In the November 2010 issue of “Redmond Channel Partner” magazine, Paul DeGroot, a senior analyst at an independent research firm commented on an aspect of Microsoft’s product development trajectory and how it relates to the partner community that supports Redmond.  He states:

Assume that before the end of this decade, a new computing device will either include or will automatically connect to a full set of hosted applications and maintenance services that regularly update its capabilities and fend off malware and configuration errors.  The device may even be “free,” when you subscribe to all the applications and services

Of course, he is talking about a computer and all of the requisite add-ons that make up our daily existence.  In the present case, that would include the operating system, the desktop office suite, the e-mail client, the web browser, a security product, and any other software we install to perform one function or another on our PCs.

I have always stressed that it is important to be mindful of what is installed on your computer.  I also insist that you make sure that all of your software is kept current to ensure you reduce the possibility of being adversely affected by malware.  These are key reasons that Heliotropic Systems offers SPF plans for home users and SHADE plans for small businesses.  This software takes care of several often mundane tasks that most people tend to ignore, or do not realize they need to perform.

Yet, after I read DeGroot’s article a second time, I believe his example of a future device doesn’t resemble a computer at all, but something else that everyone uses on a daily basis – a cell phone!

Over time, technology that was affordable only by large corporations has become more prevalent in the small business and even consumer space.  Two of the more popular offerings are online back-up and online e-mail.  These are exemplified by companies such as Carbonite and Mozy, and Google with its Gmail offering.  These companies tend to talk about their products use of “the cloud,” which is nothing more than another way of saying “on the Internet.”

Today the trend is for software vendors is to create their product so that it runs on the Internet instead of directly on your desktop.  This means that you no longer have to install software, you simply point your favorite web browser to a URL and sign on to your account.  While you do not need to install these products, they all require some kind of constant Internet connection.

And, to carry the analogy just a little bit further, when you buy a cell phone, you automatically get a variety of applications and can purchase more through your phone vendor’s online store.  Most of these apps are updated automatically when your cell phone is on.  You don’t have to worry about making sure the updates take place – Verizon, or AT&T or Sprint take care of that for you.

As DeGroot concludes:

I can’t predict what the partner role will be, except that there will be one.  Someone needs to make devices, applications that run on them, systems that connect them to applications.  Someone needs to guide businesses through a myriad of choices and rescue those businesses from bad decisions.

Perhaps most important, someone needs to map hardware and software against human needs and wants, and help people and businesses integrate the digital landscape with people, process, and products.  Those skills will be as rare and valuable a decade from now, just as they are today.

I thought it was very fitting to reflect on these words just before we celebrate Thanksgiving.  Because it is my sincere belief that Heliotropic Systems is in business to help people – both home users and small businesses – use the technology they have so that they can do what they want in the best and safest manner.  No matter what device they are using.

I received a phone call from a client the other day.  She complained that the USB mouse she was using with her laptop had stopped working.  I went through the normal series of diagnostic questions:

  • Did you remove it and plug it back in?
  • Did you shut down Windows and restart your laptop?
  • Did you try it in another USB port?

She replied “yes” to all of these questions.  She also told me that the transceiver – the part that actually plugs into the laptop – had gotten extremely hot.

That surprised me, because I would not expect the transceiver to get very hot.  Nevertheless, I believed that it was defective and had died.  I suggested that if she was going to Staples any time soon, she could pick up a new one.  A quick look at their web site confirmed this was not an inexpensive purchase; replacing this mouse would cost $39.99 plus tax.

Obviously undeterred by this set back, my client did what most people would not.  She called Microsoft!  She spoke with a customer service representative who acknowledged the problem and offered a free replacement.  When she called me back later in the day, extremely pleased with her exploits, I was quite surprised.

At that point, I took some time to research the issue with more care, and it is quite prevalent.  The mouse works for a while, the transceiver becomes extremely hot, the circuits inside melt, and the wireless mouse no longer works.  While Microsoft has not issued a recall for this product, it has established a policy of free replacements for which it provides a three-year warranty.

So, if you happen to have a Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 4000 (Model D5D-00001) and it stops working, you don’t have to call me.  You can call Microsoft at 800-933-4750, and don’t worry; this call center is located in Canada.  Have your mouse handy when you call them.  They will need the Product ID (PID) from the bottom.

Did this information help you?  Please let me know!

I received an e-mail today from Norton. Yes, that was the “from” name in Outlook. At first, I suspected the subject line, “Larry, your free update to Norton™ AntiVirus is Available” was spam. However, a careful review of the contents (thank you SpamBayes) revealed this was legitimately from Symantec.

Norton 2011 Update

After spending a moment reading the contents, I thought this marketing effort was quite impressive. The 2011 AntiVirus and Internet Security products were released to the public on September 9, 2010. Now, one month later, it is all the more impressive that Symantec would alert customers to take advantage of what amounts to a “free” upgrade.

Most consumers usually wait until the product starts to nag them (30 days – every day) before they update their subscription. Others wait until they can manage to obtain the new version of the product for $9.99 at their local office supply store.

In this case, Symantec is taking a preemptive step towards ensuring their customer base is on the latest version of the product. That is something aggressive and new.

Yet this actually fits in with something I have been telling my clients for a long time now:  You should update the product version at least every two years to take advantage of the latest available detection technology. Simply renewing your subscription to the updates is not sufficient to keep your computer secure from all of the nastiness that is out on the Internet.

In keeping with a recent ruling, the e-mail contains the requisite text that informs customers of the following:

If your product is not updated yet and you choose to download Norton AntiVirus 2011, you will have the right to use this product for no additional charge until the expiration of your current Norton AntiVirus subscription, subject to acceptance of the Symantec License Agreement included with this product and available for review at www.symantec.com.

I’d be interested to learn about your reaction to this e-mail.

One of my small business client’s is still using Microsoft Access 2000 for two of its databases.  There never was any need, nor was there a desire, to upgrade the version of Access when the rest of the Office suite was upgraded.

Now, Windows 7 is being rolled out across their office and they want to continue to contain costs.  At my recommendation, they started using the Access 2010 Runtime.  This will permit their databases to continue to function without change – or without too much change.

One thing that was discovered early during testing was that the Calendar control (MSCAL.OCX) is no longer supported in Access 2010.  However, it is possible to continue to use the Calendar if you copy the file and register it.

More importantly and just recently discovered was the errant output of one of their reports.  The function uses Stephan Lebans’ Report to PDF code to take a report and convert it to PDF format.  While this has worked for a very long time, with only a minor hitch or two as the DLLs changed, it has proven to be a valuable utility.

Imagine the client’s surprise when a recently created document was produced in A4 landscape format (11.69 x 8.27) – resulting in a loss of data on the report!  Well, I was surprised and, at first, figured that some random printer setting was at fault.  That wasn’t it at all.

Another aspect of Access 2010 that Microsoft changed was the elimination of the snapshot format for reports.  Because this is the “driver” for Lebans’ code, the output defaulted to – I don’t know what, but it didn’t generate a valid report.

On the plus side, Access 2010 allows you to create a report and send it directly to PDF.  So, once it was clear that that some kind of coding change was necessary, it was relatively easy to implement.

I simply had to test for the current version of Access, because the shop is still in transition. Those folks who haven’t been upgraded continue to use the Lebans’ code, while those who are using the Runtime, get to take advantage of the new functionality that Access 2010 provides.

Here’s a sample of the code:

{code type=HTML}

Dim blRet As Boolean

‘If greater than Access 2003, use the built-in PDF functionality
If Int(Val(SysCmd(acSysCmdAccessVer))) > 11 Then
Dim acFormatPDF As Variant
acFormatPDF = “PDF Format (*.pdf)”

DoCmd.OutputTo acOutputReport, strRptName, acFormatPDF, strPDFName
blRet = True
Else
‘ Call Stephen Lebans’ convert function
blRet = ConvertReportToPDF(strRptName, vbNullString, strPDFName, False, False)
End If

{/code}

Now, everyone in the office can continue to produce PDF reports without any errors.

For several weeks, Staples has been selling laptop and desktop computers with a unique offer.  They will give you a $50 discount if you give them a laptop or desktop to recycle.  That is between a 5 and 10 percent discount on the price of a new computer.  I am all for saving money when the opportunity arises.  Nevertheless, you have to be cautious when something appears to be “too good to be true,” and this offer bears some scrutiny.

The fine print of the Staples offer is quite specific.  They want you to give them a computer that works.  Yes, your trade-in has to be able to boot to Windows (XP, Vista, or even Windows 7), have a “working AC adapter and undamaged screen.  At the time of trade-in, laptops must power on and boot up to operating system, desktops must power on.”

I am not at all certain why they have this requirement, but I don’t like it.  If you give them a working computer, it has all of your files on it.  It has all of your e-mail correspondence.  It also has all of the web browser sessions where you have plugged in your user id and password, because you cannot remember what you used for you bank account versus Amazon.com.  In other words, it is a treasure trove of personal information that could – in the hands of a malicious individual – be used run up charges on your credit cards, ruin your credit rating, or steal your identity.

To their credit, Staples has text on their web site that assures customers that their technicians will, in no way, look at any of that information before they run a utility program to delete all of the data on the computer’s hard drive.  I believe their lawyers had to insist on that.  At the same time, do you really want to take that kind of risk just to save $50?  I certainly don’t!

Yet there is something you can do to protect your personally identifiable information before you give them your computer for trade-in.  It takes less than half an hour and requires just a few simple steps.

The “trick” is to create a new user ID on your computer.  You will then log on to your computer as that user, and remove your existing user ID.  This will eliminate the majority of the personal information that can easily be obtained and give you some peace of mind if you decide to take Staples up on their $50 offer.

Here’s what you need to do:

Click Start and select Control Panel.  Whether you are in Category View or Classic View, double-click User Accounts.

Under “Pick a task…” click Create a new account

Under “Name the new account” type in the name for the new account.  I would suggest the following, NoOne, and click Next.

Under “Pick an account type” use the default, Computer administrator, and click Create Account.

Close this window and the Control Panel.

Now restart your computer.  Click Start, Turn off computer, Restart.  The new user ID will appear on the Windows Welcome page.

Click that new account.  Windows will spend a few minutes creating the desktop – it will not have any of your customizations, but will look just like when you first got your computer.  (Some of you may not remember that far back…)

Once again, click Start and select Control Panel.  Double-click User Accounts.

If you are using Category View, under “Pick a task” click Change an account.

Then, under “Pick an account to change” click your old user ID.

Under “What do you want to change about your account” click the Change my account type link.

Under “Pick a new account type” select Limited and click Change Account Type.

You will be returned to the “What do you want to change about your account” window.  This time, click the Delete the account link.

Windows asks if you want to keep the files – and the whole purpose of this exercise is to eliminate them – so click Delete files.

Windows has a final prompt, to make sure you know that everything will be deleted.  You want to do that, so click Delete the Account.

Depending on the number of files you have, and the age of your computer, the delete process can take either a few minutes or a half hour.  Get a cup of coffee, read a magazine, or go run some errands.  You must have the patience to wait this one out.

After it is finished, you can close Windows and feel better about giving your computer to Staples knowing that you have eliminated the bulk of your personal information and can save $50 on a new computer.

One morning you had a problem connecting to the Internet.  So, what did you do?  You turned the Internet box off and on a couple of times, you rebooted your computer, but nothing much changed.

Next, you unplugged the Internet box and headed over to the local retail office supply store.  You asked one of the sales people (you know, the guys in the colorful shirts) what to do with the box that no longer worked.  He said you needed a new box and proceeded to sell you one.

You got home, and plugged everything in the way you remembered it.  Lo and behold, you still had a problem connecting to the Internet.

It was only at this point that you decided you really needed help, so you called your computer consultant.  You told him you had a problem, and asked if he could stop by to see what was wrong.

It only took a few minutes for your consultant to diagnose the situation, because several things were wrong.

The most obvious one was that the “geek” at the retail office supply store took your broken DSL modem and sold you a Linksys router, which would never, ever, work as a replacement.  Without a DSL modem, there was no way you were going to access the Internet.

As a side note to office supply store personnel:  If you do not know what you are talking about, please don’t waste someone’s time.  If the customer complains (or if enough customers complain), you are going to be out of a job.

Your computer consultant managed to obtain a replacement DSL modem from your Internet Service Provider by using a little subterfuge.  The net result was that you would be back up and on the Internet in a few days.  You were grateful for your computer consultant’s prompt responsiveness to your call for help and his advocacy for your situation.

I was going to turn this post into a rant, but I was reminded that harsh sounding words wouldn’t get the point across.

The truth is that you are not a computer consultant.  You are a real estate agent, or a dentist, or a lawyer, or just someone’s mom.  However, you are not trained to handle computer problems.  That’s my job, and that’s why you ask – and trust – me to take care of your computer systems.

Because, after all, that’s what I do – you just have to let me.

Too many people seem to be having a problem connecting their Vista laptops to Windows XP-connected printers. It took me a while to get the steps right, but I believe this should help anyone else who has been similarly vexed.

Here’s a default configuration:

  • Existing Windows XP desktop with USB attached printer
  • New Windows Vista laptop

To network the laptop to the desktop printer, you need to do the following:

  1. Gather computer information
  2. Install printer drivers on Windows Vista
  3. Install LLTD on Windows XP
  4. Set up printer sharing on Windows XP
  5. Establish Vista user on Windows XP
  6. Add the network printer to Windows Vista

Step 1. Gather the required information

In Vista, click Start, right-click Computer, and select Properties. Scroll down until you locate the Computer name and the Workgroup name. Write both down.

In XP, click Start, right-click My Computer, and select Properties. Click the Computer Name tab.  Write down the name of the Workgroup.

You must use the same workgroup name, so change one of the computers.  Afterwards, you must restart the computer.

Step 2. Install printer drivers in Windows Vista

Unplug the USB cable from your Windows XP desktop. Download the appropriate drivers to your Vista laptop and start the installation. Don’t connect the USB cable until directed.  Print a test page to make sure everything works.

Step 3. Install LLTD on Windows XP

Download and install a Microsoft file that allows you to see your XP desktop on your Vista network.  Use the following link:  http://tinyurl.com/2b3lkn.

Step 4. Set up printer sharing

In the XP Control Panel, select Printers and Faxes. Right click the printer you want Vista to use and select Properties. Click the Sharing tabe and select “Share this printer.”  Make a note of what Windows calls the printer; you can change it if you wish.

Step 5. Create a new Windows XP user

To use the printer, Windows Vista needs access to the Windows XP controlled device.  So, you have to create a user with the associated privileges.

In the XP Control Panel, select User Accounts. Click the Create a new account link and enter the user name that you use on your Vista laptop. Click Next. On the next screen, take the default option and make this user an Administrator. Click Create Account and close the open windows.

Step 6. Add the network Printer to Windows Vista

On the Vista laptop, open the Control Panel and select Printers.  Click the “Add a Printer” button at the top of the page.  Select “Add a local printer.”  Select the “Create a new port” radio button and leave the drop-down menu on the default.

A small window will open for you to enter the port name, which is in the form of \\computername\printername (you wrote down the computer name in Step 1).

Select the manufacturer and printer from the list and keep the existing drivers.  You can set the name of the printer and print a test page to ensure that this process works.

I hope this post helps anyone else who might be struggling with the same problem.  Please let me know if this has helped you, or if there is anything I may have overlooked.

In the January/February 2010 issue of Mainframe Executive, Eric L. Vaughan makes a point about language as it is used by different groups of people, and the shorthand each group adopts to convey different concepts.

I have always taken a direct approach when describing computer-related problems to anyone, either a home computer user or a small business owner. The fact is, most people don’t care about why something is broken or not operating correctly, they just want the darn thing to work.

Vaughan expounds:

Our industry as a whole must learn to posture technology differently. Users don’t want architecture. They want results. They want software to work, easily and simply. They want to use it, not have to be schooled in it. We need to change the way we talk about it, starting by speaking in plain language rather than abbreviated, contrived terms designed to imply creative complexity. Language has played a key role throughout history and it’s no different in our industry.

We need to make a stand. CxOs throughout the world are begging for less complexity. They want to run their businesses with what the technology community can provide, but we’re making it too difficult for them to grasp what we’re doing simply by the terms we choose.

The magazine’s audience primarily consists of mainframe-based technicians, programmers, and senior managers.  However, I believe Vaughan’s premise should be taken – in context – for all IT consultants, like myself, who act as technology advisers for a specific client base.

If a computer’s hard drive has crashed on a small network server, does the business owner care about the read/write heads or how the high RPM of the disk could have contributed to extensive data loss?  I don’t think so.  He or she is concerned with getting their business up and running, and how to handle the appointments and customers that are scheduled for that day.

Some technicians would immediately launch into a description of their efforts to perform data recovery using clean rooms and the painstaking process of accessing data on the disk.  The small business owner stands there, eyes getting glossy, and says, “Whatever,” because that explanation doesn’t help him or her one bit.

Using “plain talk,” I would say something like, “The drive may be repairable, but that’s not our immediate concern. Let’s use the back-up from yesterday and restore that to get you back in business. We can figure out how to handle today’s data afterward.”

No jargon, no obfuscation, just simple, clear, concise statements. The business comes first, the technology takes a back-seat.

Isn’t that what you would want?

Tell me what you think.

If you search the Internet on a regular basis, you might have Google (http://www.google.com) set as one of your Favorites or as your browser’s home page.  You have undoubtedly gotten very used to the simple interface, the way the page loads very quickly because of the lack of graphic images, and the utilitarian aspect of simply performing a search.  (See http://www.msn.com or http://www.yahoo.com for opposite experiences.)

However, don’t think there is something wrong with your computer when you go to Google’s home page and only see the logo, the search box, and two buttons.  That is what Google has decided should appear – until you move your mouse.  This “fade-in” effect was first introduced as an experiment back in October 2009.  It was slowly rolled out as a test and was modified during some rather violent (and often virulent) feedback.  The earliest versions did not include the search buttons, which elicited no end of scathing retorts.  Now the test has been concluded and the change has been made permanent.  It appears to be the same in all web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari).

So, no, there is nothing wrong with your PC.  It doesn’t have a virus, you aren’t being affected by malware, and your broadband connection doesn’t have a problem.  It is none of those things.  It is simply the largest search engine on the planet giving you something you did not ask for, something most people do not want, something no one needs.

What do you think?  Let me know!