivers MSN Messenger, MSN email, MSNBC site content, Windows Update service (all those patches you keep receiving), automated anti-virus updates for OneCare…. see there’s a lot. So, Microsoft’s no newb at the online services hosting game and it still took them a day to get back on their feet delivering Windows 7 downloads on the Internet.It’s Not A Successful Launch Unless The Order System Gets HurtI see a trend happening. It’s obviously not intentional but it may become one of the criteria for any mind blowing, gang buster style product launch. The trend: crashing the servers.Apple’s iPhone 3G was plagued with enormous problems which revealed a single point of failure in their online and SmartPhone strategy – the iTunes service. Yes, that nice little program you have on your Mac or PC to play songs, sync up you iPod and iPhone, and buy digital songs and movies. Behind your desktop app are the iTunes service which not only provide the online store for buying digital content, it also is crucial to provisioning iPhones and delivering software upgrades. Apple unwisely chose to bring out a new iTunes and iPhone software upgrades, and convert the .MAC service to MobileMe… all within a few days of each other. Busted. When demand peaked, the iTunes servers couldn’t handle the demands and customers were impacted on all fronts.Verizon’s Blackberry Storm was plagued with similar issues when their ordering system overloaded during the first day of product launch. Call me silly but I’m pretty sure they knew the demand was coming following several very public product launch date delays, tons of attention from online on technology sites and blogs (like mine) and Verizon’s own billboards plastered around town more than a month before launch. (A consequence of moving the launch date once too often.)Don’t Do It To Yourself… or Your CustomersWhat’s the second most under appreciated component of any piece of software? Answer: The installer. And what’s the number one under appreciated component of any software product? Answer: The upgrade.My mom used to say that you don’t get to go to kindergarten until you can remember three things. (I forget what the other two things she says are, but I digress.) My adage is a product team doesn’t really know how to ship a successful software product until they can reliably do software upgrades successfully at least three times consecutively. (And not just minor upgrades.)Apple is notorious for really bad upgrades, the consequences of which are bricked iPhone, wiped out data and pissed off customers. It’s not happened with just one software release, but occurs time and again. I’ve personally had two iPods blanked from Apple’s software updates, one of them was totally DOA and not recoverable without sending it to Apple. The most recent episode smacked down my buddy Alan’s iPhone, wiping it and causing him to wait while fix was tested and posted. That one experience moved him from being an iPhone advocate to an iPhone protagonist.In IT shops software upgrades might be something we do once or twice a year. They are well planned (or should be) and timed, and include a recovery strategy should something go afoul. But that’s become much different for consumers and PCs in small and medium businesses. An upgrade or patch to Windows or Mac OS X could happen at any time, resulting in our PCs being reboot overnight or creating a capability problem you didn’t have the day before.Upgrades are crucial to a positive customer experience. Their importance is drastically increasing. In my opinion, we’re not far from the day where every company needs to learn to do upgrades flawlessly or they get to go away.The Fundamentals & Learning FasterShifting to the age of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), online hosting, services on demand, and digitally delivered products are launch and delivery strategies we all are likely to consider and use at sometime. It opens up new possibilities, gives us access to new customers and markets, and drastically decreases the time to reach customers before, during and after the sale. It also means we need to be smart about learning from our experiences and the experiences of others in market.Jumping onto some new technology often means we forget or ignore the fundamentals. Who’s the customer, what really are their needs, what will create a satisfying experience for them, positioning, messaging, the 5 P’s, etc. If anything technology accelerates and shortens the window between a buying a experience and a satisfying product experience. That means we have to learn faster, plan better and be prepared for more contingencies. We have to be open and transparent with our customers because they see the magnitude of product issues we experience and the age of whitewashing problems through some fancy PR campaign of CEO slight of hand are gone. Ask Jet Blue’s former CEO who is Passenger Bill Of Rights won over unhappy customers who sat in the plane grounded for hours.Transparency. Something I’ll talk about at another time.

Blog, Microsoft, Podcasts

Xobni – Changing How You Use Your Inbox

24 Jul , 2008  

I like to talk about innovate products and Xobni, the plugin for Outlook,definitely fits the bill. I blogged about Xobni on my NWW blog back in Februaryand as you can tellfrom that post, I was and still am excited about Xobni. Unlike most thingsthat get installed on my computer only to be removed a few days or weeks later,the "coolness" of Xobni hasn’t worn off. More importantly the usefulness ofXobni causes me to have it stick around and take up real estate in my Outlookwindow. But Xobni isn’t perfect, either. I see some real challenges to be ableto truly gain the benefits it could bring to email, but we’ll talk about that ina moment.

Here’s a video tour of Xobni. Also check out my podcast interview with Matt Brezina,co-founder of Xobni. I’m starting to do more product reviews and strategy workas part of my Converging Network business, which is a pleasure since I enjoyworking with and assessing new products and trends anyway.

(Contact me if you areinterested in finding out more about my Converging Network product strategyservices.)

Xobni – The Movie


Xobni – Email’s New Connection To People

Now that Xonbi integrates with LinkedIn, I find that I use it a lot more.It’s actually the little features I Xobni I like most. Showing someone’sportrait loaded up on LinkedIn when I click on their email makes the connectionto that person even more real. It makes email just a little more personal. And,if I don’t know them well, it’s easy to go learn about the person from theirLinkedIn profile. (You have a LinkedInprofile with a picture uploaded don’t you? Here’s mine. Letsconnect!)

One of the most useful things about Xobni is knowing the email habits of thepeople I converse and work with regularly. The little bar chart showing thedistribution time of emails received from them throughout the day lets me knowwhen they are more likely to read the emails I send, or take my call. This couldalso be invaluable to a sales person looking to reach clients, though I’m notsure people these days answer phone calls from people they don’t know. (Salespeople tell me virtually no one answers their business phone much any more.)

Xobni – Changing How You Use Email

It’s rare for me to keep a gadget or plugin around for long. Their installedhalf-life is usually about 2 days, or no more than two weeks on my computers. Soyou know Xobni must be delivering something of value, especially given thescreen real estate it takes in Outlook.

Changing how you use email is a double-edged sword, as I’ll talk more aboutin a moment. I find the attachments ("Files Exchanged") section of the Xobniplug-in one if it’s most useful functional features. It can prevent a lot ofsearching for the right email with the right attachment, and you can dig indeeper if you want to see the email or email thread the attachment was a partof.

I haven’t found that I use the "XYZ’s Network" section (where it shows youother people who have been in conversations with you and this person) as much asI thought I would. It’s a great idea, but I just haven’t added that capabilityinto my email use thought patterns for some reason. The "Email Conversations"thread is also something that I don’t use much, mostly because I don’t find theway the threads are presented as being that useful. I’ll say some more aboutthis down below.

Xobni – Kudos For Being A Well Behaved Outlook Plugin

My first rule of all plugin is "be useful". I really don’t need an AdobeAcrobat plugin for Outlook or PowerPoint. Is use the print driver to create pdffiles. Same for screen captures. That’s why I have SnagIt. So, unless there’s areally good reason why this plugin is needed, don’t create them in the firstplace, and certainly don’t install them by default. Xobni definitely meets the"be useful" criteria.

The second rule is "don’t create other problems". How many times does yourOutlook crash because of some funky plugin or software incompatibly. It seemsvirtually guaranteed that if any other software other than Outlook touches yourpst and ost files, you’re doomed for the dreaded "Not Responding" message. Ihave to say that I’ve had relatively few problems with Xobni and Outlook. Notthat its never happened, as I have encountered a few situations where Xobni hadthe files open that Outlook needs in order to start properly. But the problemsand crashes have been very, very few.

Kudos to the Xobni team for figuring out how to do this. They should bottleup whatever they are doing and help all the other software guys figure out howto do the same.

Xobni – The Challenge Of Getting The Benefits

Xobni has two big challenges in my view. First, all of Xobni’scapabilities are constrained by being in an Outlook sidebar plugin. There’slimited screen real estate, and it’s mostly vertical. Networks of people(lists), conversations (lists), viewing email threads, all have to be viewed inthis small area and it does detract from its usability and usefulness. Becauseof this, I don’t use the email threads feature much at all, and the relativelystatic content (time distribution bar graph, email stats, portrait and contactinfo) are the things I look at and use most. It’s a tough row to hoe being in asidebar and Xobni would be much more useful if it was integrated into the emailclient itself. Tell me again why Microsoft hasn’t gobbled up Xobni by now?Hmm.

Xobni also implies multiple user behavior changes to access its benefits. Weuse email clients so frequently everyday, all through the day, that the use casehabits we’ve formed with Outlook are hard very to break. Instead of sorting backand forth between sender and sent date in order to locate what I’m looking for,you have to break that habit and look in the Xobni sidebar for what you mighthunting to find. You have to remember "oh, there’s another way to find the lastversion of that attachment sent to Bob", and go over and use Xobni to do that.On the flip side, being an Outlook sidebar plugin is an advantage over being aseparate application from Outlook all together.

Breaking patterns and habit changes are something every product faces tovarying degrees, but email’s so heavily used that those habits are moredifficult to break.

Xobni – Conclusion: Download It. You’ll Use It.

Download Xobni. I think that title pretty much sums it up.

Blog, Microsoft

Join The Microsoft Bloggers Network

8 Jul , 2008  

Msbn_logoAre you a security researcher looking into Microsoft vulnerabilities? Do you do pen testing on networks running Microsoft software? (Pretty likely, I’d guess.) Do you blog about it? Or maybe you just blog about your Microsoft experiences, good, bad or indifferent.

If so, you’re invited to join the Microsoft Bloggers Network. It’s great exposure for blogs and gives users an aggregated feed for all blogs in the network. The only rules I have about joining are that you occasionallyblog about Microsoft related topics on your blog, and that you writeyour own content (i.e. you aren’t one of those sites that aggregatesother bloggers’ content verbatim for advertising purposes.) It’s a free community service and helps promote your blog, so why not, join up now!

If you’d like to join, send me an email.

Microsoft, Network, Product Mgmt

Breathing Your Own Exhaust

31 Mar , 2008  

Hello_kitty_exhaust_pipeOne thing that happens to everyone at one time or another is when you become so engrossed inyour own world view, you start to believe everyone else thinks the way youdo, or if they don’t, your spin will fool them. Doesn’t matter whether you’rebig like Cisco and Microsoft, or the latest startup on the block with a newmouse trap. You hear phrases like "he believes too much of his ownpress" (I’m sure that’s been said about me more than once, lol) or"they’ve been breathing their own exhaust too long."  I blogged aboutwhat could be one such case of this, Microsoft’s self makeover to be perceived as "open sourcefriendly". Another example is Microsoft claiming it supports Linux in Hyper-V, but only if it’s Novell’s SUSE Linux.

I’m a big believer in ideas like enrollment, passion and engagement, and toachieve these you have to believe in what you, your product and your company aredoing. Doesn’t matter if you are the press spokesperson or the person answeringthe customer service phone — everyone else can pretty easily tell if you areenrolled in what you are doing, or it’s more a matter of your going through themotions.

But that same passion and engagement can also create a blindness, especiallyin entrepreneurial environment where passion, ideas and commitment runs high.It’s easy to build a wall around yourself or your company, focusing just onwhat’s happening inside your product, the product development efforts, or eventhe geographical market area where you are physically located. My very goodfriend AlanShimel used to frequently tell me "you need to get out of Boulder moreoften", not because Boulder isn’t a good town (check out Brad Feld’s blogpost about Twenty-Five Square Miles Surround By Reality), but to reallyunderstand the industry, competition, customers and the market.

I recently blogged about (tangentially as it relates to partnering) the bubbleeffect that can happen in a startup company. It is very easy to become soengrossed in what you are doing, crafting your marketing messages, Belly_button_smbuilding theproduct, training the sales force in the ways you want them to sell, that youforget there are other people out there. Companies may claim to already do whatyou do, cover the same supposed differentiators, or have already beat you to thepunch but you just don’t know it yet. I call this inward looking focus, "staringat your own bellybuttons."

There are many things I’ve found helpful to me to try and avoid this. In aleadership role you probably have more opportunity to take advantage of thesebut I believe in any of our roles you can find a way, or even ask to participate inthese kinds of activities. Here are a few ideas.

1. Never turn down an opportunity to talk to a customer. Doesn’t matter ifthey are a sales prospect, an unhappy customer who wants to scream at you, orone that’s nicely tucked in and happy. If you have a chance to talk with or meetwith a customer, always, always do it.

2. Support your company’s trade shows and marketing events. I learn more about the industry atmany of the trade shows I attend than I probably do by reading about companiesand the industry online. Even if you aren’t one of the marketing dudes or dudets who normally cover these events, ask to go and help out. Stop by everyone’s booth, introduce yourself, listen totheir pitch, ask questions and learn. It’s so invaluable.

3. Be well read. Read everything you can get your hands on. I get between 30and 60 Google alerts each day. That’s in addition to all the email and blogreading I do. I don’t read them all, just the ones that really catch myinterest, are newsworthy, are something new, or are on a topic I follow. Readblogs, news sites and portals.

4. Inject what you’ve learned.  Share it in meetings, on calls, in productdiscussions, in planning discussions, with customers, etc. Bring thatinformation to everyone. Forward relevant info (but don’t spam) to others inyour company. Add your comments/insights up front so they know whether thearticle is worth the read or the value is in your insights.

5. Talk to every company, not just the ones you like. Go talk to yourcompetitors. You might find out they could actually be your partner. Or, theymay still be your competitor. But go meet them. As Alan also told me many times,"stay close to your friends, and even closer to your enemies."

These ideas are pretty basic and simple, and while they might not shake upthe world, they could redefine how you view your own business.