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Life With A Chromebook: Are You Ready? February 28, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The first impression of a Chromebook is wonderful, while day-to-day life is a bit more sobering. In the end, the usability of a Chromebook comes down to each individual user. In this third installment, we’ll look at some factors that will determine if a Chromebook is for you.

Where Do You Keep Your Stuff?

The most important place to check for Chromebook readiness is in the mirror. How do you use computers now? How have you organized your digital life?

Begin with a simple question: where do you keep your stuff? If your files and photos are spread across multiple hard drives and devices, accessing them from a Chromebook is going to be painful. You’ll struggle to find things, wind up copying stuff to multiple places, and generally only increase the entropy in your life.

If your stuff is already in the cloud, you are in good shape. If that cloud happens to be Google, you are golden. Some other cloud (OneDrive, iCloud, Box, whatever) will make things easier but you’ll be doing the file transfer two-step every time you want to open something, edit something, or save something.

Personally, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I long ago began mirroring my locally stored personal files into the cloud, first into SugarSync, then Box, and finally Google Drive. This was not prescience on my part; it was simple compulsion to ensure that things were never lost. My data is stored locally, mirrored in the cloud, and backed up separately by Crashplan. Other people wash their hands a lot; I make backups.

My enterprise data was also stored locally and mirrored in Box and our enterprise OneDrive storage. My personal compulsion spilled into my work world, so that nothing is never lost and I can get to anything at any time from anywhere. All that compulsion paid off when I turned on my Chromebook and had instant access to everything with no extra work on my part.

If you are not already in the cloud, it isn’t hard to get there. Pick a storage vendor (hint: choose Google if you are undecided) and install their sync client on your laptop or PC. Move all of your files into their synced storage. Let the sync run (for days, if necessary). When it completes, you’ll have a cloud copy of your local data, ready to go. This is good advice even if you don’t switch to a Chromebook, but it is crucial to a successful transition to a Chromebook.

What Tools Do You Use?

With your data now floating in the cloud, focus on your tools. What is your office suite of choice?

If you already use (or can live with) Google Docs, you’re finished. Go directly to your Chromebook; do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

If you use Microsoft Office, you’ll have to figure out how to get access to Office in the cloud. Depending on your licensing relationship with Microsoft and the products you own or rent, you may have access to Office Web in either a preview or full editing mode. Figuring that out is no more difficult than understanding a typical Microsoft Office license agreement, so have your army of lawyers get back to you on that.

If you don’t have access to Office Web in some form, you are stuck with QuickOffice from Google. I’ll be honest: if this is your only choice, and you can’t use Google Docs instead, you just aren’t ready for a Chromebook. Stick with what you have until something changes for the better.

Once you resolve your office suite, what about your other tools? Which tools do you currently use that are natively installed on your PC? Can you replace them with a web version? This is very tool-dependent, of course, so you’ll need to take a personal inventory and judge this for yourself. Some tools you can walk away from, others will work well on a Chromebook. If you have showstopper tools that you simply cannot abandon and cannot find web equivalents, you aren’t ready for a Chromebook.

There is one last solution to the missing Office and tools problem: use a remote desktop or some other form of virtual desktop solution. Chromebooks come with Google’s Remote Desktop tool built in, making it easy to connect to legacy hardware for those tools you just can’t live without. This is such an important aspect of a potential Chromebook solution that it warrants a separate post, coming soon.  Suffice to say at this point that you can solve some critical tool issues with a little bit of technological elbow grease.

A Simple Test

Once you work through all these issues, you can perform one last test to make sure you are headed down the right path. One day, turn on your favorite PC or laptop. Grab a cup of coffee while it boots and settles down. When it is finally ready, open a Chrome window. Perform all your daily tasks, big and small, in that window. You can open other Chrome windows, but you cannot open any other tool.  Work this way for at least a week.

If you are alive and sane at the end of the week, you are ready for a Chromebook. Life on a Chromebook will be easier, in fact, except that you won’t have time for that coffee when you turn things on in the morning.

Is Your Enterprise Cloud-Ready?

If you are only interested in a Chromebook as a personal device, your decision should be apparent by now. But if you are looking at Chromebooks as an enterprise solution, you’ll need to make sure that your enterprise is ready for cloud clients as well.

First, ask all of the above questions from the perspective of your enterprise users. Where do they store their files? What sharing and cloud-collaboration tools to you provide? What enterprise cloud storage solution is your company standard? If you license Microsoft products, do you have rights to use web versions of the Office tools?

Turn your attention to your enterprise tools. Are your enterprise tools web-enabled? Can someone process payroll from a browser? What about managing accounts payable? Review each business process and determine if the associated tools can be used from a browser.

Surprisingly, you may be closer than you think from an enterprise perspective. Most enterprise tools and platforms integrated some form of web access years ago. It may be ugly, and different from the legacy fat client, but it may be sufficient for your needs.

Even if all the technology is capable, are your users ready? Only you can judge this, and their ability to make the move is more important than any other indicator of success. This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly and could be a career-limiting choice if made in haste.

Personally, I don’t think most enterprises are ready for a full move to Chromebooks. I do think we all have pockets of adept users who would be willing to serve as test cases. We should take advantage of their skills and enthusiasm to further explore all this stuff and help make our future mass migration a success.  Chromebooks in the enterprise offer compelling financial benefits, but only if the technology actually works for most, if not all, of our typical users.

In the next (and final) part of this series: some practical advice on what works and what doesn’t, day to day, on a Chromebook.

Life With A Chromebook: The Reality February 25, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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In the first part of this series, I took at look at the basics of a Chromebook: the hardware, software, and a few first impressions. My initial impression of Chrome OS was nothing short of delightful. It boots fast, works perfectly, runs quickly, and handle all sorts of peripherals with aplomb. In this next installment, we’ll move on to day-to-day life in Chrome OS. Can I get real work done with it?

Where Are My Tools?

We all need certain tools to get our jobs done. For me, these break down into three groups: email, office productivity, and other useful tools.

Let’s start with my most important tool, email. Here’s a simple survey to see if you can access your enterprise email on a Chromebook:

  • Do you use a cloud-based email service, such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or Outlook.com? If so, you’ll find it easy to access and manage your email on a Chromebook. Just log in as you always have. Otherwise…
  • Does your company provision email services through Microsoft’s cloud-based Exchange hosting? If so, you can use the Outlook Web client within a Chrome window to access your email. Otherwise…
  • Does your company host its own Exchange infrastructure and have web accessed enabled? If so, you can use the Outlook Web Access tool provided by your company; consult your IT department for details. Otherwise…
  • Does your company use some other email system with web access? If so, contact IT for for support. Otherwise…
  • You may be out of luck.

In general, you’ll be able to use your email if there is some web-enabled access method for it. I fall into the second category (cloud-based Exchange hosting) and was reading my email in a matter of minutes. Truth be told, the Outlook Web client is nicely done and provides about ninety percent of the functionality of the native app.

Office productivity tools like Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are far more confusing and difficult. The Chromebook purist would have you fully embrace the Google suite and use Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides for your office needs. Given the large number of Office documents that flow through my world (and most enterprises), this just isn’t an option. I need to create, view, edit, and share Microsoft Office documents all day long.

There is no single good, consistent way to deal with Office documents on a Chromebook. When you click on an Office document, you’ll find that it may

  • Download to your local storage, awaiting further interaction from you.
  • Open in Google’s QuickOffice Beta viewer. I’ll use the term “beta” to mean “barely usable:” documents do not render cleanly (especially spreadsheets) and editing is laughably limited and difficult. If you only want to see the literal text within a document, QuickOffice is a passable solution. No CIO desiring to keep their job would ever allow a typical end user to use QuickOffice.
  • Open in the Microsoft Office web previewer. The preview rendering is excellent and very usable. Honestly, it is a testimony to the power of web scripting that it looks as good as it does. Unfortunately, you cannot edit the document in this view.
  • Open in the full web version of Word, Excel, or Powerpoint, with the ability to edit the document. Note that editing is extremely limited and not anywhere close to what you would be able to do using the full native version of the tool.

You get the idea. It would take a week of posts to explain the exact scenarios that result in these results, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for each new Chromebook user to figure out. Suffice to say, you would never release this to a general, non-technical user population. It’s confusing, frustrating, and tedious.

A final alternative for Office documents is to copy them to local storage, open them in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, and then save them back in Office format. This works for most documents, but is equally tedious and time-consuming.

For any other tool, you’ll need to find an appropriate web version. In my case, this worked out fairly well: most of what I use besides Office is cloud-based anyway. Tools like Evernote, Feedly, and Pocket work beautifully in Chrome, and all of our enterprise platforms (HR, sales automation, expense management, etc) are web-enabled by default. Those tools just worked with no additional effort on my part.

If you use some other native Windows app without a direct web equivalent, you’ll have to find and switch to an alternative. For me, that meant switching from Quicken on my PC to using Mint.com in the cloud, which was a welcome change. If there is no web equivalent, you may have no choice but to turn to some remote desktop or VDI solution. That’s worth a post in itself, coming soon.

Where Are My Files?

So much for your tools. What about your files?

Chromebooks use a combination of Google Drive and local storage to present a single unified file system to the user. You can also plug in USB drives, which become part of that file system. It is easy to copy files to the local storage (my Chromebook has 16GB available) and to move things between local storage and my Google Drive.

The pre-eminence of Google Drive is important. When Chrome OS wants to access a file in some way, it can natively access files stored in Google Drive, local storage, and USB drives with no further intervention from the user. Similarly, files can be saved to Google Drive quickly and easily. It works just like you would expect it to work.

All other cloud-based file systems exist at a distinct disadvantage to Google Drive. If you keep your files in something like Microsoft’s OneDrive, or Box, or Dropbox, every file access is a two-step process: you first move the file to local storage, and then access it within Chrome OS. Saving is two steps: save to local storage, and then upload to the cloud storage provider. It’s tedious, annoying, and a bother. You wind up with lots of temporary files cluttering your local storage.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to link your Chromebook to all sorts of cloud storage providers and use them all equally. In the real world, Google has absolutely no incentive to do this. The goal is to get users to shift to Google Drive, not make other platforms easier to use. Similarly, Microsoft has no incentive to make Drive work more smoothly with a Surface tablet. We’re carving up market share here, not promoting world peace. Capitalism is messy at times.

It’s conceivable that we could someday see smoother access to non-Google storage on a Chromebook, making this less of an issue. In the interim, inconsistent access to files is going to be an issue for users with things stored outside of Google Drive.

What about your files stored on some old-school hard drive spinning somewhere? From the Chromebook’s perspective, they may as well be stored on punched paper tape or Edison wax cylinders. To use them, you’ll need to move them to either Google Drive (best choice), another cloud storage provider (adequate but annoying), or a USB drive that you plug into your Chromebook (workable but risky).

What Now?

As much as my first impressions were wonderfully positive, some of the realities of the Chromebook as an enterprise device are more disappointing. As you may have deduced, some people are well-suited to a Chromebook, while others are not so well-positioned. What about you? In my next post, we’ll look at some key indicators to see if you, and your enterprise, are ready for Chromebooks.

Life With A Chromebook: First Impressions February 21, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Throughout my career as a CIO, I’ve long believed that any and all technology should be thoroughly explored by the IT team before it is ever deployed to (or inflicted upon) our end users. Whenever possible, I like to use new tools myself to really understand what my users will experience.

To that end, I have recently developed an interest in Chromebooks: inexpensive laptops running Google’s Chrome OS that purport to replace traditional laptops with a more elegant, cloud-based alternative. Reviews of the more recent Chromebooks have been very positive, and by some metrics, Chromebooks represented 20 percent of all laptop sales in 2013. With such favorable reviews and market momentum, could Chromebooks become a viable replacement for enterprise laptops and desktops?

There was only one way to find out: try a Chromebook for myself. And so it came to pass that, two weeks ago, I set aside my much-beloved Lenovo X1 laptop and began using an HP Chromebook 14 as my only computing device, day in and day out. Could I successfully remain productive and effective in a traditional enterprise computing environment?

The Hardware

There are a number of very good Chromebooks available from a variety of manufacturers. For my experiment, I chose the HP Chromebook 14 for one simple reason: a 14-inch display. Most other Chromebooks sport an 11-inch screen, but I really need a larger screen to be productive. Even so, the HP 14 is roughly the same size as my Lenovo X1 and weighs right around four pounds. All in all, it is a very manageable, portable device.

Except for the screen, the HP 14 is fairly similar to other Chromebooks: 16 GB of storage, 4 GB of RAM, wifi networking, Bluetooth, three USB ports, an HDMI port, SD card slot, and a webcam. In this configuration, the HP 14 is $349 at Walmart. You read that right: $349. At Walmart.

If you can make do with a smaller display and can live with fewer ports and less RAM, you can get devices from HP, Asus, and others for as little as $199. And therein lies the first compelling feature of a Chromebook from the enterprise perspective: price. These devices are so inexpensive that If it breaks or malfunctions, the cheapest solution is to throw it away and buy a new one. No repairs, no service calls, no spare parts, dying batteries, or screen replacements. Just throw it away and start over.

Don’t let the low price mislead you: the build quality and overall feel of the HP 14 is excellent. The screen is clear and bright, the keyboard and trackpad usable and accurate. Reviews of recently released Chromebooks from other manufacturers tell of similar build quality. I did have problems with the webcam, but I was able to exchange my first unit for a replacement at Walmart without question. Really: walked into Walmart, walked out with a replacement thirty minutes later. After dealing with device repairs at a corporate level for 25 years, it was exhilarating.

The HP 14 does have one unique feature: an LTE cellular radio. The unit comes with a T-Mobile SIM card and 200MB monthly cellular data plan, free for the life of the unit. T-Mobile is happy to sell you a larger data plan, but 200MB each month is perfect for occasional light usage when you are between access points. You’ll never stream Netflix with that data cap, but you can check email on the fly or browse a few web sites during a layover. I initially thought this feature was a bit much, but found it to be useful in a pinch, especially at the price.

The Software

Regardless of manufacturer, all Chromebooks run the same operating system: Chrome OS from Google. Chrome OS provides the foundation to run the Chrome browser atop the Chromebook hardware. Everything you do in a Chromebook, with minor exceptions, actually occurs in Chrome. Even so-called “apps” in Chrome OS run within a Chrome tab or window, and offline versions of certain apps are scripted to provide some functionality without an internet connection.

The simplicity of this cannot be overstated. There are no patches, no managed updates, no viruses, no drivers, no executables, and no software installations. There is one universal version of Chrome OS, and you get the latest version automatically when it is released by Google. My Chromebook updated soon after I first turned it on; the whole process took about thirty seconds.

Google offers an App Store for Chrome OS, with hundreds of apps you can install on your Chromebook. Don’t read a whole lot into that: almost all the apps are simply packaged links to web-based tools that open and run within a Chrome window. A small number of apps have the ability to function without an internet connection (a calculator, for example, or a simple text editor), but most everything you’ll really need for day-to-day productivity occurs in a web-connected Chrome window.

Oddly enough, apps in Chrome OS are much like far more sophisticated versions of apps on the original iPhone. The first iPhone had no apps at all, but clever developers built browser-based tools and games that felt like apps within the iPhone browser. Web development has advanced substantially since the first iPhone, but the fundamental model is the same.

Beyond apps, Chrome OS features a familiar desktop. Once you log in with your Google account credentials, you’ll see a taskbar across the bottom, a status tray over to the right, and a icon on the left that opens a menu with all your available apps. An initial Chrome window invites you to start doing something; clicking the app icons within the app menu opens the appropriate website in an additional tab within Chrome.

First Impressions

So what is really like to start using this thing?

I took my Chromebook out of the box and opened it. It booted in literally 8 seconds and found my local wireless network. I provided the passkey and a few seconds later, was prompted for my Google credentials. A few moments after that, Chrome began syncing my bookmarks and such and I was able to use Chrome just like I do on any other device. Even my Chrome extensions installed and started without intervention on my part.

Emboldened by my first five minutes of success, I began pushing the envelope. I paired a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, which worked the first time. I added a Logitech wireless mouse by plugging the mini-receiver into a USB port. That also worked the first time. I even plugged in my webcam, which worked the first time.

You may sense pattern here: “worked the first time.” You’ll note that the words “install,” “driver,” “update,” and “reboot” do not appear in the previous paragraph. You plug things in, the Chromebook does what you would expect it to do.

I decided to tempt fate and plugged in my 1080p HD monitor using the HDMI port on the Chromebook. The Chromebook instantly recognized the device and added a second desktop, at full HD resolution, next to the native 1366×768 display. I could move windows between the two desktops, just as you would expect. I closed the Chromebook’s lid and was greeted with a message saying that the Chromebook would stay on, using the monitor as a single HD display. I almost fell off my chair. Getting that to work with my Lenovo X1 took the better part of a day; the Chromebook did exactly what I wanted in 30 seconds without a single click or prompt.

All in all, my first moments with a Chromebook were as good as you could possibly imagine, far exceeding my expectations. But a great first date is one thing; could we settle down and marry for life? As with any relationship, long-term success is based on mutual compatibility, which I’ll explore in more detail in my next post.

Retiring Legacy Applications – Logically January 17, 2012

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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A recent article on eliminating legacy applications prompted a bit of back-and-forth on Twitter, centered around why we all do such a bad job of retiring old systems.  Such a conversation requires more than a few tweets, however.  Why is it so hard to kill off old systems?

We all have no problem listing the theoretical reasons why an application should be retired:

  • It no longer meets the users’ needs
  • It becomes too costly to maintain
  • Better technology is readily available
  • Integration with other, newer applications is getting more difficult

Yet we all have applications that no longer meet user needs, are too costly too maintain, could be replaced with better technology, and barely integrate with our other systems. Why is it so hard to kill off old applications?

One word: metrics. Very few CIOs develop, collect, manage, and analyze the metrics to prove that an application is past its prime.  Without hard data to document usability issues, cost concerns, or replacement expense, retiring an application shifts from being a matter of fact to a matter of opinion.  When opinions start driving the discussion, it becomes almost impossible to kill off anything in IT.

While some things can be difficult to fully measure (what is “better technology?”) other things can be easily tracked to drive retirement decisions.  In particular, usability metrics can give great insight into how users use a system, which features matter, and which features can be abandoned.

The right time to think about retiring an application is the day you begin to develop or acquire it. If you engineer usability metrics into a system, that data will be invaluable in five years when you may need to pull the plug.

Imagine a system with a few thousand reports. Imagine being tasked with eliminating the unnecessary reports. Imagine doing that with no empirical data. Imagine having to instead rely on user conjecture and anecdotal data on which reports are the “important ones.”  Users are notoriously inaccurate in deciding these things; perception and reality are very different animals.

I once had to retire an old mainframe system which several users insisted they used on a regular basis.  We saw no evidence of this, but they were adamant. Finally, we simply locked their userids to see what would happen.

The result? No complaints. It turns out they were using a completely different system that they thought was the mainframe. When we pointed this out, they happily allowed us to proceed with the retirement.

A bit of usage history would have been quite helpful. But no one ever instrumented the system to track such things, so we were left with drastic measures to move forward.

The next time you build a system, instrument the code to record who does what when.  Disk is cheap; collect the data and see what users are actually doing in your applications.  During the life of the application, such data will help tune the app and allow you to focus on what users really need.  As the app approaches its “golden years,” you’ll know when usage drops to the point that you can safely pull the plug.  As always, a little planning now saves a lot of pain and heartache later.

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Measuring Metrics January 27, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.

It’s a good bet that most people saw all or part of the Super Bowl, either at home or at a Super Bowl party. Suppose, as the game begins, the cable feed goes out and the television goes dark.  Amid the howls of protest of those watching, you grab the phone and frantically dial your cable provider.  When you finally reach a real person to complain of the interruption, they provide this explanation:

We’re sorry for the interruption, but our records show that this is our first outage in your area in more than two months.  Even though we project that the outage will last for at least four hours, that still means that we provided service 99.72% of the time. This easily exceeds our 99.5% target metric for excellent service! We appreciate your business and thank you for your patience as we work to restore your service. Thanks for calling!

Happy now? Of course not. Yet many folks in IT hide behind metrics in a similar fashion.

It is said that anything you measure will improve.  That provides a strong incentive to measure system availability, since we’d all like to hit that elusive goal of 100% uptime.  But there is a difference between using those metrics to improve our performance and using those metrics to improve our public relations.

Uptime tracking coupled with root cause analysis will help you find and fix many tiny problems that may exist in your environment.  Most mature IT shops have long ago figured out how to run their systems without catastrophic failure.  We can all hit availability of about 98 or 99 percent on a regular basis.  Getting much higher than that, however, involves ferreting out deep issues that may only surface under unusual circumstances. It takes discipline and focus to get there, and metrics can really help.

Metrics should never be used as a defense.  When users are affected by an outage, the last thing they want to hear is how well you’ve been doing prior to the problem.  It doesn’t matter, and you’re only annoying people that are already upset.

Similarly, metrics should never be used to tell the world what a great job you are doing.  When things are running fine, announcing that they are fine just makes you look boastful.  Most users just want IT to work, and they don’t want to think about it beyond that.  Building on our cable analogy, how would you like the cable company to call once a month to tell you that the service is running just fine?

From the user’s perspective, availability is measured as a binary value: yes or no.  There is no average, there is no track record, there is no target goal.  You either provide your service or you don’t.  Metrics matter internally so that we can improve our service.  But they have little bearing on user opinion and can actually do more harm than good.  Use them wisely.

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