Category Archives: Business Technology

Even Better Package Tracking

Twitter seems to be the newsiest item around these days, but there’s good reason and it isn’t just for the geekiest of consumers. There is a great new application using the Twitter API that could have a major play for small business–TrackThis.

TrackThis is easy to use, just follow @trackthis on your existing Twitter account. If you don’t have a Twitter account, now is the time to sign up. Once you follow @trackthis, you get automatic updates on all the packages you want to follow. You can use this to track packages you are expecting, or track those packages you sent to customers.

Using TrackThis is simple, there’s only one page of information and two frequently asked questions. You can decide which or how many Twitter accounts you want notified to separate the different packages being tracked. You also decide how you want to receive the information, by email or the online Twitter screen or by SMS on a cell phone.

For instance, track that package of architect renderings scheduled to be presented at a meeting of city planners. Or rest assured that the RMA is on it’s way back to your facility. Or keep track of those handmade specialty items you shipped cross-country. This is a real benefit for small businesses of any size or design, as long as they use shipping services.

A sole-proprietor might want to follow packages ordered by SMS in order to more closely time a presentation or project due date, while a shipping department might simply want an on-screen update for all packages they have going to customers. There’s lots of opportunity to put this to use in business.

Tracking packages has traveled light years since the days when we would travel across our respective city to the shipping company office, fill out multi-part forms–taking care not to smudge black on our white shirts from the carbon paper–and then phone the tracking number to the receiver so they could track the receipt of the package. Let us know in your comments about the uses you come up with.

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Can Twitter Drive Business?

Last week I had drinks with some ex-Intel friends, mostly folks like me who left Intel during the recent layoff of the last year or so. Some I have not seen since the layoffs, so we got to talking about the work we do now.  I mentioned some of the work I am doing bring social media to small business, like using Twitter, which started a short debate.

With any tool there are personal uses and business uses and Twitter also has two sides. My friends were a bit wary and there were a couple of incredulous looks and references to MySpace trash. One of our group has started a series of small businesses in Vernonia: a bed and breakfast; a newspaper; and a couple of other ventures. So I set about explaining how Twitter could help her.

The newspaper was an easy target for using Twitter. This is a monthly newspaper, Vernonia is a small town without the typical big city news stream, but the advertisers are trying to get the paper to move to bi-weekly. I explained that Twitter could help build a news stream for the paper as well as build community conversation during the weeks in-between the publishing cycle. There are journalistic advantages beyond building a news stream, Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb has a great blog entry covering journalism uses of Twitter, check out his story.

Additionally, the paper’s advertisers could monitor Twitter for comments on their products and services, and give instant feedback on problems and questions. Instant feedback can be a real help in a rural setting, you never know when someone has time to drive to town and a business gets an immediate read on the feelings of it’s customers. This type of use has been reported constantly over the last few weeks. I’ve heard reports on Cnet’s Buzz Out Loud podcast, Leo Laporte’s TWIT netcast, even a tweet this morning from Jeremiah Owyang about his Dell computer needing a repair brought a return tweet from Circuit City–OK, maybe that’s getting to the edge of creepy, but it is forward-thinking and maybe it will grow into a useful and acceptable format.

Using just this single tool, the newspaper can extend it’s reach into the Vernonia community, mesh more tightly with the community, gain more community support, build business for it’s advertisers, and serve the community even better than before, all without adding major expense to its current operations. The community growth and business involvement should also support a jump from monthly to bi-weekly, by making more news available and adding to the community engagement.

Of course, I wanted to add blogging, real-time Flickr news photography, and a few other tricks to the equation, but the my beer glass went empty and it was time to head home. I plan to follow up with my newspaper mogul during our next get together, whether it is at Mint or some other local establishment, maybe she will have started something with Twitter or one of the other ideas I passed along….or maybe she’ll ask me to get it all started for her, we’ll see.

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Loose Laptops Expose Data Even With Encryption

We all certainly use passwords for our hard drives and encryption for our sensitive files–but none of this matters anymore if someone can gain access to a computer that is still powered on.

This is a difficult issue for small businesses such as doctor offices, health clinics, accountant offices, and others working very hard to protect client information. Some information is required by law to kept private and there are horrendous penalties–business-ending penalties–for disrupting that privacy.

Now it turns out that none of our security defenses matters if our computers are left operating when we are not present. According to a new report from ars technica, a group of Princeton computer scientists has hacked through all the security measures available–including on a new Macintosh, a computer celebrated for it’s security!

The trick?

Pull the encryption information from the RAM before it has a chance to clear itself.

Fortunately, there is one simple answer to the problem outlined in the paper: make sure your computer is completely shut down before you physically leave it. This is true for desktop computers as well as laptop computers.

It seems that RAM holds onto memory for far longer than previously, up to an hour or more if handled properly. The scientists found they could extend the residual memory by cooling the RAM chips using a can of compressed air similar to those found in many photography and computer store, or even sewing stores and hobby shops.

The only sure defense is to completely shut down the computer and allow the RAM to clear. This means overnight back-ups may need to be re-timed to occur during work hours in order to avoid leaving operating computers in a small office overnight. It means shutting down your laptop any time it might not remain in your hands, putting the laptop in sleep mode or hibernation means the security is exposed once the laptop is awakened.

Granted, thieves still need access to the hardware, but this may be fairly simple if your business contains information of value to the thieves. So remember to keep physical control of your computer at all times, and ensure that the computer is shut down whenever you leave the premises.

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Over-The-Wall Contact When No One’s There

Many more people today work alone or in “branch offices”. These can be small rental offices, one of the new shared office spaces (see CubeSpace or Souk in Portland, Oregon, or check the co-working wiki for similar arrangements around the U.S. and the world), or even from home.

Do you feel disconnected from the rest of the world while you work solo? Do you squint at the clock, anticipating the moment when the mail arrives so you can glimpse another human? A complaint I hear on a regular basis is that people miss the camaraderie of the office family, this even gets reported somewhat regularly in the news media on slow news days.

I tend to work somewhat silently, I rarely even play music because it interrupts my writing focus, but I do remain connected with people around the world using a number of different methods. I spent ten solid years living in a cubicle farm–it actually was named “Jones Farm”–where we regularly “prairie-dogged”* over the cubicle walls to call out for help, someone with whom to grab fresh coffee, or make a snide comment about the intelligence of the person on the other end of the just completed phone call. This is generally a great source of organic office knowledge, but it disappears when no one occupies a nearby cubicle or when one is working in a solo situation.

Assuming everyone reading this has access to and uses email on a regular basis, this is pretty much the low end of staying connected, much like writing a letter. But the drawback is that email takes a formal commitment to sitting and writing a coherent message, very unlike the quick conversation at the watercooler.

By now, almost everyone over the age of 30 has discovered IM, people under the age of 30 don’t remember a time when IM did not exist. IM, or “instant messaging”, in case you are as far over 30 as I am at this time, is a great way to maintain a connection with one person, but it does have a drawback of operating mainly point-to-point and lacking the social aspect of a shared conversation similar to the prairie-dog activity. (My favorite IM app is Pidgin, you can reach me at mmathews on AIM, both open source and multi-protocol.)

Twitter has taken over IM for me (follow me on Twitter). It’s quick and easy. I stay updated through my browser online or through SMS by cell phone, regular cell phone, not one of those fancy “smart phones” or iPhones with their million-dollar service plans. I can decide whose tweets to read and whose to avoid.

Today I may have found another–and possibly better, though denser–method for keeping up with people and having a quick over-the-wall encounter: FriendFeed. Feel free to add me, I am mmathews and I promise I won’t clutter up the feed too much, but you will be able to see new blog postings and tweets and a few of the other things I work on regularly.

Let me know what you use to gain that sense of office family and how well you think it works.

* To “Prairie-dog” is to raise one’s head above the level of shared workspace cubicle walls to see what is happening around the area of the cubicle, including to make a comment to someone in a neighbor cubicle.

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